Sunday, August 10, 2014

Underground Movement

It was not my intent to bring up the Gaza Crisis in this blog.  The task of bringing Peace to the Middle East lies far, way far, out of the purview of these little pieces, and much farther out of my competence.  But my mind has a way of making weird connections: whether this is a talent, a curse, or a really annoying habit, I will leave as an exercise for the reader. 

When reading about the system of tunnels dug by the Palestinians in order to circumvent the Israeli blockade of Gaza and, according to Israel, to launch attacks within Israeli borders, I couldn’t help but recall that this was not the first time Israel experienced tunnel warfare.

When David first became king over the tribe of Judah, he ruled from the city of Hebron; but as he consolidated his power and brought the other tribes of Israel under his rule, he decided he wanted a stronger citadel for his capital.  He chose Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was a city on top of a high hill in the mountain region of Judea, whose naturally steep sides were augmented by built-up terraces, making it easy to defend.  It’s thought that Jerusalem might have been the same city as Salem, the city ruled by Melchizadek in the time of Abraham.  If this is the case, it might have been regarded as a holy city even before it became the City of David.  Indeed, tradition holds that the top of the hill, overlooking the city of the Jesubites, was the Mount Moriah mentioned in Genesis 22:1-19, where Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac.

I had always assumed that it lay in the northern part of Judah, because of the way the political boundaries of the region later fell out; but originally its location was within the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe King Saul came from.  So choosing this location might have been a way to mitigate any sense of favoritism the other tribes might have perceived regarding David’s native Judah.

More importantly, although the territory around Jerusalem belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, the Benjaminites had never managed to conquer the city, and it remained in control of the original inhabitants, called Jebusites.  So the city itself was not part of any of the Twelve Tribes, and if David could conquer it, he would have a capital independent of any tribal affiliations.

But conquering the city would not be easy.  The Israelites at the time of Joshua had never managed to displace the Jebusites, and generations of Benjaminites had done little more than occupy the surrounding territory.  When David brought his army to besiege the city, the Jebusites mocked him:

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there.  The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.”  They thought, “David cannot get in here.”  (2 Samuel 5:6 NIV)

They did not add, “Now go away, before we taunt you again!” but the thought was implied.  Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion, and his attack is described briefly in a single, peculiar verse:

On that day, David said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.”  That is why they say, “The ‘blind and lame’ will not enter the palace.” (2 Samuel 5:8)

The phrase translated here as “water shaft” is an obscure one in the Hebrew, and some scholars have suggested that David was really talking about grappling hooks.  Possibly to avoid the image of David being played by Adam West and climbing up the walls like Batman, most translations favor the interpretation that David and his army entered the city through an underground shaft the Jebusites used to access their water supply.

The line about “who are David’s enemies” is also a bit peculiar.  The King James and some other translation renders the phrase as “whom David hates”.  The NIV’s interpretation assumes that David is being sarcastic; and that the bit about the ‘blind and the lame’ being barred from entering the palace refers to the Jesubites and is not intended as a prohibition against the handicapped in general.

An interesting point which I didn’t know was that the city David seized and claimed for his own did not occupy the top of the hill, but the hill’s southern shoulder.  The hill’s peak wasn’t built up until the time of Solomon, who used it as the site for his Temple.  (Which perhaps explains why Abraham didn’t mention the Jebusites in the story of him and Isaac in Genesis 22).

Some centuries later, King Hezekiah expanded the city further.  It was during his reign that the northern tribes of Israel, which had broken off into an independent kingdom following the reign of Solomon, were conquered and absorbed by Assyria.  The new city walls built by Hezekiah, incorporating the Tyropoeon Valley to the west, (the ‘Valley of the Cheesemakers’, whom Monty Python’s Brian assures us are blessed), accommodated an influx of refugees from the Northern Kingdom.

For a time, Hezekiah paid tribute to the Assyrians, but he also prepared for an eventual Assyrian attack.  In addition to the new walls, Hezekiah’s embarked on another project, mentioned only briefly at the end of the section Kings describing his reign:

As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?  (2 Kings 20:20)

That phrase, “…are they not written…?”  is a formula that the Books of Kings use at the close of each king’s reign, evidence that much of the material is probably taken from official court documents that no longer exist.  But this one mentions a pool and a tunnel made by Hezekiah which is not mentioned elsewhere in Kings.  The Second Book of Chronicles describes this piece of engineering in greater detail:

When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to make war on Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him.  A large force of men assembled, and they blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land.  "Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?" they said.  Then he worked hard repairing all the broken sections of the wall and building towers on it.  He guilt another all outside that one and reinforced the supporting terraces of the City of David.  He also made large numbers of weapons and shields.  (2 Chron. 32:2-5)
It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David.  He succeeded in everything he undertook. (2 Chron. 32:30)

The Gihon was spring on the east side of the hill, outside the city walls.  The name means “gusher”, and it was also the name given to one of the four rivers of Eden.  The Gihon might have been the entrance to the route David used to capture the city.  But Hezekiah had the spring diverted and a tunnel dug to bring the water to a pool inside the city.  This pool is called the Pool of Siloam, and was the site of one of Jesus’ miracles (John 9:7).

The tunnel still exists, and in 1880, archaeologists found an inscription at the Pool of Siloam commemorating its construction:

Now this is the story of the boring through; while the excavators were still lifting up their picks, each toward his fellow, and while there were yet three cubits to excavate, there was heard the voice of one calling to another, for there was a crevice in the rock, on the right hand.  And on the day they completed the boring through, the stone-cutters struck pick against pick, one against the other; and the waters flowed from the spring to the pool, a distance of 1000 cubits.  And a hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the stone-cutters.

The tunnel was excavated by two teams of diggers, working at either end, on a course which snaked for something like 1770 feet.  Despite its circuitous route under the city, the tunnels were planned so well that there are only a couple inches of difference where the two tunnels meet.

The tunnel was intended as a secure source of water for the city in the event of an Assyrian attack.  Which eventually happened.

Sennacharib, the king of Assyria did invade Judah, capturing several cities and besieging Jerusalem.  2 Kings chapters 18 and 19 tells the dramatic story of this siege; how the Assyrian commander mocked Hezekiah and tried to stir up revolt among the trapped people of the city; how Hezekiah prayed for deliverance, and how the angel of the Lord came and slew a huge number of the Assyrian army, forcing Sennacherib to withdraw.

Many commenters have interpreted this to mean that an epidemic broke out among the Assyrian army, which is certainly a common enough occurrence in times of war, especially during a siege.  Assyrian documents do record Sennacherib’s campaign against Israel and Judah, but don’t mention any defeat at Jerusalem, whether by disease or divine intervention.  It seems likely to me that Sennacherib withdrew for his own reasons – perhaps because the siege was taking longer than he expected, perhaps because of losing too many soldiers to disease, perhaps because of reports that Hezekiah’s Egyptian allies were on their way – and intended to return another time to finish the job.  As it happened, two of his sons later assassinated him, and so he never got the chance.

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