by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 18 | Contents | Chapter 20

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


Bethlehem, From the Mount of David
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From El-Burak to Bethlehem—Among Christians; The Tomb of RachelFemale DressGeneral Appearance of Bethlehem; Its IndustriesThe StreetsThe Church of the NativityThe Chapel of the NativityThe Probable Place of Christ's BirthSuperstition RampantThe Fields of Boaz; Harvesting and GleaningPractical Equality and Fraternity; The Joy of HarvestThe Duty of the Deceased Husband's BrotherAn Illustrious Stock"David's Well"Overlooking BethlehemThe Women of BethlehemHousetops and their Uses


The road to Bethlehem from the old castle El-Burak ran for a time over the shoulder of a low ascent, unfenced, but ploughed and sown, with no walls to protect the ground on the sides of the track, which followed the line of the old aqueduct to Jerusalem, now no longer to be traced except in a few places. We had left a multitude of Russian pilgrims refreshing themselves on the open ground at the castle and the Pools, and had regaled ourselves with some bread and sour goats-milk—"leben"—bought by our man from the wife of one of the two or three soldiers in the castle. It was very nice indeed, but I was thankful afterwards, when I went inside the castle gate, that I had not seen the matron who supplied it, or her house, for acquaintance with either would inevitably have prevented my indulging in the luxury. Every one knows that he must swallow an alarming amount of uncleanness in the course of his life, but there is no advantage in absorbing a double dose, though the traveller in Palestine is in constant danger of doing so.

At times, as we rode on, of course at a walk—for you can very rarely go faster in the Holy Land, because of the state of the roads—men passed on asses or horses, which they rode without compunction through the rising grain. The broad valley, running east and then north, from El-Burak to Bethlehem, soon grew more and more attractive, as we neared the town. Olive and fig groves covered the slopes, intermixed with vineyards, each with its watch-tower, reminding one of ancient times (Isa 5:2). Where the ascent was steep, terraces rose, one over the other, to prevent the soil being washed away by the rains. The path along which we were advancing broadened into a road, with dry stone walls of yellowish-white limestone on each side, while similar walls ran in all directions, above us on the right, and below on the left, netting over the whole basin of the valley. Husbandmen were everywhere busy at spring work. Everything looked fresh and cheerful. The walls were new and well-built; the red soil, cleared of stones (Isa 5:2), and planted with young orchards, or laid out for vegetables, was pleasant to look upon. Not a foot of ground was lost. For several miles there were no weeds, nor ruins: a very striking experience in Palestine. The industry expended was evident, for not a few vineyards on the higher side of the road, as we came near Bethlehem, seemed like the bottoms of quarries, so covered were they with stones. The secret of this unusual activity and life is easily to be found: the people of the district are Christians.

Passing a road which dipped, on the left, through avenues of olives, and then went across the valley, and up the slopes on the other side to Beit Jala, another Christian village somewhat smaller than Bethlehem, we rode on by mistake over the bare limestone which here forms the track, instead of turning to the right, which would have taken us straight to the town. The Tomb of Rachel, by the roadside, first showed our error, for it stands north of Bethlehem, so we turned and went back by another road which climbed up a steep ascent, with the limestone scarped here and there to widen the track. The hill-side below the houses is terraced into a succession of "hanging gardens," rich with olives and other fruit-trees, great walls running along the ascent to form the level breadths. Down the valley rich groves flourished everywhere, till, as the eye followed them, green fields and ploughed land, in some directions, gradually took their place. Grey rock, however, greatly predominated in the view, so that as a whole the landscape was still very desolate, though this oasis lay in its midst. The purple Moabite hills rose to the east, their tops rising in what seemed a table-land; at their feet lay the deep blue waters of the Dead Sea; then came the great buildings grouped beside the Church of the Nativity—the Latin, Greek, and Armenian convents, which, with the church itself, stretch along the top of the town-ridge, on the south-east; the great buttresses reaching down the sides of the hill with a very imposing effect.

But now we had come to the houses, which were flat-roofed, of yellowish-white limestone; many of two, others of three storeys, and a few of one. Some men were enjoying a quiet gossip on the roof of a low building, which had two large arched windows, with olive-trees before the door. A boy leaned idly over the wall, a little below, looking at the greed field on the slope beneath. Then came a man astride a donkey, which already carried a sack thrown across it, half on each side, the man sitting above it, his legs thrust out on a level with the donkey's chest; next, some bare-legged peasants in skull-caps, each, of course, with a long stick in his hand; some townsmen in different costumes, and some Bethlehem women also passed, one way or the other.

The female dress is peculiar in this locality. Maidens wear a light frame on the head, covered with a long white linen or cotton veil, which falls over the shoulders to the elbows; they have earrings, and, over the front of the head, showing some of the hair below it, and just under the veil, is a diadem of silver, or silver-gilt, with a band of ornaments of the same material loosely fastened to it at both ends, so as to rest on the brow immediately under the hair, leaving the forehead only partly visible. Their black hair hangs on their shoulders in heavy plaits, just seen beneath the veil, which always leaves the face exposed—for are they not Christians? Their chief, or indeed, it may be, only garment, is a long blue or striped gown, generally of cotton, loosely tied in at the waist, with open sleeves hanging down to the knees, like those of a surplice; its front, above the waist, always set off, more or less, with red, yellow, or green patches of cloth, embroidered to the wearer's taste. Over this gown, however, the well-to-do are fond of wearing a bright red short-sleeved jacket, reaching, in some cases, to the waist; in others, to the knees.

