We really haven’t had much winter this year. Yes, there was a brief moment of snow in some parts of the country – never in Beer Sheva, thank God – but really the winter has been pretty mild this year. Spring is upon us and with it Purim, the holiday of the Book of Esther. It’s not my favorite holiday. The general craziness, the end of the winter loneliness, the noise, the dressing up – not my favorites. With COVID, I feel like the entire last year has been one long Purim holiday, when everything normal has been turned upside down.
It’s one of the reasons I like to go out to see the flowers. Nature, at least, is normal. As is the curiosity of children.
Last year those two collided at an unlikely spot – Tel Jamma (Tel Gama). Tel Jamma is located right at the bend in the road at Re’im Junction. Pulling off the main road, you park in an unassuming gravel parking lot which holds maybe 6 cars maximum at the base of the tel. A short, but steep walk brings you to the top of the 45-meter (150 feet) high tel. Thousands of years ago, Tel Jamma, known then as Yursa/Araza, was a major Canaanite city controlling the surrounding farmland. It was settled for well over 1500 years. Original excavation in the 1920’s identified the tel with the city of Gerar as it is a prominent feature along the banks of the Besor stream. Later, in the 1960’s, however, Benjamin Mazar, noted Hebrew University archaeologist, challenged this identification and instead it was confirmed to be the Canaanite city of Yursa mentioned in the lists of conquered cities of Pharaoh Tutmose III (1468 BCE) and in the Amarna letters (1360 BCE) – Egyptian sources. The Canaanite city-states lived with relative, local independence, but were at the same time under the thumbs of the Egyptians. Yursa sat on the southern border of Canaan as it abutted Egypt proper.
It may feel a bit strange to talk about the connection of the land of Israel to Egypt. This certainly isn’t true today. In the early biblical period, however, the main connection was not to mighty kingdoms to the north, but to the giant to the south – Egypt. Egypt was the ruling empire to which local kings needed to pay homage and from which they could expect support. Abraham and Jacob look to Egypt when there is a famine in the land. Egypt, and paying tribute to Egypt, and allowing free passage to Egyptian armies, remain concerns throughout the context of the First Temple period. Only with the coming of the Assyrians in the 7th century will Egypt be robbed of their control and the gaze of the region will turn northward. Even today, we live under that northern gaze, with the centers of commerce and culture being to the north in Europe and the United States.
Although we do not look to Egypt for connection today, in the past Egypt was the world superpower and Yursa/Tel Jamma sat on that seam. Today, there is not much to see at the site. A beautiful, commanding view over the Besor Stream and loads of pottery sherds and flint stones (and a few flowers at this time of year) are all that’s left of this Canaanite powerhouse from the past. But last year, a 6 year old who was visiting the site with his family picked up an interesting piece of history. After turning it in to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the clay seal was identified as depicting a Canaanite prisoner and his Canaanite captor. Just as centuries later, Greek city-states would fight among themselves, here, too, in Canaan, the city-states jostled for control over resources.
Tel Jamma serves as a reminder of the past – that all was not as it seems today. And that along history we have had other anomalies, such as the one we face now with the fallout from COVID. As we approach the holiday of Purim, through the last year of upheaval, we hope and pray for a return to normalcy, and take our cues from nature and children’s curiosity.
Enjoy the flowers, and the history, and your families! Spring is on the way!