On Rosh Chodesh Adar, the first day of the new month, my class on the tribes of Israel traveled through the land allotted to Judah. This is the land that became the majority of kingdom of Judea, as described in the first book of Kings.
At this time of year, at the end of the rainy season, the land is especially beautiful, because the wildflowers are blooming. The southern part of the country celebrates with a series of special events called Darom Adom, the Red South. The events take their name from the kalaniot, or anemone, which is bright red.
Pardes, where I study, was not the only school on the move. At Tel Azeka we competed for space to sit with groups from at least three elementary schools. The students all looked to be ten to twelve years old. One group must have been from a religious school; the boys were all wearing black slacks and white shirts, the uniform of the day on Rosh Chodesh.
From the top of Tel Azeka it was easy to understand the strategic importance of the site. In the time of the Judges and the Kings, it was a border city, between the Israelites in the mountains and the Philistines in the plain. The tel is located just above the Elah Valley. The young shepherd David began his military career in this valley by killing the Philistine champion Goliath with a well-aimed stone from a slingshot. On the far side of the valley, the Mountains of Judea lead off into the distance.
Near the end of the period of the First Temple, the Assyrians conquered and destroyed the city. Azeka was almost the last to fall to king Sennacheriv before his unsuccessful assault on Jerusalem. The city was rebuilt, only to be conquered and destroyed again less than a hundred years later. by the Babylonians. The Babylonians went on to conquer Lachish and then Jerusalem, where they destroyed the Temple and exiled much of the population to Babylonia.
We stood there, admiring the view, and enjoying the antics of the beautiful children. I didn’t envy the teachers, especially the ones trying to corral the boys. I wondered how much the boys in the almond trees absorbed of the teacher’s explanation of the Biblical events.
Here in Israel the Bible isn’t a fusty old book. It’s a living text and a guide to the land these boys and girls walk every day. They may not remember the strategic placement of sites. They may never be able spell Sennachariv or Nebuchadnezzar. But they’ll grow up knowing they live in a beautiful land with thousands of years of history.
And if they’re lucky, it won’t be on next week’s test.
If you’ve ever listened to how the old Negro spirituals portray the Jordan River, you would expect it to be deep, wide, and chilly. To cross it you need to row your boat ashore. The reality is rather different.
At Qasr al Yahud, near Jericho, the river is shallow, narrow, and pretty warm. And because it is an international border guarded by soldiers on both sides, the boat is useless.
This week, I went to Qasr al Yahud on a tour with my class from Matan, a women’s seminary in southern Jerusalem. We’re studying the territories assigned to each tribe during the settlement of the land of Canaan, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges. And where better to start than at the place Joshua led the people across the Jordan River?
G-d tells Joshua that the Cohanim, the priests, will lead the crossing. The Cohanimwill carry the Ark of the Covenant, and when they step into the river, the waters will stop; they will heap up and the Children of Israel will cross on dry land. It sounds a lot like what happened to their parents and grandparents at the Red Sea when they left Egypt forty years earlier.
We know the crossing occurred a few days before Passover, the end of the rainy season. The Tanakh specifically tells us that the river was in flood. The Jordan must have been a mighty river back then, not the paltry stream we see today. In a year of plentiful rain, there would have been a significant flow of water. Photos from 1935 show the Jordan in flood, spread out for miles.
It wouldn’t happen today, even in a year of plentiful rain, because water flow in the river is highly regulated. The three main tributaries of the Jordan—the Dan, the Hasbani, the Banias—come out of the mountains join together just north of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The outflow from the southern end of the lake is controlled by the Degania dam, which is rarely opened wide. Very little of the river water flows out the southern end of the lake. Instead it is channeled through the national water carrier to cities, towns, and farms in Israel, or through special pipes to neighboring Jordan.
During rainy season, dry wadis throughout Israel become streams and rivers. Those on the eastern side of the watershed discharge into the Jordan, increasing its flow. Water from farms whose irrigation is not carefully controlled also increases groundwater runoff. Because many Palestinian villages in Areas A and B refuse to connect to sewage treatment lines, surface runoff is highly polluted. Between the low water flow in the river, plus the sewage and other pollutants in the river, by the time it gets to the vicinity of Jericho, it is a ugly greenish brown color.
Neither the small size of the river nor the pollution discourage Christian pilgrims. Every year approximately 300,000 visitors arrive, many to be baptized where John baptized Jesus more than two thousand years ago. Although the exact site of the baptism is unknown, evidence from the Bible points to the area known by its Arabic name as Qasr al Yahud.
