This week the field study was all about the Shephelah. The Shephelah lies to the west of the Judean Hill Country. The land is largely eocene limestone which gives it a rolling foothill geography. It is the transitional region between the Coastal Plain and the Hill Country. There are 5 valleys that run east to west across this region. They are the following, listed in order from northern to southernmost: Aijalon, Sorek, Elah, Guvrin, Lachish.
Each of these 5 valleys is home to a major east-west route in and out of the interior of what became the kingdom of Judah. I remember their order using the first letters of their names: “A-SEGL” (A Seagull).
Due to the nature of this region there was constant fighting across these hills between particularly the Israelites and the Philistines. The cities of this region basically functioned as saloon doors, swinging in and out, in and out as the Philistines come in and the Israelites chase them back out. Thus, we have the Saloon Door Shephelah.
The Sorek Valley
This day began with a hike down the Israel National Trail into the Sorek Valley. The Israel National Trail goes from Dan in the north to Eilat in the south. The Sorek is the wadi system which drains Jerusalem. It is one of the most rugged wadis in the country. The Sorek is very fertile. It has eroded away until only cenomanian limestone is left, and this has eroded to form terraces which farmers use to plant olives, almonds, grapevines, and fig trees.
In Psalm 80 as well as Isaiah 5:1-7, the grapevine and fig tree are used as a description of paradise. When you have your own vine to eat from and fig tree to eat from and sit beneath, then you have arrived.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.”
One of the most interesting things I learned here concerned the vine and its branches. John 15:1-17 is Jesus’ parable about the vine, the branches, and the fruit that they will bear. Verse 2 is most often translated “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” The word that is translated “cuts off” is the Greek word αιρω. The most common translation of this word is “to raise up”. In the case of this verse and its geographical context it is much more accurate to translate this verse the following way:
“He raises up every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
The message of this translation is a bit different from the other. In the Land, as grape vines age they send out creepers along the ground and eventually the whole vine will be growing along the ground, with branches growing their own roots. At this point fruit is no longer being born by the vine. So the farmer will pull up all of the creepers and raise up the vine with its branches, hanging them over a large stone to keep the branches from putting down their own roots into the dirt. Before long whole plant will be producing fruit again.
This is far different than the message that is often taken from this verse. If we quit bearing fruit God does not simply say “Sorry, you failed” and erase our names from His book. Rather, because of His mercy and love for us, He raises up once again, and gardens us into vibrant, healthy, fruit-bearing branches once more. He does not condemn us. Rather, He convicts us so that we might seek Him and accept His love and life.
A Cave House From Solomon’s Era
Along the way down the valley we stopped at a cave which was once the house of a family living during Iron Age II. This was the age when Solomon (Shlomo) was king over the United Monarchy. In 1 Kings 4:22-3 a list of Solomon’s daily provisions is given. The quantity of these provisions is absolutely massive!
“Solomon’s daily provisions were thirty cors of the finest flour and sixty cors of meal, ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty of pasture-fed cattle and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl.”
A cor is the approximate equivalent of eleven bushels. It is no wonder that after his death the people of the Israel came to Rehoboam pleading with him to lighten their burden.
“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” (2 Chron.10:4)
Solomon had tax collectors he would send throughout his kingdom. The family who lived in this cave in the Sorek valley would have been one of those suffering under the burden of Solomon’s taxes. One of Solomon’s men could come through any day and take off with the family cow as well as their supply of grain and whatever else they might have. It was a very hard and insecure way of life for the common people under Solomon’s rule.
Stop number two was down the Husan Ridge Route at the tell of Beth Shemesh. Beth Shemesh sits at the location where the Sorek Valley moves from the Hill Country into the Shephelah. As it moves from one geographical/geological area to the other the rock type changes from cenomanian to eocene and because of this the valley becomes much broader and shallower.
At this location overlooking the Shephelah we read Judges 1:27-36. In these verses the areas of the Promised Land that Israel was not able to conquer are listed. These areas are many, however, the Israelites still claim complete possession of the Land. It is still this way today. Phineas, who we met a couple weeks ago in the West Bank settlement town of Elon-Moreh, strongly believes that all of the Land still belongs to Israel and simply needs to be reclaimed from the “modern Canaanites”. This is why there are no walls around Elon-Moreh.
In Israel, walls do not only stand as a way to keep invaders out. They also hold the inhabitants of the walled land in. So, if you wall yourself in, you are declaring that what is inside these walls is mine and what is outside is not. Because Phineas believes all of Israel belongs to the Jews he will not build walls around his settlement. If he did so, he would see himself as surrendering to the Palestinians. This leads to questions about the wall between the West Bank and Israel. Is it just keeping Palestinians from the West Bank out of Israel proper, or is it also keeping the Jews of Israel penned in?
