The Golan Heights, Sepphoris, and Nazareth


Before going on this trip, I thought all of Israel was desert. (That’s what you see in all those cheesy movies about Jesus, isn’t it?) But Israel, a country about the same size as New Jersey, features an amazing variety of geography. Within a fewLush foliage near Tel Dan hours of driving, there is desert, the Dead Sea (the lowest point of the earth), lush and fertile farmland, mountains high enough for there to be snow on them, and ocean beaches. The regions of Galilee and the Golan Heights are as green as the Judean wilderness is brown.

In the Golan Heights, I felt most as if military hostilities are only temporarily paused. We went nearly to the border with Syria to view a UN peacekeeping base that has been in place since the end of the “Six Day War” in 1967. On the hill above us was an Israeli intelligence monitoring station where “They can read a license plate in Damascus.” Every few minutes, riding in the bus, I spotted another military base. A destroyed war vehicleFrequently, along the roadside, there is a damaged war vehicle that’s been left in place, a silent witness to wars that have been fought here.

It is impossible to be naive abut war and peace in the Golan Heights. But, also in that region, there are wineries and archeological digs and farms and herd animals; all the trappings of long-term peaceful settlement. What a complex country.

It was interesting to visit what’s been excavated in the ancient town of Sepphoris, and to hear Dr. Luker speculate, as an archeologist. According to the archeological evidence, Sepphoris is where Mary’s parents probably lived. Why did Joseph and Mary settle in Nazareth, a tiny, no-account village of 12-20 families? Was it because it was within sight of Sepphoris, an easy commute by donkey to Sepphoris, where there was lots of work? Sepphoris was a major town of 40,000.

A manger, made of stone, which was true of all mangers at the time of Jesus.

A manger, made of stone, which was true of all mangers at the time of Jesus.

Traditionally, we’ve been taught that Joseph was a carpenter, and that Jesus followed in the occupation. However, according to Dr. Luker, the word translated “carpenter” would more accurately be translated “artisan.”  And, he speculates, Joseph would have worked mostly in stone. (“How many wood houses have you seen in Israel?” he asked.) Since Jesus followed in his father’s footsteps, “he would have been buff from hauling all that stone around. He wouldn’t have been the anemic Jesus you see in all the religious art.”

Now Nazareth is the major town in the area. We visited the Basilica of the Annunciation, a Roman Catholic church built above the excavations of the 1st century Nazareth village. Most probably, Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus lived in one of those houses that have been exposed!

The church in Nazareth houses a vibrant congregation of Christians, which is

Pregnant Mary

Pregnant Mary

rare in Israel.  Included in the church and compound are images of the Virgin, donated by nations all over the world. The art donated from the United States provides a rare depiction of a pregnant Mary!

It was quite a contemplative moment, to be sitting in that church. But then the mid-day Muslim call to prayer blared through the speakers of the nearby mosque. It was Friday (the weekly worship day for Muslims), and, for the next 20 minutes, we heard an angry-sounding, strident-sounding sermon delivered by the imam. The amplification all over town makes a person think that everyone is Muslim. In fact, just over half the residents of Nazareth are Muslim; the rest are Christians. (There are few Jews in Nazareth.)

Muslims in an outdoor square Nazareth, pausing to listen to the mid-day Friday sermon.

Muslims in an outdoor square Nazareth, pausing to listen to the mid-day Friday sermon.

Why are there so few Christians in the Holy Land? Christians make up only 2% of the population in the region where Jesus lived! That’s something I’m wondering about, and will be reading about.


About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine loves being a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!