by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books

 

Chapter 4 | Contents | Chapter 6


The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine

Cunningham Geikie D.D.

With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Special Edition

(1887)

CHAPTER 5—THE PHILISTINE PLAIN AND SAMSON'S COUNTRY

The "Turn-out"—Derivation of "Palestine"The Philistines—Their OriginTheir Relations with the Hebrews—Their CharacterHittites, Girgashi, Amorites, Canaanites, and JebusitesWomen as Carriers"Teben"Irruption of Sand—A Sign of CivilisationYabneh or JamniaThe Scene of Barcochba's InsurrectionEkron and the Ark"The Lord of Flies"—Troublesome InsectsTell JezerWady es Surar—Birthplace of SamsonTibnah or TimnathMarriage, Present and PastJackalsBethshemesh

As I leave Joppa, with its strange crowds, my mind carries away reminiscences made up of a confused dream of masons sitting cross-legged, chipping stones from Cæsarea, for the new Christian hospital; stone-breakers squatted in the same way across half the market-place, fracturing obdurate metal in stone mortars, to spread on the road; strings of donkeys and camels moving hither and thither, and a general hubbub of buyer and seller filling the air. A four-wheeled vehicle had been hired for my journey—a rough open affair, screened at the roof and sides with canvas to keep off the sun. The driver wore a felt skull-cap, dignified into a makeshift turban by a pocket-handkerchief twisted round it. His coat, worn over a blue blouse, was of woollen stuff, fancifully ornamented down the back with crimson, while the arms were of one pattern to the elbow, and another below it. Lebanon had the credit of its manufacture, though it would have been very hard to say through how many hands it may have passed before it reached those of our Jehu. Three horses, veritable screws, but wiry withal, drew us; two of them boasting head-stalls and collars, made useful if not ornamental by a free application of pieces of rope; the third arrayed in nothing at all but some ropes. Of course each animal had its galls and raw places; no horse used in harness in Palestine is without them, for there is no law against cruelty to animals, and no pity in the native heart towards dumb creatures to supply its place.

South of Joppa the coast-plain was the country of the Philistines, whose name, the "immigrants," has, curiously, given us that of "Palestine." It was the part of Judæa earliest and best known to the Greeks, who entered the land mainly, at first, from Egypt. Hence, as the Romans gave the name of Asia and Africa, respectively, to the two provinces they first gained on these two continents, and, as the English gave the name of Dutch, though it belongs to the whole German race, to the people of Holland, who lay next their own shores, "Philistia" became the Gentile name of the entire Holy Land, in the form of "Palestine."*

* Sinai and Palestine, p. 253.
The Philistines, as the translation of their name in the Greek Bible* shows, were of a different race from the peoples who were in Canaan before their appearance among them. Their territory reached from a little below Joppa, which remained in the hands of the Phœnicians, to a little below Gaza, along the coast, and back to the hills of Judæa, a district hardly fifty miles in its full length, or half that in its extreme breadth. Palestine, as a whole, it must be remembered, is a very small country. The prophet Amos (9:7) tells us the Philistines came from Caphtor, that is, the island of Crete, and we read elsewhere, respecting "the Avim which dwelt in Hazerim [or villages], even unto Gaza"—that "the Caphtorim, which came out of Caphtor, destroyed them, and dwelt in their stead" (Deut 2:23). The Avim were one of the original peoples of Palestine, who had been driven to the extreme south of the country by the Canaanites. In part enslaving these, in part driving them out, the Philistines took possession of their district. They had not, however, come direct from Crete, but had previously been settled at Cassiotis—the territory of the Casluchim (Gen 10:13,14), on the Egyptian coast, whence salt was exported for the dry-fish trade from the ports of the Nile Delta.** Thence they wandered north to the more fruitful sea-coast plains of Canaan, which, from their position, had great attractions for a keenly commercial people, as it tapped at once the caravan trade with the east and south, and the sea trade with the west. Hence, already in the time of Abraham, their king Abimelech had his seat at Gerar, in the farthest south of the land, and boasted a chief of his fighting men, and a council bearing strange titles (Gen 20:2, 21:32, 26:1,26). In a subsequent generation, about the year BC 1920,*** the Hebrews went down into Egypt, from which they only returned after a residence of 430 years. By this time the Philistines had grown so strong that God would not allow His people to go up to Canaan by the direct and easy caravan route, still in use, because it would have brought them into conflict with so warlike a race; but led them by the circuitous route of the desert (Exo 13:17).
* Allophyloi = "men of another tribe."

