by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 10 | Contents | Chapter 12

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



Wells near Gerar—Are they the ones mentioned in Genesis?—The Wady GhuzzehBrittle PotteryAntiquity of GerarA Spirited GuideThe Serpents of PalestineThe Cockatrice and the BasiliskThe "Adder"Serpent-Charming—Inventive TheologiansThe Horned SnakeThe Viper"Fiery Serpents"—"Wise as Serpents"From Gerar to Beersheba—AnArab and his Spear—Excessive Courtesy

The country, as we walked our horses towards Gerar, continued to be a succession of rolling pasture-land, seamed with dry water-courses, some small, others showing that large streams rushed through them in winter. At various points Bedouin tents of black goats'-hair cloth came in view, with herds of fifty or sixty small cattle feeding on the slopes, women, men, or boys tending them. The grass was very thin, and greatly broken by tufts of lily-like plants not yet come to flower, scarlet anemones shining out between. At last we reached the district in which Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had pitched their tents and dug wells for their flocks nearly four thousand years ago. A well on a sandy slope, close by the track, was the first of many which we soon passed, indicating the once comparative populousness of the neighbourhood. It was circular, with a domed roof, partly broken in, and this well, like most others, had long ago been filled up. Some of those near at hand were, like this one, filled up nearly to the top; a few, entirely; but others had been left twelve or twenty feet deep, with the rock exposed below the masonry. This first well was built of small stones set in mortar, which was bound with masses of small shells, like that of the walls of Ascalon. Each layer of stones formed a level circle round the whole wall, as seen on the outside, for the inside was cemented, and the stones were hidden. Two of the wells were quite close on the knoll behind; others, scattered over the gentle slope which ran back a long way to the east, with low hills behind it. One, which was about twenty feet across, built, like the others, of small stones in regular layers, cemented over inside, with a broken dome above it, had water at a depth of about sixty feet, but how deep the water was I could not say. A heap of stones lay at one side, mostly shelly limestone and rough sandstone. In all I counted about twenty wells, of which eighteen were more or less filled up, only the masonry of the other two being perfect. They stand on the hill-slopes that run down to the wady. The perfect domes had a hole in the centre, to let the drawers get at the water.

The reason most of them had been more or less filled up when the population diminished was, apparently, that they might serve as grain-pits for the Bedouin, and it was possibly by them that they had been cemented, since fragments of pottery in the concrete showed it to be comparatively modern. Were these the wells dug by the slaves of Abraham and "stopped and filled with earth" by the subjects of Abimelech, the Philistine, and which Isaac cleared out again?* Or were they some of those which Isaac caused to be dug on the slopes of the Wady Ghuzzeh (Gen 26:19), piercing through the upper porous limestone to the impervious strata below, over which streams of water flow, all the year, from the mountains and uplands behind, giving a constant abundance of "springing" or "living" water? On the great map issued by the Palestine Survey, twenty-four wells are marked within a circle of two miles, nearly all close to the great Wady Ghuzzeh, or to a subordinate torrent bed called Es Sheriah, which runs into it. The Wady Ghuzzeh drains the whole country in the rainy season for more than thirty miles beyond Beersheba, its course running, below the uplands, in a curve from east to west, towards that site, and great wadys opening into it from the hills to the east. One of these, Wady es Sheriah, indeed, runs back at least eighteen miles form its junction with the Wady Ghuzzeh. The spot particularly known as "the Ruins of Gerar" has about a dozen cisterns on the top of a low swell, their breadth from four to five feet, and their depth, where not filled up, six or eight feet, so that while some of the wells in the neighbourhood are very large, two-thirds of the whole number are but small. Near one of the smaller size are the remains of a drinking-trough, into which, it may be, Isaac and Jacob often poured water for their sheep and goats.

