by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.
Philologos Religious Online Books
The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine
Cunningham Geikie D.D.
With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Leaving Samson's country, and travelling about four miles southwards, over the hills, we find ourselves in a district famous in the history of David. An old Roman road leads part of the way; for, indeed, such roads run in all directions through these hills, as the English roads run through the Scotch Highlands; the first object of the conquerors having been to secure order and quiet in the land. When this faint trace of a road fails, a track leads to the Wady es Sunt, "the Valley of the Acacia," which is no other than the valley of Elah (1 Sam 17:2), the scene of David's memorable conflict with the gigantic Goliath (1 Sam 17:4). Saul had marched down with his militia from Benjamin, by one of the lines of valleys afterwards utilised for various Roman roads from the mountains to the sea-plain, and had encamped on the low hills bordering the Wady es Sunt. Meanwhile the Philistines were marshalled at Ephes-Dammin, on the other side of the valley, down the centre of which ran a deep ravine cut by winter torrents, forming a small wady within the greater. The rival armies covered the opposing slopes; the natural trench in the middle forming a barrier between them. For forty days the Philistine champion had advanced from the west side, his huge lance in his hand, his brazen helmet and armour glittering in the sun, and had shouted his challenge to the Hebrews, without anyone venturing to accept it. On the fortieth day, however, a mere stripling, low of stature, but of fine features, and with only the common coat or blouse of a shepherd-boy, made his way towards him from across the valley, with nothing in his hands but a shepherd's staff and a goat's-hair sling. The indignation of the haughty warrior at the approach of such an adversary was unbounded. Was he a dog that a boy should come to him with a stick? Stormy curses on so poor a foe, showered forth in the name of all his gods, relieved his fury. But David knew his own purpose, which was no less than an inspiration of genius. Accustomed, as a shepherd-lad, to the sling, so that he could hit any object with it, never missing, he would stun the Philistine with a pebble hurled full force at his forehead, and then kill him.
Slings are still in use among shepherds in Palestine, not only to drive off wild animals, but to guide their flocks. A stone cast on this side or that, before or behind, drives the sheep or goats as the shepherd wishes. It was the familiar weapon of hunters (Job 41:28), and also of light-armed fighting men (2 Chron 26:14), especially among the Benjamites, whose skill was famous (Judg 20:16; 1 Chron 12:2). A good slinger could hit at 600 paces,* and hence at a short distance the force of the blow given must have been very great. The terrible whiz of a sling-stone, and the distance it flew, have, indeed, made it a symbol of final and wrathful rejection by God. "The souls of thy enemies," said the politic Abigail to David himself, at a later period, "shall Jehovah sling out, as out of the middle of a sling" (1 Sam 25:29). Trusting in his God, the brave boy picked up five pebbles from the bed of the watercourse, when he had made his way down its steep side, and, having crossed the rough stony channel, he clambered up the other bank; then, putting a pebble in his sling, he stood before the Philistine. Furious words, followed by strides towards the lad, seemed ominous of his fate, but a moment more sent the stone into Goliath's forehead, and he sank insensible. The sequel we all know. Seeing their champion fall without any apparent cause, for the design of David could not have been suspected, a panic seized the Philistines, and they fled in wild disorder to the mouth of the valley, where, if Captain Conder be right, Gath stood towering on its white chalk cliff, the frontier fortress of Philistia, commanding the high road to the corn-lands of Judah and the vineyards of Hebron.
About two miles to the south of the scene of David's triumph the Palestine Surveyors appear to have discovered the Cave of Adullam, so famous in the after-life of the Hebrew king. It lies in a round hill about 500 feet high, pierced with a number of caverns, the hill itself being isolated by several valleys and marked by ancient ruins, tombs, and quarryings. At its foot are two old wells of special antiquity, one measuring eight to ten feet in diameter, not unlike the wells at Beersheba, and surrounded, as those are, by numerous stone water-troughs. Near these wells, under the shadow of the hill which towers aloft, a veritable natural stronghold, are other ruins, to which the peasants give the name of Aid-el-Ma, which is identical with the Hebrew Adullam.* Such a verification seems to mark the spot as, beyond question, that in which the famous cave should be found, for it was near the royal city of Adullam, and the ruins on the hill-top may well be those of the place.** Here then, apparently, it was that there gathered round David "everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented" (1 Sam 22:2): a motley crew out of which to create a reliable force.
