“..…. the spell of the place was irresistible.”
There are some places in the world everyone should see and almost any tour will take you there, but there are times when our most memorable moments come from leaving the ordinary and well known and going where few go. Such was my excitement the first time I visited Beit Lehi …….. I really did not know what to expect. The name alone was fascinating and for a number of reasons. I used to thrill in my early teenage years with the stories of Samson. He fired my imagination with visions of lion attacks, firebrands tied to the tails of foxes, riddles, and of course, his tragic end with Delilah. Then there was the story of fighting a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Samson named the place this heroic struggle took place “Lehi.” Now I was going to visit it. The spring Samson drank from is still there. And I could not help but wonder as we turned south from Jerusalem what connections this site had with Lehi of Book of Mormon fame. Could his name have come from this local? Was I going to walk the hills Nephi walked? This mystery would find no answers, but the spell of the place was irresistible and pulled us magnetically down the road. It was even more intriguing since Fun For Less Tours is the only company allowed on the site and in the many times I had been to Israel I had never walked this path.
Beit Lehi is an archeological dig. As we drove I remember reading stories of wonderful finds pulled from the dust of old tombs and cities. My mind filled with the gleam of a gold or a silver coin, the emerging shape of pots once turned on the potter’s wheel, treasured by wives and daughters, and the shops and the workplaces of families long gone and forgotten. A flashlight is a necessity though sometimes generators allow us to see the dig in the glow of bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It is an exploration to be envied for those with a little spirit of adventure.
The road to Beit Lehi can only be considered a road if you have a vivid imagination or if your definition of a road carries with it wide latitude. We stopped at the Valley of Elah where David slew Goliath, then passed the Old Testament town of Lachish destroyed by the Assyrians in Isaiah’s time and whose siege can still be seen in the British Museum captured in stone from the ruins of ancient Nineveh. It was all dirt road now and the bus bumped along at three miles an hour. The area has changed little since Biblical times. Largely deserted now, one can still see the crumbling terraces of once carefully tended fields and orchards. In the valleys between the foothills the vibrant green of vineyards and wheat fields stand out in contrast with the white limestone of the hills. Suddenly, lopping along the edge of the fields, we could see three foxes, and the reality of Samson’s revenge against the Philistines where he caught 300 foxes, tied them tail to tail with a burning firebrand between them and turned them loose in his enemies’ fields, became real.
We arrived at the dig which offers views of the surrounding landscape. In the distance one can see Mareshah, the home of Micah the prophet. We turned from the views and plunged into the darkness of underground excavations. Here was a mikvah, a Jewish pool used for ceremonial cleansing. How many men and women had descended its steps to immerse themselves in the water and ascend in purity?
Next to it was the olive press, the grinding wheel now silent, and the heavy weights that once crushed the oil out of olives scattered on the floor. Squeezing through a narrow passageway we entered a vast chamber with thousands of triangular dove cotes cut into the soft limestone. They were on every pillar, around every corner, high up the walls, with the promise of many thousands more beneath centuries of dust when the excavation would be complete. The columbarium raised doves for sacrifice at the temple as Mary and Joseph once did at the birth of the Savior. Pottery shards were everywhere and the group fanned out, eyes riveted on the ground. I found a black basalt hand grinding stone which the site archeologist said was in perfect condition. Reluctantly I left it with him, my contribution to the evidence of former lives at Lehi.
Handing several of us brooms we were instructed to sweep the sand carefully away from the floor of an early Christian church. The bright colors of mosaics came into view. A leopard, a crane, birds and plants, a hunting scene with a dog and hare were revealed, intricate designs and Greek inscriptions. Finally, as the broom brushed away the drifted sand—a ship appeared! Nets, sails, the multitude of fishes! We were reminded that Peter and Andrew, James and John, were fishermen and had left their nets to “catch men.”
With images of the New Testament dominating our thoughts we visited one last place—the stable. I have been to Bethlehem and never fail to feel the power of that city, but The Church of the Nativity is large and ornate and one finds it difficult to visualize the birth of Christ. Yet here at Beit Lehi is a stable unchanged from New Testament times. The entrance is narrow and we had to maneuver around some of the fallen stones but our efforts were well rewarded. It is a small room, divided in half down its length by a stone wall with six arched mangers cut out of the rock. Each manger had a lip about six inches high to hold the grain or straw for the feeding animals. In the corner was a hollowed out basin for water and in the floor pits had been dug with stone lids in which grain and other commodities could be stored. We directed our flashlights from corner to corner. We could still see the holes in the wall for the wooden bars which would hold the animals on one side of the stable while people could work on the other side. For the first time in my life I could envision the holy family on that first Christmas night. Here was a setting for a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. I could see the shepherds bending down through the entrance to view the Son of God coming into the world in such humble surroundings. In the many years of visiting the Holy Land, I had never seen a stable as it would have looked two thousand years ago. It was the highlight of my whole trip that year and one that never fails to move me with each repeated visit.
As we walked down the dusty hill back to the waiting buses my mind swirled with the past, Samson with his foxes and swinging jawbone; early Christians lovingly placing the tiny stone mosaics retelling of the call of the fishermen; doves nesting in the underground cool of the columbarium; and the unadorned simplicity of a common stable. Then there is that intriguing name, Lehi. Did four brothers once descend from the heights of Jerusalem to this spot to gather their precious things in the hope that Laban would exchange the coveted brass records for their considerable belongings? Perhaps the dust of Beit Lehi will one day reveal even this secret. For the time being its continued silence is its invitation.