Matrons have a somewhat different head-dress, the veil resting on the top of a round, brimless felt hat, much like that of a Greek priest, its front ornamented, in most cases, with coins. All wear earrings, and strings of coins glitter round their necks, hanging, at times, down to the breast. The veil is about two yards long, and not quite a yard wide—large and stout enough to hold anything the owner may think fit to carry in it, when she turns it, for the time, to some prosaic use, as when Ruth held out her veil to Boaz while he filled it with six measures of barley and then laid it on her back or head. And very gladly, no doubt, she set out with it, up the steep hill-track, to Naomi's, to show her good fortune (Ruth 3:15). Veils are still used thus by the women of Bethlehem, though the ends are gaudy enough with coloured silk to keep it, when new, from such humble service. The whole fortune of maiden or matron alike is often sewn on her head-dress, or hung round her neck, and not a few women have been murdered in past days for the sake of the wealth thus changed, in the strictest sense, into vanity. The men, though Christian, generally wear the turban, not a few, however, having only the red Turkish fez; a striped, wide-sleeved dressing-gown, of bright-coloured cotton, being thrown over the white or coloured under-shirt.

The town is picturesque in the highest degree. Its fortified walls have long vanished, but its position on a long, narrow ridge, has confined it to the limits of three thousand years ago, and its houses, very probably, are just the same in appearance as those of the time of David, or even earlier. In fact, we have before us an old Jewish city such as men inhabited in the Bible ages. But its picturesqueness is the best of it, for the streets are as far from being clean as those of other Eastern towns. Rivulets of abomination run across them or stand in puddles, for scavengers are unknown, and the masterless, homeless dogs cannot eat all the garbage. The main street is largely occupied by workshops, or rather arches, with no window, which is not much loss in such a climate. Looking in, one sees that the floor is covered with men sitting cross-legged, hard at work making carved rosaries from the stones of the Dom palm, or the common date, or olive-wood; crosses from fig-wood, stained black; fancy trifles from the asphalt of the Dead Sea; endless souvenirs of the town in olive-wood; but, above all, cutting medallions from the mother-of-pearl oyster-shells of the Red Sea, or engraving them with the story of our Lord from His birth to His death. In this one art alone there are, perhaps, 500 workmen engaged. The staple industry of the town is in effect the manufacture of endlessly varied mementos of Bethlehem, to be sold, after they have been blessed by the priests, to the pilgrims. This being a Christian town, the wives and daughters often sit with their husbands or brothers: a strange sight in the East, but one that goes far, by what it suggests, to account for the general prosperity.

The buildings show that no masons could be better than the Bethlehemites, though there are not many good houses except in the front street, and even this has its better and its worse end. Inside, some are, of course, very superior to others, and it is the same with the workshops. Here is one, where men and women are busy making beads for rosaries. All the men are on the ground, cross-legged; the women sit on low pieces of wood, their bare feet visible outside their dress. Mat baskets, or large wooden bowls, of beads cut from olive rods, are on the ground; one man saws a small piece of wood fixed upright in a vice, another turns the beads at a most primitive lathe, driven by a cord stretched on a bent fiddle-stick arrangement. The workbench consists of some beams on the ground, but one man has a vice fixed in the earth, and is filing something vigorously; the women have fiddle-bows of their own, but the string is a fine saw to cut the beads apart. The long stick which they dissect with this tool rests on an upright, and is held straight by the left hand.

The workshop of Joseph at Nazareth could not have been simpler, or, I might say, ruder, for this one seems originally to have been a small cavern in the hill-side, the front being filled in, except the door, with masonry, to fit it for its present purpose. The roof is ceiled with a coating of reed-stalks, which sadly needs repair; the walls are in their natural roughness; the floor is the limestone; the door might have been made by one of the Noah's carpenters so roughly is it put together. A woman outside, with a nearly naked child astride her shoulder, her forehead and neck bright with coins, is looking in, with ourselves, at the busy scene. Turning up one of the short steep side-lanes, I found a second street parallel with the principal one, but dirtier. Careful stepping over pools and rivulets which were not from the heavens, was needed to reach the Protestant School, which I wished to visit. Inside, I need not say, English taste and cleanliness formed a wonderful contrast to the dismal approach. At some points, on the lower side of the main street, houses extend a short way down the hill, with stairs outside. One I noticed with the stone wall built on the edge of the limestone, so that the view was uninterrupted to the bottom of the valley. A very rickety hand-rail guarded the inner side; such a rail as the whole West could not match; made of natural wood, rough, bent, gaping, set on the steps, and held in its place one knew not how. Two flights led up to the door, over which was a sacred picture, the inmates belonging to the Greek Church. Stairs and house alike were built in arches; the wooden railing alone vindicating the rude backwardness of the East. Two women sat grinding corn on the landing above the first flight; a young woman and a young man were enjoying an interview lower down; and a miserable-looking old woman surveyed the world from above.

Going towards the Church of the Nativity, the scene became livelier. Sellers of vegetables sat on the ground along the walls, their stores at their side, or in front of them; beggars, in long blue gaberdines, silently stretched out their hands for alms; women with their white side veils and bright dresses passed and re-passed; open-air grocers displayed their wares; one turbaned figure sat amidst a show of broken and mended umbrellas; another watched over a collection of mouse-traps, which he very much wished to convert into piastres; a third fondly hoped you would invest in his figs, raisins, or oranges; a fourth had bread or cakes to tempt you. A few shops, faintly trying to look European, presented in the windows a varied collection of local mementos; and, of course, there were one or two places where thirsty souls might drink, though foreigners alone, I doubt not, sought any beverage stronger than coffee.

