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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Palestine

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PALESTINE

1. Situation and name. The land of Palestine is the territory which lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Desert as E. and W. boundaries, and whose N. and S. boundaries may be approximately stated at 31° and 33° 20’ N. Lat. respectively. These boundaries have not always been clearly fixed; but the convention is generally agreed upon that Palestine is separated from Egypt by the Wady el-’Arîsh or ‘River of Egypt,’ and from Syria by the Kasmiyeh or Lîtani River, the classical Leontes. Biblical writers fixed the limits of the territory by the towns Dan and Beersheba, which are constantly coupled when the author desires to express in a picturesque manner that a certain event affected the whole of the Israelite country ( e.g . Judges 20:1 ). The name ‘Palestine’ [AV [Note: Authorized Version.] in Joel 3:4 ; in Exodus 15:14 , Isaiah 14:29 ; Isaiah 14:31 Peter alestina; RV [Note: Revised Version.] Philistia ], being derived from that of the Philistines , properly belongs only to the strip of coast-land south of Carmel, which was the ancient territory of that people. There is no ancient geographical term covering the whole region now known as Palestine: the different provinces Canaan, Judah, Israel, Moab, Edom, etc. are enumerated separately when necessary. The extension of the word to include the entire Holy Land, both west and east of the Jordan, is subsequent to the introduction of Christianity.

2. Geology and geography . The greater part of the country is of a chalky limestone formation, which overlies a layer of red sandstone that appears on the E. shore of the Dead Sea and elsewhere. Under the red sandstone are the archæan granitic rocks which form a large part of the Sinai Peninsula. Above the chalk is a layer of nummulitic limestone, which appears on some mountains. Volcanic rock, the result of ancient eruptions, appears in the Hauran, Galilee (especially in the neighbourhood of Safed), and elsewhere. For fuller information on the geology of the country, see art. Geology. With respect to the surface, Palestine divides naturally into a series of narrow strips of country running from north to south, and differing materially from one another in character. ( a ) The first of these is the Maritime Plain running along the coast of the Mediterranean from the neighbourhood of Sidon and Tyre southward, and disappearing only at the promontory of Carmel. This plain widens southward from Carmel to a maximum breadth of about 20 miles, while to the north of that promontory it develops into the great plain of Esdraelon, which intersects the mountain region and affords the most easy passage into the heart of the country. This plain is covered with a most fertile alluvial soil. ( b ) The second strip is the mountainous ridge of Judæa and Samaria, on the summit of which are Hebron, Jerusalem, and other important towns and villages; and which, with the single interruption of the piain of Esdraelon, runs continuously from the south border of the country to join the system of the Lebanon. ( c ) The third strip is the deep depression known as the Ghôr , down which runs the Jordan with its lakes. ( d ) The fourth strip is the great plateau of Bashan, Moab, and Edom, with a lofty and precipitous face towards the west, and running eastward till it is lost in the desert.

3. Water supply, climats, natural products. There is no conspicuous river in Palestine except the Jordan and its eastern tributaries, and these, being for the greater part of their course in a deep hollow, are of little or no service for irrigation. In consequence, Palestine is dependent as a whole for its water supply on springs, or on artificial means of storage of its winter rains. Countless examples of both exist, the former especially in Galilee, parts of which are abundantly fertile by nature, and would probably repay beyond all expectation a judicious expenditure of capital. The case of Judæa is a little different, for here there are extensive tracts which are nearly or quite waterless, and are more or less desert in consequence.

The climate of Palestine is, on the whole, that of the sub-tropical zone, though, owing to the extraordinary variation of altitudes, there is probably a greater range of average local temperature than in any other region of its size on the world’s surface. On the one hand, the summits of Hermon and of certain peaks of the Lebanon are covered with snow for the greater part of the year; on the other hand, the tremendous depression, in the bottom of which lies the Dead Sea, is practically tropical, both in climate and in vegetation. The mean local temperature is said to range from about 62° F. in the upland district to almost 100° F. in the region of Jericho.

Rainfall is confined to the winter months of the year. Usually in the end of October or November the rainy season is ushered in with a heavy thunderstorm, which softens the hard-baked surface of the land. This part of the rainy season is the ‘ former rain ’ of the Bible (as in Joel 2:23 ). Ploughing commences immediately after the rains have thus begun. The following months have heavy showers, alternating with days of beautiful sunshine, till March or April, when the ‘ latter rain ’ falls and gives the crops their final fertilization before the commencement of the dry season. During this part of the year, except by the rarest exception, no rain falls: its place is supplied by night dews, which in some years are extraordinarily heavy. Scantiness of the rainfall, however, is invariably succeeded by poverty or even destruction of the crops, and the rain is watched for as anxiously now as it was in the time of Ahab.

