The Shephelah PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Shephelah
Shephelah Passes

The word "Shephelah" means "low place" in Hebrew. The region was low, indeed, from the viewpoint of people on the mountain of Judah. It consists of hills and valleys, the hills reaching 1500 feet above sea level (whereas the mountain reaches 3000 feet).

In the Bible the Shephelah functions as an in-between land. It lay between Judah's section of the central mountain range and the part of the Great Trunk Road that ran near the coast. It appears, therefore, as the debating ground between the Philistines, who straddled the southern part of the Trunk Road, and the Israelites on the mountain.

Enlarge the map on the right to see the broader context:

There were four main passages from the Trunk Road through valleys of the Shephelah and up Judah's mountain . Cities sat on these passages according to a pattern: (1) there was a city on the coastal Trunk Road where it meets a broad valley leading east;  (2) there was a city near this valley's eastern end, where an unbroken ridge or defile begins to ascend the mountain; and (3) there was a city on top. We devote a separate article to this pattern.

In time of war, geography protected the Judean range. First, there is a natural moat, formed by north-south valleys that separate the Shephelah from the mountain. (The Valley of Elah, where Goliath met his match, was one of these.) Second, the western flank of the mountain is extremely steep and rugged, while the few passages are narrow. Unless an army chose the northernmost route, it could not march straight up from the west as long as an enemy occupied the high ground. When we stand in the Shephelah, therefore, we seem to be very close to Judah, but if we are an army, we are still very far.
Approach to Judah from NW 

Approach to Judah from W

Not only is Judah's mountain protected on the west. It is protected on the east by the wilderness and on the south by the Negev desert. The heartland of Judah, in short, is a landed peninsula, easily accessible only from the plateau on its north side. (Jeremiah 1:14. "Out of the north evil will break out on all the inhabitants of the land.") The mountain is off the main international routes and difficult to farm because of its steepness. These factors dampened the interest of potential invaders. Consider, for instance, the Assyrians in 701 BC. They concentrated on Lachish and the Trunk Road to Egypt, sending only a detachment up from the west (apparently unopposed) to Jerusalem. If they had focused on Jerusalem, taking it and scattering its population as they'd done with the northern tribes, the Judeans there would have suffered the fate of the northerners: they would have lost their group identity. Who then would have been around to preserve the texts that became our Bible? (The Samaritans? Convention to the contrary, they did not yet exist). Today's world would be very different: no Bible, no Judaism, no Christianity, and no Islam.

After the Assyrians came the Babylonians. In the century between them, however, much of the First Testament was crystallized. The Babylonians did take Jerusalem and Judah, but unlike the Assyrians, they kept the exiles together. The exiled Judeans (and, starting in 538 BC, those among them who returned) were called yehudim in Hebrew, i.e. Jews.  They preserved the Biblical texts. 

This hulk of a mountain, which protected Jerusalem from the Assyrians, has much to do with who we are.

Mount Hebron seen from Shephelah