Basilica of the Nativity

The entrance to the Church of the Nativity faces an open space; the promenade of older Bethlehemites, and the playground of younger. Old marble pillars lie side by side in one part of it, and serve as a seat for the weary or idle, and a centre of activity for urchins, who must clamber over something, even in the city of David. The old arched gateway into the church has been long ago filled up with heavy square stones, to resist attack, and now the only entrance is by a small door, less than three feet broad, and hardly four feet high;* but it is well that the proudest have to stoop in entering a building so venerable. Contemporary evidence proves that it was built by order of Constantine (AD 306-337), so that it is the oldest church in Palestine, perhaps in the world. Within, you are in the presence of sixteen centuries, and tread ground hallowed by the footsteps of nearly fifty generations of believers in the Crucified One. You find yourself in a small bare porch, once approached through a spacious quadrangle on the open space outside, with covered ways, lined with rows of pillars, in front and at the sides, and provision for baptism and oblation in the centre. From this, three specious arched gates led into the ancient porch, which ran along great part of the west end of the church; but two of the gates have been entirely built up, and, as we have seen, only a very small doorway is left in the third, for fear of the Mahommedans. The porch is dark, and is divided by walls into different chambers.

* It is thirty-two inches by forty-six.

Inside, the venerable simplicity is very impressive. You face the east end, which is 170 feet from the western wall, and, proceeding to the centre, find yourself under a nave which rises in a pointed roof about thirty feet over the capitals of the great pillars, nineteen feet high, which support an aisle on each side. A clerestory, with five arched windows at each side, admits the abundant light. The aisles are flat-roofed, supported in the centre by a row of eleven massive pillars, while another row of the same number holds up the straight beams of the lofty nave, the windows over which correspond to the spaces between the columns below. Once elaborately painted, there is now little ornament left on them, except some faint indications of former pictures of saints, and armorial bearings and mottos left eight hundred years ago by the Crusaders, with whose greatest chiefs it was a great matter to have their names emblazoned in the Church of the Nativity. The columns, each one mighty whole, are of reddish limestone with white veins, and rest on great square slabs, the capitals being Corinthian, and the architraves very simple. The pointed roof of the nave was once richly painted and gilded, but this glory has long ago departed; and the spaces between the high windows at its sides were formerly covered with marbles and mosaics, but though the marbles remain, the mosaics survive only in fragments. When perfect, these represented, on the south side, the seven immediate ancestors of Joseph, the husband of the Holy Virgin. Above them, concealed by curtains, are niches containing altars, on which books of the Gospels rest; and on a line with these is a strange mosaic of coloured glass, on a gilded ground, representing a huge plant, the creation of someone's brain, long ago, not the imitation of any natural growth. On the left wall of this aisle, high up, there once were mosaics of ancient churches, but only those of Antioch and Sardis now remain, in very primitive drawing, without perspective. The mosaics were put up by Manuel Comnenus, Emperor of Constantinople, about AD 1160; but the great pillars and the structure as a whole, with its crosses and Corinthian capitals, admittedly date from the time of Constantine. The beams of the lofty roof of the nave are of plain unpainted cypress, and are not in any way concealed.

A short way down the aisle stands the ancient baptismal font, eight-sided, with an inscription in Greek on a tablet below, over a small sculptured cross, "(Given) as a memorial, before God, and for the peace and forgiveness of the sinners (who presented it), of whom the Lord knows the names." Humble enough! But all the more likely to be noted above. It brings one in mind of the dying request of the once imperious Alfonso de Ojeda, ere-while the haughtiest knight of Castile, yet in the end lowly before his Saviour—that they should bury him at the entrance to the cathedral at Havana, that everyone, as he went in, might tread on the dust of so unworthy a worm. This inscription, and the rude scratchings of their crests on the pillars by old Crusading warriors, gone over to the majority eight hundred years ago, touched me greatly. There are two crowns among them, with the crest rising high above, and the cheek-plates of the helmet below; and four crests and helmets of knights, with legends, now beyond my reading, to tell who it was that each was intended to immortalise. But the wearers have all, long since, gone on a longer journey than that which brought them here.

A wall on the east side of this many-pillared square space runs across aisles and nave alike; the former ending here, though the nave really extends beyond this line to the east end of the church, which is rounded into a projecting half-circle, or apse: the secret chamber of the Greek altar and choir, for in Greek worship both are hidden from the congregation by a screen. This apsidal end, with two similar semicircles at the two ends of the transept, gives the shape of a Latin cross to the whole building. The ends show some remains of very old mosaics, which merit close study as illustrations of ancient Christian ideas. In that at the south side, Christ is entering into Jerusalem, riding on an ass, and accompanied by a disciple, the other figures of His escort being destroyed. People who have come out from the city to meet Him spread their garments in the way; one man is climbing a tree, to cut off branches with which to do Him honour, and a woman, with a child sitting on her left shoulder (Isa 49:22), looks on. At the north side, St. Thomas is being invited by our Saviour to examine His wounds, but here, and also in the fragment of another mosaic, he and his fellow-apostles are represented without a nimbus round the head. In one part, the Virgin Mary is sitting between two angels.