* Gen 26:15,18. Possibly they were even originally grain-pits.
That a considerable community existed here in antiquity is beyond question, from the evidence of heaps of broken pottery found in the sides of the valley to the depth of from six to ten feet, besides much strewn about over the surface of the whole region. Unlike that which is made now at Gaza, it is red, not black, so that it may well be very old. Such beds of potsherds can only be accounted for by the presence of large numbers of households for long periods; nor would even this be sufficient explanation unless we remembered what I have already alluded to—the exceeding fragility of Eastern pottery. Only too often for the poor maiden's peace of mind, the pitcher taken to the fountain breaks into pieces (Eccl 12:6) if set down without special care, while, on opening my carefully-packed box after reaching England, a thousand fragments were nearly all that remained of the specimens I tried to bring home. The cement with which cisterns are coated in Palestine, to make them water-tight, utilises part of this wreck of shivered earthenware, so wonderfully common everywhere, but vast beds have been left untouched at Gerar, perhaps for future consumption. In the deep Valley of Hinnom, west and south of Jerusalem, men may be seen every autumn preparing this material. Gathering a heap of potsherds of all sizes and kinds, the cement or "homrah" maker tucks up his blue cotton overshirt below his girdle, and sits down on the ground, with a heavy, round stone, for crushing the broken ware beside him. Spreading out a small quantity, he rolls the stone over it till the whole is ground to powder, or to very small pieces, and this, mixed with lime, makes the cement. At Jerusalem, traces of an ancient gateway have been discovered, apparently that known in Bible times as "the Gate of the Potters";* the quarter where earthenware was manufactured (Jer 19:1, 18:4). Thither Jeremiah was commanded to go and buy "a potter's earthen bottle," and shiver it to pieces before "the elders of the people and the elders of the priests," as a symbol of the utter destruction impending over the city for its wickedness. Just below the gate thus visited to reach the potters' quarters, there are great heaps of rubbish, made up chiefly of very ancient broken pottery, and it is here that the "homrah" makers obtain most of their raw material. It is striking to think that immediately opposite this former position of the "Potters' Gate" lies the "Potters' Field," still called Aceldama—"the Field of Blood"—one of the rare spots in this locality where the soil is of clay deep enough for graves, and for this reason used until very recently for the burial of strangers, as it had been from the time of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:18; Matt 27:7).
* Not "potsherds," as in the RV. The AV has "east gate," by a mistranslation.
Gerar was one of the oldest cities of the Philistines, for it is mentioned in the table of nations, in the tenth chapter of Genesis (10:19,26): the border town, it would seem, of that people on their first coming into Palestine from the south, but after a time left to sink into insignificance, when Gaza and the other Philistine towns were built, farther north. Abimelech, the name of its kings, both in Abraham's lifetime and in Isaac's, seems to have been a title given to its rulers, as Pharaoh was given to all Egyptian kings. We not only find it applied to the chiefs of Gerar at an interval of perhaps eighty years, in the narratives of Abraham and Isaac, but it is used also of King Achish of Gath.* It was to the treaty made by Abraham with the ruler thus distinguished, in his day (Gen 21:22-32), that the Israelites throughout their history owed the recognition of their title to Beersheba, as being in their territory, of which, indeed, it formed the southern outpost. The Philistines must therefore have been supreme from Gerar to the limits of the desert, so that their territory extended in one direction, at least, over thirty miles, though only, for the most part, over pasture-land. That so powerful a chief should have treated Abraham as on an equal footing with himself, speaks of the strength of the patriarch's tribe. He was, in fact, a great emir.
* 1 Sam 21:10 (see margin); title of Psa 34 (see margin).
I rested for some time in Gerar, taking my seat on a pile of stones beside a cistern, while we enjoyed some home-made brown bread and hard eggs, washed down with a bottle of water. The scene reminded me of Salisbury Plain: flocks here and there; the country undulating; the chalky soil sprinkled, rather than covered, with grass. To the east the limestone cropped out here and there, as the land rose in long, round-topped waves towards the distant mountains. A good many cattle were grazing at different points, tended by Arab boys, with very Jewish faces, and by brown-skinned women, in blue, close-fitting cotton sacks; their faces veiled; their heads covered with the sleeves of their dress—apparently the only article they wore, not even their naked feet visible. Part of the land was rudely ploughed a few inches deep, but the rank thorns and weeds seemed calculated to choke the good seed (Matt 13:7). Barley was growing in some places, and melons were being sown in others. Close beside me grew the familiar groundsel, dear to birds here, no doubt, as it is in beloved England! The sea, hidden from sight, lay six miles to the west. Our guide stood by, radiant in his many colours, his pistols shining in his girdle. "Were they loaded?" He flashed up at the question, and fired one off on the moment. Presently a red-and-white snake, perhaps roused by the noise, glided out from the stones on which we were sitting, and disappeared in the thorns near at hand. The shot fired had been the only one our son of Mars could boast. "Ah! had the other pistol been loaded, he would have killed the horrid creature!" I was only thankful it did not try to kill any of us, if it were poisonous.