Qasr al Yahud, like many names in Arabic and in Hebrew, can be interpreted two ways. It might mean “the Palace of the Jews” or it might mean the “Crossing [Place] of the Jews.” The latter translation refers to where the Jews crossed the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan.
The Biblical description of the river crossing indicates that this is the correct area. It is described as being opposite Jericho. Driving down from Jerusalem, we went past Jericho, and could see its outskirts behind us as we turned onto the Qasr al Yahud access road.
The Jordan River, for all its length from the Kinneret to the Dead Sea, is far below sea level. Near Jericho the land around the river is flat; if it is not too hazy, you can see for miles in any direction.
However, several miles north of Jericho, the mountains of Samaria come right down to the river. When the river is in flood, the mountains can act as a natural dam, constricting the flow. If an earthquake dislodges boulders, the river can actually be stopped here. Earthquakes did indeed stop the flow of the river for several days after an earthquake in 1546. The 1927 earthquake may have also have blocked the river and caused the water to back up for a few hours. Some scholars have theorized that such an earthquake was responsible for the Jordan stopping and the waters heaping up “like a wall,” allowing the Jews to cross without getting wet.
It is unlikely that such an earthquake would cause the waters to accumulate like a wall today, unless it also caused the Degania Dam to collapse.
The Bible records another instance of the Jordan River stopping to allow people to cross it on dry land. In Kings II, Elijah and Elisha walk to the river from Jericho. Elijah hits the water with his cloak, and the river splits so the two prophets can cross. As Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha grabs his cloak. He returns to Jericho, using the cloak to split the river so he a can again cross without getting his feet wet.
The people we saw on the banks of the Jordan this week were not worried about getting their feet wet. They had come to Qasr al Yehud specifically to dip in the Jordan’s water, as Jesus had.
The gift shop sells white baptismal gowns for the convenience of pilgrims who have not brought their own. Next to the gift shop is an enclosed area for those being baptized to change and to shower. Given the high level of pollution, post-baptism showers, even if not required by religion, are certainly necessary from a health standpoint.
I watched as the priest spoke to a group. They stood on the wooden platform as they prayed together and sang a hymn. Then the priest led them to the stairs. He stood on the second step, getting wet up to his knees. Repeatedly filling a cup with water, he poured it over the head of each person in turn. After being baptized, most of the people waded out into the waist deep water and dunked themselves up to their shoulders. Out in the deeper water, they lost their seriousness, and laughed as they bobbed up and down. Not one of them approached the floating cord that marked the border between Israel and Jordan.
Many of them posed for photos with their friends as they came back up onto the platform. I took a few photos of them too, but as I did so, I thought of how
I feel when tourists at the Kotel take photos. It always makes me uncomfortable to see a camera pointed in my direction as I pray. Yet, here I was doing the same thing. So I pointed my camera in another direction—towards the wooden platform on the other side of the river.
The Jordanian side of the river is as holy as the Israeli one, but we saw only two or three pilgrims on the opposite bank. The Jordanian soldier sitting there seemed bored. It looked like he was more interested in his phone than in watching the river. Just like the IDF soldiers on our side.
I could only wish that the soldiers on all our borders would have such dull uninteresting duties.
If geography and topology give a place strategic importance in one era, they make it important in other eras as well. Once again, on a tour to see an ancient site, I saw this point demonstrated. This time my tour was part of a course on the Second Temple Period; the place was Ramat Rachel, in the southern part of Jerusalem.
A ramah is a high place, and at 818 meters above sea level, Ramat Rachel is this highest place for miles around. At one time it was halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Over several thousand years both cities grew, until today Ramat Rachel is within the southern borders of Jerusalem, less than two kilometers from the outskirts of Bethlehem. From one spot on the hilltop, you can see almost to the Dead Sea, and turning around, you can see, first, western Jerusalem, and further around, the Mount of Olives. It is obviously a strategic piece of real estate.
I’ve been there twice—both times the wind made it feel cooler than the lower surrounding areas. It may have been the cool breeze that led one of the last kings of Judah to build a palace here, but it was probably the height of the hill that brought the Roman Tenth Legion 800 years later.
Like most ancient sites, it has been excavated more than once. The first modern people to dig here were not doing so to uncover historical artifacts. They were members of the IDF digging trenches to fortify the border and protect themselves from the sight and the bullets of the Jordanian army. What they found piqued the interest of archeologists, but the site was too dangerous to excavate. During an archeological conference in 1956, a gathering on the hilltop drew the attention of Jordanian soldiers stationed nearby, who opened fire. Five people were killed, and fourteen more were wounded.
