A Word for Today: Degree, Step, Stair (Hb. Ma’alah)


Maal - Above, forward, upward

Ma’alah - Degree, step, stair

Maalal - Endeavour, invention, work

The feminine noun ma’alah is regularly translated as ‘degree’ in the Old Testament. It is derived from a Hebrew word meaning ‘to go up’, but it can also be translated as ‘step’ or ‘stair’.

Ma’alah appears as early as Genesis chapter 2 verse 6 of the mist that rose up from the ground to water the earth’s surface. In Genesis chapter 13 verse 1, it is used geographically of Abram when he went up from Egypt and returned to Canaan. In Numbers chapter 21 verse 33, it is recorded of Moses that he literally marched ‘up the road’ to Bashan to engage the forces of King Og at the battle of Edrei.

The word ‘steps’ is translated by ma’alah in Exodus chapter 20 verse 26, where the priest is prohibited from using steps as he approached the altar of God, ensuring that his naked parts were not exposed beneath his garments. The word also refers to the six steps built into Solomon’s ivory throne giving it the appearance of being high and lifted up, 1 Kgs. 10. 19.

In the account of Jacob’s dream at Bethel the word is used to describe a ladder or a stairway that he saw leading or rising up to heaven, Gen. 28. 12.

The word was also used to indicate an elevated position as in 1 Chronicles chapter 17 verse 17, where David is viewed by God as a man of degree or distinction.

Perhaps the most famous context in which this word Ma’alah is used is in the Hebrew superscription ‘A Song of degrees or, literally, “ascents”’.1 It is recognized that psalm superscripts are notoriously difficult to interpret, and in the case of this superscript interpretations have been quite diverse. The Septuagint renders the superscript as the ‘Song of the steps’, and this has given rise to a number of theories. Eaton states that the ‘steps’ are associated in Jewish tradition with steps leading up to the inner court of the temple; the fifteen steps there are said to correspond to the fifteen psalms, and on them Levitical musicians made melody in the autumn festival, Mishna Sukka, 5. 4.2 Goulder, however, argues strongly for the going up from Babylon after the exile, which he suggests was phased over a period of time. He also links his argument by reference to Ezra chapter 7 verse 9, and the Peshitta, which gives a heading to Psalm 120, ‘The First Song of the Ascent: the people in Babylon pray that they may be delivered’.3 The most convincing theory, though, is that this collection of Psalms were ‘pilgrim songs’ sung by bands of pilgrims as they journeyed up to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the great annual festivals of Jehovah.4,5 Passages such as Psalm 42 verse 4 and Isaiah chapter 30 verse 29 seem to imply that it was not unusual for pilgrims to sing en route.6

The degrees of a sundial are also translated by Ma’alah in Isaiah chapter 38 verse 8 where God indicated to Hezekiah that, in moving the sundial backward by ten degrees, his life would be extended by another fifteen years.7 It can also mean ‘to shoot up’ (of plants), as in Isaiah chapter 11 verse 1, where the prophet predicts the rise of another Davidic king from the line of Jesse. This is clearly a reference to Christ, and as Motyer observes, ‘One of the striking features of this remarkable passage is the dual title of the coming King as both the shoot (1) and the Root (10) of Jesse’.8

The word is used to describe the possibility of David’s anger being aroused when the news of the death of Uriah the Hittite was reported to him, 2 Sam. 11. 20. Similarly, in Exodus chapter 2 verse 23, it is used metaphorically of the children of Israel when their cries went up to God. When Nehemiah’s enemies heard that the walls of Jerusalem were ‘made up’ [Ma’alah], and the breached parts were being filled in, they became very angry, Neh. 4. 7.

In the Septuagint (LXX) Ma’alah is usually translated by the Greek word anabamo and often refers to an individual going up into a high place to worship God such as a mountain, as with Moses going up to Mount Sinai, Exod. 34. 4, or a sanctuary, as with Elkanah, who went up from his hometown to worship and sacrifice unto the Lord of hosts in Shiloh, 1 Sam. 1. 3.

This same Greek word is used in the New Testament and ‘retains the basic spatial sense of climbing a mountain or going up to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 2. 4; 18. 10; John. 7. 8-10; Acts 3. 1; Gal. 2.1)’.9 Other references again reflect the use of the word in the Old Testament, including: the growth of plants, Matt. 13. 7; the rise of an idea, Luke 24. 38; and the rise of prayer to God, Acts 10. 4. As we think of One who was once elevated to the cross, we praise God that this same person has ascended up to where He was before, John 6. 62.

Further reading/study


  • Ma’alah, Warren Baker, The Complete Word Study Dictionary Old Testament, AMG Publishing, 2008, pg. 643.


  • LXX ἀναβαίνω, G. KITTEL, Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, Eerdmans, 1972, pp. 109-111.



There is an exception with Psalm 121, where the wording is ‘Song of/for the goings up’.


JOHN EATON, The Psalms, Continuum, 2003, pg. 423. Ezekiel uses the word of the steps in his temple vision, Ezek. 40. 6 et seq., and Amos figuratively of the rooms in God’s house, Amos 9. 6.


MICHAEL D. GOULDER, The Psalms of the Return (Book V, Psalms 107-150), Continuum, 1998, pg. 20.


Deut. 16. 16; Exod. 23. 17; 34. 23.


SIGMUND MOWINCKEL links these special ‘festival psalms’, 120-134, to the Feast of Tabernacles and suggests that these were sung at the water-pouring rite on the eighth day of celebration. (The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, SBL Press, 2014, pg. 3).


HERMANN GUNKEL states that since the superscript refers to the pilgrimage journey itself, none of the songs in the Songs of Ascents would have been performed in the temple. (Einleitung in die Psalmen, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, pg. 453).


Cp. 2 Kgs. 20. 9.


ALEC MOTYER, The Prophecy of Isaiah, IVP, 1993, pg. 121.


G. KITTEL, Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, Eerdmans, 1972, pg. 109.


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