Tuesday, August 08, 2006



In this post I shall have a look at some biblical references to Galilee; starting from these references, I shall then try to consider the symbolic relevance of Galilee. This post is a bit different from others of mine, as it will be less "academic" and more "lived" in some of its parts.

The image to the right is taken from http://www.ccel.org/bible/phillips/CP051GOSPELMAPS.htm.

PalestineLiterally, Galilee means in Hebrew a "circuit", perhaps around Kedesh Nephtali (a city that Eusebius places 20 miles from Tyre, near Paneas, i.e. Caesarea Philippi), the "city of refuge" mentioned in Jos 21:32.

Actually, Galilee was probably originally the territory of Nephtali; and Jdg 1:33 tells us that Nephtali was not able to drive out from it its former inhabitants:
Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them. (Jdg 1:33)
Later, by Solomon's time, Galilee also included the territory of Asher, who also settled to live together with the original (Phoenician) inhabitants of the region:
Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. (Jdg 1:31-32)
Acco (modern Acre) is shown on the picture on the right as Ptolemais; it is at the north side of the bay where modern Haifa (at the south end of the bay) is built.

This is then a story of tolerance, of Jews and Gentiles living side by side, and one can't help thinking about how modern Galilee and its surroundings do not seem to live up to their history.

Galilee was given by Solomon to Hiram, king of Tyre, as a reward for Hiram's contribution to the building of the Temple (1 Kings 9:11-14). The biblical account tells us that Hiram did not like the gift though ("What kind of cities are these?"), a gift consisting, to be precise, of 20 cities. He therefore called the land "Cabul", after the name of one of those 20 cities (Cabul, modern Kabul, ca. 8 miles east of Acco); Cabul means "displeasing" (in Phoenician - cf. Josephus, Antiquities, VIII.5, "[The name Cabul,] if it be interpreted according to the language of the Phoenicians, denotes what does not please"), or "good for nothing". 2 Chr 8:2 says that "Solomon rebuilt the cities that Hiram had given to him, and settled the people of Israel in them", hinting that Hiram eventually returned the gift.

In Jesus' time, Palestine was divided (cf. Acts 9:31), into the three provinces of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Our district was named "Galilee of the Gentiles", according to Isaiah 9:1 and Matthew 4:15, no doubt referring to the fact that it remained occupied by non-Jews inhabitants. We normally map the expression "Galilee of the Gentiles" with modern Upper Galilee.

The Gentile character of Galilee was well recognised, and despised, by the southern people of Israel: cf. for example John 1:46, "Nathanael said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'" and John 7:52, "Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee". Which is wrong: Jonah is said in 2 Kings 14:25 to be from Gath-Hepher, placed by Jerome some 2 miles from Sepphoris on the Tiberias road; and Elisha is said in 1 Kings 19:16 to be from Abel-Meholah, placed by Jerome and Eusebius some miles south of Beth-shean, in lower Galilee. A witness to how prejudices and sectarian considerations often lead us into error and into forgetting our own history.

This suspicious attitude may also have been originated by the fact that at the time of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon the region was colonized with pagans, cf. Ezra 4:2, after the Israelite population had been taken captive to Assyria by King Tiglath Pileser III (cf. 2 Kings 15:29). What is sure is that the Galilean dialect sounded strange to "purer" ears, cf. Mark 14:70 and Matthew 26:73, "After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, 'Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.'".

Josephus (himself a Galilean) describes Galilee in The Wars of the Jews, III.3 and confirms that Galilee is "encompassed with so many nations of foreigners"; and that "their soil is universally rich and fruitful, and full of the plantations of trees of all sorts, insomuch that it invites the most slothful to take pains in its cultivation, by its fruitfulness; accordingly, it is all cultivated by its inhabitants, and no part of it lies idle."

