The Shephelah (pronounced like “Shfelah”, see this example) is the low-hills region in the Holy Land between the coastal plains and the high hills. This area long stood as a bit of a border region, and it dealt with all the typical warfare of any border region. Many of the episodes involving the Philistines and the Israelites happened here, and these cities played major roles in attempting to resist the later Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. Here are 4 awesome cities to visit in the Shephelah.
As the second most northern of the five major cities of the Shephelah, this city protected the Sorek valley which leads right up close to Bethlehem. Moses assigned the tribe of Dan to take this area, but they could never wrest it from the Philistines, so much of the tribe of Dan ended up heading north and settling on Israel’s northernmost border.
Samson was raised in this area. Although he probably didn’t ever live in the actual city of Beit Shemesh, many of his episodes took place in the area, such as tying firebrands to the tails of foxes and finding Delilah.
Beit Shemesh also briefly held the honor of having the Ark of the Covenant, to the misfortune of many. In a battle with the Philistines, the Israelites lost the Ark of the Covenant. The Philistines brought the ark from city to city (first to Ashdod, then Gath, then Ekron) but the Philistines were plagued everywhere the Ark went. In Ashdod, they put the ark in the temple of Dagon, only to find that the statue of Dagon was destroyed over night. As they moved the ark from city to city, they Philistines were smitten by “emerods” and death.
The Philistines eventually got fed-up with the plagues and decided to consider returning the Ark. Some of the Philistines still weren’t convinced that the God of Israel was really causing the problems, so they put this idea to the test. They loaded the Ark onto a cart with some trespass offerings (5 golden mice and 5 golden “emerods”). Then they tied two milk cows to the cart. Since milk cows aren’t really beasts of burden, they figured that if the cows brought the cart to the Israelites, then it must be God’s doing.
As soon as the cows were released, they brought the cart and its contents straight to the Israelites in Beit-Shemesh. This was great news for Israel, but unfortunately some of the Israelites took the celebrating too far and looked into the ark. God smote to death the people who looked into the ark; I imagine it probably went down something like the finale in the first Indiana Jones movie.
The remains of the city are still there, with many more layers of history exposed or waiting to be researched. It’s easy to picture many of the episodes here when you stand within the city remains and look over the valley.
This city stands guard over the Elah valley, where David and Goliath had their big showdown. The city remains stand high above the valley, providing a great view of where the Philistines and Israelites would have likely lined up to shout and challenge each other.
The fortress was built after the David and Goliath showdown (otherwise, the Israelites probably would have stayed safe in their walls), but the city saw some serious action during the invasion of the Assyrians and Babylonians. High on the hill, it was a tough nut to crack. The Assyrian King (probably Sargon II) even failed to take the city when he invaded, saying that the city was “located on a mountain range like a pointed dagger” and that it was “inaccessible even for siege ramps–and, for approaching with battering rams, it was too strong.”
Azekah didn’t fare quite as well against the Babylonian though, being one of the last cities to fall as the Babylonians wasted the country.
This city overlooked and fortified the Guvrin valley. Although it doesn’t seem to have as rich of an Israelite history, it did at one time house the Edomites (called Idumaeans by the Greeks). Herod the Great was actually an Edomite, and some believe that he was even born at Maresha itself.
The best part about Maresha are all the things to see related to normal life back in the Iron Age. There’s a huge underground cave with shoebox-sized notches in the walls to catch doves. The people would leave the cave open for doves to fly in and build a nest in a notch, and then close the lid when they decided it was time to keep them in.
There are also multiple olive presses and crushers. Many of these were also in little coves since pressing olives in direct sunlight makes the oil taste awful.
There are a few necropolises made by Sidonians in the area as well. These necropolises are richly decorated with Greek style paintings on the walls.
