THE CENTRAL MOUNTAINS

From Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon on the north (which are themselves out-thrusts of the great Taurus range which upholds the plateau of Asia Minor) for 150 miles down to the low hills that descend into the Sinai desert, there is an irregular broken plateau of mountains, hills, and valleys. A legend that prevails throughout the Near East says that when Titan was transporting the material of the world and was carrying the rocks to spread them all over the world equally, his sack broke and the whole mass tumbled out, and that this plateau which I am now describing is the result.

Moving from north to south we discover again here on the plateau, as we did on the coastal plain, obvious sections that begin and end.

The first is GALILEE. The word " Galilee " means " the circle," and it is spoken of in two separable halves.

UPPER GALILEE is elevated, with mountains that push northward towards Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon (called by the Arabs " The Sheik " because of the white turban of snow on it during the winter months and because of its majesty) has two important geographical conditions in Palestine.

1. From its southern roots appear two little rivers, one at Dan and the other at Caesarea Philippi, which combine to form the Jordan.

2. The cold air around the high shoulders and the snowy summit of Hermon at times dashes down at terrific speed to fill the vacuum in the Jordan valley, unleashing a tempest of hurricane type winds upon the lake that suddenly come and suddenly cease.

Upper Galilee is a highland country and, as in most regions of that kind, its inhabitants have always been almost fiercely independent and in relation to Judaism they have shown themselves to be anti-orthodox and anti-ecclesiastic. Jesus gathered multitudes of followers from here. The fiercest nationalist party in the time of Jesus, the Zealots, found this to be their best recruiting ground. The Talmud says,

" Galileans are more anxious for honor than for money."

The lovely climate of Upper Galilee, its inexhaustible streams and rivers, its heavy dews in the hot, rainless season, its rich soil and vigorous inhabitants have caused this area to be the home of a strong, fighting, and industrious peasantry. But they have always been too divided by family loyalties either to make a united resistance for long to such powers as that of Rome, or to become a center of cultural civilization. It is characteristic of the people produced by this environment that, in their patriotic zeal when attracted by the fame and power of Jesus, they rushed at Him to make Him King; and that when He refused to lead a political revolt, large numbers left from following Him.

LOWER GALILEE (which has its center between Capernaum and Nazareth), does not have the mountains of Upper Galilee. It has broader valleys, richer vegetation, and in Jesus' time was especially prosperous through the popularity of Galilean fish preserved with the salts from the deposits round the Dead Sea. This fish was exported to all parts of the Roman Empire. It is estimated that 150,000 people inhabited as many as twenty towns on the shores of the Lake of Galilee at that time. There was an abundance of fruit harvest, the Plain of Gennesaret had orchards of figs, walnuts, olives and date palms, that bore crop after crop for as much as ten months out of the year.

Lower Galilee was also distinct from Upper Galilee because the great road (called the Way of the Sea) running down from Damascus and across the Lower Galilean hills, all the way to the coastal plain and Egypt, brought many influences from the Mediterranean and from the Middle East. Merchants and camel-men, scholars and diplomats, would pass through Capernaum from Persia (Iran) and Mesopotamia (Iraq) on the one side, and from the Nile, North Africa, Greece and Rome on the other. It is important to note that the cost of building the synagogue in which Jesus worshipped and performed His miracles at Capernaum was paid by a Roman centurion, as a freewill offering.

Growing Up Around Galilee

Nazereth itself is in Lower Galilee. There are many pictures that we get from Jesus' parables, like the working carpenter, the prosperous farmer building a big barn, the keeper of the vineyard, the shepherd with his sheep, the glory of the spring flowers, the fox running to its lair, the farmer sowing and weeding and reaping his crops, are all characteristic of the geography and climate, the flora and fauna and the inhabitants of this beautiful region resting between the peaceful valleys of the Jordan and the awesome heights of Hermon, and between the sea and the desert.

On its southern and south-eastern edge Lower Galilee drops into THE PLAIN OF ESDRAELON, which is the one real break in the sequence of hills which makes the Central Plateau. Because it is such a break through the rocky hills, it has been, so to speak, the corridor through which, during all historic times, armies have fought, from the time when Deborah was giving  judgment under her oak and Barak came with his Galilean highlanders to attack Sisera in this plain, down to the times when Napoleon brought his army here and saw that it is a place "designed for battle." This plain, whose red soil suggests the blood of the innumerable warriors who have died here, has been a battle-ground through the centuries. The word "Armageddon" means " the Plain of Megiddo," which was another name for this plain in the time of Jesus.

