Page images
PDF
EPUB

ious light struggles down through the thick branches! It is not unlikely that this was one of those “high places” of idolatry which were always accompanied with groves.

It is still sacred. The mazar is in honor of one Othman el Hazûry, or Othman of Hazor, and some indistinct traces of a village between this and the castle still bear that ancient name. But this could not have been the capital of Jabin, as some have supposed. That city was given to Naphtali, and must have been situated somewhere in Upper Galilee. But your remark about the religious shade of this grove reminds me of a certain kind of superstition, as prevalent now in these parts as idolatry was in the days when those temples we spoke of yesterday were thronged with deluded worshipers. Ezekiel says, Then shall ye know that I am the Lord, when their slain shall be among their idols round about their altars, upon every high hill, in all the tops of the mountains, and under every green tree, and under every thick oak, the place where they did offer sweet savor to all their idols. Not only did the heathen delight to build temples and rear altars in the tops of the mountains, as these ruins testify, but they worshiped their idols under every green tree, and especially under thick oaks. They do so still, in a modified form. These oaks under which we now sit are believed to be inhabited by Jan and other spirits.

Almost every village in these wadies and on these mountains has one or more of such thick oaks, which are sacred, from the same superstition. Many of them are believed to be meskûn (inhabited) by certain spirits called Benat Yacobe—Daughters of Jacob—a very strange and obscure notion. The common people are afraid of these inhabited trees, and when they pass them hang on the branches a rag torn from their clothes, as an acknowledgment of their presence, and a sort of peace-offering to avert their anger. I have seen scores of such thick oaks all over the country, but could never obtain an intelligible explanation of the notions or traditions upon which this wide-spread custom is based. It has rather seemed to me to be an indis

i Ezek, vi. 13.

OAK GROVES-BENAT YACOBE.

373

tinct relic of ancient idolatry, which the stringent laws of Mohammed banished in form, but could not entirely eradicate from the minds of the multitude. Indeed, the Moslems are as stupidly given to this superstition as any other class of the community. Connected with this notion, no doubt, is the custom of burying their holy men and so-called prophets under these trees, and erecting mazars to them there. All non-Christian sects believe that the spirits of these saints love to return to this world, and especially to visit the place of their tombs. Nor can we restrict our remark to the heathen. It is difficult to distinguish between this, and the belief or feeling which lies at the bottom of all saint-worship. Isaiah speaks of a time when the people shall be ashamed of the oaks which they have desired. May that day speedily dawn. It implies the spread of light and knowledge. No sooner is a man's mind even partially enlightened by the entrance of that word that giveth light,2 than he becomes heartily ashamed of these oaks, and of his former fear and reverence for the beings supposed to inhabit them. I have witnessed some ludicrous displays of daring enacted about these old trees by Protestant Arabs just emancipated from this degrading superstition, and I can point you to many respectable people who have been all their lives long and are still held in bondage through fear of these imaginary spirits,

Scarcely any tree figures more largely in Biblical narrative and poetry than the oak, but I observe that certain modern critics contend that it is, after all, not the oak, but the terebinth.

The criticism is not quite so sweeping as that. It is merely attempted to prove, I believe, that the Hebrew word alah, which, in our version, is generally rendered oak, should be translated terebinth. Allon, they say,

Allon, they say, is the true name of the oak. It is not for us to settle such controversies, but I have not much confidence in the results. In fact, the Hebrew writers seem to use these names indiscriminately for the same tree, or for different varieties of it, and that was

1 Isa, i. 29.

2 Ps. cxix. 130.

[graphic][merged small]

the oak. For example, the tree in which Absalom was caught by the hair was the alah, not the allon, and yet I am persuaded it was an oak. That battle-field was on the mountains east of the Jordan, always celebrated for great oaks — not for terebinths — and this is true to this day. Again: that “wood of Ephraim," in which the battle was fought, and which devoured more people than the sword, is called yaar in Hebrew, waar in Arabic —evidently the same word, and it signifies a wild, rocky region, overgrown with trees—mostly oak, never the terebinth. There is no such thing as a terebinth waarno such thing in this coun. try as a terebinth wood. And yet this alah which caught Absalom formed part of the wood of Ephraim. It was an oak, I firmly believe. There are thousands of such trees still in the same country, admirably suited to catch long-haired rebels, but no terebinths. Indeed, this latter tree does not meet the requirements of this catastrophe at all. I see it asserted by the advocates of this translation that the oak is not a common nor a very striking tree in this country,

1 2 Sam. xviii. 6-8.

