I have never been fond of Autumn, the saddest of seasons. We put the clocks back the night between 29 – 30th October, and so it is now dark by 5:30 pm. I find that singularly depressing.
On the other hand, the month of November is a month of new beginnings. Not the least of these was the General Election on the 1st of the month. The Israeli electorate seems to have made its feelings very clear, paving the way for the return to power of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the losing side.
Last week saw the opening of the Israeli Opera 2022/23 season, with Offenbach’s final opera, Les Contes d’Hoffman, and this week marked the start of two new courses for which I have signed up with the Open University – one on mysticism in Judaism and one on art.
November also saw the beginning of a new series of hiking tours with Yad Ben Zvi – renewing a tradition I had more or less given up in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
This series of tours is called “With the Bible in One’s Hand”, and it got off to a cracking start with a tour in the Jordan Valley, starting with a visit to a lookout point known as the Dead Sea Balcony. Situated in the religious Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yericho, it offers a stunning view over the Jordan Valley, Jericho and (on a clear day) the northern Dead Sea. I could not see the Dead Sea but we could, and did, enjoy some spectacular views of Jericho and its surroundings, as we discussed the story of Joshua, the Israelite spies and Rahab the harlot and tried to envisage events in the context of the region’s topography.
The Book of Joshua (Chapter 2) tells us that after the death of Moses and the end of the 30 days of mourning, Joshua sent two spies across the Jordan to spy out the land. They came to Jericho, the nearest big city, and the first thing they did was head for the house of Rahab the harlot (one wonders why). It seems they weren’t very good spies, because their presence – and whereabouts – were discovered almost immediately, and the King of Jericho sent his police to Rahab’s house, to demand that the spies be handed over. Rahab, however, not only hid the spies, but sent the King’s men off on a wild goose chase, all the way to the Jordan fords. She then gave the spies information about the low morale in Jericho and the other Canaanite cities, and let them out of the city through a window (her house being situated on the city wall) – not before extracting a promise from them to save her family and herself when the expected Israelite attack came, in return for her kindness. She also told them where to hide for the next three days, until the pursuers returned,
From our viewpoint on the Dead Sea Balcony, we could see a series of caves in the mountain opposite – a mountain known in Arabic as Jebel Quruntul, overlooking the town of Jericho which lies to the east. It was probably here that the spies hid, watching the unsuccessful search by the men from Jericho, and probably able to overhear their pursuers, learn the makeup of their military units, and even their passwords. Eventually, the soldiers gave up the search, no doubt assuming that the Israelite spies had already managed to re-cross the Jordan and were long gone. Only now did the spies return to the Israelite encampment at Shittim.
Jebel Quruntul was the location of a Seleucid, and later, a Maccabean fortress called Dok, and was the site of the assassination of Shimon (Simon), the brother of Judah the Maccabee (Judas Maccabaeus), together with two of his sons, by his own son-in-law, Ptolemy, the Seleucid governor of Jericho, at a feast (Game of Thrones, anyone?)
In one of the Christian traditions, a cave on Jebel Quruntul is supposed to be the site where Jesus fasted for forty days and nights following his baptism by John the Baptist and the mountain itself is said to be the high mountain where the Devil tried to tempt him. The forty day fast led to the mountain being named Mount Quarantine – a name which is preserved in the Arabic name, Jebel Quruntul.
During World War 2, the area was the scene of another spy drama, known as Operation Atlas. In October 1944, five German spies belonging to the Waffen SS were parachuted into the area of Wadi Qelt, near Jericho. Three of them were members of the German Templer movement. The other two were Palestinian Arabs closely aligned with the Nazi-supporting Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini. Their intention was to establish an intelligence-gathering base in Mandatory Palestine, to recruit and arm anti-British Palestinian Arabs, buying their support with gold, and to foment tensions between Jews and Arabs, thus creating problems for the British Mandatory authorities and forcing them to divert military resources which were badly needed elsewhere. Some researchers believe that the mission also included a plan to poison the drinking water resources of the residents of Tel Aviv (poison was found in the cargo boxes, although some claim it was intended to poison Arab “collaborators” with the British). Fortunately, none of this came about, as the British authorities discovered the scattered boxes of supplies (including weapons, explosives, radio equipment and money), and deduced that an enemy operation was in progress. Two of the Germans and one of the Arabs, hid in a cave in Wadi Qelt – perhaps the same cave used by the Israelite spies, who can say? – and were captured nine days later. The other two parachutists were not caught and the search for them was eventually called off.
From the Dead Sea Balcony, it was just a short drive to Qasr el-Yahud, (the Tower of the Jews) – traditional site of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Qasr el-Yahud is, strictly speaking, the Arabic name of the old Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. John the Baptist which was closed down in the 1970s, but recently reopened. There are several other monasteries of various Christian denominations in the area, leading to the region being nicknamed “The Land of the Monasteries”.
The site is believed to be the place where the Israelites crossed over the River Jordan. There are, in fact, several places in the vicinity of Jericho where the water is fairly shallow and the river is narrow enough to make a crossing feasible. On the day of our visit, the waters were sluggish and it was hard to believe that there would have been any need for the miracle described in Joshua 3:14 – 17, when God parted the waters of the raging river, just as he parted the waters of the Red Sea. But our visit took place at the very beginning of autumn, after many months during which no rain falls. The crossing of the Israelites took place on the 10th day of Nissan, just before Pessach (Passover), when the river would have been swollen by the winter rains. Even today, people can be swept away and drowned when the Jordan is in flood. This actually happened, about twenty years ago, to a former member of my choir.