Nearby, you can also find “bell caves,” which are large, bell-shaped caverns. These caves were basically made by mining limestone during Byzantine and Islamic times. As the miners dug deeper, they would slowly widen their dig so that they could get the most stone out without the cave collapsing on them. The acoustics in them is incredible, I highly recommend singing a lively song in the center of one.
Lachish is the southernmost city in the Shephelah fortifying the southernmost valley (called the Lachish valley). Lachish is most remembered for its participation in the two major invasions during Israelite times. The Assyrian king Sennacherib conquered Lachish, and seems to have considered it his most impressive conquest in his invasion. He never conquered Jerusalem, but he had a large relief etched into stone depicting his armies destroying a heavily fortified Lachish.
Lachish sits high on a ledge, so to conquer it Sennacherib had to build a huge siege ramp. This was basically a huge ramp built of stones piled on each other, laid down as the Israelites would have fired arrows and slung stones at the workers. The ramp is still there, and is one of the coolest things to see in the Shephelah.
Archaeologists also found a bunch of ostracon (pottery shards with writing on them) that gave clues to what was going on during the Babylonian invasion. One chilling ostraca notes that the guards in Lachish could no longer see the signal fires of Azekah, indicating that Azekah had fallen. Considering how well fortified Azekah was in its day, I don’t imagine the Israelites in Lachish got much sleep that night.
Lachish also has remnants of what some think was probably a temple. Several possible satellite temples have been identified in the Holy Land, and although the weeds have grown enough to cover the site, there’s still some indication of the rooms for the temple.
To the south of Israel is a large desert known as the Negev. The Israelites had to pass through parts of it during their exodus from Egypt, and it eventually served as the kingdom’s southern border. A couple of border towns are worth seeing.
Be’er Sheva got its start when Abraham dug a well here. After some of Abraham’s men got in a tussle with King Abimelech’s men over the well, the two leaders got together and covenanted to deal honorably with each other. As part of the promise, Abraham gave Abimelech 7 ewe lambs in exchange for formal recognition that Abraham had dug (and therefore had claim to) the well in question. Thus, the area is called “Be’er Sheva,” since “Be’er” means “well,” and “Sheva” can mean “seven” or “oath.” The well still exists, though you now have to make an appointment to get inside the building to see it.
Once the Israelites became a nation, Be’er Sheva became the southern border. A fortress was built in the area that today has a great cistern to walk through, as well as a replica of a horned altar. The altar found at Be’er Sheva used hewn stone instead of unhewn stone. The law of Moses required altars to be made of unhewn stone, so it probably wasn’t built during the peak of Israelite righteousness.
Tel Arad was one of my favorite places to see. It has a nice restored Iron age fortress, as well as remnants of an Early Bronze Age civilization. The city is about as far south as Be’er Sheva, but much further inland and served lesser importance while the Israelites were strong.
My favorite part of Tel Arad is the clear remains of a temple. The rooms of the temple are clearly visible, as well as a restored altar, and some sacred objects. The temple was probably decommissioned by people who loved it since it was so carefully preserved. Most theories think that the people of Tel Arad carefully buried it during the religious reforms of Hezekiah or Josiah (who tried to centralize worship to Jerusalem to make sure it wouldn’t get corrupted). The people of Arad likely buried the temple carefully, assuming that once the current king died they would be able to dig it up and resume local temple worship.
Archaeologists found two stones in the “Holy of Holies” of the temple, which were likely supposed to represent Jehovah and Asherah. Since the Israelites weren’t supposed to worship Asherah, it probably wasn’t a bad idea to decommission the temple for a little while. Archaeologists also found two incense burning altars that were carefully laid on their side before being buried.
Not everything happened at or near Jerusalem during Israelite times. Taking a trip to some of the ancient border towns adds invaluable perspective on ancient life in the Holy Land. I’m not sure that anything can enhance a study of the Old Testament more than visiting the places where it all happened.
Keep seeking truth.
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*The spear and shield used in the header picture are from the wrong era. I couldn’t find a non-copyrighted image of the appropriate era.