Funny how in life, some things preshadow others and some things wrap back around on themselves. Last week, I had a few interesting, different days which, brought me back to a question I was asked in my oral exam. The question was as follows: “Why did the Children of Israel settle in the mountains in the days of Joshua, and settled mostly on the coast in the modern period?” Interesting question for me, someone who moved to Israel and settled immediately in the area of Benjamin in the hill country.
Last week, I went, with a group of other tour guides, on an overview of the sites in the Regional council of Binyamin – roughly corresponding to the Biblical portions of the tribes of Benjamin and Efrayim. The guide referred many times to the biblical narrative – 70% of its geographical events take place in these areas.
Topographically, the area of Benjamin (and especially the area along the Spine Route – Route 60) is characterized by hills. The relative elevation is rather high – reaching 1016 m above sea level at Har Baal Hatzor – but there are no real deep valleys.
The Bible describes the terrain as a shoulder, sitting high on the body, but being rather level once you get there. This became apparent throughout the day, but was first said from our lookout at Tel el-Ful.
What stands on Tel el-Ful today is King Hussein’s unfinished palace. Construction began on the structure in 1966 and was abruptly halted during the Six Day War in June 1967, never to be resumed.
It stands on the site of King Saul’s palace with a commanding view of the entire surrounding area. With a bit of imagination, you can imagine David playing his harp here or dining with King Saul at the table as they surveyed the heartland of the kingdom.
I am sure that King Hussein was aspiring to a similar view. Wonder if you can see the modern twin towers in Amman from this locale? Of course, every time I have been to Tel el-Ful it has been overcast. Just another excuse to go back.
After lunch, we passed Samia spring next to Nahal Yitav (Uja). Alongside of the spring, the archeologists found multitudes of graves from the Intermediate Bronze age. This is a black hole in archeology characterized by the abandonment of big cities. There are almost no finds from this period, so it was nice to see the burial plots. Excitingly, they also found here a golden goblet!
On the southern bank of the Nahal, up the hill from the spring, there lie the remains of the third largest building excavated (until now) from the First Temple period. Proximity to this major water source (the major source of water to Ramallah until today) allowed settlement to flourish until the conquest of the Northern Tribes by Assyria. Because of its relative isolation today, donkeys bray and sheep wander on this ruin. In fact, that was the general tone of the whole day. Binjamin and Efrayim, once active Jewish centers, home for many stories from the Bible, are now a sleepy outback, one that many Israelis never visit. It is disappointing that this country’s youth backpack through India or South America, but never think of visiting this corner of their world.
Let’s get back to the question of why the Children of Israel settled here upon entering the land. The long and the short of the answer is that this land – the hill country and the spine route – was relatively unsettled at that time. The large population centers of Canaanite/Philistine/Phoenician populations were along the sea or along the road linking Egypt to Mesopotamia at the seam of the foothills and the coastal plain (roughly today’s Route 6). The rough mountains which needed to be terraced and irrigated were lightly populated, thus making them easier to capture from local populations. There is the concept of the “path of least resistance” which governs many facets of human decision making. As a population on the move, it is much easier to move into unoccupied lands than to struggle and fight for settled places. For sure there were battles, and we hear about them in the biblical narrative, but they are not in the major population centers (with the possible exception of Jericho – a miraculous first battle). The allotment for the Tribe of Dan included populous coastal towns and we hear of the failed battles there. It is because of the unsuccessful campaigns of the tribe of Dan against the large coastal centers, that the entire tribe moves north to the area of Leshem (renamed Dan).
The Children of Israel settled in this hill country upon entering the land. I, too, moved to Israel to this area and until today, make my home in the Regional Council of Binyamin – so this day was like a Places in Your Neighborhood day for me. Fun.