We may well compare this beautiful and fertile outlook with the barren uplands of Judah. Acts 12:20 tells us that the cities of Tyre and Sidon depended on "the king's [i.e., Herod's] country [i.e., Galilee] for food". This is something we can - as it has probably been - interpret in a symbolic way. The message of Jesus starts from Galilee, ends in Galilee, and thrives in Galilee much more than in and around Jerusalem. It is in Galilee that we are asked to see the "universally rich and fruitful" soil, even more than in Jerusalem; it is here that also the "most slothful takes pains in cultivation". That's not a rejection of the original call: on the contrary, Gentile lands really depend on Galilee "for food".

It must not be by chance that most of the apostles were from Galilee. Cf. the Pentecost, Acts 2:7, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?" Talmud Bab. Erubin (quoted in Gill) asserts: "the men of Judah, who were careful of their language, their law was confirmed in their hands; the men of Galilee, who were not careful of their language, their law was not confirmed in their hands." That's certainly an ironic passage, if we put it close to the Pentecost episode above!

Around 160 CE, 1 Mac 5:14ff tells us that Galilean Jews lived a difficult relationship with their Gentile neighbors: so Simon "liberated" the Galileans and took "the Jews of Galilee and Arbatta, with their wives and children, and all they possessed, and led them to Judea with great rejoicing". This "escape from Galilee" notwithstanding (an escape originated again in a "nationalistic" context), there is some abundance of Jewish sources telling us that, when the Messiah finally appears in Israel, it will do so in Galilee, not elsewhere. The following is a list of quotations taken from http://www.matsati.com/Jewish%20Rabbis%20and%20Historians%20Reveal%20the%20Messiah.doc:
  • "And you Bethlehem-Ephrathah who are too little to be counted among the thousands of the house of Judah, from you in My name shall come forth the Messiah who is to be ruler in Israel and whose name has been called from eternity, from the days of old." [Targum Jonathan on Mikah 5:1 in the Tanakh]
  • "The King Messiah... from where does he come forth? From the royal city of Bethlehem in Judah." [Jerusalem Talmud, Berakoth 5a]
  • "The Messiah will appear in the land of Galilee." [Zohar I, Bereshith, 119a]
  • "The Messiah... will arise in the land of Galilee… the Messiah shall reveal himself in the land of Galilee because in this part of the Holy Land the desolation (Babylonian exile) first began, therefore he will manifest himself there first." [Zohar III, Shemoth 7b, 8b, 220a; Otzar Midrashim, 466]
The significance of Galilee rests then also on the fact that, on the one hand, it is still Israel's land, i.e. the land of the people elected by God; but, on the other hand, it is really border land, a place where we are all forced to be confronted with "the other within us". It is a land where the importance of the road is paramount; it is a highway, a place of transit: "connected with harbors on the Phoenician seabord, with Egypt on the South, with Damascus on the Northeast, with markets of the East by the great caravan routes." In other words, connected with everybody, with the world. There's no hiding from encountering - and living with - the Gentile here. There we are put, there we sin, there we are punished, there we are finally restored: that's the full human path that God has chosen for man.

So, from Galilee one departs (Mark 1:9, "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan"), and to Galilee one has to eventually go (Mark 16:7, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you."; cf. also Mark 14:28, "But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee"). Jesus precedes us (Προάγει ὑμᾶς) in Galilee, as he won't be content of appearing where we stand, in the middle of our standard expectations: he calls each one of us to move. This is the mission, having both inward and outward significance. So Galilee takes on a powerful, redactional theological meaning. Marxsen may then be right when he suggests (Mark, pp. 54-116) that all references to Galilee in Mark have to be read as redactional. As a last example, take Mark 7:31: "Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis." This describes an implausible journey - as Sidon is actually north of Tyre, while the Sea of Galilee is south-east - and it makes therefore much more sense to take it theologically rather than literally. So, the stories surrounding this episode have all to be seen as happening in Gentile regions; as such, again, they show a path to mission, and a mission not certainly limited to our "fellow believers". This was indeed one of the major concerns, and one very much shared with Pauline theology, of the author of the Second Gospel. May this be a concern of ours as well.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours? FeedBurner.com Logo