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by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

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Chapter 37 | Contents | Chapter 39


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
Special Edition

(1887)

CHAPTER 38—BEISAN, JEZREEL, NAIN
Beisan (Bethshan): the Modern Village and the Ancient City— "Bethabara" Ain Harod: the "Spring of Trembling" Gideon's Great Triumph Jezreel and Josiah Megiddo and Armageddon Barak and Sisera—Joel's cruel Treachery Jezebel's Crime and its Punishment Neby Duhy: the "Little Hermon"—Nain

The Wady Jalud, which leads down to Beisan, is about twelve miles long sinking about 800 feet before it reaches that place, the Bethshan of the Bible. The modern village and the ruins of the once famous city stand on the crest of a slope, which is about 300 feet above the steep side of the sunken channel of the Jordan, to which it descends. The open space around the ancient city is about six miles from east to west, but the eastern spurs of Gilboa approach close to the north of the ruins.

A huge mound, or "tell," the site of the ancient Bethshan, rises to a height of about 100 feet near the foot of the northern hills. The modern village is a miserable hamlet of about sixty mud huts, built on the southeast corner of the ancient site, with a marshy rivulet making its slow way through the place. The circumference of the ancient city could not have been less than two or three miles, for the whole hill is covered with ruins, the character of which proves that in later times Bethshan must have been a city of temples; pillars which once belonged to such buildings being numerous. The stones of these, and indeed of all the ruins, are of black basalt; the great "tell" itself being apparently the basaltic cone, partly worn away, of an ancient volcano. An amphitheatre, portions of which are in almost perfect preservation, can still be traced along a semicircle of nearly 200 feet, though the rank weeds grow high over the stones. The Jalud long ago wore for itself a deep channel just below the "tell," and is still crossed by a fine Roman arch. Thick walls, perhaps those on which the bodies of Saul and Jonathan were hung up, once surrounded the top of the hill, possibly enclosing the city of those early times. It was a boldly venturous deed of the men of Jabesh Gilead to come by night and carry off the dishonoured remains, and it shows that Saul's bravery in once rescuing their city had not been forgotten by its inhabitants (1 Sam 11:4-11, 31:12). Just west of the modern village, almost buried in the soil and weeds, another memorial of Roman days may be traced—the remains of a great oblong circus or hippodrome, 280 feet in length and over 150 feet broad. Ancient walls can be made out round the whole " tell," at a wide distance from it, marking the limits of the city when under the Romans it had grown to great dimensions. The name it then bore was Scythopolis, the origin of which is not clearly known.

It was by the fords near Bethshan, and by the ascent of Ain Jalud, that the Midianites entered the great upper plain in the days of Gideon. Bethshan had then long been a town or village, for it is mentioned in the travels of a Mohar in the days of Rameses II, the oppressor of the Hebrews in Egypt. There are a number of fords over the Jordan in the Beisan plain, by any of (see ante p. 36) which the fierce Ishmaelites may have crossed; among others that of Abarah, apparently the Bethabara where John baptised (John 1:28). The oldest manuscripts, indeed, have "Bethany" instead of Bethabara, but Bathania—"Soft Soil"—was the name of Bashan in the time of Christ, and thus Bethabara was in Bethany, so that both readings are correct, and at first were probably both in the sacred text. Critics have made a great point of the supposed error of the Evangelist, in speaking of "Bethany" as being "beyond Jordan," but they have only shown by their acuteness the worthlessness of many of the clever points supposed to be made against the Gospels.

Streaming over some of these fords, "the Midianites, and the Amalekites, and the children of the east" forced their way up the Wady-el-Jalud, and spread themselves over Esdraelon, "with their cattle and their tents, as grasshoppers for multitude, for both they and their camels wore without number" (Judg 6:3-5). The scene of Gideon's victory must have been near the descent to Beisan; the description of the battle, the flight, and the pursuit, pointing to this; but there has been question of late years as to the exact locality of Ain Harod—"the Spring of Trembling." Gideon was encamped, we read, on Mount Gilead (Judg 7:3), which, in this case, must he understood as Mount Jalud—some portion of the mass of the Gilboa hills, whether at the upper or lower end of the great wady is not known. The spring Jalud, near Zerin, or Jezreel, has generally been recognised as the scene of Gideon's test of the quality of his followers, but Captain Conder is in favour of Ain-el-Jemain, "the Fountain of the Two Troops," a large spring at the foot of the hills where they trend to the south, on the under corner of the wady, exactly west of Beisan. Gideon's force, encamped on the hills above the sloping valley, consisted of men of Manasseh, his own tribe, and of Zebulun, Naphtali, and Asher, from the north of the great plain, the districts most affected by the invaders, though troops of Arabs had scoured the land even so far south as Gaza (Judg 6:4).

