On Monday 9th and Tuesday 10th of June we had an experience of the wilderness in southern Israel. Our visit included visits to several archaeological sites.
Our first visit was to Beit She’mesh. It is basically a pile of rubble, with some discernable walls.
It is the remains of a town from the pre-Davidic period, one of the series of towns that served as a ring of defence for the tribes of Israel against the Philistines (famous among whose warriors was Goliath, whom, according to the Bible, the young shepherd boy, David, slew). The place is mentioned in 1 Samuel 6:
1 Samuel 6
The Ark Returned to Israel
1 The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 Then the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us what we should send with it to its place.” 3 They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed and will be ransomed; will not his hand then turn from you?” 4 And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him?” They answered, “Five gold tumors and five gold mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines; for the same plague was upon all of you and upon your lords. 5 So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps he will lighten his hand on you and your gods and your land. 6 Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had made fools of them, did they not let the people go, and they departed? 7 Now then, get ready a new cart and two milch cows that have never borne a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart, and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off, and let it go its way. 9 And watch; if it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm; but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.”
10 The men did so; they took two milch cows and yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. 11 They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the gold mice and the images of their tumors. 12 The cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went; they turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.
13 Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. When they looked up and saw the ark, they went with rejoicing to meet it. 14 The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh, and stopped there. A large stone was there; so they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the gold objects, and set them upon the large stone. Then the people of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and presented sacrifices on that day to the Lord. 16 When the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.
17 These are the gold tumors, which the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron; 18 also the gold mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages. The great stone, beside which they set down the ark of the Lord, is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.
Our guide was quite excited that the archaeological evidence of this town confirmed the political situation of that ancient time, the cities of those hostile to the tribes of Israel mentioned in verse 17, this town as one of the ring of defence for the tribes of Israel, which were later to be united and centralised under the rule of King David in Jerusalem.
The next visit was to Be’er Sheva. This also features in the biblical narrative. In Genesis 21:8-19.
Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.[a] 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
Of particular interest to me in the above story is that the Muslim account of this event is set, not in Be’er Sheva in Israel, but in Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, one of the Muslim Hajj Pilgrimage rituals, performed annually by Muslims since the year 630CE, running seven times between the two hills of Safa and Marwa in the vicinity of Mecca, replicates Hagar’s frenzied search for water for her child. Further, there is a well in the precincts of the Ka’aba in Mecca, at a spot named the Place of Abraham, called the Well of Zamzam. Muslim pilgrims bring back water from this well, much as Catholic pilgrims bring back water from the spring at Lourdes.
Be’er Sheba is also mentioned in Genesis 21:25-34 in relation to another event in which Abraham was involved:
25 When Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, 26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” 27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28 Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs of the flock. 29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you shall accept from my hand, in order that you may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” 31 Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba;because there both of them swore an oath. 32 When they had made a covenant at Beer-sheba, Abimelech, with Phicol the commander of his army, left and returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines.
The very name, Be’er Sheva, means either the place of the oath, or the place of the seven (sheep).
Another point of note was the importance of water. The climate is hot. On a hot summer’s day, temperatures soar into the high forties. It was said that if you went without water for two hours you would die! We noted that most towns and cities, including our visit the day before underneath Jerusalem, were dependent on the availability of water. Every ancient town had a well and a cistern for storing water. No well, no water, no life! No water, no agriculture, no food, no life! Water is crucial for survival in the wilderness. It was not surprising how often the scriptures refer to God’s blessings in terms of life-giving water!!!
One of the Australians in our group pointed out that Be’er Sheva is important in Australian military history, as the place of the charge of the Light Horse (For very detailed information see http://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2007/10/30/the-charge-of-the-4th-light-horse-brigade-at-beersheba/ or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Beersheba_(1917)). Her is a view over the ruins of the ancient city towards the modern city of Beersheba, which stretches quite a long way along the horizon.
And yes, in Be’er Sheva too, the town was dependent on the water supply. For us it involved climbing down to see the cistern and then climbing back up again, more exercise!!
Not only is Be’er Sheva mentioned in relation to Abraham; it is also mentioned in relation to Isaac in Genesis 26:26-33 and in relation to Jacob in Genesis 46:1ff. Being mentioned in relation to each of these Patriarchs is an indication of its significance in the story. In fact, the town became a marker for the southern end of the Israelite Kingdom of that time, so that the later chroniclers referred to the length of the country from north to south as being “from Dan to Beersheba” (Judges 20:1 and many other places).
The next place we visited was the Ben-Gurion Burial National Park. From an Israeli tourist website we read:
David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Israel’s first prime minister, dreamed of settling the Negev and making the desert bloom. Practicing what he preached, after he retired he moved to the Negev and became a member of Kibbutz Sde Boker and a shepherd. The state of Israel fulfilled Ben-Gurion’s wish to be buried in the Negev he loved, rather than in Jerusalem like Israel’s other leaders. The tomb of David and Paula Ben Gurion, surrounded by a beautiful arid-land park, offers a breathtaking view of the Tsin Valley.