** Ebers, Egypten und die Bucher Mosis, p. 121.

*** Riehm, p. 1196.

After the Hebrew conquest of Central Palestine, three of the Philistine cities—Ekron, Ascalon, and Gaza—were taken in the first enthusiasm of the invaders, and held for a time by Judah, to whom the sea-coast plain had been assigned by Joshua (15:45). They were, however, lost before that leader's death (Josh 13:2), and henceforth, for 200 years, even the name of the race is seldom mentioned in the Sacred Books (Josh 13:2, 15:45; Judg 1:18, 3:3).

That there was a hereditary enmity between them and the Hebrews, appears however in the incidental notice of one of the Judges—Shamgar—having slain 600 Philistines with the massive ox-goad, shod with iron, still common in those parts (Judg 3:31). But towards the end of the period of the Judges (about BC 1250), the history of Samson brings the nation into prominence as the most dangerous and dreaded enemies of Israel, which they continued to be till the reign of David, who broke their power so completely that he was able to form an old and young body-guard—known as the Crethi and Plethi—from among them (1 Sam 30:14; Eze 25:16; Zeph 2:5). From this time they were only at intervals independent of the Hebrews, and they finally vanished as a people, under the iron sway of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Syrians, in succession.

The few remains of their language and religion show that this remarkable people were of Semitic race, though coloured to a large extent by Grecian influences, from their temporary residence in Crete. Fierce and fond of war, they had the genius of military organisation peculiar to the West; always ready with disciplined battalions for any quarrel. Nor were they less keen as traders; their favourable position on the coast enabling them to become, in some measure, rivals of the Phœnicians. Of their political constitution we know only that their territory was divided into five small districts, respectively under the chiefs of five cities—Ekron, Gath, Ashdod, Ascalon, and Gaza. Of their religion all that has come down to us is that the god Beelzebub was worshiped at Ekron, Dagon at Gaza and Ashdod (2 Kings 1:2; Judg 16:23; 1 Sam 5:1), and, at a later period, the goddess Derketo in Ascalon (2 Macc 12:26).

The present population of Palestine is, doubtless, largely representative, in the various districts, of the ancient races of the land, so that Philistine blood in the people of the old Philistine country may perhaps, in part, account for their being much more Egyptian, in their ways and dress, than those around them; the Philistines, as we have seen, having originally come from Crete through Egypt. There were, however, many other nationalities in the land in Joshua's day. The Hittites—possibly a small branch of the mighty Cheta of the Egyptian monuments, whose power, at its highest, reached from the Grecian Archipelago to Carchemish, on the Euphrates—lived in and round Hebron, in the time of Abraham (Gen 23), and, in that of Moses, among the mountains of Judah and Ephraim (Num 13:29; Josh 11:3), and were still in existence in the days of Ezra (9:1). The Girgashi, or "dwellers on the clay-land," were a tribe otherwise unknown (Deut 7:1). The Amorites, or "dwellers on the hills," were, perhaps, the greatest of the Canaanite races, one part of them living on the mountains of Judah (Gen 14:7,13; Num 13:29), which they divided into five petty kingdoms (Josh 10:5); another branch, on the east of Jordan, in the northern part of Moab, divided by them into the two "kingdoms" of Heshbon and Bashan (Num 21:13; Deut 4:47; Josh 2:10, 24:12). It was of their towns, on the top of the hills, in what was afterwards of Judæa, that the Hebrew spies spoke as being "walled up to heaven" (Deut 1:28). Then there were the Canaanites, or "dwellers in the lowlands," that is, the coast, and in the depression of the Jordan. The name was used also, in a wider sense, of the Phœnicians, and from that race being the great business people of the Old World, came afterwards to mean "traders" (Job 41:6).* Besides these, we read of the Perizzites, or "peasants," in contrast to dwellers in towns; the Hivites, or "dwellers in villages"; and the Jebusites, or "threshing-floor people," in allusion, apparently, to the early use of the top of Mount Moriah at Jerusalem as a threshing-floor (2 Sam 24:18-23); this being the one spot on which we find them. These are spoken of, perhaps in the aggregate, as nations "greater and mightier" than the Hebrews at the time of their invasion of Palestine (Deut 7:1). But since those early days many additional races have occupied portions of the land, and intermarriages in the course of many ages must have united the blood of a great many nationalities in the veins of the present population.

