Today was spent exploring Samaria, its geography and history. This region was the seat of the kingdom of Israel, and during the time of Jesus, home to the Samaritans.
The day began looking across the Rift Valley all the way to the Trans-Jordanian Mountains. Looking down from our high point, the view was much different than the one we have had for the last few weeks. In Samaria, there is no senonian chalk wilderness where only nomads and lizards may survive. The land here is all cenomanian limestone. This type of rock is able to hold water, and it erodes creating alluvial basins with good soil that can support agriculture for small settlements.
From where we stood, the highest point we could see was Sardaba which used to be called Alexandria. It was one of Herod’s fortresses. It was also a pleasure palace and one of two of his palaces which contained prisons. It was to the prison of Sardaba that he sent his political opponents, such as his wife and children, so that they might spend the rest of their lives in the bowels of that fortress. With them there, Herod felt that he was safe.
Stop number two was at the Zionist settlement town of Elon-Moreh. This settlement is across the Michmetah Valley from Shechem. Because it is a settlement town it has a gate and we had to be escorted by a member of the town wherever we went inside its fence. His name was Phineas though it is pronounced “Pinhoss”. He was very interesting to listen to as long as you could hear him. He was very soft-spoken except for times when he began talking about the rights of Jews to the lands. At those moments he would begin yelling and waving his arms. He was very passionate about everything, and it was fun to listen to him.
Phineas was one of the founders of this settlement. Today there is a military base surrounding the summit of one of the hills of the settlement, and it was to the summit of this hill that Phineas took us. He pointed out Joseph’s tomb, near Shechem. This tomb is actually the tomb of a medieval sheik, but if you told Phineas that, he would probably say that was just an example of Arabs trying to take over and discredit Jewish sites. Phineas also pointed out a possible site of the altar Joshua built at Shechem. It was on the north side of Mt. Ebal. Down the slope of Mt. Ebal is the Fariah Valley. This cuts through the Samarian hill country to the Jordan Valley. Phineas claims that Abraham came with Sarah and his whole family through this valley as they traveled into the land from Haran. It is possible, but unlikely as it is a very indirect route. Phineas also believes that Joshua led the Israelites up this valley when they entered the land. Again, this is probably not true, but it makes the hill his settlement stands on more important. In the Fariah Valley sits the Tell of Tirzah as well as the city where Alimelek, the son of Gideon, was killed by the woman with the rock.
After leaving Phineas we drove up Mt. Gerizim. From there we looked down into the ancient city of Shechem. It is on the south side of Mt. Ebal, in Wadi Shechem. This wadi cuts between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim to the city of Samaria and out to the coastal plain. In the base of this wadi is the ancient site of Shechem. We were unable to actually visit the ancient site because to get there you must travel through the modern city of Nablus, which was the Roman city of Neapolis. The checkpoints around this town are extremely tight as it is home to two refugee camps which are considered “hotbeds” of terrorism. So, we stood atop Mt. Gerizim, right next to a military base, and looked down on Nablus, Shechem, and the New Testament town of Sychar.
Shechem vs Jerusalem
The ruins which we saw were from the Shechem of the time period of Abraham (Genesis 12). It is also the site where Joshua pronounced the blessings and curses over the tribes of Israel. It is possible that these blessings and curses are those listed in Deuteronomy 28. Since we were looking down on the site, and were unable to walk around it, the most interesting thing about the site was comparing it to Jerusalem. Shechem was the capitol of the northern kingdom of Israel. It sits on a highway in a semi-protected valley and it is surrounded by large amounts of arable land. On the other hand, Jerusalem is completely surrounded by high hills and wilderness. There is insufficient land there for the city to sustain itself on, and it is a militarily precarious position. It would have made much more sense for David to set up his capitol at Shechem. From here, kingdoms could be launched. Though, because of its location, a kingdom built here would also be constantly in danger of being overrun by empires passing through the area.
