Campbell University Divinity School’s 2015 Bible Lands Study Tour got off to an eventful and unusual start: for part of the afternoon, it rained like crazy.
“You don’t need to bring an umbrella,” I had assured everyone. In Israel, it hardly ever rains in May.”
It has turned out to be an unusual May. Temperatures are slightly cooler than usual, and rains washing over the Upper Galilee were quite a surprise.
After a safe arrival on Sunday, May 10, and a devotion by the Sea of Galilee led by Genetta Williams, our first day of touring began bright and early Monday morning. Our first stop was the Mount of Beatitudes, where Nathan Morton brought a challenging mini-sermon.
From there we traveled to the important city of Hazor. With a commanding view of the Via Maris (“the Way of the Sea,” the ancient road that went from Egypt to Mesopotamia), Hazor was a strategic city because it could control the highway for defense purposes as well as to collect taxes from traveling merchants. Most tour groups don’t recognize the importance of the site, so we had it all to ourselves.
From Hazor we drove north through the Hula Valley to Tel Dan, the ancient home of the Danites and the location of a temple built by King Jeroboam when the northern kingdom split from the south after Solomon’s death. At the site we walked through a nature preserve along the River Dan, a primary tributary of the Jordan River that consists of karstic snow melt and groundwater from Mount Hermon.
At the temple site, we explored an eighth century temple built over the original temple Jeroboam built in the 10th century (along with another at Bethel), earning the ire of the biblical writers by installing a golden calf in it as a representation of God.
As we walked from the temple site to an outlook post overlooking the former border with Syria, we heard thunder, and before we could reach the Canaanite gate we were pelted with giant raindrops that persisted for half an hour or more. As a result, we caught only a glancing view of the Israelite gate while running to the bus for shelter.
A short ride took us to the site of Caesarea Phillipi, built adjacent to a rocky cliff with a deep grotto that had long been used as a worship site for the god Pan. As the rain eased off, we enjoyed a quick walk through the fresh air to see the grotto and the remains of several temples built nearby.
We had a terrific lunch of goat cheese and hyssop pita (among other things) at a Druze restaurant in Mas’ade, then drove through the Golan Heights to the “Valley of Tears,” a military memorial to a place where two heavily outnumbered tank brigades held off the advance of a Syrian force that was seven times larger. With a light rain and a chilling wind, we didn’t stay for very long.
From the Golan we journeyed back down to the Sea of Galilee, where we visited the recently discovered site of Migdal (called Magdala in Greek), the home of Mary Magdalene. Migdol was an important first century town built around the fishing industry. It was destroyed by the Romans in 66 CE and covered by a mudslide just a few years later, then lost to history until a Spanish priest bought the property hoping to build a church and prayer center on the Sea of Galilee. Construction and an emergency dig revealed the remains of Migdol, which has been only partially excavated. Its main point of interest is a first century synagogue, one of only seven known to exist, and one of the best preserved.
A beautiful church has also been constructed there, called Duc In Altum, Latin for “Launch Out Into the Deep.” With an altar pulpit shaped like a first century fishing boat sitting on green marble with a no-horizon pool of water outside the window and the Sea of Galilee beyond, it gives the impression that it’s floating on the sea.
Our final stop was the cultural experience of visiting an Israeli supermarket, where we marveled at the piles of spices, slabs of meat, and many items virtually identical to products used in the States, but with Hebrew labels.