* The word "merchants" is "Canaanites" in the Heb., so in Prov 31:24.
Asses, laden with cabbages for market, passed us as we drove on from Joppa over a track in the hard sand; some veiled women, also, with baskets of lemons on their heads. They carry everything thus, and owe to their doing so an erectness of carriage which their sisters in the West might well envy. More asses, laden with sand, followed; women with black veils; girls with milk, which they carry in jars on their shoulder, as they do water. Married women carry their little children thus in many cases. Sometimes, indeed, you meet little children, perhaps still unweaned, carried by their mother on her hips, just as Isaiah says, "Thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side" (60:4). A Bedouin in "kefiyeh," or head-shawl, next met us; then we were made to turn aside by camels carrying back to their villages loads of empty sacks, in which they had taken grain to Joppa or elsewhere. The men of to-day thus still carry their riches on the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, as in the days of Isaiah (30:6); so little have the customs of the East changed, after so many centuries.

Immense mounds of finely-broken-up straw for fodder are to be seen everywhere in Egypt, and this fodder is common, also, in Palestine. Strings of camels passed towards Joppa as we went on, with huge bags of it balanced on each side of their humps. It is the only dry food for horses or cattle in Western Asia, and is largely used, also, in the valley of the Nile. The name given to it is "teben"—the same, to-day, as in the days of the patriarchs. When the grain is trampled out on the open-air threshing-floors, by the feet of cattle or by the sharp stone or iron teeth underneath the threshing-sledge (Deut 25:4; Isa 41:15), the straw is necessarily broken or cut into very small pieces. These are the "teben" of which we often read in the Bible. Rebekah told Eliezer, Abraham's servant, that her brother had both "teben and provender" (Gen 24:25) for his camels. The children of Israel in Egypt were refused "teben" to mix with the clay of the bricks they had to make (Exo 5:7). The Levite saw abundance of "teben and provender for his asses" in Gibeah, though so inhospitably received (Judg 19:19). Barley and "teben" had to be provided by the rural community for the common horses, and also for those of a swifter and finer breed, belonging to Solomon* (1 Kings 4:28). The wicked, says Job, are "as teben before the wind, and as chaff that the storm carrieth away" (21:18). Leviathan is said to esteem "iron as teben, and brass as rotten wood" (Job 41:27). In the days of the Messiah "the lion shall eat teben like the ox" (Isa 11:7, 65:25). The Word of God by His true prophets, we read in Jeremiah, was as different from the utterances of the false prophets as "teben is from wheat" (Jer 23:28). Thus the camel-loads that made me swerve aside throw light on a good many verses of Scripture.

* For "dromedaries," read as in the text.
The drifting sand from the shore is playing sad havoc with the Philistine plain. Immediately south of Joppa it reaches a distance of four miles inland. Towards the sea, these dunes or sand-hills present a very gentle slope, but on the land side they are much steeper, so that as the sea-wind blows the loose grains over the crest, they roll, by imperceptible degrees, farther and farther afield, gradually overwhelming gardens, orchards, and ploughed land, and, of course, under the Turk, nothing is done to stay their progress.

The road led straight south along these yellow desolations, the telegraph wires to Egypt running at its side. Six or seven miles from Joppa I crossed the Rubin, which, when I passed, had a very small stream in its bed, linking together some almost stagnant pools, fed by springs in the wady, near the hills. On the shore, on a line with Ramleh, but out of sight from the road, lay Minet Rubin, the ancient port for Jamnia, with some vines and a few mulberries growing wild in the sand, which here probably is not deep. But there is no longer any harbour at this place, though ancient tombs in the rocks speak of a large resident population in past ages.

Yabneh, the ancient Jamnia, lies on the west side of the Rubin, the course of which I crossed by a low bridge of two arches. Springs in the river-bed cause it to be always in full flow at its mouth; the Palestine Surveyors speaking of it as six or eight yards across near the sea, but fordable in May, 1875. At Jamnia, however, the channel is nearly dry, except after rains, though it has cut quite a ravine across the whole plain, in some parts marshy, with reeds and rushes at the sides. The village has a population of about 2,000, and lies in a conspicuous position on the top of a low green hill, four miles from the shore. Standing apart from the hills around, and bordered by a fringe of gardens, olive-yards, and fields of vetches, it looks from a distance very picturesque. Some wells and a rain-pond within mud banks, duly repaired each year, supply water. It has the ruins of an ancient fortress, and also a small mosque, which was once a Christian church.

