by Luke Wayne
The Bible is not an esoteric treatise on mystical principles, nor does it testify only to unverifiable, other-worldly realities. It reports genuine events that happened in actual places involving real people. The Bible certainly tells us of eternal and heavenly truths which we cannot presently see and about which we must trust God and take Him at His word, but it gives us good reason to trust by also reporting God's involvement with humanity within observable history. We find historical evidence for major biblical events like Jesus' resurrection and His miracles, Joshua's battle for Jericho, the sinful reign of Jeroboam, and more. Archaeology also verifies geographical details, like the locations of numerous biblical cities. We can go to biblical places and see exactly where the events described in Scripture took place! And when we do, we find that the places corroborate the Bible's descriptions, often even in the minor, secondary details it reports in passing. One good example of this is a place called En-Gedi.
Where is En-gedi?
The Bible places En-gedi in the Judean wilderness, in the desert regions over near the Dead Sea (a sea so saturated with salt and minerals that nothing can live in it). En-gedi is first mentioned by name in the Book of Joshua as part of the land inheritance of the tribe of Judah:
"In the wilderness: Beth-arabah, Middin and Secacah, and Nibshan and the City of Salt and Engedi; six cities with their villages," (Joshua 15:61-62).
In fact, Ezekiel mentioned En-gedi in a prophetic promise of God's future blessings pictured in the image of the Dead Sea becoming as vibrant and alive as the Mediterranean:
"And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from Engedi to Eneglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt," (Ezekiel 47:10-11).
Based on the biblical data and other historical sources, the location of En-gedi has been precisely identified and is well known today. Indeed, it is now one of Israel's national parks. Thus, we can visit the place, examine its features, excavate its grounds, and compare what we find with the details we read in the Bible.
A Cavernous Refuge for Soldiers
Perhaps the most important reference to En-gedi is in 1 Samuel, when David and his men are fleeing from King Saul and take refuge there:
"David went up from there and stayed in the strongholds of Engedi," (1 Samuel 23:29).
The language here is instructive. That the author can simply say "the strongholds of Engedi" implies that En-gedi was well known to the original readers as a place that contained "strongholds" or secure, defensible positions where soldiers might take refuge. We learn in more detail later in the account (1 Samuel 24:3-22) that David has taken up position deep in a cave when Saul and his army arrive to search for him, and that cave was obviously not David's only option since Saul has no idea that David is hiding there.
Pretty much the moment one walks into En-gedi, the connection between these details and the landscape there are abundantly clear! The cliffs there are filled with numerous caves, providing the fleeing band of soldiers any number of options to hide or take up a defensive position on the rocky crags. That the place was commonly used as a secure place to hide belongings or take refuge is born out by archaeology as well. Caches of weapons and treasure are found in the caves even from pre-Israelite times,1 and remains show that the caves were still used as a hideout for soldiers as late as the Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century A.D.2 Thus, "the strongholds of Engedi" is a quite apt description, and seeing the place only brings to life this biblical account that takes place there!
A Home for the Ibex (and Hyrax)
In the same account, the area in En-gedi where Saul is looking for David is also given another name:
"Now when Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, saying, 'Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.' Then Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Rocks of the Wild Goats," (1 Samuel 24:1-2).
Once, while I was walking in En-Gedi with a small group of other Christians, we stopped to read this chapter beneath a cliff, in view of some of the caves. As if on cue, just as we read the line, "the Rocks of the Wild Goats," a mother Nubian Ibex (a species of wild goat which resides in the region) immerged with her kid up on the cliffs. Over the course of the day, we saw a number of these impressive creatures walking about the steep inclines of En-gedi. Rocks of the wild goats indeed!
In the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) and in several Hebrew copies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalm 104 is labeled as a Psalm of David3 If this attribution is correct, David may well have been picturing this very place when he wrote:
"The high mountains are for the wild goats; The cliffs are a refuge for the shephanim," (Psalm 104:18).
The NASB here leaves the Hebrew word "shephanim" untranslated, but the word refers to animals known today as hyrax (see NIV, CSB). They are mammals that look similar to large rodents, and are also called "conies" (KJV) or "rock badgers" (ESV, NKJV).
"The shephanim are not mighty people, Yet they make their houses in the rocks," (Proverbs 30:26).
These creatures are also found in abundance at En-gedi, taking shelter in rocky cliffs just the Bible describes them as doing. This is, of course, a quite mundane and insignificant detail, but it is just those sorts of details that really connect a written record with a physical place.
A Fertile Oasis
So far, we have seen that En-gedi is located in a desert wilderness near a lifeless, salty sea, and was a place of cavernous cliffs useful to hiding soldiers and rock-dwelling animals. All of this might tempt us to picture the place as little more than a craggy wasteland, but the Bible also confronts us with startling images of En-gedi that seem out of place. For example, we read in the poetry of Song of Solomon:
"My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms In the vineyards of Engedi," (Song of Solomon, 1:14).
Blossoms? Vineyards? Is this a contradiction? Not at all, actually! Though located in the midst of a harsh wilderness by a barren sea, En-gedi itself is an oasis. Watered by four natural springs that flow into two main streams,4 En-gedi is a place where plants flourish in the midst of the otherwise dry, arid land. Other ancient writers outside the Bible also drew on the plants of En-gedi as a symbol of vitality, such as the Jewish scholar Joshua ben Sirach, who wrote:
"I grew tall like a palm tree in En-gedi, and like rosebushes in Jericho; like a fair olive tree in the field, and like a plane tree beside water I grew tall," (Sirach 24:14).
Even today, one can hike through En-gedi and see its flowing waters and abundant plant and animal life for yourself. It is still a place worthy of Solomon's poetry.
Seeing it All Together
As we have seen, the various statements that different biblical authors said about En-gedi, even those details that seem at first, from a distance, to conflict with one another, are all corroborated by examining the actual, physical place that they describe. The Bible, grounded as it is in real history and geography, allows us to do that. And when we look at another important narrative that involves En-gedi, we see many of these details come together. We read:
"Now it came about after this that the sons of Moab and the sons of Ammon, together with some of the Meunites, came to make war against Jehoshaphat. Then some came and reported to Jehoshaphat, saying, 'A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the sea, out of Aram and behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar (that is Engedi),'" (2 Chronicles 20:1-2).
If we look at the location of the nations involved, we can see that the sea which the people of Moab and Ammon would cross to enter Judah would be the Dead Sea, or Salt Sea, so our author here certainly places En-gedi in the right location. The invading forces have taken a military position there, so En-gedi is hear represented as a stronghold for soldiers. This also concurs with the rest of the biblical data and also the archaeology and physical features of En-gedi we see today. Even the alternate name for the place, Hazezon-tamar, associates En-gedi with palm trees, which acknowledges it as an oasis. Thus, even in these secondary details which the Scriptures mention in passing, we find harmony between the words of the text and observable facts on the ground.5
- 1. Hershel Shanks, Ein Gedi's Archeological Riches (Biblical Archaeology Review 34:3, May/June 2008) https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/34/3/12 (accessed 4/3/2020)
- 2. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Zondervan, 2017) 156-152
- 3. The LXX uses a different numbering system for the Psalms, so in the LXX this Psalm is actually listed as Psalm 103
- 4. https://www.parks.org.il/en/reserve-park/en-gedi-nature-reserve/ (accessed 4/3/2020)
- 5. On the accusation that 2 Chronicles 20:1-2 actually contains a geographical blunder in its mentioned of Aram here, see our article Is there a Geographical Error in 2 Chronicles 20:1-2? The Problem of "Aram"