Shittim (Numbers 25)

Illustration: An actual Shittah (acacia tree) in Sinai desert. Note that Shittah/shittim is the singular and shittum is the plural.

Shittim, abbreviated from Abel Shittim (“brook of acacias”), was the Israelites’ final wilderness encampment before they crossed the Jorda River. From this location in the plains of Moab, Moses ascended Mount Nebo to view the promised land and Joshua sent spies to Jericho. At Shittim, Israel also fell into the immorality associated with the worship of Baal of Peor, suffering severe casualties as a result of God’s anger (Numbers 25:1-9).

Shittim can probably be identified with the present archaeological site of Tell el-Hammam, 13,7 km east of the Jordan River, opposite the ancient city of Jericho. This excavation site is covered with the ruins of houses, as well as of an Iron I period fortress with towers at both ends. The fortress walls were 1,2 m thick and surrounded by a massive glacis (slope running downward from a fortification). This site was strategically located 30,5 m above the plains of Moab, no doubt enabling its ancient inhabitants to control access from the mountains. A perennial stream nearby, the Wadi el-Kefrein, could have provided an adequate water supply for the encamped Israelites.

The meaning of the name Shittim suggests that acacia trees grew there, watered by the nearby stream – although the acacia is known to survive in arid regions. Its wood, light but hard and moistrure resistant, had been used to construct both the tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 25-38).

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