Yabneh, like all places in Palestine, is very old. In Joshua's day it was known as Jabneel (Josh 15:11), and along with Ekron, which was near it, was assigned to the Hebrew tribe of Dan (Josh 19:43; Jos. Ant., v. 1, 22). The Philistines, however, kept possession if it till King Uzziah took it and broke down its walls (2 Chron 26:6). At a later date it was again taken by Simon Maccabæus (BC 142), and remained in the hands of the Jews till Pompey gave it back to its earlier population (BC 63). A few years later a large colony was transferred to it by order of the Roman Governor of Syria, and it was finally handed over by Augustus, thirty years before Christ, to Herod the Great, from whom it passed, by his will, to his sister Salome; she, in turn, leaving it to Livia, the wife of Augustus. So lightly were communities handed over by one royal personage to another in those good old days! It had now grown so large that it is said, no doubt with much exaggeration, to have been able to put 40,000 men in the field; but hatred of the Jews, who formed a large part of the community, caused much friction between them and their heathen fellow-citizens.

At the breaking-out of the last Jewish war Jamnia received permission from Titus to give a home to the members of the Rabbinical College of Jerusalem, and it thus became a famous seat of Jewish learning; but it gradually sank in after-times, till it has become the insignificant place it now is.

It was with a strange feeling that one looked on the miserable collection of mud houses of which it at present consists, and thought that here the great insurrection of Barcochba—"the Son of a Star"—was planned by the Rabbis, in their despair at the edict by which Hadrian decreed the suppression of Judaism and took their power from the hands of its teachers. Everywhere throughout the Empire the Jews had been restlessly plotting and rising against the Romans for two generations, till even Hadrian, who had shown them favour at the opening of his reign, grew fierce against them; ordered the site of Jerusalem to receive a heathen name—Ælia Capitolina—and drove the ploughshare over the ruins of the Temple, as a sign that it should never be rebuilt; even forbidding any Jew so much as to approach the circuit of the Holy City. But the hope of a Messiah, who should give the victory to the ancient people of God over all their enemies, still burned in the breast of every Israelite, and the hour brought with it the man to kindle these hopes to a flame. Appealing to the prophecy of Balaam, Barcochba, apparently hitherto unknown, gave himself out as the star that was to come from Jacob, "to smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Seth" (Num 24:17), and acquired formidable power. Rabbi Akiba, a great name among the Jews, accepted him as the Messiah, and became his armour-bearer. The time predicted by Haggai was supposed to have come, when Jehovah would "shake the heavens and the earth, and overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen" (2:21). Barcochba was to be the Redeemer of Israel, who should free its sons from the bondage of Rome. Insurrection broke out at once. The new Messiah must have been a fierce fanatic, for he demanded that everyone who wished to follow him should submit to have one of his fingers chopped off as a test of his resolution; that circumcision should be repeated on all who had imperfectly obeyed the rite, and that the Jewish towns should be fortified—the one reasonable measure of the three! According to the Rabbis, 200,000 men, each with a finger hewn off, followed him, and as many more, unwilling to endure this test, agreed that they would drag up by the roots a cedar of Lebanon as a pledge of their spirit. Fifty strong places, and nearly 1,000 villages, were taken from the Romans, and it took three years and a half for Hadrian to quell the terrible rising. Bether, the chief fortress of the revolted Hebrews, held out for a whole year. The number who perished was reckoned at half a million, and the exasperation at the failure of the movement was so great that Barcochba's name—"the Son of a Star"—was changed by the survivors to Bar Cosiba—"the Son of a Lie."*

* A very full account of Barcochba's revolt is given from a Jewish point of view in Hamburger's Real Encycl., ii. 85ff.
This terrible narrative shows very forcibly the ideas of the Messiah prevalent in the days of Christ. It was to make Him such a king as Barcochba that the multitude wished to lay hold on the Saviour and put Him at their head (John 6:15), after the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes at the head of the Lake of Galilee, and it was because He would not lead a great rising against Rome that His countrymen finally rejected Him.

