Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The important noun אבן ('eben) means stone. Its regular plural is אבנים and its semi-genitive is אבני, meaning stones of.
This noun is mostly feminine but in some instances it's masculine. It occurs all over the Semitic language spectrum, but it's not immediately obvious where it came from. Pretty much all Hebrew nouns come from verbs; nouns describe items that convey the action of the verb, but it's not clear what action our word אבן ('eben) manifests.
Some scholars have proposed that our noun might be related to the verb בנה (bana), meaning to build. That would make perfect sense when we realize that the word בן (ben), meaning son, is also possibly related to the verb בנה (bana), meaning to build. In effect, just as much as stones can be built into a house, so sons can be built into a house (1 Peter 2:5).
Closely related to our noun is the masculine noun אבן ('oben), which denotes a potter's wheel (Jeremiah 18:8 only) or a midwife's stool (Exodus 1:16 only). Note that 'eben and 'oben were the same word until the Middle Ages when the Masoretes made them different.
The word אבן ('eben) is ubiquitous and as widely applied in the Bible as stones were in Palestine of the stone, bronze and iron ages. With its many qualities and attributes, stone must have seemed quite miraculous to people then:
- Stones in their natural state:
- could be used as makeshift furniture: a pillow (Genesis 28:11), a seat (Exodus 17:12).
- could be erected and serve as a memorial or megalithic monument (Joshua 4:3, 1 Samuel 7:12), a sacred and or anointed pillar (Genesis 28:18-22) or as witness to a covenant (Genesis 31:45).
- could be used as an impact weapon (Exodus 21:18, Numbers 35:17) or be turned into knives (Exodus 4:25). In combat situations, stones could be slung (Judges 20:16) or hurled by machines (2 Chronicles 26:15).
- could be used to execute people: stoning (Leviticus 20:2, Numbers 14:10, Joshua 7:25). Stoning was done by pelting someone with 'ebens, but, curiously, the two Hebrew verbs that mean to stone, have nothing to do with 'eben (or to say it otherwise: the verb "to stone" doesn't exist in Hebrew). One of these two verbs is רגם (ragam), which possibly comes from a Semitic root that means to throw or hurl, or curse or revile (Leviticus 24:14, Joshua 7:25). The other verb is סקל (saqal), which appears to be a denominative verb from an unknown noun (Deuteronomy 13:11, 1 Kings 21:13, Joshua 7:25).
- could be heaped up and used to bury someone (Joshua 7:26), to eat from (Genesis 31:46), as an altar (Exodus 20:25) or as a memorial (Genesis 31:48).
- could cause one to stumble (Isaiah 8:14), or mar a field (2 Kings 3:19).
- could be turned into an idol. Leviticus 26:1 speaks of a "figured" stone that people placed in their field and bowed down to. It's not clear what this might have been but it's very possible that here the Lord prohibits projecting new-agy "energies" and "powers" on stones that are accidentally shaped into random but perhaps interesting or resembling shapes.
- Whether as 'oben or 'eben, and whether in their natural state or milled more or less, stones can be used to cover a well (Genesis 29:2) or sepulcher (Matthew 28:2).
- Stones could be used to inscribe and publish law, and since law was such a central concept in Israelite theology, stones that carried these laws were too (Deuteronomy 27:2-3, Joshua 8:32)
- Stone was used as the raw material to create tablets (Exodus 24:12), vessels or food containers (Exodus 7:19), idols (Deuteronomy 4:28), pavement (2 Kings 16:17), houses and temples (1 Kings 6:7, 2 Kings 22:6), walls (Nehemiah 4:3), tombs (Isaiah 14:19).
- Some stones were recognized as precious and costly (Genesis 2:12, Exodus 25:7, Isaiah 54:12).
- Some stones were found to contain metals (Deuteronomy 8:9, Job 28:2). A people's skills in subtracting metals from ore determined the quality of its implements and thus its strength both on the farm and on the battle field. It must have seemed miraculous to the ancients that somehow stone plus fire formed metal. The word for bronze, נחש (nahash), is the same as that for to divine or to enchant, as well as that for snake.
- Stones were related to a unit of weight (Deuteronomy 25:13, 2 Samuel 14:26, Proverbs 27:3). Zechariah 5:8 speaks of a lead "stone" (=weight) and a stone as a plummet or plumb-line in the hands of Zerubbabel (Zechariah 4:10, also see Isaiah 34:11).
- Hail was known as stones (Joshua 10:11).
- Because of its versatility, stones feature frequently in similes. Stones were known for their non-buoyancy (Exodus 15:5), motionless (Exodus 15:16), strength (Job 6:12), firmness (Job 41:16), solidity (Job 38:30), commonness (1 Kings 10:27). It's also used in metaphors: petrified (1 Samuel 25:37), hardened (of heart; Ezekiel 11:19), crying (Habakkuk 2:11).
- Large natural memorial stones usually came with names. For some reason, in English translations only the stone called אבן העזר ('eben ha'ezer; Ebenezer — or rather Eben-haezer; 1 Samuel 7:12) received a name complete with our word 'eben transliterated into it, but there are a few more:
- אבן גדולה ('eben gedula); Eben-gedulah; the "large stone" at Beth-shemesh where the Ark rested and the people sacrificed (1 Samuel 6:14).
- אבן בהן בן־ראובן ('eben bohan ben-r'uben); Eben-bohan-ben-reuben, an obvious play on the central word בן (ben), meaning son (Joshua 15:6, 18:17)
- אבנ האזל ('eben h'azel); Eben-haezel, where Jonathan shot his three arrows for David (1 Samuel 20:19).
- אבנ הזחלת ('eben hazohelet); Eben-hazoheleth, or Eben-zoheleth, where Adonijah sacrificed in celebration of his alleged kingship (1 Kings 1:9).