But these ancient glories are apt to be overlooked in the blaze of comparatively modern splendour with which this sacred spot has been filled. The pillars, with rich Corinthian capitals, are ornamented with large pictures of saints. Six low steps lead to a raised floor, before the east end of the nave, which is hidden by an elaborate screen about twenty-three feet high, with a decorated cross, some sacred pictures, and small carved angels with wings, rising above it; while there is another row of pictures immediately under the cornice. Behind this screen the Elements are consecrated, and the choir sing. The recess between the pillars of the transept and this gorgeous partition is shut off, at each side, by a screen beautifully panelled, about eight feet high, surmounted, on the left side, by a row of hanging lamps, of which there are altogether fourteen on the two sides facing the nave and the transept. Two huge candlesticks, with a candle in each, rising about twelve feet high, and a row of smaller ones on the edge of the socket, stand before the high screen; and a string of lamps, looped up in the centre into two graceful curves, hangs across from the capitals of the corner pillars.

Worshippers are always coming and going; nearly all the men in turbans and striped "abbas"; some resting on the stone steps; others sitting on the floor; yet others praying with their faces to the east, before the great screen. Christ has followers of many nations, and, I feel sure, not a few faithful ones among the ebbing and flowing congregation who lift up their hearts to Him, day by day, in this specially sacred temple. We are apt to regard foreign Churches harshly; to know them better would lead us to respect them more. At Athens, at Odessa, and at St. Petersburg, the result of inquiries from those likely to be best informed—Bible Society agents, and the head of a great Protestant Missionary School—was to fill my heart with joy, for I learnt that, alike in Greece and in vast Russia, not a few true Christians are everywhere found in the ancient communion.

Descending the steps from the raised floor of the eastern part of the nave, and turning sharply to the left, a half-sunk arched doorway leads you down by thirteen steps to the Chapel of the Nativity, once a rude cave, now paved and walled with marble, and lighted by thirty-two lamps. About forty feet from east to west, it is only sixteen wide, and ten high, and, of course, would be totally dark but for the artificial illumination, for it lies immediately under the great choir, at the very east of the church. The roof is covered with what had once been striped cloth of gold; three huge candlesticks, with candles rising higher than your head, stand at the back; and in front, between two marble pillars, a large picture of the Nativity, and some small ones below it, rest on a projecting shelf of marble, forming the altar.

Below this is a shrine unspeakably sacred to millions of our fellow Christians. It is semicircular, arching outwards above, and at most only four feet high. Fifteen silver lamps burn in it, night and day, lighting up the painted marbles which encrust it; and in the centre of its small floor is a silver star—marking the spot, it is believed, over which the Star of the East once rested—with an inscription, at the sight of which, I frankly confess, I wept like a child: "Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est" ("Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary"). A Turkish soldier, gun in hand, and fez on head, stood a few steps behind, but I forgot his presence. Pilgrims kneeled down and kissed the silver which spoke a story so infinitely touching, and I did the same, for I do not believe in indiscriminate scepticism.

As far back as the middle of the second century—that is to say, within less than 120 years of our Lord's death, and within thirty or forty years after that of the last of the apostles, the beloved St. John—Justin Martyr, himself a man of Nablus, speaks of the Saviour's birth as having taken place "in a certain cave very close to the village"; and this particular cave, now honoured as the scene of the Saviour's birth, was already so venerated in the days of Hadrian (AD 117-138) that, to desecrate it, he caused a grove sacred to Adonis to be planted over it, so that the Syrian god might be worshiped on the very spot—a form of idolatry peculiarly abhorrent to the pure morals of Christianity. Origen, in the opening of the third century, speaks of this cave as recognised even by the heathen as the birthplace of the Lord (AD 185-253). And to this spot came St. Jerome (AD 331-420), making his home for thirty years in a cave close by, that he might be near the birthplace of his Master; Hadrian's grove had been destroyed sixteen years before his birth, to make room for the very church now standing. There is no reason, therefore, so far as I can see, to doubt that in this cave, so hallowed by immemorial veneration, the Great Event associated with it actually took place.

Nor is there any ground for hesitation because it is a cave that is regarded as the sacred spot. Nothing, as I must here repeat, is more common in a Palestine village, built on a hill, than to use as adjuncts of the houses, the caves with which all the limestone rocks of the country abound; making them the store-room, perhaps, or the workshop, or the stable, and building the dwellings before them so as to join the two. Canon Tristam* speaks of a farm-house he visited, north of Acre, which was a granary and stable below and a dwelling-place above; and many stables in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem are still recesses cut in the rock, or mere natural caves.** In Egypt I have often seen houses where goats, sheep, cattle, or an ass, were in one part, and the human beings in the other. Had the piety of the monks left the alleged site of the Nativity in its original state, there would have been no presumption against it from its being a cave.

* Land of Israel, p. 72.

** Tent Work in Palestine, p. 145.

As might have been expected, centuries have brought many doubtful accretions to the original simple story. Passing from the Cave of the Nativity, you are led, still underground, past what the Latin Church says is the very manger, to an altar on the spot where, it is alleged, the Magi worshiped the Infant Saviour; then to a spring from which the Holy Family was supplied; next to the place where the vision appeared commanding the flight into Egypt; then to the chapel where the Innocents were buried; and finally to the tombs of Eustochium and Paula, the pupils of St. Jerome, and of the great father himself, and to the cave in which he lived so long, preparing his immortal Vulgate Bible; the only light of this gloomy retreat being the opening into the passage of the Latin monastery. That he lived and was buried here, and that Paula was buried near him, is very probable; as to the rest, fiction seems to have run wild.

Joined to the famous church, are the three monasteries of the Greeks, Armenians, and Latins, which have fine orchards, rooms to receive travellers, and charming views from their roofs. In that of the Latins were some fat swine, the only ones I saw in Palestine. In that of the Greeks there is a monkish wonder which at least shows the strength of human credulity. A cave is shown, on the floor of which a drop of the Holy Virgin's milk is said to have fallen, with the result, as is universally believed, of making the pulverised rock highly efficacious for increasing the milk of women and even of animals, for which purpose round cakes, mixed with dust from it, are to this day sold to pilgrims!

