🔼The name Gibeah in the Bible
There are several towns mentioned in the Bible whose names are either the word גבעה or slight variations thereof. The authors of the Greek Septuagint transliterated all these names with Γαβαα (Gaba'a, with a correct double "a", just like the names A'aron and Ba'al) but in English translations they ended up as Gibea, Gibeah, Gibeath, Geba or Gaba.
And it's not clear at all where one town ends and the next one begins, and since our name גבעה is the ordinary Hebrew word for hill (see below), it's often also not clear whether we're looking at a scene that plays on a hill or in a town named Hill. In those cases contexts are all we have to go on. If the text speaks about the top of a גבעה or reflects an obvious parallel with, say, the word חר, meaning mountain, it's likely that our word means hill. And if גבעה occurs among other place names, it's probably a town. But one thing is certain: the name Gibeah is extraordinary, and probably meant a lot more in the Hebrew symbolic jargon that just a geographical elevation.
The name גבעא (Gibea) appears in the genealogy of Judah, through Caleb, son of Hezron and Maacah his concubine (1 Chronicles 2:49). The text reads that Maacah bore Sheva, the father of Machbena and the father of Gibea, but most of the "fathers" mentioned in that chapter are "fathers" of known towns: founders or leaders, and Gibea is most likely a town too.
Perhaps this same town is mentioned in Joshua 15:57, as גבעה (Gibeah), among the cities in the hill country of the territory allotted to the tribe of Judah. It seems likely that Uriel the father of Micaiah the mother of king Abijah of Judah came from this Gibeah (גבעה; 1 Chronicles 13:2).
When the Ark of the Covenant came back from Philistia, it temporarily stayed in the house of Abinadab, which is situated בגבעה, meaning either "on a hill" or "in Gibeah" (1 Samuel 7:1, 2 Samuel 6:3-4). Because Abinadab's house is also said to be in Kiriath-jearim of Judah (1 Samuel 7:2, 1 Chronicles 13:6) most translators choose to place Abinadab's house "on a hill," but perhaps Abinadab's house was "in Gibeah" in the district of Kiriath-jearim. In 2 Samuel 6:2 we learn that the location of Abinadab's house was also known as Baale-judah.
The Bible mentions several other similarly known locations in the territories of Ephraim and Benjamin. But the tribal borders often shifted and cities sometimes changed hands without much fanfare — most notably the city of Jerusalem, which belonged to Benjamin right after the conquest; Judges 1:21). It's possible that the following cities and locations are the same as the previous one(s).
When Eleazar, son of Aaron, died he was buried in Gibeath-phinehas (גבעת פינחס). Apparently, Eleazar's son Phinehas had been given this Ephraimite city (Joshua 24:33), although the records are otherwise silent about this. The only town named גבע (Geba) that the Levites received came from Benjamin (Joshua 18:24, 21:17). The Benjaminites gave them four cities, and two of them had names that were closely related to our name גבעה; the other being Gibeon (גבעון).
Most members of our group of names occur in the territory of Benjamin.
As stated above, there was one town named גבע (Geba), which was given to the Levites. King Asa of Judah demolished Israel's king Baasha's fortifications of Ramah and used them to fortify גבע (Geba) of Benjamin (1 Kings 15:22, 2 Chronicles 16:6), which by then obviously belonged to Judah and not Benjamin or Israel.
By the time of Judah's king Josiah's reforms, גבע (Geba) still belonged to Judah (2 Kings 23:8). Among the returnees from the Babylonian exile there were 621 men from Ramah and גבע (Geba; Ezra 2:26, Nehemiah 7:30), but they appeared to be predominantly Benjaminite (Nehemiah 11:31) and Levite (Nehemiah 12:29).
The prophet Zechariah predicted that at the coming of the Messiah, the mountainous region from Geba to Rimmon would be leveled into a great plain, while Jerusalem would rise and be a solitary mountain (also see Isaiah 40:4).
Another Benjaminite town was called גבעת (Gibeath; Joshua 18:28), and note that this Gibeath is initially mentioned in between Jerusalem, which would later belong to Judah, and Kiriath, which may be the same as or an offshoot of Kiriath-jearim of Judah, where Abinadab's house was.
