As we travel further south from Caesarea we would come to the Plain of Sharon. This is talked about much in Scripture because of its beauty and richness. It extends south to Lydda and then goes on further south from there. It was always celebrated in scripture because of its pasturage. According to the Talmud, most of the calves for sacrifices were brought from that district. The wine from this region was also celebrated, and was supposed to be mixed with one-third water when consumed as a beverage with meals.
Even though there were many good things that came from here, others were not so good in quality. Much of their pottery did not hold up under very strenuous conditions. Also in the antiquities it was written that every seven years the houses had to be rebuilt because the clay was so bad that they would literally start to fall apart.
In other antiquities, it was stated that Hezekiah had suspended a board at the entrance of the Beth Midrash (college) stating that whoever studied not the law was to be destroyed. Accordingly, all the people were very versed in what the law said all the way from Dan to Beersheba.
Lydda was less than a day’s walk from Jerusalem, so there was much interaction between the two cities. It was said that the women of Lydda mixed their dough, went up to Jerusalem, prayed in the Temple, and returned before it had fermented. The city had also been the residence of many Rabbis before the destruction of Jerusalem.
In the second century, though, the people of Lydda were charged with pride, ignorance, and neglect of their religion. The Midrash states that “there were ten measures of wretchedness in the world. Nine of those belong to Lod, the tenth to all the rest of the world.” Lydda must have been a very beautiful and busy place, as the Talmud speaks of its honey and dates, and refers to its merchants as a numerous class.
Going on further eastward near Lydda was the town of Joppa, the modern Joffa, where Peter saw the vision which opened the door of the Church to the Gentiles. Many Rabbis are mentioned in connection with Joppa. The town was destroyed by Vespasian, and no one is sure of the exact location of the old town, even though the general vicinity is known. It was thought to have a considerable Jewish population, although it was also occupied by a Roman garrison. Its climate and waters were celebrated as well as its market place.
Gaza was the place where Philip preached to and baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. On that desert road were not fewer than eight heathen temples, besides an idol-shrine outside the city. Still the Jews were allowed to reside there, maybe because of their important market.
Bethlehem would definitely have to be another town of importance, as that is where our Savior was born. One passage in the Mishnah throws particular light on this event. This is what is says:
We know that, on the night in which our Saviour was born, the angels’ message came to those who probably alone of all in or near Bethlehem were “keeping watch”. For, close by Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem, was a tower, known as Migdal Eder, the “watch-tower of the flock.” For here was the station where shepherds watched their flocks destined for sacrifices in the Temple. So well known was this, that if animals were found as far from Jerusalem as Migdal Eder, and within that circuit on every side, the males were offered as burnt-offerings, the females as peace-offerings. It seems of deepest significance, almost like the fulfillment of type, that those shepherds who first heard tidings of the Saviour’s birth, who first listened to angels’ praises, were watching flocks destined to be offered as sacrifices in the Temple. There was the type, and here the reality. At all times Bethlehem was among ‘the least’ in Judah – so small that the Rabbis do not even refer to it in detail. The small village inn was over-crowded, and the guests from Nazareth found shelter only in the stable, whose manger became the cradle of the King of Israel. It was here that those who tended the sacrificial flocks, heaven-directed, found the Divine Babe — significantly the first to see Him, to believe, and to adore. But this is not all. It is when we remember, that presently these shepherds would be in the Temple, and meet those who came thither to worship and to sacrifice, that we perceive the full significance of what otherwise would have seemed scarcely worth while noticing in connection with humble shepherds: “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (Luke 2: 17-18). Moreover, we can understand the wonderful impression made on those in the courts of the Temple, as, while they selected their sacrifices, the shepherds told the devout of the speedy fulfillment of all these types in what they had themselves seen and heard in that night of wonders; how eager, curious crowds might gather around to discuss, to wonder, perhaps to mock; how the heart of old Simeon would be gladdened within him, in expectation of the near realization of a life’s hopes and prayers; and how aged Anna, and they who like her “looked for redemption in Israel,” would lift up their heads, since their salvation was drawing nigh. Thus the shepherds would be the most effectual heralds of the Messiah in the Temple, and both Simeon and Anna would be prepared for the time when the infant Saviour would be presented in the sanctuary. After bringing their flocks to the Temple, they returned to their own homes, and carried with them the good news of what they had seen and heard.
There has also been a great debate about if the Messiah was actually born in the month of December. Without entering into controversy here, the passage from the Mishnah above disposes of this objection which was derived from the fact that the rains of December would prevent the flocks being kept all night “in the field.” For, in the first place, these were flocks on their way to Jerusalem, and not regularly pasturing in the open at that season. Secondly, the Mishnah evidently contemplates their being thus in the open thirty days before the Passover, or in the month of February, during which the average rainfall is quite the largest in the year.
All of the above cities had their important places in the Biblical world, but none of them had the importance and beauty of Jerusalem. There was a saying by the Rabbis and Talmud that “Ten measures of beauty hath God bestowed upon the world, and nine of these fall to the lot of Jerusalem. It is a city, the fame of which has gone out from one end of the world to the other. Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, and eternity. This is Jerusalem.”
Accounts are given about the hospitality of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The city was not inhabited by any certain tribe in particular, but was considered equally as the home of all. Its houses were neither hired nor let, but freely thrown open to every brother. Even when all the thousands of people came into the city at feast times, there was always room for them to stay. If there was a curtain hanging before the entrance to the house, it meant that they still had room for guests there.
If it happened that the city just absolutely could not accommodate everyone during these times, then the cities of Bethany and Bethphage were opened up and considered to be part of Jerusalem.
Every effort was made to make Jerusalem truly a city of delight. Its police and sanitary regulations were more perfect than in any modern city, with the main goal in mind being to keep the pilgrim free to give his heart and mind to sacred things. The townspeople were very proud, as it was really something to be a citizen of Jerusalem. The people there had much knowledge because they were in constant contact with people from other parts of the world. The rich men there would lavish fortunes on the support of Jewish learning and support of their national cause. They would pay in advance the amount it would take to have several animals sacrificed so that if a person was poor and could not afford the money for a sacrifice, one would be provided for him.
In the streets of Jerusalem men from the most distant countries met, speaking every variety of language and dialect. Jews and Greeks, Roman soldiers and Galilean peasants, Pharisees, Sadducees, and white-robed Essenes, busy merchants and students of theology, mingled all together with one another in the streets of the city.
With all this splendor, though, the Temple itself seemed to overshadow everything else. Each morning the threefold blast of the priests’ trumpets wakened the city with a call to prayer; each evening the same threefold blasts closed the working day. Everywhere you looked the holy buildings were in view, with the smoke of sacrifices curling over the courts. It was the Temple which gave Jerusalem its character and made it known throughout the land.