Nonetheless, archeologists were determined to explore the site, and Yohanon Aharoni dug here in the early 1960s. He uncovered remains of a huge palace, which he thought had been built by King Yehoyakim. After all, had not the Prophet Jeremiah railed against the King’s magnificent palace, which he was building? Jeremiah mentioned the fine dressed stones and “red stuff smeared on the windowsills.” One bit of evidence that this was indeed Yehoyakim’s palace came with the discovery of carefully cut stones that had remnants of red paint still clinging to them under the windows .
Gabi Barkai came to excavate here in the early 1980s. It was much safer for him and his team to dig here, since the surrounding area was now in Israeli hands. He found a lower layer of remains. In this layer, he found pottery jug handles with stamped with tax collectors’ seals from the time of King Hezekiah.So a palace may have stood on the site 100 years before Jeremiah’s complaints about Yehoyakim’s construction project.
The history Israeli archeology always includes the name of Yigal Yadin—he seems to have an opinion about every site excavated from the 1950s to the 1980s, and Ramat Rachel is no exception. After learning about an underground passage leading from the palace, Yadin concluded that this was the palace of Queen Athaliah of Judah. She seized power when her son, King Ahaziah, died, and cemented her hold on the throne by killing all the members of the royal family who might challenge her, including her sons and grandsons. It is easy to understand why she might have felt the need for an escape tunnel. However, Yadin’s theory is not generally accepted.
The question of whose palace these remains were part of remains open, but that is not the end of the story. Tons of pottery jug handles with the letters yud-heh-daldet on them had been found, and they did not fit in with what was already known. The letters spell Yehud, the Persian name for this province of their kingdom. The stamped jug handles are Persian tax stamps, from a few hundred years after the Kings of Judah reigned. Ramat Rachel’s ruins have yielded more of these Persian tax stamps than any other site. Indeed, the majority of Persian tax stamps found in the country were uncovered here. These artifacts did not fit the royal palace story.
Many water channels were found surrounding a platform, a platform too high to be natural. Between the channels were layers of imported garden soil. Obviously an elegant garden had been constructed on the site. The problem is that large elaborate gardens are not a native Israeli idea.
The discovery of these Babylonian/Persian style gardens, has led to further revision of thinking on the function of ancient Ramat Rachel. It is now surmised that Ramat Rachel may have been an ancient administrative center. Conquering nations usually wanted to increase the accessibility of their own administrators. Jerusalem was
surrounded by mountains higher than it was, and difficult to get to. Conquerors generally wanted to de-emphasize Jerusalem as a religious center, in an effort to get the native people to worship their gods and thus become assimilated into their own populations. There is no destruction layer in the ruins, so this site was probably never conquered in battle. A series of foreign governments, starting with the Assyrians, simply built their centers in a scenic spot outside what had been the Jewish capital. After the Assyrians, the Babylonians governed the land from this hill, and then the Persians did as well. Ramat Rachel is one of the few places in Israel where we can see remains of monumental Persian architecture.
When the Persians were succeeded by the Seleucids, the successors of Alexander the Great, all went well for a while. Then Antiochus Epiphanes made a mistake—he moved his center to Jerusalem and set up a statue of himself in the Temple. This latter action inspired Judah Maccabee to revolt. Judah’s victory, celebrated by the holiday of Chanukah, led to the Hasmonean period, the last Jewish kingdom. The Hasmoneans, in their anger over what Antiochus had done and wanting to wipe out all traces of foreign powers, dismantled the governmental structures at Ramat Rachel.
Later the Roman Tenth Legion would encamp here. During the Byzantine period, Christians built a monastery on the site because of its proximity to the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The hill remained insignificant until Jews, returning to the land, established Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in 1926.
A kibbutz is a communal agricultural settlement, unique to Israel. Although today this kibbutz is within the city boundaries of Jerusalem, when it was founded it was well outside the city. Those who lived and worked here were farmers. Because it has such a commanding view of the surrounding area, it was of strategic importance in the War of Independence.
The Egyptian and Jordanian armies rarely worked together, but in 1948 they both attacked Ramat Rachel. The battles fought here were intense. The Arabs captured it three times and Israel recaptured it each time. At one point, the defenders of the kibbutz saw Israeli soldiers approaching. Thinking they were about to be relieved, the defenders excitedly left their base in the dining hall, only to be fired on by their own army. The oncoming soldiers could not believe that Jews were still there, fighting to keep the land. When the armistice agreement was signed, Ramat Rachel remained in Israeli hands, almost completely surrounded by Jordan.
In 1967, at the behest of Egyptian President Nasser and encouraged by false reports of Egyptian victories, the Jordanians launched an assault on Jerusalem by attacking Ramat Rachel and the nearby UN headquarters. Under attack from Jordan, Israel fought back, regaining territory it had lost in 1948.