** Jose. Ant., vi. 12, 3.
A cave which completes the identification exists in the hill, which in fact is pierced by many natural caverns. It is not necessary to suppose that the one used by David was of great size, for such spacious recesses are avoided by the peasantry even now, from their dampness and tendency to cause fever. Their darkness, moreover, needs many lights, and they are disliked from the numbers of scorpions and bats frequenting them. The caves used as human habitations, at least in summer, are generally about twenty or thirty paces across, lighted by the sun, and comparatively dry. I have often seen such places with their roofs blackened by smoke: families lodging in one, goats, cattle, and sheep stabled in another, and grain or straw stored in a third. At Adullam there are two such caves on the northern slope of the hill, and another farther south, while the opposite sides of the tributary valley are lined with rows of caves, all smoke-blackened, and mostly inhabited, or used as pens for flocks and herds. The one on the south of the hill itself was tenanted by a single family when the surveyors visited it, just as it might have been by David and his immediate friends, while his followers housed themselves in those near at hand.*
The terebinths, from which the valley of Elah takes its name, still cling to their ancient soil. on the west side of the valley, near Socoh, there is a very large and ancient tree of this kind, known as "the Terebinth of Wady Sur," fifty-five feet in height, its trunk seventeen feet in circumference, and the breadth of its shade no less than seventy-five feet. It marks the upper end of the Elah valley, and forms a noted object, being one of the largest terebinths in Palestine. Two or three more still dot the course of the valley, but only at wide intervals. The glory of Elah is in this respect gone.
After the massacre of the priests at Nob, Keilah became the refuge of Abiathar, who brought with him the Sacred Ephod, the oracle constantly consulted by the Hebrew kings. When he retired from Gath, after his first residence there, David had taken his position at Adullam, which was the strongest post in the region specially exposed to Philistine inroads. After a time he fled to Hareth, which seems to have been high up on some lofty hills south from Adullam, and a little over a mile from the lower-lying Keilah. From this he went down to that village—then a place defended with walls, bars, and gates (1 Sam 23:7), and offering the attraction of Abiathar's presence. He soon learned, however, that the bands of Saul were near at hand, and that the townspeople intended to betray him to them. How he escaped from this supreme danger seems to be hinted in the Eighteenth Psalm, in which he thanks God that, by His help, he had run through a troop, and had leaped over a wall (18:29). Such feats would be comparatively easy to one who could speak, as David does, of his being like a hind for swiftness, and able to break a steel bow with his hands (Psa 18:33,34).
Yet the sortie from Keilah must have been a wild affair. The steep sides of the hill on which it stood were in those days terraced and covered with corn, immense labour having been expended to make the huge, step-like walls behind which it grew. There are now no trees; but perhaps, as at Bethlehem, they then rose here and there on the terraces. To break out with such of his troop of 600 men as were quartered in the town, letting themselves down from the wall, and then mustering for a rush through the force hemming them in, must have made strange excitement in the dark night in which, one would suppose, it was carried out. Then came the swift flight in as good order as possible, past the well at the foot of the hill; past another well farther down the narrow valley, and on till the strath broadens into green fields, edged with low scrub-covered hills. They must have fled towards the valley of Elah—thankful to escape, and at last hiding, it may be, in some of the deep gorges into which one looks down from the hill-sides. The "yaar," or wood, of Hareth, overhanging Keilah, would be too close at hand to offer safe shelter.