The next place on our itinerary was Avdat. This was the ancient city of the Nabateans, founded in the 3rd century BCE, becoming one of the most important towns on the Incense Route bringing spices and other goods from Arabia to Gaza from the 1st to the 7th century CE. The original inhabitants were pagan but later became Christian and were an important place in keeping the Christian teachings alive. For detailed information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avdat .
After a busy day, we were glad to arrive at our destination for the evening, the oasis of Kfar Hanokdim in the Judaean Desert:
This is a “camp” run by the Israeli Government. It is designed to give people an experience of Bedouin life. We had an introduction to the Bedouin culture from one of the local sheikhs, the head of his family. We were given Bedouin hospitality in the form of sweet tea and coffee. The Bedouins are very community-oriented, all helping for the good of the extended family. He was very proud to tell us of his three wives, 18 sons and 5 daughters! The Bedouin do not live in towns and cities, but live in touch with the land. They have herds of camels, donkeys, sheep and goats. They are nomadic, traditionally living in tents made of goats’ hair, but nowadays of woven fabrics, or in cabins, moving within defined tribal areas to find grazing for their animals. Younger Bedouins have become educated, including tertiary qualifications as doctors, lawyers, running businesses and so on, but even the wealthy among them prefer to live the simpler, communal lifestyle.
Next morning, after a very substantial breakfast, we were on the bus heading for En Gedi Nature Reserve, on the shore of the Dead Sea (for details see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ein_Gedi or http://old.parks.org.il/BuildaGate5/general2/data_card.php?Cat=~25~~989817747~Card12~&ru=&SiteName=parks&Clt=&Bur=849675007 ).
En Gedi is mentioned in the Bible as the place where David hid from Saul who was pursuing him. Here is the account fro 1 Samuel 24:1-7 of what happened:
1 When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the wilderness of En-gedi.” 2 Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to look for David and his men in the direction of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. 3 He came to the sheepfolds beside the road, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. 4 The men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.’” Then David went and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. 5 Afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. 6 He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to raise my hand against him; for he is the Lord’s anointed.” 7 So David scolded his men severely and did not permit them to attack Saul. Then Saul got up and left the cave, and went on his way.
8 Afterwards David also rose up and went out of the cave and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance. 9 David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of those who say, ‘David seeks to do you harm’? 10 This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave; and some urged me to kill you, but I spared[b] you. I said, ‘I will not raise my hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ 11 See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand; for by the fact that I cut off the corner of your cloak, and did not kill you, you may know for certain that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life. 12 May the Lord judge between me and you! May the Lord avenge me on you; but my hand shall not be against you. 13 As the ancient proverb says, ‘Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness’; but my hand shall not be against you. 14 Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom do you pursue? A dead dog? A single flea? 15 May the Lord therefore be judge, and give sentence between me and you. May he see to it, and plead my cause, and vindicate me against you.”
16 When David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17 He said to David, “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 18 Today you have explained how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. 19 For who has ever found an enemy, and sent the enemy safely away? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. 20 Now I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. 21 Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my descendants after me, and that you will not wipe out my name from my father’s house.” 22 So David swore this to Saul. Then Saul went home; but David and his men went up to the stronghold.
We also visited the site of an ancient synagogue:
Then we headed down to the Dead Sea (for information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea ). It is the lowest point below sea level on the planet. The salt and mineral content in the water is highly concentrated, making it toxic to drink, but it has very high buoyancy. So we had a “float” in the Dead Sea. It is not possible to swim in the Dead Sea.
Our final visit for the tour was to Qumran. This is an important archaeological site just off the shore of the Dead Sea. In 1947 some Bedouin shepherds searching for a stray goat dropped a stone into a crevice and heard a strange echoing sound. Investigating further, they found a cave and crawled in. There they discovered some pottery jars containing scrolls. This led to further discoveries in other caves in the same area of what became known as The Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists have translated and analysed them as belonging to the Essene Sect, a rigorous Jewish Puritan movement around the time of Jesus (for more detail see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qumran).
Our guide suggested that some of the descriptions of the early Christian community – holding all things in common, communal prayers – were very similar to the ideals of the Essene community, c.f. Acts 2:44ff:
Life among the Believers
44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
After a very long, busy day, we were glad to be back on the bus, snoozing, while the driver brought us back to Jerusalem.
An enduring memory for me is the stony, dryness, harshness, unforgiving nature of the desert/wilderness terrain.
I suspect that this nature of the physical environment has affected the psyche of those who live here and contributes to the harshness and unforgivingness of the political/militant discourse that continues to promote conflict and hatred among the different inhabitants of this land. Let us pray that the life-giving waters of God’s grace will bring about a softening of the hearts of the leaders and peoples of this land leading to reconciliation and peace. Amen.
Shalom, Peace, Salaam!