Galilee’s green hills and broad valleys, all on an east-west pattern, made for easy passage between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The southernmost valley was Jezreel. Overlooking it from the Nazareth ridge, the young Jesus would have seen the theaters of battles he had read about: Deborah and Barak againist the Canaanites, Gideon againist the Midianites, the scene of Saul’s death on Mount Giboa and that of Josiah’s at Megiddo. The last would give its name to the prophesied battle at the hill (har) of Megiddo, Armageddon. Just four miles northwest of Nazareth lay Sepphoris, where Herod Antipas first established his capital. Later he build Tiberias on the western shore of Galilee’s lake. North of it, at Capernaum, Jesus undertook his public mission.
|Mt. of Beatitudes|
|Written by Stephen Langfur|
Ancient Christians remembered the Sermon on the Mount in the area of Tabgha. Just opposite the Church of the Primacy, on the north side of the modern road, we can still see the ruins of the Church of the Sermon that the great correspondent Egeria described to her convent 1600 years ago (Wilkinson ). In 1938, with funds from Italy, the Franciscans built a new church higher up on the same hill in order to escape the noise of traffic.Facing the lake with our backs to the church, we can see Tiberias on the western shore. To its right and nearer is the Arbel cliff, behind which (in the First Testament period) ran the Great Trunk Road from Egypt, reaching the lake south of Magdala. On the opposite, eastern shore, appear the Golan Heights, including the sites of two Decapolis cities: Hippos (a.k.a. Sussita) and Gadara, today Um Qis in Jordan). East of them ran the other great trunk road, the King’s Highway. These roads are relevant for understanding the historical background to the Sermon on the Mount .
Modest dress required.
Opening hours: 8.00 – 11:45, 14.30 – 17.00 in summer, 16.00 in winter. Phone: 04-6711200.
The Mount of Beatitudes: A Walk Down the Mountain
At any daylight hour, one may walk down the hill to the area of Tabgha, following a rough dirt path. Good walking shoes are a must. In hot weather: have water, a hat and both hands free. After a rain, don’t try it. There is a fence down below, and the gate may be locked, necessitating a wide detour to the east.
Halfway down the path, looking slightly to the east, we can see how the landscape formed a natural theatre for anyone addressing a multitude from the shore (see, for example, Luke 5:1-11).
The Covenant Faith and the Sermon
Viewing the Lake of Galilee from the Mt. of Beatitudes, we may try to imagine what was in the minds of the Jewish fishermen 2000 years ago, before they encountered Jesus. On the one hand, they had the Jewish covenant faith, as enunciated in Deuteronomy 11: 13-17
These words appear often in Jewish ritual. Pious Jews recite them twice a day. A scribe writes them on a small piece of parchment, which is placed in a container and nailed to the doorpost of the house. The Hebrew for doorpost is mezuzah, and the parchment got that name.
The covenant as it appears in Deuteronomy 11 is the first written statement of the notion that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Its classic illustration (including background for understanding much of what follows) appears in the account of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
Such was God’s covenant with Israel as the Jewish fishermen on the lake understood it 2000 years ago. That would have been in their minds.
Something else too was in their minds: what they saw around them. Through their control of the roads, the Romans had the land in a pincers:
The fishermen saw Hippos and Gadera: two cities of the Decapolis, once under Jewish sovereignty, now dominated by Rome. In the Jordan Valley to the south lay Scythopolis (a.k.a. Beth Shean), patronized by Dionysus. On the lake itself were Tiberias, Magdala and Bethsaida (see map below); these were “mixed” cities, pagan and Jewish. Farther west was Sepphoris, with its cult of Dionysus, and beyond it Ptolemais (Acco), dedicated to Zeus-Jupiter, not to mention Caesarea Maritima, dominated by the divine Augustus. Rome, in short, was everywhere.
On the one hand, then, the fisherman had their covenant faith, and on the other hand, here was Rome. These two things stood in apparent contradiction.
Foreign conquest and the covenant faith hadn’t always been in contradiction. In earlier times of suffering (say, when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom called “Israel,” or when the Babylonians took Jerusalem) the pain could be seen as God’s just punishment, because the people had not kept the covenant. But when the Jews returned from their Babylonian exile (530 BC), they had learned their lesson: they no longer worshipped foreign gods. This was even more purely the case after the successful Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks. So the question arose: Why are we not sovereign in our own land? Why do we not have the place among the nations that God promised us? Why are we in the Roman pincers?
The question had an economic side. The fishermen, as well as the peasants, were kept at a mere subsistence level by the Roman emperor, his client (in Galilee that was Tetrarch Herod Antipas), the urban aristocrats, the tax collectors and the brokers (who sold, for example, fishing licenses). (More…)
Why the Roman pincers? Confronted with this problem, religious Jews did then what they have always done: they searched the Bible for an answer.
They found it in Micah 5:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Matthew 5: 1-10
When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.’ But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment.
Under Mosaic law, it is permissible for me to be angry with another person, as long as I do not carry my impulse into harmful action (in other words, as long as I control myself). Mosaic law allows for a division of the self between impulse and action. Jesus (“But I say to you…”) allows no such division. I am to be “pure in heart.” This comes to expression again in the famous teaching about adultery (5:27-28):
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
I think there is a recognition here of a basic psychological postulate: as long as part of my effort must go toward suppressing my own impulses, I do not have full energy for my relations with those outside me: I am not fully there for anyone or anything; I am not fully present in the lived moment, or in other words, not fully living the life that is given me. Jesus, on the other hand, presents us with the example of a person who is fully there: all of his energy goes out toward others as love (5:43-45):
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor,* and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.
Such a person reserves no ray of attention for himself. There is no self-idolatry, hence no impulse to suppress.
The question arises, How can I get from my present divided condition to the wholeness and purity that he is talking about? What is the way to life? That question points us toward Jerusalem, where he walked a way: the Way of the Cross.