by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books

 

Chapter 15 | Contents | Chapter 17


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 16—THE COUNTRY SOUTH OF HEBRON
The Juttah Plateau; The Traditional Birthplace of John the Baptist—Kurmul (Carmel); Nabal and DavidSemua (Eshtemoa); The Dimensions of PalestineIts Suitability to be the Scene of a Divine RevelationThe NegebThe MirageDavid's Wandering; ZiphHachilahDebir and its History; Achsah's DiplomacyThe "Book-Town"DhaheriyehEl DilbehVisit to a TanneryThe Contradictions of PalestineThe Threshing-Floors of HebronA Typical Dinner

 

The south of Palestine, from the region of Hebron, sinks in a series of gigantic steps to the wilderness of El Tih, south of Beersheba. In the neighbourhood of Juttah—the traditional birthplace of St. John the Baptist—the landscape falls abruptly to a broad plateau, divided into two by the great wady which runs from the north of Hebron to Beersheba, and thence, in a north-west curve, to Gerar and the sea, just below Gaza, after a total course of about sixty-five English miles, in which it descends more than 3,000 feet. The plateau is about 2,600 feet above the sea-level, but it is 900 feet lower than the hills immediately north of Hebron, which are 3,500 feet above the Mediterranean. Juttah itself, on the edge of the plateau, is about 2,800 feet above the sea, so that in five or six miles the country descends 700 feet, and presently sinks, suddenly, 200 feet more. The table-land consists of open downs and arable soil, of soft white chalk, formed since the hard limestone of the Judæan hills. All the rain that falls on this district forthwith filters through the surface deposit—a feature which causes an entire absence of springs; and hence the inhabitants, once numerous, but now very few, have always depended on cemented wells and tanks. The water, however, need not be lost, if there were but skill enough to reach it, for it is soon stopped in its filtration downwards by the dense limestone, and flows over it as a subterranean river towards the sea. A second great land-step, farther south, brings the level at Beersheba to a little under 800 feet above the sea; so that in the twenty miles from Hebron to Beersheba, in a straight line, the descent is nearly 2,700 feet.

There are only two inhabited villages on the Juttah table-land; but ruins on all sides show that it was once thickly peopled, as, indeed, is seen from the same evidence a great part of the way to Beersheba. There are no trees, and in summer the surface is dry and sunburnt; but in spring the rains make it a field of verdure and flowers, and there is always pasture, in one part or another, for great numbers of flocks and herds. Caves, such as are still inhabited in some parts, abound in the countless hills; so that this would seem to have been part of the country once inhabited by the Horites, or "Cavemen." Indeed, their name clings to the locality in the designations of two ruined towns. This is the region known in the Bible as the Negeb, which unfortunately is always translated "the south," though the Revised Version admits the compromise of a capital letter. It comes from a root meaning "to be dry" or "dried up," which accurately describes its appearance. It was in this district that Caleb gave his daughter, with her dowry, to the valiant Othniel (Josh 15:16-19); and it has an abiding charm as the scene of David's wanderings.

Juttah, an ancient priestly town, is held by the Greek Church to be the birthplace of St. John the Baptist, as has been said, and as such it is the goal of pilgrimage to thousands of Greek Christians each year. Support to this view is believed to be found in the words of St. Luke, which, in our version, speak of the Virgin Mary as journeying "into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah" (Luke 1:39). This, it is held, should be "to the town Judah," or Juttah, since it would be vague in the extreme to speak merely of "a city of Judah." On this ground, so great authorities as Reland, Robinson, and Riehm,* think this place was actually the residence of Zacharias and Elizabeth, and the birthplace of the Baptist. It is a large stone village, standing high on a ridge; but some of the population live in tents. Underground cisterns supply water, and on the south there are a few olive-trees, but the hill and its neighbourhood are very stony, though the vine must in ancient times have been extensively cultivated, since rock-cut wine-presses are found all round the village. There are, besides, some rock-cut tombs, which also are ancient. But, poor though the country looks and is, the population are very rich in flocks, the village owning, it is said, no fewer than 7,000 sheep, besides goats, cows, camels, horses, and donkeys. Its sheikh, indeed, owned a flock of 250 sheep. The hills everywhere are very rugged and stony, consisting of hard crystalline limestone; but the valleys, which are numerous, have good soil in them, some of them being especially fertile. The vineyards and olive plantations on the west, north, and south of Hebron—for the east side of the town has none—appeared like a great oasis in a desert, though the Negeb is very far from being a desert as things are judged in such a land as Palestine. A low scrub covered the rising ground and rounded hill-tops, except on the eastern slopes, which, being quite cut off from the night mists from the west, are bare of vegetation, except after the spring rains. The valleys, in spite of their fertility, are narrow and more or less stony, with steep slopes and occasional cliffs, some of them breaking down very suddenly from the watershed to a depth, in a few cases, of over 500 feet.

