One cannot walk through the Palestinian village of Bayt Sahour without contemplating the phrase Migdal ‘Eder. The words themselves are simple enough to translate; pulling them down to earth and hoisting them back into the air, however, is another matter.
Migdal ‘Eder is a transliteration of the Semitic phrase, “fort of the flock.” Such “forts” or “towers” arise here and there in the biblical text. A migdol (possibly a metathesis of the Akkadian madgaltu, “watchtower” or “border post” suggests W. F. Albright) may be found perched on a wall, squatting down on a hill, or reaching up to the sky. According to the literature, some seem to be small agricultural installations (Isa 5:2; cf. the pyrgos of Matt 21:33) while others are dense citadels (Ps 64:3 ) or even Babelesque skyscrapers (Gen 11:4)! However presented, the migdal offers its inhabitants a place of refuge, splendor, and vantage. It is curious stuff.
Remains of these dry-stacked stone structures may still be seen in rural Palestine. Local Arab speakers call them qusoor, or “palaces.” They often appear as rock piles in terraced fields. I’ve encountered many of these while wandering afoot, but nowhere as numerous as in the hills around Bethlehem.
Sidenote: a well-illustrated report on the cultural landscape of this area has been recently prepared (2013) by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of Palestine. Colored maps detail local landuse as well as the presence of these towers. I’ve lifted and linked two illustrations from the report here. The first shows the basic types of structures encountered. The second maps the presence of these structures on the ground. Oddly enough, it seems that a history of the migdal orqusoor has yet to written. Some scholars date these installations all the way back to late-prehistory (9th-4th millennium BC)! Others are more recent, perhaps Iron Age or Ottoman in origin. Whatever the case, these have been used as shelters right up to present time. For the full report, click here.
Sometimes site names incorporate a migdal element. Consider Migdal-el (“Tower of God”) from Joshua 19:38 or Migdal-gad (“Tower of Gad”) from Joshua 15:37. One notable site from the NT period is found in Galilee and remembered as the hometown of a certain Mary. She is the ol’ gal from Migdal, “Tower-town” or “Splendid-town,” and will be forever remembered as Mary the Magdalene. (If you are from France you might call her Madeleine!)
If migdal represents the “Fort” of our “Flock Fort” title, the Hebrew term ’eder gives us the “flock” part. This term represents a “herd” of animals. Sheep and goat quickly come to mind, but the biblical ‘eder may also include donkeys, cows, and camels. Jacob drives a thundering menagerie through the middle of the text of Genesis. Eventually he slows down and must sheepishly (!) face Esau (Gen 32:14-15).
Apart from Josh 15:21 (where Y. Aharoni suggested that ‘eder may simply be a corrupted representation of ‘Arad), the use of ‘eder as a place-name is limited to two instances: Gen 35:21 and Micah 4:8. Both texts muster the complete phrase: Migdal Eder. It is tempting to suggest that there is some intertextual “energy” bouncing between them. Should Micah be read in light of Genesis? Are both being reimagined by the Gospel of Luke? Can any of this data be backfed into the Christmas story? These are the kinds of things I wonder while walking through Bayt Sahour.