Geographical background of Samson’s Story
At Beth Shemesh we also read the story of Samson in Judges 13-16. Samson was born and raised in Mahaneh Dan (13:25). From Beth Shemesh the ruins of this town simply appear as a bald spot on top of a hill covered in trees.
Over the course of Samson’s life as he traveled between his home and Philistia, he would have passed along the ridge above Beth Shemesh down into the Shephelah and along the Sorek into the Coastal Plain constantly. It was probably in this valley of Beth Shemesh that Samson caught the three hundred foxes and sent them through the fields of the Philistines with torches on their tails. I do not have any idea where he found three hundred foxes. They were either far more prevalent three and a half thousand years ago, or else the author of Judges exaggerated. Either one is possible.
After Samson slaughtered the Philistines for the death of his wife and father he fled to the rock of Etam. This was somewhere to the south of the Husan Ridge Route, and probably near Bethlehem of Judah.
Later on, when Samson is staying with a prostitute in Gaza, he gets up in the middle of the night and tears the gates of the city from their hinges and carries them clear to Hebron. If the gates of a city were destroyed then that city’s defenses were fatally compromised and it was considered conquered. In removing the gates of the city Samson symbolically single-handedly conquered the city of Gaza.
The Qasile Temple
Last weekend I went on a field study to Tell Qasile which was a Philistine city from as early as the 13th century BC. Today this tell sits in the middle of Tel Aviv in the Eretz Israel Museum. In the remains of this Philistine city a temple was found. This was probably not the temple destroyed by Samson, but it was a temple like this. In the story Samson’s hands are placed on two pillars which support the roof of the temple. In excavations of the temple at Tell Qasile it was found that on either side of the threshold of the temple stood large pillars which held up the roof. It would have been between these that Samson stood to destroy the temple. Also, Samson could be considered to be the first suicide terrorist about whom we have a historical record.
Samson was an amazing man to set up as a judge over Israel. Later in the day, at the tell of Azekah, Dr. Wright explained his opinion that Samson was supposed to have done what David would later do. Over and over again, Samson had the opportunity to drive the Philistines from the Land, but he repeatedly gave in to women and rather than living by his Nazarite vow as one set apart for service to God he continually rebelled. Yet every time God accepted him again!
Imagine what it would have been like if it had been Samson who faced off against Goliath instead of David. Dr. Wright likened it to heavyweight boxing back in the time of Ali and Foreman and dubbed what could have been the Samson-Goliath contest the “Quake-ah at Azekah”. It would not be until David that the Philistines were driven out of the heartland of Israel.
Azekah is a large tell built on a giant hill along the Elah valley. From here you can see the tell of Gath, where Goliath was from. You can also look the opposite direction, east, and see the Elah Valley, where David and Goliath fought.
The town of Azekah was one of those that Rehoboam fortified for the defense of Judah in 2 Chronicles 11. He fortified many cities but most of them were in the Elah valley because he feared a Philistine invasion.
The last official site of today’s field study was Lachish. By 732 BC Tiglath-Pileser, an Assyrian king, taken over the northern part of the kingdom of Israel.
“In the days of Pekah king of Israel Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria.” (2 Kings 15:29)
Then his descendant Sargon II died in battle in the Caucuses and his body was lost. This was taken as a bad omen for Assyria. The rest of the world saw omen as a sign of Assyrian weakness. This was the king of Judah, Hezekiah’s, mindset. Hezekiah saw this as an opportunity to build up his own defenses and expand his kingdom. I have talked about his build up of the defenses of Jerusalem before. When Hezekiah completed Lachish it was a terribly imposing fortress.
Unfortunately for Hezekiah, the reality was that the Assyrians were not weak. It was in 701 BC that Sennacharib swept through Israel and Judah gobbling up city after city. When he came to Lachish he began to build a siege ramp to the top of the walls using Israelites he had taken as slaves in prior battles. Those inside the city began to build a counter-siege ramp in an attempt to keep the top of the wall above the siege ramp of the Assyrians. Eventually, the defenders were overwhelmed and Lachish was taken. Sennacharib absolutely decimated the city and destroyed all of its people. Both of these siege ramps stand to this day.
We unofficially ended the day at historical museum at Ashkelon, which was another Philistine city. Here the oldest arch in the world was discovered. Until this discovery it was thought that the arch was an invention of the Greeks or Romans.
However, arches older than anything in Greece or Italy have now been discovered in Ashkelon and Dan. That was about it for the history at this site. We spent the next hour playing in the Mediterranean Sea. That’s why this was an unofficial site. Supposedly “fun doesn’t happen at official field study sites”. Yeah, right. I guess I won’t let anyone know I have fun learning all of this stuff.