TEREBINTH-OAK WOODS.

375

implying that the terebinth is. A greater mistake could scarcely be made. As to strength, it is simply ridiculous to compare the terebinth with the oak, and the same in regard to size. The terebinth under which our tent is pitched down at Banias is the largest I have seen, and yet there are many oaks to which it is but as an infant. Still more surprising are the statements about the extent of oak forests in this land. Why, there are more mighty oaks here in this immediate vicinity than there are terebinths in all Syria and Palestine together. I have traveled from end to end of these countries, and across them in all directions, and speak with absolute certainty.

Besides the vast groves around us, at the north of Tabor, and in Lebanon and Hermon, in Gilead and Bashan, think of the great forests, extending thirty miles, at least, along the hills west of Nazareth, over Carmel, and down south beyond Cæsarea Palestina. To maintain, therefore, that the oak is not a striking or abundant tree in Palestine, is a piece of critical hardihood tough as the tree itself. And, finally, the terebinth is deciduous, and therefore not a favorite shadetree. It is very rarely planted in the courts of houses, or over tombs, or in the places of resort in villages. It is the beautiful evergreen oak that you find there. Beyond a doubt, the idolatrous groves so often mentioned in Hebrew history were of oak. The straggling, naked terebinth is never selected for such purposes. It sheds down no soft twilight, suggests no religious thought, awakens no superstitious fears. It takes the dense, solemn, mysterious oak to do this. I confess that I never come within such a grove even as this without being conscious of a certain indescribable spell, a sort of silly timidity, tending strongly to religious reverence. With the ignorant this might easily be deepened into downright idolatry.

I do not believe that Abraham's celebrated tree at Hebron was a terebinth, as many now affirm without qualification. It is now a very venerable oak, and I saw no terebinth in the neighborhood. That there are mistakes in our translation in regard to the trees, as well as other things, I would not deny, but until we have more light on this particular matter, and more decisive, let us continue to read out bravely the good old word oak, and never fear the smile of overwise critics.

And now we must leave this fine grove for the castle of Banias. Prepare for one of the roughest scrambles you have yet encountered in the East, and look well to your clothes, or they will be left streaming on the sharp thornbushes through which we must force our way. And now, as we ascend Castle Hill, hold a steady rein, or you will meet with something far worse than thorns.

This is, indeed, a fearful ascent, and of itself enough to confound any assailing party, without the aid of walls and bulwarks.

Those who built the castle did not think so. But all danger is past, and our path lies along this south wall to that curious and well-defended entrance.

Is it probable, or even possible, that the Crusaders erected this prodigious fortification ?

I think not. Doctor Robinson, with whom I once visited it, decided, without hesitation, that it was ancient. These deep grooves in the posts of this gateway show that the door did not open and shut, but was drawn up by machinery. To such an apparatus David, perhaps, alludes in the 24th Psalm : Lift up your heads, Oye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.? You will find no other good specimen of this kind of gateway in all Syria, and it is therefore the more worthy of special notice. It is also a tacit witness to the antiquity of these works.

Is not the entire castle too fresh, and in too high a state of preservation to accord with a very remote antiquity ?

That is owing to the quality of the stone, which is very compact, and hard as adamant; it rings, when struck, like metal. Even those that have been thrown down in confusion for many centuries are as perfect as the day when they were cut from the mountains; they will last to the end of

1 Ps. xxiv. 7.

« PreviousContinue »