Jamnia is only four miles and a half from a famous site—Ekron, one of the chief towns of the Philistines, now called Akir. Near it, among the hills overhanging the plain, is the region of Samson's exploits and of some notable incidents in the life of David, which could not be more conveniently visited than from this point, though horses, not wheels, are required in the uplands.

Ekron is now only a mud hamlet on low rising ground, with gardens hedged with prickly pear, and a well on the north. Cisterns, empty or tenanted by birds, the stones of hand-mills, two marble columns, and a stone press, are the only ancient remains to be seen, for the Ekron of the Bible was probably built, like the present village, of unburnt bricks, which a few years reduce to dust. One of the two marble pillars still visible forms the top of the gateway leading into a very humble village mosque. Many of the inhabitants keep bees; great jars closed up at the mouth with clay, except a little entrance, serving for hives, as, indeed, is the custom generally in Palestine. Sheepskin cloaks, the fleece inside, are worn by a number of the villagers, to protect them from chill in the early morning or through the night, the contrast between the heat of the day and the cold of these hours being very great, as of old with Jacob in Mesopotamia (see ante, p. 66). Ekron means "barren," perhaps because, although the rich cornlands of the plain lie just below, the place itself stands on one of a long series of sandy, uncultivated swells, which, in this part, reach from the hills to the sea-coast. This, the most northern of the five Philistine cities, was assigned by Joshua to the tribe of Judah (Josh 13:3, 15:11,46), but afterwards to that of Dan (Josh 19:43), though, in the end, Judah took it and for a time held it (Judg 1:18; 1 Sam 7:14). At the close of the period of the Judges, however, it was again a Philistine town, and is famous because the Ark, when taken from the Hebrews, rested in it for a time (1 Sam 5:10). In connection with this incident it is striking to find that the two plagues inflicted on the Philistines for detaining the sacred chest are still among the number of local visitations; the habits of the people leading very often to the internal tumours called emerods in the Scripture narrative, and armies of field-mice not unfrequently ravaging the crops. The destructiveness of these pests in the East is, indeed, often very great. A friend of Dr. van Lennep* informed him that, one year, in Asia Minor, he "saw the depredations committed by an immense army of field-mice, which passed over the ground like an army of young locusts. Fields of standing corn and barley disappeared in an incredibly short time, and as for vines and mulberry-trees, they were gnawed at the roots and speedily prostrated. The annual produce of a farm of 150 acres, which promised to be unusually large, was thus utterly consumed, and the neighbouring farms suffered equally." It was in all probability a visitation of these mice by which the Philistines were harassed, though, indeed, there is a choice of creatures of this class in Palestine, which boasts no fewer than twenty-three varieties of the genus.**

* Van Lennep, Bible Lands, p. 285.

** Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible: art. "Mouse."

It is now over 2,700 years since a solemn deputation arrived in Ekron from King Ahaziah of Samaria (BC 897-895), son of Ahab, to consult the local god, who bore the ominous name of Beelzebub, or, to write it more correctly, Baal-zebub—the "Lord of the Flies"—a title of the sun-god, as controller of the swarming insect world. Flies are at all times a severe trial in the hot months in the East, but occasionally they become almost unendurable. That they were equally troublesome in antiquity is shown by Judith being said to have pulled aside the mosquito curtains on the bed of Holofernes, when she was about to kill him.* In the Jordan valley the flocks and cattle are in great dread of a species of blood-sucking horse-flies, to escape from which the shepherds and herdsmen drive them to higher and colder levels, where these plagues are not found. Even the wild animals are equally tormented by these insects, and flee to elevations where they are safe from them. Cases are also known, for example in the region of Nazareth, where immense swarms of small black flies darken the air, and cannot be kept out of the mouth and nostrils; their numbers at times breaking up an Arab encampment, since even smoke and flame are hardly able to drive them away.**
* Judith xiii. 9. Greek, kwnwpeion. In Liddell and Scott, "a bed with mosquito curtains."

** Riehm, p. 445.

In the Bible the word "Zebub" is used twice: in the passage, "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour" (Eccl 10:1), and when Isaiah says that "the Lord shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt" (Isa 7:18), that is, He shall make a sound like that which men use to attract and lead to the hive a swarm of bees; thus bringing from all the canals and waters of Egypt the fly which in summer is found near them in such clouds. Both on the Nile and in Palestine the common fly is met with in myriads, and, by carrying infectious matter on its feet, induces, when it lights on the corners of the eyes, purulent ophthalmia. They also, by their bites, produce festering sores, and they swarm to such an extent that food not carefully covered is spoilt in a few minutes. Some authorities even think that the words of Isaiah respecting the country on the Upper Nile, the "land of the shadowing wings" (Isa 18:1), refer to the vast swarms of flies in those parts.