Having winnowed his little band of heroes of all faint hearts by the singular test imposed at "the Spring of Trembling," Gideon felt that he could count on them. Yet, before acting, he resolved to see for himself the condition of the enemy. Descending by night the low slope of the hill in the folds of which his men were hidden, he crept, with his servant, towards the vast encampment. The valley was full of the tents of the Arabs, and both within and around these tents multitudes slept, with their numberless camels at rest in their midst. A dream of one of the host told to his fellow—how a barley cake, which had rolled down from the hills above, had struck and overthrown one of the tents—seemed to Gideon an omen of success, on hearing which he stole back to the heights to organise his attack.

Dividing his three hundred men into three companies, the Hebrew leader provided each man with a torch, the burning end of which he was to hide within an earthen pitcher, as is still done in Egypt by the watchmen; with their swords at their sides, and trumpets in their hands, they were to march silently to three points, which were, perhaps, situated on each side of the valley at the head of the gorge, and thus to the west of the host; and at a given signal they were to break the jars, swing the torches into brightness, peal a great blast from each trumpet, and raise the terrible war-cry of Israel. Sentinels are unknown in Arab armies, nor were there any pickets to prevent the three hundred from approaching close. Awakened in a moment, through all its length, by the echoing shouts; alarmed by the seemingly countless lights moving on all sides; confused by the wild triumphant flourishes of the war-horns—the vast multitude, unprepared for attack, fled this way and that, with loud cries that increased the dismay. Each saw a foe in his neighbour, for darkness made it impossible to know one from another. Flight seemed the only safety. The steep descent to the Jordan was the way to their native wilderness, and down it they rushed in headlong rout, some south by Abel Meholah, across the Jordan fords; others by the fords at Bethabara, beyond Beisan, and those in the same locality near it: the foe close at their heels till they had reached the recesses of the eastern desert. Two of their emirs— Oreb, "the Raven," and Zeeb, "the Wolf"—were slain by the way; while Zebah and Zalmunna, their two principal leaders, fell in a second battle, in the wilderness. The men of Peniel and Succoth, who had refused to help in the pursuit, felt the vengeance of their brethren when the final triumph had been secured, their elders being whipped with the thorny branches of the acacia, a punishment under which they, in all likelihood, died. Thus ended the most signal victory ever wrought in Israel.

Jezreel and its neighbourhood are famous for yet other incidents in the history of the Tribes. It was near this city that in later years the best king Judah ever had, met an early death. The northern kingdom had already been destroyed, and Egypt, under Pharaoh Necho, was eager to win back Western Asia from the now feeble hands of Assyria. Josiah, himself coveting the territory of the Ten Tribes, or perhaps desirous to be loyal to Nineveh, his ally, madly resolved, against all advice, to bar the progress of the Egyptian army that had marched up the sea-coast plain and entered Esdraelon, on its way to Lebanon and the Euphrates (2 Kings 23:29; 2 Chron 35:20,22). Pharaoh had generously urged him not to expose himself to defeat, and had disclaimed all intention of injuring him; but he rushed on his fate, and fell, sore wounded by the archers, in the plain of Megiddo, near a place known as Hadadrimmon, apparently after the name of the chief Syrian god—Rimmon, "the Thunderer." Removed from his war-chariot to a second which was kept in reserve, and was perhaps more suitable for an ambulance, he was carried to Jerusalem to die.

The disaster was appalling for Judah, for he was scarcely forty years of age, and had shown himself a splendid king. The nation forthwith began to decline. Loud and terrible was the wailing for the slain monarch; so terrible, that Zechariah can imagine no language more fitted to picture the wailing of the House of David and of Jerusalem when they look on Him whom they have pierced, than by saying that "there shall be a great lamentation and mourning, as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddo" (12:11). So deep, indeed, had the remembrance of the great battle sunk into the heart of the Jew, that St. John gives the name of Armageddon—"the Hill of Megiddo"—to the gathering-place of the kings of the earth for the final decisive battle against the kingdom of God (Rev 16:16). No wonder the Chronicler tells us that "all Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah," and that Jeremiah, in a lost book, "lamented for Josiah; and all the singing men and the singing women spake of him in their lamentations to this day, and made them an ordinance in Israel; and behold they are written in the lamentations" (2 Chron 35:25).

