Pilgrimage, Day 8: Geography

For the previous entry, click here.

My Fitbit says I’ve walked 8 miles today. I think it may be under-recording. I was told before I came that, “It’s uphill to and from everything in Israel.” You laugh, but it’s true.

Today, even more than the previous days, felt like a graduate-level field study, as Dr. Beck took us through the Hill Country of Judah and the Shephelah (the “humble hills” or foothills) to learn the geography, geology and vegetation of the areas. This had us making some extensive hikes through national parks where Israel has intentionally shepherded the flora toward what it might have looked like in earlier times.

The timing for this expedition had been well-selected, but nevertheless provided some additional obstacles. Being Shabbat, everything in the City was closed, so we were limited in the availability of sites to visit. However, many non-observant or non-Jewish Israeli citizens flood the parks and outdoors to enjoy some time away from work. And then there are the tourists, about whom I suppose I cannot complain.

One of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was to “be interested in everything.” It was an off-handedly-given bit of wisdom, but one I took to heart. Today was one of those days when it is truly easy to be interested in everything.

I have studied geography and geology, both in school and informally to help me build better worlds for writing and roleplaying games. I’ve never heard large-scale geologic forces explained so clearly in such detail as done today by Jack Beck. We learned about the formation of three layers of different strata of limestone when the land was inundated by prehistoric seas. He taught about tectonic uplift that forced some of these layers into the ridges and valleys of the Hill Country of Judah and–to a lesser extent, the Shephelah. After that, Dr. Beck explained the processes of erosion that broke down some of those layers, carried off and redistributed some of the sediment created by that process, and left a land of varying hardness and fertility of soil.

This explanation segued seamlessly into a discussion of terrace farming (we were, of course, standing near the top of a ridge that had been terraced for just such purposes and looking down on both the macro-features of the landscape and the terraces themselves) and farming by scratch plow, as was done in Biblical times. Naturally, this then developed into an analysis of Jesus’s saying in Luke 9:62 that “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.”

Before this string of instruction, we’d learned about the commonest plants in (these parts) of Israel and how that might influence our reading of passages that made reference to plants, whether specifically or by type or attribute.

This all took place in a national park in the Jerusalem Mountains around the ruins of Sataf–formerly a Palestinian village whose inhabitants were forcibly removed by Jews in 1948. Now, the terraces are being restored to give insight into historical agriculture, as well as providing some hobby gardens for nearby citizens.

From Sataf we went to Beth-Shemesh, just down the Sorek Valley from where we had hiked earlier. A village that changed hands between the Canaanites, Philistines and Israelites several times (Shamash was a Mesopotamian solar god, but the town name is probably more related to the sun in general, as in “House of the Rising Sun”), Beth-Shemesh is the site of 1 Samuel 6, when the Philistines return the Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites to undo the suffering that had fallen upon them since capturing it. It is, of course, now a ruined fortress, but a wonderful location to review the scripture from. Of special note, Beth-Shemesh was one of the Levitical cities, and what happens when the Ark arrives? They send it on to Kiriath-Jearim, because the Levites there, like the Philistines, don’t know what to do with it.

Samson’s story also takes place around Beth-Shemesh–the city of Timnah is just to the southeast.

After Beth-Shemesh, we made a short stop at the Bell Caves. This is not a Biblical site, but an artifact of Roman occupation. The caves were formed when the Romans bored a small hole in the ground through which they extracted limestone blocks for building. Over time, the spaces began to form the bell shaped caves which exist there now. None of the bell caves (at least that we witnessed) were fully enclosed; all either joined adjacent caves or opened to the outside, the result of a combination of deliberate carving or accidental collapses.

Our last stop for the day was Shaaraim–“Two Gates.” The archeological site is unique for several reasons. First, it is a single-occupation site rather than a tel–study indicates that the site was active only between 1000 BCE and 925 BCE. More important, perhaps, is that the city has (as you might suppose) two gates. Despite the fortifications inherent to a gatehouse, a gate constitutes a weak point in a defensive wall, so most ancient cities only had one. Other unique features of this settlement were a 10,000 square foot citadel with a three-foot thick outer wall and the use of casement walls in the main town wall. Casement walls are a sort of double wall with space in between them. During peace, the space can be used for additional storage, but during war time stones can be taken from the interior of the city to quickly reinforce the exterior wall. Given the timing and the location, the site was probably built by David or Solomon.

And it was David who brought us there. From this elevated position, it is easy to see into the Elah Valley, to Socoh where the Philistine army containing Goliath had arrayed itself against Saul’s forces at the intersection of three roads leading deeper into Israelite territory–if the Israelites failed here, their interior cities would be threatened (the area that would become the”City of David” and later “Jerusalem” was still in the control of the Jebusites).

We talked at length about the story of David and Goliath, and in his typical style of half-teaching, half-preaching, Dr. Beck made the story come alive with new color and depth, as he is wont to do.

We have tomorrow morning free to do as we like. I intend to make a (very) early trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pick up the one souvenir I want to bring home, and spend a leisurely morning enjoying coffee and watching people pass. In the afternoon, we’ll be on a walking tour of New Testament Jerusalem.

For the next entry, click here.

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