Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Monday, November 14, 2011

Beth She'an, Nazareth, and Arbel

Galilee, Day 1 (11/14/11). Today was the first day of an 11-day rotation into Galilee and the norther part of Israel.  In many ways being where Jesus spent so much of his mortal ministry is the highlight of the semester, to be exceeded only by our “Last Week” walk back in Jerusalem when we go to all the places he was between Palm Sunday and Resurrection morning.  The feeling of excited, and spiritual, anticipation was palpable as we got on the buses, and I, only half-jokingly, exclaimed to the students as I got on our bus, “Hey everyone, today we are going to Jesus Land!”

The easiest and fastest way to get to Galilee from Jerusalem is to drive down to Jericho and then up the Jordan Valley in the West Bank.  After crossing back into Israel-proper, our first stop was a site not directly mentioned in the New Testament.  This was Beth She’an, a city whose original, and now modern, Hebrew name means something like “House of Safety.”  I dominates the area where the Jezreel Valley comes down from the northwest, giving good access to the Mediterranean, and joins the Jordan Valley.  An important Canaanite city and for a time an Egyptian outpost, this was the place where the Philistines nailed the bodies of King Saul and Jonathan to the walls after defeating and killing them as recorded in 1 Samuel 31:8-10.

On a side note, this was one of my first trips with my new class, which is studying the NT gospels with me (they actually went to Bethelehem with me before we actually started NT).  Because I know how much my own mother likes to see and hear me when I am so far away, occasionally I like to post a clip of some of them saying hello to their moms.  Everyone loves his or her mom, so I have even posted one of Dr. Skinner saying hello to Sister Skinner senior!

The Assyrians captured and wiped out this city, but it was later resettled in the intertestamental period when the Ptolemies, the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt, settled their mercenaries here, giving it the name Scythopolis.  When the Seleucids of Syria took the area, they temporarily called it Nysa, after a name associated with Dionysus.  It was forcibly incorporated into the free Jewish state by the Hasmoneans, but in 63 B.C. the Roman general Pompey the Great freed it from Jewish rule, and it became a Greek city again, resuming the name Scythopolis, when it became one of the ten cities of the Decapolis that the Romans used as a counterbalance to the Jewish Hasmoneans and later even the somewhat-Jewish but pro-Roman Herodians.

Anyway, the site is an impressive ones with all the features of a major Greek and Roman city: a massive theater, a bathhouse, a colonnaded main street, fountains, and marketplaces.  As I mentioned, the NT does not refer to it directly, but it does talk about the Decapolis, as in Matthew 4:25.  And Scythopolis’ location on the route from the Jezreel Valley to the Jordan Valley means that Joseph and Mary may well have passed through it on their way to Bethlehem, and Jesus probably passed this way, if not through, this city several times on his way back and forth to Jerusalem.

We then went ot Nazareth, famous as the boyhood home of Jesus.  It is a bustling Israeli-Arab city today, part of the Western Galilee whose Palestinians were spared much of the displacements of 1948-49.  We started by visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation, a relatively recent (1968) Roman Catholic church that was built on the site of an earlier Crusader church, which, in turn, was built over a Byzantine church.  All three are built around a grotto, or cave, that goes back to the first century and which tradition holds was associated with the home (as a storeroom, stable, or even the dwelling itself?) of Mary’s family, where presumably was where she was when the angel Gabriel appeared to her in the scene now called the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).
Basilica of the Annunciation
A service on the lower level; entrance to the grotto on the left

The upper level sanctuary

The American "contribution" to a series of panels featuring Mary
Nazareth was a very small village, perhaps as small as 400-some people, at the time.  We have found that caves were used all the time in this part of the world, particularly when people could not afford fixed, stone houses.  Nazareth is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament, making Matthew’s quotation of a supposed prophecy that Jesus would be called “a Nazarene” somewhat enigmatic.  Some scholars have connected the name with nazir, the Hebrew word for a Nazarite or someone consecrated to God’s service.  More see a possible connection with the term netser meaning branch, perhaps indicating that a small branch of the house of David (see Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5) had migrated here in the Hasmonean period to “lie low” under rival kings such as the Hasmoneans and later the Herodians themselves.  

Nearby is the Church of St. Joseph.  Historically we do not know that Joseph was from Nazareth himself.  Matthew 1 never says so, and the common assumption is based upon the fact that people reasoned that he must have been from the same village or area as Mary if they were engaged (which forgets that so many marriages in the ancient world were arranged).  But the church that remembers the role and service of Joseph the Carpenter in Nazareth is wonderful.  It, too, is built over a series of caves that are claimed to have been the workshop of Joseph.  But my favorite part of the church are the series of small chapels on the main floor, each with a frescoe depicting the role of Joseph in Jesus’ life.  On the right is one depicting the Annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25).  In the center over the church’s main altar is a painting of him with Mary and the boy Jesus.  Then in a chapel on the left is a picture of Mary and a grown Jesus comforting and elderly Joseph right before his death.  I love Joseph and the example he is of a loving, strong, and inspired husband and (step)father.

Supposed workshop of Joseph below the Church of St. Joseph

But perhaps the best experience we had in Nazareth was in a small Greek Catholic church off of the old town market.  Called “the Synagogue Church,” it is built on the site of an earlier synagogue which might have been like the one where Jesus preached to, and was rejected by, his own townsmen (see Luke 4:16-30).  While still a functioning church, it is often empty, and the custodian let us hold a devotional there.  We began by connecting the story of Jesus’ adult ministry with the account of his conception by having one of our students, Rivkah, since “Ave Maria” in the wonderful acoustics of the small church.  I then read the Luke passage and talked about the importance of accepting Christ for who he said he was.

After my colleague Steve also did some teaching, we sang two songs there: “Come unto Jesus” and “Our Savior’s Love.”  The music was lovely and stirring.  The spirit was strong.  We then sat in silence for about 10 minutes—thinking, reflecting, and praying.  As we left, the custodian thanked us, telling us he appreciated our singing songs “that were appropriate for this sacred place.”

We then went to Mount Arbel, which has a stunning overlook that allows one to see so much of Galilee, particularly the sea and many of the New Testament towns and villages that we will be visiting the new few days.  After spending so much time in Jerusalem, a bustling, often frantic city where tensions are just below the surface, being here in the beautiful countryside of the Galilee gave us a completely different look at the Holy Land, leading us to sing “For the Beauty of the Earth.”  No wonder Jesus loved this corner of the world so much and why so many images from its landscape and life worked their ways into his parables.

Our bus drove us around to the east side of the Sea of Galilee, where we are staying at En Gev, a kibbutz that runs a “holiday village’ that will be our home and provide our classrooms for the next almost two weeks.

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