When the kingdom split this was where Jeroboam set up his kingdom. He later moved it to Tirzah because Shechem was too exposed for his taste. Later on, there was a coup and Omri, who was the general of Israel, became king. He felt that Tirzah was far too secluded, so he moved the kingdom up the Wadi Shechem and built it at Samaria. From here he had easy access both to the heartland as well as to the coastal plain. This was where David’s capitol should have been if only geography and economics were being taken into consideration. However, if David had set up his capitol in Samaria, his tribe, Judah, would have considered him a traitor, and he would probably never have been able to unite the tribes and succeed as he did.
The next stop was on the back of Mt. Gerizim at one of the only Samaritan settlements still in existence. The other is at Tel Aviv. Here we were able to meet with the Samaritan high priest, who’s name is Hitamar Cohen. He is the priest because he is descended from Levi, the son of Jacob. When he dies, one of his sons will become the high priest. Today there are only 700 Samaritans left in the world. This is because they only marry within their religion. There is a lot of intermarrying between cousins.
According to Samaritan tradition, Mt. Gerizim is the only holy site on earth. This is where Adam was made, where Noah’s ark landed, where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, and where Joshua pronounced the blessings and curses over Israel. They also believe that the next Temple will be built on Mt. Gerizim.
As you can see, the Samaritans are quite a bit different from the Jews. They also only observe the holy days which are recorded in the first five books of Moses.
Their understanding of the meaning behind Yom Kippur and Succot was interesting. They believe that at Yom Kippur, you are made into a new, clean person. Then you live in the succot (booths) as a representation of living back in Eden, which (surprise, surprise) they believe was on Mt. Gerizim.
The final destination of the day was Shiloh, where the Tabernacle stood. The exact site where the Tabernacle stood is unknown. Because the Tabernacle was a tent there is nothing left of it to excavate. However, there are three likely sites for the Tabernacle.
Possible Sites for the Tabernacle
The first is in an old orchard of almond trees. Today there is an old Turkish building standing in the orchard, which is supposed to mark some holy site. Recent excavations around the building have uncovered beautiful floor mosaics which contain three inscriptions. Here is the one I was able to get written down in my notes before we walked off to the next part of the site:
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on Shiloh and its inhabitants.”
This mosaic is the floor of a church. Unfortunately, the entire mosaiced floor is currently covered up by about a foot of sand in order to protect them. Within the next couple of years the plan is to cover the mosaic floors with thick glass so that they might be safely viewed. According to Eusebius, the church was built at the site where the altar had been. So, these mosaics are the first possible location of the Tabernacle.
The second location is the highest point in Shiloh, and today has an observation tower on top of it.
The third location is a rectangle of stone which has perimeter measurements that are the same as those describing the Tabernacle in the Bible. Nearby, there is a wine press. Near this wine press is a storage building which, when discovered, contained far more storage jars than could have been used by a single family. So, it is thought that this was an industrial olive press and storage facility. Knowing that this was a holy site leads some to believe that this press might have been used for the holy oil used in the Tabernacle.
No one can be certain which of these three sites is the original. Perhaps none of them are. But, it is an awesome experience just to be standing and walking on the ground where God once dwelt upon the Ark of the Covenant and to know that now He lives with me.
The Decline of Shiloh
If you remember the story of Eli and Samuel, you probably remember that the Ark was taken into battle by Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phineas. It was captured by the Philistines and after that Eli died and the Tabernacle fell out of use as Samuel became God’s prophet to Israel. When the Ark does come back, it does not return to Shiloh. First it comes to Beth Shemesh and then to Kiriath Jearim where it stays for a “long time”. Why not take it back to Shiloh? I had never wondered about this before now, but now that I am here I am wondering.
There are several places in Scripture where an answer is given.
“Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel.” (Jeremiah 7:12)
“He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent he had set up among mortals.” (Psalm 78:60)
Another reason why the ark was not returned here is because when the Philistines conquered the Israelites and took the Ark, they also destroyed Shiloh. There is no Biblical evidence for this, but archaeological excavations have found a burn and rubble layer that corresponds to this period in history. This is the one and only example we possess of Israel going out to attack the Philistines. At all other times they are defending themselves.