* Reland, Palestine, p. 870; Robinson, ii. 628; Riehm, Juttah.

From Juttah it is a very short distance south-east—about three miles—to Carmel, now known as Kurmul, famous for the episode in David's history of his dispute with the rough and niggardly Nabal, and his obtaining Abigail, the poor creature's widow, as wife. A great basin between the hills stretches from the north of Juttah to Carmel, rich with fine fields of wheat over its undulating surface, and almost free from rocks, even the loose stones being less abundant than usual. The land belongs to Government, and is rented by men of Hebron.

When Dr. Robinson passed over it the grain was ripening for the sickle, and watchmen were posted at intervals to protect it from cattle and flocks. His Arabs, he tells us, "were an hungred," and freely "plucked the ears of corn, and did eat, rubbing them in their hands" (Matt 12:1; Mark 2:23; Luke 6:1), no one thinking it wrong, but an ancient custom, which even the owners of the fields would recognise. The Jews who challenged the disciples could hardly have done so simply because the corn had been plucked, even though it was the Sabbath. The trouble was that the offenders had rubbed the ears in their hands, which, as a kind of threshing, was doing work on the holy day, and thus a violation of law which these bitter Sabbatarians could not pass by. It is possible, however, that they also reckoned the plucking of the ears as a kind of reaping.

The terror of tent Arabs is so universal among the peasantry of the Holy Land, that a band of countrymen who passed by thought it unsafe, for fear of these plunderers, that we should spend the night at a place so lonely as Carmel, advising us to go on to Maon, where there are sheepfolds among the ruins of that old city, and consequently shepherds, whose presence would secure safety. The land round Carmel was, in David's time, partly the property of Nabal; but there was even then a village of the name, as, indeed, there had been in the days of Joshua (Josh 15:55). At present the ruins are those of an important town, including remains of a castle and two churches; and there is, besides, a fine reservoir, well built, lying below the ancient site, and measuring no less than 117 feet in length by seventy-four feet in width; a spring, which runs from a cave in an underground rock-cut channel, still serving to fill it. The ruins mark the splendour of the short-lived Christian kingdom in Palestine, for they are all examples of the magnificent architecture of the Crusaders. How old the reservoir may be is unknown, but it was already in existence more than 700 years ago. The walls of the old Crusading fortress, seven feet thick, are still, in parts, twenty-four feet high, but they have to a large extent been carried off for building material. Mailed warriors once clambered the ruined stair still seen in the thickness of the north wall, and watched the Saracen from the flat roof, or sped arrows at his horsemen through the loopholes. Courts, towers, revetments, outside walls, ditches, and much else, were once the busy care of a strong Christian garrison, but for centuries have lain in ruins. Of the two churches, the one is about eighty feet long and forty broad, with carved pillars and sculptured medallions still to be seen. The other is not quite so long, but of equal breadth.

As late as 300 years after Christ a Roman garrison kept watch and ward in Carmel against the Arabs from the south and east; but the city doubtless fell into decay long before the arrival of the Crusaders, of whom King Amalrich had here his headquarters. The ruins of the town lie round the top and along the two sides of a pleasant and rather deep valley, the head of which is shut in by a half-circle of bare rocky hills. Foundations and broken walls of dwellings lie scattered in dreary confusion and desolation, for, as I have often said, under the Turk the country has become almost depopulated.

