Mount Tabor and Its Surrounding Tribal Boundaries

Among the gentle foothills of Lower Galilee stands the distinctly recognizable peak called Mount Tabor, which many scholars believe was a common cultic center for the surrounding tribes during the time of the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy 33:18-19). As such, Tabor does not appear to have been included within any of the tribes’ allotted territory (see Joshua 19), although three of the tribes bordered it. Tabor was also the location where Deborah and Barak attacked the forces of Sisera and King Jabin of Hazor (Judges 4-5) and where Gideon’s brothers were later slaughtered by the Midianites (Judges 8:18-19). Later, it seems that the cultic activities at Tabor must have devolved into pagan idolatry, leading the prophet Hosea to denounce the worship practices there (Hosea 5:1). Yet despite the clear significance that Mount Tabor held throughout the Old Testament, the location of various sites surrounding it have become obscured over time. When Deborah sent for Barak, he was living in Kedesh-naphtali (Judges 4:6), which some have sought to locate at Khirbet Qedesh a few miles southeast of Khirbet ad-Damiya (Adami-nekeb) or even at Tell Kedesh much further north. But a more convincing argument can be made that Kedesh-naphtali (meaning “holy place of Naphtali”) should be located at Khirbet Kashtah just north of Mount Tabor (see further discussion here). An equally obscured location in this region is Japhia, which is mentioned only once in the Bible as part of the boundary descriptions of Zebulun (Joshua 19:12). Many scholars identify Japhia with modern Yafa, which was no doubt the Japha of Josephus’s activities during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (Life of Flavius Josephus 45; Jewish War II. xx. 6). But the identification of Yafa with Japhia is virtually impossible to reconcile with other more certain locations given in the description of Zebulun’s boundary, such as Sarid and Daberath. But this author has found a possible a solution to this confusing dilemma in the Onomasticon, where Eusebius notes that Japhia was located on the east side of Zebulun and that it was called the “Ascent of Iafo” in his time. Eusebius’s comments and Joshua’s boundary descriptions make it very unlikely that Japhia should be identified with Yafa, which is not located on the east side of Zebulun. But how then did Eusebius’s “Ascent of Iafo” and Josephus’s “Japha” (at modern Yafa) both come to bear some form of the name Japhia? The answer may be that Japhia originally referred not to a town but to the general area now called the Nazareth Ridge. Furthermore, the eastern boundary of Zebulun as it is described in Joshua 19:12-13 makes better sense if it was following what was likely Eusebius’s “Ascent of Iafo [Japhia],” shown on this map. This also coalesces very well with more literal translations of verse 13, which describe the boundary as passing “along on the east toward the sunrise to Gath-hepher” (RSV). That is, this verse is saying that the eastern border of Zebulun passed to Gath-hepher, or perhaps that the border passed to the east of Gath-hepher, or both.

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