Since then, Ramat Rachel has thrived. It is no longer strictly agricultural. It still owns some cherry orchards but it has sold much of its land to real estate developers. Most kibbutz members today earn their living working in the Ramat Rachel Hotel or country club, or in hi-tech.
A lookout point, designed by the sculptor Ron Morin, sits on top of an old IDF fortification. From the top, you can see all of Jerusalem in front of you. Because of the distance from the Old City, it was obvious why King David wrote “Jerusalem, the mountains surround her.” Shulie Miskin, our guide, had to point out the golden Dome of the Rock, which seem nestled within the surrounding mountains like a bright bird’s egg tucked into its nest.
Ramat Rachel is a popular site for social events because of its scenic location. On my visit, a photographer was busy taking wedding pictures. He directed the participants to move just a little, to turn this way or that, until he had the perfect setup. As we left the lookout point, I looked back. The bride was standing near the edge, the blue and lavender hills in the background, her veil romantically floating behind her in the breeze. I treasure that picture in my mind. It is a reminder that even in difficult times, peace is possible.
Along route 436, near the northernmost point of Jerusalem, is Shmuel HaNavi, the place of Samuel the Prophet. For many years it was better known by its Arabic name, Nebi Samuil. There is a tradition that Samuel was buried here, but like most traditions regarding ancient tombs, that tradition is probably mistaken. Nonetheless, it is venerated by Christians, Muslims, and Jews as a holy site, appropriate for prayer.
As Meir Eisenman, our guide that day, pointed out, although Samuel is not buried here, he definitely visited. In the Bible, Samuel goes to Mitzpe several times. A mitzpe is an observation point, a high place from which one can see much of the land around. Shmuel HaNavi is the highest point in the Mountains of Judea. The building on its peak has a distinctive silhouette– rectangle with a tower on one side and an umbrella-shaped tree on the other. It can be recognized from anywhere in the center of the country with an unobstructed viewMeir stood beside the building and pointed out landmarks from Gush Etzion and Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, in the south, to the Mountains of Moav in Jordan, and north towards Psagot. The buildings closest to us were those of Ramallah and Kalandia. On the other side of the building, Meir directed our attention to nearby Givat Ze’ev and Modi’in. Between the mountains to our west, we could see a pale gray area, which he identified as the coastal plain. Samuel, with his view unobstructed by tall buildings or air pollution, would have thus been able to see mountainous territory occupied by the tribes Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. He would also have been able to glimpse the flat land of Philistines on the coastal plain.
The hill is an archeological as well as religious site. First and Second Temple period remains have been found here, as well as houses from the Byzantine period. The Byzantines built a monastery on the mountain in honor of Saint Samuel and later the Crusaders built a fortress on the site, complete with moat. They called the place Mount Joy, because from this spot they could see Jerusalem. The straight walls of the Crusader quarry and stables are still visible. The Ottomans later added a minaret and mithrab, a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca towards which Muslims pray, converting the building to a mosque.
In 1948, the Jordanian Legion occupied the hill and from here shelled much of Jerusalem. Our friend Shalom has told us about the shells from Nebi Samuel landing in our neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe daily, for weeks on end. Standing in front of the building, I could identify the white spire of the light rail bridge in Kiryat Moshe and a tall building in Givat Shaul. Although neither the bridge nor the building existed in 1948, most of the trees and other buildings that stand today between Nebi Samuel and Jerusalem did not exist either. Standing where the Jordanians stood, even I could probably have aimed a cannon to hit Kiryat Moshe, five miles away.
Although I have visited Shmuel HaNavi before, this was the first
time I went inside the building, all that remains of the Crusader fortress. The room on the ground floor was a large empty square, devoid of decoration. Directly opposite the entrance is a locked door to an inner chamber. The sign above it reads in Arabic and English, Islamic Waqf, Mosque of the Prophet Samuel. Next to the doorway is a rack where those who come to pray can put their shoes.
We walked through the main room and down more stairs to the tomb itself. The room is white and brightly lit. It is tiny compared to other tombs I’ve visited, with room for only a few people to stand around the catafalque marking the grave.
Meir offered to take us down to the spring on the hill below the tomb building. He said it would be about a seven minute walk, an easy distance but fairly steep. While some of the women in our group stayed at the tomb to say Psalms, Meir led six of us down the hill to Maayan Chana, named for Samuel’s mother. The mountains in Binyamin are blessed with many natural springs. This one feeds several pools carved into the side of the hill which are used as a mikve, a ritual bath, by Breslover Hasidim who pray here.