But poor Ahaziah had more serious matters to trouble him than Eastern fly-swarms, when his embassy appeared in the narrow streets of Ekron, so long ago. He had fallen through an upper lattice of his house and feared he was dying. The god Beelzebub had a great name for revealing the future. Would the sufferer live or die? The fame of the local oracle must have been very high, not only then, but in later times, since Beelzebub had, by Christ's day, come to be recognised as the chief of the heathen gods of Palestine, or, as the Jews put it, the "prince of the devils" (Matt 9:34, 12:24; Mark 3:22): a use of the name which has, among Christians, made it equivalent to that of the arch-enemy himself.

East of Ekron, which itself is 200 feet above the sea, the land rises in successive ridges to that of Tell Jezer, which stands up in prominent isolation 750 feet above the Mediterranean, at a distance of about fourteen miles from it and six from Ekron. Part of these uplands bears corn, round the small villages of Naaneh and El-Mansurah, the former—once Naamah, near Makkedah—where Joshua put to death the five kings after the rout of Bethhoron (10:10, 15:41).. The rest is a barren reach of half-consolidated sand, without water. Below the swelling ground of the low hills the soil is rich, but only partially cultivated, and the rising slopes themselves are the haunts of small encampments of wandering Bedouins. The ancient fertility of the hills has in fact been greatly diminished by the want of population, the terraces on which vineyards and orchards were planted being left to fall into ruin, so that the rich soil has to a large extent been washed away, leaving only the bare rock.

In 1874 the long-lost royal Canaanite city of Gezer was strangely rediscovered by M. Clermont-Ganneau in this hitherto unsuspected region. Finding it stated in an old Arab chronicle, in an account of a petty battle fought in this neighbourhood, that the shouts of the combatants were heard both at the village of Khulda and Tell-el-Jezer—"the Hill of Gezer"—he came to this spot, to see if he could justify his idea that the latter was really the site of the long-forgotten city. Learning from some peasants that a rude inscription was to be seen at one point, cut deeply into the natural rock, he sought it out, and to his delight found that it was in Hebrew, and read "Boundary of Gezer." The letters are supposed to be as old as the Maccabæan age—the second century before Christ—and seem to leave no doubt that Gezer has actually come once more to light. As in many other cases, a Mahommedan tomb crowns the hill, marking it out for a long distance in every direction. The Tell, that is, mound, or hill, is long and irregular in shape, with terraces at the sides, supported by a great wall of large unhewn blocks of stone. Near the eastern end is a raised square platform of earth, about 200 feet each way, containing similar blocks. This is all that is now left of the once populous city. A fine spring on the east must have supplied it abundantly with water, while the plain below stretches out in rich corn-fields to the sand-hills near the sea. If it was hard for the citizens to climb to their lofty home, the view from it well repaid them when it was reached, for the plain of Sharon to the north, with Lydda, and doubtless, in those days, many other towns or villages, and the great Philistine plain to the south, with its varying surface and its busy life, lay at their feet; the purple mountains of Judæa rising behind them to the east, while the view to the west was only closed by the blue horizon of the great sea.* Desolate now for many centuries, human life was once varied enough on this airy height; for Gezer, besides being a Levitical city, and, as such, thronged with priests, was so important as to form part of the dowry of Pharaoh's daughter when she became one of Solomon's many queens.

