Northern Israel and the Sea of Galilee

This really is excessive, but I’m trying to remember as much as I can for my own benefit. Sorry if this drags. Again, skim and skip freely!

January 11, 2019

Sea of Galilee

Our day today began with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.  We had gorgeous, sunny weather and a beautiful view of the surrounding hillside.  For perspective, the Sea of Galilee is actually a lake, and really the only freshwater lake in Israel (remember, water is precious here because there is not enough of it).  The lake is not enormous.  You can easily see from one side to the other, and at its widest point it is less than eight miles across, so not a bad walk for anyone who happens to be able to walk on water. 

Of course the Sea of Galilee is mentioned many times in the Gospels.  Jesus recruited fisherman along the shore to be His disciples, provided two miraculous catches of fish, calmed a storm, walked on the water and pulled Peter out of the water.  It was a beautiful boat ride, though we had a wind plenty strong enough to imagine a storm sweeping up on you before you have a chance to react.  It really is awe inspiring to look around at the landscape, and know you are seeing the same hills and valleys and rock formations that Jesus used as landmarks to make His way from place to place, and that so much of Jesus’ ministry took place around the lake.

We also had the joy of being hosted on the boat by a Jewish follower of Jesus, who sang a couple of Chris Tomlin songs with us, mixing English and his own Hebrew translation together.  That was a beautiful moment that shifted us from learning about Jesus as a historical figure to actually being in the presence of Jesus, in worship.  Not only was our host an outstanding singer, he also exhibited the joy of the Lord in an infectious way, which reminded me of how simple it really is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  All it really takes is the joy of salvation.

Modern Israel

From there we drove to the northern tip of Israel, where we caught glimpses of both Lebanon and Syria.  We learned a lot of the political history of Israel while on the road, which took us past multiple minefields that still remain from the 1967 Six Day War against Syria, Egypt, and Jordan.  Our guide explained the impending annihilation that he and other Israeli’s had feared as the result of the alliance against them, and the important roles that Israeli intelligence and a preemptive air strike had in their victory. 

As we drove through the Golan Heights, it was hard to imagine being an Israeli soldier, ordered to charge up those steep hills, covered with rocks and mines, where the Syrian army had already fortified themselves in concrete bunkers (many of which were visible, some intact, some less so).  The way Ikey tells the story, Israel was really only able to win the decisive victory that they did because the Syrians attempted to provoke international action against Israel by announcing that Israel had taken a city that was so deep in Syrian territory that it could not possibly be interpreted as a defensive action.  But Syria’s own troops did not know that was a lie, and so thinking that Israel’s army was both in front and behind them, they panicked and ran, and Israel’s infantry moved up the Golan Heights essentially unopposed on the 6th day of the Six Day War.

Of course, there is lots more to the story (and another side to it that we are not going to hear while in Israel).  It was certainly sobering, and when you think of how Israel was outnumbered and, at that stage of history, also outgunned, it underscored something that our guide has said many times: “Israel is a miracle.”

It also put into perspective how fortunate we are that the Israeli people have worked so hard to excavate, preserve, and provide safe access to people from all nations and faiths to visit the many holy sites throughout the land.  I found myself thanking God for Israel several times today, because of the privilege that it is to be made so welcome at holy sites related to a faith that is so small a minority that it could never hold any political sway in this country, at least at a national level. Many governments would not do so, even for the sake of a lucrative tourist trade.

I used to be mystified that the Dome of the Rock could exist on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in a Jewish nation.  I assumed that fear of war with Arab nations paralyzed Israel, which is what kept the nation from removing the Mosque in order to reclaim the ancient Jewish holy site.  I no longer believe that.  Of course, there is no question that to take action against the Dome of the Rock would start a war.  But Israel is not paralyzed.  This is a nation that really does respect people of all faiths.  In Jewish and Muslim majority areas, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, but in Christian areas, it is Saturday and Sunday, and even the post office closes according to the local schedule.  While there are predominantly Muslim or Jewish or Christian areas that we have encountered, the uneasiness that I imagined when people of these differing cultures mix is not evident. The boundaries really do seem to be more political than religious.

Caesarea Philippi

In Caesarea Philippi, we saw the ruins of a pagan temple.  This was a pagan city (a part of the Decapolis, if you remember that term from the Gospels), and near the pagan temple there is a river that used to flow right out of a cave in the cliff.  Because of the significance of water in Israel and the foreboding look of the cliff and the cave within it, along with the influence of the pagan temple, this cave was labeled the “Gate of Hades” in the days of Jesus.  It was therefore a natural place for Jesus to talk about the gates of hell that will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16). 

These ruins were sort of the opposite of a holy site. This was not a place where God was revered. Rather, it was a place where cultic prostitution was practiced and a false god worshipped in evil ways.

In addition to the ruins, this is also the site of some gorgeous hiking trails which we glimpsed, but of course we didn’t have time to do any hiking. 