We could see the outermost pools as we approached. My first impression was, Yuck! Green algae and weeds floated on the surface of the pool and the rocks. Beyond them, the water in the inner pools looked black and uninviting. Meir assured us that the algae was only outside, in the sun, and the water further in was fresh and clear. He walked across the uneven rocks and stooped down to scoop water up in his hand, and then splashed it on his face.
I carefully stepped across the rocks, following Meir. The caves went back into the hill for a distance I could not see. Looking down into the nearest one, I could see its bottom. The water was clear. It was a hot day—I was almost tempted to take a dip. Lacking a bathing suit, I satisfied myself with taking some photos.
The wet rocks looked slippery. There were no steps chiseled into the rock, no ladders, not even a rope. I wondered how the men who use the pools as a mikve manage to get in and out safely. Using a mikve to purify yourself requires you to be naked, so I was just as glad that no one was there to demonstrate.
Maayan Chana was an unexpected treat on that warm late summer afternoon. I may never actually plunge in to the pools, but next time, I’ll take my shoes off and dangle my feet in its cold clear water.
In his memoirs, For Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek writes about Shmuel Hanavi in 1967. Teddy was elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1965, and re-elected to that office five times, serving until 1993. In 1967, after the reunification of Jerusalem, many people–rich, influential people such as retired government officials and university professors– wanted to build large homes near Samuel’s Tomb. As Teddy points out, the view from the hill is “breathtaking….Who would not want to live with Jerusalem at his feet!”
But Teddy wanted to keep this space between Ramallah and Jerusalem open. It was important to him and his colleagues that the familiar silhouette of Nebi Samuel remain visible. Adding homes to the area would do nothing to help protect the security of the city, and would limit the view of the countryside from the mitzpe.
This week, I stood on the rooftop of the building at Shmuel Hanavi. We had gingerly walked up the very steep narrow stairway. Standing in the middle of the roof, we could to see the compete horizon. The land spread out–green and brown forests and farms, buff colored towns with pink tile roofs, gray blue distant mountains, a bright blue sky above.
Teddy Kollek had been right. Keeping Nebi Samuel free of individual homes and accessible to all who want to visit added to the treasures of Israel.
When the second Temple stood in Jerusalem, Ein Kerem was part of the belt of towns around Jerusalem that supplied the city. Each small town had its specialty: wood, oil, animals, grain. As its name—the Spring of the Vineyard–suggests, Ein Kerem’s specialty was grapes for wine.
When the Muslims conquered the land from the Persians in 614 CE, wine production ceased. Alcoholic beverages of any kind are forbidden to them, and growing wine grapes was forbidden. Vineyards throughout the country were uprooted and wine production ceased. But even though there were no more grapes, the name of the town persisted.
Ein Kerem is no longer an isolated town, a long four and half mile hike through the mountains away from the city. It has become another neighborhood within today’s Jerusalem. Like many other neighborhoods, however, it has retained its unique character.
The spring from which the town took its water as well as its name is a holy site for Christians. The story is told in the book of Luke how Mary, pregnant at the time, came to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant. When they met near the spring, Elizabeth’s baby moved in response to Mary’s presence. Elizabeth then blessed Mary and her child. Elizabeth’s baby was John the Baptist; Mary’s baby was Jesus. Because the women met here, and John the Baptist grew up here, many Christian groups have built churches and monasteries in the area. The golden domes of the Muskovia, a large Russian Orthodox church on the hill just beyond the spring, can be seen for miles. When we went to Castel, more than four miles away (by car, 5.3 miles), it was easy to see the sunlight reflecting off the Muskovia’s domes. Just below the Muskovia stands the Roman Catholic Church of the Visitation.
Holy sites retain their holiness even when the dominant religion changes. Just uphill from the spring in the other direction stands the Franciscan church St. John of the Mountains. Ein Kerem’s history goes back to Canaanite times; this church stands on the hill where Ba’al was once worshiped. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, his mother Queen Helene, visited the holy land to identify the sites holy to Christianity. She identified this hill as the place where Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah had lived, over three hundred years after their deaths. The hill was therefore holy; she built a church here and named it for Elizabeth.
The church stood for less than two hundred years, before being destroyed in the Samaritan revolt against the Byzantines. Another six centuries passed. When the Crusaders came to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, the Hospitallers built a new church on the ruins of the Byzantine one and named it for St. John. When the Muslims reconquered the area, they once again destroyed the church.
The sultan gave permission to Franciscan monks to buy land and settle in the area in the late 17th century. They completed the monastery about 120 years later, but the modern church was not completed until 1920.