A fine view of the whole district is to be had from Tell Zakariyah, a round hill about 800 feet high, on the north side of Wady es Sunt. Orchards of olives, figs, and other trees, clothe the slopes, which rise on each side of a network of valleys in every direction. The great wady stretches out at one's feet like a majestic stream, so sharply are its sides bounded by the enclosing hills and mountains, and so proportionately broad throughout is the valley itself. The course of the valley, from the east to the north-west, is visible for a long distance. It is easy to see how readily the Philistines, mounting from the plains, could penetrate where they chose among the upper glens, and why on this account the Hebrews had so often met them in fierce strife in this neighbourhood. The ruins of Socoh, with its huge terebinth, lie about five miles to the east; and the slopes and bare hills on both sides of the wady, on which the opposing forces had stood arrayed, are spread out like a picture, with the deep ravine of the winter torrents between them, in the middle of the valley. The hills west of Tell Zakariyah, and on both sides of the Acacia Valley—Es Sunt—are very desolate; but they seem, from the ruins on them, to have once been inhabited. Ancient caves and broken cisterns are frequent in the lower levels. Wild sage, in its usual abundance, covers large tracts; but a few flocks of goats and a few camels, seeking doubtful pasture on the slopes, are, with their guardians, the only living creatures to be seen.
From Tell Zakariyah our route lay down the broad Wady Akrabeh, into which we turned from the Wady es Sunt. For more than half an hour the path lay over freshly-ploughed land, very wearisome to cross, but at last we reached the track leading from Ajjur, west, to Tell es Safieh, the goal of our journey for the time. Men on camels and horses passed at times; and a peasant who was ploughing—of course a Mahommedan—hurled curses at us as infidels.
Tell es Safieh rises proudly to a height of 695 feet above the plain, on its eastern edge—a lofty watch-tower of the land, and a position of fatal importance against the Hebrews when it was held by the Philistines, since it commands the entrance to the great valley of Elah, a broad high-road into the heart of the mountains. It sinks steeply on nearly every side. On the east and north, narrower or wider glens isolate it from the hilly landscape, in which it forms a ridge of some length, with the highest point to the south. On a plateau 300 feet high, the sides nearly precipitous except at one point, and known from their white limestone as "the Shining Cliff," is the village of El-Safieh, to which the ascent is made by a slanting spur on the northeast. As usual, we sought out the dwelling of the sheikh, which was humble enough, though he is thought rich and powerful; but it offered us a very grateful shelter.
Towards evening the men of the village assembled at the sheikh's to see the strangers, and, if invited, to join in supper, which followed soon after sunset. We sat down to the meal on the floor, in two long rows; the natives cross-legged, we with our legs out before us. Two dishes were brought in, the one a strongly-spiced preparation of wheat-meal; the other odorous of cut leeks and onions. For spoons we had to use pieces of freshly-baked thin scones, eating the spoon as well as its contents after each mouthful. Four of us dipped into the same dish, reminding one of the words of our Lord, "He that dippeth his hand with Me in the dish, the same shall betray Me" (Matt 26:23). After eating, most of the men went out to pray before the door, with their faces to Mecca; this over, they came in again, and we all drew round a fire of thorns and brush in the middle of the floor: pleasant and needful in the cool night. How abundant thorns or prickly shrubs and trees are in Palestine may be judged from the fact that there are a dozen words in the Bible for such growths. All hot countries, indeed, abound in thorny vegetation, which is the result of the leaves being left undeveloped through want of water, in such a high temperature; for thorns are only abortive leaves. When dry they are necessarily very inflammable: everything is, indeed, in the hot summer or autumn, as the Hebrews knew to their cost from the earliest times (Exo 22:6). Allusions to their being used as fuel are frequent in Scripture. "Before your pots can feel the thorns," says the Psalmist, "He shall take them [or whirl them] away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in His wrath" (58:9), a verse which apparently means that the whirlwind of God's wrath will carry off the wicked as a storm-wind carries away both the burning and the yet unkindled thorns, before the