Hadadrimmon is identified by St. Jerome with the present hamlet of Rummaneh, at the foot of the hills on the Carmel side of Esdraelon, about eight miles slightly south-west from Zerin or Jezreel; and Megiddo has commonly been supposed to be represented by the village of Ledjun, which has already been mentioned as the Roman Legio, about three and a half miles north of Rummaneh, at the foot of the hills. Captain Conder, however, finds Megiddo in the ruined site El-Mujedda, at the foot of the hills, in the Beisan plain, about three miles south-west from that old city. The question can hardly be said to be as yet decisively settled.

Still another great battle in Scripture history is associated with these localities—that of Barak over Sisera, which I should have mentioned before that won by Gideon. The oppressor of Israel at the time was Jabin, King of Hazor, a place near the Lake of Merom or Huleh. Hostility to the Hebrews on the part of the chiefs of this district dated from the time of Joshua, for they had fought bitterly against him (11:1-12). Zebulun, Naphtali, and Issachar, being the nearest, suffered most at Jabin's hand, and had to bear the brunt of the war, but they were joined by the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin, from the south of the great plain. Barak, with Deborah the prophetess, who was the heroine in the struggle for freedom, had encamped on the broad top of Mount Tabor (Judg 4:6), which rises 1,500 feet above the plain, to the north of Endor, at the edge of the Galilean hills. The forces of Sisera, the general of Jabin and his allies, with 900 iron chariots, were drawn up in the plain near Megiddo, where the numerous springs from the eastern part of Esdraelon unite to form the Kishon, the course of which, creeping under the shadow of the hills, is marked even in the dry season by a string of pools fringed with reeds and rushes. The soft soil of the whole plain, indeed, is so furrowed by watercourses that a great rain, causing these hollows to overflow, for a time converts the ground everywhere into a quagmire. So long as the plain was dry, no place could have better suited a great chariot force; but after a storm the wheels were useless, and in case of a defeat, safety lay only in abandoning everything and fleeing on foot.

Taking advantage of a fierce rainfall, the Hebrew leader rushed down from his hill fortress, and assailed Sisera, now helpless, inflicting utter defeat on his vast, unmanageable army. The storm had filled every hollow with a rushing stream, and had swollen Kishon—"that river of battles"—on which the fugitives were driven back, so that it swept them away. Those who could escape fled northwards by the foot of the hills to Harosheth, now the miserable village of El-Harathiyeh, where the great plain is contracted to a narrow neck through which the Kishon, in a gorge heavily fringed with oleanders, passes into the plain of Acre. Here, they could cross to their own Galilee by low hills, now covered with scrub-oak, and once among the northern mountains they were comparatively safe.

Sisera himself fled in an opposite direction. Reaching the slopes of Tabor, he made for the lava plateau four or five miles behind the lower end of the Lake of Galilee, where stood the tent of Heber the Kenite—not far from the village of Kadish, overlooking the waters. We all know the result, but it is not so generally known that the "leben," or sour goats'-milk, which Jael gave him, is a strong soporific, under the influence of which, in addition to his exhaustion, the unfortunate man fell an easy prey to his treacherous murderer, who, though a heroine according to Arab notions, can only be regarded as a very questionable saint according to ours. The defeat took place, most probably, at the commencement of the winter rains, and if so, this may give a literal vividness to the words of Deborah that "the stars in their courses fought against Sisera" (Judg 5:20), for the annual showers of meteors are most frequent about November, and if seen by the terrified fugitives, would seem an awful sign of celestial wrath pursuing them to their destruction.

Jezreel was once the second capital of the northern kingdom, but has now shrunk into a few wretched huts. High over these rise the broken walls of an old tower, possibly on the site of the lofty royal palace- castle, from the top of which warders were at all times on the look-out to announce any approaching danger. The view from it ranges far and wide, in every direction. In the hands of the Canaanites the town was famous for its iron chariots, and proved a difficult place for the Hebrews to take (Josh 17:16); but, once wrested from them, it fell to the lot of the tribe of Issachar (Josh 19:18). In later times Ahab built a palace in it (1 Kings 18:45), with gardens reaching up the steep slope of the hill, where, doubtless, also lay the vineyard of Naboth, to get which Jezebel committed the hideous crime that ultimately ruined her husband's house (1 Kings 21:1). A temple was raised in the place by the queen to Astarte, with a staff of four hundred priests (1 Kings 16:33; 2 Kings 10:11). Everything was on the scale of luxury which we might expect from a king who built a palace coated over with ivory—perhaps in this very Jezreel. In the midst of the enclosed groves, which were watered by the abundant fountains near (2 Kings 9:27), lay a fine garden-house, and above this rose the lofty watch-tower (2 Kings 9:17).

