Why is there a place called East Palestine, Ohio?

Salem, MA. Sharon, MA. Bethel, CT. New Canaan, CT. A biblical tour through the United States.

A plume of black smoke, from a controlled explosion of the derailed train, rises over East Palestine, Ohio. Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP Images

Another train derailment — this time, near Sandstone, West Virginia, spilling diesel fuel into the New River.

Which gets me thinking about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. In particular, I have been thinking about the environmental trauma that now besets the people of that town.

I have also been wondering: Why is there a place named East Palestine (pronounced Palesteen) Ohio?

Especially because I just returned from a speaking engagement in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. When I was there, I drove through the towns of Nazareth and Bethlehem, which are much closer to each other in Pennsylvania than they are in the land of Israel.

Why are there so many place names, all over the United States, that originate in the Hebrew Bible?

(To be accurate, the geographical term “Palestine” does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. The Romans took the name of the ancient Philistines and applied it to the entire land of Israel, as a deliberate attempt to erase the historical Jewish roots in the land and to re-assign those roots and that very identity to our ancient arch-enemies).

Many biblical place names are located in the northeastern United States — in a geographical arc that extends from New England, down through the Middle Atlantic states, down to the resort town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware — which is none other than the President Joe Biden version of Rehovot, near Tel Aviv; down to Bethesda, MD, and further south, to Dothan, AL. Come to think of it: There is barely a state of the Union that lacks a biblical place name.

Come with me to New England. It is a biblical geographer’s dream: Bethlehem, NH; Salem, MA; Sharon, MA; Bethel, CT; Canaan, CT; New Canaan, CT.

Jump across the Long Island Sound and go to Long Island — to my hometown of Bethpage, New York.

When I first visited Israel, I realized something about my hometown.

It happened on the day that I traveled on the West Bank, from Jerusalem to Jericho, and passed through the place called Bethphage (or Beit-Feig, “the house of unripe figs”).

When I returned to Long Island, I realized the connection. My hometown, Bethpage (named for Bethphage) is located between Jericho and Wantagh — the original name of which was Jerusalem.

Obviously, the original Quaker settlers of that end of Nassau County knew their Bible well.

So, what is up with that? Why the preponderance of biblical names — particularly in New England?

New England was settled by people who saw themselves in biblical terms. They were religious refugees from the English monarchy, which they imagined as “Pharaoh.” They crossed the Atlantic, which they styled the “Red Sea” (or Sea of Reeds). The land that they came to was, in their minds, the New Jerusalem, a “city upon a hill,” a place of lofty ideals — Canaan,

To quote Colin Woodard:

The Pilgrims and, to a greater extent, the Puritans came to the New World not to re-create rural English life but rather to build a completely new society: an applied religious utopia, a Protestant theocracy based on the teachings of John Calvin. They would found a new Zion in the New England wilderness, a “city on a hill” to serve as a model for the rest of the world in those troubled times. They believed they would succeed because they were God’s chosen people, bound to Him in an Old Testament–style covenant. If they all did his will, they would be rewarded. If any member did not, they might all be punished.

Because New England was founded on a vision and an idea, many American liberal ideas originated there, or in the minds of people who had come from New England. Let us also remember that Hebrew appears in Yale University’s coat of arms, and that it was a required language of study both there and at Harvard.

Except, there was a dark side to all this. 

As Woodard puts it:

While other colonies welcomed all comers, the Puritans forbade anyone to settle in their colony who failed to pass a test of religious conformity. Dissenters were banished. Quakers were disfigured for easy identification, their nostrils slit, their ears cut off, or their faces branded with the letter H for “heretic.” Puritans doled out death sentences for infractions such as adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, sodomy, and even teenage rebellion. They fined farmers who tended their cows, raked hay, or hunted birds on the Sabbath. Boston magistrates put Captain Thomas Kemble in the stocks in 1656 because, having returned from a three-year absence, he kissed his wife at his doorstep…

So, OK: The king of England was Pharaoh; the Atlantic was the Red Sea; the territory of New England was the land of Israel. Got it.

Except, there were problems with the story.

First, the Puritans created a moralistic theocracy — the temptation that is ever-present in American life. 

But, second: The biblical epic does not end with the mere settlement of the Land of Israel. That land had inhabitants — the Canaanites. The Bible imagines that the Israelites conquered and then destroyed the Canaanites. (Archeologists and historians are quite skeptical about the biblical account, but that is another story).

So, when the Puritans created their version of ancient Israel, someone had to play the role of the extirpated Canaanites.

That would be the natives. And others.

Again, Woodard:

Captured Indian children were killed or sold to slaveholders in the English Caribbean. Puritan preacher William Hubbard endorsed this practice, seeing the seizure of so many “young serpents of the same brood” as another sign of “Divine Favour to the English.” The Puritans’ program of conquest was not limited to Indian peoples. During and immediately after the English Civil War, Massachusetts soldiers and preachers attempted Yankee coups in Maryland and the Bahamas, annexed the Royalist colony of Maine, and reduced Connecticut, Plymouth, and New Hampshire to mere satellites of their Bible Commonwealth.

Oh, yes, and wayward women — some of whom might have worshiped the devil, and others who were healers, and others who just didn’t quite fit in. It is of little comfort to me, and of great irony, that the place where they were executed, Salem, derives its name from shalom, peace and wholeness.

No peace and wholeness to those immolated in the witch craze.

What do we learn from this lesson in the Bible and American identity?

American exceptionalism was modeled on the Hebrew Bible. It had its good points — a sense of unified national mission and vision.

But, American exceptionalism also had its design flaws. It took the worst (and historically/archeologically discredited) versions of the biblical epic. That meant that some (Blacks, Indians, women, etc.) got the proverbial hairy end of the lolly pop.

So, yes: I appreciate the biblical legacy of this nation.

But, at the same time, it has its dark side — and that is the part that we need to heal.


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