Only the portion of the church from the transept eastward is now used for worship, and I must say that the air and behaviour of the local clergy and laity, as they walk about in the aisles and nave of the other half, make it hard to realise the sanctity of the place. Sellers obtrude their wares on the visitor, inviting attention to their trays of local keepsakes and "curios," or producing them from their dress; often disturbing the sacred house by noisy haggling and chaffering, till one feels something of the righteous indignation that roused our Lord to drive their predecessors in this sacrilege from the Temple courts (Mark 11:15-18).

The south side of Bethlehem looks down as deep a valley as that on the north, with similar terraces, rich in fruit-trees, sinking in great steps to the hollow below, which is crowded with gardens and orchards. All round Bethlehem, indeed, the eye wanders over scenes beautiful in their natural charms, or hallowed by sacred memories. Directly to the north lies the tomb of Rachel, whom Jacob buried by the wayside, as he tells his sons on his death-bed many long years after (Gen 48:7): his heart true, even in death, to her whom he had loved at first sight in distant Mesopotamia, and had so early lost but could never forget. The town was called Ephrath then, for the name Bethlehem ("the House of Bread")—now corrupted by the Arabs into Beit-Lahm ("the House of Flesh")—was given to it centuries later. On the slopes down the valley to the east, the beautiful idyll of Ruth had its scene. The fields in which she gleaned are there, of course; and the path by which she and Naomi, two lonely widows, climbed up to the town is still, no doubt, the same as that by which the daughters of Bethlehem come up to the village from the glen. In that Wady Kharubeh, and on the hill-side beyond, lay the fields of Boaz, where he allowed the Moabitess to glean after the reapers, as you may still see girls and women doing in harvest-time. The old man was smitten by the young widow before he knew it, for as soon as he saw her, he must needs beg her not to glean in any other part of the valley but his, and to stay fast by his maidens (Ruth 2:8). Women, it seems, shared the toil of harvesting in those early days, as they do now, no less than the "young men," who, to their shame, needed the warning of Boaz not to touch the poor gleaner. Reapers, even now, come from all parts of the country to work for hire, and are not too much to be trusted in either morals or manners. Harvest is earlier on the seacoast and plains, and in the Jordan valley, than on the hills, and hence the hill-men are free to go down to help in it without neglecting their own grain, and the lowlanders can come up to the hills because their harvest is over.

The land belonging to Boaz was not fenced off, for there are neither hedges nor fences in Palestine, except round orchards or gardens; but it was marked off by boundary stones, sacredly respected by everyone. To remove a neighbour's landmarks was to incur the curse of God; and Job could not picture the unscrupulously wicked more vividly than by charging them with this crime (Deut 19:14, 27:17; Prov 22:28, 23:10; Job 24:2). You see these stones in every part of Palestine; generally a rough block, partly sunk in the ground. On the hills beyond there were none, for no one owned any part of these in private right; they were the "commons," on which each had an equal right to pasture his flock or herd. Harvest in every country is a joyful time, and the heart of Boaz was in keeping with the good nature of all around. As now, the whole village, one may suppose, had gone out to the fields; the children and aged gleaning; the strong, of both sexes, plying the sickle. It is quite likely, too, that some of the workers from the lowlands, or the Jordan valley, had brought their wives and families with them, that the women and children might get a share of the gleaning, for they do this still, sleeping on the ground at night, under the bright sky. The whole business, indeed, is taken easily, for good weather is certain, and there is so little reason for hurry that you may at times see a whole line of reapers sitting at their task, and moving forward to the grain without a thought of rising. Rain in harvest is, in fact, such an unusual occurrence that it will be remembered how, on its falling at the call of Samuel, it was recognised by the people as a miraculous sign, the result being that they "greatly feared the Lord and Samuel" (1 Sam 12:17,18).

Boaz saluted the reapers, when he came among them, with the courteous phrase, "The Lord be with you," and received the response, "The Lord bless thee." The owner meets his labourers to-day with the very same words, and the same answer is returned. The evening meal is still the same as that which Ruth was invited to share. A fire of dry grass or stalks of weeds, or stubble or straw, is kindled, and a lapful of ears tossed on it and left till the husks are scorched off. On this sign that they are ready for eating, the whole are cleverly swept from the embers into a cloak spread out to receive them. The grain is then beaten out and winnowed, by being thrown up into the air, and after this is spread out for the hungry mouths around. Sometimes it is roasted in a pan or on an iron plate, or a bunch of wheat is held over the fire till the chaff is burnt off; some liking this method much better than throwing the ears on the fire.

Women have this task, and it is amusing to see them holding the corn in the flame till the precise moment when the husks are consumed, and then beating out the grain with skilled dexterity, with the help of a short stick. Such "parched corn" (Ruth 2:14) is so pleasant to the taste that one cannot wonder at its having kept its ground, as the reaper's food, for over three thousand years. As in those early days, vinegar is still often mixed with water, to make a cooling drink in the warm summer, so that in this, also, modern and ancient customs agree. One can easily, moreover, see the need of Boaz guarding Ruth from the broad and noisy humour so natural in such company after the labour of the day was over. No picture could be more beautiful in its simplicity than that of Ruth sitting beside the reapers, Boaz taking his place among them, near her, and reaching her some of the parched corn, of which he was partaking with his men (Ruth 2:14).