pots have felt their heat, which, with such swiftly-kindling fuel, they would do almost at once. The fire of thorns, bright for a moment, but speedily sinking and quenched if fresh fuel be not added, is used as a comparison for the fate of the nations who, in one of the Psalms, are said to compass the sacred writer about (118:12). The laughter of the fool, says Ecclesiastes, is like the crackling of thorns under a pot (7:6). In an Arab tent you are pretty sure to see a pile of thorns in one corner to keep alight the tent-fire. In a country like Palestine, moreover, it is a yearly custom to set fire to the thorns on the plains and hill-sides after the harvest has been secured, just as the furze is burned on our own hill-sides, to clear the ground and enrich the soil with the wood-ashes. A time is chosen when the wind is high and blows from a direction which will not spread the flames dangerously, and then a match kindles a conflagration which soon extends for miles, lighting up the night with a wild brightness. Wherever a tent is pitched in the open wilderness, fires of thorns are speedily ablaze after sunset, at once to give heat, to shed light, of which Easterns are passionately fond, and to scare away thieves and wild animals. It is a terrible picture of swift and helpless destruction when Nahum says of the Assyrians, "While they be folden together as thorns, and while they are drunken as drunkards, they shall be devoured as stubble fully dry" (1:10). In may parts thorns are so matted and tangled together as to be impenetrable. The Assyrians might boast of being unapproachable, like these; they might boast in their cups that no power could harm them, yet they would be no more before the flames of the wrath of Jehovah than stubble or thorns withered to tinder by the sun.
The enactment of Moses alluded to on the preceding page, that "if fire break out, and catch in thorns, so that the stacks of corn, or the standing corn, or the field, be consumed therewith, he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution" (Exo 22:6), refers to other uses of these plants. In ancient times thorns were often made into hedges round gardens near towns, as they still are, and they grow wild, not only round all patches of grain in the open country, but largely, too, among them. Watchmen are kept, as harvest approaches, with the duty of guarding against fire as one of their chief cares. With the thorns, dry, tall weeds and grass are intermingled, and a spark falling on these sweeps the whole into a flame to which the ripe grain can offer no resistance, being itself inflammable as tinder. Moses required only restitution of the value destroyed, but the Arabs of the present day are not so lenient. "In returning to Tiberias," says Burckhardt, "I was several times reprimanded by my guide for not taking care of the lighted tobacco that fell from my pipe. The whole of the mountain is thickly covered with dry grass, which readily takes fire, and the slightest breath of air instantly spreads the conflagration far over the country, to the great risk of the peasant's harvest. The Arabs who inhabit the valley of the Jordan invariably put to death the person who is known to have been even the innocent cause of firing the grass, and they have made a public law among themselves that even in the height of intestine warfare no one shall attempt to set an enemy's country on fire. One evening while at Tiberias I saw a large fire on the opposite side of the lake, which spread with great velocity for two days, till its progress was checked by the Wady Feik."*
After a time the fire died out, but a feeble oil-lamp still gave some light. This went out about midnight, but it was our fault. No house, however poor, is left without a light burning in it all night; the housewife rising betimes to secure its continuance by replenishing the lamp with oil. If a lamp go out, it is a fatal omen. "The light of the wicked," says Bildad, "shall be put out...the light shall be dark in his tent, and his lamp, above him, shall be put out" (Job 18:5,6 [RV]). "The light of the righteous rejoices," says the Book of Proverbs, "but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out" (13:9). "How often is the candle [lamp] of the wicked put out!" cries Job (21:17). Jeremiah, painting the ruin impending over his country, can find no more touching metaphor than that God would "take from it the light of the candle" [lamp] (25:10); and St. John repeats, as part of the doom of the mystical Babylon, that "the light of a candle [lamp] shall shine no more at all in it" (Rev 18:23). The promise to David, implying the permanence of his line, was that Jehovah would give him a lamp for his sons always (2 Kings 8:19; 1 Kings 15:4, 11:36).
