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.