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Mizpah Mizpeh

MIZPAH MIZPEH (the two spellings are about equal in usage) mĭz’ pə (מִּצְפָּה, watchtower). the word literally means a watchtower or sentinel site with a view over a wide area. It is both a common noun and a place name.

(1) Mizpah (Gen 31:49) is one of three names given to the covenant heap of stones erected by Jacob and Laban. The site is unknown, but the narrative implies that it must be N of the Jabbok River.

(2) Mizpah also was the name of a city where Jephthah the judge lived (Judg 10:17-11:40). The site is unknown, but it may have been N of the Jabbok River.

(3) The third Trans-Jordan Mizpeh was in Moab (1 Sam 22:3). When David was being pursued by Saul, David took his parents to Mizpeh of Moab and left them with the king of Moab, while he returned to his followers in Judah. Since Kir of Moab (modern Kerak) was the capital of Moab, some scholars think that Mizpeh is another name for Kir. The site of Kir fits the etymology (watchtower).

(4) There are three Mizpahs W of the Jordan River. One of them is located in the extreme N of Galilee. It is called (Josh 11:3) “land of Mizpah,” and again, it was called (11:8) “the valley of Mizpeh.” The exact identification is uncertain since the descriptive phrases are too vague. The first passage refers to “the Hivites under Hermon in the land of Mizpah,” the second refers to the valley of Mizpah as the eastward terminus of Joshua’s pursuit of the Canaanites after his victory over them in the battle at the waters of Merom.

(5) Another Mizpeh was in the territory of Judah (Josh 15:38). The site is unknown, but seems to be near the great fortress of Lachish.

(6) The most important of the Mizpehs in Pal. is located in the tribe of Benjamin (Josh 18:26). Scholars differ in its identification. Some favor Nebi Samwil; others prefer Tell en-Nasbeh. The writer believes the evidence favors Nebi Samwil for the following reasons:

Nebi Samwil fits the etymology of Mizpah perfectly for it is a high mountain peak which looks directly down upon the Valley of Aijalon, which is the best route between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan Valley. Joshua used this route for his conquest of Pal. Tell en-Nasbeh, on the other hand, lacked any defensive military features. Indeed, the city had some of the heaviest walls of any Palestinian fortress because it was so vulnerable to attack.

The most helpful historic passage on Mizpah is 1 Samuel 7:1-14. Samuel called the leaders of Israel to Mizpah to a great confessional religious service before God, following the return of the Ark to Israel. Earlier there had been a great Philistine victory in which the Ark was captured, but later it was returned by the Philistines because of a tragic bubonic plague which was depleting their population, and which the Philistines had attributed to the vengeance of the God of Israel (1 Sam 4:1-7:3). In view of the return of the Ark, Samuel called a national conference—not to gloat over the return of the Ark, but to confess Israel’s sin for treating the Ark as a pagan fetish in their war against the Philistines. This religious assembly, however, was instantly interpreted by the Philistines as an Israelite military move against them. The Philistines started up the Valley of Aijalon to crush the rebellion at once.

This episode was an exact duplication of the earlier Joshua story in this same Aijalon valley. Israel was occupying the heights of Mizpah above the valley, and the Philistines were advancing through this valley from their Mediterranean cities. Samuel asked the Lord for help, and, as in Joshua’s case, a great thunderstorm and cloudburst completely demoralized the attacking army, and the Israelites then pursued them down the valley to Beth-car. As a result “the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel” (1 Sam 7:13). The lesson was not lost on Israel. Never again did she use God’s Ark as a fetish. The nation learned that prayer is the way to secure God’s help. The identification of Tell en-Nasbeh as Mizpah completely misses the parallel between the Joshua and the Samuel episodes. Later Samuel called a new national conference at Mizpah; it was here that Israel chose Saul as their king (1 Sam 10:17-27).

Two other references favor Nebi Samwil as the identification for Mizpah. In the Gedaliah story (Jer 40:6-41:16) Nebi Samwil is closer to Jerusalem than Tell en-Nasbeh; and refers (41:16) to Gibeon which is in the Valley of Aijalon directly below Nebi Samwil. After destroying Jerusalem the king of Babylon appointed Gedaliah as military governor over the conquered Jerusalem area, with a new capital at nearby Mizpah. After the murder of Gedaliah Mizpah is not mentioned until Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.

There is a close juxtaposition of Mizpah and Gibeon in Nehemiah’s list of the towns building the sections of the city wall next to the Old Gate (Neh 3:6, 7). Citizens of Mizpah repaired the fountain gate (Neh 3:15) and a “section opposite the ascent to the armory at the Angle” (Neh 3:19). Mizpah must have been an influential town in the postexilic period.

In the episode of the Levite’s concubine (Judg 19:1-21:25) Mizpah was the rallying point for the Israelite tribes, and Gibeon was the only town between Mizpah at Nebi Samwil and Gibeah. Baasha of Israel invaded the southern kingdom and began the fortification of Ramah in Judah’s territory (1 Kings 15:16-22; 2 Chron 16:1-6). Ben-hadad of Damascus compelled him to retreat; Asa of Judah took the materials used in fortifying Ramah, and built Geba and Mizpah. Tell en-Nasbeh is farther N than Nebi Samwil and in Ephraimite territory. It is easy, therefore, to favor this site for Mizpah. On the other hand, the geographic terrain around Nebi Samwil is much stronger for military defense. The identification of the site in this episode is about 50-50.


M. Abel “Geographie de la Palestine” (1933); W. F. Albright “Mizpah and Beeroth,” AASOR, vol. IV; J. Muilenburg in C. C. McCown “Tell en-Nasbeh,” vol. I (1947).