Perhaps the most prominent physical landmark around the Sea of Galilee is towering Mount Arbel. Mount Arbel is located near the sea’s western shore in the vicinity of ancient Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. The mountain’s sheer face can be easily picked out by the casual observer from most points around the lake. Below Mount Arbel lies the Valley of the Doves, a natural access route into the lake area and a route probably used by Jesus as he traveled back and forth to Cana and Nazareth.
Arbel has only one possible mention in scripture. In Hosea 10:14 we read: “Therefore tumult shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be plundered as Shalman plundered Beth Arbel in the day of battle; a mother dashed in pieces upon her children.” From this early reference we realize that Arbel had a rather bloody history. Apparently the Assyrians had mercilessly killed many Israelites by forcing them off the face of this mountain. Later, the historian, Josephus, mentions that the Seleucid general, Bacchides, captured the mountain and executed many people there (Josephus Ant. XII, 11). Also in 39 BC, as Herod the Great rose to power, he too killed many of those Jews who opposed him by slaughtering them on this same mountain. As they hid in caves on its sheer north side, Herod let his men down in baskets and fished them from the caves, forcing them off the cliff to their destruction below.
There might be cause to wonder if the strange prophetic reference to the “land of the shadow of death,” in Isaiah 9:2, could be in some way be associated with the deep shadow cast by Mount Arbel. Could the prophetic reference possibly refer to the slaughters that had gone on in the area? If this could be so, it would connect Arbel with Capernaum, the area in which Jesus would focus his ministry. If there is a prophetic connection with Arbel, we have an interesting contrast with the “shadow of death” and the “Light of Life.”
CITY IN BIBLICAL TIMES
From Hasmonean to New Testament times, there was a city sitting atop the mountain. This city was known as Arbela. Today this site is occupied with the moshav (cooperative farm) known by the name of Arbel. We know from history that this particular area was the center of the flax industry and the making of linen products in biblical times. About all that is left of the ancient city today is a partially excavated late third century synagogue on the edge of the mountain adjoining the modern moshav.
We also know from history that one priestly course, the house of Yeshua, settled on top of the mountain. This occurred after the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, and possibly indicates that the area was primarily of Jewish settlement and thus “kosher” for the priestly clans.
CHALLENGE FOR CLIMBERS
Modern pilgrims often ask, “Did Jesus climb Arbel?” We cannot be certain that he did, but it seems that since he was truly human, his natural curiosity would have drawn him to its crest. It is also likely that he would have visited the Jewish city near the crest of the mountain, since the Bible indicates in Matthew 9:35, that he visited numerous cities in the Galilee.
Today the steep face of Arbel provides a challenge for hikers and mountain climbers. The hiking trail begins in the Valley of the Doves at its foot and progresses directly up the sheer cliff. The good news is that the Israel Parks Authority has provided steps and hand holds for climbers. Still with these amenities it is a good idea for the squeamish not to look down in a couple of difficult spots along the route.
The crest of Arbel provides a wonderful view of the Sea of Galilee and the area in which Jesus ministered, with extended views even as far as Mt. Hermon in the north and Mt. Tabor in the south. It is a magnificent photo opportunity. For the less adventuresome, it is possible to drive up the backside of the mountain from Moshav Arbel and then either drive or walk the short distance to the top.
Hikers often come back from Arbel’s crest with red faces and a triumphant air about themselves. They think they have accomplished a great feat, and are often astonished when told that they have climbed only 593 feet (181m). The problem lies in the fact that they began their climb almost 688 feet (210 m) below sea level, which is the level of the Sea of Galilee.
HOW CAN A WHOLE CIVILIZATION BE DESTROYED?
Today, about all that is left of ancient Arbela are a few stones of the old synagogue and some scattered pieces of broken pottery. The question that haunts us is this: how can a whole civilization of God’s dear people fall under such judgment that only a few scattered stones and some broken pottery pieces remain? We might wonder if the same fate could befall modern civilizations. Take the US for instance. What if the time came when all that was left of the US were a few scattered bricks and some broken Coke bottles? Could such a thing happen? Absolutely! [This article was first published several months before the dreadful terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001].
It happened to Israel partly because the people compromised their unique faith with the pagan word around them. The many synagogue remains in the Galilee dating from about the fourth century AD are evidence of this. Adorning the synagogue frieze work at Capernaum is the Capricorn, the mythical sea horse of the pagan world. At Korazin, the head of Medussa can be found in the synagogue decorations. At the Beit Alpha and Hammat synagogues, there are the symbols of the Zodiac embedded in the mosaic floors. At both sites one can also see the pagan symbol par excellence, the image of Helios, the Sun God
All this seems strange when this people had been commanded by God not to make graven images of birds, fish, animals or humankind. They were also commanded not to learn the ways of the Gentile people around them (Jer. 10:2). Usually, Jewish buildings of ancient times were adorned with flowers, fruits and other non-animal depictions. Little by little however, the world came into the synagogue and into the religion of Israel until the unique faith became defiled and at last judged by God. As it is said in the Song of Deborah, “When they chose new gods, war came to the city gates…” (Jud. 5:8).
The numerous ruins of ancient Israel abide as grim warnings to modern cultures. Like Arbela, we may sit on the pinnacle of success and blessing but in a single day we also may be brought down to ruin and disaster. The secret of success and enduring prosperity is a strong and undiluted faith in the Almighty God, the God of Israel.
– Jim Gerrish
This updated article presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem
Picture credit Peggy Steffel