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Hebron: Caves of Machpelah 

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Places of Interest

Hebron: Caves of Machpelah

 

Location

 

1. The city of Hebron is set in the Judean Mountains, about 20 miles (32 km.) south of Jerusalem.

 

2. Hebron stands 3,000 feet (914 m.) above sea level, making it the highest city in Israel.

 

3. While there have been tensions in the past between Israelis and Arabs, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Tel Hebron (Tel Rumeida) is protected by Israeli forces, and around 250,000 tourists visit Hebron annually. 

 

Historical Background

 

1. The Caves of Machpelah marks the beginning place and roots of the nation of Israel. God's promises and covenants with Abraham and his descendants happened in Hebron or nearby. These promises would also have wide-reaching implications and include all the nations of the earth. 

 

2. The property of the Caves of Machepelah is the first legal land acquisition in the Promised Land. This fulfilled part of the Abrahamic covenant God gave Abraham in Genesis chapters 12 and 13. 

 

3. It began to be venerated during the time the Patriarchs were buried here. Then, King David preserved it so it could be remembered and venerated as well. This can be verified by the fact that he built protection walls around Abraham's Altar at the Oaks of Mamre that can still be seen today. So it's very likely he would have done the same here at this site. We must realize that Abraham and the Patriarchs are monumental in importance to God's master plan. So, this site was set aside and valued to an extent that's hard for us to understand.

4. So, all throughout the Old Testament period, it would be venerated. This can be verified as there have been found in the caves, pottery, and artifacts dating back to King David's time and 700 BC. 

5. Then Herod the Great, between 31 and 4 BC, built massive walls around the caves, including a floor about halfway up the walls covering the caves. It had access from this floor down to the caves. Later, during the Muslim Period, the access would be closed off. Herod built the walls around the caves using the same building stone style as the Temple Mount Platform and the structure he built just a short distance to the north of here at the Oaks of Mamre, where Abraham built an altar.

6. After the time of Herod, during the Byzantine Period, in around 325 AD, Christians built a Basilica Church on top of the floor inside the walls of the structure Herod built.

 

7. During the Muslim Period, in around 650 AD, the basilica church and site were converted into a Mosque. During the 10th century, an entrance was pierced through the north-eastern wall, some way above the external ground level, and steps from the north and from the east were built up to it. 

8. In 1100 AD, after the area was captured by the Crusaders, the enclosure once again became a church. During this period, the Byzantine church and other buildings were remodeled and given new gabled and vaulted roofs with elegant windows. Most of the internal buildings that can be seen today are from the Crusader period.

9. In 1188 AD, the Muslims once again conquered the area. At this time, they reconverted and remodeled the enclosure into a mosque, allowing Christians to continue worshipping there. The red and white building material seen today is from this period. Saladin also added a minaret at each corner—two of which still survive.  Samuel ben Samson visited the cave in 1210, and records that visitors wanting to see the original caves must descend by twenty-four steps in a passageway so narrow that the rock touches him on either hand. 

10. In around 1320, during the Muslim Mamluk period, cenotaphs were made to each of the Patriarchs and their wives. Cenotaph means tomb memorial or marker. These cenotaphs were evenly spaced out on the floor inside the structure. These markers are not directly over the tombs but are just markers. There are two caves side by side where all the Patriarchs and their wives are buried. However, the tomb marker of Abraham is directly over the caves.

11. From 1267 to 1967, Jews were not allowed any access inside the structure. They were only allowed to approach as far as the seventh step of the southern steps of the stairway. 

12. In 1967, the southern stair access was removed by Israelis. However, you can still see evidence of it today. 

 

In summary, we see this site being venerated for nearly 4,000 years. This is quite amazing. 

Discoveries of the Caves

1. There are many eyewitness accounts of those who have visited the caves below the floor of this structure today. These accounts date from around 325 to 1981 AD. I should mention that the floor we are standing on was part of the original structure Herod the Great built. So you're standing on stones dating around 2000 years old. It's under this floor where the original caves are located. When Herod built the structure, he erected thick outer walls of protection with a floor about halfway up. Access to the caves was through this floor leading down to the caves.

2. The word Machpelah means double or side by side. This can refer to the two caves that are beside each other where the three patriarchs and their wives were buried side by side.  Access to the caves is not permitted today. There are two accesses to the caves. One is through a narrow shaft measuring about 11 inches or 28 centimeters. The other is called the Serdab entrance and is much larger. Both the shaft and Serdab entrances are located in the Isaac and Rebeccah Hall area.

3. The most recent accounts of Israelis entering the caves take place in 1968 and 1981. 

 

4. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the area fell into the hands of the Israel Defense Forces. In 1968, Moshe Dayan, the Defence Minister and an amateur archaeologist, attempted to regain access to the tombs. Ignorant of the Serdab entrance, Dayan concentrated his attention on the narrow shaft entrance visible below the decorative grate and had the idea of sending someone thin enough to fit through the shaft and down into the chamber below. Dayan eventually found a slim 12-year-old girl named Michal to assist, sending her into the chamber with a camera. She was able to see some things underground but was unable to enter the caves as they were blocked by a rock she couldn't move.

5. In 1981, Seev Jevin, the former director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, entered the caves by the Serdab access using chisels to remove the sealed-up entrance and discovered the square stone in the round chamber that concealed the cave entrance. The reports state that after entering the first cave, which seemed to Jevin to be empty, he found a passage leading to a second oval chamber, smaller than the first, which contained shards of pottery and a wine jug. Findings published in the Israel Exploration Journal in 2020 stated that the pottery dates from the time of King David and the 8th century BC and originated from various locations in the Hebron and Jerusalem areas. The location of the caves is directly below the Cenotaph of Abraham.

 

6. In 1994, after a bloody massacre, the site was divided between Muslims and Jews to maintain peace. However, for a short time each year, the site is fully open to each group for ten days.

7. Christians are allowed to enter both the Muslim and Jewish areas.

Places of Interest

 

1. Cave of the Patriarchs (Machpelah)

  • Jewish Synagogue

  • Mosque

  • Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs

 

2. Tel Hebron (Tel Rumeida)

  • Abraham’s Well

  • Ancient Stairs

  • Tomb of Jesse and Ruth (King David’s father and great-grandmother)

  • Old Olive Trees

  • Ancient Canaanite City Walls

  • The Canaanite wall overlaid by a glacis from the Israelite period

  • Walls and stone road from the time of Abraham

  • Likely place of King David's Palace

  • Four-room structure from the time of King Hezekiah

  • Ancient Synagogue

  • Stepped street from the Early Roman period

  • Pottery workshop from the Early Roman period

  • Eastern ritual bath from the Early Roman period

  • Western ritual bath from the Early Roman period

  • New Excavations

  • Hebron Observatory

 

3. Oaks of Mamre (located within Hebron 1 mile or 1.5 km. north of the Cave of Machpelah)

 

Hebron in the Bible

 

1. After God affirmed His covenant with Abraham, he built an altar to the Lord nearby at Mamre and lived here.
Genesis 13:17–18: Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.” 18 Then Abram moved his tent and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.

 

2. At Hebron, Abraham learned in a dream that his descendants would spend 400 years as slaves in Egypt.
Genesis 15:12–14: Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13 God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward, they will come out with many possessions.

 

3. At Hebron, Ismael was born to Abraham and Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar (Gen. 16:4).

 

4. Near Hebron, God made a covenant with Abraham that he would be “the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”  
Genesis 17:1–8: When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

 

5. At Hebron, Abraham offered hospitality to three servant angels of God and received the promise of a son.
Genesis 18:10–14:  They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”

 

6. At Hebron, Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his wife, Sarah, and his family.
Genesis 23:19: After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field at Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 

 

7. Later, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah would also be buried in the Cave of Machpelah.

 

8. Jacob returned to Hebron after he had sojourned in Paddan-aram.
Genesis 35:27: Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre of Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned.

 

9. Joseph was sent from Hebron to Shechem, where he would be sold into slavery and taken to Egypt.
Genesis 37:14: Then he said to him, “Go now and see about the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.

 

10. Nearby to Hebron, two of the spies who researched the Promised Land returned with a large cluster of grapes.
Numbers 13:21–23: So the men explored the land from the Desert of Zin to the border of Hamath. 22 They went through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai lived. They are descendants of Anak. (Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) 23 When they came to the Eshcol Valley, they cut off a branch with only one bunch of grapes on it. They carried it on a pole between two of them.

 

11. Hebron was given to Caleb as an inheritance for his faithfulness to the Lord.
Joshua 14:13–14: So Joshua blessed him and gave Hebron to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for an inheritance. 14 Therefore, Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb, the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite until this day, because he followed the Lord God of Israel fully.

 

12. Samson carried the gates of Gaza 35 miles (55 km.) up to a mountain close to Hebron (Judges 16:1–3).

 

13. David was anointed king in Hebron and reigned here for 7 1/2 years (2 Sam. 2:1–4, 11).

 
Faith Lesson from Hebron

 

1. God confirmed His promises and covenants with Abraham at Hebron and fulfilled them all. Do we believe and embrace the promises of God?

 

2. Caleb was one of the faithful spies who received Hebron as a reward. Are we faithful like Caleb, and do we have our hope placed in our eternal home in heaven as our reward?

 

3. David was anointed king in Hebron because he was a person after God’s own heart. Do we love the Lord like David, and are we desiring to serve Him in significant ways as David did?

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