The church has a large courtyard, which the British took advantage of during World War II to station tanks. The treads of the heavy tanks made a mess of the courtyard paving. What was left of it needed to be dug up and replaced after the war. The Franciscans decided to use the opportunity to excavate the courtyard and under the nearby portion of the church. As frequently happens with archaeological excavations in the Middle East, they found much more than they expected.
They had expected to find the remains of the Byzantine church. But in addition to that, they found several Roman statues, including several of Aphrodite. And they found a second Temple period wine press. Like any good scientist, the priest in charge of the excavations, Father Saler, wrote up what he found. His report languished in the Franciscan library for about half a century until a Jewish woman, interested in the history of the Ein Kerem, pulled it out.
Father Saler had been able to identify everything he found under the church and its courtyard, but one structure puzzled him. He found a square hole, whose walls were plastered, which made them watertight. He did not think it had been used to store water, because stairs led down into its pool. As Shulie, the tour guide, read the priest’s description, I thought it sounded like a mikve.
Shulie continued the story. The woman went to the abbot of the monastery, and asked if it was possible to see this structure. At first he said no, it was inaccessible under the church. However, when questioned further he said that although it had been built over, it was possible to get to it through a small passageway under the church. She was persistent, and eventually he gave her permission. She crawled through a tight dusty passage under the church to the chamber. She examined the square plastered hole, the stairs into it, and found the small hole in its wall that would have connected it to the larger pool of fresh water necessary for a kosher mikve. She took several photos of the mikve and left.
Shulie passed copies of the photos around. What had puzzled Father Saler was obvious to the observant Jews and the archeology buffs in our group; he had found an ancient mikve, proof of Jewish presence in Ein Kerem in Second Temple times.
Perhaps some trace of the holiness of the ritual bath still radiating through the ground had attracted Queen Helene to this site. As a Cohen serving in the Temple, Zachariah would have been very concerned with ritual purity. Even if he and Elizabeth had not lived in this exact spot, he may have used the mikve.
No matter where you go in Israel, there are almost always Biblical connections.
From where we were standing, near the top of windy barren Har Eval, we could not see any towns, houses, or farms. All we could see were the gently sloping ridges of the mountain top. It was noon, and we could hear the muezzins’ calls to prayer in Nablus.
“Listen,” said Eve Harow, our guide. “Standing up here, as B’nai Israel did when they entered the land with Joshua, you can hear what is happening in the valley on the other side of the mountain.”
I had always read the story about the blessings and curses in the Book of Joshua with skepticism. How could people standing on two mountains hear and respond to what priests were declaiming in the valley between them? Yet I was standing on one of those mountains, listening to the sounds from that valley.
We had driven an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on this One Israel Fund trip into the territory once held by the tribe of Menashe (Menassah). In Shavei Shomron we had stopped to meet up with our army escort. Har Eval, on the outskirts of Nablus, is within Area A which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Because we would be traveling on roads which are both illegal and dangerous for Israeli cars to drive on, we had received permission from the IDF for our excursion and would be accompanied by an IDF escort.
Nablus was originally built by the Romans on the site of ancient Shechem, the town near which Jacob and sons lived and pastured
their sheep. Joseph’s grave is located there, in the oldest part of Shechem. In the 1980s a yeshiva was established at Joseph’s Tomb but it came under attack by the Arabs during the Al Aksa Intifada. When violence erupted, it became increasingly difficult to protect the students. The Yeshiva was evacuated. After the Palestinian Authority, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, guaranteed police protection for the tomb, the IDF also left. That very day, the Palestinian Authority police watched a mob burn the tomb. Today, Jews can visit what is left, as long as they do so in a protected group escorted by the IDF.
Like almost all Israelis, Allen and I had never seen Har Eval. All I knew about it was from the Bible. It was first mentioned in Deuteronomy (11: 29) when Moshe tells B’nai Yisrael that when they enter the land, blessings and curses would be read to them by the priests standing between two mountains. Half the tribes would stand on Har Gerizim. When they heard a blessing, what would happen when they obeyed G-d’s commands, they would answer “Amen.” The other half of the tribes would stand on Har Eval. When they heard the curses, the consequences of flouting G-d’s laws, they would answer “Amen.”
The Book of Joshua describes the people crossing the Jordan, walking up a broad valley, arranging themselves on the two mountains, and hearing the blessings and curses. Joshua then had an altar built (8:30), sacrifices were offered, and the people left.