Possibly a third city or else the same as גבעת (Gibeath) is mostly known as גבעה (Gibeah). One of David's mighty men, Ittai son of Ribai, was from that town (2 Samuel 23:29), and probably also Shemaah the Gibeathite (גבעתי), the father of two of David's chiefs-of-the-mighty-men Ahiezer and Joash (1 Chronicles 12:3). But note that an ethnonym like this is a regular adjective and Shemaah may very well have simply been a mountain man or quite literally a "hillbilly".
Gibeah or Gibeath features in two main cycles and the curious shape-shifting of its name appears to be deliberate and meaningful, as if it's a proper literary character:
🔼The atrocities in Gibeah-of-Benjamin
Gibeah features predominantly in one of the darkest chapters of the Bible: the account of the atrocities that resulted in the decimation of the tribe of Benjamin. As if the author is also commenting on the curious, multi-tribal identity of Gibeah itself, he tells of a Levite who lived in Ephraim but who had a concubine from Bethlehem-of-Judah (Judges 19:1). The two of them and their unnamed servant journeyed until they reached a place opposite Jerusalem named גבעה (Gibeah) and which is thus probably the same as גבעת (Gibeath). But in this pre-kingdom age, Jerusalem still belonged to the Jebusites, and the Levite decided to not spend the night with those foreigners but rather in גבעה אשר לבנימן (Gibeah belonging to Benjamin; Judges 19:14).
There's no telling what would have happened in Jebus, but it could hardly have been worse than what was to occur in Gibeah. At first the Benjaminites ignored their visitors (which in itself was a grave offense) and an old man from Ephraim took them into his home. But then the Benjaminites began to bang on the door, demanding that the old man would give them his guest for them to rape (reminiscent of the goings on in Sodom; Genesis 19:5). The old man refused and offered his virgin daughter but the Levite's concubine got shoved out the door. The Benjaminites raped and mistreated her the rest of the night. At dawn they let go what was left of her. She fell at the door and had to wait for care until her man woke up, because he, astonishingly, had gone to sleep. When he found her, he instructed her to get up and start going but by then she was had passed away.
The Levite hoisted her body on his donkey and started for home. Once there, he cut her body into twelve pieces and sent her on a tour of horror through Israel. The result was an army of 400,000 angry men ready to lay siege to the criminals (Judges 20:2, also see Hosea 9:9 and 10:9).
The chiefs of the army asked the Levite what had happened, and he told how they had come to גבעתה אשר לבנימן (Gibathah belonging to Benjamin; 20:4), and how the men of גבעה (Gibeah) had surrounded the house (20:5) and killed the woman. The chiefs, rightly outraged, declared war on the scoundrels of גבע בנימן (Geba-benjamin; 20:10), but the Benjaminites at large refused to extradite the worthless men of גבעה (Gibeah; 20:13). In stead, they gathered from their other cities and also marched on גבעת (Gibeath; 20:14). When the Benjaminite army had gathered, they counted 26,000 men in addition to 700 men of גבעה (Gibeah; 20:15).
Two days Israel fought Benjamin at גבעה (Gibeah; 20:15), both times with the explicit blessing of YHWH and both times they were defeated at terrible losses. On the third day the battle resumed and the Benjaminites drew away from the city and began to kill Israelites on the roads to Bethel and גבעת (Gibeath; 20:31). But Israel lay in wait at Baal-tamar and מערה גבע (Maareh-geba; 20:33), and moved on גבעה (Gibeah; 20:34). Finally, the Lord struck all Benjaminite soldiers and the battle was decided (20:35). Only six hundred men of Benjamin remained, and to prevent the tribe of Benjamin to die out, a contingent of Israeli soldiers went to Jabesh-gilead (the men of which had unwisely opted to not help defeat Benjamin), and slaughtered everybody except 400 virgins (21:12). Since 400 virgins weren't enough for 600 men, they also let them raid a festival to the Lord at Shiloh and capture as many of the dancing girls as they required (21:19).
🔼Saul, Gibeah of Benjamin and the Philistines
Astonishingly, a mere few decades after the humiliation and slaughter of Benjamin, the Lord raised up a king for Israel from whatever was left of it: Saul, the son of Kish of Benjamin and the most handsome man in Israel (1 Samuel 9:2, 9:21; and note how often in this chapter things rise or go up). The last-of-the-judges Samuel anointed Saul and instructed him concerning his immediate journey: he was to go to גבעת האלהים, gibeath ha'elohim (10:5), which either means the hill of God (KJV, JSP, NAS) or Gibeath of God (NIV has Gibeah of God). There he would (a) come across a Philistine garrison and (b) be met by a group of prophets.
