“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” Matthew 16:13-18
Today was a cold, and rainy day, and in some ways it was dreary as well. Dreary because of the evidence of idolatry we saw in three different places: Bethsaida, Caesarea Philippi, and Dan. Of the three, I unexpectedly found Caesarea Philippi the most disturbing. You have probably seen pictures of the grotto / cave from which a spring emerges and feeds the Jordan River. As we walked toward it, water from the spring rushed past us over a series of what appeared to be man-made dams. We climbed up several sets of wooden stairs and bridges over the water, and at the top, found the cave. It is an imposing sight: its dark orange and black and grey sharp-edged rocks protruding from the face of the mountain gives it the appearance of a gaping mouth. Some have said that this cave was known then as the “gates of Hades” (and that Jesus was referencing it in the Matthew 16 passage) because it was believed that Baal would enter and leave from places like this. Looking to the right of the cave, there are niches carved into the face of the mountain that were used to place idols and altars to worship the Greek gods Pan, Zeus, Asclepius, Athena and others. Further to the right were rectangular niches carved into rock on the ground where the bones of ritually sacrificed goats were buried.
But what brought Jesus and his disciples to Caesarea Philippi? No doubt they were doing what they did wherever they went: evangelizing – bringing His good news to a place that desperately needed Him. I find it so sad that these first-century (and beyond) people were worshiping and placing their hope in a lifeless, worthless piece of carved rock, when the One who could bring joy, hope, light, love and salvation was right in their very midst. And it doesn’t seem possible that these people could have been completely ignorant or uneducated in a worldly sense: the city of Caesarea Philippi was a wealthy one, where Herod the Great’s son, Herod Philip, built a lavish palace, complete with beautiful mosaics and precisely carved stone, and large heated baths. It appeared to be quite a cosmopolitan city.
We live near a cosmopolitan city. Of course there is a wide composition of people who live in Austin, Texas, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most of the people who live there likely “worship” and place their hope in lifeless, worthless (eternally speaking) things: dollars, careers, appearances, hobbies, and social standings, when the One – “the Christ, the Son of the living God” – who could bring true joy, true hope, true light, true love and eternal salvation is standing at the door, knocking. What makes us so different from those first-century idol worshippers? Sadly, not very much. It’s worth contemplating what it is that we may “worship” in our own lives, and what priorities need to be adjusted.
Last night began the Jewish Shabbat– a few minutes before sunset and lasting until a little after sunset tonight. That meant that the streets here in Tiberius were dead last night and many shops and restaurants were closed. It also meant that there wasn’t fresh bread (what we had was day-old) and there was no one at the omelet/egg station this morning. Everything we had was still good – I just found it interesting! Also, Micah learned the hard way that one of the elevators here at the hotel is for Jews restricted from “work”: it is set to automatically stop and open the doors at every single floor for the 24-hour period, because they cannot “spark a fire” on the Sabbath.
In the van by 7:30, and we headed north to Bethsaida. Here is a map of Israel – if you zoom in on it you can see Mt. Hermon in the far northern tip of Israel (and if you’re directionally challenged like me, “northern” means UP TOP) – where we spent most of our time today. Located not far from the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, some believe it to be near the place where Jesus fed the 5,000. It was the hometown of Philip, Peter, and Andrew. It is the third most mentioned city in the New Testament (Jerusalem and Capernaum being first and second.) As we hiked up the path we saw a rocky area filled with dozens of what looked like prairie dogs. Micah said they were “rock badgers”. I tried to get a photo but they were camera shy and I only got the rear end of one.
Gary filmed several segments here, one of which was near the “Wine Grower’s House” – the remains of a large home where an undisturbed wine cellar was discovered. The walls were fashioned with a black rock, but Gary said that they would whitewash the walls to make the rooms brighter. He used this home to demonstrate the arrangement between a bride and her bridegroom: the groom would make arrangements for marriage, and then go home to build a room connected to his father’s house. When the room was completed, he would go back to his bride and bring her back to his home with him. Gary then made reference to John 14:2-3: “In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” An interesting article about Bethsaida is found here (whether or not it is all factual, I don’t know.)