Soon after the cessation of the rains, the wild flowers, which in early spring decorate Palestine like a carpet, become rapidly burnt up, and the country assumes an appearance of barrenness that gives no true idea of its actual fertility. The dry summer is rendered further unpleasant by hot east winds, blowing from over the Arabian Desert, which have a depressing and enervating effect. The south wind is also dry, and the west wind damp (cf. 1 Kings 18:45 , Luke 12:54 ). The north wind, which blows from over the Lebanon snows, is always cold, often piercingly so.

As already hinted, the flora displays an extraordinary range and richness, owing to the great varieties of the climate at different points. The plants of the S. and of the Jordan Valley resemble those found in Abyssinia or in Nubia: those of the upper levels of Lebanon are of the kinds peculiar to snow-clad regions. Wheat, barley, millet, maize, peas, beans, lentils, olives, figs, mulberries, vines, and other fruit; cotton, nuts of various species; the ordinary vegetables, and some (such as solanum or ‘egg-plant’) that do not, as a rule, find their way to western markets; sesame, and tobacco which is grown in some districts are the most characteristic crops produced by the country. The prickly pear and the orange, though of comparatively recent introduction, are now among its staple products. The fauna includes (among wild animals) the bat, hyæna, wolf, jackal, wild cat, ibex, gazelle, wild boar, hare, and other smaller animals. The bear is now confined to Hermon, and possibly one or two places in Lebanon; the cheetah is rare, and the lion ( 1 Samuel 17:34 , 1 Kings 13:24 etc.) is extinct. So also is the hippopotamus, bones of which have been found in excavations. Among wild birds we may mention the eagle, vulture, stork, and partridge: there is a great variety of smaller birds. Snakes and lizards abouod, and crocodiles are occasionally to be seen in the Nahr ez-Zerka near Cæsarea. The domesticated animals are the camel, cow, buffalo (only in the Jordan Valley), sheep, horse, donkey, swine (only among Christians), and domestic fowl. The dog can scarcely be called domesticated: it is kept by shepherds for their flocks, but otherwise prowls about the streets of towns and villages seeking a living among the rubbish thrown from the houses.

4. History, races, antiquities . The earliest dawn of history in Palestine has left no trace in the country itself, so far as we can tell from the limited range of excavations hitherto carried out. There was, however, a Babylonian supremacy over the country in the fourth millennium b.c., of which the records left by the kings of Agade speak. These records are as yet only imperfectly known, and their discussion in a short article like the present would be out of place. A very full account of all that is as yet known of these remote waifs of history will be found in L. B. Paton’s excellent History of Syria and Palestine .

About b.c. 3000 we first reach a period where excavation in Palestine has some information to give. It appears that the inhabitants were then still in the neolithic stage of culture, dwelling in caves, natural or artificial. The excavation of Gezer has shown that the site of that city was occupied by an extensive community of this race. They were non-Semitic; but as they practised cremation, the bones were too much destroyed to make it possible to assign them to their proper place among the Mediterranean races. Further discoveries may ultimately lead to this question being settled. It is possible that the Horites of Genesis 14:6 and elsewhere may have been the survivors of this race.

About b.c. 2500 the first Semitic settlers seem to have established themselves in the country. These were the people known to Bible students as Canaanites or Amorites . The success of attempts that have been made to distinguish these names, as indicating two separate stocks must be considered doubtful, and it is perhaps safer to treat the two names as synonymous. About b.c. 2000, as appears by the reference to ‘Amraphel, king of Shinar’ (= Hammurabi), occurred the battle of the four kings and five recorded in Genesis 14:1-24 the first event on Palestinian soil of which a Palestinian record is preserved.