On the eastern side this Plain of Esdraelon breaks down through Jezreel into the Jordan Valley. Through that gap the Arabs (or Midianites), hungry from their eastern desert homes, have raided Palestine continuously from time past.

Samaria's Hills and Fertile Valleys

The plateau now rises again southward into THE HILLS OF SAMARIA with the mighty spur of Mount Carmel on their north-western side and Mount Gilboa on their north-eastern side. When we think of Mount Carmel on the one side, we have to think of Elijah the prophet, and on the other side we see Mount Gilboa and reminisce the tragic battles of Saul. These were important events and suggest the importance of this group of hills of Samaria.

In the time of Jesus, Herod the Great had built the Samaritan capital, Sebaste, in his lavish Roman-Hellenic style. The people of Samaria, having in early times forsaken the racial purity of the Jews, by taking foreign women, were looked on with contempt and anger by the Jews. The Samaritans returned the fury with interest. For this reason, the geographical situation of Samaria is of importance in the life of Jesus, because it lies in a direct line between his home-town and Jerusalem.

THE VALLEYS OF SAMARIA were low and well-watered with gradual hills. This made Samaria a center of great cultivation, of greenhouse vineyards and fields of grain. It was toward one of these fields that Jesus was looking when by the well of Jacob on the south side of the hills of Samaria He said, " Behold, the fields are white unto harvest." As He sat there, He was close to the two mountains of Ebal and Gerizim with the ancient Shechem in the valley between them. On Mount Gerizim is the place of worship of the Samaritans. Jesus was pointing to it when He said to the woman of Samaria that the hour was come when neither in that mountain nor in Jerusalem would men worship. The contrast between the richly-productive narrow valleys and the rocky hillsides and ridges of Samaria is striking.

Samaria, with its open valleys through which the highways pass (in one of them Joseph was sold to the passing Ishmaelite traders), its accessibility to other races that thus intermingled their blood with that of the Israelites, and the attractiveness of its rich vineyards and fields and prosperous cities to invaders. Faith in one invisible God survived triumphantly in Judea; but in Samaria it compromised with the invaders-the Jezebels from Tyre and the animist Arabs from the East.

In the whole land of JUDEA there is not a single running stream whose waters flow throughout the year, and very few actual springs of water. The winter rains rush down these rocky hillsides into the valleys; and whether for Jerusalem or Hebron, the other outstanding city of this area, the collection of water in huge rock-hewn cisterns is essential.

To really grasp in our minds the Judea of Jesus' time it is necessary to imagine on the hillsides the multiple terraced vineyard. The long centuries of Turkish mix-rule from the Middle Ages to modern times, culminating in corrupt taxation of the poor farmers, led them to neglect these terraced vineyards. As a result the earth has been washed down by the rains of centuries from the hills and can never be replaced. The place today is much more barren than in Jesus' time. No one today could describe these Judean hills in the Old Testament language as a land " flowing with milk and honey." For milk means flocks of sheep as well as herds of goats and cattle; and it involves grass for pasture. And honey presupposes an abundant growth of flowering plants and trees. These things (pasture and woodland and terraced slopes) did exist on those hills in ancient times.

Judea is about 40 miles from north to south and only some 15 miles wide.

The eastern slope forms the terrible " wilderness " of Judea. From Bethany (about 4 miles from Jerusalem) eastward, the land becomes dry and rocky, where the sun scorches in the summer and the rains pour in the winter, and the vegetation is scarce. Here Jesus in the forty days of the Temptation was " among the wild beasts."

From the eastern edge this wilderness plunges down into the Jordan valley. The pinnacled summit of one noticeable cliff is thought of as the Place of Temptation, from which Jesus could look out across the Jordan Valley toward the eastern lands, and range north and south toward Syria and Egypt, thus, by suggestion, having in His mind the "kingdoms of the world," although I think Satan offered a bigger picture.

It is a noticeable fact in history that the desert life is not far from Jerusalem.  The wandering desert Arab has brought his flocks over these hills and thus carried the primitive nomad life continuously almost to the very gates of Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, the prophets who have lived at the royal court in Jerusalem found, within a short walk of the great city, the solitude and the silence, the mass of eternal stars overhead, and the awe of the sense of the Presence of Godís vastness.

Judea is geographically a mountain fortress resistant to invasion, whether military, cultural, or racial. Judea is the natural place for the growth of an austere, rugged faith in an almighty Creator, a faith refusing compromise or a mingling with other beliefs.

Next THE DEEP JORDAN VALLEY

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