For Jews, the ancient tribal territories of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and west Menasheh – a.k.a. Judea and Samaria or the West Bank – form the very heartland of the homeland. Sadly, ceding these central areas to the Arabs remains a political possibility and far too many Jews who are disconnected from their history and heritage are wholly unaware of what these crucial regions of the Land of Israel mean to Jewry collectively.
Here, then, is a précis outlining the provinces’ most important geographical sites, figures, and historical contexts, in the hope of underscoring their great significance to all the People of Israel:
1. Samaria (Shomron) – Capital of the Omride kings of Israel (Omri, Ahab, Joram, etc.), and the ancient center of a thriving wine and oil industry. Mentioned in I & II Kings and II Chronicles, as well as by the prophets Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah. Samaria also appears in Josephus and its orchards are praised in the Mishnah. The ruined city was later possessed by Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai, rebuilt and renamed Sebaste (Sabastiyah) by Herod the Great and controlled by Jewish king Agrippa I until the Roman occupation and colonization. The prophet Elisha is said to be buried here, as is the Jew known as John the Baptist.
2. Shechem – Situated in the narrow valley between Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, Shechem is where Abraham built an altar under the oak of Moreh; where Jacob encamped, bought a field, and buried idols and earrings; where Dinah was raped and brutally avenged; and where Joseph the Righteous is buried. Here Joshua drew up the Mosaic statutes, erected a stone monument under the oak tree, and convened the elders and judges of Israel before his death, adjuring them to pledge allegiance to God. Gideon’s sons fought over the city after that great judge’s death. King David twice versified the city in the Psalms. King Rehoboam was crowned here and King Jeroboam was elected here and made it his initial capital. Shechem is also a Levitical city and one of the biblical cities of refuge. Vespasian built Neapolis (Nablus) on the ruins of the destroyed city, which is also mentioned by the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, Josephus, and in the Midrash Rabbah. For the sectarian Samaritans, Shechem equals what Jerusalem is to mainstream Jews.
3. Mount Ebal (Eval) – Here Joshua built an altar of unhewn stones and made a peace sacrifice to God following the fall of Ai, also inscribing and reading the Torah before the Israelites and in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. The taller counterpart of Gerizim, toward which the Levites pronounced the Mosaic curses.
4. Mount Gerizim – Where the other half of Israel stood listening to Joshua, and toward which the Levites pronounced blessings. The smaller counterpart of Ebal is known foremost as the holy mountain for Samaritans, who celebrate Passover atop its peak. It is also where Johanan Hyrcanus destroyed the pagan shrine built by the Seleucids, and where the Samaritan leader Baba Rabbah built a synagogue.
5. Shiloh – From this town Joshua made plans with the assembled people to finish apportioning the land to the tribes. Shiloh was for centuries home to the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and the Ark of the Covenant after the settlement in Canaan, and where the High Priest Eli and his sons officiated. The first religious center of the Israelites, to which Elkanah made an annual pilgrimage and where his barren wife Hannah vowed to consecrate a son to God if she could conceive. After giving birth to the prophet Samuel, Hannah recited her song of praise here. Mentioned repeatedly in Jeremiah, Shiloh was also home to the prophet Ahijah.
6. Ma’aleh Levonah – Site of the first major Maccabean battle and victory, in which Judah Maccabee defeated the Syrian Greeks and killed the Samarian mysarch Apollonius, taking his sword for himself.
7. Gilgal – First campsite and base of Joshua and the Israelites upon entering Canaan, where Joshua erected the twelve stones gathered from the Jordan River, and where the people celebrated Passover and circumcised those born in the desert. The prophet Samuel also judged Israel here, and King Saul was crowned at this sacred site. The prophets Elijah and Elisha passed through the city prior to Elijah’s whirlwind ascent. Gilgal was a Levitical city in the time of Nehemiah. Mentioned by the prophets Amos and Hosea, and in the Talmud.
8. Gophna Hills – These woods served as a refuge and training ground for the Maccabees during the rebellion against Antiochus IV and his Seleucid Greeks in the second century BCE. Here farmers became fighters and militiamen a military, in what would become the only successful revolt of Jews against imperial oppressors.
