Hebron PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Seeking Mamre
Tombs of Patriarchs
Byzantine Mamre

Important Biblical events are set in the area of Hebron:

1.  At Mamre, which the Bible places at or near Hebron, God promised Sarah and Abraham a son. Later Abraham bought a burial cave "in the field of Machpelah before Mamre." This received Sarah's body, then his own, and after that those of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

2. At Hebron, David ruled over Judah for seven and a half years before becoming king of all Israel.

By enlarging the satellite photo on the right, you can get a look at the tell of the ancient city, with heights above sea level indicated in feet.

Judging from the heights, this was not a very defensible hill. (In Jerusalem, by contrast, the top of the city's hill was 150 feet higher than the Kidron Valley.) Hebron depended for its defense, rather, on the impregnability of the whole southern part of the mountain range. In this respect, its situation was good. It needed to defend only three points. It was centrally located among them, and all were within easy reach of cavalry reinforcements. The points were Beth Zur, Zif and Adoraim.

But before we go into this defensive system, let us look at the wider context. The central mountain range stretches like a loaf of bread, on a north-south axis, from the Jezreel Plain to the Negev Desert. In the middle of this range we find the Benjamin Plateau, between Bethel and Jerusalem. Over this plateau passed the southernmost good link between the two trunk roads that joined Egypt and Arabia to Damascus. Jerusalem barely grasped the plateau's southeastern edge, thus enjoying the best of two worlds: it had the commercial and agricultural advantages of the plateau, and yet deep valleys defended it.

 South of Jerusalem, however, we are off the beaten track of antiquity. This part of the range, which at times belonged to the tribe of Judah, presents impediments to invading armies on the east, south and west. On the east and south are deserts. On the west, the mountain is steeply tilted (in places the rock layers bend 90 degrees). Moreover, the rivers of the Shephelah form a natural moat. (See map above.) From an ancient military standpoint, Mt. Judah is a landed peninsula. As long as someone was up there defending it, an army had little hope of success unless it included a major attack from the north (whence, said God through Jeremiah, disaster comes.)

In antiquity, the wider metropolitan area of Jerusalem extended south along the watershed past Bethlehem for a total of twelve miles. Further south there was still plenty of mountain, hence room for another city. Although this area was off the beaten international track, conditions were conducive for a local emporium.

These conditions were as follows (using Karmon and Shmueli, Part Two): First, in the southern half of Mt. Judah, the peak occupies a long high stretch. With 62 square miles at over 3000 feet (and another 54 sq. mi. at over 2600), Hebron's metropolitan area forms the highest settled part of the country. Because of this height, nights are cool, the dew is heavy in summer, and there is plenty of winter rain (20 inches per year). The valleys mix alluvial soil with fertile loess (formed of sand blown in from the desert). All these factors combine to produce the legendary Hebron grapes. It was probably thanks to the grapes, by the way, that the Babylonians, in 586 BC, did not exile the vintners and farmers of this region. They wanted the wine! (Jeremiah 52:16)

Grapevines near Hebron

hebron grapes

A Jewish tradition has Noah, after the flood, bringing a vine from Mt. Ararat to Hebron, and an Arab tradition recognizes his grave in Dura (Biblical Adoraim), five miles to the west. The Bible tells us that the men sent by Moses to spy out the land, having reached Hebron, hauled back from the Valley of Eshkol ("grapes") a cluster so large that two had to carry it on a pole. ("To spy," in the Biblical Hebrew, is to tur. The image of the two bearing grapes has become the official symbol of Israeli tourism.) Even today, grape clusters weighing four to six pounds are not uncommon. (Keel, p. 715).

Consider too how Jacob blessed Judah (Genesis 49: 11-12):

Binding his foal to the vine,
his donkey’s colt to the choice vine;
he has washed his garments in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes will be red with wine,
his teeth white with milk.

The milk would have been from the sheep and goats of Judah's desert, but the wine would have been from Judah's mountain top.

Yet grapes are not all. A bit to the south, and on the slopes leading down to the many river beds, the night air is not so cold; released from the risk of frost, olives and figs do well here. On the gentler southern and eastern descents toward Beersheba and Arad, the ancients would have grown barley and wheat.

Further south and east is the midbar, often translated as wilderness, but meaning, in its root, grazing land (midbar derives from davar, an ancient Hebrew term for "grazing"). The producers of these different products would have required a center in which to trade. Where would this have been?

Jerusalem, as said, was too far north. If we concentrate on the high, southern half of Mt. Judah, we find a bottleneck at Beth Zur. Here the Shinnar (Sa'ir) riverbed intrudes from the eastern wilderness, pushing traffic onto the narrow passage of the watershed, which is limited on the west by steep downward slopes. North and south of Beth Zur there is room again, and the roads can fan out. Therefore, the bottleneck at Beth Zur is the natural border between the northern and southern parts of Mount Judah. If you are ruling from Hebron, this narrow pass four miles away is the single point on your north side that you must take special care to defend.

As for the east, the wilderness defended Hebron. Now we shall look to its south.

In mountainous country, the best route is generally on the watershed, because there is no need to cross riverbeds. (See the satellite image above, for example.) Exceptions can occur if the watershed twists and turns; or the rock may be hard, and karstic erosion may have roughened it. The last two factors are the case on the watershed between Bene Na'im (pron. Bennay Na'eem) and Zif (see map below). Travelers between Beth Zur and points to the south, therefore, avoided this section of the watershed, using instead a broad and comfortable valley to its west. In this valley grew the city of Hebron. From here they could continue south through Zif, Carmel and Maon to Tell Malkhata, with a side branch to Arad. They had other options as well. From Hebron they could take a secondary watershed southwest to Beersheba.

Due south of Hebron was Yuta (which was much less developed in Biblical times than in the 1870's, when the Survey map on the right was made.) But a direct route between Hebron and Yuta was beset with harsh, interfering riverbeds. Instead, travelers went via Zif. (Karmon and Shmueli, p. 49).

The upshot is this: on the southeast, if you were ruling from Hebron, there was only one point that you had to take special care to defend, and that was Zif, four miles away.

What about the west side? Wadi Kof, the best route up from the west, is a valley, hence too dangerous for an army. The next conceivable route comes up to Adoraim, five miles from Hebron. This was the third point that had to be strongly defended. From here one could also intercept any group approaching on the watershed from Beersheba.

Centrally located among the three strategic points (Beth Zur, Zif and Adoraim), Hebron was in a unique position to protect the high and fertile platform forming the southern part of Mt. Judah. This was so despite the fact that its immediate natural defenses as a city were slight. (According to 2 Chronicles 11: 5-10, Solomon's son Rehoboam fortified precisely these four in the region: Hebron, Beth Zur, Zif and Adoraim. The archaeological finds, however, point rather to Josiah as their fortifier.)

Hebron's name implies its function. The Hebrew root, kh-v-r, means to bind. A khaver is a friend. In the Quran, Allah has taken "Abraham as friend," and because of Hebron's connection with Abraham, Arabs also call it al-Khalil, the city of the friend. (Compare 2 Chronicles 20:7, James 2: 21-24.)

If we go back to the meaning of Hebron as "to bind," "to connect," we may link this to its geopolitical function. Hebron might have served as a place of alliance among Beth Zur, Zif and Adoraim. This could account for the other name the Bible gives it: Qiryat Arba, "the city of the four." (Joshua 14:15, however, mentions Arba as a man, the greatest among the Anakite giants who once lived there.) We may recall, as well, the four basic kinds of produce, based on the four regions joined by it, for which Hebron served as emporium: grapes, olives, grain and milk.