Galilee and the Man from Galilee

Galilee, a name both well-known and loved by many of us around the world. But in Christ’s time, the rabbis and religious leaders looked on Galilee with disdain. They viewed Judah proper, with its traditional lore and academic excellence, as far superior. The Galileans, they felt, were nothing but hot-headed country bumpkins. And their prejudice extended to all three sections of Galilee. 

Both the Talmud (Judaism’s main text) and Josephus (a 1st century Jewish historian) divide Galilee into two main parts. With Middle Galilee, or the district of Tiberias, in between.

Upper Galilee, as defined by the Rabbis, was the area where the sycamore, a very delicate fig species easily destroyed by cold, did not grow (Psalm 78:47). And so we know when Scripture names the sycamore tree, the story usually takes place in Lower Galilee. These trees only grew there, and in the Jordan Valley, where Zaccheus climbed that famous sycamore.

Lower Galilee was home to the mountains of Gilboa where Saul fell in battle, Mount Hermon where they harvested cypress wood, and Carmel where Elijah defeated the prophets of Jezebel. It is also where Christ withered the fig tree.

The mountainous region of Upper Galilee with its bracing air is the scene, in part, for the Song of Solomon (7:5). But its caves and strongholds also formed ideal shelter for robbers, outlaws, and rebel chiefs. Some of the most dangerous characters came out of the Galilean highlands.

But further down, in the marshy, reed-covered ground around Lake Merom, we find the great caravan road, connecting Damascus in the east with the great Ptolemaic market on the Mediterranean shore.

And this was Galilee proper. A busy, well-traveled area, where many foreigners settled. All day long the caravans came, bringing the riches of the East, and returning home with the luxuries of the West. With such constant trade and intercourse with foreigners, the narrow-minded bigotry found in Judea would have been nearly impossible.

Galilee: a beautiful, fertile region.

The Rabbis speak of oil that flowed like a river, and rich, generous wine. And in this beautiful, fertile region of abundant corn, flax, and fruit, living was easier and inexpensive.

Josephus speaks of the region in ecstatic terms, perhaps while watching from the heights of Galilee, the harbors lined with merchant ships. And the sea with sailing vessels carrying the goods from potteries, dye works, and glass furnaces.

Galilee teemed with activity, from the crowded shore to the inland caravan road, which passed down through Nazareth (Christ’s hometown) and Bethsaida (the house of fishes), where Andrew and Peter were born. Then through Capernaum, where Matthew manned his tax station, to Magdala (the dyers’ city), and home of Mary Magdalene. A city known for both its great wealth and great wickedness. And on to Tiberias, a splendid but heathen city.

At the southern tip of Lake Galilee we come upon Cana, Nathanael’s birthplace, where Christ performed both his first and second miracles. Firstly turning water into wine (John 2:1-11), and secondly when the new wine of the kingdom was first tasted by Gentile lips (John 4:46-47).

Jewish recollections of the early Christians center chiefly around Galilee and its people.

Whom Josephus describes as warm-hearted, impulsive, generous. Intensely national in the best sense, and conscientious. And with more earnestness in practical piety and strictness of life, yet without the Pharisee’s religiosity.

Their hot blood made them quarrelsome, and they were in constant rebellion against Rome. Yet, according to Josephus they were hard-working, manly, and brave. And even the Talmud  (Jer. Cheth. iv. 14) admits that they cared more about honor than money.

Galilee, with it’s beautiful vegetation, fertile orchards, and deep blue lake, have often been described.

Yet, when most of us think of Galilee, we don’t think of the fertile fields and orchards. Nor of the beautiful azure lake, nestled among rolling hills and busy towns. We don’t see, in our minds, the white sails furling on the waters.

But we think of the One whose feet walked those shores.

We envision him teaching there, working there, and praying for us all. In our minds, we see the One who walked on its waters and calmed its storms.

That same One who, after his resurrection, met his disciples there. Speaking words, his last words on earth, that still resound with great meaning. And that even today, in our turbulent times, carry great significance.

Jesus answered, ‘What is it to you, if I want him to live until I return? You must follow me,’ (John 21:22).

And he says the same today: ‘What do care about what might happen? Just follow me.’


This essay is based upon Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Chapter 3 “In Galilee at the time of our Lord.” By Alfred Edersheim; in the public domain.

[Image courtesy of David Padfield via www.FreeBibleImages.org, CC-BY-NC, 4.0.]

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