Biblical Landscapes – Sea of Galilee

Sometimes we read our bible and we skim over the geographical details. If we are not familiar with the biblical landscapes then we can over look some of the details that help us understand the biblical narrative. Some of the gospel stories take place around the Sea of Galilee, a body of water in the north of Israel. From the fresh waters of the Sea of Galilee flows the Jordon River which flows south, past the baptismal spot of Jesus, into the Dead Sea which is 33% salt.

In understanding the significant landscapes of northern Israel at the time of Jesus, we need to understand that there are two sides to the Sea of Galilee:

  1. The Jewish side – the people known as Galileans are the Jewish people that live on the western side of the sea. Their towns were adapted to their Jewish culture with synagogues and ritual cleansing baths. The farming and work practices on this side allowed the people to follow the jewish law and cultural practices. Many of the jewish people stayed in their area of Galilee to avoid the unclean habits of non jewish towns and cities. The Jews also reduced their payment of taxes to Rome if they did not cross the borders into the other regions.
  2. The other side – many other people lived and worked around the Sea of Galilee that were not practicing Jews. There were some hellenized or secular jews living in these towns The towns on the other side of the sea were formed around roman culture and roman styles of building. The towns often had pagan temples, secular bath houses, amphitheatres and cultural buildings.

In the gospels we read stories where Jesus got into a boat and traveled to the other side. Perhaps we might have over looked this geographical detail in the past. If we understand that this also means Jesus is taking the disciples into gentile areas then perhaps there is deeper meaning to the travel log given by the Gospel writers.

For example in Matthew 8 and Mark 5 we hear that Jesus is talking to teachers of the law, this places Jesus in the Jewish areas of Galilee. Jesus heals sick people here showing that He has command over sickness. Jesus and the disciples then cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat. On the journey across Jesus calms the storm, showing that He has command over the elements of nature. Final Jesus arrives on the other side.

When we read the narrative that takes place on the other side, we might notice that this is a pig farming area which indicates it is a gentile area. In the Matthew account the people of the region (gentiles) are not impressed by the loss of their pigs and force Jesus to leave their region. This was perhaps a good learning opportunity for the disciples to have an encounter with non-jewish region. In the gospel of Mark the reaction is a little different because the man who was healed goes back to “his people” and shares the good news in the Decapolis, a region of 10 roman cities. Mark states that all the people were amazed; gentiles were amazed at the work of Jesus.

So why did Jesus cross over to “the other side”? Maybe Jesus just wanted to go for a sail and he just happened to land on the other side. It is more likely that Jesus saw this as a training opportunity for the disciples. Perhaps Jesus knew that the good news would go to all the nations and therefore he needed to form the disciples for cross-cultural ministry while he was still with them.

In our world today there are secular forces that would love to push the church back into its shell, to keep the church on its side. The temptation for Christians is to stay out of the public and stay on our side of the public debate. Yet Jesus didn’t just cross over to the gentile areas, he sent the disciples out to the ends of the earth to make disciples of the whole world. Are we prepared to go to the other side to spread the good news? I wonder what the other side looks like in your work and ministry setting.

My hope is that this insight into the biblical landscape might help you take notice of other geographical details in the biblical narrative. Even if you need to read your bible with a map in your hand, there is often one in the back of the bible, hopefully you will gain new insights into the stories by locating them in the Jewish or gentile areas.

Please leave a comment.

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Markoffaith, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald

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Biblical Landscapes – The Desert

If you have ever seen pictures or movies set in the desert they are usually dry, hot and barren landscapes. My mental image of the desert come from the classic movie Lawrence of Arabia; lots of camels walking up and down hills of sand. In Australia we have lots of stories related to the harsh desert and wilderness areas of inland Australia. In the early explorers period of European settlement it seems that explorers died in the outback due to the heat and lack of water in the desert. Perhaps like me you have an image of the desert as a harsh and dry place.

The desert areas in Israel vary in their geography. Many areas that we might think of as desert are called wilderness areas because almost everywhere in the middle east is dry. In the bible, the desert or wilderness might just refer to areas outside the city. For example some translations say that Jesus withdrew to the wilderness, others say he withdrew to the desert.

Rather than debate the geographical definition of a desert. I want to look at the biblical significance of the desert or the wilderness. There are three key insights that I want to share with you from my recent visit to the wilderness or desert in Israel.

  1. The desert as an image of simplicity – when a person or group is in the desert within the biblical narrative it is an image of simplicity to life. In the desert people would live in tents so there isn’t the complexity of buildings as there is in the city. In biblical times the desert was a simple working life rather than the complexity of the working farming communities. In the desert the food choices are much more limited, for example during the biblical Exodus the people of Israel complain to Moses about the choice of meat they had available to them in Eygpt compared to the basic food in the desert.

The desert can be a place of danger even death if people don’t know how to find food and water. There were people groups in the bible that preferred the desert nomadic lifestyle. Today in Israel there are a lot more options for living in desert areas but it still represents a much more basic lifestyle than that of the city.

  1. The desert as a quiet place to hear from God – the complexity of noise in the city can sometimes drown out the voice of God. In the bible God often calls people out into the desert in order to speak to them. Abraham lived in the desert and heard from God about his future as the father to a great nation. Elijah headed out into the desert to hide from his enemies but it was here in the desert that God spoke to Elijah and strengthened him (read 1 Kings 18-19). Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness or the desert to spend time with his Father in prayer. The lack of distractions in the desert makes it easier to listen to God.
  1. The desert is the place of preparation for a future mission – the book of Exodus and Numbers the people of God were being formed into a nation as they wandered through the desert. In the book of 1 Samuel David was being formed for Kingship as he ran from Saul through the desert. In the gospels Jesus was preparing to begin his earthly ministry during his 40 days in the desert. And Jesus withdrew to the wilderness before he headed to Jerusalem to accomplish his mission on the Cross.

In many biblical stories the desert is like the modern day retreat centre. Just like the desert in biblical stories the retreat centre is usually a quiet place where people head for some time away to reflect on their life. Most contemporary retreat centres are comfortable without being luxurious; the person going on the retreat doesn’t need the distractions of a 5 star luxury resort. Just like those who were called into the desert, many people spend time in a simple retreat centre to listen to God as they transition into a new period of ministry or mission.

My desert experience was visiting a retreat centre prior to my ordination as a Priest. We were asked to spend three days in silence to listen to God as we prepared for the ordination day. We were given a small room with a basic desk so that we could write in our journal. To add to the wilderness experience the retreat centre was off the mobile phone coverage area so we couldn’t check Facebook or email.

The retreat centre is a special place not because of the place but because of the transition that takes place. Just like the desert in biblical times, the transition that God takes people through is what is important. We might not need to go into the desert ourselves but we do need a simple place that we can go to hear God. Where is your desert place?

The desert was an important image in the bible because it was an image of seeking out God. At times in the bible the desert is just a physical landscape that people travel through, not every reference to the desert is a reflection of the thoughts listed above. Yet if we open our minds to the idea that the desert is the biblical equivalent of our retreat centre then perhaps we will gain new insight into the biblical text.

Please leave a comment about your thoughts on the desert in Biblical narrative.

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Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald, markoffaith, markoffaith.net Biblical Landscapes

Back to writing again

Thank you for your patience, over the past three weeks I took a writing break to prepare for my bible studies exams.  It has been well worth the extra study and I have learnt a lot.  I look forward to writing more faith, ministry and leadership insights over the summer vacation period.