Morning is always interesting in the East. As we walked through the very narrow lanes among the houses, the people were driving their camels, sheep, and goats afield. Here and there a man was on his way to his daily work, with his plough on his shoulder. A strong castle once stood on the highest point of the hill, the Blanche Garde—"the White Guard"—of the Crusaders, built by them in AD 1144 as a defence against the inhabitants of Ascalon. Only a few stones of its walls now remain; the rest have been carried off to various towns as building material. The view from the hill-top was magnificent. The mountains of Judah rose grandly, step above step, from north-east to south-west. Nearly straight north, beyond a magnificent expanse of fertile plain, the lofty tower of Ramleh was distinctly visible, and the same vast expanse of plain stretched out to the south; while on the west, the deep blue of the Mediterranean reached away to join the rich sapphire of the skies. Over twenty smaller or larger villages and hamlets were within view, but there were no habitations between them, want of security compelling every one to live in some community. Hence, after all, the population was very limited.
As we descended to the plain by the western side, which is partly terraced, many doves flew round us. These rock pigeons are found in considerable numbers in the clefts of the hill-sides of Palestine, and are often alluded to in the Bible. "O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rocks," says the Beloved (Song 2:14). "O ye that dwell in Moab," cries Jeremiah, "leave the cities, and dwell in the rock, and be like the dove that maketh her nest in the sides of the hole's mouth" (48:28). There are many large caves on the north side of the hill, and some excavations which are used for storing grain. Water is procured chiefly from a well in a valley to the north. There are no masonry remains on the village table-land.
Tell es Safieh is thought by Capt. Conder and Prof. Porter to be the site of the Philistine city of Gath, and as I looked back at it, with its lofty plateau, now occupied by the village we had left, such a natural fortress seemed wonderfully suited for a strong city. Defended by walls and gates, it must in ancient times have been almost impregnable. The identification, indeed, is not certain, for the old name has not been found associated with the spot; but, apart from this, probabilities are very much in its favour. If it be the old Gath, what memories cluster round the spot! Here, and at Gaza and Ashdod, gathered the remnant of the huge race known in the early history of Palestine as the giants. Goliath, a towering man-mountain, nine feet high,* once walked through its lanes, then perhaps not unlike those we had left, and so too, it may be, did Ishbibenob—"my seat is at Nob"**—the head of whose spear*** weighed 300 shekels of brass—about eight pounds—only half as heavy, however, as Goliath's—and the other three sons "born to the giant in Gath" (2 Sam 21:22). These colossal warriors seem to have been the last of their race, which we do not need to conceive of as all gigantic, but only as noted for boasting some extra tall men among a people famous for their stature. The Goths in old times were spoken of in the same way by their contemporaries as a race of giants, but though they were huge compared with the populations they invaded, giants were a very rare exception among them, as among other nations.
** Thenius suggests an emendation which would make the name mean—"he who dwells on the height."
*** Vulg., "iron of the spear."
** Ibid., i. 291, 292.
The plains round Blanche Garde are famous for some of the most romantic deeds of Richard the Lion-hearted, but they are silent enough now. The landscape rises and falls in low swells; fallows alternating with sown fields; the soil nearly black, and evidently very fruitful. These great plains of Philistia and Sharon may yet have a future, if the curse of God, in the form of Turkish rule, be removed. The gardens at Joppa show what glorious vegetation water and industry can create, even where the invading sand has to be fought, and we may imagine what results similar irrigation and industry would create over the wide expanse. The scarcity of wood is the one feature that lessens the general charm, for, excepting the orchards and olive-groves, often very small, round isolated villages, there are no trees. So much is this the case indeed that here, as in Egypt, the only fuel in many parts for cooking or heating, if there be no thorns, is dried camel or cow dung made into cakes. Children, especially girls, may be seen eagerly gathering the materials for it, wherever found, or kneading them into discs, which are then stuck against a wall or laid out on the earth to dry (Eze 4:15). In use, however, this fuel is not at all objectionable.
