Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Bible and Current Events: The Gaza Strip

The Middle East is boiling over at the point of what has been called since ancient time, the Gaza Strip. This portion of land, the land bridge between the Holy Land and Egypt, is now the home of what is designated as the Palestinian people. Muslim in faith, the people of this region are opting to take the entire Holy Land as their own possession. Though they are making claim to “the land of Israel,” in reality, this is the land deeded to the Jewish people some 4000 years ago to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3). The “eternal” title deed to the Holy Land has always been with the Jewish people. There was never a Palestinian “nation” there, though the ancestors of the present Palestinians, mainly now residing in Gaza, were strangers and squatters there for centuries.

Etymology of the word Gaza

In Hebrew gaza means strong, fortified. The word in Aramaic is azzah. Related Hebrew words mean powerful, to strengthen, to be robust, strong in fortune, strength. In Hebrew the word can be pronounced better without the letter g. It could read, as pronounced in Aramaic, azzah.

Geography of Gaza

Though today considered a region, in ancient times Gaza was a city, part a collection of five making up the kingdom of Philistia. Gaza was also considered the southern part of the larger and broader kingdom of Syria that ran all the way up the eastern coast to the westward curse of the Mediterranean. Located down the Mediterranean coast, as the shore turns west to the land of Egypt, Gaza was an area of trees and gardens some two miles inland. This was on the highway from Egypt, up to the coastal city of Jaffa, which is now the southern city of Israel itself. Gaza was protected on the coast with a high range of sandhills that protected the area from the westerly winds of the winter that came in from the sea. The city of Gaza that was standing during the time of the Judges of Israel (BC 1100) is probably buried now beneath the sands.

Gaza was never considered an area for a harbor. There is no place for a natural anchorage for ships. However in ancient times around the area was a standing forest of ancient olive trees extending for some three miles along the Egyptian-Jaffa highway. These trees were reported to be impressive, looking like ancient oaks in the gnarled and wrinkled nature of their bark. The girth of the trees was described as “mammoth.” The surrounding countryside was ideal for the pasturing of sheep, goats, and cattle. The area was considered a prosperous trading center because of the pasture land and the fruit orchards. Arab traders came from some distance to buy and sell commodities.

Gaza in the Old Testament

Gaza is one of the most ancient cities, and areas, mentioned in the Bible. It was mentioned as part of the cities of the southern plains lying along the border of the land of the Canaanites (Gen. 10:19). This verse says “the territory of the Canaanite extended from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza.” In other words the Canaanite people occupied the coastal area from Sidon (around and near today’s Haifa) all the way down to where the Mediterranean coast curves and borders with Egypt. The Canaanites were the most savage of the pagans of the land. It is interesting that the Palestinian people have settled there today.

When the Jewish people came into the land around BC 1440, the tribe of Judah captured this area, Gaza, but did not hold on to it (Judges 1:18-19). “Judah took Gaza with its territory and Ashkelon with its territory and Ekron with its territory. Now the Lord was with Judah, and they took possession of the hill country; but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had iron chariots.” The hill country would be the high ground, the spine of the land that was defensible, but Gaza was basically, though not totally, a flat area in which chariots could maneuver. If Judah at this time had taken this Gaza area, Judah would have been in constant conflict with Egypt which saw Gaza as the entrance to the land, and part of the highway that went up the coast, giving Egypt a commercial access to Babylon and Greece.

From the time the Jews took the Holy Land, until the time of Alexander the Great (circa. BC 332), Gaza had a position of great importance and was the capital of the Philistine confederacy. In BC 710, Gaza made an alliance with Sabako king of Egypt, and it was attacked by the army of the Assyrian king Sargon. A great battle ensued near Raphia, about half way between Gaza and the Wady el-Arish, the River of Egypt, where Sargon finally defeated Gaza and her allies. In BC 332, Gaza held out against Alexander but was finally taken by a storm by his Greek forces.

Gaza in Biblical Prophecy

Jeremiah the prophet predicted the fall of the coastal cities of Gaza, Tyre, Sidon, and the port city of Ashkalon by the Egyptians. Scholars are divided as to whether Jeremiah is referring to the destruction brought about by Pharaoh Necho (2 Chron. 35:20; BC 609-594) or by Pharaoh Hophra in his fruitless attempt to save Jerusalem from the Babylonians (Jer. 37:5, 7; BC 588-568).

The Lord predicted through the prophet Amos that He would “send fire upon the walls of Gaza, and it will consume her citadels” (1:6-8). The other pagan Canaanite/Philistine cities up the coast, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron, would be “cut off” and “the remnant of the Philistines will perish.” In future prophecy, during the period of the tribulation, God will bring judgment upon the nations surrounding Israel who have persecuted her. “Gaza will be abandoned, and Ashkelon a desolation.” “Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast, … O Canaan, land of the Philistines; and I will destroy you, so that there will be no inhabitant” (Zeph. 2:4-5). This is a yet future event! The Jewish people will be rescued from the turmoil coming against them. “For the remnant of the house of Judah, they will pasture on it, in the houses of Ashkelon they will lie down at evening; for the Lord their God will care for them and restore their fortune” (v. 7). This great rescue event has yet to take place!

The destruction that will fall upon this area (upon Tyre, Sidon, Ekron, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza) is mentioned again in Zechariah 9:2-6. “The king will perish from Gaza” (v. 5).

Gaza in the New Testament

During the period of Augtustus Caesar, Gaza was given over to the kingdom of Herod the Great. In the period of Acts, an angel spoke to Philip and instructed him: “Arise and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaze. (This is a desert road.)” (Acts 8:26). There he encountered a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of her treasury. This man was a proselyte to the belief of the God of the Old Testament. He had gone up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. In our terminology today he would be born again. The desert road that ran South, was the Gaza road that went into Egypt, and then connected to the northern part of Africa. The man was probably baptized by Philip at the brook Wady el-Hessay or Wady el-Halib on the road from Jaffa to Gaza.

Gaza then disappears from history until 634 AD when it was captured by the generals of the first calif, Abu Bekr. During the Crusades it was garrisoned by the Crusaders, the Knights Templars. The Gaza road was the main highway down to Egypt. Gaza fell to the Arabic ruler Saladin in 1170 AD and remained in the hands of the Muslims ever since.

Gaza today is the center of the Palestinian nation, but the population is a conglomerate of Arabs from many countries, not simply from the Holy Land. The stated purpose of the Palestinians is not to seek peace with Israel, but to launch from the territory of Gaza an effort to re-take the land from the Jews. There are great opportunities in Gaza for the Palestinians to prosper and serve as an industrial nation in supplying goods and services throughout the Middle East and Africa, but more than likely, this will not happen.

As already shown, Gaze will be judged at the end of the tribulation when Israel’s Messiah returns!

-- Dr. Mal Couch