We moved on from Bethsaida to Caesarea Philippi in the Golan Heights region of Israel. It was not a short drive from the Sea of Galilee, between 45 minutes to an hour, and I wondered how long it took for Jesus and His apostles to travel on foot! Tsvi told us that we were quite close to Lebanon – we could see the Israel / Lebanon border (high on Mt. Hermon) from the highway. Aside from the pagan aspect of Caesarea Philippi, the ruins there were fascinating, and evidently recently discovered (John didn’t remember seeing this much from his visit 17 years ago.) In the palace ruins, we saw what appeared to be stables, a synagogue, and a bath house with a heating system. The stone walls were cut with precision. Tsvi showed us some Roman columns that, after they had been torn down, had been turned sideways and used as wall support, or a sort of filler. He said “today, we call it recycling!” The entrance of the synagogue had a very low doorway. Of course I am “vertically challenged” so I only had to bend my head a bit to enter, but anyone taller than me would have had to bend at the waist to enter the synagogue, thus taking on a “humble” pose. It made me think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – “only the penitent man will pass!”
We had a quick lunch choosing from Shawarma (see what it is here), Schnitzel, or Falafel. I tried some of Doug’s Falafel and it was delicious! Basically, it is deep fried hummus. It tasted a lot like a hush puppy. Usually they are served inside pita bread. I’m getting attached to pita bread… When they brought me my schnitzel, I dumped it out to take out the tomatoes (sorry, Mom) and put the chicken back in. Mat said it looked like I was “force-feeding a Muppet!”
Back on the bus and a little bit further to Tel Dan, or the city of Dan. I felt dumb (which is happening a lot this week) when I asked Jon if Dan was a city, or a person. He said it’s both: Dan was Jacob’s fifth son (duh…I remembered then! Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan…) This was the central city of the northern tribe of Dan. Long before it was “Dan” it was known as Laish, and it goes back to at least 2000 BC. Abraham likely passed through this gate as he chased after his nephew Lot.
Can you believe how old these places are?
After Solomon died, Jeroboam became king of the northern ten tribes. Gary filmed segments here revealing how Jeroboam built altars and set up golden calves to prevent his citizens from returning to Jerusalem to worship. A large horned altar is situated on a “high place”, where sacrifices were made to the golden calf. A large seat area was situated close to the gates of the city, where judgments could be pronounced and business taken care of. This is a huge city, with huge, wide city gates and steep curving streets, paved with large dark stones. There is evidence that the city burned, shown in these photos.
Mat and Doug, despite the rain, got some great footage. Gary spoke his lines through a downpour while standing at the horned altar, and Rick also endured a dripping rain throughout his segments. As we were leaving Dan, the clouds parted and the sun came out again. It’s been a productive day!
INCIDENTALS FOR TODAY:
I haven’t felt the least bit unsafe in any way whatsoever. I haven’t felt threatened, “stared at”, intimidated, or unwanted. Even as close as we were to Lebanon and Syria, I was not worried.
I am so glad we have Tsvi – this morning he stepped on the bus and said “Shabbat Shalom. Today is the Sabbath. I am not allowed to talk. I am not allowed to guide.” We could tell he was just being funny. He is intelligent, honest, witty (today he called Doug “Mr. Minister of Finance” because Doug handles the filming fees), personable, and knows how to talk to anyone we encounter, in just about any language. He doesn’t overload us with information that we (shall I say…some of us?) might already know, but he usually knows the answer to any question we have. At the altar site in Dan, a group was gathered listening to someone preaching (which I’ve noticed happens a lot here, I wonder why??) We waited and waited for them to move on, because this is where Gary had planned to film a segment. After waiting quite a long time, Tsvi walked over there and stood really close to the group. He was practically tapping his foot. They finally got the hint and moved on so that we were able to get what we needed. Tsvi is also easily able to converse with any gate attendant or guard where we might encounter a language barrier. I’ve learned that having a knowledgeable guide is invaluable here.
We stopped briefly today at En Dan – En or Ein meaning “spring”. We learned that these waters quickly reach the Jordan. If you dropped something into the water here (and at this spot, the water wasn’t rushing, although further down it was like whitewater rapids) it would end up in the Sea of Galilee within ten or eleven hours. That makes it a target for environmental terrorism – so they check the Sea every 12 or so hours for poison or biochemicals.
Tonight is our last night at Tiberius. That means only one more sunrise over the Sea of Galilee! We pack up and move south (that means DOWN…) making our way towards the Dead Sea. Tomorrow we head to Beit Shean, Mt. Gilboa, Ein Harod, and Jezreel. We will worship together tomorrow as well. Good night! Thank you for the prayers!
Micah’s beard progress:
Never too old (or too wet) for a SpiderMan umbrella!
Old Israeli bunker seen at Dan, looking toward Lebanese border