What this Gibeath-ha'elohim is we don't know but note that in 10:3, Samuel talks about Elohim-beth-el, and the Ark of the Covenant was left at Abinadab's house at Gibeah or Kiriath-jearim, not far from Bethel of Benjamin (Judges 21:19). Saul went and arrived at גבעת, meaning either "the hill" (KJV, JSP, NAS) or Gibeath (NIV has Gibeah) where he was met by a group of prophets, which he promptly joined (1 Samuel 10:10; no Philistines are mentioned). A while later, a coronation ceremony ensued, after which Saul went to his house at גבעת (Gibeath; 10:26), which is later referred to as גבעת שאול, Gibeath-saul, Gibeath of Saul (11:4).
The Philistines who were reported stationed at גבעת האלהים (Gibeath of Elohim; 10:5), we meet again when Saul's son Jonathan and his thousand men camped in גבעת בנימין (Gibeath-benjamin; 13:2) and smote the Philistine garrison that was in גבע (Geba; 13:3). The Philistines demanded revenge and mustered their army at Michmash, east of Beth-aven (13:5), while Saul remained camped at Gilgal (13:7). There he performed a ritual that Samuel should have, and when Samuel showed up he informed Saul that by doing so he had lost the kingdom (13:13) and departed for גבעת בנימן (Gibeath-benjamin; 13:15).
Saul moved his 600 remaining men to גבע בנימן (Geba-benjamin; 13:16). While Saul remained at גבעה (Gibeah; 14:2), Jonathan slipped through the pass between Michmash and גבע (Geba; 14:5, also see Isaiah 10:29) and attacked the Philistines with such a vehemence that Saul's watchmen in גבעת בנימן (Gibeath-benjamin; 14:16) could see them scatter. The Hebrews gave chase and the Lord won them the battle (14:23).
Saul demonstrated his disobedience a second time when dealing with king Agag of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15), and Samuel informed him again that he lost his kingdom (15:28). After that Samuel went to Ramah but Saul went to his house at גבעת שאול (Gibeath-saul; 15:34, also see Hosea 5:8).
🔼David and Gibeah
By the time Saul began to actively persecute David, Saul was seated at גבעה (Gibeah; 1 Samuel 22:6). David hid on the hill (גבעת, gibeath) of Hachilah and the local Ziphites reported this to Saul at גבעת (Gibeath; 23:19, idem 26:1). Saul subsequently moved his camp to גבעת (gibeath) of Hachilah (26:3), and that night David and Abishai swiped his spear and water jug (26:12).
When Saul died, a brief civil war erupted. David's men Joab and Abishai pursued Saul's general Abner until the hill (גבעת, gibeath) of Ammah, near Giah and Gibeon (2 Samuel 2:24), but the Benjaminites gathered behind Abner as they stood on top of "a certain" hill (גבעה, gibeah; 2:25) and Abner got away.
David quelled all domestic revolt and began to reign the united kingdom. He turned on the Philistines of גבע (Geba; 5:25) and defeated them, and brought the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Abinadab on the hill (גבעה) to Jerusalem (6:4).
After a three year famine, the men of Gibeon (גבעון) demanded of David the extradition of seven descendants of Saul (21:1), for them to be hanged "before the Lord in גבעת שאול (Gibeath-saul), the chosen of the Lord" (21:6). So David took the two sons of Rizpah and Saul and the five sons of Merab, Saul's daughter and handed them over to the Gibeonites, who hanged them in the הר לפני יהוה ("mountain before the Lord" 21:9).
🔼Etymology of the name Gibeah
The names Geba, Gibeah, and Gibeath come from the noun גבעה (gib'a), meaning hill, which in turn comes from the root גבע, meaning to be convex, projecting or high:
There are no two ways about it: the names Geba, Gibeah and Gibeath mean Hill, but it's clear that in the Hebrew experience of reality, hills didn't only occur in the landscape (collections of earth) but also in the human populations that peopled it.
The "hill of Benjamin" may have been an actual hill but it also represented the culture that formed within Benjamin. The "hill of Saul" may also have been an actual hill but also referred to the national mood and atmosphere that he generated.
To the Hebrews, a hill country resembled a humanity that consisted of separate and rivaling tribes, clans and families, while a plain resembled a humanity at peace.