Serpents are very numerous in Palestine, many kinds remaining undescribed, although over twenty species are already known. Indeed the unknown probably outnumber those with which European naturalists are acquainted. Nine kinds are more or less venomous, some of them, as I have said before, very deadly; yet few casualties seem to happen from them. Seven words are used for different kinds of snakes or serpents, but it is very hard to know what species is in each case meant. The difficulty of the English reader is increased by the same Hebrew word being differently translated in different passages, an error slavishly followed by the Revised Version.*

* See N+ep@e Pethen.
The word for serpents generally occurs twenty-nine times in the Old Testament,* but the distinct members of the ghastly brood are contented with less publicity. Three appear only once; one, thrice; one, four times; and one, six times. Some of these cannot be identified, others can; let us see what light science throws on any of those which the Bible notices.
* #$xafnaf Nahash.
The word "cockatrice,"* used in the Authorised Version as the translation of two Hebrew words, is a mediæval name for a fabulous serpent, supposed to be produced from a cock's egg, but originally it was no more than a corruption of the word "crocodile";** its sound leading to the wonderful invention. The serpent to which it refers is not known, but may be the great yellow viper, or "daboia" (Pro 23:32; Isa 11:8 14:29, 59:5; Jer 8:17), the largest of its kind, and more than usually dangerous, since it seeks its prey by night. The Revised Version, most unfortunately, gives as an alternative to "cockatrice," in the margin, the word "basilisk," which was another fabulous serpent, thus illuminating the one unscientific fable by a second quite as fanciful. The basilisk, or "king serpent," was described as only three spans long at the most, with a white spot on its head, frequently compared to a crown, whence its name. Fables abound of its fatal hiss, terrifying all other serpents; of its scorching the grass and stalks of herbs as it glided through them; of its splitting stones with its pestilent breath, and of its advancing upright, dreams which show how much the natural science of past ages owed to the imagination. The great yellow viper, which is, perhaps, the creature really meant when either of these two fabulous creatures is mentioned in Scripture, is very poisonous. Cannon Tristram saw one spring at a quail which was feeding. The snake failed to do more than puncture it, in the slightest possible degree, in the flesh of one of its wings. But even this was enough. Having fluttered on a few yards, the bird fell to the ground in the agonies of death. It is to the bite of this creature that in Proverbs is compared the deadly effect of strong drink; it is on its hole that the weaned child is to place its hand in the days of the Messiah; it is to its eggs, then believed to be deadly poison, that the wicked deeds of his contemporaries are compared by Isaiah; and its untameable fierceness is noticed by Jeremiah as defying the efforts of the charmer.
* (pace Tsephah; yniw$(p:ci Tsiphoni. The RV follows the AV in the one case in which the second of these words is translated "adder"; in the other cases it gives "basilisk," for cockatrice.

