I’m always inspired with Ben Gurion’s vision of the Negev desert and its importance to the Jewish people. In contrast to other Ancient Near East cultures, Judaism celebrates their desert past. The patriarchs and matriarchs spend time in the desert; the Torah law is given to the Jewish people in the desert. But what about settlement? Ben Gurion saw benefit in settling this land. Turns out, that idea is not something new, but goes back thousands of years.
I had a chance to explore this topic on a recent continuing education trip to the Negev. One of the most fascinating places we visited was an easily overlooked group of small ruins on the side of the road – Khirbet Halukim. Even after the bus came to a stop and we got off, I still didn’t really know what we were supposed to see. The landscape looked the same as the general landscape between Beer Sheva and Sdeh Boker – tan rolling hills, almost completely devoid of vegetation. Rainfall here is 100 mm (less than 4 inches) per year.
We walked for about 3 minutes and only then began to see what all the fuss was about. On a small ridge ruins projected about 1 meter (3 feet) from the surface. These ruins included the base of a large building with solid walls and an outside porch area. Analysis of the pottery, implements of agriculture and other finds here by archaeologists, dates this building to the First Temple period.
Once you see the fortress, you begin to see other features. The valley beneath this ridge is cut by stone walls (diguettes) which are the remains of the agricultural system here to trap the scant rainfall and the winter flash flood waters to grow crops. There are also several other houses not too far from the fortress. These are all of the style of 4-roomed houses which was typical of Israelite dwellings from First Temple period.
Khirbet Halukim is not alone. During surveys done during the 1950’s and 1970’s, archaeologists identified 50 such settlements in the Negev between Dimona and Mitzpeh Ramon which all are built on exactly the same model – small settlements, 4-room houses, central fortress, agriculture. The fact that they are all built according to the same plan suggests that these are not isolated outposts, but rather part of a central governmental plan. These 50 outposts form a system of control over the roads which connected east to west. Lucrative trade routes connected the east through Etzion Gever, Eilat of today, on the Red Sea to the west through the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean.
Who controlled these routes and these outposts is a matter of debate. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University suggested that these simply disconnected nomadic tribes. David Itam contends that they were under control of a semi-nomadic Edomite kingdom.
Yohanan Aharoni from Hebrew University, differed and suggested that the 4-room house construction places these outposts under the Israelite Davidic dynasty. He even suggested more specifically that this area was occupied by the tribe of Shimon which had a marginal role within the 12 tribes and didn’t get a specific tribal allotment. Instead, Shimon’s towns overlapped with those of Judah initially. According to I Chronicles 4, after the entry of the tribes of Israel into the Land of Israel, Shimon was not as prolific as Judah and dwelt in certain Judahite towns until the time of King David.
Afterwards, Shimon increased greatly and they went east all the way to Mt. Seir, in the Negev highlands. Perhaps they did not simply randomly move to find a larger space for their growing tribe, but that they were sent there under some central authority and built fortresses according to a uniform master plan. The placement of Khirbet Halukim on the road, and the Davidic dynasty’s desire to control routes to the sea, especially under King Solomon, suggest that these fortress/villages were constructed with purpose. The biblical narrative describes the tribe of Shimon wiping out the local inhabitants and living in their ample, quiet, peaceful land. Who better to control outposts than a tribe which has a reputation of using violence to achieve their ends?
In the end, all 50 of these settlements, including Khirbet Halukim, were destroyed by fire. Could this have been from Shishak I’s campaign against the kingdom of Judah at the end of the 10th century BCE? In the Karnak Temple, on the carved reliefs which describe the locations which were conquered, there are many places mentioned near Arad which are called fortresses, perhaps referring to these 50 uniform settlements protecting the roads in the Negev.
Not until modern times would there be other Jews who would so connect to the desert. Ben Gurion’s campaigns in the Negev, and his dedication to building settlements there, reflect the tribe of Shimon’s settlement 3000 years ago. I, for one, am proud to be part of that rebuilding.