Today we visited Judaean Shephelah, which is the hill country between Judea and Jerusalem. This is where David fought Goliath; where David battled for the Ark of the Covenant; where Samson loved Delilah; where Hezekiah looked to see the coming of King Sennacharib of Assyria before the siege of Jerusalem.
We made two separate stops, one to get a good look at where Samson judged Israel. The place where we were today overlooked the town where Samson’s Philistine wife came from. Do you guys know this super-awkward Bible story? Samson marries his first wife, but then her father gives her to another man, because in his words, he doesn’t think Samson likes her anymore. (More likely: the father thought it wiser to marry her off to another Philistine rather than a crazy Israelite.) Samson does not take this well, and deals with his frustration by tying a whole flock (?) of foxes together in pairs, setting fire to their tails, and setting them loose in Philistine grain fields.
Coincidentally, the hills are covered in wild fennel that evokes this story:
We also visited Tel Sucho, overlooking the valley where David is said to have fought Goliath.
Then we went to the caves of Maresha. So here’s the deal with the Shephelah–the stone changes from a hard limestone to soft limestone, a.k.a. chalk. Chalk erodes in water, forming natural aquifers and caves in a process that the Israelites just sort of nudged along. Thus, there are impressive underground complexes under many of the hills west of Jerusalem. Water systems dominant the scenery:
But there were also some nifty burial chambers with pretty (restored) paintings:
And dovecotes. Like, super-dovecotes. Like, if Middle Earth had dovecotes, they looked like this:
There were also quarries shaped like bells, and therefore named “bell caves” (how apropos!), which had some tremendous acoustics. So with some prodding and some help, a few of us sang “Come and fill our hearts with your peace” (Taize). And all was loveliness.
Then we visited Tel Lakhish, where the Assyrian king Sennacharib came and razed the town, making it his headquarters in a 701 BCE siege of Jerusalem. (Bible study class! We totally studied that!) We didn’t have time to climb the tel, but the siege ramp is clearly visible from the ground.
Tel Lakhish was also the very last tel (hill made of archaeological layers) of our trip, a somber event which the people I sit with in the back of the bus thought occasioned a series of tel jokes:
Do you know what it’s called when you work from the top of a tel?
Do you know what to call the ancient ritual baths found at some tels?
Do you know what you are when you arrive at a tel on time?
“Is that a tel up ahead?”
“No, it’s just a hill. You’ve got television.”
Oh, stop groaning, friends. I’ve forgotten at least two, so consider yourself spared.
After the telific final visit, we headed back to Bethlehem, and visited the Shepherd’s Grotto, as well as the Church of the Nativity, and St. Catherine’s Church, which are right next to each other. The Shepherd’s Grotto are some shallow caves where the shepherds are traditionally said to be watching over their folks when the angel choir appears.
Then we went to the Church of the Nativity, the very spot where folk legend says that Jesus was born. Unfortunately, my camera was dying at this point, so I don’t have any pictures of that exact place, so I must leave it to your imagination, which may be best after all. The Church of the Nativity is under renovation, see, and so my primary impression of that magnificent Byzantine space, that oldest Christian church surviving in the Holy Land, is: dark.
St. Catharine’s is much more beautiful and meditative, and beneath the the church is the grotto where St. Jerome was buried, at least before the pilgrims got at him and spread his bones all throughout medieval Europe. St. Jerome was the first to translate the Bible from Greek into Latin (the Vulgate).
From there we visited a traditional olive-wood workshop, and had some shopping time. We had all been very disciplined about shopping until this point, so we had a lovely time cutting a little bit loose there.
And then, friends, after a very long time, we got back to our hotel and had the wonderful pleasure of a visit from Martin and Angela Zimman, pastors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and their friend Salaame, who is involved with the Lutheran school system in Palestine, which is in turn under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land. His input was very good to have at hand. Briefly–he helps manage three Lutheran schools in Palestine. The schools teach both Christians and Muslims, but no Jews, because the Israeli government has imposed such challenging boundaries on Israelis wanting to go to Palestine that is would be almost impossible for an Israeli Jew to matriculate in a Palestinian school, despite the fact that Palestine has declared that Israelis are welcome on their land. Students at this school learn English, German, and Arabic, and study cultural issues and work very hard to get to university. I think the man said that at one of the schools, of the almost 300 recent graduates, only 11 chose not to go on to college. Whoa.
Tomorrow we go to Jerusalem, and while still in Bethlehem, I feel it’s important to note that absolutely everything is Christmas-themed. Christmas carols play in the hotel. Christmas decorations are up all around the city. The Nativity scene is still up in the main square of Bethlehem. I have the feeling they’ll still be there in July, as well as in January. The slogan of the city (or at least of one of its more successful advertising campaigns) is “Come home for Christmas,” and the nice man at the entrance of the olivewood shop indeed greeted us with a proud, “Welcome home!”