The Hebrew Bible mentions the Shephelah several times. This word, meaning "low," is usually translated "lowlands" or "foothills." The term refers to a 12- to 15-mile-wide region in Judea. Though the Israelites clearly understood the strategic importance of this area and the significance of the events that happened there, today most Bible students do not spend much time on geography. As a result, some of the richness of the biblical episodes is lost to us, since the Bible assumes the reader's knowledge of Israel's geography.
WHY THE SHEPHELAH IS IMPORTANT
The Shephelah is important because it is between the coastal plain to the west and the Judea Mountains to the east. Contact between the people in the mountains and the people on the plain would naturally occur in the foothills between the two.
Two other factors add significance to the region. First, the main trade route of the ancient world was on the coastal plain. It entered the plain through a pass in Mount Carmel and continued through the narrow spot between the coastal swamps and the Shephelah at Gezer. Therefore, the coastal plain was to the land of Israel what the Panama Canal is to North America, perhaps even more so. Second, several valleys penetrate the Shephelah and act as corridors between the mountains and the plain. Anyone in the mountains who wished to reach the trade route (for peaceful reasons or otherwise) would use these valleys.
The Old Testament Israelite, who lived primarily in the mountains, saw the Shephelah as a place of contact, in peace or in conflict, with the people of the plain and with those who used the trade route. The people living on the coastal plain wanted to control the Shephelah to prevent interference from the Jewish settlements in the mountains, so they developed great cities like Gezer, Azekah, Beth Shemesh, and Lachish to guard the area.
Whoever controlled the Shephelah dominated the relationship between the two peoples. This is the geographic setting and significance of most of the Philistine-Israelite conflicts in the Bible.
GOD RAISES UP HEROES
Since the Israelites had not taken possession of the coastal plain as God wanted, they exerted little influence on the rest of the world. They were strong enough, however, to create headaches for the Philistines. So the Philistines put pressure on Israel in the Shephelah so that they could establish their way of life. In response, God raised up heroes like Jonathan (1 Sam. 14), Samson (Judg. 13-16), and David (1 Sam. 17). God's victory through these biblical heroes established the dominance of his values and preserved his plan for the salvation of the world.
THE MODERN "SHEPHELAH"
Today, there are values in conflict in our civilization. Some are God's values and champion what he commands. Others represent the pagan practices of Western culture. Where these values meet is the modem "Shephelah." God calls us to live in the "Shephelah," to be the front line of those who would influence the world. If we avoid that battle and withdraw, we are living in the "mountains" and have no impact on the secular society around us. The Israelites tried to do that, and they discovered that it violated God's commission. What's more, the pagans came looking for them anyway, so it was useless to withdraw.
The Christian community today can learn a valuable lesson from the Philistine-Israelite conflict in the Bible. To live in Western culture is to live where opposing values clash...that is, in the "Shephelah." Our calling before God is to confront the secular values of our world and win. Who knows? Maybe God will so bless our struggles that we will gain control of the "coastal plain," where we can influence the world for God.