Shephelah. Blessing or Curse?

Okay, so since we had a three day field study I decided to do three nice little posts (well, sort of little), so that you don’t get to overwhelmed with information and that I don’t take a week to get it all up. 🙂

Heading west out of Jerusalem feels quite different but nice. The hills of the land of Judah are so unlike Benjamin in the east or Samaria up north. With the reforestation that the country has done, things don’t look nearly as bare as one might assume that it would be. Our first stop is in the Soreq Valley in the area of Zobah or Sataf the modern Arabic name, right in the heartland of Judah. No wide Emek valleys here, only steep hills. The mountainsides show the effect of terracing all around.

Check out that Soreq! Sorry Holmes County, your rolling hills don't even come close.

There are numerous small caves in natural terrace-like areas where people very possibly lived. Its a given, really. You find a nice cave and here are three walls of your house already built, why use your energy on building a new one when you spend most your time outside anyway? Even though these mountain folk were quite independent they lived with their extended families a lot; elderly parents and/or unmarried siblings right along with your own family. Talk about being a community. That can take a lot of effort in our Greek/western culture.

The soil is so lovely and the plants were quite lush as well

Every family would have their own small garden plot where they might raise wheat, grapes or olives. You may raise grapes and trade with a neighbor who has the wheat that you need to live on. It was mostly the men and boys’ responsibility to take care of the agriculture and business side of life while naturally the women were at home raising their children and doing the cooking. Equality between husband and wife was huge though. They had their separate roles because this is what they were fitted to be doing. Travel was hard and dangerous so women would not be sent out to do business. They were valued and thus protected. While they had a huge responsibility at home with the children they also were the food chiefs. Ah ha! Mom preserves the food but also decides whether you may have seconds or not because if you run out of food halfway through winter its her fault and you’re going to die.

Every man shall sit under his own vine…

Isaiah 5 has an amazing vineyard picture. Building a vineyard is quite a feat to begin with and then he plants choice vines only to watch them produce withered up, stinky grapes. What a disappointment! Isaiah goes on to liken this to Israel; how the Lord looked for justice and righteousness and found bloodshed. He had given them the best of everything yet they didn’t bear fruit.

At Beth Semesh we discuss the tension and push from Israel coming down from the mountains of Judah against the Philistines from the coast. We look to our right and there are the mountains of Judah. The tribe of Dan lived up in these mountains and daily looked down over what was supposed to be their inheritance but they couldn’t drive out the Philistines. So near, yet so far away from conquering. Across the valley before us we see Zorah, hometown of Samson, high up on the ridge. If you continue west along that ridge you would be looking right down to Timnah occupied by the Philistines. So when Samson went to Timnah and saw the woman of the Philistines that he wanted as his wife they would have been neighbors. Even though we don’t see that as a good scenario the Bible says it was of the Lord. Did he want Samson to help the tribe of Dan get their true reward?

Looking across the Soreq closer to the coast. Zorah is on the last small rise on the right where you see a funny scrubby little tree all alone. Eshtaol would be just beyond on the right.
Its true

We move to Azekah, this lovely lookout tower standing as a centennial in the Elah Valley. From here we could see Socoh and Saaraim to the northeast; the hills of Judah are just beyond facing east and when you look to the west you can find the city of Gath right at the end of the valley. Somewhere in this vicinity one of our favorite Bible stories took place. An event between a small boy, a mere shepherd lad, and a huge Philistine giant. Reading the story as we looked over the valley was pretty cool. We could see the general areas that are held to be ‘the place’ where the battle happened but we could definitely see the valley where Philistine army would have fled through on their mad rush to escape the Israelites.

Looking across the Elah where the Philistines would have fled toward Gath and Ekron

Next we head to Maresha, it was apparently a city of Judah given to the clan of Caleb. After being destroyed it eventually became the capital city of the Idumeans. Later after another destruction, the town moved two miles north to a place known as Beth Guvrin which had originally been a part of Maresha but now became the major living center. The site is so huge that I wasn’t sure which area I wanted to explore. There are multitudes of caves dug in the soft Eocene rock. Partially because it was a great way to build houses and get out of the sun but many people also hid here in times of war.

I especially wanted to see the Tomb of the Sidonian (Apollophanes cave) which worked out great since we ate lunch just outside it. A group of Sidon folk settled in Maresha sometime in the Hellenistic or Persian period and they built this beautiful, elaborate tomb for their leader. It has a wing on either side as you enter, with 10-15 additional burial niches in each. The end of the cave is shaped like a bed, with a small cave-like opening behind, and would have been the leader’s resting place. There are beautiful paintings behind this platform as well as all around the room. Several are rather eerie, such as the snake that runs all around the top of the walls. There may be a connection to Egypt since they had a snake god that was the god of death. And then there’s the weird painting of a dog-like creature, Cerberus, with three heads who guards the entrances to the underworld. Above him are several lines of writing. It seems to be a series of message between two lovers who had been separated by an arranged marriage. A very strange place to pass notes I’d think. If you want to read more about it check out this article.

The tomb. Quite strange and almost eerie
Cerberus; the creepy guard

I also found reference to the Columbarium where the people would have raised pigeons for their meat and they used their dung for fertilizer. I didn’t find the large cote but as we were exploring one of the dwellings and checking out their huge olive press I noticed the strange niches around the roof and walls. Ah, this must have been an additional room for raising birds. Such a large variety of things happening in the same ‘house’ complex.

First you crush the olives to break the shell
Then they're placed in burlap bags, put under the heavy press stones and slowly pressure is applied as the oil runs out

Askelon was our last stop of the day. Oh, it was so lovely. We decided that the sand beside a roaring sea is the perfect classroom and we even got to play in the sand! We talked about Greek gods a bit but it was so loud that it didn’t last long and I can’t remember much of it at the moment. There are lots of ancient ruins up on the cliffs overlooking the sea. After playing in the waves a while four of us hiked up there and checked out ‘the oldest arched gate in the world.’ Even though its not all intact anymore its still pretty amazing considering that it was made with mud brick. There was way more that I didn’t get to see. Maybe I can go back some weekend. 🙂

Sand Castle! They're actually building the earth. Go figure.
From up on the cliffs. Yup, those waves were a LOT of fun!
It truly is the oldest arch in the world, granted it has some support but its made from mud brick!

And so ends day one of the wonderful weekend. We got to the Youth Hostel in Arad around 7:15 and had to go straight to dinner. Oh, so delish; sweaty clothes and all! Gotta love field studies.


2 thoughts on “Shephelah. Blessing or Curse?

  1. Wow Rosetta thanks so much!! Makes me home sick for Israel once again!! I love the pictures where I recognize the places!!! Tons of memories! love ya

    Like

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