Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
The "Valley of Pigeons," in Arabic "Wady Hamam," is the name given to the great gorge through which runs the road of ascent from the Plain of Gennesaret to the uplands of Central Galilee. It was formed at the end of the Tertiary Period, when the "Great Rift" took place, and with its giant cliffs rising 1500 feet above the level of the water, it is the most imposing of all the side valleys created by that great event in geological history.
It is never mentioned by name in either Old or New Testament Scripture, at the most appearing simply as part of the "Way of the Sea," or of the great military and trade highway of the nations, which passed up this valley. Josephus, however (Vita 37), names the fortifications in the rocks on the southern side "the caves of Arbela," deriving this name from the town that in his days occupied the summit. The rabbis likewise of those days name the pass "Biqath Arbel," or "Valley of Arbel" (J. Berachoth I. I).
Through the whole course of the "Way by the Sea" from Babylonia, this was the most defensible point, and it was perhaps on this account that it became the northern boundary of the Egyptian sphere of influence in Palestine. The boundary line ran across country from the Bay of Accho (Acre) to the Sea of Galilee, and an understanding of this fact throws a good deal of light on Old Testament politics.
The Way of the Sea is mentioned incidentally in Isaiah 9:1, as the district where Israel had endured its first grievous affliction, and this is accompanied by a promise for the future. The suffering indicated may be that of which we read in 1 Kings 15:18-20, or it may have reference to the invasion by Tiglath Pileser (2 Kings 15:29) that was co-incident with this prophecy. Both of these invaders stopped short at this valley. Ben-hadad, whose territory was in the Neutral Zone, would not risk complications with Egypt by entry into the Egyptian sphere; and in 734 B.C., Tiglath Pileser and Assyria were not yet prepared to enter into conflict with the Pharaohs.
Accordingly we can now understand the wisdom of Isaiah and the folly of Ahaz. The prophet said: "Be quiet, fear not." Do nothing, sit still, the problem will solve itself. Tiglath was bound to settle with both Damascus and North Israel, which had joined the combination against him, and this he did without touching Egyptian interests. This would have been done without consideration of Ahaz, who would have kept his treasures and maintained his independence. But he spoiled everything by appealing to the Assyrian king. He impoverished his land, and had to appear in 732 B.C. as a petty vassal at the Court of Damascus.
With some incident connected with this invasion we are inclined to associate the statement in Hosea 10:14, which has hitherto puzzled commentators, "Shalman spoiled Betharbel in the day of battle: the mother was dashed in pieces with her children." Neither the Arbela in Transjordania, nor that in Mesopotamia furnish the conditions for such an event, and only a shadowy king of Moab of the name of Shalman, has been found. Our opinion is that, during the campaign of 734-732, Shalmaneser occupied a high position in the army, as he succeeded to the throne in 727 B.C., without hereditary right. Indeed he may have been Tartan, or head of the army at the time. The incident would then be connected with these rocks, and with this place alone of those suggested, does the word "dashed," which is quite distinctive, correspond. Such incidents occurred at the same place in later days, and that the Assyrians occupied the caves at Arbel we know from the discovery in 1911 of a door lintel over one of the caves, adorned with Assyrian lions, and certainly the Assyrian did not get possession of this stronghold without a wild struggle.
But Tiglath Pileser and spheres of influence are comparatively modern history when dealing with this ancient highway. Let us think of its relationship to that old world story in Genesis 14, which led to the battle between Abraham and the Babylonian kings. These invaders had left their native land in the spring time of the year, "when kings go out to war." The journey as recorded took several months, and accordingly the Battle of Sodom must have taken place about July or August, in the hottest time of the year, in the hottest district in the world. The natives were then, through local conditions, and through their lazy luxurious lives, relaxed and useless, and there was an easy victory for the invader. In a very few days, however, they too would be reduced to a like state of helplessness, which the journey up the Jordan valley would do but little to improve. Thus, in no fit state for further fighting, they camped on the unknown marshlands at the north end of Lake Huleh, beside the later Dan. Then came Abraham's pursuit. He lived at Hebron, 3300 feet above the level of Sodom, breathing the fresh air of heaven. With his followers and those of his associates, he may have had an army of 10,000 men. He led them along the uplands of Canaan till the Valley of Pigeons was reached, but there he had to descend and proceed along the great route. Deep gorges in Upper Galilee would have prevented his overtaking the enemy, had he continued in the hill-country, but as it was, he had only to spend an hour below sea-level, and that was likely in the night. Accordingly, Abraham, with fresh men, on known ground, had in his turn a sweeping victory over a helpless enemy. Even in these old days, highlanders counted for something. By this same Valley of Pigeons too, Abraham returned with his recovered captives and spoils to meet the King of Salem.
And between the days of Abraham and Tiglath Pileser there were many marches and counter-marches, as well as peaceful processions, through this valley. In 1480 B.C., Thothmes III of Egypt, the Pharaoh whose throne Moses might have occupied, if we count aright, fought the Battle of Megiddo, swept over the land, and marched through this glen, breaking the power of the local Kings, and, thus, in divine providence, facilitating the Israelite invasion towards the close of the same century.
