The Shephelah

The Shephelah is a transliteration of a Hebrew geographical term meaning “lowland”. It comprises a region of low foothills separating the Philistine coastal plain from the highlands of Judah further inland. It covers an area roughly 16kms wide and 40kms long, with hills ranging in height from 150 to 500 metres. It is regularly translated “the vale”, “the valley”, “the low country” and “the plain” and never extended any further north than the Valley of Aijalon and never any further south than just past Hebron.

George Adam Smith wrote in his Historical Geography of the Holy Land: “Altogether it is a rough, happy land, with its glens and moors, its mingled brushwood and barley-fields; frequently under cultivation, but for the most part broken and thirsty, with few wells and many hiding-places; just the home for strong border-men like Samson, and just the theatre for that guerrilla warfare, varied occasionally by pitched battles, which Israel and Philistia, the Maccabees and the Syrians, Saladin and Richard waged with each other”.

On the east of the Shephelah are the Judean hills, which, like steep walls, loom above the valleys and are only accessed through narrow and difficult defiles.

In recent years, these hills and valleys have become one of the most intensively excavated regions in the world. Numerous archaeological projects are underway, particularly those discoveries dating to the Iron Age, a period when this region was a transition zone between various cultures – Philistine, Canaanite and Israelite.

Joshua allotted the northern section of the Shephelah to the tribe of Dan ( Josh 19:40-46) and the rest to the tribe of Judah (15:20,33). In Joshua 15:33-47 we read that the Shephelah contained 42 cities with their dependent hamlets, many of them in the higher parts of the valleys.

The valley floors in these rolling lowlands were very fruitful, receiving rich alluvial soil washed down from the Judean heights by the winter rains. It is recorded that Solomon made cedar trees in Jerusalem as abundant as the sycamores which were in the Shephelah (2 Chron 1:15; 9:27). In 1 Chronicles 27:28 we also read of the importance of these natural resources because “over the olive trees and the sycamore trees that were in the low plains was Baal-hanan [Heb: possessor of grace] the Gederite”. These olives and sycamores were carefully cultivated and guarded. The rich valleys themselves were used for growing wheat (1 Sam 6:13) and in the days of Uzziah, the king bred cattle in the Shephelah, “for he loved husbandry” (2 Chron 26:10).

In the kingdom age there will be cities established once more in the Shephelah, where shepherds will tend their sheep and count their flocks ( Jer 33:13).