** Skeat, English Dictionary. Muller, Etymol. Sprachworterbuch.

Four Hebrew words are translated "adder" in the Authorised Version, which is duly followed in its confusion by the Revisers: a course pardonable two hundred and fifty years ago, but preposterous now. Of these four words, one, "pethen," is four times rendered "asp," and twice "adder" (Deut 32:33; Job 20:14-16; Isa 11:8; Psa 58:4,5, 91:13). From the allusions to it, it is shown to be poisonous, to live in holes, and to defy the arts of the charmer to subdue it. Perhaps, however, this intractableness refers only to individual snakes, if it be correct that the Egyptian cobra, which is also found in Southern Palestine, is the serpent intended, as is believed by such authorities as Klein, Furrer, and Canon Tristram.* I have often seen them in the hands of serpent-charmers in Cairo, by whom they seem to be used for their strange art more than any other serpent. Taking them out of a basket, and laying them on the pavement, they speedily irritate them till they rise upright, supported by coils of their lower vertebræ, and dilate their necks as if about to spring. Their tormentors then, catching hold of them, throw them round their arms, necks, or legs, and let them curl at their will, taking them off when they please.
* Riehm, p. 1404. Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 271. Schenkel, Bib. Lex., v. 223.
References to serpent-charming are frequent in the Bible (Psa 58:5; Eccl 10:8,11; Jer 8:17; James 3:7), so that it must have been followed in Palestine, as it has been in Egypt, from the remotest ages to the present. The cobra, which is the asp of the Greeks and Romans, measures generally about a yard or four feet in length, though sometimes more. It is often represented in its erect posture on the Egyptian monuments, and a figure of it was worn on the diadem of the Pharaohs as the symbol of their absolute power of life and death. Serpent-charmers gain their livelihood in Egypt at this time, as of old, by luring serpents of different kinds from their holes in the mud walls of houses and other buildings. They belong to orders of dervishes, and thus link their art with religion, which may explain the severity expressed towards their class in the Old Testament, if its members joined their art with heathen, as its present professors do with Mahommedan, superstition. Manasseh is denounced for "using enchantments" (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chron 33:6), which seem, from the Hebrew word, to have been a kind of divination by sorcerers from the hissing of serpents, and such enchantments are expressly prohibited in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Lev 19:26; Deut 18:10). They were, nevertheless, practised to the latest ages of the Jewish state, for Isaiah speaks of those skilled in enchanting by serpents,* and we find these reptiles spoken of in the New Testament as "tamed" or charmed (James 3:7). When the effort of the charmer was unsuccessful, the serpent was said to be "deaf," and to "stop its ears" (Psa 58:4), though, of course, it was not really insensible to sound, in any case.
* Isa 3:3. This is the real meaning of the words translated in the AV "the eloquent orator"; in the RV, "the skilful enchanter." The meaning is, literally, "the skilful hisser."
The charmers in Egypt now travel over every part of the land, and find abundant employment, though their remuneration is very small. They profess to be able to tell whether there are serpents in a house, without seeing them, and to attract them to their persons as a fowler, by the fascination of his voice, allures a bird into his net. Assuming an air of mystery, they strike the walls with a short palm-stick, whistle, make a clucking noise with their tongue, and spit on the ground, generally adding, "I adjure you by God, if ye be above, or if ye be below, that ye come forth; I adjure you by the most great name, if ye be obedient, that ye come forth; and if ye be disobedient, die! die! die!" The serpent is generally dislodged by the stick, or drops from the ceiling of the room, and is secured by the charmer, who extracts the poisonous teeth before venturing to toy with it.* Sometimes a flute is used to entice it from its hiding-place, and, when it is made harmless, to cause it to move to the music. Not unfrequently, as I have said, the performer lets the snakes twine round his neck, arms, and breast, and affects to be in a life-and-death struggle with them.
* Lane, Mod. Egypt., ii. 103.
In ancient times charmers, apparently by pressing a particular part of the neck, were able to mesmerise, or temporarily paralyse them, so that they stretched themselves out at full length, and became for the time perfectly rigid; their activity being restored at pleasure by seizing them by the tail and rolling them briskly between the hands. Was this the way in which the skill of the Egyptian magicians was shown before Pharaoh? (Exo 7:9) It was, and still is, a dangerous art to trifle with creatures so deadly, for their poison-teeth grow again after being pulled out, and at times they strike before the teeth can be drawn, and the poor charmer dies. I, myself, never saw one of these poor creatures showing his art on any special scale, but a missionary in India gives us the following vivid personal testimony.* A serpent-charmer, having been sent into his garden, after the most minute and careful precautions against artifice of any kind—"began playing with his pipe, and after proceeding from one part of the garden to another for some minutes, stopped at a part of the wall much injured by age, and intimated that a serpent was within. He then played quicker, and louder, when, almost immediately, a large cobra put forth its hooded head, and the man ran fearlessly to the spot, seized it by the throat, and drew it out. He then showed the poison-fangs, and beat them out; afterwards taking it to the room where his baskets were left, and depositing it among the rest." Does this beating out of the poison-fangs explain the words in the verse following that in which the Psalmist says of the wicked, "Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear: which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely. Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth" (Psa 58:4,5,6). As to "stopping their ears," it is of course well known that the serpent has no external ears or opening for sound, at all, so that the words are only a figure of speech for refusing to listen to the voice or music of the charmer. But this did not satisfy the theologians of former days; they actually invented the fancy that serpents stopped their ears with their tail;** though, after all, they could only stop one at a time.
* Missionary Magazine, 1837.

