Andy Bolkcom writes:
On the first day of the GRTS Israel trip, we spent the day in the Shephelah, the longitudinal region between the coastal plain and the hill country. We began by visiting Kiriath Jearim, Gath, and Beth Shemesh in the morning. In the Shephelah are valleys that provide access into the hill country from the coastal plain. Therefore, they are strategically important and figure prominently in the Bible, especially in conflict with other peoples. In the afternoon, we saw Azekah and Lachish. Both of these are important cities located in the middle of these important valleys. They are important in understanding conflict in the Old Testament.
Azekah is located in the middle of the Elah Valley. After seeing this location, it is clear that this city provided an important strategic advantage to those who controlled it. It is located on a curve in the Elah Valley and provides clear visibility to the surrounding region. In fact, it is in the Elah Valley where David fought Goliath. 1 Samuel 17 explains that the Philistines were encamped between Azekah and Socoh. Today, we were able to easily see Socoh just on the other side of the valley. The Philistines controlled the coastal plain, and Israel controlled the hill country, so this story is a great example of these two kingdoms meeting to fight in this region in between. This also provides context for understanding why later kings would rebuild and fortify these cities in these valleys.
Tel Azekah and Elah Valley
The Brook Elah is famous for the five stones it contributed to the young slinger, David. Some surmise that David chose five stones instead of the one needed in case he needed to face Goliath’s four brothers.
We also saw Lachish. We were able to see some remains of the city wall and the city gate. At this site, there are also the remains of an Assyrian siege ramp. Seeing this site was very beneficial because it enabled me to understand what an ancient fortified city would have looked like. But it also gave insight into biblical conflicts. At this site we focused on Sennacherib's campaign against Israel. Sennacherib came from Assyria down the coastal plain and destroyed and conquered every town he came to. One of these cities was Lachish, and this is supported in the Bible as well as Sennacherib's own annals and archaeological evidence at the site. It was very moving to see this site. I could imagine seeing the approaching Assyrian army. They were a terrifying enemy, and Lachish's vantage provides great visibility to the area. But given its strategic location, Lachish was also the last fortified city before an enemy could get to the capital Jerusalem. After defeating this southern-most valley city, Sennacherib could easily march on Jerusalem.
Identified first as Lachish by Albright in 1929, the tell was excavated by James Leslie Starkey 1932-38 and by Tel Aviv University 1973-87.
Lachish is generally regarded as the second most important city in the southern kingdom of Judah. It enters the biblical narrative in the battle accounts of Joshua, Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar.
At both of these sites, Dr. Joe Stowell preached on key texts associated with these places. This was a very moving experience. Seeing the valley where David fought Goliath provides illuminating context. It made the story come alive in a new way. After seeing the site, it makes sense why the Israelites were fighting the Philistines in this location. It was in the Elah Valley, at a real place and time where God delivered his people from terrifying, sophisticated, and formidable enemies. Seeing Lachish was also very powerful. I could sense the terror Israelites would have felt as they watched Assyrian forces approach. They would have known that they were the last ones left besides Jerusalem. This must have been terribly frightening, knowing that they stood little chance against Assyria, yet if they failed Jerusalem would be left alone.
It has been a delight and a great privilege to see the land of Israel. After seeing Azekah and Lachish, I have a much better understanding of the geography, which helps inform how ancient kings thought. Yet most importantly, seeing the land of Israel manifests more clearly that my God is a God who has invaded human history to proclaim his glory through (or despite) his people and to establish his kingdom on earth.
Steven (Chester) Wakefield writes:
On the first day of the 2016 GRTS Israel study tour we concentrated on visiting strategic locations of the Shephelah. We observed that the Shephelah is a region of Israel situated between the coastal plains and the central mountains known for its abundance of “grain, wine, and oil”. We saw how the lush vegetation of of fertile hills, mountains, and low lying valleys was a huge contributor to Israel’s food supply. We also saw that the Shephelah contained strategic access points to the rest of the land that were necessary to maintain power over the land. If one wanted control over Israel, it would be encumbant that they have control over the Shephelah.
Of all of the sites we visited in the Shephelah, Kiriath-Jearim was the easternmost and highest in elevation. We observed that as one travels from the coastal plains eastward toward the Judean Hill country elevation increased. We learned that Kiriath-Jearim was the city that Abinidab lived in who housed the ark of the Covenant when it was returned after the Philistines stole it in battle. From the development of that story, we learned about the ANE concept of “God napping”, where a defeated nation’s God is depicted as subservient to the conquering nation’s god. In the story of the Philistine taking the Ark of the Covenant, the Philistines wanted to show how Israel’s God was subservient to their God (“god napping”), by putting the Ark of the Covenant in their god, Dagon’s temple. As the story goes however, YHWH does a reversal by having the image of Dagon falling prostrate before the Ark of the Covenant two days in a row. On the second day, something like the head and hands of the image of Dagon had been broken off as it fell prostrate before the Ark of the Covenant. Eventually the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Kiribath-Jearim after YHWH had inflicted the Philistines with diseases and tumors because they had the Ark in their possession.
The biblical city of Kiriath Jearim is best known for the house of Abinadab which held the Ark of the Covenant from the time of Samuel until the time of David (about 120 years). Kiriath Jearim was originally a Gibeonite city that fell within the tribal territory of Judah near the borders of Benjamin and Dan. The prophet Uriah, a contemporary of Jeremiah, was from Kiriath Jearim.
The second site we visited was Gath which was one of the principal cities of the Philistines (along with Ekron, Gaza, Ashdod, and Ashkalon). We learned that Gath was a guardian city that guarded the entrance to the Elah Valley. At one time the Philistines controlled these cities and at other times the Israelites controlled them. The nation that controlled these cities, and in particular the guardian cities to the various valleys (Elah, Sorek, Guvrin, Lachish, and Aijalon valleys) held power over the land. These valleys were the access points to the Hill country of Israel. If one had control of the Shephelah, then that nation held a dominant hold over Israel. Over the course of time Israel vied for control against the Philistines over the Shephelah. As one sees in the Scriptures, the more Israel remained faithful to YHWH, the more they enjoyed the blessing of Shephelah control. The more Israel veered from the covenant the more they found that the power over the Shephelah would shift to their enemies.
The third site of the Shephelah we visited was Beth-Shemesh which was a buffer zone city of the Sorek valley, which was in the middle of or “the heart” of the Shephelah (Ekron was the guardian city of the Sorek valley). Beth-Shemesh is the location of the events surrounding Samson where Samson would go into Philistine territory. Since Beth-Shemesh was more of a “buffer zone” between Israel and the Philistines, Israel held primary control over it. Archaeology attests to Israel’s primary control of Beth-Shemesh in that it had a very small percentage of pig bones compared to other Philistine cities.
A border city between Judah and Dan, Beth Shemesh was given to the Levites. Beth Shemesh was the most important Israelite city in the Sorek Valley as it watched both east-west traffic through the Sorek Valley and north-south traffic along the “Diagonal Route.” Recent excavations have shown a thriving city here from the Middle Bronze Age through the Iron II period.
Over all, my view of the scriptures have been enhanced because I have been able to catch a closer glimpse of the significance of the Shephelah for Israel in Biblical times. Moreover, I have gained a deeper sense of the tension between Israel and the surrounding nations as they vied for control over the Shephelah.
Steven (Chester) also included a picture of himself to send you with his blog post: