Listen to the Land (Historical Geography) - Lesson 8

Hill Country of Judah

The hill country of Judah has enough rain to grow grapes and other crops. Hebron was first given to Caleb and then was the city that David ruled from when he first became king. It was a connecting point for local roads. Bethlehem and Tekoa are also cities in this area.

Cyndi Parker
Listen to the Land (Historical Geography)
Lesson 8
Watching Now
Hill Country of Judah

I. Hill Country of Judah

A. Rainfall

B. The Soil

C. Agriculture

II. Hebron

A. Roads

B. Natural capital of the Judean hill country

C. Biblical events

III. Bethlehem

IV. Tekoa

  • The Historical Geography of the Land of the Bible is a course that aims to explore the secrets of the land of the Bible by learning how to pay attention to details like rocks, water, and roads, and how they have a dramatic impact on the people living in that context and will change our theology.

  • The land influences the people that are living on it by affecting their stories. Learning to listen to the land helps you understand the details that are hiding in the background so that when you read the Bible, it’s like you see the narrative in living color and 3 dimensions.

  • Major rivers in the Ancient Near East provided the resources necessary for empires like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Persia to grow and flourish. Israel is on a couple of the major trade routes that connects these cultures. The location of mountains, hills and valleys in Israel affects the lifestyle and travel patterns of the people who live there and the people travelling through.

  • Wind patterns and the shape of the land determine where more rain falls. Finding and managing sources of water is a critical aspect of survival. The feasts coincide with the agricultural calendar. Biblical passages containing references to water and the feasts had profound meaning to the original audience.

  • Of the granite, sandstone and limestone layers of rock, the limestone layer is what controls much of the lifestyle of the people. The layers of limestone that are common throughout Israel and the surrounding areas are Cenomanian, Senonian and Eocene. It is a good land because there are enough resources to survive and thrive, but it is not an easy land. It has been referred to by different names throughout the years and the political boundaries have been fluid.

  • Bashan is in the north and has enough rainfall and arable soil to support crops and large animals like cattle. The Dome of Gilead provides connection points for international and local travel. Ammon and Moab are neighbors and descendants of Lot’s daughters. Edom is south and are descendants of Esau.

  • The people that migrated to live in the coastal plain were known as the Philistines. Because of the location and terrain, the roads were sources of international travel and trade. Cities were built for commerce and control. The Negev was an important area to control for travel.

  • The Rift Valley is valuable because of its location and resources. Bitumen and Balsam were sought after. It was a popular trade route but it was important to know where to get water. Jericho was at crossroads and was near some major springs. Connecting events in biblical history to the event and location of the baptism of Jesus adds weight and significance to it.

  • The hill country of Judah has enough rain to grow grapes and other crops. Hebron was first given to Caleb and then was the city that David ruled from when he first became king. It was a connecting point for local roads. Bethlehem and Tekoa are also cities in this area.

  • Jerusalem is framed by the hills and valleys that are near it. The Sorek Wadi System is to the west and the Mount of Olives is to the east. David built a palace and Solomon later built a temple. Jerusalem was important in Jewish history and also has a place in eschatology.

  • By the beginning of the first century, Jerusalem was the site of a magnificent Jewish temple built by Herod the great. He also built an impressive palace and a Roman fort which overlooked the temple. The events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus take on added layers of meaning when you understand how the geography of the events reminded people of Messianic prophecies.

  • Benjamin has the smallest tribal allotment but it is one of the most significant areas in the nation of Israel. The geographical features, the cities located there and the roads that run through it make it a region of national and international importance.

  • The Shephelah is between the hill country and the coastal plain and has unique geographical features. When you know the location of the roads, valleys and cities in this area, you can see their significance in the stories. When you understand where Micah and Isaiah came from and their historical context, you can understand why there is a difference in their message and tone.

  • The rocks and roads will give you valuable information about the Sharon Plain and Mt. Carmel. The international road took different paths around Mt. Carmel depending on your final destination. The harbor and palace that Herod built in Caesarea were impressive.

  • The hill country of Joseph has abundant resources and nearby roads for commerce. Shiloh was a religious center and the place where Joshua met with representatives from each tribe to determine their tribal allotment. The women of Shiloh also were instrumental in saving the tribe of Benjamin. Shechem was important as far back as Abraham. Every time people would see Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, it was a reminder of the blessings and curses of their covenant with God.

  • Who was Omri, and why was he significant in making Samaria an important city? When the people of Judah returned from Persia, there was a conflict with the people of Samaria. The animosity that was still present during the ministry of Jesus set the stage for an encounter he had with a woman that was at a well near the city.  

  • Upper and Lower Galilee have the climate soil that is conducive to widespread agriculture. Lower Galilee also has some valleys that became major roads. Major empires of the fertile crescent exerted their influence here as they expanded. When the Greeks took control with their military, they also spread their cultural influence.

  • The Jezreel Valley is the center of activity for many of the biblical narratives. Not only was it an important economic and strategic location for Israel, but also for the Canaanites, Egyptians, Arameans and Assyrians. It is also a place where significant events took place in the lives of the prophets and Jesus.

  • This body of water is often referred to as a, “sea” even though it is fresh water, not salt water. There are not many stories in the Hebrew Bible that take place in this area, but it is a center of activity for Jesus during his ministry. Many of the parables are illustrations taken from local culture and geography.

  • The Huleh basin has an abundance of water from several sources. The soil is also good, but the conditions for growing crops in some areas presents some challenges. Dan is a strategic city in the north as a gateway to the region and a religious center under Jeroboam. Caesarea Phillippi was built by Herod and was a place that Jesus used to teach his disciples about his role as Messiah and their future as leaders of the church.  

  • The Gospel of Luke traces the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, and the book of Acts traces the journey of the gospel going out from Jerusalem. The events in Pentecost have a connection to the events at Mt. Sinai. The gospel is for the world but the events that made it possible are anchored in Israel. (Don't forget the Epilogue, Lesson 21!)

  • There are two different stories in the Gospels of Jesus feeding large groups of people. One account is in John 6 and another account is in Mark 8. The message is similar but the geography gives you some clues to help you understand why the details are different.

Have you ever read about a place and when you went there in person, it came alive? As you walk through the hills and valleys of Israel with Dr. Parker, you will see the stories of the Bible in living color. 

Your location affects your lifestyle, relationships, worldview, occupation, diet and travel. In ancient Israel, you depended on the resources around you to survive. People often lived near springs or rivers, but it was possible in some places to collect rain water and ration it through the year. The terrain and the type of soil would determine what crops you could grow, or what animals you could raise. Living near a road would give you opportunities to sell what you produced or buy what you needed. Your location would determine the amount of risk you would face from people in neighboring countries. By living in the hill country, you would develop a different mindset than if you lived on an open plain.

Once you begin to have an understanding of the, "rocks and roads" of Israel, reading your Bible with a good map next to you will help you get a 3 dimensional perspective. When the characters and the scenery become life-like in your mind, you will find yourself being inspired and motivated in your understanding of your relationship with God and how you can apply it in your interactions with others. Take this opportunity to learn from Dr. Parker to "Listen to the Land!"

Don't forget the Epilogue, Lesson 21!


Recommended Books

Listen to the Land: Historical Geography - Bible Study

Listen to the Land: Historical Geography - Bible Study

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Dr. Cyndi Parker
Listen to the Land (Historical Geography)
Hill Country of Judah
Lesson Transcript

Okay. So we're still in the southern arena. It's we are just working our way through all these different geographical areas. And we've somewhat made a U-shape around the hill country. So now we can ascend up into the hills and look at the heartland of the Israelite hill country, which is very fun. We call it the hill country of Judah. This was primarily the inheritance, the tribal inheritance of the Tribe of Judah. So we're we're going deep into their territory. So as we ascend up into the hills. And so here, just to give you a little placement of where we've been, this is Telluride down here. So the biblical Negev, we have Be'er Sheva here. So this is our infinity sign that is pressed down into the southern part of the hills, pushing the hills down, and from a ride you can head north into the hill country and from Beersheba you can head north into the hill country. We skirted our way around it because we already looked at the shoreline of the Dead Sea, but now we're going to look at the mountainous area. So as we start to ascend, we're starting to pick up rainwater for the first time. That is like significant rainwater. And so depending on where we are and how elevated the mountains are, we're getting more rain on in the areas that are more elevated. But we're starting to have in this part of the hill country, anywhere from 20 inches of rain, say, to about 30 inches of rain, depending on where we are. So that is quite significant. We're finally into our summer fruit area where we can start to grow more luscious agriculture, diversified the agriculture that is available to us.

[00:02:01] We are always going to pay attention to the eastern side of the hill just knowing that as we move down east, we're heading into the drier, more wilderness section of the hill country. But we're going to contrast what happens when we go west with what happens when we go east. But we're going to spend most of our time just traveling along the spine, maybe glancing in either direction. The soil. Like once we get into the hill country, we're looking at snow, Armenian rock, which is our very good terra rose. This soil that we love so much, which has all that mineral content that is in it perfect for all kinds of agriculture, what agriculture do we have? Well, again, depends on which portion of the hills we're in. But I would say for the most part, we're getting the full calendar that we looked at in a previous episode. But also, what is this area? What this hill country is very well known for are the grapes. So let's look at this, because grapes in general become a really amazing analogy that the Israelites used to talk about themselves, the relationship that they have with God. So, again, they're just borrowing from what is the most familiar to them on their landscape to understand these greater, bigger concepts. I'm going to read first from Isaiah. Isaiah has this great poem. I didn't write it out as a poem because I didn't have enough space. But it's a poem that starts in chapter five. And just listen to not only the grape and the agriculture analogies that are being used, but how he's going to then tag that on to previous historic events that happen. So Isaiah says, Let me sing now for my well beloved a song of my beloved concerning his vineyard.

[00:04:05] My well beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He dug it all around, removed its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. And he built a tower in the middle of it. And he also hewed out a wine that in it. Then he expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced only worthless ones. Now, this already this is really interesting because immediately anyone reading this, any Israelite hearing this or later on people reading this, they would have this kind of imagery in mind. This is the Judean Hill country. This is where we terrace off the hills where you get that reddish terra rosa and all over the place to modern day you will find along the terraced hills towers. Now, this is quite a large one. This has been created a little bit more modern time, but we have older ones as well. But this gives us the right kind of visual. Why are the towers here? Well, as the grapes are ready to be harvested, the family would move out of their house into the tower because this is their family wealth that's just sitting out in the field. You have to be vigilant to protect your wealth. So the family would move here and then they would harvest. It was very communal, oriented activity. We often find also where we have these towers and where the grapes were grown, we often find a wine vat, a wine press, an area to just take your grapes here and not travel too far with them. Just move them next to the tower and then have a festival and dance and stomp on the grapes and create the juice and ferment it for the wine. So Isaiah is taking from very familiar Israelite style imagery to create this poem, and you can see all the different action words of the one who is the farmer.

[00:06:07] He is on a fertile hill. He's digging it around. He's clearing out the stones. He is planting the choicest of vines. This is the activity a lot of farmers knew intimately. They were always doing this every single year. Except that the poem doesn't stop here. We continue on. And Isaiah says, and now inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done? And the answer is nothing. You've done everything. Why? When I expected it to produce good grapes, did it produce worthless ones for the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts? Is the House of Israel and the men of Judah his delightful plant. Thus he looked for justice. But behold, bloodshed. For righteousness. But behold a cry of distress. So it's taking what is familiar to them all and saying, Oh, now that we've created the picture, they can all relate to you. He turns the picture on them and says, Oh, you are that vine. God did everything for you, gave you the good land gushing with milk and honey. The place that you belong to. He gave to you. What is he expecting from you? But righteousness. And what are you doing instead? That injustice. Isaiah is not the only one. In fact, we could spend a very long time talking about vines and vineyards and their imagery in the Hebrew Bible. But I'll use this one too, from some 80. So the song says, you removed Divine from Egypt, you drove out the nations and you planted it. You cleared the ground before it and it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shadow and the cedars are of God with its bows.

[00:08:06] It was sending out its branches to the sea. And it shoots to the river. And we're standing in the middle of an ancient Judean vineyard here where the vines are growing here along the ground and going up and over the wall. And we're looking out into the distance towards the Mediterranean Sea. And you think that is exactly the correct geographical references. So who is this Vine? It's Israel, of course. Right. God brought this vine out of Egypt. And similar to what Isaiah is saying, he did everything for this vine. And there's this idea that initially it flourished and it's spread out and draped over the walls and it draped down over the hills here, like I am seeing the history of Israel play out in this one song. But that song continues. Why have you broken down its hedges so that all who passed the way Pickett's fruit, a boar from the forest eats it away and whatever moves in the field feeds on it. Oh, God of host turn again now we beseech you. Look down from heaven and see and take care of this vine. Even the shoot with your right hand has planted and on the sun whom you have strengthened for yourself. We could read all through Jeremiah. We have all these references and the vine is always Israel and the vine dresser is always God taking care of his people. And He's always asking them to produce sweet fruit to fill the land and be the right kind of vine responding to the care of the vine dresser. And so by the time we get into the gospels and maybe you're already starting to think, let's talk about layer upon layer upon layer of imagery that pertains to the people who live in this land.

[00:10:01] And by the time we get to John in John 15, when Jesus is with the disciples and says, I am the true vine, that is not just an interesting little agricultural analogy. Jesus is picking up on the spot. Oh, no, no, no. He is talking to disciples who understand their scriptures, and they have always known of the vine to be Israel and to be and God is the vine dresser. And for Jesus to sum up His ministry and to say, I am that true Vine My father is the vine dresser. And then continues to talk about what are the activities of the vine dresser. He's picking up the the branches. He's cutting off the ones that don't belong there. He's taking care of the fruit. He's expecting fruit to come. Right. So you can only flourish if you then adhere onto the true vine. Right. Jesus is building on imagery that had been used throughout all of the Israelite existence in the land. Okay. So with that kind of big picture of the hill country, let's look at a couple very famous places. So I put in blue boxes some of the places we've already been so that you can recognize where we are. So we have Be'er Sheva in Arad and getting in Jericho and we're traveling up along the spine of the hill country. In the very first city we really have to talk about is Hebron. Hebron has a very deep Israelite history that is associated with it. Before we get to the history, I have to put up the roads because we know how exciting the roads are. So the roads there in this kind of yellowy color, because these are really significant local roads. Right. These are not the big international roads, but they're very important for the people who live up and around Hebron.

[00:12:00] We like to say that Hebron is the natural capital of the Judean hillside, or maybe even the tribal inheritance of Judah. Now, why do we say that Hebron is quite high, so it's elevated. It actually sits a bit on a plateau. So the land around it is not mangled as other places in the whole country are. So it has kind of a nice flat area here, but then as soon as they put the roads on, you go, Oh, now I can see, right, because it has two different roads coming up from the Negev. We had the road that goes along the spine of the hill country. It also has a road that shoots out towards the west, where not much further west is the blue line, the international road over there on the coastal plain. Why isn't there a road heading this way? It's the wilderness. People aren't living over here. We don't need to connect out here so much. There might be, like, a sneaky little back way, but it's not one that's really going to be used. These are the significant roads. So we can see Hebron becomes this hub of activity. Not only is its geography elevating it, giving it a plateau, it's absorbing all of these roads. All of that makes it a really significant place to control. Okay, so now let's place a few different events there. And this isn't even all of them. I just took a smattering of them. We have Abraham, who is there an awful lot. In fact, the very first time Abraham purchases land, here it is in the area of Hebron. This is where he buys the plot of land so that he can bury Sarah after she dies. So this is significant because Abraham, up until this point, has been a nomad walking up and down along this spine of the hill country.

[00:13:56] Sometimes we call it the patriarchal highway because the patriarchs are always walking up and down that road. So he's been on this road a lot, maybe down into Be'er Sheva, but he doesn't own land. He's not a local in this place. And yet Hebron is the place where he really, for the very first time, can start to start to etch in some of the roots for his family, or at least later for his descendants. It is where Jacob became reunited with Isaac after Jacob was in Mesopotamia. And he comes back to the land. He goes to Hebron to meet up with his father. It's where Jacob was and where Joseph was when Jacob sent Joseph to go after his brothers, when he ended up in Dothan and ending up down in Egypt. Joshua Understanding that. Caleb So Joshua and Caleb were the only two spies who said, No, let's go, let's go into the land. Joshua becomes the leader of the people. He tells his other spy friend, his other guy that gets into the land and sees the land. He gives him Hebron. Like it's a very significant inheritance for Caleb to have. Hebron was listed as one of the cities of refuge. So when people are fleeing, where do they go? Hebron became one of those central cities people can go to to find safety. And when David was anointed king and let's say not anointed king when David becomes king. So this is right after Saul dies. There's a fraction between the tribes, because, of course, the tribe of Benjamin wants to hold on to the privilege of being the tribe from which the king of the Israelites comes. Just like Saul. David is king. So the Tribe of Judah loves that.

[00:15:53] They want David to be king. But it takes seven long years for David to gain the respect of all the rest of the tribes and to gain their loyalty. So for those seven years, David goes to Hebron, which is not where he's born. He was born in Bethlehem, but he chooses Hebron as his place of rule, which makes sense because Hebron is the natural capital of the Tribe of Judah, as opposed to Bethlehem, which we'll see in just a moment. So it's really important that this was the capital for David's kingdom until he moved it north to Jerusalem. And when we get to Jerusalem, we'll talk about the strategy of why it is that David would have moved from Hebron to go north. Okay. So Hebron, deep, thick, full of Israelite story. And that land is going to hold on to that memory for a long time. Well, let's travel north on that patriarchal highway along the spine of the hill country. So we're just moving from Hebron. We're going north to Bethlehem now. We're going to stop because Bethlehem is important in our story and in our narrative. But in ancient times, Bethlehem was more of a village. It was a village in between the great urban areas of Jerusalem to the north and Hebron to the south. It was not necessarily the destination point for many people, but it becomes an amazing destination point for us because Bethlehem, even though small in its ability to influence the people around it, became might mighty and amazing in the Israelite story of God pushing his narrative forward. So let's look at Bethlehem, because already we should anticipate a few things. It's on the primary road, so it has easy access, north and south. Anyway, we should expect that looking to the west, there's going to be greenery to the west and looking to the east.

[00:18:02] Well, we're we're sitting awfully close to that wilderness area, and we're in the rain shadow of fact, as soon as those rain clouds pass over this crest line, with every inch that we move over on the map, there's less and less and less rain. So this picture is taken outside of Bethlehem, actually to the east of Bethlehem. So I'm looking to the west. Bethlehem these days is really quite a large city. But in ancient times, it would have been a much smaller village set up on the hill. But what we can see is we can feel the effects of us being downhill, like we're dipping down into the Rift Valley. So as we look to the west, we can see how it comes up a lot higher. We're looking along the spine of the hill country there. So Bethlehem would be much further up than us. We can see between where Bethlehem is and where I am taking the picture. We're still getting the effects of Sintomi in rock. It is still terra rosa soil. And you can see how in these little valley areas the people who are still tilling this ground have turned the soil over and are getting ready to grow in this area. We don't have as much terracing along the hills because we don't actually have that much water. We're on the eastern facing side of the mountain. And so most people are going to drop down into the valleys because down here we can collect a whole bunch of water, not only soil running off the hills, but all the water running off the hills. And then it sits down into the soil. Now, if we were to to take this view and then turn around and look to the east, what happens just in shifting our perspective? Oh, it changes so quickly.

[00:20:05] Every inch of rain is just so valuable. Where I'll mention here, look at this. Looking towards the west, we can see how many houses and fields, the population that is here. And then just turning around, you can see how quickly it stops. And almost like drawing a line on the sand. You can see when we shift from Snow Minion and we get that added layer on top of Synanon, it's almost like it's so draw a line and you can see the influence of that soil on who's there and what is there. So obviously, like right below where I'm standing, the soil has been turned over. We have this really nice terra rossa. It's low because there's almost no water anymore, but just enough. Just enough to grow. We have a couple olive trees. Like they're trying really hard. They're going to produce something in. In that little plot. But then just beyond it. Oh, look, there's the wilderness, right? And even when we swivel and we look towards the north, there's more people living here, but they're also on Terra Ross's soil. And you go just beyond them and it's Simonian, it's Renzi, China that is on top. And then beyond that, there's nothing. There's no houses, there's no people, there are no fields. Right? Again, the soil is going to dictate where people are and how they live. So we see there's no natural barrier between Bethlehem and the wilderness, which means the wilderness is always there, threatening to overstepped its bounds. And then to bring this drought and to bring this wilderness type context to the people. So since we've already talked about Naomi in a previous when we talked about Moab and we we did the Ruth side. Let's talk about Naomi, because this is where Naomi is from.

