Off the Beaten Track: The Elah Valley

Visit the battlefield where little David and his sling defeated the giant from Gath.

Elah valley brook (photo credit: Courtesy)
Elah valley brook
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
Driving through Israel this time of year is such a pleasure. The beige and dark brown countryside has turned into a bright green due to the first crops sprouting up after the initial winter's rain. Even the uncultivated, jagged hills and mountains are covered with a sprinkling of green. The nature reserves, hilltops and fallow fields will soon show off their winter flowers, bringing pink, yellow and red hues to our beautiful countryside. For those of you who have only visited Israel in the summer, Israel is like an entirely different country in the winter. I love to go outside and walk around, Bible in hand. Try it.
"And the LORD said unto Samuel: 'How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill thy horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Beth-lehemite; for I have provided Me a king among his sons…And Samuel did that which the LORD spoke, and came to Beth-lehem (I Sam 16:1-4)".
Jesse's hometown of Bethlehem is just a hop, skip and a jump away from downtown Jerusalem, the city that David was born to make the capital of his kingdom. Literally it's just a fifteen minute drive away. Head south on Beit Lechem Road and make your way onto Hevron Road, which is a part of Route 60. Once you pass Road 398 on your right you will be on land which is today a part of Jerusalem, but between 1948 and 1967 was occupied by the Jordanians. To your left is the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa and to your right the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, both built over the 1949 ceasefire lines but considered by Israel to be a part of Jerusalem.
After passing the Mar Elias Monastery to your left, you will see the city of Bethlehem on the other side of a massive, concrete security fence. There are places to stop along the road to gaze into the Palestinian controlled city, or if you have a foreign passport, go for a tour. I have been sending tourists there happily with a Palestinian tour guide without any problems for four years straight.
Samuel comes to Bethlehem, a small, poor village and God points out a young, shepherd, son of Jesse, as being the future King of Israel. He is the opposite of Saul, who was tall, strong and a fierce warrior. David was just a harp-playing country boy. Today Bethlehem looks different as the link between David and Jesus in the Gospels and Jesus' subsequent birth there turned the little sleepy Jerusalem suburb into a center of Christian faith.
Feel free to drive up to the fence and check it out. Notice that the fence is only concrete in the urban areas and as it winds through the Judean Hills it turns into a chain link fence. Between the beginning of the second intifada in September of 2001 and December of 2005, 1100 Israelis were murdered by Palestinians despite the fact that two separate peace plans were offered which would have created a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank (including Bethlehem), parts of Jerusalem including the Muslim Quarter and all of Gaza, hence this security fence. Since the fence went up terrorism has been almost nil.
Continue on Route 60 turning right onto Harosmarin Street and then your first left again continuing on Route 60 headed towards the Gush Etzion Tunnels. The tunnels will take you under the Palestinian city of Beit Jala. Before the Oslo Accords transferred control from Israel to the PLO over all of the Arab population centers in the West Bank, Bethlehem and Beit Jala were made up of a steady population of 60 percent Christians. Today, the Christian population of these cities is just above 10%.
When you come out of the tunnels, make your first right onto road 375. You will cross between the Palestinian town of Hasan and the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit. Notice the difference between the two villages and the fortifications along the roads. You will soon come to a forest of planted trees bringing you to the Green Line and a checkpoint. After crossing it you will again be inside Israeli territory since 1949. The whole trip shouldn't take more than a half an hour to this point.
Elah valley vineyardElah valley vineyard
Continue on road 375. Pass Etziona Junction. You are now in the center of the Elah Valley. Two kilometers to your left is Mount Socoh. Take notice of it as it’s intrinsic to our story. All around it are ruins of Bronze and Iron Age cities and villages. Continue straight until you get to the end of road 375 at its intersection with Route 38 called HaElah Junction. Take a right. After four hundred meters pull off to the right side of the road onto the dirt track. Keep room for tractors to pass by and watch out that you don't puncture your tire on the side of the asphalt road when you pull off. Walk north on the dirt road along the fields until it bends to the right. Follow the path to the right. Look for a bit of high ground. Look to the southeast and you can see Mt. Socoh which we passed earlier. Look to your northwest and you can see a giant tel (layer, upon layer of destroyed civilizations making up an artificial hill, often trapezoidal in shape). This is the ancient city of Azekah. Beyond Azekah to the west is Gaza and Gath: Philistine country. On the north side of the dirt road you were following is the Elah Brook which only runs after the heavy rains. The rushing rain water washes over the stones, smoothing them out.
"Now the Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and they were gathered together at Socoh, which belongeth to Judah, and pitched between Socoh and Azekah... And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched in the valley of Elah, and set the battle in array against the Philistines…And there went out a champion from the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. And he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them: …Choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me. If he be able to fight with me and kill me, then will we be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then shall ye be our servants and serve us.' And David said to Saul: 'Let no man's heart fail within him. Thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine.' … And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in the shepherd's bag which he had, even in his scrip; and his sling was in his hand; and he drew near to the Philistine (I Sam 1-40 condensed)."
You can see the battlefield here exactly as it is described in the Hebrew Bible. We have a stalemate. The Hebrews led by Saul won't come down into the valley knowing that the Philistines have chariots of iron that are best used in the open plain. The Philistines won't go up the hill here knowing that their chariots are useless there. So what we have here is a battle of champions to the death, winner takes all: Little David and his sling against the seven foot tall giant from Gath. We all know how it ends. David uses his brain not his brawn. He slings the smooth stones from afar knowing that he can't get close to this monster of a man. That's the key to this story and it has proven correct throughout the history of the Jewish people. When we act with our brains, we thrive and survive, when we get cocky and content, we decline and become victims.
Go down into the Elah Brook and see if you can find five smooth stones. Enjoy.
Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.