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Holman Bible Dictionary
Palestine is derived from the name Pelishtim or “Philistines.” See Philistines. The Greeks, familiar primarily with the coastal area, applied the name Palestine to the entire southeastern Mediterranean region. Although the word Palestine (or Palestina) is found four times in the KJV (Exodus 15:14; Isaiah 14:29 ,Isaiah 14:29,14:31; Joel 3:4 ), these are references to the territory of the Philistines and so properly designate only the strip of coastland occupied by that people.
For the purposes of this article, Palestine extends to the north ten to fifteen miles beyond the ancient site of Dan and New Testament Caesarea Philippi into the gorges and mountains just south of Mount Hermon. To the east, it extends to the Arabian steppe. To the south, Palestine extends en to fifteen miles beyond Beer-sheba. On the west is the Mediterranean Sea. It therefore includes western Palestine—between the Jordan River and the Sea, and eastern Palestine—between the Jordan and the Arabian steppe.
Palestine west of the Jordan covers approximately 6,000 square miles. East of the Jordan an area of about 4,000 square miles was included in the land of Israel.
Geographical Features Palestine is naturally divided into four narrow strips of land running north and south.
1. Coastal plain This very fertile plain begins ten to twelve miles south of Gaza, just north of the Egyptian border, and stretches northward to the Sidon-Tyre area. Usually it is divided into three sections: (1) the Plain of Philistia, roughly from south of Gaza to Joppa (Tel Aviv); (2) the Plain of Sharon, from Joppa north to the promontory of the Carmel chain; and (3) the detached Plain of Acco, which merges with the Plain of Esdraelon, the historic gateway inland and to the regions to the north and east. The Plain of Sharon varies from a width of a few hundred yards just south of Carmel to more than twelve miles wide near Joppa. Covered with fertile alluvial soil and well watered by springs, the area was once covered with extensive forests.
Further south is the Plain of Philistia. Here were located the Philistine strongholds of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath. Salt marshes—the Serbonian bog—located at the southern end of the Philistine plain have been known as breeding grounds of disease.
Forming the southwestern end of the Fertile Crescent, the coastal plain has been the highway of commerce and conquest for centuries. This was the route followed by the Hittites and the Egyptians, by Cambyses, Alexander, Pompey, and Napoleon.
The coastal plain lacked an outstanding natural harbor. Joppa had roughly semicircular reefs that formed a breakwater 300 to 400 feet offshore and, consequently, was used as a port. Entrance from the south was impossible, however, and the north entrance was shallow and treacherous. Herod the Great developed Caesarea Maritima into an artificial port of considerable efficiency. See Caesare.
2. Central Hill Country The second strip of land is the mountainous ridge beginning just north of Beer-sheba and extending through all of Judea and Samaria into upper Galilee. Actually, the rugged terrain running the length of the land is a continuation of the more clearly defined Lebanon Mountains to the north. The only major break in the mountain range is the Plain of Esdraelon also called the Valley of Jezreel. Three divisions are evident: Judea, Samaria, Galilee.
(1) Judea Rising from the parched Negeb (Negeb means “parched” or “dry land”), the Judean hills reach their highest point, 3,370 feet, near Hebron. See Negeb . Jerusalem is located in the Judean hills at an elevation of 2,600 feet. The eastern slopes form the barren and rugged “wilderness of Judea,” then fall abruptly to the floor of the Jordan Valley. The wilderness is treeless and waterless. Deep gorges and canyons cut into the soft sedimentary formations.
The western foothills of Judea are called the “Shephelah,” meaning “valley” or “lowland.” The name has been inaccurately applied to the Plain of Philistia, but the towns assigned by the Old Testament to the Shephelah are all situated in the low hills rather than the plain. The Shephelah is a belt of gently rolling hills between 500,1,000 feet in height. Five valleys divide the region, from the Wadi el Hesy in the south to the Valley of Ajalon in northern Judea. These passes have witnessed the conflicts between Saul and the Philistines, the Maccabees and the Syrians, the Jews and the Romans, Richard I and Saladin. Here Samson grew to manhood. Here David encountered Goliath.
The Shephelah had great military importance. It formed a buffer between Judea and the enemies of the Hebrew people—Philistines, Egyptians, Syrians. Formerly heavily wooded with sycamores, the region served to impede an attack from the west.
(2) Samaria The hills of Samaria descend gently from the Judean mountains, averaging just over 1,000 feet in height. Several notable mountains such as Gerizim (2,890 feet), Ebal (3,083), and Gilboa (1,640 feet) dominate the area. This land of mountains is marked by wide and fertile valleys. Here the majority of the people lived during the Old Testament era, and here significant events of Hebrew history took place. The openness of Samaria is a prominent feature of the land, making movement much easier than in Judea and thus inviting armies and chariots from the north.
The valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim was a central location, apparently providing the perfect point from which a united nation could have been governed. Roads went in all directions—to Galilee, the Jordan Valley, south to Jerusalem. Here Shechem was located, important to the patriarchs and in the day of the judges. Shechem, however, had no natural defenses and was consequently rejected by the kings of Israel as their capital.
From this region the main range of mountains sends out an arm to the northwest that reaches the coast at Mount Carmel. Carmel reaches a height of only 1,791 feet, but it seems more lofty because it rises directly from the coastline. It receives abundant rainfall, an average of 28 to 32 inches per year, and consequently is rather densely covered with vegetation, including some woodland.
The Carmel range divides the Plain of Sharon from the narrow coastal plain of Phoenicia. It forms the southern side of the Plain of Esdraelon, with the ancient fortress of Megiddo standing as one of its key cities. This natural barrier caused the passes in the Carmel chain to achieve unusual importance, lying as it does on the historic route between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
(3) Galilee North of the Plain of Esdraelon and south of the Leontes River lies the region called Galilee. The name comes from the Hebrew galil, meaning, literally “circle” or “ring.” In Isaiah 9:1 , the prophet refers to it as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (NIV). The tribes of Asher, Naphtali, and Zebulun were assigned to this area. There is evidence of mixed population and racial variety from early times. In the day of Jesus, many Gentiles were in Galilee.
The region is divided into Upper Galilee and Lower Galilee. Lower Galilee is a land of limestone hills and fertile valleys. Most of the region is approximately 500 feet above sea level—but with mountains like Tabor reaching a height of 1,929 feet. Grain, grass, olives, and grapes were abundant. Fish, oil, and wine were common exports. Several major international roads crossed the area, and caravan traffic from Damascus through Capernaum to the south was heavy. Josephus spoke of Galilee as “universally rich and fruitful.”
Some of the most important cities of Galilee were on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Those on the northwestern shore, such as Capernaum, were more Jewish than those to the south. Tiberias, built in A.D. 25 by Herod Antipas and named after the reigning caesar, became the capital and the most important city during the New Testament era.
The terrain of Upper Galilee is much more rugged than Lower Galilee, an area of deeply fissured and roughly eroded tableland with high peaks and many wadis. The highest peak is Mount Meron, at 3,963 feet the highest point in Palestine. The basic rock is limestone, in the eastern sections often covered with volcanic rock. In the east, Galilee drops off abruptly to the Jordan, while farther south, near the Sea of Galilee, the slopes become much more gradual and gentle
3. Jordan Rift Valley As a result of crustal faulting, the hills of Palestine drop into the deepest split on the surface of the earth. The fault is part of a system that extends north to form the valley between the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon chains, also extending south to form the Dead Sea, the dry Arabah Valley, the Gulf of Aqabah, and, eventually, the chain of lakes on the African continent.
The Jordan River has its source in several springs, primarily on the western and southern slopes of Mount Hermon. Several small streams come together near Dan, then flow into shallow, reedy Lake Hula (Huleh). From its sources to Hula the Jordan drops somewhat less than 1,000 feet over a distance of twelve miles, entering Lake Hula at 230 feet above sea level (not 7 feet, as reported by some older publications). In recent years the Jordan bed has been straightened after it leaves Hula, the swamps of the valley have been drained, and the size of the lake has been greatly reduced. Most of the area is now excellent farmland. Over the eleven miles from Hula to the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan drops 926 feet, flowing in part through a narrow canyon. From Galilee to the Dead Sea there is an additional drop of 600 feet.
The Sea of Galilee is a significant part of the upper Rift Valley and is formed by a widening of it. It has several names—the Lake of Gennesaret, the Sea of Tiberias, Lake Chinnereth—but it is best known as the Sea of Galilee. Around it most of the ministry of Jesus took place. Here He could rest, escape crowds, find cool relief from the heat. Shaped much like a harp, it is thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. The hard basalt environment has given the lake an almost constant level and size. In the New Testament day, the lake was the center of a thriving fishing industry. The towns around the lake testify to this fact: Bethsaida means “fishing place,” and Tarichea is from a Greek term meaning “preserved fish.”
As the Jordan flows south out of the Sea of Galilee, it enters a gorge called the Ghor, or “depression.” The meandering Jordan and its periodic overflows have created the Zor, or “jungle,” a thick growth of entangled semitropical plants and trees. Although the distance from the lower end of the Sea of Galilee to the upper end of the Dead Sea is only 65 miles, the winding Jordan twists 200 miles to cover that distance. The Ghor is about twelve miles wide at Jericho.
Seven miles south of Jericho, the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, one of the world's most unique bodies of water. The surface of the water Isaiah 1,296 feet below sea level, the lowest point on the surface of the earth. Forty-seven miles long and eight miles wide, the Dead Sea has no outlet.
