Of biblical proportions

Visit the location where King Ahab had his winter palace and splash through the ancient springs nearby.

jezreel valley 248.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
jezreel valley 248.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Until 1948, the Arab village of Zirin, located on the heights of Tel Jezreel, controlled the road between Afula and Beit She'an. During the early months of the War of Independence, armed Iraqi thugs operating from within the village repeatedly assaulted Jews traveling on the road and working in the fields below the hill. Stopping their vicious attacks meant capturing the village. Thus on April 19, 1948, five months into the war, Palmah troops, aided by men of the Alexandroni and Golani Brigades, waited for the cover of darkness and headed for the tel. Their assault met with such stiff resistance that they were unable to advance into the village. After the large and well-armed Arab force headed a massive counter-attack and battles continued face-to-face, Jewish casualties mounted alarmingly and the troops were ordered to retreat. Nevertheless, if you visit the tel today you will find few traces left of the Arab village, for it was finally captured at the end of April. Kibbutz Yizre'el, established nearby soon afterward, has become famous in the annals of settlement history: In 1969 it became the first kibbutz to renounce communal children's houses and to move youngsters into their families' homes. Even more exciting than the tel's modern history are the events that occurred there during the biblical era. They begin in the ninth century BCE, when Israel's King Ahab built a winter palace at Jezreel so that he and wife Jezebel would have a cozy place to relax from the pressures of the day. To visit Tel Jezreel, take Highway 60 from Afula and turn left (east) at the Yizre'el Junction onto Route 675. Turn left again at the sign for Tel Yizre'el. As you pull into the recreation area, look for a rock structure on your left to view a corner of the wall that surrounded the royal complex. The Bible notes that King "Ahab... did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him... and did more to provoke the Lord... to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him." [I Kings 16:30-33]. King Ahab's wicked deeds are succinctly summed up in one paragraph of the Scriptures: "There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel." [I Kings 21:25-26]. Ahab worshiped the pagan god Baal and married a depraved woman who caused the murder of an innocent, God-fearing Israelite named Naboth. She did it so that her husband, sulking like a spoiled brat because Naboth didn't want to relinquish his heritage, could take possession of his vineyard. One of the most famous passages in the Bible is related specifically to this event: The Lord, through the prophet Elijah, asked Ahab: "Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?" (the famous phrase, in Hebrew, "Haratzahta vegam yarashta?") Elijah warned Ahab that his blood would be licked up by dogs. And that's exactly what happened when Ahab was finally killed in battle. A decade or so later, Jehu was anointed King of Israel by the prophet Elisha, and drove "like a madman" to the late Naboth's plot where he slew Ahab's son, King Joram. He then went to Jezreel, had Jezebel thrown out of the window and let dogs "devour [her] flesh" - again, just as Elijah had predicted. Although archeologists have uncovered portions of a tower, found the city gate and dug to the bottom of the moat, the biblical Jezreel is overgrown with weeds and there isn't much to see (I am also not sure how safe it is - there are open pits). It is much more fun to spend time at the tel's excellent recreation site, centered by a striking monument to Palmah troops who fell here in 1948. From the heights of the tel you have a fantastic view of the Harod and Beit She'an valleys. Enjoy the shade produced by the fruit trees in the lovely reconstruction of Naboth's plot. You can also follow a lovely biblical trail on the northern edge of the mountain down the slope for about 35 minutes (allow about 50 minutes for walking back up). A delightful surprise awaits you at the bottom: the Jezreel Spring. It is one of 48 freshwater, full springs that lie under the mountain, the result of geological changes that occurred when the Syrian African Rift raised Mount Gilboa and lowered the valley. Before you jump into the inviting pool, set within a grove of eucalyptus trees, look for a shaft a few meters from the end of the trail. It leads underground to a tunnel which you and your kids can enter (with a flashlight!), walk through water and end up on the other side of the road in a canal that leads directly to the pool. The spring, of course, is mentioned in the Bible (isn't everything in this region?) "The Philistines gathered all their forces at Aphek, and Israel camped by the spring in Jezreel..." [I Samuel 29:1]. n