It was here that Saul set up the trophy of his victory over the Amalekites, and that the sheep-shearing feast of Nabal was held which led the poor churlish man to so disastrous an end (1 Sam 15:12, 25:2). David and his men, like many tribes of tent Arabs now, depended largely for their support, as we have seen, on contributions from the population in their neighbourhood; and having associated in the wilderness pastures with the herdsmen and shepherds of Nabal, protecting them from the plunderers around and doing other good offices for them, they naturally expected, according to Arab usage, a liberal recognition of their services. Nabal, however, had a small soul. To pay black-mail either for volunteered protection of his flocks, or as a reward for the defenders having abstained from helping themselves at his expense, was a sore trouble to him, though he had 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats. But it was a rough state of things that allowed David, in revenge for such meanness, to order his 400 men to gird on their swords and kill, without mercy, by a sudden night attack, every creature that "pertained to Nabal" (1 Sam 25:2-38). Sheep-shearing is always marked by a rude feast to the shearers; and Nabal himself held a banquet like that of a king (1 Sam 25:36), so that he might well have been more generous. But David's threatened revenge is that of a wild sheikh of the desert, and shows that the Hebrews must in some respects have been little better than Bedouins in those ages. It was well that Abigail, a lady of this very place, Carmel, had ready wit and gracious softness, else David would have committed a terrible crime. Maon, where Nabal's house stood, is a conical hill, about a mile south of Carmel, which lies lower, though still 2,700 feet above the sea. From the hill-top you look down towards the Dead Sea on the north; Hebron is seen in its valley, and, on the west, the ancient Debir, the city of Caleb. Nine places still bearing their ancient names are in sight—Maon, Carmel, Ziph, Juttah, Jattir, Socoh, Anab, Eshtemoa, and Hebron—so close together lie the localities mentioned in Bible history. Only some small foundations of hewn stone, a square enclosure, and several cisterns, are now to be seen at Maon: are they the remains of Nabal's great establishment?

Less than three miles west lies Eshtemoa, now called Semua, one of the hill-towns of Judah, allotted, with the land round it, to the priests (Josh 21:14; 1 Chron 6:57), and frequented by David in the dark years of his fugitive wilderness life, during which it was so friendly to him that he sent gifts to its elders after his victory over the Amalekites (1 Sam 30:28). It is seven miles from Hebron, and is a considerable village, built on a low hill, among broad stony valleys almost unfit for tillage, but yielding tufts of grass and plants, on which sheep and goats thrive in Palestine. Some olive-trees are growing south of the village, and old stones, very large, and bevelled at the edges, in the old Jewish style, some of them ten feet long, occur as the remains of ancient walls. Once a mediæval castle stood here, but it has lain for centuries a ruin amidst ruins. Seven miles straight south, and we are at the limit of Palestine, the hills forming the boundary trending northwards, after passing Beersheba, and thus leaving so much less distance between Hebron and the border. It may here be pointed out how small a country Palestine is, for it is only about thirty-three miles in a straight line from Jerusalem to Tell Arad, a solitary hill facing the desert; the seat in Joshua's time of a petty Canaanite chief (Josh 12:14). From Hebron, it is less than seventeen English miles off, and yet David never seems to have wandered so far south, for Ziklag, which was given to him by the Philistine king, Achish, lies on a line further north, on the upper side of the Wady es Sheria, eleven English miles east-south-east from Gaza, and nineteen south-west from Beit Jibrin. The name Zuhelika, recovered there by Conder and Kitchener in 1875, fixes the site of Ziklag on one of three low hills from which David was to keep watch for his Philistine patron against the Bedouin hordes of the desert.* Beersheba lay fifteen miles to the south-east, and yet from it to Dan, the northern boundary of Palestine, is only 139 miles; and the paltry breadth of twenty miles, from the coast to the Jordan on the north, increases slowly to only forty between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea at Gaza on the south. Palestine, in fact, is only about the size of Wales.

Riehm, p. 1837.

So small is the country which was honoured by God to be the scene of Divine Revelation. But it has special characteristics, which eminently fitted it for such a dignity. Apart from the religious peculiarities of the Shemitic race—their love of simple, untroubled faith, as opposed to the restless speculation of the Aryan races—the position of the Holy Land, in the centre of the ancient world, was exactly suited to the dissemination of the great doctrines of the true faith among mankind. Its isolation from heathen countries was, however, not less marked, for the sea bounded it on the one side, and the desert on the south and east, while on the north access to it could only be had through the long valley of Lebanon. No land, therefore, could have been better fitted to protect Revelation from the contamination of other creeds, or from the influence of foreign manners—then, of course, idolatrous. Yet the physical configuration of the country was such as to save its people from the narrow experience of dwellers in a land where there is less variety of landscape. On the north, the snows of Lebanon presented the scenery of regions where winter triumphs, and brought before the Hebrews the plants, the trees, the animals, and the other natural phenomena familiar to cold climates. In the Jordan valley, on the other hand, though still within sight of snowy peaks, they had around them the plants, the birds, the animals, the scenery, and the distinctive features of an Indian province; while in the central hill-country they had every gradation between these great extremes. Hence the Bible, written in a country presenting within its narrow limits the main features of lands widely separated, is a book of the world, notwithstanding its Oriental colour. Its imagery and its wealth of spiritual experience adapt it to every region of the earth, and secure it a welcome wherever man is found, making it not only intelligible, but rich in a varied interest.