The dominion of Egypt over S. Palestine, or at least the influence of Egyptian civilization, must early have been felt, though no definite records of Egyptian conquest older than Tabutmes iii. (about b.c 1500) have come to light. But scarabs and other objects referable to the Usertesens (about b.c. 2800 2500, according to the opinions of various chronologists) are not infrequently found in excavations, which speak of close intercourse between the Canaanites and the civilization of the Nile valley. Of the Canaanites very extensive remains yet await the spade of the excavator in the mounds that cover the remains of the ancient cities of Palestine. The modern peasantry of the country closely resemble the ancient Canaanites in physical character, to judge from the remains of the latter that excavation has revealed; indeed, in all probability the substratum of the population has remained unchanged in racial affinities throughout the vicissitudes that the country has suffered. By the conquests of Tahutmes iii. ( c . 1500), and Amenhotep iii. ( c . 1450), Palestine became virtually an Egyptian province, its urban communities governed by kings ( i.e . local sheiks) answerable to the Pharaoh, but always quarrelling among themselves. The ‘heretic king’ Amenhotep iv. was too busy with his religious innovations to pay attention to his foreign possessions, and, city by city, his rule in Palestine crumbled away before the Aramæan tribes, named in the Tell el-Amarna tablets the Khabiri . This name is identical with that of the Biblical Hebrews ; but it has not yet been possible to put the Khabiri and the Hebrews into their proper mutual relations. The Hebrews represent themselves as escaped slaves from Egypt who (about the 13th cent. b.c.) were led as a solid whole under a single leader (Joshua) to the complete conquest of Canaan this is the account of the Book of Joshua. According to the older tradition preserved in Judges 1:1-36 , they entered the country without an individual leader, as a number of more or less independent tribes or clans, and effected only a partial conquest, being baffled by the superior strength of certain specified cities. This account is more in accordance with the events as related by the Tell el-Amarna tablets, but further discoveries must be made before the very obscure history of the Israelite immigration can be clearly made out.

The Israelite occupation was only partial. The important Maritime Plain was in the hands of a totally distinct people, the Philistines . The favourite, and most probable, modern theory regarding the Philistines is that they were of Cretan origin; but everything respecting that mysterious race is veiled in obscurity. As above mentioned, it is not likely that the change of ownership affected the peasants the Gibeonites were probably not the only ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ ( Joshua 9:21 ) that survived of the older stock. And lastly, we cannot doubt that an extensive Canaanite occupation remained in the towns expressly mentioned in Judges 1:1-36 , as those from which the various tribes ‘drave not out’ their original inhabitants. So far as we can infer from excavation an inference thoroughly confirmed by a consideration of the barbarous history of the Judges the effect of the Israelite entrance into Canaan was a retrogression in civilization, from which the country took centuries to recover.

The history of the development of these incoherent units into a kingdom is one of ever-fresh interest. It is recorded for us in the Books of Judges and 1Samuel, and the course of events being known to every reader, it is unnecessary to recapitulate them here. It is not unimportant to notice that the split of the short-lived single kingdom into two, after the death of Solomon, was a rupture that had been foreshadowed from time to time as in the brief reign of Abimelech over the northern province (Judges 9:1-57 ), and the attempt of the northerners to set up Ish-bosheth as king against David ( 2 Samuel 2:3 ), frustrated by Ish-bosheth’s ill-timed insult to Abner ( 2 Samuel 3:7 ): Abner’s answer (v. 10) recognizes the dichotomy of Judah and Israel as already existing. This division must have had its roots in the original peopling of the country by the Hebrews, when the children of Judah went southward, and the children of Joseph northward ( Judges 1:3-28 ).

Space will not permit us to trace at length the fortunes of the rival kingdoms, to their highest glory under the contemporary kings Uzziah and Jeroboarn ii., and their rapid decline and final extinction by the great Mesopotamian empires. We may, however, pause to notice that, as in the case of the Canaanites, many remains of the Israelite dominion await the excavator in such towns as lay within Israelite territory; and the Siloam Tunnel epigraph, and one or two of minor importance, promise the welcome addition of a few inscriptions. On the other hand, the remains of the population are scantier for it need hardly be said that the modern Jewish inhabitants of Palestine are all more or less recent importations.

The Northern Kingdom fell before Assyria, and was never heard of again. Tangible remains of the Assyrian domination were found at Gezer, in the shape of a couple of contract-tablets written there in the Assyrian language and formulæ about b.c. 650; and the modern sect of Samaritans is a living testimony to the story of the re-settling of the Northern Kingdom under Assyrian auspices (2 Kings 17:24-41 ).

The Southern Kingdom had a different fate. It was extinguished by Babylon about 135 years later, in b.c. 586. In 538 the captives were permitted to return to their land by Cyrus, after his conquest of Babylon. They re-built Jerusalem and the Temple: the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the record of this work of restoration.