Dan

Dan is very near Caesarea Philippi in the northern tip of Israel, and is the site of a nature reserve with beautiful trails leading to ruins that date back mostly to the early days of the Israelite kings.  This was another area that was (for the most part) the opposite of a holy place.  The period of the kings is not as familiar as the time of Jesus, so first, a quick history review: There were basically three kings who ruled over the twelve tribes: Saul, David, and Solomon.  Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, took some bad advice and threatened to oppress the people, and ten of the twelve tribes said, “We don’t need this”, walked away from Reheboam, and crowned a man named Jereboam.  Jereboam then ruled what will now be called the Northern Kingdom or Israel (as opposed to Judah), while his rival, Reheboam, ruled over the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom (Judah).

One of the problems that Jereboam anticipated as ruler of the twelve tribes was the fact that the people of Israel would still be traveling three times a year to Jerusalem to observe the required festivals and worship Yahweh at the temple that Solomon had built.  Since Jerusalem was still in the hands Reheboam, son of Solomon, he anticipated losing the hearts of his people and them reuniting with Judah.  So he established two new places of worship, one far in the south, and one in the north, at Dan.  Here he erected altars to statues of golden calves and declared that the people in his tribes should worship there, to keep them separate from the other two tribes still ruled by his rival.

When they excavated Dan, they found the remains of the shrine he had built, including the foundation of the altar, the steps that would have ascended to allow sacrificing, and another set of steps that ascended up to the platform where Jereboam’s golden calf was once placed.  We climbed our way through the ruins of the city, and were able to see this. It was a bit sobering, and made the reality of idol worship more real than Caesarea Philippi had done, probably because the altar was still evident and the deception of the people so intentional on the part of Jereboam. It was also striking to see how they used stairs to make the “god” more impressive by always ensuring that it was looming over you.

We also got to see a more intact example of the high place at the gate, like the one I mentioned yesterday from Megiddo.  The high place was not built on the wall, like I had first understood, but rather just outside it, so that a person would sacrifice just after leaving the city or before arriving.  Obviously, all of this was the worship of false gods, breaking the first commandment.

One final surprise that Ikey had not hinted at was an even more ancient gate of the city, one made not of stone but of mud brick. This gate was dated to be about four thousand years old. Because mud bricks do not last, the inhabitants of the city eventually filled it in to keep the archway from collapsing (and must have created another gate), and then it was buried over time and survived until excavation. This was quite striking to look at, and Ikey pointed out that when Abraham was pursuing the kings who had kidnapped Lot, after rescuing Lot, he chased them as far as Dan. It is possible, though by no means certain, that we were looking at the gate that they had escaped inside when Abraham decided to turn around (Genesis 14). Ikey was very proud of the fact that this gate is also the oldest archway in the world.

Capernaum

We returned to the region around the Sea of Galilee to visit Capernaum, which was the location of a great deal of Jesus’ ministry.  There was a lot to see there that we did not have time for, but we did see two major highlights.  One was the synagogue, which was built in the 4th century A.D. (long after Jesus), but was built directly on top of the synagogue that existed in Jesus’ day, which was plainly visible in the exposed foundation.  We stood in the synagogue and read the account of Jesus casting out a demon while standing in that spot (though not in that building, since, again, it was built much later with the old synagogue as its foundation).

We also saw the ruins of an ancient Christian church that had been built to incorporate two walls that were from first century Capernaum.  As an aside, when something is “first century”, that means it came from the period when Jesus walked the earth (0-30 AD, roughly) and those who knew Jesus personally were still living (0-99 AD, roughly).  So that ties it directly to the time period of Jesus, Peter, Paul, etc.

The reason why the ruins of the church are significant is because the painstaking way in which they incorporated those two first century walls tells us that very early Christians thought those walls were of tremendous significance.  That, along with the close proximity to the synagogue, suggests that this was likely the home where Jesus healed the mother-in-law of Simon Peter and Andrew, and then went on to perform miracle after miracle as people lined up in the streets (Mark 1).

That ruin was protected.  We could see it but not walk in it, and the Catholic Church had built a new church above it, suspended from support beams that stretch past the ruins.  The design of the church above is unique.  Our guide compared it to a UFO, and it did have a distinctly flying saucer kind of look, circular and hovering in the air.  But that, of course, is quite modern.

We also learned some interesting things about Capernaum.  Capernaum was near the border between the territory ruled by Herod the Great’s son Philip and the territory ruled by another son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas (the one you remember from the trial of Jesus and the beheading of John the Baptist).  Our guide suggested that was strategic on the part of Jesus, because it meant that if the authorities got too interested in Jesus on one side of the Jordan River, He could take a walk to the other side and escape into someone else’s jurisdiction until things cooled down.  I’m not sure how significant that really is, since it was mostly religious authorities who objected to Jesus, but it was an interesting observation.  Our guide also pointed out that Capernaum was strategically located for intersecting with travelers, who could that take word about Jesus all over Israel.  He thought those two factors may have been the reason why Jesus centered so much of His ministry in Capernaum.