Ruth began her gleaning when the barley ripened, and followed Naomi's sagacious advice, to keep to the field of Boaz till the wheat was reaped; the one crop being often cut before the other is ripe (Ruth 2:22,23). Hence, the gift of Boaz was six measures of barley—not wheat, for though barley is eaten only by the poor, the wheat was not yet ready, and barley bread is excellent when better cannot be had. Nor are we to suppose that she carried home all the straw of her gleaning, for we are told that "she beat out what she had gleaned" (Ruth 2:17), just as the women do now, after the day's gleaning is over; sitting down by the roadside and beating out the grain with a stone or stick into her stout linen veil, and throwing away the straw; then climbing the hill with her ephah of barley (Ruth 2:17)—four gallons, says Josephus; eight, say the Rabbis—safely tied up, and poised on her head. The law gave the right of gleaning to the poor, for whom, in Israel, there was no more formal provision; and this custom has become so deeply rooted that one sees, at the present day, well-nigh as many gleaners as reapers, when a valley is being harvested.

That Ruth and Naomi should have taken advantage of this kindly system shows clearly enough that they must have been poor. But this was no bar to Ruth's marriage with Boaz, though he was rich; for society in the East is not divided by difference of culture, as it is with us; the poorest bear themselves with a natural self-respect which brings them closer to the rich than is the case with the same class in the West. The humblest man in a village comes in at the open door of a rich man's house, to enjoy the spectacle of a merry-making, without a thought of impropriety on either side. And there is no distinction of caste in Eastern worship. The merchant, the herdsman, the slave, and the beggar, kneel promiscuously on the floor of the mosque, or join hands in the ring formed round a saint's tomb, at a "zikr" (see ante, p. 158); and a man in the very meanest garment walks into the presence of a governor to speak with him, without the slightest constraint on the one side or feeling of intrusion on the other.

Besides inviting Ruth to a share of the "parched corn" and the "vinegar," Boaz also told her that she was free to drink from the water-jars, of water-skins, when she felt thirsty (Ruth 2:9), just as a modern farmer might show a similar courtesy to a modern gleaner, water being a necessary in the field, in such a climate. Indeed, we see in the tomb-paintings of Egypt a similar provision of water in skins and jars, from which reapers and gleaners alike quench their thirst. But it seems as if the refreshments of the field were not confined to water, vinegar, and parched corn, for we read that Boaz "had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry," before he went to lie down at the end of the mound of threshed grain (Ruth 3:7); and in the story of the churlish Nabal we have an instance of a harvest-feast on a very liberal scale; while Abigail carried to David, as his share of the bounties dispensed at the harvest-home, not only parched corn, but loaves of bread, skins of wine, roasted sheep, clusters of raisins, and cakes of figs (1 Sam 25:18-36).

It is not, indeed, to be supposed that this was the everyday fare of either reapers or master, for the habits of the East are very simple; but it marked, at any rate, the finishing of the year's work. Homer's description of the harvest-field closes the labours of the day with a substantial repast:—

"Along the furrow here, the harvest fell
In frequent handfuls; there, they bound the sheaves.
Three binders of the sheaves their sultry task
All plied industrious, and, behind them, boys
Attended, filling with the corn their arms,
And offering still their bundles to be bound.
Amid them, staff in hand, the master stood
Silent exulting, while, beneath an oak
Apart, his heralds busily prepared
The banquet, dressing a well-thriven ox,
New slain, and the attendant maidens mixed
Large supper for the hinds, of whitest flour." (Iliad, bk. xviii. [Cowper])

Yet the parched corn and vinegar would be the usual fare, as it is now; a feast like that of Nabal's men, or the one depicted by Homer, would be the great event when all was over. I certainly never heard of such a thing, and the manners of the East do not change.

Ruth's mode of calling the attention of Boaz to her claims on him as her next-of-kin, or "goel," seems strange to us, but is quite in keeping with the everyday life of Eastern countries. Boaz himself praises her for it, finding a proof of special worth in her having sought him, an old man, for a husband, instead of "following young men, whether rich or poor" (Ruth 3:10). Naomi, however, had made a mistake in sending her to Boaz, as there was a still nearer kinsman; so that Boaz, however love-sick, could not marry her till the other had refused to do so.

Orientals cover their head and their feet when they go to sleep, but both sexes lie down in the clothes worn through the day, so that they can easily rest in the warm months wherever night overtakes them, without any preparation. Nor was there anything in Ruth's action to shock conventional propriety, for she followed the advice of the pure and godly Naomi, and was commended by Boaz himself as a woman known by all the town for her virtuous character (Ruth 3:11).

The refusal of a next-of-kin to do his duty, by marrying the widow of his brother or other relative, was the occasion of a curious custom in ancient Israel. "If the man likes not to take his brother's [or kinsman's] widow," says Deuteronomy, "then let the widow go up to the gate [of the town or village, where all public business is transacted] unto the elders, and say, My husband's brother [or kinsman] refuseth to raise up to his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband's brother [or kinsman]. Then the elders of the city shall call him and speak unto him, and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her; then shall his brother's widow come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother's house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed" (Deut 25:7-10). In Ruth's case, however, it would seem that the refractory kinsman drew off his own shoe, and handed it to Boaz as a sign of the transference of his rights over Ruth (Ruth 4:8). May we see an explanation of this, though a very prosaic one, in a custom which is still observed by the Jews of Barbary in a marriage? "When the bride enters the room where the bridegroom awaits her, as she crosses the threshold, he stoops down, and slipping off his shoe, strikes her with the heel of it on the nape of the neck,"* as a sign and public acknowledgment that she is his wife; a husband only having the right he has thus exercised. So the ungracious kinsman, in handing over his shoe to Boaz, gave up to him his matrimonial rights, of which the use of the slipper in a summary way, should discipline require it, was the acknowledged symbol. I have no doubt that Boaz, a respectable, formal, elderly man, was careful to assert his supremacy and the obedience due by Ruth in the usual way; but we may be very sure that the tap on her shoulders on the marriage-day was the first and last occasion of his needing to use this mild substitute for the modern hob-nailed boot.