The "south country," or Negeb, of which Eshtemoa may be regarded as the centre, was the favourite pasture-land of the patriarchs. Over these stony hills the flocks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, must often have wandered, for they had to go far afield at times, when the drought withered the herbage of the early months. Indeed, we find the sheep and goats of Jacob as far north as Dothan, close to the plain of Esdraelon. Abraham seems to have lived by turns at Beersheba and Hebron; Isaac at Gerar, Lahai-roi, and Beersheba (Gen 13:18, 21:33, 24:62, 25:11, 26:1,33); Jacob mainly at Beersheba, though his early and later life were both spent in foreign countries. Lahai-roi seems, however, if the proposed identification be correct, to have been a wonderful distance for so sedentary a man as Isaac to travel. It appears to have lain on the caravan road from Beersheba to Egypt, ten hours south of Ruheibeh, the ancient Rehoboth—"the Open Place"—a spring about twenty miles south-west of Beersheba, mentioned by Moses, and recorded in the Nineveh inscriptions as the frontier town of the Assyrian Empire towards Egypt*—a very striking "undesigned coincidence," indeed, between Scripture and the tablets of Nineveh! There are, even now, wells at Lahai-roi known as Hagar's Springs, and the wady in which they occur is famous for its abundance of water wherever wells have been sunk for it. The supply over all this region, and, indeed, in the hilly Negeb also, has always to be obtained by tapping the subterranean river of which I have so often spoken as extending under a great breadth of country. Isaac was famous in this way, and perhaps some of the wells still used were originally dug and cased with masonry by his slaves. Nor will anyone who looks at those still found in these districts think lightly of the labour involved in constructing them, or wonder that even so great a man as Uzziah was remembered for the number he dug (2 Chron 26:10). I have often asked myself whether some of those filled up at Gerar might have been among the number stopped by the Philistine herdsmen after Abraham and Isaac, with great toil, had opened them (Gen 26:17ff). It is quite possible, for the destruction of wells has in all ages been a barbarous custom in Eastern quarrels, though it, in effect, reduces a fertile district to a wilderness.

* Muhlan and Volck, p. 783.

The thirsty Negeb, and still more the sandy region south and east of Palestine, are often mocked by that strange phenomenon of hot and desert regions, the mirage. We meet it also on the coast-plains, and in the Hauran, and always with the same curious imitation of natural objects, and the same illusory appearance of water, though the whole is only the reflection of rays of light on particles of floating vapour. Every tuft is exaggerated into a tree, and the blades of grass, shooting up here and there, become a jungle. You even see them reversed, in what seems a wide lake, along whose shores they rise. The best description of the mirage that I know is that by Major Skinner, in his "Journey Overland to India." He was travelling across the desert between Palestine and the Euphrates, and tells us that—"About noon the most perfect deception that can be conceived exhilarated our spirits, and promised an early resting-place. We had observed a slight mirage two or three times before, but this day it surpassed all I had even fancied. Although aware that these appearances have often led people astray, I could not bring myself to believe that this was unreal. The Arabs were doubtful, and said that as we had found water yesterday, it was not improbable we should find some to-day. The seeming lake was broken in several parts by little islands of sand, which gave strength to the delusion. The dromedaries of the sheikhs at length reached its borders, and appeared to us to have commenced to ford, as they advanced and became more surrounded by the vapour. I thought they had got into deep water, and moved with greater caution. In passing over the sandbanks their figures were reflected in the water. So convinced was Mr. Calmun of its reality, that he dismounted and walked towards the deepest part of it, which was on the right hand. He followed the deceitful lake for a long time, and to our sight was strolling on its bank, his shadow stretching to a great length beyond. There was not a breath of wind; it was a sultry day, and such a one as would have added dreadfully to the disappointment if we had been at any time without water." The Arab word for the mirage is serab, and this we find once in the Bible in the Hebrew form, sarab. It is used by Isaiah when he says that "the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water" (Isa 35:7), before the Tribes ransomed from Babylon, and returning across the desert to Palestine. The correct rendering, however, is, "the mirage shall become a pool"—the mock lake in the burning waste, so often the despair of the wanderer, shall become a real lake, the pledge of refreshment and joy.