* Gezer is mentioned in Josh 10:33, 12:12, 16:3,10; Judg 1:29; 2 Sam 5:25; 1 Kings 9:15,16,17; 1 Chron 6:67, 7:28, 14:16, 20:4.
Wady es Surar, which opens on the plain about four miles south-east of Ekron, leads directly into the country of Samson, and also to the scene of David's encounter with Goliath. It stretches up, to the south-east, into the mountains of Judæa, and is watered in its centre by the Rubin; other wadys or valleys running into it on both sides throughout its ascending length, till it loses itself in the numberless branches which pierce the hill-country in all directions. Slowly mounting it from the plain by a rough track which skirts its lower side, a long slow climb at last brings us in sight of Surah, the ancient Zorah, the birth-place of Samson, on the top of a hill 1,171 feet high, about twelve miles south-east of Ekron. Lying aloft, over the valley, this spot was evidently occupied by the Hebrews as an outpost, from which to watch their enemies, the Philistines; the eye ranging from it over the whole broad glen beneath, as well as the hills on its south side, which in Samson's day were hostile country (Josh 15:33). The present village is a moderate-sized collection of mud huts on the top of a bare white hill, with some olives lower down the slopes to the north and east, and a well in a little valley below; but the villagers do not use this, preferring to get their water from a spring half a mile off, at the foot of the hill. A mukam, or shrine, of a Mussulman saint stands on the south side of the village; a low square building of stone, with a humble dome and a small court, within an old stone wall, at the side. You enter the yard through a small door in this wall, up two or three steps, but beyond the bare walls, and a solitary palm-tree, twice the height of the wall, there is nothing to see. Sheikh Samat, whoever he was, lies solitary enough and well forgotten in his airy sepulchre, but the whitewash covering his resting-place marks a custom which is universal with Mussulman tombs of this kind. In almost every landscape the eye is caught by some whited sepulchre, just as the eye must have been in Bible times by those to one of which our Lord may have pointed when He denounced the Scribes and Pharisees as having, like such places, outward purity, but the very opposite within (Matt 23:27). The Jews whitewashed their tombs, however, to warn passers-by of the defiling presence of death, lest too near an approach might make them unclean, and thus unfit them for any religious act, or for partaking of the Passover or entering the Temple.

On the airy hill of Surah or Zorah, the border village, a spot now so bleak and uninviting, young Samson grew up, amidst plentiful discourse about border forays and constant sight and sound of danger from the hated foe—a fit school for such a lad. Many a time must he have gone, as a little child, with his mother to the spring, and walked back up the steep half-mile beside her, as she carried her water-jar on her head, to supply the household; for mothers in Palestine, as elsewhere, like to have their growing boys at their side when they go abroad. It speaks of troublous times that a village should have been perched so high, instead of nestling in the broad, flat valley below; but the landscape may have been cheerier in those days than it is now, for the ruins of ancient towns or villages crown nearly every hill-top round; over thirty being found within a circle of three miles from Zorah. So populous was the country once; so desolate is it to-day.

Three miles off to the south-west, on the south side of the great valley, 800 feet above the sea, and thus nearly 400 feet below Zorah, young Samson had before him the village of Tibnah—then Timnath (Josh 15:10; Judg 14:5)—which was for a time all the world to him, for the maiden who had won his heart lived there. Ruined walls, caves, wine-presses, and rock-cut cisterns, are all that remains of it, unless we count the spring, north of the site, to and from which Samson's betrothed must often have borne her water-jar in those old days. The local and Oriental colouring of the Scripture story of the marriage (Judg 14:1ff) and its incidents is perfect. Samson, we read, "went down" to Timnath—for it lay lower than Zorah, as we have seen. It was then a Philistine village, and the Philistines had dominion over Israel at that time. As now, the lover could not himself manage the courtship; his father and mother must break the ice, by getting his sweetheart for him; must learn the dowry to be given for her, and consent to pay it. The betrothal arranged, parents and son were free to go together to Timnath, and, for the first time, Samson got leave to talk with his future wife. The incident of the swarm of bees in the dried-up skeleton of the lion is also true to local experience. A dead camel is often found so dried up by the summer heat, before putrefaction has begun, that the mummy remains permanently unaltered, without any corrupt smell.* Such a withered and dry shell of a dead beast would offer to wild bees a very fit place for storing their honey, accustomed as they are to use hollow trees, or clefts in the rocks, for hives. Even in England wrens and sparrows have been known to make their nest in the dried body of a crow or hawk nailed up on a barn-door,** and instances are recorded of hornets using the skull of a dead camel for their hive.*** As to the lion: a few years ago the carcase of one was brought into Damascus, and lion-bones have been found in the gravel of the Jordan,^ while in the Bible there are five different words for the animal at different stages of growth, and of these, three—Laish, Lebaoth, and Arieh (Judg 18:4; Josh 15:32, 19:6; 2 Kings 15:25)—are used as names of places, apparently from lions haunting the neighbourhood.

* Rosenmuller, A. u. N. Morgenland, iii. 46.

