The Bible contains several instances of people sleeping on stones. This was a common practice in ancient times, as beds and mattresses were less common. Determining exactly who slept on a stone depends on examining key stories and analyzing the biblical text.
Jacob’s Stone Pillow
One of the most well-known stone sleeping incidents involves the patriarch Jacob. In Genesis 28, Jacob was traveling to Haran and stopped to sleep at night. He took a stone and put it under his head as a makeshift pillow. That night, Jacob had a dream of a ladder going up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. God spoke to Jacob and made covenant promises to him. When Jacob awoke, he consecrated the stone he had slept on and called the place Bethel, which means “house of God.”
This account shows that Jacob utilized a handy stone as a pillow or headrest when sleeping outside during his travels. The stone pillow itself is not given much description. The main focus is on the encounter Jacob has with God in the dream vision there. But the mention of Jacob’s stone pillow has intrigued Bible readers for centuries.
Jacob’s Stone Pillow in Context
Looking at some contextual clues can shed more light on Jacob’s stone pillow. Earlier in Genesis 28, Jacob is sent away by his parents Isaac and Rebekah to find a wife from their kinsmen in Haran. Esau, Jacob’s brother, is angered by this, since he had married local Canaanite women and Isaac favored Jacob to carry on the family lineage. So Jacob’s departure is both a journey and an escape from Esau’s wrath.
Once night falls on his first day of travel, Jacob stops to sleep at a place called Luz. This spot is NOT near any established settlement. Jacob is very much roughing it out in the open countryside. He has no tent, sleeping mat, pillow, or other bedroom supplies. So using a handy rock as a makeshift pillow was the best option available. The text emphasizes Jacob’s resourcefulness and adaptation to his harsh circumstances.
Also, resting his head on a hard stone shows Jacob’s exhaustion after a long day’s journey on foot. He was tired enough to fall asleep even with a rocky pillow. The stone’s hardness contrasts with the heavenly vision Jacob experiences there. God meets Jacob even in the discomfort of a rocky night’s sleep on the bare ground.
Later References to Jacob’s Stone Pillow
Jacob’s stone pillow at Bethel crops up a few more times in the Bible’s narratives:
- When Jacob later returns to Bethel, God appears to him again there and reminds Jacob of the stone pillow incident (Genesis 35:1, 9-15).
- The prophet Isaiah refers to God as “the God of Bethel” who had appeared to Jacob on his way to Padan-Aram when he fled from Esau (Isaiah 10:19-22).
- While not specifically mentioning the stone pillow, Hosea 12:4 recounts Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel on his way to Haran.
So this mysterious stone pillow serves an important narrative function, setting the scene for Jacob’s pivotal encounter with the divine at Bethel. The stone symbolizes Jacob’s vulnerability and reliance on God, even in uncomfortable circumstances. God uses the humble stone to impart his grand promises to Jacob.
David Hiding by the Stone Ezel
Another biblical stone sleeping reference occurs in 1 Samuel 20. David is on the run from King Saul, who wants to kill him. David and Jonathan arrange a secret meeting, where David will hide by a stone called Ezel while waiting for a signal from Jonathan.
The text doesn’t explicitly say David slept there overnight. But he was certainly camping out by the stone while in hiding all day. Depending on how long he had to wait there, it’s very possible David slept on the bare ground using the stone as a pillow or marker.
As with Jacob’s stone pillow, the stone Ezel is not described much. It simply serves as an identifiable landmark for Jonathan to meet David. The main focus of the story is the covenant of friendship between David and Jonathan.
The Purpose of the Stone Ezel
Nonetheless, a few details about the stone Ezel provide some insight:
- Ezel seems to have been located near Saul’s city of Gibeah, in the range of mountains to the north.
- The name Ezel suggests the stone was next to a cliff or rocky crag.
- As a little-known marker, the stone Ezel was an ideal secret meeting place.
So like Jacob’s stone pillow, the stone Ezel represents David’s vulnerability and lack of normal comforts while on the run. David leaves behind the palace to sleep exposed on bare rock in isolation. God is shaping David through hardship, even as he protects him from Saul.