* Pillars of Hercules, i. 305.

The marriage thus strangely brought about, and as strangely celebrated by the transference of the masterful sandal, was, as all know, most happy in its results. It gave Ruth, as her husband, the representative of one of the oldest families of Bethlehem, for Boaz was descended from the greatest house of Judah, that of Pharez (or "Perez" [Gen 38:29; Ruth 4:12; Matt 1:3): a line which, from David's time, was famous for the illustrious warriors it gave the State (1 Chron 27:2,3, 11:11; 2 Sam 23:8), the royal house itself being its head; a line, too, which became so numerous that 468 sons of "Perez" came back with Zerubbabel from Babylon, Zerubbabel himself being one of the stock (1 Chron 9:4; Neh 11:4-6; 1 Esdr 5:5). Ibzan, the Bethlehemite, who judged Israel for seven years after Jephthah (Judg 12:8-10), and who had thirty sons and thirty daughters, is asserted in the Talmud to have been no other than Boaz himself: a point difficult to settle. But it is through his grandson Jesse that the husband of Ruth is most illustrious, for the youngest of Jesse's sons, as everyone knows, was no other than David. Tradition reports that Jesse spent his days in Bethlehem, a weaver of veils for the Temple, though, so far as we know, his wealth consisted mainly in some sheep and goats which David tended (1 Sam 16:11, 17:34,35). But he must have been a village dignitary as well as a worthy man, to have his name so persistently given in connection with his greatest son, who is constantly mentioned as "the son of Jesse," while the Saviour Himself is proclaimed as a "shoot out of the stock of Jesse," and "the root of Jesse which should stand as an ensign to the people" (Isa 11:1,10). Jesse must have owned land in Bethlehem, perhaps the fields of his grandfather Boaz, for David gave away ground near the village (2 Sam 19:37,38; Jer 41:17); and, indeed, if Jesse had not been the leading man of the place, he could hardly have presided with the village elders at the sacrificial feast of the community, held on the first new moon of each year, as we find him doing when the Prophet Samuel came to anoint his shepherd-son (1 Sam 16:3-5).

There are not many incidents connecting David with Bethlehem, though he lived in it till after his victory over Goliath (1 Sam 17:12ff). We learn, however, that even while in the court of Saul, he continued to visit the place at the yearly sacrificial feast of the family (1 Sam 20:6). Just before you reach the town, on the flat sheet of rock on which our tents were pitched, were three round wells,* or rather well-shafts, to the largest of which the name David's Well is given, though on what authority it is hard to tell. The largest of the three openings proved to be twenty-six feet deep, but it is partly filled with stones, so that the original depth cannot be known. Between two and three feet of water stood at the bottom; but the other openings, which were about twelve feet deep, were dry. The water in the first pit was fresh and good, like that of a spring, and it is likely that it flows from one, though most of the water seems to find some escape through the rocks. In David's time it may have risen much higher in the shaft. Situated at the only spot where "a gate" could have been built—the north end of the town, which alone joins the country without an intervening valley—this well seems fairly entitled to be regarded as that from which the precious draught was brought to the shepherd-king. It is, by the way, the only spring in Bethlehem, the town depending entirely on cisterns.

* It is said that there are five shafts, but I saw only three.

As the shafts are entirely unprotected, they were a terror to me in the night, notwithstanding their venerable associations; for a sudden disappearance into one of them would have left little hope of escape. There is another well, however, which the monks honour with the name of David, about three-quarters of a mile north-east of Bethlehem, beyond the valley that lies beneath the town; but it is much more probable that the one at my tent-side was that from which he longed for a draught of water: a gratification obtained for him at the risk of their lives by three mighty men of his band (2 Sam 23:14; 1 Chron 11:17). Somewhere, also, in Bethlehem, in his father's sepulchre, lies the stripling Asahel, David's cousin, so swift of foot, and who was slain by Abner in self-defence (2 Sam 2:32). In times far earlier, the village had been the home of Jonathan, the son or descendant of Gershom the son of Moses, and whose name has been changed by the Rabbis into Manasseh, to screen the memory of the great lawgiver form the stain of having so unworthy an apostate among his near posterity. For it was this Jonathan who wandered to the north, and, after serving as priest in the idol-house of Micah the Ephraimite, became priest of the graven image at Dan: an office which continued in his family till the Captivity (Judg 18:30). Yet the greatest honour of Bethlehem, unique in the history of the world, and, indeed, of the universe, was that foretold by Micah:—"But thou, Bethlehem-Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting" (Micah 5:2). For in this small village was born the Saviour of the world.