The story of David's wanderings presents itself with wonderful vividness as we journey from point to point over the great upland plateau of the Negeb. We have seen him in the caves, high up the low slope of the brown rounded Hill of Adullam, at the head of the broad flat corn-valley of Elah, and have followed him to Keilah on its steep hill, a few miles to the south, but still looking down into the same wide glen. "The Forest of Hareth," as we have noticed, was near at hand, supplying, in its dense "yaar" of scrubby contorted trees, a secure hiding-place for the time, on the edge of the heights overlooking the Shephelah. But at last he had to flee from each of these retreats and betake himself still further south, to the country round Ziph, a small town lying on a hill which rises about a hundred feet above the others that surround it. It is only about five miles, almost due south, from Hebron, but in such a tangle of hills and glens that even so short a distance would have secured effective concealment had the people been loyal. David must often have looked out from the top of the hill, which offers a clear survey of the wide plains running out from below the town—then very fruitful, but now lying waste, with no man to till them, for Ziph is an uninhabited heap. To the east he must many times have looked over Jeshimon—"the Wilderness"—as the bare hills which stretch away in hideous nakedness, sinking in huge sun-smitten steps towards the Dead Sea, were then called—a region of wild, irreclaimable desolation, seamed with countless ravines, frequently so narrow and precipitous that the sun shines into them only for a very short time in the longest and brightest day—profound clefts, so dark that the Hebrews spoke of one and another as "the Valley of the Shadow of Death"—that is, dark as the subterranean regions of the dead—David himself using their dispiriting and terrifying gloom as an image of the direst affliction (Psa 23:4). Ziph must have been at one time a considerable town, judging from the ruins that now lie on a low ridge to the east of the Tell; but David would find himself safer on the hills around, which are even now covered with stunted growth of all kinds, and were then, apparently, still better veiled by underwood, though no trees, in our sense, could ever have flourished in this sun-scorched and waterless region. Here the famous meeting betwixt the shepherd-hero and Jonathan took place (1 Sam 23:16), when the two made a covenant of friendship, faithfully kept before Jehovah; Jonathan strengthening his friend's "hand in God."

In our English Bible we are told that David "abode in the wood," using its "strongholds" as hiding-places (1 Sam 23:16,18,19); and no doubt he did so for a time; but the discovery by Captain Conder of a site known, even now, as Khoreisa, little more than a mile to the south of Ziph, makes it probable that we should understand Khoresh, the word translated "wood," rather as the name of a village among the brush-covered hills, than as meaning the "yaar" round Ziph. The treachery of the Ziphites drove the fugitive ere long from their neighbourhood, to seek refuge in the lonely and forbidding solitudes of the Jeshimon, to the east of their town. Every part of this appalling wilderness would be familiar to the shepherd of Bethlehem, whose flocks must have strayed from time to time down many of its ravines, when the spring rains had brightened them for a few weeks with passing flowers and thinly-sprinkled herbs and grass. Every cave in it would be known to him, for he must often have used them as a fold for his sheep or goats when belated in these wilds, so dangerous from wild beasts and still wilder men. From Khoresh, or Ziph, he doubtless often looked down the rough sea of white peaks and cones, seamed with countless torrent-beds, and worn into deep caverns by the rains of a thousand centuries; and his eye must have frequently rested on the high pointed cliff of Ziz, over Engedi, "the Fountain of the Kid," where precipices 2,000 feet high overhang the Dead Sea, which was about fifteen miles from where he then stood, though in the clear air of Palestine appearing to be much nearer. If forced to do so, he could find a hiding-place in some cave on the steep face of these great crags, among the wild goats, which alone seemed fit for such places. The blue waters of "the Sea" gleamed as if at his feet as he looked down Jeshimon, and beyond it the yellow-pink hills of Moab torn into deep furrows by the winter torrents, would seem, with their level tops, like a friendly table-land, to which he might make his escape, if even the towering rock-wall of Engedi could not protect him.

