When David heard the news of King Saul’s death, David wept bitterly. He had lost his king and his great friend, Saul’s son Jonathan. David cursed the mountains of Gilboa in the Lament of the Bow: “O mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain, nor fields that yield offerings of grain.” [2 Samuel 1:21].
There was no sign of a curse on a recent, perfect December day when I joined ESRA (esra.org.il) for a very scenic hike in the mountains of Gilboa. After several pick ups along the way, we soon drove past Tell Megiddo, famously known as the site of the “Last Battle” at Armageddon. More than two dozen levels of settlements (a “tell”) dating back to King Solomon’s reign have been excavated there. We then entered the broad Jezreel Valley, (Emek Yizre’el), a beautiful area of the Lower Galilee in Northern Israel. It’s a flat landscape of immense natural beauty and historic importance.
Jezreel Valley is bordered to the south by the Samarian Highlands, the southeast by Mount Gilboa, the west by Mount Carmel, and the east by the Jordan River. Throughout history, armies and travelers along the Via Maris (Sea Road), going from Istanbul or Babylon towards Egypt or the Arabian Peninsula, would pass through it, ensuring that the valley is rich in archaeological finds. It was very important in Israel’s Yishuv period (pre-state Israel) during the early 20th century. Today, the valley is known for its country style hospitality and rural restaurants serving home-made cheese, wine and breads.
Our hike began on the eastern side of the valley at an elevation of about 1,000 feet, between Mt. Tabor and Ein Dor, the location where King Saul famously consulted a witch about his upcoming, fatal battle. We descended several hundred feet (eventually to below sea level), picking our way through the rocky terrain to a pretty flat trail which constituted much of the hike. All along the way the views were spectacular, including clusters of winter flowers, especially bright red/purple rakefot (cyclamen). The Jezreel Valley is known for its many springs, though just one hundred years ago much of it was swamp land which the Jewish pioneers drained.
At a spring in this area, Judge Gideon (more of a general than a judge) gathered together 32,000 fighting men to fight the even larger Midianite army. Despite that, Gideon tells all the men who were fearful to go home, leaving only 10,000 men to fight more than ten times as many Midianites. Following God’s command, Gideon then instructed them to drink from a nearby stream, choosing only 300 fighters who cupped water with their hands and excluding those who licked water like dogs, oblivious to their surroundings. Gideon’s small band was victorious against overwhelming odds, proving by their paltry numbers that the Israelites depended on God’s help to be victorious.
(Judges ch. 6-8)
Our excellent guide Reuven took the opportunity to point out the Valley Train on the railroad tracks far below us. Now a modern line between Haifa and Bet She’an, it once serviced Haifa, Damascus, and Mecca, especially by transporting pilgrims on their pilgrimage (haj) to the Muslim holy place. There are currently plans to extend the line further south through the Jordan Valley towards Jerusalem. Optimistically, Reuven conjectured that the line might one day extend north to Damascus.
While pointing out the many Jewish and Israeli Arab villages in the landscape, Reuven told us about Yehoshua Hankin, who as a young man in 1882 came to Eretz Yisrael. He and his father were among the founders of Rishon LeZion (“First in Zion”). Hankin soon became adept at establishing relations with the local Arab landowners in order to purchase more and more land on which to establish and expand Jewish settlements.
Working for the Palestine Land Development Corporation, Hankin negotiated the purchase of Jezreel Valley lands as early as 1897. For his accomplishments, Hankin became know as the “Redeemer of the Valley.” He died in Tel Aviv not long before Israel’s independence and is buried on Mt. Gilboa, facing the land he redeemed in the Jezreel Valley. During his lifetime, Hankin arranged the purchase of nearly 150,000 acres of land! Kfar Yehoshua (Beit Hankin) in the Jezreel Valley is named for him. (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/)
We hiked on in this beautiful landscape until we came to the Ein Yisrael park, where the eponymous stream is located. The spring emanates from a tunnel system hewn into the layer of rock holding the water. The tunnels were created to increase the flow of spring water. Historically, King Saul camped here before his last and fatal battle. We were very happy to use the picnic tables provided for our lunch. As we left, we were serenaded by a young women who graciously interrupted her picnic to entertain us with her voice and guitar.
The picnic area is near Tell Yizrael, which dates back to 5,000 BCE. The Northern Kingdom of Israel’s king, Ahab, made Yizrael his winter capital during his horrific reign (874-853 BCE). He married the heathen princess Jezebel, who corrupted him into becoming the first Israelite king in the Bible to adopt idol worship through marriage.
Ahab coveted the prodigious olive tree “vineyard” of Naboth. One day Ahab offered Naboth a choice of either a better vineyard somewhere else, or money for his land. Naboth refused. After failing, Ahab went home and pouted like a little child. When Jezebel found out what happened to the king, she “arranged” for him to “inherit” the land by having the land owner killed.
This king of Israel was so evil that the prophet Elijah prophesied his extermination and for his entire family. However, when Ahab repented, the Lord let him live and postponed the punishment on his descendants (1Kings 21:17 – 29). Jezebel did not repent as Ahab had done. The Lord proclaimed that after her death, dogs would fight to eat her flesh. In any event, it is reported that Jezebel died a horrible death.
After our lunch break we climbed up from Tell Yizrael, soon finishing this rather easy but rewarding hike. There we met our bus near the Navot junction, named for the unlucky neighbor of King Ahab, on the modern highway traversing the route of the ancient Via Maris. In Israel, history, hikes, and beauty are just around the corner.