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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Shephelah, the

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(הִשַּׁפֵלָה , hash- Shephelah', the low; Sept. Σεφηλά, 1 Maccabees 12:38; Jerome, Sephela, in Onomast.), the native name for the southern division of the low lying, fLat district which intervenes between the central highlands of the Holy Land and the Mediterranean, the other and northern portion of which was known as Sharon. The name occurs throughout the topographical records of Joshua, the historical works, and the topographical passages in the prophets, always with the article prefixed, and always denoting the same region (Deuteronomy 1:7; Joshua 9:1; Joshua 10:40; Joshua 11:2; Joshua 11:16 a; Joshua 12:8; Joshua 15:33; Judges 1:9; 1 Kings 10:27; 1 Chronicles 27:28; 2 Chronicles 1:15; 2 Chronicles 9:27; 2 Chronicles 26:10; 2 Chronicles 28:18; Jeremiah 17:26; Jeremiah 32:44; Jeremiah 33:13; Obadiah 1:19; Zechariah 7:7). So absolute is this usage that in the, single instance in which the word stands without the article (Joshua 11:16 b) it evidently does not denote the region referred to above, but the plains surrounding the mountains of Ephraim. In each of the above passages, however, the word is treated in the A.V. not as a proper name, analogous to the Campagna, the Wolds, the Carse, but as a mere appellative, and rendered "the vale," "the valley," "the plain," "the low plains," and "the low country." How destructive this is to the force of the narrative may be realized by imagining what confusion would be caused in the translation of an English historical work into a foreign tongue if such a name as "the Downs" were rendered by some general term applicable to any other district in the country of similar formation. Fortunately the book of Maccabees has redeemed our version from the charge of having entirely suppressed this interesting name.

In 1 Maccabees 12:38; the name Sephela is found, though even here stripped of the article, which was attached to it in Hebrew, and still accompanies, it in the Greek of the passage. Whether the name is given in the Hebrew Scriptures in the shape in which the Israelites encountered it on entering the country or modified so as to conform it to the Hebrew root שָׁפִל , shaphal, "to be low," and thus (according to the constant tendency of language) bring it into a form intelligible to Hebrews, we shall probably never know. The root to which it is related is in common use both in Hebrew and Arabic. In the latter it has originated more than one proper name as Mespila, now known as Koyunjik; el-Mesfale, one of the quarters of the city of Mecca (Barckhardt, Arabia, 1, 203, 204); and Seville, originally Hi-spalis, probably so called from its wide plain (Arias Montano, in Ford, Hand-book for Spain).The name Shephelah is retained in the old versions, even those of the Samaritans, and rabbi Joseph on Chronicles (probably as late as the 11th century). It was actually in use down to the 5th century. Eusebius, and after him Jerome (Onomast. s.v. Sephela," and Comm. on Obad.), distinctly state that "the region round Eleutheropolis on the north and west was so called." In his comment on Obadiah, Jerome appears to extend it to Lydda and Emmaus-Nicopolis; and, at the same time, to extend Sharon so far south as to include the Philistine cities. A careful investigation might not improbably discover the name still lingering about its ancient home even at the present day. SEE PLAIN.

No definite limits are mentioned to the Shephelah, nor is it probable that there were any. In the list of Joshua (Joshua 15:33-47) it contains forty- three "cities," as well as the hamlets and temporary villages dependent on them. Of these, so far as our knowledge avails us, the most northern was Ekron, the most southern Gaza, and the most eastern Nezib (about seven miles north northwest of Hebron). A large number of these towns, however, were situated not in the plain, nor even on the western slopes of the central mountains, but in the mountains themselves. (See JARMUTH); (See KELAH); (See NEZIB), etc.

This seems to show as either that, on the ancient principle of dividing territory, one district might intrude into the limits of another, or, which is more probable, that, as already suggested, the name Shephelah did not originally mean a lowland, as it came to do in its accommodated Hebrew form. The Shephelah was, and is, one of the most productive regions in the Holy Land. Sloping, as it does, gently to the sea, it receives every year a fresh dressing from the materials washed down from the mountains behind it by the furious rains of winter. This natural manure, aided by the great heat of its climate, is sufficient to enable it to reward the rude husbandry of its inhabitants, year after year, with crops of corn which are described by travellers as prodigious. Thus it was ancient times the cornfield of Syria, and as such the constant subject of warfare between Philistines and Israelites, and the refuge of the latter when the harvests in the central country were ruined by drought (2 Kings 8:1-3). But it was also, from its evenness, and from its situation on the road between Egypt and Assyria, exposed to continual visits from foreign armies, visits which at last led to the destruction of the Israelitish kingdom. In them earlier history of the country the Israelites do not appear to have ventured into the Shephelah, but to have awaited the approach of their enemies from thence. Under the Maccabees, however, their tactics were changed, and it became the field where some of the most hardly contested and successful of their battles were fought. These conditions have scarcely altered in modern times. Any invasion of Palestine must take place through the maritime plain, the natural and only road to the highlands. It did so in Napoleon's case. The Shephelah is still one vast cornfield, but the contests which take place on it are, now reduced to those between the oppressed peasants and the insolent and rapacious officials of the Turkish government, who are gradually putting a stop by their extortions to all the industry of this district, and driving active and willing hands to better- governed regions. Smith. (See JUDAH, TRIBE OF).

This tract, as above intimated, comprises not so much the mere maritime plain, but rather the lower range or spurs of the Judean hills on the Mediterranean side. It consists, in fact. of low hills, about five hundred feet above the sea, of white, soft limestone, with great bands of beautiful brown quartz running between the strata. The broad valleys among these hills, forming the entrance to the hill country proper, produce fine crops of corna, and on the hills olive groves flourish better than in either of the adjoining districts. This part of the country is also the most thickly populated, and ancient wells, and occasionally fine springs, occur throughout. The villages are partly of stone, partly of mud; the ruins are so thickly spread over hill and valley that in some parts there are as many as three ancient sites to two square miles. All along the base of these hills, commanding the passes to the mountains, important places are to be found, such as Gath and Gezer, Emmaus and Beth-horon, and no part of the country is more rich in Biblical sites or more famous in Bible history (Conder, Tent Work in Palestine, 1, 10). (See TOPOGRAPHICAL TERMS).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Shephelah, the'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/shephelah-the.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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