We had arrived late Saturday night to our hotel in a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem and many of us were still adjusting to the time difference from Southern California. Before long it was 1:30 AM and some of us were still tossing, trying to get some sleep before our early start. At 7 AM Sunday morning, we began our adventure with a savory Israeli breakfast buffet before setting off for our first destination: Kiryat Ye’arim. Reading from 1 Samuel 7:1-2, we learned that the Ark of the Lord had stayed in Kiryat Ye’arim for twenty years. Kiryat meaning “town” and Ye’arim meaning “forest,” this place had more trees than in the valley of Shephelah or on the Coastal Plains.
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.
It is a practical garden, not filled with flowers, but abundant in herbs such as thyme, rosemary, lavender, and geranium. We also saw a fig tree, with a lone fig still left on the branch despite it being the winter season. Here our tour guide, Ronen, began to introduce us to the agriculture of Israel which polished our understanding of Scripture. There were seven sources of food that the Israelites had: wheat and barley for bread, olives for oil, grape vines for wine, and pomegranates, figs and dates for sweets.
One bit of information in particular about their bread that I found interesting was that the people of Israel, even today, make and eat the bread fresh daily. They don’t eat yesterday’s bread, which Ronen suggested may be why they don’t have a big problem with gluten. Ronen also demonstrated how the people would make their oil from olives using the oil press, or Gat Shemen. The olive oil could then serve many purposes, the number one use being for lighting, then for medicinal purposes, ceremonial anointing, soap, and cooking. Olives play a big part in Israeli agriculture and understanding of the agriculture in turn provides a better understanding of the culture, which further provides a better understanding of Scripture and finally Jesus.
For instance, the olive tree never really dies. Once it’s trunk falls over, a new shoot from the old tree grows up. This shoot in Hebrew is called a Netzer. A similar term for the people of the house of David is used, since they are of the shoot of David, they are called Nazarites (Isaiah 11:1-5). As we gathered around the winepress, Ronen asked all the unmarried women of the group to step in and pretend to press the grapes as he explained that the young men would pick the grapes and bring them to this winepress where the unmarried women would be “dancing.” The time for the grape harvest then was a time for romance as the young men fell in love with these young and unmarried women. Totally in awe with the land around us and all that we had learned, and yet it was only 10:30 AM! We still had plenty more to see.
At Beth Shemesh, School of Ministry student Spencer Osborne taught us that this was where the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines and the Ark of the Lord was taken from. After being passed through three Philistine cities, the people suffering from turmoil and affliction all the while, the five kings of the Philistines decided to send it back with a guilt offering. Here at Beth Shemesh, Ronen told us about Samson, ending with the encouragement that God can work through the best and the worst of us. We saw excavated architecture from thousands of years ago and from a pile of unwanted ancient pottery pieces, we each took a souvenir before continuing down into a cistern, hallowed out in order to keep water. However, the walls could be scratched off using a finger because of how soft the rock was, so they had to be plastered in order to keep water from seeping into the walls.
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.
Here Ronen read Jeremiah 2:13 and we reflected how we have broken cisterns we often choose over the Lord’s living water, and we spent some time in prayer together, thanking God that we don’t have to live as a broken cistern. After our lunch break, with fresh baked pita bread, we hiked up to the top of Azekah, where Sarah Peters informed us that it means “strength of walls” and that the view that it overlooks is the valley where David and Goliath met in battle. We even walked down to the stream where David gathered his five stones to fight Goliath with. Separating into girls and guys, we had some time to reflect as we each took our own stone. A short ride later, we arrived at Bet Guvrin (Maresha) where we walked through a cave of wonders. Truly, it was a wonder to walk through and consider who might have lived there in these bell-shaped interconnecting caves dug into the ground, if anyone did live there or if it was perhaps a factory of some kind. Finally, we hiked to the bell caves of Bet Guvrin, massive caves with beautiful acoustics, which we tested by praising the Lord with a verse of Amazing Grace.
Our day’s travels end at the Daniel Dead Sea hotel just off the shore of the Dead Sea, tired but excited about what tomorrow holds.
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.