9. Beth El (Luz) – Abraham erected a sacred altar to the Lord between Beth El and Ai. Here Jacob spent a night dreaming he saw a ladder rising heavenward, with angels ascending and descending it. A heavenly voice then assured him of divine protection, confirming the promise that the land upon which he rested would be for him and his descendants. When morning came, Jacob built a sacred pillar over which he poured oil as a thanksgiving offering. For a time the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant were stationed in Beit El, and in the conflict with the tribe of Benjamin the Israelites prayed, fasted, and offered sacrifices here. The prophetess Deborah lived nearby, and Samuel sojourned here to judge the people. King Saul gathered his forces here against the Philistines. Frequented by King Jeroboam as a central shrine, Beit El hosted a community of prophets during the time of Elisha (who was mocked by the children of Beit El), and witnessed Amos’s righteous indignation against illegitimate worship and the impious priest Amaziah. Later, the pious King Josiah cleansed the city of its cultic practices. The city hosted General Bacchides’s Syrian garrisons during the Maccabean Revolt. Mentioned often in Joshua, Judges, I & II Kings, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezra.
10. Mizpah – Here the Israelites gathered to punish the tribe of Benjamin after the outrage committed by the men of Gibeah. Home of the reluctant judge Jephthah who repeated his conditions for leadership in Mizpah. Also where the prophet Samuel assembled the people to fight and defeat the advancing Philistines, and where he annually judged Israel. King Asa of Judah fortified the place, and the Babylonian-appointed governor Gedaliah established Judah’s capital here after the fall of Jerusalem and was later assassinated in Mizpah (giving rise to the fast day in his memory around the Jewish new year). The city was also a district capital in Nehemiah’s time, and was later where the Maccabees prayed, tore their clothing, wore sackcloth and ashes, fasted, and read the Torah before the Battle of Emmaus.
11. Michmash – Where King Saul gathered his army before the Philistines encamped there, and from which the latter fled following defeat. Mentioned in Isaiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, I Maccabees, and by Josephus, and praised in the Mishnah for its excellent wheat. Jonathan the Hasmonean resided here prior to assuming the high priesthood.
12. Emmaus (Nicopolis) – Where Judah Maccabee defeated Nicanor and frightened off Gorgias in a stunning and strategic double victory over the Seleucids. The town was known for its hot springs, and is often mentioned in the Talmud. Tannaitic rabbis held discussions here, including local scholar Nehunya ben Ha-Kanah, and Yochanan ben Zakkai’s prized disciple Eleazar ben Arach took up residence in Emmaus.
13. Beth Horon – The sun stood still here for Joshua in battle. Both a village fortified by King Solomon and a steep pass where the Canaanites fled from Joshua, Judah Maccabee defeated Seron and his phalanx of hoplites, and Shimon Bar Giora and other zealot stalwarts similarly defeated Roman general Cestius Gallus during The First Revolt.
14. Gibeon (Givon) – The city whose men negotiated in bad faith with Joshua, and where Joab fought Abner by the pool and slew Amasa. King David conquered the Philistines nearby, and Gibeon is also the site at which King Solomon sacrificed a thousand burnt offerings to God, Who appeared to Solomon in a dream eliciting then granting the king’s request for good judgment. Mentioned in I Kings, I & II Chronicles, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and the Talmud.
15. Elasa (Eleazar) – Site of the tragic battle in which the woefully outnumbered Judah Maccabee fell, and equated by some to Mount Baal Hazor (near Ramallah), mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
16. Anathoth (Almon) – The Levitical hometown of Evyatar the priest and of Jeremiah, in which the hopeful prophet redeemed property from his cousin Hanamel in defiance of Judah’s dire situation under the Babylonians, giving the lie to his reputation as a preacher of doom and gloom. Also mentioned in I Chronicles.
17. Ai – Abraham encamped on the hill between Beth El and Ai, building an altar and calling upon the Lord. After Jericho, Ai was the second royal fortress to fall to Joshua and the Israelites, following the initial failed assault hindered by the misdeeds of Akhan. Joshua’s army pitched camp on Ai’s north side, while other troops left to ambush and capture the city. Also mentioned in I Chronicles, Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
18. Jericho – One of the most famous cities in the Torah, Jericho was a walled palm and balsam oasis that encountered the likes of Joshua, Rahab, King David’s ambassadors to Ammon, the prophets Elijah and Elisha (two onetime residents), the doomed fugitive King Zedekiah, the Hasmoneans and Herod. Centuries later the Arabian Jewish tribe of Banu Nadir sought refuge here from Muhammad.