The mountains themselves were neither blessed nor cursed by the ceremony. Nevertheless, somehow the tradition arose that the mountain on which the people stood to answer “Amen” to the curses was itself cursed. The two altars built there, one on top of the other, were each used only one time. There is no archaeological evidence of any settlement, building, or farm anywhere on Mt. Eval.
As we drove towards the mountain, we could see much of the town of Nablus. It spreads out in the valley and winds around the feet of the mountains, and up the slopes of Mt. Gerizim. Nablus looks prosperous, with large well built houses featuring intricate stone walls that let light on to the patios and balconies, yet prevent passersby from seeing any women who might be sitting on them.
And then we were on a narrow winding dirt road ascending Har Eval. Fairly high up, a turn took us to the other side of the mountain, and Nablus disappeared. Our escort stopped and the bus parked in a small area cleared of rocks.
The hill around us was littered with large stones. Between them were smaller stones, pebbles, and small plants and grass. We older people carefully walked down the dirt track towards the altar, while the children with us raced down the hill, sure footed as gazelles.
We saw down to the flat green Tirza Valley, winding through the rocky mountains toward the Jordan River. Tirza is the only valley wide enough to enable thousands of people to walk from the Jordan to the mountains in one day, and it leads directly to Har Eval and Har Gerizim.
Although pagan altars were always built on the highest place around, Jews were commanded to build their sacrificial altars in lower places. Whenever the ancient prophets wanted to turn straying people back from idol worship to the worship of G-d, they cried out to destroy the Bamot, the high places.
So we walked from a high place on Mt. Eval down towards what is believed by some to be Joshua’s altar. Adam Zertal, the archaeologist who, with his students, discovered this altar, is sure of its identity. It is definitely a Jewish altar, made of unhewn stones. approached by a ramp. Only bones of kosher animals—sheep, goats, deer—have been found in its vicinity, despite the plenitude of wild boar in the area at the time of its construction. It was used only two times, around 1250 and 1200 BCE, which puts it in the period of the entrance of the Jews into the land. The pottery shards found here date from that time or earlier.
The evidence against this being Joshua’s altar? It faces the wrong direction. Mt. Gerizim, the holy site of the Samaritans, is on the other side of the mountain, on the other side of the city of Nablus.
This does not bother Zertal. He says the traditional Mt. Gerizim is not the actual site of the blessings. According to him, despite their unbroken tradition going back to First Temple times, the Samaritans offer their Passover sacrifices on the wrong hill top. Zertal claims that Tel Kabir, the mountain that can be seen from the Mt. Eval altar is the real Mt. Gerizim.
Others have suggested that the traditional Mt. Gerizim is correctly identified. The Bible does not say that Joshua’s altar was built where the people stood to listen to the curses. They could have listened while facing Mt Gerizim across the valley, and then walked to the other side of Har Eval to build the altar and offer the sacrifices.
Until further evidence is uncovered, the question remains unresolved. It is likely to remain so for a long time. The two mountains are in Palestinian Area A. No Muslim authority will grant an archaeologist permission to conduct a dig which might support the authenticity of the Jewish Bible or evidence that might support Jewish claims to the land.
Even if the authenticity of the altar is in question, seeing places like Mt. Eval makes them real. When reading the stories in the Bible, we believe them because we want to believe. Actually seeing an altar that Joshua may have built helps make a visceral connection—it makes the story physically real. Seeing the valley that probably served as a highway for the Jews crossing the Jordan into Canaan and hearing the Muslim calls to prayer from a valley far below us turn the Bible story into an event that actually could have happened the way it is written.
Which is why we go on so many trips around the land. Having seen so many Biblical sites, I read the Bible with different eyes than I used to, eyes more open to how the stories unfolded. It is endlessly fascinating.
The story of Biblical Hazor starts in the Book of Joshua. The Israelites had conquered the Canaanites in the south of the country, from Kadesh-Barnea to Gaza. “And it happened that Jabin King of Hazor heard” (Joshua 11: 1). He sent messages to all the other kings in the north, who gathered with their armies to fight the Israelites. But with G-d’s help, the Israelites won the battle. Joshua then captured Hazor, which had been the leading army of the Canaanite forces, and burned it. .
Allen and I visited Hazor as part of my Tour with Text course. We had been studying the first book of Kings since the end of October. Three weeks studying a section of the text were coupled with a bus tour to see how the story played out against its geographic background. On our last trip we went to the Galil, to the northern part of the country to see cities Ahab, King of Israel, had built or fortified. Hazor was our last stop.
After ascending the tel, we entered the ancient city through a six-chambered gate. By this time, everyone in our group recognized its significance. Although most cities of the time had four rooms in their gates, three cities built by Solomon had six rooms: Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor. These three gates are mentioned in Kings (9:15). Today, the only ancient cities in which Israelite six-chambered gates have been found are these three from the Kingdom of Israel and Lachish, which was in the Kingdom of Judea.