Between these same rocks, Joshua led the Israelites to meet the kings at Hazor (ch. 11) in 1400 B.C., while Rameses II of Egypt, in 1296, went up the same way to meet the Hittites, and to perform the feats of valour he caused to be recorded in the poem we call "Pentaur." David too, during his wars in the north, must often have passed and repassed, but in his life there was one peaceful scene associated with this route. By it he went to Geshur to claim the daughter of the king as his bride (2 Sam. 3:3), Maacah, who was to become the mother of Absalom, and who, in her Aramaic speech, must have many a time uttered the words, "Nashqu bar" (Kiss the son) (Psa. 2:12). And year after year, too, Solomon made his way along this road, seeking summer change and rest in Lebanon.
In connection with the expeditions associated with the Fall of Samaria in 722 B.C., spheres of influence were violated, and their significance came to an end. Thereafter we find both Egyptian and Mesopotamian armies moving without hesitation. Shalmaneser and Sargon passed through this valley in 722; Sennacherib in 701; Esarhaddon in 670; Assurbanipal in 662; and in 608 Pharaoh Necho marched along this route to meet the king of Assyria, after the defeat and death of Josiah at the Battle of Megiddo, but to be defeated himself in turn by the Babylonians at Carchemish. The victor, Nebuchadnezzar, then on at least three occasions (605, 597, and 586) advanced against the Holy City by this same route, and by it the captive Israelites were deported, and trod weary and foot-sore over these very stones.
During the Persian Period, Cambyses, Darius (of Marathon fame), and other kings of the east advanced along this Way of the Sea against Egypt. It was they who introduced the system of forced labour and posts along the highways, and probably to them we owe the original khans met with stage after stage on this international route. At anyrate they gave us a Persian word for forced labour, "aggareuo," and it has a place in the Gospel (Matt. 5:41). That period was brought to a close by Alexander, who proceeded (332 B.C.) through this valley to Damascus; while the Roman Period was ushered in by Pompey's coming (63 B.C.) from Damascus to Jerusalem by this same way.
Among these cliffs, too, the incident of Shalman's time was repeated in the days of Herod. In 37 B.C., just after he had defeated the Maccabean Antigonus on the southern slope below the town of Arbel, he found these caves occupied by the Zealots (J. Ant. xiv. 4, 5; Bell. i. 16. 2-4). As we can see, even from the plain, the caves are in the precipices of craggy mountains, and are only approachable by narrow, winding pathways, while within the various caves are united one with the other by equally defensible passages. Herod's plan of attack was to lower cages filled with armed men from above. They slew all they could reach, and then by means of fire and smoke forced others to come within their reach. Many of them, rather than submit to the hated Herod, slew one another, one of the cases being that of an aged Jew, who in turn slew his seven sons and his wife, and then cast himself from the crags.
In New Testament days the Valley of Pigeons must have been a great thoroughfare. The Romans kept it in repair, and we find even now pieces of their paved highway near the north end of the lake. Wagons carried the First Fruits from the Plain of Gennesaret (J. Taan. iv. 5-6) to Jerusalem. Pigeons, caught among the rocks, were sent by this route (Mid. Echa. 75 d; Chulin 53 a) to be sold on the Mount of Olives, as sacrifices to be offered in the temple. It was the main route between Nazareth and Cana on the one hand, and the lake side on the other, and so Christ and the apostles often passed through this glen. By this way Christ evidently went up expressly to raise the widow's son at Nain. He would take a place on a caravan, drop off at the village, and then joining another caravan, He would be back at the lake side next day.
Saul of Tarsus left Jerusalem by the Damascus Gate, and every step of his journey is interesting, and must have furnished him with much food for thought. Not least impressive would be the moment when he reached the top of Wady Hamam, for there before him lay stretched out the whole cradle of Christianity--Capernaum, the Bethsaidas, Chorazin, the Mount of Ordination, the place of "much grass," Gergesa, and nearer still Magdala, Dalmanutha, Gennesaret, while the Mount of Transfiguration, which he had still to pass, closed the vision on the north--a panorama almost unmatched on earth. What were his thoughts? How far did they prepare him for the vision of the morrow?
In later centuries like scenes were re-enacted. The soldiers of Julian, Justinian, Chosroes, Heraclius, and Muhammad all used this same highway. Victor and vanquished alike passed between these wild rocks. The Crusaders knew the valley well, and Saladin sent detachments of his men this way to meet them on the fatal field of Hattin in July, 1187. A century later the Mongols advanced through this pass to meet destruction at Gideon's Fountain (1260 A.D.). After the Battle of Nazareth (1799), Napoleon's men passed thither to occupy Safad, and, last of all, in September, 1918, by this route as well as by those that converge with it, in the Plain of Gennesaret, Allenby's men, our own boys, swept the Turk from the Land.
Here then we have a glen or pass with an authentic history of over 4000 years. It has served a purpose in every great turning point in the world's history, and it is associated with the rise and fall of empires. It brings to us lessons of wisdom and of folly in international relationships and politics, and it has a great deal to tell of the working out of the great plan of salvation in old Israel and in Gospel days (Matt. 4:15). Here we tread in the very footsteps of the men who have made the world's history, yea, more, in the footsteps of the Son of Man. And yet multitudes pass by without a thought, without interest, because without knowledge.
Where'er we tread, 'tis haunted, holy ground;
No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,
But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,
And all the Muse's tales seem truly told.
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