The little village of Tell et Turmus lies about six miles nearly west from Tell es Safieh, on a low rise of ground. Near at hand is a deep, well-built cistern, covered by a low dome; a channel connecting it with a tank close by, about three feet deep, which is filled, to save labour and time in watering the flocks and herds, not very numerous in such a community. The houses were no longer built, as in the hills, of limestone, but of unburnt bricks, made of black earth mixed with stubble. A few men sat about, as usual, idly gossiping, though it was morning—the best time to work.
The road to Ashdod from Tell et Turmus is along the bottom of a series of swelling waves of land, which trend to the north-west, three small villages forming the only population. The plain is seamed with dry watercourses or wadys, worn deep by winter torrents. This is the characteristic of nearly all streams in Palestine. During the winter months, when useless for irrigation, they are often foaming rivers; but in the hot summer, when they would be of priceless value, their dry bed is generally the road from one point to another. The bare sides of the hills, in many cases long ago denuded of all soil, retain very little of the tremendous rain-storms that break at times over them, in winter or even spring. The water rushes over the sheets of rock as it would from the roof of a house, and converging, as it descends, into minor streams in the higher wadys, these sweep on to a common channel in some central valley, and, thus united, swell in an incredibly short time into a deep, troubled, roaring flood, which fills the whole bottom of the wady with an irresistible torrent. Some friends, caught in a storm in Samaria, told me they had to flee from their tents to higher ground, while still half-dressed, to escape the sweep of the stream which they knew would presently overwhelm the spot on which their tents had been pitched. The same thing, on a greater scale, is seen in the Sinai mountains. "I was encamped," says Rev. F. W. Holland,* "in Wady Feiran, near the base of Jebel Serbal, when a tremendous thunderstorm burst upon us. After little more than an hour's rain the water rose so rapidly in the previously dry wady that I had to run for my life, and with great difficulty succeeded in saving my tent and goods; my boots, which I had not time to pick up, being washed away. In less than two hours a dry desert wady, upwards of 300 yards broad, was turned into a foaming torrent from eight to ten feet deep, roaring and tearing down, and bearing everything before it—tangled masses of tamarisks, hundreds of beautiful palm-trees, scores of sheep and goats, camels and donkeys, and even men, women, and children; for a whole encampment of Arabs was washed away a few miles above me. The storm commenced at five o'clock in the evening; at half-past nine the waters were rapidly subsiding, and it was evident that the flood had spent its force. In the morning a gently-flowing stream, but a few yards broad, and a few inches deep, was all that remained of it. But the whole bed of the valley was changed. Here, great heaps of boulders were piled up where hollows had been the day before; there, holes had taken the place of banks covered with trees. Two miles of tamarisk-wood which was situated above the palm-groves had been completely swept down to the sea."
By the way, what does David mean by "deep calleth unto deep at the noise of Thy waterspouts: all Thy waves and Thy billows are gone over me?" (Psa 42:7) Dr. Tristram thinks he alludes to the sound of dashing waters, in such a region as Hermon, where, in times of flood, torrents leap down the hills and resound from the depths.* "In winter," writes another, who fancifully imagines the Psalmist a prisoner in the Castle of Banias, "and when the snow is melting in the spring, endless masses of water roar down the gorge of Kashabeh, over which the castle rises about 700 feet. Perhaps it was when the sacred poet, confined within its walls, looking into the awful depth below, listened to the raging and foaming waters, that he uttered these words, at the thought of his distant home." Discarding the imaginary imprisonment, the explanation seems correct. David writes in a land of mountain streams, and feels as if all their thundering waves had broken over him.** Waterspouts in our sense are not alluded to here, though they are common on the sea-coast; nor are they mentioned in the Bible. The word employed in the Psalm is found in only one passage besides, where David promises the command-in-chief to anyone who will clamber up the water-shaft which opened on the plateau of Jerusalem, then called Jebus: a feat performed by Joab (2 Sam 5:8).
** This is the explanation of Tholuck, Hitzig, Riehm, and Delitzsch.