First, however, he fled to a solitary hill close at hand, Hachilah, apparently one of the peaks of the ridge El-Kolah, about six miles east of Ziph. But he was still pursued, like the partridge which the fowler chases, from spot to spot, over these hills. On the north side of Kolah—not very different in sound from "Ha-kilah"—is a cave, known still as that of "the Dreamers," perhaps the very scene of David's venture into the camp of Saul, when he took away the king's spear, stuck upright in the ground at his head while he slept, as that of the Arab sheikh is now, and the cruse of water which stood at its side, as also is still the Arab custom (1 Sam 26:12). Even here, however, the hated one was not safe. A hiding-place farther within the wilderness was needed. This time his refuge was in a ridge known as Hammahlekoth (1 Sam 23:28), perhaps the same as that now known as Malaky, which forms the precipitous edge of a wady running east and west about a mile south of Kolah.* All Jeshimon is more or less cleft with deep perpendicular chasms, only a few yards across, but often a hundred feet deep, making a circuit of miles necessary to pass from the one side to the other. There is, apparently, however, no other spot in what the Bible calls the wilderness of Maon—the wilderness near that place—except Malaky, where such opposing cliffs occur; and that there were such precipices at Hammahlekoth is shown by the use of the Hebrew word Selah in speaking of it. It may well be, therefore, that this was the scene of the memorable interview between Saul and David, when the two stood on "the top of the mountain, afar off, a great space being between them" (1 Sam 26:13 [R.V.]), that is, the yawning chasm which Saul could not have crossed to get at his enemy, had he wished. Or it may be the scene of David's escape when the Philistine invasion saved him for the time, and when "Saul went on this side of the mountain," cleft in two, as it was, by the impassable gulf, "and David and his men on that side of the mountain" (1 Sam 23:26 [R.V.]).

* Tent Work in Palestine.

Not far from Hebron stood, in ancient days, the town of Debir, which has been identified, by some, with the village of Dhaheriyeh, by others with El-Dilbeh—the former about twelve miles, the latter a little over four miles, south-west of Hebron.* The ancient Debir was first conquered by Joshua, but having passed again from the hands of Israel, was retaken by Othniel, a young hero fighting under Caleb, who, as we have seen (see beginning of chapter), gave him his daughter Achsah in marriage, as the reward of his valour (Josh 10:38, 11:21, 12:13, 15:15; Judg 1:11). A Bridal Procession The young bride's cleverness in obtaining from her father, for dowry, a valley in which there were springs, known as the Upper and Lower, is delightfully told in Judges. As she was being brought home, she urged her husband to ask her father for a field; but he appears to have lacked the courage to do so, or perhaps his bride seemed dowry enough in herself. She, however, was not to be balked of a good beginning in married life. Caleb could afford her a handsome gift, and she would have it. Besides, did not so fine a fellow as Othniel deserve it? So, as the cavalcade rode slowly on to Othniel's home, Achsah dropped behind till she was alongside her father, then, alighting suddenly from her ass—for like everyone, even now, in Palestine, she had an ass for her steed—and laying hold of the grey veteran with soft embrace, and winning looks, she conquered him on the spot. "What wilt thou?" was all he could stammer out. "What do I wish?" said she; "why, father, thou hast given me for dowry a dry, burnt-up tract of ground: pray give me also a piece with springs of water, for what is land without flowing springs in a country like this?" What could he do on the wedding-day? "Well, Achsah, thou shalt have 'the upper springs and the nether springs'": a great gift, with the promise of which she went back quickly enough to tell her husband her good fortune. A secluded valley, exactly suiting this incident, is found at El-Dilbeh. Even at the end of October, after the fierce summer heats, Captain Conder found here a considerable brook running down the middle of the glen, and branching off through small gardens for four or five miles. Such a supply of water is a phenomenon in Palestine; but it is still more extraordinary in the Negeb, where no other springs are found. There are, in all, fourteen springs, in three groups, at El-Dilbeh, both upper and lower—higher up the valley and lower down—which bubble forth all the year round, affording water enough, if there were energy to utilise it, to turn the whole valley into a paradise.**

* First, Knobel, Conder; second, Van der Velde.