19. Qumran – The desert monastery on the shores of the Dead Sea of the sectarian Essenes, whose scriptorium hosted the creation of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls ultimately found in the surrounding cave-pocked Judean Hills.
20. Betar – Shimon Bar Kochba finally fell in his hilltop headquarters after the city had endured a prolonged Roman siege. The sage Eleazar of Modi’in also died here. The bastion was known for its spring and defensible location as a steep neck of land bounded with valleys on three sides. Often mentioned in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud, and Midrash Rabbah.
21. Bethlehem (Efrat) – Where our matriarch Rachel is buried and where the convert Ruth married Boaz. Bethlehem was the home of the shepherd youth and slinger (a descendant of Ruth) who would become the warrior and psalmist King David, and the birthplace of another famous Jew, Jesus, who inspired a new world religion.
22. Tekoa – A village that was home to the wise woman who convinced King David to pardon his rebellious son Absalom, and that was later fortified by King Rehoboam. Most of all, it was home of the herdsman and prophet Amos who gathered its sycamore fruit and is buried there. Also home to Caleb’s descendants and the site where King Jehoshaphat withstood the attack from neighboring nations. Tekoa was renowned for its oil and honey.
23. Herodium (Herodion) – An artificially built mountain visible from southern Jerusalem where Herod the Great commemorated an early military victory and later had himself inhumed. The mound was fortified during The First Revolt and fell only after the destruction of Jerusalem. A synagogue from The First Revolt era remains in situ. It was thereafter refortified as a district headquarters during the Bar Kochba Revolt.
24. Beth Zechariah – Eleazar the Hasmonean fell in battle here in his bold attempt to kill an elephant by stabbing its underbelly. The falling beast crushed him, and thus died the first of the five brave Maccabee brothers.
25. Beth Zur – A town mentioned in Joshua, later fortified by King Rehoboam, and eventually a key Maccabean fortress along the border between Judah and Edom. Also the locale of a major Maccabean victory that paved the way for the recapture of Jerusalem and the advent of Chanukah.
26. Hebron – Also known as Mamre and Kiryat Arba, and renowned for its terebinths, Hebron is one of the four holiest cities in Judaism and the location of the Cave of the Patriarchs (and most Matriarchs) where Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebecca, and Jacob/Leah are interred. Tradition also places the graves of Adam and Eve here. Abraham was a local resident after arriving in Canaan. Hebron was also where King David was anointed and established his capital for seven years before the conquest of the Jebusite citadel of Jerusalem. The first Judge of Israel, Otniel ben Kenaz, is also entombed in Hebron. Judah Maccabee and later Shimon Bar Giora reconquered the city from its Idumaean and Roman occupiers. Hebron is also one of the six cities of refuge in the Torah and is mentioned therein 87 times. Numerous rabbinical authors have lived here, among them Elijah de Vidas, author of Reshit Chochmah; Abraham Israel Ze’evi, author of Urim Gedolim; Aaron Alfandari, author of Yad Aharon and Merkebet ha-Mishneh; Mordecai Ruvio, author of Shemen ha-Mor; Elijah Sliman Mani, author of Kissei Eliyahu; Rachamim Joseph Franco, author of Sha’arei Rachamim; and many more. For Jews, Hebron is second in stature only to Jerusalem.
* * * * * These are only some of the seminal places, events, and people associated with Judea and Samaria, added to which are the modern sites and inhabitants of Ariel, Elon Moreh, Hashmonaim, Ma’aleh Adumim, Mevasseret Zion, Efrat, Alon Shevut, Kfar Etzion, Migdal Oz, and many others.
In sum, the length and breadth of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and west Menasheh are steeped in four millennia of Jewish history, religion, culture, and civilization – ongoing in the present day and into the future. Forsaking these regions would mean disintegrating Jewish identity and disavowing Jewish heritage.
About the Author: Brandon Marlon is a Canadian-Israeli playwright, poet, and freelance writer. He is the author of “Judean Dreams and Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People.”
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