But I suspect it had more to do with the other detail we learned today.  Capernaum was not an affluent town.  You can tell by the absence of plaster on any of the walls, which meant that you lived with bugs crawling in and out of the rocks from which all your walls were built.   And that strikes me as being a more likely reason why Jesus chose Capernaum.  In Nazareth, He read the prophecy from Isaiah and declared that He, Himself, had been appointed to preach good news to the poor.  Then He was rejected in Nazareth and established his new home in Capernaum, a place where He would literally preach good news to the poor.

Oh, and this is a good time to mention that all these ruins still exist 2000 years later because everything was built of stone.  City walls were stone.  House walls were stone.  Interior walls were stone.  The streets were made of stone.  Everything was made of stone, and there is still stone all over the place, riddling the landscape.  Most of what we saw today, all around the Sea of Galilee and northern Israel, was small mountains covered with stones, like the Golan Heights.

Mount of Beatitudes

The Mount of Beatitudes is the location of a small Catholic church with a balcony affording a nice view of the Sea of Galilee and the hillside.  The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) are the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which was, naturally, preached on a mountain.  The problem is, the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by mountains, so I found it a little hard to believe that we really knew which spot was THE spot, or even which mountain was THE mountain where the sermon had been preached.  We took a quick look inside the church, which was pretty enough, but I just don’t get to excited about elaborate buildings.  In fact, it put me in mind of standing next to the altar that Jereboam constructed for his golden calf.  When the Lord of all creation has taken on human flesh, stood in a spot near here, and spoken the words we are reading, we really don’t need manmade efforts to make the place special.  The building and grounds were gorgeous, but felt (too me) more like a substitute for the Living God than a tribute to Him.  Of course, we experienced the place as tourists, not as worshippers.  If the place were quietly reverent instead of overrun by tour groups, I probably would have experienced it differently.

I also had a little bit of an epiphany walking back to the bus.  We were passing other tour groups, and having already encountered Christians from Asia, Ethiopia, and France, and probably other regions I was not aware of, having worshipped with a Christian Israeli on the boat this morning, and having seen the Beatitudes translated into many languages on the grounds, the global nature of our faith was driven home.  Earlier in the day we had driven through the battlefields, seen the fences intended to keep you from stepping into a minefield, seen tank treads and trenches, and heard the story of the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel took the Golan Heights from Syria.  In other words, earlier I had seen humanity ripped apart, and here I had also seen humanity united in Christ, and the beauty of God’s desire for His people came home: every people, every tribe, every nation, every language united with Him and each other.  What a beautiful future!

Magdala

Magdala is the city that was the home of Mary Magdalene.  It was a coastal city on the Sea of Galilee that was only rediscovered in the last ten years or so.  The Jewish historian Josephus describes the city’s destruction at the hands of the Romans on their way to destroying Jerusalem, and so we had historical records that told us about the city, but the destruction was so complete that the city ceased to exist for two thousand years, and was buried over time.

By God’s providence, it was discovered after the land had been purchased by a Catholic man who wanted to build a retreat center on the Sea of Galilee.  During construction, they encountered ruins.  By itself, that is not that interesting of an occurrence in Israel, but as they worked and uncovered more buried stone, they eventually encountered a stone of great significance.  It was the stone used for reading in the synagogue (the lectern, so to speak), and that piqued the interest of archeologists so that they began excavations in earnest and uncovered the first century synagogue of Magdala, and then a significant portion of the surrounding city.  Since this city was destroyed so shortly after the time of Jesus, and since it is directly in the path that He would have walked from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, there is no question that Jesus actually walked on the stones we were walking on. 

There must have been some serious negotiations with the Israeli government, because the ruins here were not set apart and protected in their entirety, but instead are being incorporated almost seamlessly into the hotel/resort, back under construction, and into the Catholic Church that has now been built on the site.  They actually stretched the church over the ruins of the marketplace, but not in the UFO looking way that they did in Capernaum.  Rather, you walk down a ramp to the base of the marketplace, turn to walk what feels like under the church, but suddenly you find that you are actually in the church, with a chapel right in front of you that continues to use the stone base of the marketplace as its floor.  Two staircases give you the opportunity to walk up into the narthex area of the church, all without passing through any door or doorway.  It is very well done.

Magdala made a nice contrast to Capernaum, because it was quite affluent, and even to the untrained eye that was immediately evident from the plaster, the smoother walls and floors, and the mosaic in the synagogue.  Even two thousand years later, it looked like a more appealing place to live than Capernaum.  But while Jesus certainly would have passed through Magdala, there are no accounts of Him doing anything there.  Perhaps the wealthy people felt less need of a Savior.  As Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

One last note about Magdala:  When Josephus described the destruction of Magdalla, he mentioned that they pulled down the stones of their own buildings and used them to barricade the walls to try to slow the Romans down.  We were able to see one such wall, confirming what the Jewish historian had written two thousand years ago.

Thanks for praying for us and our families!

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