Elijah Sleeping on Stone
The prophet Elijah likewise uses rock for rest in his escape from Jezebel. 1 Kings 19 recounts how Elijah flees to the wilderness after Jezebel threatens his life. Exhausted, he sits down under a broom tree and asks God to take his life. After encountering an angel, Elijah journeys for 40 days to Mount Horeb with no food or water.
At Mount Horeb, Elijah lodges in a cave overnight until God speaks to him there. So Elijah, like Jacob and David, sleeps atop stony ground while in wilderness exile. The hardship contrasts with the powerful visions Elijah receives in the cave.
Elijah’s Cave Setting
A few things to note about Elijah’s cave lodging:
- The cave likely offered better shelter than the open countryside.
- Its rocky floor still meant sleeping on hard stone.
- God met Elijah not in the storm, earthquake, or fire but in the gentle whisper heard in the cave.
So the cave represents a place of physical discomfort yet divine encounter. Like the stones Jacob and David slept on, it highlights God’s care for Elijah amid his destitute circumstances.
The Virgin Mary’s Tomb
One New Testament instance of sleeping on stone comes after Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels record that after Christ’s death, his body was taken down from the cross and buried in a rock-cut tomb offered by Joseph of Arimathea. This was a cave-like tomb with a stone laid across the entrance.
On the evening after Jesus’ burial, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph visited the tomb site (Matthew 27:61). As it was late evening and visiting the tomb took time, it’s very possible the two Marys slept there overnight to guard and mourn over the site. If so, they too would have slept on the hard, stony ground of a tomb.
Stone Tombs in Jerusalem
What can we determine about this tomb carved from rock?
- Rock-cut tombs were very common in first-century Judea.
- Tombs were located outside the city gates, as Jesus’ was.
- Stone pillows or headrests were sometimes carved out of the tomb’s stony couch.
- The tomb was offered by a wealthy sympathizer, Joseph of Arimathea.
This specific tomb becomes forever holy as the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. The stone cave that once held death now promises life eternal. The Marys likely sensed God’s presence in keeping vigil there.
Common Themes and Meanings
These biblical accounts of sleeping on stone share some common elements:
- Stones are used as pillows or headrests when sleeping without normal bedroom amenities.
- The stone sleepers are in circumstances of vulnerability and poverty.
- God encounters them despite their discomfort.
- The stones symbolize reliance on God’s provision.
Some key meanings emerge from these stone sleeping stories:
The stones represent places where Jacob, David, Elijah, and the Marys have powerful experiences with the divine. God meets them in the midst of stony hardship.
The stories highlight God’s faithfulness in caring for his people in barren places. The stones underscore reliance on God’s provision.
For Jacob and David, the stones are associated with a key stage in their emergence as patriarch and king. The stones are part of their new identity in God’s plan.
The rough stone beds mark pivotal transitions–Jacob to Israel, David to monarchy, Jesus to resurrection. God does new things through stony sleeping places.
Stone as Symbol
In the Bible, stone often symbolizes strength, stability, and permanence. Rock can represent God himself as a fortress, refuge, and deliverer. But it can also imply stubbornness or spiritual blindness.
The stones used as pillows or beds take on some symbolic meanings:
- Discomfort – The rock hardness represents painful circumstances.
- Isolation – Being alone in the wilderness, away from community.
- Provision – God caring for needs even amid stones.
- Encounter – Divine visitation despite the surroundings.
Yet even negative meanings get overturned in these stories. The stones which threaten hardship become tools for God’s plan. Spiritual growth happens amid physical discomfort.
Stones as Memorials
Jacob and the Marys revisit their stones later and consecrate them as holy sites. Jacob pours oil on his pillow stone, naming the place Bethel. The tomb becomes the site of resurrection faith. The stones become memorials for encountering God in the past.
Their roughness is not forgotten. But the stones are transformed into heritage markers. They represent promises kept, purpose fulfilled. Stone surfaces once used for sleeping now become holy to awaken the spirit.
In summary, several key biblical figures sleep on stones in circumstances of poverty, vulnerability, and isolation. But God meets them in the hardness nonetheless. The stones underscore utter reliance on God’s care and direction. They become symbols of God’s presence amid trials and preparation for greater things. Rough rocks smooth out souls and forge future calling. Discomfort matures destiny.