[00:22:02] And we can see now because she lives in Bethlehem and now we've taken a look around Bethlehem and we can see how it just it doesn't take much for an off year to produce a drought that is strong enough to force you to leave your home country. Right. And when we look off to the off to the east and again, this is kind of squint and imagine it's there really there's a horizon line right here. And that is the hill country of Moab. It's actually the mission to Moab is just right over here. But Moab may have had control of this land here. And just think, because of that elevation, they're getting more rain. And now we really can see from the perspective of Naomi of looking over there and going, oh, it's not that far away. They seem to have the same kind of existence that we do, but it is just that much greener. And if we have to leave, let's leave and go over there with the lifestyle is very similar to ours. So people in this Bethlehem area where they are open to the effects of the desert, ended up diversifying their interests. So we talk about this, diversifying our financial portfolios for all of us who have invisible money that's hidden away in various places. But for them, since their family fortune was the actual plants and animals that they had access to, people who live in Bethlehem can't necessarily rely only on agriculture because it's a little iffy as to what's going to happen. And so maybe the people in Bethlehem tended to do agriculture, but then also shepherding, because this is another resource they have at their disposal. You just send your young kids out into the wilderness and to take care of the sheep and to find the little springs of water that they can find.

[00:24:02] And then they would bring the sheep back into home and then keep the sheep in the house during the rainy season anyway. Now, again, since we're talking about Naomi, let's just think about Naomi's family a little bit. They left because of the drought, and then she comes back with Ruth, and Ruth ends up meeting Boaz. Where? In the fields. Yeah, because she is out and she's collecting the wheat and barley that has been dropped by people. So. Boaz is a land owner of sorts and has fields. The marriage agreement happens at the threshing floor. We saw a picture of the threshing floor earlier. So that happens there. Now Naomi and Boaz get married and they have a son whose name is. Abed, who then has a son. His name is. Jesse, who has several sons, the youngest of which is David. Where does David grow up? Out here in this wilderness. David's family would have received the inheritance of Boaz. His family would have had land to use for some agriculture. But we can see how they are also diversifying their interests. They're making use of the wilderness because if there is a drought here, maybe the commodities from the sheep in the goats, the milk selling cheese, selling the dairy, selling the wool, maybe that'll get them through that year and maybe the next year will be a more fruitful year. There's another interesting person who comes from this area. We have to drop further to the east so we're not no longer on the main spine of the hill country. Here's Bethlehem. And if we drop a little bit to the south and then to the east, we hit a place that is called Toccoa, often ignored, except there's a very famous person who comes from Toccoa.

[00:26:11] Let me show you what Toccoa looks like. This is the mound over here. This is where the mound where the ancient site of Toccoa was. And we can see it's still in the area where you can get some bushes, some trees. We still have little evidence of Terra Rosa that is here. But we're definitely on the wilderness edge. So we ask who comes from Toccoa? Well, our very famous prophet named Amos Amos, he is sent by God to go up to the to the north, to the northern kingdom of Israel, where no one likes his message. Of course, because he's bringing quite a strong rebuke from God. And as some of the prophets of the Northern Kingdom of Israel challenge him, they're like, What are you doing here? Go home. Like, we don't like what you're saying. And Amos, to defend himself is going, Look, I'm not professionally a prophet. Like, I'm not here for my own good. I'm here because I'm following what God told me to do. And when Amos is describing who is he normally, he says, I'm not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, for I am a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs. How does he make a living from the wilderness with the sheep and from growing agricultural crops? Right. So we even see it in these almost inconsequential statements that are thrown in. When you when you see it on the map, you're like, that totally makes sense. Everyone in his community would have diversified their interests in that way.