** Pal. Reports, 1874, p. 55.

Debir must have had a strange history, for its earlier name had been Kiriath Sepher, or "Book-town," a seat of old Canaanite culture, where scribes diligently recorded and preserved what seemed in their eyes worthy of note. Who can tell how far back this carries the art of writing? But, indeed, among the Accadians on the Euphrates, it had flourished, as the inscriptions in the British Museum prove, for an unknown succession of centuries before Abraham left that region! There was also another name to this strange old town, Kiriath Sanna—"the Town of Learning"—where the priests of the primæval world gathered their students, and taught them the wisdom of the day.

At Dhaheriyeh there is a wine-press of unusual size—nearly eighteen feet long, and over fifteen feet broad—which helps us to understand how Gideon could "thresh wheat by the wine-press, to save it from the Midianites" (Judg 6:11). But out, as it was, in the living rock, and of great size, he could store his grain in it unobserved by those at a distance, which would not have been possible if the "floor" had, as usual, been in the open field, or on the top of a hill. Dhaheriyeh is visible a great way off in every direction, for it lies high, but when it is reached it proves to be only a rude collection of stone hovels, some broken down, others half underground. There are the remains of a square tower, now used as a dwelling, and the arched doorways of many of the hovels are of hewn stone, relics of better days. There seems to have once been a stronghold here: one of the line of "fortified towns" which anciently stood along all the southern border of Palestine. The number of able-bodied men in the village is about a hundred; and it may assist in realising the oppression of their subjects by Eastern governments if I state that when the Egyptians held the country before 1840, out of this hundred no fewer than thirty-eight were carried off to serve in distant lands, in the army. Ruined as it is, the village is rich in flocks and herds, and has at least a hundred camels. Yet the country around is very barren. The limestone stands out from the sides and tops of the bald hills in huge sheets and rough masses, giving the whole landscape a ghastly white colour. There are no trees, nor any grain-patches, except at the bottom of the narrow ravines. Still, the flocks and herds showed that even this dreary and forbidding desolation affords good pasture, for they were both fat and sleek; and this very region has been the haunt of shepherds since the days of the patriarchs.

From Dhaheriyeh to El-Dilbeh the track is, in part, very steep and rocky; then comes a broad wady; then more hills and hollows, the hills, however, gradually beginning to show dwarf-oaks, arbutus and other scrub. The Wady-el-Dilbeh, with its springs of running water, is a delightful relief to the thirsty traveller. There is no village now; but in summer the caves in the hills on each side are used as dwellings by companies of peasants, who migrate to the spot with their flocks and all their belongings, deserting their villages for the time. As Hebron is approached, the hills become more thickly clothed with bushes, while a kind of thyme fills the air with its sweetness. Then follow the vineyards and olive-grounds of the old city, each with its small house or tower of stone for a keeper, though the people of Hebron themselves go out and live in them during the vintage, to such an extent that the town for the time seems almost deserted. Presently, as you ascend another hill, the city comes in sight, lying low down on the sloping side of its valley, mostly facing the south-east; the houses, as I have said, all of stone, high and well built, with windows and flat roofs, dotted with low domes, of which a single dwelling has sometimes two or three, marking the crown of the arched stone chambers below. Hebron has no walls; but there are gates at the entrance of one or two streets which lead from the country. Besides the great Mosque of Machpelah, there is a castle, not high, but with enormously strong walls, parts of which, however, as is usual with any Turkish building, are in ruins. There is also a large khan, or place of rest for traders and others as they pass through or transact business in Hebron, a stone over the gate stating that it was built in AD 1282.

A visit to a tannery in this vicinity showed how the skin bottles of the country are made. On the hill-side north of the mosque was a large tanyard for the manufacture of water-skins, which, as I have said, are merely the skins of goats, stripped off whole, except at the legs, tail, and neck, the holes of the legs and tail being sewn up, while the neck is left open as a mouth. The skins are first stuffed to the utmost with oak chips, on which a strong solution of oak-bark is then plentifully poured, and the whole left till the hair becomes fixed and the skin tanned. This is all that is done with them. Quantities of these swollen headless and legless skins lay in rows, to the number of not less than 1,500, presenting a very strange spectacle. The price of a bottle varies from about three to eight shillings in our money.