Looking out from this high vantage-ground down the ravine towards the Jordan, the warder once had momentous news to announce to those below. Up the ascent flew some chariots, one leading the way, and in it Jehu, the head of Joram's army, who had conspired against his master and was on his way to destroy Jezebel and her race. "I see a company," cried the look-out, "and the driving is like the driving of Jehu, the son of Nimshi, for he driveth furiously." A few minutes later, Joram, who, though still weak with a recent wound at Ramoth Gilead, had gone out in his chariot to meet his general, lay with the arrow of Jehu through his heart, in the field of Naboth, bought by his father and mother at the heavy price of murder and its curse (2 Kings 9:24,25). Once more behind his horses, Jehu rushed on to Jezreel, passing under the windows far up in the wall of the palace, which must have been built on the line of the town wall. But the evil news of her son's death had already reached the now aged mother, or perhaps she had seen the dismal tragedy from her lofty lattice, and, true to herself to the last, she resolved to die bravely. Getting her maids to paint her eyelids, and tire her head, she looked out composedly at one of the windows, and greeted Jehu as he entered the town gate with the taunting words, "Had Zimri peace—did it go well with him who slew his master?" She would have him remember that, after a seven days' reign, Zimri was crushed by the army, indignant at his usurpation, and died by his own hand in the flames of the king's palace, which he had set on fire as his funeral pile. But such a bitter stab, at such a moment, only exasperated the fierce soldier. Lifting up his eyes to the window, he cried out, "Who is on my side?" "And there looked out to him two or three eunuchs. And he said, Throw her down. So they threw her down, and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses; and he trod her under foot [of the horses]." Then, as now, numbers of houseless town dogs prowled round the mounds of ashes and refuse in the open space beside the walls, and the taste of her blood soon attracted so many that when men were sent out, after a time, to bury her, they found only her skull, her feet, and the palms of her hands (2 Kings 9:30-36).

There is nothing to be seen in the present village but the tower, which is used for a khan, or resting-place for travellers. The town dogs follow you with hideous uproar as you go through the few streets—if one can use the word for such a collection of hovels. The inhabitants live in perpetual feud with the Bedouins, who, by violence or theft, are continually plundering the poor peasants.

Shunem, of which I spoke in the last chapter, lies about four miles off, to the north. On the other side of the great hill Neby Duhy—the "Little Hermon" of the Nazareth Christians, though this name should rather be given to Mount Tabor—lies the ever-sacred spot Nain, where our Lord raised the young man to life as he lay on his bier. Shunem lies on the southern slope of the great hill, Nain on its northern, the lofty peak being, in reality, only a great basalt mass, left standing up bold and steep; the soft limestone rocks through which it once forced itself from the abyss having been washed away in the course of countless ages. Above Nain its sides are a wild chaos of grey and black fragments of basalt, which have been split by time from the mountain, and give it a very desolate appearance. The village now consists only of some wretched mud hovels; but foundations of stone houses, far outside them, show that it was once larger and more prosperous. No signs of its having been walled remain, so that the "gate of the city " spoken of in the Gospels may have meant the entrance to it, where the houses began: a not uncommon form of speech (Luke 7:11ff). On the right of the path from the village are some rock-cut tombs, reached by passing the hollow through which runs the way from Nazareth—that, in all probability, used by our Lord on His journey to Nain. The mourners were carrying the bodv to one of these tombs when Christ met them, as they advanced down the slope towards the village spring. There are, indeed, tombs in the rocks to the east, but a procession to them would not meet travellers from Nazareth, whence our Lord and the disciples were coming. There are no attractions of trees or gardens around; all is bareness and poverty; yet the remembrance of the Gospel story throws a glory over the spot. Tabor rises to the north about two miles off, a rich, partly-tilled valley intervening, with a great slope beyond, rough with scrub-oak, locust, arbutus, lentisk, and terebinth trees: a fair sight to see.

 

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