We entered a large Canaanite structure, which is thought to have been the palace of the Canaanite kings. The entrance is flanked by two stone columns, as was common among many of the earlier cities of the area. These columns reminded me of the columns between which the Philistines chained Samson, much to their regret.
The foundation of the building is stone and above the stone the walls are mud brick. At one time, a strip of wood lay between the layers of stone and brick. Now wood ash sits in that space. That wood ash is evidence of a terrible fire that burned the city in the 13th century BCE, around the time Joshua was leading tribes of Israel in their conquest of the land.
In front of this structure is a large bamah, a high place or altar used for religious purposes. A large statue of Ba’al was found here, decapitated. Decapitated statues of gods are signs of religious wars. When the god of a place is unable to protect it, its worshipers lose. The winners then destroy god the losers had worshiped.
In our travels around the country we have seen the remains of many stone and mud brick buildings, but this was the first time we had seen such detailed evidence of the Israelite conquest. The soot that has marked the stones and brick for over 3200 years is a direct link to our past. Joshua and the Jews who came out of the desert into the land become more real to me with every bit of evidence I see.
Hazor did not just suddenly spring up in Joshua’s path. At that time it had already been an important Canaanite city for over 500 years. It occupies a strategic location at the eastern end of the Via Maris, the route near the coast used by ancient traders and armies moving between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Besides being mentioned in the Bible, it is referred to in the Egyptian El Amarna letters and stela. To the north, the archives at Mari, a Babylonian city along the Euphrates River, also mention Hazor.
Strategic sites retain their importance no matter who rules the area. After each conquest, sooner or later, destroyed cities are rebuilt by new rulers. That’s how tels develop, as each new city is built on top of the ruins of the previous ones, until a small hill along a trade route becomes a prominent height overlooking much of the route’s length, or even a whole valley.
Historic periods often mingle on a tel, as the basement of a later structure is dug down into the main room of a an earlier one. At Hazor, we saw that the middle chamber of one side of the gate rests on black stone. The stone is basalt; Solomon’s gate was built atop the threshold of a basalt Canaanite temple. Or building stones in good condition become incorporated into later walls. At Hazor, this secondary use of materials is evident in several places. The midsection of an Egyptian basalt statue of a lioness became the door jamb of an Israelite house.
Such secondary use of materials and intermingling of historical periods is not restricted to the ancients; we see it in Jerusalem today. Today’s Damascus Gate into the Old City, built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century stand on the remains of the Roman gate and the rooms where the Roman guards rested between their shifts. Under the Hurva synagogue, paving stones of a Byzantine era street partially cover an even older mikve, a ritual bath from the Second Temple period.
Hazor was a large city under King Solomon, and King Ahab enlarged it. But it never again reached the size it had been when the Canaanites controlled it. Then it had been a huge city with an estimated population of about 15,000. Although it was smaller when rebuilt, nonetheless archaeologists have found several large buildings, temples, granaries, and city walls and gates dating from the time of King Ahab. The site is the largest tel in Israel and it has not been excavated completely Archaeologists still hope to find a Canaanite or Israelite archive.
Walking around the site, we came across a roped off shallow pit in
which stood many upright stones of various sizes. A standing stone is called a matzevah, or monument, and differs from an altar, or mizbe’ach, in that an altar is built of many stones. Today, matzevot are erected as small memorials to an event or used as tombstones, but in earlier times they had sacred purposes. For example, the temple on Tel Arad contains a matzevah within its holy of holies. These were acceptable in early Jewish history, but later were much less so.
Any city has to have a good source of water. In ancient times when water was not pumped over long distances, the water source had to
be close to the city. Many of the most strategic locations for cities were on hilltops, but the nearest water source was in the valley. For many cities, such as Jerusalem, Megiddo, and Hazor, this situation caused a large problem in time of war. One solution to this problem was to build a tunnel that starts inside the city walls so the people could retrieve water without exposing themselves to the enemy. The tunnel and wall around the water source also protected it from being captured or used by the enemy. We’ve walked through such tunnels in Jerusalem, and at Megiddo and Tel Sheva. In Hazor, we stood at the top of the shaft and looked down. It was late afternoon on a very hot day, and no one had the energy to descend hundreds of metal stairs into the water tunnel, no matter how cool it promised to be in there. The walk back up would not have been worth the effort.
Instead, we slowly walked down the path on which we had ascended the hill, admiring the view of the Hazor Valley.