Travelers with Campbell University Divinity School and Nurturing Faith Experiences spent their second full day in Israel on a looping excursion through the northern Galilee.
We began with a morning devotion on the portico of a small church on the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5. The beautiful site, just up a steep hill from Capernaum with a field of net-covered banana plants between, overlooks the Sea of Galilee. Abram Buckner read the Beatitudes and encouraged us to appreciate the quiet and beauty of the place as we considered Jesus’ teaching.
From there we drove north to Tel Hazor, the leading city of the area in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, reportedly conquered by both Joshua and by Deborah/Barak (Judges 4-5). We examined a Middle Bronze Age temple and a monumental Late Bronze building with a large altar out front. There is debate about whether it was a palace or temple, but no question that it was destroyed in a massive conflagration so hot that it melted bricks and cracked basalt orthostats.
The road from Hazor to Dan goes through the scenic Huleh Valley, where a smaller version of the Sea of Galilee once occupied the center part, but it has mostly dried up and the area has been turned into rich farmland. We were glad it was a clear day, allowing us a good view of Mount Hermon, at more than 9,000 feet, still capped with streaks of snow, In Dan, we walked through a shady nature trail along the Dan River, passing the source where it springs from the earth, and made our way to a high place where a string of ancient temples stood, including one famously built by Jeroboam and equipped with a golden calf after the northern kingdom of Israel split from Judah in the south.
From Dan it’s a short drive to Banyas, where a strong spring emerges from a cliff where the god Pan and other Roman deities were worshiped in temples that are long gone except for a few foundation stones and niches where images of the gods could have been kept. Adjacent to Banyas was the ancient city of Caesarea Philippi, built by Herod Phillip. In her devotion, LaToya Howard reminded us that it was in that area that Jesus asked the disciples who they believed him to be, and Peter confessed his belief that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah sent from God.
Banyas, near the foot of the Mount Hermon range, quickly blends into the northern Golan Heights, which Israel took from Syria during the Six Day War back in 1967. We drove through the Golan to a memorial site called the “Valley of Tears,” which commemorates an epic tank battle during Yom Kippur war in 1973.
That was enough, but we weren’t through yet. From the Golan we returned to the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, where we visited the site of ancient Magdala, thought to be the hometown of Mary Magdalene. Magdala was an important first-century town specializing in boat building and the drying, salting, and sale of fish caught in the Sea of Galilee. It suffered from later mudslides and earthquakes and was abandoned until construction on a new hotel let to its re-discovery.
A synagogue was discovered at Magdala that dates to the time when Jesus reportedly went around the Galilee, teaching in all the synagogues — which would presumably have included the one at Magdala, just a few miles from Capernaum. We watched people in another group take off their socks and shoes to stand on the threshold to the synagogue to have their pictures taken, assuming that their bare feet were touching the same stone Jesus might have stepped on so many years ago. A market and a number of houses have been excavated at Madgala, along with a building containing two miqvaot, or Jewish ritual baths.
For a treat, we stopped at a nearby supermarket for affordable drinks, snacks, and any other items people may have forgotten. It was a long day, but worth every mile.