The day of our visit, however, was hot and sunny and the river was, as I said, slow-moving and posed no threat to the parties of Christian pilgrims who had gathered on its banks to relive the baptism of Jesus:
John the Baptist no doubt chose this region because he saw himself as the spiritual heir of Elijah the Prophet, who is believed to have ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot in this same spot, as described in II Kings 2.
The description of the Israelite Crossing in Joshua 3, mentions the city of Adam – identified by most scholars as Tell A-Damiya, a nearby archaeological site. The Adam Bridge (Jisr-A-Damiya), the oldest of the Jordan Valley bridges, was originally built in 1266 by the Mamluk ruler Baybars. The stone bridge was still in existence at the beginning of the 20th century, but was no longer in use, as the River Jordan had changed course slightly, leaving the bridge high and dry. During the period of the British Mandate, a new bridge was constructed, which was blown up by the Palmach in the operation known as “the Night of the Bridges”. Another new bridge was built nearby, which was bombed by the IDF during the Six Day War. It was replaced in January 1968 with a Bailey Bridge and was in intermittent use until the 1990s, when its functions were transferred to the Allenby Bridge. Now the bridge is out of bounds to civilians. We required a special permit from the IDF to visit the site.
To get a proper view of the bridge itself, we had to make our way up to an IDF lookout post, reached by a path delineated by barbed wire, taking care not to step off it as it lay in the middle of a minefield. In the shrubbery bordering the path, we caught sight of an Asian Green Bee-Eater, or, as it is known in Hebrew, a shrakrak gamadi (שרקרק גמדי). I had to be very quick off the mark to catch it with my lens:
From the lookout point, we could enjoy a much clearer view of the damaged bridge:
And the views over the Jordan Valley were spectacular:
We even caught a glimpse of a Jordanian soldier, patrolling his side of the Bridge:
While we were at the lookout post, the weather which had been hot and sunny, changed. The sky clouded over, some (not very heavy) rain fell and we could hear the roll of distant thunder.
This had more or less cleared up by the time we arrived at our final port of call, the so-called “Footprint Site”, so called because, seen from the air, its outline of rough-hewn stones resembles a human footprint in a sandal.
Nobody knows exactly what its purpose was although it has been suggested that this was the site of Gilgal, the place mentioned several times in the Book of Joshua as the first encampment of the Israelites after crossing the River Jordan (see Joshua 4:19, where it is described as being on the eastern border of Jericho).
In the centre of the irregularly shaped site is a ramp leading to what, at first glance, appears to be an altar – although it does not meet the requirements of an Israelite altar, whose dimensions are clearly delineated in the Torah. Moreover, although animal bones were found there (but NOT the bones of pigs or other forbidden animals), there were far fewer than one might expect had the place served as an Israelite altar for many generations. The bones, and pottery shards unearthed here, indicate a site dating back to the 13th century BCE, which is when the Children of Israel would have entered the Land of Canaan, so from the point of view of the timeline, this place is certainly suitable for identification as the site of Gilgal.
Our guide demonstrated to us that if thousands of people were to ascend the steps of the rocky basin which partly surrounds the site, a person standing below on the ramp can be clearly heard by those seated above, as in an ancient Greek theatre. It has therefore been suggested that this might have been the place where Joshua spoke to the Children of Israel after they crossed the River Jordan, as described in Joshua 4:21.
There is a clearly delineated, paved pathway around the “altar”, and some researchers have suggested that priests, or pilgrims, might have encircled the altar as part of a religious ceremony. It has even been suggested that the word chag (חג – festival, holy day) derives from the word לחוג (lachug – to circle), and that the ancient Hebrew term for making a pilgrimage (לעלות לרגל – la’alot laregel – To Ascend to the Foot), as well as the term used for the three pilgrimage festivals, Pessach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles) – Shalosh Regalim (שלוש רגלים) which literally means “the Three Feet” (or, as we used to call them, the Three “Foot” festivals), actually dates back to a time before the existence of Solomon’s Temple, or even of the Sanctuary at Shiloh, when the Israelites would literally make a pilgrimage to “the Foot” (this one, near Moshav Argaman, or one of four others excavated by the archaeologist Prof. Adam Zertal), and encircle it in solemn procession. By the way, of the three pilgrimage festivals, the one which is often referred to simply as chag in the ancient Jewish sources is Sukkot – a festival which is, to this day, marked by carrying the Four Species in a circle around the synagogue! Coincidence?
And now to the question, why would the Israelites build a pilgrimage site shaped like a human foot?
Well, if the site really is the place where the Israelites first encamped after crossing the Jordan, the clue might lie in the symbolism. In Deuteronomy 11:24, God promises the Children of Israel:
“Every place whereon the sole of your foot shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness, and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the hinder sea shall be your border.”
This promise is reiterated in Joshua 1:3 –
“Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, to you have I given it, as I spoke unto Moses.”
The symbolism of the placing of one’s foot on a certain piece of land to mark one’s ownership lasted throughout the generations. The placing of the foot is not only a legal act, but also reflects God’s dominion, as we see in Ezekiel 43:7 – “this is the place of My throne, and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel for ever…”
By now, the sun was starting to set and it was time to head for home. I will leave you then, with one last picture of this mysterious site, little known outside of Israel (and scarcely visited even by Israelis, except in the framework of specialised courses such as this one) – and an invitation to next month’s tour, which will take us to Mount Ebal (another site discovered by Prof. Zertal) and Shiloh.
Until then – להתראות (Lehitra’ot).