** Tristram, Nat. Hist. Bible, p. 324.

*** Land and Book, p. 566.

^ Tristram, Nat. Hist. Bible, p. 117.

Marriage feasts still continue for seven days,* as Samson's did, amidst songs, dances, and rough jollity, in which putting and answering riddles forms a prominent part. It would seem, further, from Samson's being allowed to see his betrothed before marriage, that the marriage feast was something like that now found among the peasants of the Hauran: its scene, the open-air threshing-floor; the company, made up of "friends of the bridegroom," of whom the parents of Samson's wife provided the feast with as many as thirty (Judg 14:11); the bride and bridegroom sitting, rudely crowned, as king and queen of the sports, on the threshing-sledge, as a mock throne, till at the close of the week husband and wife find themselves once more poor hard-working peasants.** That the whole party at Samson's wedding were little better than peasants is clear from their distress at the thought of losing a shirt and an outer tunic apiece. "Have you invited us," was their taunt to the bride, "only to take from us our property?" (Judg 14:15) Marriage feasts often end now, as they did in this case, in quarrels and even bloodshed.
* Riehm, p. 338.

** Dr. J. G. Wetstein in Delitzsch's Hoheslied, p. 162ff.

Samson's revenge for his wife being stolen from him and married to another man took, as we may remember, a form strange to Western ideas, and yet this too, on the spot, must have seemed quite in keeping with local ways and circumstances. The great valley of Sorek, with its broad swells of rich land stretching away, wave on wave, and the slopes of the distant hills at its sides, must have been covered for many miles in every direction with a sea of corn, which in the hot summer, as harvest approached, would be like so much tinder. Anyone who has travelled in Palestine at this season must have noticed the rigorous precautions taken against a conflagration, so certain to be widely disastrous where no walls or hedges separate the fields; there being great danger, in fact, of the flames spreading over the whole landscape. It would be easy for Samson to get any number of jackals, by the abundant help he could command as a local hero, if not already "judge." The howls of these animals by night, in every part of Palestine, show how common they are even now, and in Samson's time they must have been much more so, as different places bore names given from the numbers of these pests in their neighbourhood. We have "the Land of Shual" (1 Sam 13:17)—that is, "the Jackal Country"—apparently near to Bethel; Hazar-shual, or "Jackal Town" (Josh 15:28, 19:3; 1 Chron 4:28; Neh 11:27), and Shaalabbin—"the City of Jackals"—a town of Dan, Samson's own tribe (Josh 19:42). For Maralah (Josh 19:11),* in Zebulon, on the north, the Syriac, moreover, reads, "the Hill of Jackals." Indeed, the constant mention of snares, nets, pits, &c., in the Bible, shows that wild creatures of all kinds must have been much more numerous than they now are, though some kinds, jackals among them, still abound.
* See the whole subject treated with wonderful learning in Bochart's Hierozoicon, p. 854ff.
Looking down to the south from Zorah, the site of Bethshemesh, to which the lowing kine dragged the cart on which had been put the sacred ark of the Hebrews, is in full view. It is two miles from Zorah, and lies about 250 feet lower. Heaps of stones, and ruined walls that seem modern, speak of a former village, while foundations and walls of good masonry, apparently more ancient, mark a low swell to the west. Add to these some rock-cut tombs, half buried; a few olives to the east; a tomb of some unknown Mussulman saint—and you have all that remains of Bethshemesh, unless you include a set of dry stone huts, with roofs of boughs, for shelter to harvestmen in the reaping season. The old name, which means "the House of the Sun," is now changed to "Ain Shems," "the Fountain of the Sun"—living water being found in the valley below. Both point to the Philistine sun-worship, and both names are fitting, for every sun "house" or temple needed, like all other ancient sanctuaries, a fountain near it, to supply water for ablutions and libations. The village looks down the wide valley of Sorek, which trends to the north-east, so that the men of Bethshemesh, then busy reaping their wheat, could see from afar the kine dragging the cart with the ark (1 Sam 6:12ff) towards them, up the rough track from Ekron. Their little hill-town, like Zorah, was a frontier settlement of the Hebrews in those days, and right glad must all hearts have been to welcome the national palladium once more among its own people.

 

Chapter 4 | Contents | Chapter 6

 

Notes on Revelation | Judeo-Christian Research

This online book is original to this site.
This online book has been edited.

1997-2006 NOR/JCR