Modern race brings ancient Bible to life

The Bible Marathon recently came under scrutiny, when it had its membership revoked by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races.

Richard Ginn at the Bible Marathon.  (photo credit: ITAMAR GRINBERG)
Richard Ginn at the Bible Marathon.
(photo credit: ITAMAR GRINBERG)
For the last two years, Avraham Hermon has wrapped himself in a toga, laced up his running shoes and taken off through the hills of Samaria. Racing alongside musicians dressed in similar biblical costumes – sandals, headdresses and toga-wraps – and playing ancient instruments, such as flutes and harps, the Pennsylvanian oleh says he is, “making history.”
“Wearing the historic garb and thinking about where I am running makes me feel a connection to the land,” Hermon, who today resides in Har Bracha in Samaria, tells The Jerusalem Post. “We are running in the footsteps of history and making our own.”
Hermon and close to 2,000 other people from more than 10 different countries will again run in the footsteps of the Bible next month. The third annual Bible Marathon will take place on Friday, October 6. Runners can race 5 km., 10 km., a half-marathon, or a full 42 km. marathon through the streets of the Binyamin region in the West Bank.
The race begins as the sun rises. Men dressed in white bang goblet drums and the sound of the shofar is blasted. Runners head uphill most of the course. But while participants pound the winding pavement, orchards, vineyards and layers of voluptuous greenery embrace them on every turn.
It’s Israeli flags, balloons and loads of energy.
The full marathon route runs from Rosh Ha’ayin (Eben Ezer in the Bible) to Shiloh, as described in the Book of Samuel.
Shortly after the Jews entered the Land of Israel, they fought a battle against the Philistines.
“Every man fled his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers,” it says in the Tanach, the canonical collection of Jewish texts. The Ark of the Covenant was taken and the two sons of the High Priest were killed. “Now, a man of [the tribe] Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes torn and dust on his head.”
This man, from the tribe of Benjamin, ran 42 km., which is also the official length of the Olympic marathon, decided upon in 1908 at the London Olympic Games. According to tradition, the Benjamin man was a young King Saul ( c. 1050 – 1012 BCE).
“Everyone thinks the first marathon was when Pheidippides ran to Athens with the news of the great victory his people had over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE,” says Hermon. “But, in reality, it was many years earlier, in the Bible, in the Land of Israel.”
Shiloh was the religious capital of Israel for 369 years beginning after the conquest of Canaan until King David established Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish nation.
Shiloh, mentioned 34 times in the Tanach, was the longest-standing Jewish capital of any city other than Jerusalem, explains David Rubin, a former mayor of Shiloh and the current founder and president of Shiloh Israel Children’s Fund. In his book God, Israel, and Shiloh: Returning to the Land, Rubin tells the story of the struggles and triumphs of Israel’s complex history, dating back to slavery in Egypt and continuing to the present, including the period in which the Israelites occupied Shiloh as its capital.
Rubin tells the Post that Shiloh was a fitting capital for the Israelites when it was established approximately 3,500 years ago by Joshua, son of Nun, for many reasons, including that Joshua was a member of the tribe of Ephraim and Shiloh is in the heart of the Biblical portion of the land allotted to this tribe. Additionally, Shiloh is at the geographic center of the country (approximately 44 kilometers north of Jerusalem), is strategically located in the mountains and, at the time, had a strong and flowing river.
At some point during those 369 years, a permanent structure was built for the Ark of the Covenant. Rubin says it is believed that the stone foundation for the Ark can be seen still today at Tel Shiloh, an archeological dig near the city. Visitors can stand on the spot where it is believed the Ark once stood. The Ark itself was taken into the battle described in the Book of Samuel and captured by the Philistines.
The story of Hannah, who pours her heart out in prayer for a child, takes place in Shiloh. Also, according to Judges 21, Shiloh is where the maidens would dance in the vineyards each year on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, when unmarried men would go there in search of a bride.
“Shiloh, along with most of the Land of Israel, lay barren for 2,000 years,” says Rubin, “until the Jewish people started coming back.” Rubin describes Shiloh as flowing with vineyards and olive groves.
