Maresha/ Beit Guvrin PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Maresha/ Beit Guvrin
"Market" cave
Olive cave
Burial caves
Beit Guvrin
Bell Caves

Apart from its breathtaking caves, Maresha is the land's best example of a city from the Hellenistic period, yet it lies off the beaten track of tourism. One reason is the paucity of Biblical references. Nevertheless, the view from its tell is the finest we have for understanding the historical geography of Judah.

If we stand in the middle of Tell Maresha looking east, we behold the entire length of Judah's dark bulk, from Jerusalem to Hebron and beyond, as the mountain dips toward Beersheba. (Compass directions and distances.) We can see the strong line of separation between the mountain and the green hills of the Shephelah where we stand. Parting the two is a natural moat, formed by a series of north-south riverbeds such as Elah. Now add the fact that the block is bounded by a desert on the other, eastern side, and on the southern side by the Negev. From a military standpoint, what we are seeing is a landed peninsula. As long as it had defenders, an army could attack it only from the north.

View of Mount Judah from Tell Maresha 

Maresha and Mount Judah

This character of "landed peninsula" has much to do with the fact that the Assyrians never conquered Jerusalem, making do with tribute instead. Of course there are other facts too: the mountain stood at no strategic location - it lay far from the Trunk Road to Egypt - and by the time the Assyrian army had taken more vital spots, such as Samaria (723 BC) or Lachish (701), its soldiers were probably battle-weary. (The Bible mentions a plague that afflicted it.) Under these conditions, when an Assyrian king faced the still unconquered mountain, we can picture him thinking, "Hmmm, tribute will do."

Imagine what would have happened if the Assyrians had conquered all of Judah, including Jerusalem. The inhabitants would have fared as did the northern tribes: those allowed to live would have been deported and mixed with other populations, losing their national identity. In that case, who would have been left to preserve the texts that compose our First Testament? No one. (The Samaritans did not yet exist.) And so we would not have a First Testament, and without it, we wouldn't have the Gospels. This piece of geography helped make us who we are.

In 586 BC the Babylonians did take Jerusalem, coming from the north (cf. Jeremiah 1:14 ). By that time, though, many key First Testament texts had crystallized. What is more, the Babylonians did not disperse the exiles. The Judahites and their descendants - now called Jews -  assembled the First Testament.

Moresheth GathRemoving our eyes from the mountain, we can find a number of Biblical sites nearby. Just 2.7 miles to the north (at 11 degrees) is Tell Goded, the Moresheth-Gath of Micah (Micah 1:1, Jeremiah 26:18). This city was paired with Maresha, during the period of the Assyrian invasions, as part of a chain protecting Judah's mountain and Jerusalem. (Compare the pairing of Socoh and Azekah in the Valley of Elah.)

To the left of Tell Goded, 3 miles from us, is Tell Burna (330 degrees). Here, some think, was Libnah, where Sennacherib fought after taking Lachish (2 Kings 19:8). This tell is outside the hill country, connecting directly to the coastal plain.

Maresha and its Connections
Almost on a line with Tell Burna, but farther way (8 miles from us at 340 degrees), is Gath, the town of Goliath (Tell Safit, a jutting, irregular shape beyond a grove of trees). Later built up by the Crusaders, who called it Blanchegarde, it rules the intersection of the Great Trunk Road and the Valley of Elah.

Wheeling due west, we can make out the chimneys of the power stations at Ashdod and Ashkelon, once major Philistine cities. As for Gaza, we have no landmark, but the city lies 33 miles from us at 255 degrees.

Closer in, we can make out just the top of Lachish, a flat brown stretch to the right of a farming community (3.5 miles away at 240 degrees). This brings us to the reason for Maresha's existence as a Judean fortress city. The southerly passage from the Great Trunk Road to Judah's mountain led through Lachish to Maresha, where we stand, and thence through a valley and up to Adoraim and Hebron. Maresha and Moresheth-Gath were built to guard this passage. We show it in two satellite images, starting with the western portion:

From the Shephelah to Hebron, eastern portion
From Lachish to foot of Mount Hebron

What does it mean, however, to say that the Judean cities of the Shephelah had the function of protecting Jerusalem? How could they? Without major help from Egypt, they were sitting ducks. Sennacherib boasts he took 46 of them, and 1 Kings 18:13 admits he took "all the fortified cities of Judah." Their function may indeed have been to protect, but in the sense of wearing the enemy down, so that when he looked up again at the difficult mountain, he might think twice. These Shephelah cities were doomed in advance (Micah 1:13 -2:2):

To the chariot harness the team (rechesh), dweller of Lachish.
You were the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion;
For in you were found the sins of Israel.
Therefore you will give farewell gifts to Moresheth Gath.
The houses of Achzib will be a deceitful thing to the kings of Israel.
I will yet bring your possessor (yoresh) to you, dweller of Mareshah.
Unto (ad) Adullam he will come, Glory of Israel.
Shave your heads, cut your hair for the children of your delight.
Widen your baldness like a vulture,
for they have been exiled from you!