** Thus Augustine says that the serpent lays one ear in the dust, so stopping it, and closes the other with its tail.

The extent to which these reptiles can be tamed is seen more fully in India than elsewhere. Taking out eight or ten different kinds from their baskets, the charmers lay them on the ground, over which the creatures presently begin to glide away in every direction. Their master then puts the pipe to his lips, and plays some of his peculiar notes, at which the serpents stop, as though enchanted, and turning to the musician, approach within two feet of him, raise their heads from the ground, and sway backwards and forwards, in time with the tune, thoroughly under the spell of the sweet sounds. When he ceases playing, they drop their heads and remain quiet on the ground, till replaced in the charmer's baskets.

The Hebrews evidently were very familiar with the serpent. Zophar, in the Book of Job, shared the idea, prevalent still among the common people, that the forked, sharp tongue was that which bit and poisoned a victim, and he knew of the habit the charmers had of sucking out the poison when any one was bitten (Job 20:16); but, generally, the infusion of the venom is correctly attributed to the bite (Num 21:9; Eccl 10:8-11; Prov 23:32). The habit of the serpent tribe of hiding in walls is noticed in Ecclesiastes: "Whoso breaketh down a gadair, a serpent shall bite him" (10:8); the "gadair" being the dry stone wall of a vineyard or orchard, still known in Palestine as a "yedar." So, in Amos, of serpents hiding in the crevices of the mud walls of houses: "As if a man went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him" (5:19). That serpents are produced from eggs was known to Isaiah, who tells us, the wicked "hatch serpents' eggs" (59:5); and their wonderful mode of progression on a smooth rock was one of the four things too mysterious for Agar to understand (Prov 30:19).

A third kind of serpent mentioned in Scripture has been identified with the cerastes or horned snake, a small creature from twelve to eighteen inches long, of a sandy colour. Its name, "shephiphon," occurs only once in the Bible, but the fact that the Arabs still call the cerastes "shiphon" leaves no doubt as to the reptile meant. "Dan shall be a serpent by the way," says the dying Jacob, "an adder in the path, that biteth the horses' heels, so that his rider shall fall backward" (Gen 49:17). It is the habit of the horned snake to coil itself in the sand, where it basks in the footprint of a camel or other animal, darting out suddenly on any passing beast. "So great is the terror which the sight of it inspires in horses," says Canon Tristram, "that I have known mine, when I was riding in the Sahara, suddenly start and rear, trembling and perspiring in every limb, and no persuasion would induce him to proceed. I was quite unable to account for his terror till I noticed a cerastes coiled up in a depression, two or three paces in front, with its basilisk eyes steadily fixed on us, and no doubt preparing for a spring as the horse passed."* Like the wily snake, Dan was to owe his successes more to stratagem than to open bravery, a trait marked in the history of the tribe.

* Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 274.
The snake known in the Authorised Version as the viper seems to have been identified by Canon Tristram with the sand-viper, a reptile about a foot in length.* We read also of "vipers" in the New Testament, but the word used is that common in Greek for any poisonous snake. The viper that bit St. Paul may have been the ordinary Mediterranean viper, though, owing to the clearing away of forests from Malta, no snake is now found in the island. The Mediterranean viper is fond of lurking among wood, and it will be remembered that the snake which fastened on St. Paul's hand came out of the fagots for the fire.**
* Heb. "epheh" (Job 20:16; Isa 30:6, 59:5). The Arabic name of the sand-viper is "el ephah."

** Tristram, p. 277.

The "fiery serpents" which troubled Israel in the wilderness have not been identified with any particular species, and seem to owe the name rather to the effects of their bite than to any other peculiarity, especially as we find the Greek Bible speaking of them only as the "deadly serpents" (Num 21:6-8; Deut 8:15).

We might, indeed, with strict exactness, translate the name as "the serpent of the burning bite," though there are poisonous serpents in Arabia with fiery-red spots and marks.* The burning heat produced by their bite might well give them the name of "fiery," just as the Greeks called a kind of serpent whose bite made the face fiery-red with its poison, and the limbs swell, "prester," the "inflamer," and "kausos," the "burner," and another, whose bite caused mortal thirst, "dipsas," or the thirst-causing serpent. The "fiery flying serpent" of Isaiah (14:29) evidently does not refer to any serpent with wings, for there are no such creatures, but rather to the swift spring of some especially deadly snake, as we say of even a quadruped that "it flew along the road."

* Schubert's Travels, ii. 406.
The dull eyes of the serpent are the very opposite of intelligent, yet its "subtilty" has in all ages been a familiar expression in widely-separate nations. This must be in allusion to its craft in hiding till its victim approaches, or its secrecy in gliding towards it; also, perhaps, to its power, in some cases, of fascinating its prey, and its wariness in avoiding danger. It is in this last sense that our Saviour counsels the disciples to be "wise as serpents" (Matt 10:16): avoiding unnecessary invitation of persecution, and gratuitous incitement to ill-will. In the same figurative sense we must understand the words of Scripture respecting the serpent eating dust (Gen 3:14; Isa 65:25; Micah 7:17), as only a vivid mode of expressing the deepest humiliation, as when the heathen are described as "licking up the dust of the feet" of Israel (Isa 49:23; Psa 72:9), or when the Psalmist speaks of "eating ashes like bread" (Psa 102:9).

The journey from Gerar to Beersheba is over much the same kind of country as that from Gaza to Gerar. An Arab passed us on horseback, carrying a spear about twelve feet long, with a cruel-looking iron head, ornamented with a tuft of wool, and, at the other end, a long iron butt, sharp-pointed, to thrust into the ground before the tent, so that the spear might be upright, ready to be snatched, its position also being a token of the owner's authority as sheikh. So, the spear of Saul was "stuck at his bolster" (1 Sam 26:7), or, rather, "head." The Arab had, besides, a sword and pistols, and a white head-cloth, or "kefiyeh," with the usual ring of soft camels'-hair rope twice round, to keep it in its place, the tails of the kerchief falling over his breast. His complexion was very black, but his features were handsome. A brown-striped "abba," over his inner cotton dress, completed his costume. I asked to look at his spear, and he at once handed it to me, saying that he "gave" it to me; but this was only a formal act of courtesy, meaning nothing, like that of Ephron the son of Heth, four thousand years ago, when he affected to give Abraham the Cave of Machpelah without payment; intending all the while to let him have it only for its full value (Gen 23:11). I therefore returned him his formidable weapon with many thanks, and we parted.


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