Saturday, September 24, 2011

Walking with the Bible in the Elah Valley

The Elah Valley is one of my favorite areas of Israel. It provides a perfect combination of history, Bible, beautiful hills and nature.

Three thousand years ago, the Elah Valley was a fertile land of towns, fortresses and farms on the border between the tribe of Judah and the Greek speaking Sea Peoples known to us as the Philistines. Today, it is a fertile land of towns and villages, vineyards and wineries and one of the best places to wander with Tanach (Bible) in hand, bringing the Biblical accounts to life.

A great starting point is Tel Bet Shemesh (across from modern Bet Shemesh). The site and stories of Samson and the conflict with the Philistines help us to understand the transition from the nomadic/shepherd life style of early Israel to the agrarian town/city dwelling life style. Tel Bet Shemesh is an active archeological site where the excavators have exposed what might be a Canaanite Palace, Israelite fortifications and buildings likely from the time of David & Solomon and earlier and the burn layer of the destruction of this Judean city by the Assyrians in c701 BCE.

Next, climb to the strategic height of Tel Azeka which is a great place to consider the transition from tribal autonomy to a centralized monarchy starting with Saul and David. This is the perfect site to study the Biblical texts of David & Goliath which so clearly describes the setting and landmarks in the valley below. The story and its military and political background spring to life. To the west you can see the coastal plain and the Mediterranean coast, and I can "see" the Philistine chariots and armored soldiers of 3,000 years ago on their way to attack Israel and Judah. To the east, you can see the hills of Jerusalem and Gush Etzion and I can imagine young David coming down from Bethlehem to the Elah Valley to bring supplies to his brothers who were there fighting in the army of Israel under the leadership of King Saul. I can feel David's disappointment as Goliath marched out from the Philistine army camp to challenge the army of Israel and no one – not David's brothers, not King Saul – had the courage to meet his challenge.

The newest attraction in the area is the active archeological site Tel Qayefah, identified by the excavators Biblical Shaarayim , apparently a major urban center during the period of the early Israelite monarchy. The clearly exposed city gates facing the strategic valleys to the south and west add to our understanding of the political and security considerations of ancient Israel facing the Philistine foe.

The archeological findings at Tel Bet Shemesh, Tel Qayefah and elsewhere in the area, lend support to the Biblical accounts of the Kingdoms of David & Solomon describing a developed Israelite state. This is a topic of hot controversy amongst archeologists with the "minimalists" claiming that archeology indicates that there was no early Israelite Kingdom and that David & Solomon were likely mythical ancestor figures created by later Judean Kings of Jerusalem or at most local tribal chieftains. The "maximalists" while generally not understanding the Bible as a history book, give greater credence to the Biblical accounts. The latest archeological finds at the City of David in Jerusalem, Emek HaElah and elsewhere have greatly strengthened their position, with more and more archeological findings supporting the Biblical description of a real Israelite kingdom at the time of David & Solomon with a strong, centralized government

After spending time in the hot sun and all that learning and walking, I like to visit the wonderful wineries dotting the region such as the Elah Valley Winery at Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Hey. More on that later….

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