Contact us to plan your tour of Israel.
by Julie Baretz
Julie Baretz is a licensed tour guide who lives with her family in Jerusalem.
The Valley of Elah is best known as the scene of the Biblical battle between David and Goliath (Elah means terebinth, a tree commonly found in this area). The brook of Elah, which lies in the
heart of the valley, is a seasonal creek that runs dry in the summer months. Most probably the brook from which David chose five smooth stones in preparation for battle, it is the ideal place
to reminisce about what is arguably the most famous story from the Bible. Don’t get your hopes up over the possibility of discovering a stray bolt from Goliath’s armor, or the ancient rubber band
from David’s sling – the only thing remaining from this three-thousand year show-down is the scenery. Nonetheless, the story takes on a whole new dimension when you read it from the site of the
action. So choose your favorite translation, insert your bookmark at 1 Samuel 17, throw your hat in the car and set off on an easy drive from both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (see end for
Turning off Highway No.1 toward Bet Shemesh you will find yourself passing through the geographic transition area between the coastal plain and the Judean hills. After the conquest of the land of Israel in about 1200 BCE this area was allocated to the Israelite tribe of Dan, one of whose most famous members was Samson. If you flip backwards a bit in your Bible to Judges 13-16 you can review the stories of Samson’s trials and tribulations with the Philistines. The Philistines arrived on the coast of ancient Israel around the same time as the twelve tribes approached from the east. Their army was militarily powerful and technologically advanced, and they tormented the Israelites for many years in their attempt to take control of the entire country. In fact, the tribe of Dan, whose land allocation overlapped Philistine territory, was ultimately forced to relinquish its claim and resettle in the northern part of Israel. The appointment of Saul as the first Israelite king was a response to the continuous military threat with which the previous grassroots Israelite leaders could not contend.
The ongoing conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines provides the background for the battle between David and Goliath. At the beginning of 1 Samuel 17 the armies of both nations had gathered in the Valley of Elah, and the text is quite specific as to their whereabouts: the Philistines were camped on the southern side of the valley, between Socoh and Azekah. From your vantage point inside the dry creek, stand facing the main road. On your right at a 45 degree angle, across the road you will see Tel Azekah, an oddly-rounded hill with a large bald patch, and on your left behind you, also at a 45 degree angle, Tel Socoh, a tree-covered hill. The Philistine camp sat between these two hills, while the Israelites camped on the opposite side of the brook, to the north.
Keep in mind that as of this point in time, the Philistines had the military upper hand over the Israelites. They had defeated them at the battle of Eben Ezer and captured the Ark of the Covenant, and had made inroads into the hill country by taking over the lands of Ephraim and Benjamin. Although ultimately David would finally vanquish the Philistines after he became king, no one could see that far into the future.
In ancient times it was often the custom to pit two individuals against one another rather than sending the entire armies out to battle. But when Goliath the giant appeared before the Israelite army in the Valley of Elah for forty days in a row and challenged one man to fight him, there were no takers.
David, a handsome, ruddy boy relegated to shepherding the family’s flock of sheep and goats, arrived at the Israelite camp to visit his brothers, who were all, serving in Saul’s army. Hearing Goliath’s challenge, David convinced King Saul to allow him to fight. Before going out he bent over to collect five stones from the brook, placed them in his shepherd’s pouch and approached Goliath with his sling. We all know what happens next, but most of us have forgotten the other details of the story: the disdain of David’s elder siblings towards their annoying tag-along brother; Saul’s fatherly consent to send David into battle; and the almost comical description of David’s attempt to fit into Saul’s armor.
Read the seventeenth chapter of 1 Samuel aloud from your position inside the brook; the text will come alive as you re-imagine this favorite story from the heart of the biblical landscape.
The story of David and Goliath has been invoked countless times over history as a source of inspiration and encouragement to the weak. A famous anecdote about Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defense when the Six Day War broke out in 1967, recalls how Dayan called his senior officers together on the eve of the war for a pep talk. When he proceeded to read to them from 1 Samuel 17 the soldiers were outraged: “We’re about to be attacked and he’s reading to us from the Bible?”
But Dayan used David to illustrate how the smaller, weaker side can gain the upper hand by identifying and attacking his opponent’s weak points. Goliath was weighed down by heavy weapons and
moved slowly; David, unburdened, was agile and light on his feet. A heavy suit of armor protected Goliath’s body, but his face remained vulnerable; David aimed his sling at the one place he
knew he could do the most damage. Israel’s ultimate decision in 1967 to pre-empt an Egyptian attack by flying under their radar and destroying the air force on the ground bore all the marks of
There has been a fair amount of conjecture on the part of the medical establishment as to the practical implications of Goliath’s enormous proportions. It is quite possible that Goliath suffered from acromegaly, a disease of growth hormone hyper-secretion. One of the symptoms of this condition is an increased amount of soft tissue, which would have heightened the vulnerability of any part of his body not protected by armor.
An old tradition claims that all of the Philistine heroes hailed from the same family in Gath. They were all exceptionally tall, had an extra finger on each hand and an extra toe on each foot. This family had been identified as descendant from Orpah the Moabite, Ruth’s sister-in-law who chose to stay behind in Moab, rather than accompany Naomi to Bethlehem. If so, then David and Goliath would have been distantly related, transforming their infamous contest into a “family feud.”
Getting to the Valley of Elah: Turn off Highway No. 1 from either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv on to Route 38 in the direction of Bet Shemesh. Drive for about twenty minutes, passing Bet Shemesh and Bet Jamal. After you pass Zacharia, keep your eye out for a gas station at the convergence of Routes 38 and 375, at Elah Junction. Just before reaching the gas station you will pass over a concrete bridge; beneath it is the brook of Elah. Continue to the gas station, make a U-turn, and drive back about 150 yards. Pull your car over to a safe place on the side of the road heading back towards Bet Shemesh, and walk about twenty-five yards through the field, keeping the road on your left, until you reach the riverbed.
Also in the area: Tel Socoh is also known as Givat HaTurmusim, or Lupine Hill. In late March the entire hill is covered with wild blue lupines and becomes a popular outing destination for Israeli families. To get there, turn left at the gas station onto Rte. 375 and follow along a bit until you see lots of parked cars on the right. Follow the crowds.
Mizpeh Massua is lookout tower with an impressive view of the entire area. Continue past the gas station on 38, pass Li-On and look for the turn off on the right. Follow the signs.