In the early 1900s, a sportsman by the name of Yosef Yekutieli moved to Ottoman Palestine. Yekutieli started the first organized sports competitions in Israel, including the Maccabiah Games.
“Yekutieli had read the story in the Tanach about the Benjamin man and his run from Eben Ezra to Shiloh and he wondered, what was the distance,” recalls Moshe Ronsky, tourism director for the Binyamin Regional Council.
Yekutieli for years was left to wonder because the area was under Jordanian control. But, says Ronsky, as soon as Israel won the 1967 Six Day War, Yekutieli hopped into his jeep and drove the ancient and ultimately 42-kilometer biblical path. He re-established the Bible Marathon two years later. However, with the political turmoil and security concerns at the time, “Israel was not equipped to keep the race going,” explains Ronsky. As such, the Bible Marathon died only a few years later.
“We have brought this race back to life,” Ronsky tells The Post of the Bible Marathon, which relaunched in its present form in 2015.
Running is becoming one of the most popular sports in Israel, says Ronsky. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Israelis pound the pavement and run through the mountains, hills, valleys and dusty terrains of the Land of Israel – on fun runs, in half- and full-marathons and even ultra-marathon courses. The Bible Marathon, organized and managed by the Israel Marathon Association, is among the fastest growing running attractions, said Association head Ofer Padan.
It is also the next chapter in the Jewish people’s thousands of years of history and “the fulfillment of biblical prophecy,” Rubin says. “The prophecies promised that the Children of Israel would return to these mountains and rebuild these Jewish cities and towns – that the children will once again be running through the streets of their biblical homeland. That is literally what is happening today.”
Hermon expresses similar sentiments. He says, “I don’t know that this has ever happened before – a nation formed in its land, was separated from that land, and then returned to the land. It is the words of the prophets being fulfilled and part of that is being able to run.”
However, the Bible Marathon recently came under scrutiny, when it had its membership revoked by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races after BDS activists claimed its route violates international law. The organizers of the annual running event received notice from the association’s president rescinding their membership, claiming the race went beyond the boundaries of the State of Israel and therefore was a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334.
The Israel Marathon is actively fighting the issue, as there is no legal precedent for such action.
Padan tells the Post that “no Palestinian is cut off from traveling in the region.
“We went to every Palestinian community and found another way for them to enter and exit,” he says. “The main street is closed, but people can come and go as needed. We have been careful not to bother commuters too much.”
This year, the marathon’s organizers have also invited the Palestinians to take part in the race, though Padan says the Palestinians declined.
Padan, a secular Israeli, insisted the race is not a political statement. Rather, he says, “it brings people from all religions and levels of religiosity together to come and run in a place that is not necessarily familiar to them, but is in the Bible” of the world’s monotheistic religions.
“It is part of our shared history,” he says. “It helps people understand each other.”
Padan envisions the Bible Marathon growing annually, recruiting participants from the Evangelical Christian Zionist community, for example.
“I think there is an international market for the Bible Marathon,” Padan says. “It’s special people, a special story and a special event.”
He also says Samaria is a place with “so much spirit,” which surfaces during the race.
At the race’s conclusion, participants arrive to a festival of music, food and fun. Residents dance with the runners. Children’s activities are available for families with young children and participants and their cheerleaders celebrate the Bible Marathon with a modern party in the biblical atmosphere so special to modern Shiloh.
Rubin says there are people and governments who consider Samaria controversial or an obstacle to peace. He, on the other hand, sees his community as peaceful.
“Samaria has suffered from terrorism, but not one family has left as a direct result,” says Rubin. “The terror just makes us more determined to be here. And the fulfillment of prophecy is that more and more people are joining us in that mission” – through donations to the Shiloh Israel Children’s Fund, on tours and at the Bible Marathon.
Rubin continues, “In a time of great division in the world, the Bible Marathon from the ancient Eben Ezra to the modern Shiloh is a unifying force.”
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This article was written in cooperation with the Bible Marathon