18 JUNE 2004
In the far northwest corner of Jordan, some 60 miles from Amman, is the small rubbled, ruin village of Um Qais. This part of Jordan is not desert, but rather arid grassy hill country studded with olive trees. If southern Jordan looks like Arizona, this part looks like central California. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, and now Arabs have controlled the little mountain top town of Um Qais. Architectural remnants--mostly chiseled stone columns, promenades, and gathering places—from all of these civilizations remain. In the time of Jesus, Um Qais was called Gadara. It was here, according to Matthew 8:28-34, that Jesus cast demons out of two men and into a nearby herd of pigs. Being suddenly possessed by evil spirits made these unlucky pigs suicidal, and they ran down the mountain from Gadara, across the plain, and into the Sea of Galilee, where they promptly drowned.
From Um Qais one has a great view of the Sea of Galilee--known locally as Lake Tiberias—which is located about five miles to the northwest. (Those pigs were running for a good while.) The Jordan River feeds this roughly circular body of water from the north and then passes through on its way to the Dead Sea in the south. The Israelis annexed the eastern half of the Sea of Galilee during the 1967 “Six Day” war. Until then, the shoreline had belonged to the Syrians, who also lost the adjacent Golan Heights in the whole affair.
Today, fortunately, the guns are silent and the Sea of Galilee is once again a mostly tranquil place. I say mostly tranquil because, of course, the entire area has not been preserved in a glass case since the time of Christ. On the southwestern shore is the very modern Israeli development of Tiberias, complete with hotels and restaurants and beach clubs blasting hip hop. A modern visitor can watch people water-ski and jet-ski and rub oil on their sun-baking bodies. This modernity, however, is concentrated in one location, far from the places of religious interest.
This is good, considering the religious significance of the area. For the Christian faith, one could argue that it is the most significant area of them all. Bethlehem is interesting because Jesus was born there. But he did not grow up there. That distinction belongs to Nazareth. But the Bible doesn’t tell us much of anything about those years. We know a lot about Jesus’ time in Jerusalem, but those are mostly the sobering stories of betrayal, trials, and the crucifixion. But it was along the shores of the blue Galilee where Jesus changed the course of human history through his encouragement, admonitions, and parables. The very physical landscape is consistent with the hopeful message of Christ. Whereas old Jerusalem is all enclosed spaces and narrow passages, full of hustle and filth, bustle and smell, Galilee is open and quiet and free, surrounded by golden hills and sheltered by a powder blue big sky.
On the north shore, many soothing miles from Tiberias, is Capernaum. This is where Jesus set up his base of operations. The ruins of the temple in which Jesus taught remain. A few feet away are the ruins of the house of Peter, upon whom Jesus built his church and left his ministry. (Unless, of course, you’ve read and believe the DaVinci Code.) From this base of operations Jesus recruited Peter and his other disciples and made them fishers of men. Around the shore he went, delivering sermons and performing miracles. Among the latter, walking on water (much harder than jet-skiing) and feeding thousands with just a few loaves and a few fish are two of the most notable.
Just a couple kilometers down from Capernaum is the hilltop on which Jesus delivered his sermon on the mount. This is the place of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” and of his instructions on how to pray, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Standing on top of that quiet hill today, free as it is from kitsch and touristy distraction, one can easily picture a small crowd gathered round, listening to the novel ideas of the young rabbi. For acoustical and comfort-of-sitting purposes, it is likely that the members of audience were the ones sitting high on the hill, looking down on Jesus who would have been standing between them and the lake. How peaceful a scene that must have been for those early converts, with the sun on the water and on the mountains beyond. It was a well-chosen place to deliver a message about peace of mind and new beginnings. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”