Monday took us a little south and west to focus on locations that were surely formative and important in the life of Jesus, particularly in his childhood years. Taking the road up the western shore of Galilee, we went through Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, and Ginnosaur (or Gennesaret), where five valleys meet and reach the lake together and where the best fruit in Israel is grown. Banana trees thrive here.
Soon we were at Tagbha, by the lake. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes, the feeding of the five thousand. There is a Benedictine monastery here that dates to the 5th century A.D. The baptisteries (by immersion) are interesting, and the church sanctuary features an altar with a large stone in the floor. The stone marks the site where some believe the miracle of transforming a little boy’s sack lunch actually happened. Kellie Miller, one of our group, is very gifted vocally, and while we were here she sang a solo of “The Lord’s Prayer” that was moving and beautiful.
Turning west, we went through thick groves of olive trees and rocky hills. These were the roads and passes that Jesus walked again and again. This was his home countryside, places that would have been familiar to him and his disciples. We saw rain to the north and got a little drizzle on the windshield as we passed through the ancient land of the tribe of Asher. Today it looks much like it did then—olive trees, goats, sheep, shepherds, fields of vegetables and melons.
Soon we came to Cana of Galilee. Here Jesus went to a wedding and turned water to wine, saving the host and happy couple a ton of embarrassment. Today the Church of the Wedding welcomes visitors and many who want to get married or renew vows. In Jesus’ day, it was a city of political zealots, like Simon, one of his disciples. Nathanael came from here too. The scene in John 2 focuses on the “reception” or after-party, but the wedding itself was undoubtedly in the synagogue here.
Just outside Cana is a town that used to be called Gath-Hepher. Only one Jewish prophet came from Galilee, and he came from this little town. His name was Jonah, son of Amittai.
Next stop, Nazareth. These days, Nazareth is a crowded, bustling place with about 140,000 population (60% Arabs, 30% Jews, 10% Christians). But in Jesus’ time, Nazareth probably was home to no more than 400 people. The topography here is striking—Nazareth sits on steep, hilly terrain. The farmers had no flat surfaces to work with, so they terraced everything, using brilliant ways of keeping the soil irrigated and in place.
Nazareth is where our guide, Anton, lives. And Nazareth is, of course, where we think Jesus did most of his growing up. Our first stop was the Church of the Annunciation. I should say one of them. More than one church vies for marking the spot where Mary got her angel visit and announcement that she would give birth to the Son of God. We went to the Greek Orthodox site, also known as “Gabriel’s Church,” since Gabriel was Mary’s angelic visitor. Here we saw Mary’s Well, where she might have drawn water. We toured the small sanctuary, which dates back to the Byzantine Era (4th century A.D.). We all chuckled to hear that this church’s last or “newest” addition came in the 1600s.
After the Church of the Annunciation, we went to the Nazareth Village exhibit, which is associated with, of all things, the local YMCA. For about fifteen years, they have been hosting visitors to Nazareth with a very well done experiential exhibit. A guide (in our case, a young local woman named Summer), walks the group through a brief history of Nazareth using actors and artisans who talk about threshing grain, pressing grapes and olives, weaving, etc. A carpenter (or tekton, as Scripture calls Jesus and Joseph) talked about his shop and what he did. In all likelihood, Jesus’ “trade” was broader than woodworker, something more like a general builder/furniture maker, someone who worked with wood, stone, metal, and other media to build and repair all kinds of things. We went into realistic rooms of ancient homes, shops, even finishing up in a synagogue.
We all know the story of Jesus returning to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and standing to read from Isaiah, applying the passage to himself. But no prophet is loved in the place where he played as a kid. So they tried to kill him. Outside of Nazareth is a site called Mt. Precipice. We saw this place where the crowd probably attempted, unsuccessfully, to throw Jesus over the cliff. Now there is a Greek church atop that craggy hill.
We had a quick lunch in Cana at Amara Brothers Falaffel and Shawerma restaurant. The chicken was good, and Anton and our bus driver treated us afterward to some delicious baklava.
In the afternoon, we went to Mt. Tabor (or Tavor). We drove through the village of Kefer Tabor, then an affluent Muslim Bedouin (formerly nomadic) community at the base of the mountain. Here we transferred into vans and wound our way up the steep mountain, following a winding road with numerous sharp switchbacks. Finally we arrived at the summit of the traditional site associated with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. “After six days…” Scripture says Jesus took three of his disciples up the mountain. Six days, then transfigured on the seventh (perfect) day! It was the perfect time, Jesus thought, to reveal his glory to Peter, James, and John. As usual, they weren’t prepared or even close to understanding. Peter’s idea of building three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is captured in the architecture of the church atop Tabor that features three raised tabernacles in memory of Peter’s misguided suggestion. Anton told the story of the Transfiguration and summed up Peter this way: “Simon Peter—long tongue, nothing in his head, much in his heart!” This is a Franciscan monastery (five monks), and it is a truly gorgeous building. But the best part is the view from Tabor. You can see a good part of Israel. We looked down into the valley where Deborah and Barak won their battle. We saw Megiddo. We saw the little city of En Dor, where Saul found a witch and where, by Anton’s suggestion, Jesus and his three disciples may have descended the mountain to find the rest of the group wrestling with how to handle a young boy with a demon. Remember? Lord, we can’t budge this thing. Yes, these only come out by prayer. And Jesus cast out the demonic force that was trying to kill the child. Maybe, Anton said, En Dor was just the kin of witchy, satanic place where things like that might happen.
We got back to Tiberias a little earlier than usual this afternoon. Tonight we pack up again, moving south tomorrow: Jordan River, Bet Shean (Scythopolis), Jericho, Mt. of Temptation, and finally to our next stay at the Daniel Dead Sea Hotel. We will go for a swim in the Dead Sea tomorrow night.
Everyone is doing well. It’s a great group. We now have our sea legs, and we are all getting to know each other better and better.
What a blessing to get to do this. We are filled and grateful.
שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם Shalom Aleichem
Brent and Melinda