A last look at the valley impresses one with the strange contradictions to be met in Palestine. The hills all round the town look utterly barren, except the one to the south, which is covered with olives; yet the vineyards, and orchards of pear, quince, fig, pomegranate, apricot, and other fruits, had covered miles as I approached at first, from the west. All the hill-sides had been terraced, and every spot of soil among the rocks utilised. But even where thus made artificially fertile, the slopes seemed, from below, a sheet of bare rock, on account of the stone walls of the terraces rising so closely one over the other. In summer, when the leaves are in their glory, the scene must be more attractive; but at no time can vines grown like those of Hebron be picturesque. The one stem from four to six feet high, erect, or bent almost to the ground, with a longer or shorter prop to keep it from actually touching the earth, and a few shoots from each crown, make only a modest picture.

The threshing-floors of Hebron are on the slopes of the hill, beside the cemetery, on the south-west side of the valley. All who have any grain, of whatever kind, to tread out, make free use of them. Barley, lentils, and vetches, which are grown chiefly for camels, are the first crops ripe, and are laid in heaps till the owners can bring their beasts to pace round over them as they lie spread out in a circle. Nor do they care to finish at once; other calls detain their animals, so that they come to the floor only when it suits them, leaving after two or three hours, since in this climate there is no fear of rain. Sometimes two, or even four beasts are driven round over the grain—donkeys, cattle, or horses, as the owner possesses one or other. None of these animals are muzzled, for it is still against custom to prevent the creatures that tread out the corn from rewarding themselves for their toil by a chance mouthful (Deut 25:4; 1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim 5:18). The winnowing is done by tossing the trodden straw against the wind with a fork (Matt 3:12; Luke 3:17); and the owners of the crops come every night and sleep on their threshing-floors to guard them, just as Boaz did more than three thousand years ago (Ruth 3:2-14).

The people of Hebron, in their higher and lower classes, are, perhaps, the best representation to be found in Palestine of purely Eastern manners. The poor live in a very humble way indeed, mainly on fruit, bread, and vegetables. The rich are more elaborate in their meals. I have described the reception-room of the officer in command of the troops in the south of Palestine, but he was partly Western in his ideas and dress (see ante, p. 295). It is very different with the principal local families. Their mode of living may be illustrated as a whole from the details of one dinner, at which several distinguished personages were present. A very large circular tray of tinned copper, placed on a coarse wooden stool about a foot high, served as the table. In the centre of this stood another big tray, with a mountain of pillau, composed of rice, boiled and buttered, with small pieces of meat strewn through and upon it. This was the chief dish, though there were other smaller dishes, both meat and vegetable. Ten persons sat round the table, or rather squatted on the carpet, with their knees drawn up close to their bodies. Each had before him a plate of tinned copper and a wooden spoon, which some used without the plate. Most, however, preferred to use the fingers of the left hand, several dipping their hands together into the dish, as the disciples did at the Last Supper (Matt 26:23; Mark 14:20). As soon as anyone had finished, he rose and went into another room, to have water poured over his hands to wash them, and the vacant place at the table was instantly filled by a new-comer.

Such was the dinner provided for three governors, among other grandees. The bread, I may say, was laid on the mat under the tray, so as to be easily reached; and a jar of water, the only beverage used during the meal, stood within reach. Besides rice, stews of beans or cracked wheat, with thick soup or sauce poured over them, in the great central bowl, are also in fashion. Spoons, though sometimes provided, are often wanting—pieces of the thin bread, doubled, serving instead. Knives and forks are unknown; and as there is no special dining-room, there is no furniture suited for one. Hence tables and chairs are never seen. The meat being always cut up into small pieces, there is no need for a knife, and chickens can easily be torn asunder with the hands. So far, indeed, are Orientals from thinking it strange to dip their fingers into the common dish, that it is a special act of politeness to grope in it for the visitor, and lay nice morsels before him, or even to insist on putting them into his mouth. Chickens are the most common form of animal food met everywhere. A traveller from the west, in fact, gets disgusted with their constant appearance at every meal, especially as he often hears their death-cries only a few minutes before they are served up. "To kill and eat" follows with the same closeness now as in the days of St. Peter (Acts 10:13), whether it be chickens or anything larger.

Chapter 15 | Contents | Chapter 17

 

Notes on Revelation | Judeo-Christian Research

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