Damien F. Mackey
Part One: Conder’s Choice
“Joakim the high priest, resident in Jerusalem at the time, wrote to the inhabitants of Bethulia and of Betomesthaim, two towns facing Esdraelon, towards the plain of Dothan”.
Geography is a most important aspect of the Book of Judith. Whilst our reconstructions in:
A Revised History of the Era of King Hezekiah of Judah
and its Background
have seen formerly obscure characters (e.g. Achior of the Book of Judith) being filled out and coming to life, places (geography) too, apart from persons, will sometimes take centre stage. This will be most especially the case with the town of “Bethulia”, said to be near Dothan. For, according to R. Charles : “The question of the historical value of the book [of Judith] turns largely on this name”.
Bethulia itself, which Simons identifies with sheih shibil, I shall identify, following lieutenant Claude Reignier Conder, with “Mithilia” (or Meselieh), south of Jenin.
Upon Judith’s request (command?), the elders “ordered the young men to open the gate for her” (10:9). Judith and her maid then went out of the town and headed for the camp of the Assyrians. “The men of the town watched her until she had gone down the mountain and passed through the valley, where they lost sight of her” (v.10).
- Conder will refer back to this topographical description of Judith’s descent into the valley in his proposed identification of Bethulia with Mithilia (Meselieh). I simply give Conder’s account, which is the one that impresses me most:
?Meselieh? A small village, with a detached portion to the north, and placed on a slope, with a hill to the south, and surrounded by good olive-groves, with an open valley called W鈊y el Melek (“the King’s Valley’) on the north. The water-supply is from wells, some of which have an ancient appearance. They are mainly supplied with rain-water. In 1876 I proposed to identify the village of Meselieh, or Mithilia, south of Jenin, with the Bethulia of the Book of Judith, supposing the substitution of M for B, of which there are occasional instances in Syrian nomenclature. The indications of the site given in the Apocrypha are tolerably distinct. Bethulia stood on a hill, but not apparently on the top, which is mentioned separately (Judith vi. 12) There were springs or wells beneath the town (verse 11), and the houses were above these (verse 13). The city stood in the hill-country not far from the plain (verse 11), and apparently near Dothan (Judith iv. 6). The army of Holofernes was visible when encamped near Dothan (Judith vii. 3, 4), by the spring in the valley near Bethulia (verses 3-7).’The site usually supposed to represent Bethulia – namely, the strong village of Sanur – does not fulfill these various requisites; but the topography of the Book of Judith, as a whole, is so consistent and easily understood, that it seems that Bethulia was an actual site. Visiting Mithilia on our way to Shechem ? we found a small ruinous village on the slope of the hill. Beneath it are ancient wells, and above it a rounded hill-top, commanding a tolerably extensive view. The north-east part of the great plain, Gilboa, Tabor … and Nazareth, are clearly seen. West of these are neighbouring hillsides Jenin and Wady Bel’ameh (the Belmaim, probably of the narrative); but further west Carmel appears behind the ridge of Sheikh Iskander … and part of the plain of ‘Arrabeh, close to Dothan, is seen.
A broad corn-vale, called “The King’s Valley”, extends north-west from Meselieh toward Dothan, a distance of only 3 miles. There is a low shed formed by rising ground between two hills, separating this valley from the Dothain plain; and at the latter site is the spring beside which, probably, the Assyrian army is supposed by the old Jewish novelist [sic] to have encamped. In imagination one might see the stately Judith walking through the down-trodden corn-fields and shady olive-groves, while on the rugged hillside above the men of the city “looked after her until she was gone down the mountain, and till she had passed the valley, and could see her no more'”. (Judith x 10) – C. R. C., ‘Quarterly Statement’, July, 1881.
As Northern Bethel?
The town of Bethulia figures in the Book of Judith as a key fortress.
Could it have been the northern Bethel?
Re the “Identification of Bethulia”, I quote again from my university thesis:
A Revised History of the Era of King Hezekiah of Judah
and its Background
(Volume Two, beginning on p. 71):
Now, one would expect a town of such supposedly strategical value [as Bethulia] to be well known in the history of the northern kingdom. [The Book of Judith] has partnered Bethulia with Betomesthaim, as towns serving to guard the defiles in this area against invasion. Whilst Betomesthaim, too, should be a well known city, for Charles however:1322 “Betomesthaim is unknown. Apparently near Bethulia and Dothan”. He does however add this view of another: “Torrey suggests that [Betomesthaim] is a pseudonym for Samaria, and that it is a corruption of [Bayit Mizpah], House of outlook, as [Shomron] from [shmr], to watch”. This is quite plausible, given Samaria’s strategic importance in the region. We recall that Sargon
II had recently rebuilt and strengthened the site: namely, the Samaria IV archaeological level. (Refer back to section: “The Samaria conundrum”, Chapter 3, pp. 59-62).
I am going to propose … that Bethulia was the same as the Bethel where, with Dan, the Israelite king Jeroboam I in the late C10th BC had placed the Baal calf; one of his northern sanctuaries (1 Kings 12:29). I agree with Conder, following the view of the Crusaders, that this particular Bethel was not the Bethel of the patriarchs:1323 “The Crusaders did not hold this opinion. Dan and Bethel were not, according to their view, the north and south boundary towns of the kingdom of Israel, but were places close together, in the heart of the country…”. Conder explains why he thinks Jeroboam’s Bethel would not have been the same as Jacob’s:1324
… Jeroboam instituted these temples [Dan and Bethel] with the express intention of diverting the attention of the tribes from Jerusalem. Surely, therefore, it is most strange that he should have chosen for one of them a place which was actually within the allotted portion of Benjamin. The southern Bethel was moreover taken from Jeroboam by Abijah (2 Chron. xiii. 19), and there is no notice of its recovery, while at the same time there is no account of the destruction of the calf idol which remained … until the time of Jehu (2 Kings x. 29), and was only finally overthrown by Josiah (2 Kings xxiii. 15). Had the calf temple been at the southern Bethel, there would surely have been some account of [its certain] destruction … on the conquest of the town by the King of Judah.
Bethel is mentioned as the place to which, upon the command of “the king of Assyria”, the Israelite priest returned from exile to instruct the colonists of Samaria to “fear the Lord” (2 Kings 17:27-28), thus perhaps further accounting for why the young Judith had never known an era of apostasy in her region. Added to this was the fact that king Hezekiah had, early in his reign, pulled down the altars and high places in this very region (2 Chronicles 31:1); which places of idolatry his son Manasseh would nonetheless later rebuild (33:3). Indeed the Greek version of the name Bethulia appears to have been taken from the Hebrew for ‘Bethel’. Thus Charles:1325
Bait(o)uloÚa is now generally explained as [Bayit Eloh] = [Bayit El] = Bethel = House of God, a name which might suitably be applied to any town which is to be represented as true to its faith in God, cf. e.g. viii. 20. …. What place then is hidden under this assumed [sic] name? It would be natural to think of Jerusalem (Btolt Bt Tsyon), but this is out of the question, since in this verse Joakim wrote from Jerusalem to Bethulia.