I apologize for this blog probably reading like a bad version of Cliff’s Notes on the Middle East, but what’s going on here is a little like trying to get a drink out of a fire hose, so please excuse the attempt to summarize way more than anybody can possibly absorb.
Sunday morning began with a boat ride north on Galilee. We put out here at Tiberias and spent about an hour slowly traveling up the western shore. The Sea of Galilee is, of course, a major centerpiece in Jesus’ ministry. His famous boat trips back and forth say much about his intentions to bring people together and break down walls of race and culture and more. The western shore was predominantly Jewish (mixed with Gentiles), while the eastern Decapolis region was largely pagan. Yet, Jesus loved both sides of the lake, taught on both sides, and did miracles on both sides. The boat (particularly in Mark’s Gospel) is a vehicle for communicating his universal mission. Galilee is about 8 miles at its widest (east-west) and approximately 14 miles long (north-south). Depth is up to 15o feet. A scary, terrifying place to be in a storm. It's a rift in he earth, surrounded by steep hills, This is where, geologically, Asia and Africa meet, so there is still seismic activity, most light. Major quakes, like one in the 700s A.D., destroyed numerous cities, some never coming back. The last major earthquake here was in the 1920s.
We put ashore at the location of the “Jesus Boat” museum. A number of years ago, a drought revealed a first-century A.D. fishing boat in the reeds nearby. It was excavated and preserved and came to be known as the “Jesus Boat,” perhaps one very much like the ones Jesus was in with his disciples so many times. Now it’s on permanent display. From the museum, we went to the Mt. of Beatitudes, the traditional site where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Is it? Who knows? But it made a great spot to have Sunday church. We gathered under a beautiful garden pavilion to pray, sing, and share the Supper. Oh, and I preached a little (yes, from Matthew 5-7).
Next stop, just a little north up the eastern shore to the fishing village of Capernaum (or Kefar Nahum). The sign welcomes you to “The Town of Jesus,” which is about right. Many of Jesus’ disciples came from Capernaum, and he spent considerable time here. It’s a well-excavated site, featuring a house identified with Peter (or at least Peter’s mother-in-law). This is where, perhaps, Jesus healed her of her fever, healed a paralytic lowered through the roof, and others. Anton Farah described it as Jesus’ “free clinic” to the Galilean masses. The synagogue there (where Jesus cast the demon from a man) is pretty cool. The old original dark-stoned building is visible at the base of the 4th-century white-stone one that rises above the surface today. It’s easy to imagine ancient assemblies of people gathered to discuss and pray and read Torah. By the way, the local rock here is almost black, volcanic, so it’s easy to spot the older, original building materials.
We ate lunch nearby right on the lake at a local fish restaurant. I had the “St. Peter’s Fish,” which is tilapia. Very good, though mine did not, unfortunately, prove to have a coin in its mouth, like Peter’s. There used to be more species of fish in Galilee than there are today (25 or so), but tilapia has always been the staple.
We went on to the ancient ruins of Chorazin (or Korazin). There is a ritual bath (mikvah) there. Like Capernaum, Chorazin too had a synagogue. Houston folks, I’m pretty sure that somewhere there exists a photo of Cynthia Michaud seated in the Moses Chair (reserved originally for wise, older males). My comment? “The Bering folks will think that’s just about right.” Along with Bethsaida, Chorazin is one of the cities on which Jesus pronounced woes.
Our journey into Upper Galilee sent us farter north, passing kibbutzes galore, avocados, pecan trees, cotton fields, and all kinds of lush, verdant scenery. This is the land of Naphtali, and our guide, Anton Farah, was born up here in this area, at Sieff. Soon we were near the Lebanon and Syria borders. In the city of Qiryat Shamona, we began seeing a lot more Israeli soldiers carrying automatic weapons. Things are a little tense up here with the rising unrest in Syria.
With Mt. Hermon now rising in the distance, towering above the landscape at more than 8,000 ft., we began going upward. No snow on Hermon right now (though it does have ski resorts), but its ice caves are still mostly frozen, melting and sending water southward down the Jordan to Galilee. This is the ancient cycle of this land. The cold, snowy Golan Heights water the dry south, season after season.
Anton explained that Hezbollah (in Lebanon) periodically fires its rockets into Qiryat Shamona and these northern villages. We looked across into Lebanon, where we could see an old bunker that was given years ago to Yassir Arafat, when he was still in power. We began spotting signs that indicated “Danger: Lands Mines.” At both our next two stops we could hear distant gunfire, either from Lebanon or Syria. Our guide simply said, “It happens here.”
We crossed into Syria to visit Caesarea Philippi (also known as Banias). Built by Philip, son of Herod the Great, this city was dedicated to Caesar Augustus, who had a temple here. The chief god was Pan, who was worshiped with loud music, drunkenness, and sexual acts with cult prostitutes. The excavations here on the mountainside (much by Church of Christ scholars like John Wilson) have uncovered amazing finds, and the cave of Pan and the shrine of the Nymphs on the cliff side are stunning. The place is both beautiful with its trees and rushing water (melting snow) and ugly with its story of pagan sin. This is where Jesus took his disciples and asked them, “Who do they say I am?” (Matthew 16). Peter famously confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Then Jesus affirmed Peter’s confession and said—perhaps with Pan’s goat-sacrifice grotto looming in the background—“And the gates of hades will not prevail against it.” With the craggy face of the mountain behind him, he told Peter that “upon this rock I will build my church.” The symbolism and contrast must have been powerful.
Our last stop was equally memorable—Tel Dan. This is the northernmost site in Israel. Remember the Old Testament refrain “from Dan to Beersheba”? At Dan, you get a gorgeous nature walk through essentially a forest (or jungle) of thick trees and flowering plants. We saw hundreds of school children in groups here. We crossed the rapid headwaters of the Jordan (which means “coming from Dan”), then Anton gave us a detailed walk through the excavated ruins of the old city of Dan, which was once something remarkable. This is where the tribe of Dan relocated after initial settlement in the west. Their great wall still partially stands (with a few Hezbollah bullet holes). We saw the place where judges stood to judge (see the story of Ruth) at the city gates. We saw Dan’s knock-off of the Jerusalem temple, with two altars, and remembered the two golden calves, one which was brought to Dan by Jeroboam. We saw an amazing city gate (originally three arches) that probably dates back to Abraham and welcomed him to Canaan two millennia ago.
It was a long hard day, with a lot of walking, so some of us napped on the bus ride back to the hotel. We cleaned up and ate dinner, then some of us strolled around the shops of Tiberias this evening. Finally, Melinda and I joined Steve and Lynette Austin (their group is in the hotel with us the next two nights) for a late evening ice cream cone by the Sea of Galilee. It was a very nice visit with one of my new UCC elders and his fantastic wife. Too bad we have to come 6,000 miles to find time to get together for conversation! Oh well.
Hope you are all getting along fine, especially our two sweethearts, Jordan and Sarah. Hope you had fun at the movie yesterday with the cousins and Gram and Pappaw. We loved talking to you last night on the phone. Jordan, the parents of your friend Abby who goes to taekwando with you are with us on this trip! We will get together sometime when we are all back home.
Long day. Another early start tomorrow. Itinerary: Cana, Nazareth, and Mt. Tabor.
Oh, and go Dallas Mavericks!! Postscript... I just saw they did it, 105-95, to win their first NBA Championship. Sweet!
Brent and Melinda