Ancient Beth Shemesh guarded the Sorek Valley of Israel's Shephelah; a place where the pagans and the Israelites often interacted.
Beth Shemesh stands in Israel's Shephelah;foothills lying between the coastal plain and Judea Mountains. Several broad valleys extend up from the coastal plain, through the Shephelah, and into the mountains beyond.
The Shephelah valleys became the crossroads for commerce and culture in the ancient world. They formed natural trade routes linking the major powers of Rome and Egypt with the empires of Persia, Babylon, and Assyria. Whoever controlled the foothills could dominate the relationship between these powers. As a result, ancient people frequently clashed for control of these strategic valleys.
Built by the people of the coastal plain, Beth Shemesh stood like a guardhouse over the Sorek Valley. According to Joshua 19, the Beth Shemesh region was given to the small tribe of Dan for its inheritance. However, despite frequent fighting between the Israelites and pagans, the pagans were not driven out of the area.
The sophistication and technology of the Philistines became attractive to God's people, and they began to adopt pagan Philistine values.
During the time of the judges in ancient Israel, the sophisticated Philistines dominated cities along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Israelites lived in more primitive settings among the Shephelah hills and Judea Mountains.
The foothills, where Beth Shemesh was located, served as a buffer zone between the Philistines and the Israelites. Because control of the Shephelah meant power over culture, many battles between the Philistines and Israelites took place there.
The Philistines worshipped fertility gods such as Dagon "the god of grain" and his mistress Ashtoreth, who was associated with war and fertility. They also worshiped a god called Baal-Zebul, thought to be Dagon's son. Worship of these gods was so evil and abhorrent that the Israelites changed the name of Baal-Zebul to Baal-Zebub, meaning "lord of the flies."
Unfortunately, the Israelites did not always shun the evils of Philistine culture. As a primitive people, they became attracted to the sophisticated Philistine lifestyle. Over time, many Israelites drew away from God, and some even participated in the Philistines' detestable religion.
Though Israel's disobedience had caused them to be defeated by the Philistines, God was faithful and sent them a hero named Samson.
As punishment for the Israelites' participation in pagan worship, God "delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years" (Judges 13:1). But ever faithful to his covenant, God would not abandon his people.
An angel visited a childless couple from the tribe of Dan and told them they would have a child. The angel also explained that the child must be a Nazirite: one who was set apart from his culture.
The couple's son was Samson, and they raised him in accordance with Nazirite vows: He did not cut his hair, drink wine, or touch anything dead (which meant that he could not eat meat). When God's people saw Samson's unique lifestyle, they were reminded that they must also be set apart and live differently from the surrounding, ungodly culture.
God blessed Samson and empowered him to do great things: He burned Philistine wheat fields, he carried the Philistine gates of Gaza forty-five miles to Hebron, and he was able to kill many Philistine soldiers (Judges 15). As long as Samson remained faithful to God's values, he was effective in his calling to confront an evil culture.
Samson's haircut made him lose his strength;but it also symbolized his lost distinctiveness. He compromised with the pagan culture he was supposed to confront.
In time, Samson faltered and became attracted to Philistine culture. Instead of confronting their evil value system, he compromised his own values and disobeyed God.
As he participated in a wicked culture, Samson violated all of his Nazirite vows: He killed a lion with his bare hands, thus touching a dead body. He drank wine at a wedding party. And he allowed his hair to be cut after committing sexual sin with Delilah. By adopting pagan values, Samson failed to be set apart for God.
Consequently, Samson's mission, walk with God, and body became weak. He lost both his spiritual and physical effectiveness. The Philistines were able to capture and imprison this once unbeatable man.
Only when Samson finally acknowledged God as the source of his strength was he able to defeat the Philistines, but he lost his life in the process (Judges 16:28-30).
Like Samson, the Israelites compromised with pagan values. They eventually lost the ark of the covenant;a symbol of God's presence.
Like Samson, the Israelites also failed to live out their distinctiveness. They too became weak and ineffective when they compromised with the evil they were called to confront.
The Israelites lived simply and were attracted to the Philistines' advanced culture. Instead of using their strategic position in the Shephelah to confront pagan culture, they allowed the ungodly values to influence them. They failed to drive the Philistines out of their land.
First Samuel 4 reveals how ineffective the Israelites became. In an effort to defeat the Philistines, who were invading their mountain dwellings, the Israelites took the ark of the covenant in battle. They had wandered from God, but at the last minute, they desperately turned to him for help.
But the Israelites' last-ditch effort did not work. They ignored God's commands to keep the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place. And they mistakenly placed their hopes in the physical object of the ark, rather than trusting in the power of their God.
As a result, the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant, and the symbol of God's presence was carried off to the pagan land.
Once again, God intervened to help the Israelites and preserve the plan of salvation: The ark of the covenant was returned to Israel at a place near Beth Shemesh.
Fortunately, God always remained faithful to his covenant. Even though the Israelites had failed to be distinct, God would not allow the Philistines to ruin his plan for salvation. Just as he provided Samson to deliver the Israelites once before, so God intervened to return the ark of the covenant to his people as well.
After capturing the ark, the Philistines encountered trouble. Their cities were afflicted with sickness and rats as they moved the ark from place to place. Finally, they decided to return the ark, along with gifts of gold, to the Israelites.
Placing the ark on a cart, they sent it with two calves toward Beth Shemesh. They watched the calves walk away, saying, "If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us" (1 Sam. 6:9).
God guided the calves straight to Beth Shemesh, where the Israelites rejoiced. They offered a sacrifice to God and left a standing stone to mark the spot where God's presence had been returned (1 Sam. 6:15, 18).
The Shephelah Today
When God gave the Promised Land to the Israelites, he commanded them to possess it completely-to confront and remove pagan influences.
But instead of driving out the Philistines, the tribe of Dan allowed them to stay. And Samson compromised with the evil values he was supposed to confront. In both cases, God's people failed to carry out their calling completely and then faced serious consequences.
As God's people today, we are also called to confront the ungodliness of our world. We must influence today's shephelah; those front lines where God's values and secular values clash.
Unfortunately, many of us repeat the Israelites' mistakes and jeopardize the mission. Instead of confronting the sinful aspects of modern culture, we often compromise our vales to fit in with a selfish and materialistic world. When nonbelievers see us adopting these sinful values, they become cynical about the God we are supposed to represent.
But imagine what would happen if every Christian became a shephelah person;remaining faithful to God while actively confronting the evil around us. With God's blessing, we could effectively transform the world.