Looking along the sweeping valley to the south-east, beyond the fields to which Ruth "went down," the eye rests on softly-rising hills, to the south of which she could see those of Moab, so sadly dear to her, rising purple beyond the Dead Sea. The slopes of the hills close at hand are those, as tradition maintains, on which the shepherds were watching by night, when the angel and the heavenly choir appeared, to announce the birth of Him who was "Christ, the Lord." The grey, barren wilderness of Judæa creeps up to them, but they are, themselves, comparatively green. A clump of olive-trees surrounds a ruin fancifully supposed to be that of the shepherds' tower. The wall still seen is of good-sized stones, left there because building material is abundant in the neighbourhood. Old gnarled olives, their trunks riven, twisted, pierced by age, and disproportionately large for their crown of silver-green leaves, give a touch of beauty to the baldness of the landscape, and afford shade to the peasant while tending the long-eared, broad-tailed sheep, and lively black goats, that browse among them. Bare-legged, bare-armed, with huge slippers, it may be, and a white or coloured kerchief, old and faded, round his close-fitting skull-cap; over his blue shirt, which reaches to his calves, a striped "abba," rude enough in its tailoring, rather a square bag than a coat, a leather belt keeping it tight round him,—he sits there in the spring time, among the red anemones, tulips, and poppies, the short-lived glories of the pastures of Palestine, and looks the picture of vacuity, his staff on the ground beside him, and his club tied to his girdle.

Bethlehem stands 100 feet higher than Jerusalem, being 2,550 feet above the sea at its highest point. But the neighbouring hills are lower than those round the Holy City, and there is more cultivation; Bethlehem looks slightly down on its surrounding heights, while Jerusalem is commanded by its girdle of hills. The population of David's city consists of Latin, Greek, and Armenian Christians, through the influence of the triple, fortress-like convent round the ancient church, but they are on good terms with each other, and even intermarry, which these rival sects seldom do in Jerusalem. The Roman Catholics have splendid school-buildings, much larger and finer than any others, and I have no doubt they do much good.

I did not see any tattooing among the women, and, indeed, throughout Palestine there is little of it, compared with the fashion in Egypt, where the features and arms are often quite disfigured. The peasant-women of the Holy Land, with better taste, confine themselves to a mark on the palms of their hands, between the eyes, and on the chin, with a row of small points along the lower lip, producing an effect something like that of the patches worn last century by English ladies. But the women of Bethlehem are superior to these rude follies. Thanks, perhaps, to the blood of the Crusaders, of a share of which they boast, they are altogether finer than any women I saw elsewhere in Palestine, with the exception, perhaps, of those of Nazareth. The population is said to be about 4,000.

The flat roofs of the houses join each other in many cases, and thus afford an easy passage from one habitation to another, which is often used. This explains our Lord's counsel to His disciples (Matt 24:17; Mark 13:15; Luke 17:31) not to think, when troubles burst on the land, of coming down to take anything out of the house, if they chanced to be on the housetop at the moment the news reached them. They were rather to flee along the roofs, and thus escape. The local tradesmen sometimes press one to come into their dwellings to inspect their wares, and an opportunity is thus given of seeing the inside of a Bethlehem establishment. The room is of arched stone, without furniture, except the inevitable divan, or broad seat along the wall; and the women have no timidity at your entrance. Squatted on the floor, one, it may be, is busy sewing while she watches her baby in the cradle, another is preparing to bake, and a third will bring you a water-pipe and a glass of water, while you look over the crucifixes, rosaries, olive-wood boxes, mother-of-pearl carved shells, and little jars and cups of asphalt, or red stone.

Talking of housetops reminds one of the variety of allusions to them in the Bible. Samuel communed with Saul on the housetop (1 Sam 9:25), for privacy, so that his dwelling must have been flat-roofed. Absalom spread a tent on the top of David's house for his father's wives, that it might be seen by all Israel that he had assumed the throne, by his taking them as his own (2 Sam 16:22). "It is better," says the Book of Proverbs, "to dwell in a corner of the housetop than with a brawling woman in a wide house" (Prov 21:9); nor would it be any great hardship to do so in Palestine in the hot weather, for in the summer months the roof is the best sleeping-place. The text, however, doubtless means that even in the colder season any wretched spot, though exposed alike to rain and wind, is better than the best room with the company of a scold. Who would have thought that old Hebrew families were ever thus miserable?

When the paralytic was brought to Jesus, his bearers took him up the outside stairs, so common still in the court or yard, and carried him to the housetop. Many roofs have a hatchway opening into the room below, but closed in the cold months; and this having been lifted, it was easy to let the man down at the feet of the Saviour (Luke 5:19). His couch, we may be sure, was simply a hammock, offering no difficulty to his entrance through the opening. To think of his bearers breaking up the roof, is out of the question. If cemented, it would be quite a task to do so, and the house would have been spoiled; nor would it have been much better had it been necessary to tear or break a way through a thick bedding of earth and boughs, such as we find in some places. The crowd below would have been very soon scattered by such a rain of dust and clods—not to speak of broken sticks or stalks—as would have come down on them.

There was just such a hatchway as I have described on the top of the schoolhouse of the American Mission at Assiout, in Egypt, and they are common in Palestine. Isaiah speaks of the people of Moab assembling on their housetops, "howling and weeping abundantly" at the news of the taking of their capital by the foe (Isa 15:3), and of the population of Jerusalem as "wholly gone up to the housetops" (Isa 22:1) to look out for the Assyrians coming to attack them, or at the country people streaming through the gates for protection, or in hopes of catching sight of the standards of Tirhakah advancing to their deliverance. Jeremiah, like Isaiah, predicted that there would be "lamentation upon all the housetops of Moab" (Jer 48:38). The Jews, in their apostasy, copied the evil example of Ahaz in erecting altars to the host of heaven on the top of his house (2 Kings 23:12), for they built private ones for the same idolatry on their own roofs, and burnt incense upon them (Zeph 1:5; Jer 19:13). And Christ, again, tells His disciples to use the low housetops for a pulpit from which to proclaim the glad news He had told them (Matt 10:27).

Chapter 18 | Contents | Chapter 20


Notes on Revelation | Judeo-Christian Research

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