722 – 586 B.C. – Part 2
The Region of the Shephelah
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This region was crucial to the defense and control of the hill country of Judah. Its name means “lowland” in Hebrew and was used in a geographical sense to describe the specific region in the territory talked about in Joshua 15: 33 – 47.
The Shephelah is located between the coastal plain of Philistia and the Judean hill country. It constitutes a strip of foothills about 10 to 12 miles wide and 45 miles long. They are gently sloped hills and are between 350 and 1,500 feet in elevation. The major valleys of the hill country to the east descend through this region before reaching the coastal plain. After reading all these descriptions, you can look at the map below to get a clearer picture of the coordinates.
The Shephelah begins in the north at the Aijalon Valley and continues south to the border of the Negev just northeast of Beersheba. It is significant to note that there is no comparable “lowland” that borders the hill country of Ephraim. This was a feature that was totally unique to Judah.
The land is characterized by a broad outcrop of Eocene limestone. The Judean hill country was made of Cenomanian limestone. Separating these two types of limestone, is a long, narrow valley of Senonian chalk. This chalk valley runs north and south, and has served effectively through the years as a moat defending the fortress of the hill country from the west.
The big difference in the two kinds of limestone is that the Eocene does not break down into the rich, fertile soil that forms from the Cenomanian. Although they both received adequate rainfall (10 to 20 inches annually), the region of the Shephelah is not suited for any agricultural crops, though it was richly forested in ancient times.
Valleys and Defenses
Throughout the history of the Promised Land, the Shephelah has been of strategic importance as a buffer zone between Israelite and Philistine territories and was thus regarded as the most valued part of the Judean kingdom. They sought to occupy and fortify it, but even in times of overwhelming attack they could usually retreat safely to the hill country. Even when this area was under foreign control, the “moat” of Senonian chalk, and the fortified cities would often prevent further loss of Judean territory.
The chief topographical characteristic of this area is a series of valley that lead from the coastal plain into the interior sections of Judah. Most of them are broad and fertile as they enter the Shephelah, but they narrow as they begin to ascend the rocky heights of the hill country.
The Aijalon Valley was the most important route into Judah from the coastal plain, for it gave access to the ascent of Beth-horon (Joshya 10: 10 – 15; I Samuel 14: 3 1). This was an easy route into Benjaminite territory from which one could sweep down on Jerusalem if planning a raid. Guarding this important way of access to the Judean capital were the cities of Aijalon on the north, and Gezer, to the south of the valley. Pharaoh Shishak used the Aijalon Valley to gain access to Jerusalem during the reign of Rehoboam in 924 B. C.
The Sorek Valley is about 8 miles south of the Aijalon, and is famous for the exploits of Samson. The valley was defended by the fortress cities of Beth-shemesh and Zorah. The Rephaim and Kesalon valley branch off from the Sorek as it ascends to Jerusalem. David twice defeated the Philistines in the Rephaim as they tried to use the valley to gain access to the Holy City.
The Elah Valley is five miles south of the Sorek. It was the setting for the battle David fought with the Philistine giant, Goliath. It led directly to the gates of Bethlehem, and the fortress cities of Azekah and Socoh defended this access route.
The Guvrin Valley was known in the biblical period as the Zephathah. It is located 5 miles south of the Elah. It provides the shortest route from the coastal plain to Hebron and was defended by the fortress city of Mareshah, home of the prophet Micah. An important battle took place here when Zerah the Ethiopian attempted to use the valley to enter the hill country (2 Chronicles 14: 9 – 15).
The Lachish Valley is located four miles south of the Guvrin and was defended by the city of Lachish, which was a frontier fortress near the southern border of the Shephelah. It may have been through this valley that Samson carried the Gaza gates to Hebron. Both Senacherib in 701 B. C. and Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B. C. used this valley to gain entrance into the hill country.
Cities of the Shephelah
These cities served as strongholds for defense in times of attack from the coastal plain. By studying these main cities of defense, we can gain a greater appreciation for each of them and the purposes they served.
This was one of the largest and most important cities of Palestine in Old Testament times. It was situated on the western edge of the Shephelah just south of the Aijalon Valley. It was a fortress city that guarded the junction of the Via Maris and the Aijalon Valley. In addition to its strategic location, Gezer was supplied with a good source of water from springs and deep wells in its southeast section.
The site of Gezer was occupied at least 1,500 years before the Israelites entered the land. Shortly before the Israelite conquest, the city reached its peak of prosperity. A 10-foot wide stone wall with square towers protected the city. Horam, king of Gezer, was defeated by Joshua, and the city was assigned to the Levites in Ephraim. The bad thing was that the Canaanites were never completely expelled from the country.
During Solomon’s rule, Gezer was officially incorporated into Israelite territory, because it was granted as a dowry to the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter when she became Solomon’s wife (I Kings 9: 15 – 17). Solomon proceeded to fortify Gezer along with Beth-horon, which guarded the main ascent to the hill country of Benjamin. When Pharaoh Shishak invaded Judah, he launched his drive by attacking Gezer. After this initial victory, he was able to penetrate the hill country and eventually collect tribute from Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 12: 1 – 12).
An interesting feature of Gezer is its well-preserved Solomonic Gate, which is identical to the gates Solomon erected at Hazor and Megiddo. Also found at the site was a Hebrew inscription known as the Gezer Calendar, which describes the annual agricultural activities. Gezer continued to be occupied through the Crusader period and was then abandoned until its rediscovery in 1873 and excavation during the first decade of this century.
This was located in a commanding position in the Sorek Valley about 15 miles west of Jerusalem. The city marked the northern boundary of Judah, and was designed as a Levitical city. The name means “house of Shemesh”, indicating that a temple of the sun god Shemesh was originally located there. It was very close to the border of the Philistines, and they appear to have exerted a strong influence on the early culture of the city. Samson was born at Zorah, just two miles away. The Philistine city of Timnah, where Samson went to get a wife, was only about 4 miles to the west in the same Sorek Valley. When the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant because they were afraid of its great power, it was sent via the valley to Beth-shemesh.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the city was occupied by the Philistines just prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. It was destroyed by Saul about 1050 B. C., and rebuilt in the style of the Israelites, probably in the time of David. In later times, the city was fortified by Rehoboam, and a clash took place there between Amaziah, king of Judah, and Jehoash, king of Israel. It was captured from Judah by the Philistines in the days of Ahaz. After it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B. C., it ceased to be a place of significance.
This ancient site lies on a 350-foot mound that overlooks the Elah Valley and lies about 16 miles west of Bethlehem. Joshua pursued the Amorites as far as Azekah after he defeated them at the ascent of Beth-horon with the help of the Lord’s “hailstones”. The Philistines gathered between Azekah and Socoh to fight the Israelites in the days of Saul, and David slew Goliath in the valley below.
Azekah was one of the cities that was fortified by Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. It was also one of the last two Judean strongholds to fall to the Babylonians just before Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem in 588 B. C. The mention of Azekah in inscriptions found at Lachish suggests that it was an important site at the end of the Judean monarchy. It was also among the towns of Judah resettled by the Jews in the time of the restoration in Nehemiah 11:30. This site was excavated at the end of the 19th Century.
It was located on the south side of the Lachish Valley about 15 miles west of Hebron. The king of Lachish was one of the five Amorite kings against whom Joshua fought in defense of Gibeon. The king was killed at Makkedah, and the city was overthrown and destroyed. Evidence of this destruction has been uncovered by archaeologists. The city was rebuilt in the time of David or Solomon, and Rehoboam later fortified it in anticipation of Shishak’s attack in 2 Chronicles 11: 19.
The city was besieged by Sennacherib in 701 B. C. as the Assyrians pressed Judah to surrender. The walls from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh are decorated with scenes from the siege of Lachish. During the decline of the Assyrian Empire, Lachish once again became a Judeah stronghold until it was besieged once again by the Babylonians. Azekah and Lachish were the last two Judeah cities to be captured before the fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 34:7).
The city is noted for its “Lachish letters.” which are the only existing letters of antiquity in classical Hebrew. They are valued for the light they shed on Hebrew script and vocabulary from the 6th Century B. C. The fourth letter reflects the historical situation when most of the cities of the Shephelah had fallen to the Babylonians. It concludes with the words: “We are watching for the fire signals of Lachish, according to all the signs my lord gave, because we do not see Azekah.” These words suggest that signals were no longer being sent from Azekah because it had already fallen to its Babylonian attackers.
Below is a map of the Shephelah.