It has been calculated that an average of 6.5 million tons of water enter the sea each day. The result of centuries of evaporation is that now 25 percent of the weight of the water is mineral salts. Magnesium chloride gives the water a bitter taste, and calcium chloride gives it an oily touch. Fish cannot live in Dead Sea water. Indeed, it destroys almost all organic life in it and around it.
Thirty miles down the eastern side, a peninsula, the Lisan, or the “Tongue,” juts into the sea. North of it the sea is deep, reaching a maximum depth of 1,319 feet—2,650 feet below sea level. South of the peninsula the sea is very shallow, with a maximum depth of thirteen feet. It is thought that this area is the location of “the cities of the Plain” (Genesis 13:12 ), Sodom and Gomorrah.
4. Transjordan Plateau East of the Jordan is an area where the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh settled. In New Testament times, Decapolis and Perea were located there. The ministry of Jesus took Him to limited parts of these provinces. Transjordan is divided into sections by several rivers—the Yarmuk, the Jabbok, the Arnon, and the Zered.
(1) Across from Galilee and north of the Yarmuk River is Bashan (Hauron), an area of rich volcanic soil with rainfall in excess of sixteen inches per year. The plateau averages 1,500 feet above sea level. To the east of Bashan lies only desert that begins to slope toward the Euphrates. In the New Testament era, it was a part of the territory of Philip, the Tetrarch, son of Herod the Great. (2) South of the Yarmuk, reaching to the Jabbok River, was Gilead. During the Persian rule the boundaries were rather rigid. Both before and after Persian domination, Gilead reached as far south as Rabbah (Philadelphia, modern Amman). Formerly heavily wooded, with many springs and with gently rounded hills, Gilead is one of the most picturesque regions of Palestine. Olive groves and vineyards are found on the hillsides. Jerash and Amman, the capital of the Heshemite Kingdom of Jordan, are located here.
(3) South of Gilead lies Moab. Originally, its northern border was the Arnon River, but the Moabites pushed north, giving their name to the plains east of the spot where the Jordan enters the Dead Sea (Ammon attempted to establish herself between Gilead and Moab using Rabbath-Ammon as her stronghold. This succeeded only under the infamous Tobiah during the years of the Exile.) Moab's southern border was the Zered River, Wadi al Hasa.
(4) Still farther south is Edom, with the highest mountains of the region. The area is arid and barren. Fifty miles south of the Dead Sea lies the ancient fortress of Petra, “rose-red half as old as time.”
Climate Palestine lies in the semitropical belt between 30 15' and 33 15' north latitude. Temperatures are normally high in the summer and mild in the winter, but these generalizations are modified by both elevation and distance from the coast. Variety is the necessary word in describing Palestinian weather, for in spite of its relatively small size, the geographical configuration of the area produces a diversity of conditions. Because of the Mediterranean influence, the coastal plain has an average annual temperature of 57 at Joppa. Jerusalem, only 35 miles away, has an annual average of 63. Its elevation of 2,500 feet above sea level causes the difference. Jericho is only seventeen miles further east, but it Isaiah 3,400 feet lower (900 feet below sea level), consequently having a tropical climate and very low humidity. Here bitterly cold desert nights offset rather warm desert days. Similarly, much of the area around the Sea of Galilee experiences temperate conditions, while the Dead Sea region is known for its strings of 100 plus summer days.
Palestine is a land of two seasons, a dry season and a rainy season, with intervening transitional periods. The dry season lasts from mid-May to mid-October. From June through August no rain falls except in the extreme north. Moderate, regular winds blow usually from the west or southwest. The breezes reach Jerusalem by noon, Jericho in early afternoon, and the Transjordan plateau by midafternoon. The air carries much moisture, but atmospheric conditions are such that precipitation does not occur. However, the humidity is evident from the extremely heavy dew that forms five nights out of six in July.
With late October, the “early rain” so often mentioned in Scripture begins to fall. November is punctuated with heavy thunderstorms. The months of December through February are marked by heavy showers, but it is not a time of unrelenting rain. Rainy days alternate with fair days and beautiful sunshine. The cold is not severe, with occasional frost in the higher elevations from December to February. In Jerusalem snow may fall twice during the course of the winter months.
All of Palestine experiences extremely disagreeable warm conditions occasionally. The sirocco wind (the “east wind” of Genesis 41:6 and Ezekiel 19:12 ) blowing from the southeast during the transition months (May—June, September—October) brings dust-laden clouds across the land. It dries vegetation and has a withering effect on people and animals. On occasion the temperature may rise 30F and the humidity fall to less than 10 percent.
Along the coastal plain, the daily temperature fluctuation is rather limited because of the Mediterranean breezes. In the mountains and in Rift Valley, daily fluctuation is much greater.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Palestine'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/p/palestine.html. 1991.