In b.c. 333 Syria fell to Alexander the Great after the battle of Issus. After his death followed a distracting and complicated period of conflict between his successors, which, so far as Palestine was concerned, had the effect of opening the country for the first time to the influence of Greek culture, art, and religion. From this time onward we find evidence of the foundation of such buildings as theatres, previously quite unknown, and other novelties of Western origin. Although many of the Jews adopted the Greek tongue, there was a staunch puritan party who rigidly set their faces against all such Gentile contaminations. In this they found themselves opposed to the Seleucid princes of Syria, among whom Antiochus Epiphanes especially set himself deliberately to destroy the religion of Judaism. This led to the great revolt headed by Mattathias the priest and his sons, which secured for the Jews a brief period of independence that lasted during the second half of the 2nd cent. b.c., under John Hyrcanus (grandson of Mattathias) and his successors. The kingdom was weakened by family disputes; in the end Rome stepped in, Pompey captured Jerusalem in b.c. 63, and henceforth Palestine lay under Roman suzerainty. Several important tombs near Jerusalem, and elsewhere, and a large number of remains of cities and fortresses, survive from the age of the family of Mattathias. The conquest of Joppa, under the auspices of Simon Maccabæus, son of Mattathias ( 1Ma 13:11 ), was the first capture of a seaport in S. Palestine throughout the whole of Israelite history.

The Hasmonæan dynasty gave place to the Idumæan dynasty of the Herods in the middle of the 1st cent. b.c., Herod the Great becoming sole governor of Judæa (under Roman suzerainty) in b.c. 40. It was into this political situation that Christ was born b.c. 4. Remains of the building activities of Herod are still to be seen in the sub-structures of the Temple, the Herodian towers of Jerusalem, and (possibly) a magnificent tomb near Jerusalem traditionally called the Tomb of Mariamme. Herod died shortly after Christ’s birth, and his dominions were subdivided into provinces, each under a separate ruler: but the native rulers rapidly declined in power, and the Roman governors as rapidly advanced. The Jews became more and more embittered against the Roman yoke, and at last a violent rebellion broke out, which was quelled by Titus in a.d. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed and a large part of the Jews slain or dispersed. A remnant remained, which about 60 years later again essayed to revolt under their leader Bar Cochba: the suppression of this rebellion was the final deathblow to Jewish nationality. After the destruction of Jerusalem many settled in Tiberias, and formed the nucleus of the important Galilæan Rabbinic schools, remains of which are still to be seen in the shape of the synagogues of Galilee. These interesting buildings appear to date from the second century a.d.

After the partition of the Roman Empire, Palestine formed part of the Empire of the East, and with it was Christianized. Many ancient settlements, with tombs and small churches some of them with beautiful mosaic pavements survive in various parts of the country: these are relics of the Byzantine Christians of the 5th and 6th centuries. The native Christians of Syria, whose families were never absorbed into Islam, are their representatives. These, though Aramæan by race, now habitually speak Arabic, except in Ma‘lula and one or two other places in N. Lebanon, where a Syriac dialect survives.

This early Christianity received a severe blow in 611, when the country was ravaged by Chosroës ii., king of Persia. Monastic settlements were massacred and plundered, and the whole country reduced to such a state of weakness that without much resistance it fell to Omar, the second Caliph of Islam. He became master of Syria and Palestine in the second quarter of the seventh century. Palestine thus became a Moslem country, and its population received the Arab element which is still dominant within it. It may be mentioned in passing that coins of Chosroës are occasionally found in Palestine; and that of the early Arab domination many noteworthy buildings survive, chief of which is the glorious dome that occupies the site of the Hebrew Temple at Jerusalem.

The Moslem rule was at first by no means tyrannical; but, as the spirit of intolerance developed, the Christian inhabitants were compelled to undergo many sufferings and indignities. This, and the desire to wrest the holy places of Christendom from the hands of the infidel, were the ostensible reasons for the in vasions of the brigands who called themselves Crusaders, and who established in Jerusalem a kingdom on a feudal basis that lasted throughout the 12th century. An institution so exotic, supported by men morally and physically unfit for life in a sub-tropical climate, could not outlast the first enthusiasm which called it into being. Worn out by immorality, by leprosy and other diseases, and by mutual dissensions, the unworthy champions of the Cross disappeared before the heroic Saladin, leaving as their legacy to the country a score or so of place names; a quantity of worthless ecclesiastical traditions; a number of castles and churches, few of which possess any special architectural interest, and many of which, by a strange irony, have been converted into mosques; and, among the Arab natives, an unquenchable hatred of Christianity.

We must pass over the barbarous Mongolian invasions, the last of which was under Timur or Tamerlane at the end of the 14th century. But we must not omit to mention the Turkish conquest in 1516, when Syria obtained the place which it still holds in the Ottoman Empire.

R. A. S. Macalister.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Palestine'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/p/palestine.html. 1909.

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