In the first two installments of the “Why Galilee?” series we looked at a variety of religious traditions, both within the Hebrew Bible and without, that reflect a popular expectation that a returning messiah(s) would appear in the region south of Damascus and move into the ancient land promised to the twelve tribes of Israel. A new, utopian era was expected to begin in Damascus, or in the region just to the south which the Qumranites dubbed the “wilderness of Damascus.” This area included eastern Galilee and Transjordan. This expectation is not widely recognized in modern scholarship and I would like to suggest that this expectation was in fact widespread and well-known among the common people in ancient times. Due to the vagaries of history this belief was not passed down to us explicitly in any of our existing literature but is nonetheless reflected implicitly in many writings from the late Second Temple period and subsequent centuries. The case for this was spelled out in our last two articles.
To reorient ourselves let’s glance back at the Hebrew Bible for our first example, to see where the foundation of this messianic expectation was laid.
The Jordan River valley begins in the southern portion of the eastern Galilee/Transjordan region that we are discussing. Throughout Hebrew history a number of pivotal events occurred here. Notably, Moses kicked things off by dying and being “buried by God” just across the river after being refused entry. Joshua subsequently led the people into the land by crossing the Jordan. Elijah picked up Elisha, his apprentice, in the Jordan valley and eventually made his exit by ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire after crossing the river out of the Promised Land.
In similar fashion Yeshua was baptized and his identity was first publicly revealed here in this same locale, in the region where Moses and Elijah made their dramatic exits from the stage of history. Doubtless this fact was not missed by the many followers of Yochanan HaMatbil (John the Baptist). Yochanan’s followers were asking him if he was Elijah, the Prophet (expected to be the new Moses) or the Messiah. Why were they asking this? Perhaps because they knew where they were standing: in the place near where Elijah had departed. And perhaps because they were familiar with the words of Malachi the prophet, the last true prophet, with whom prophecy had been sealed up (according to the rabbinic teachers) until the end of days, who said:
Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.
As we can see, the history of the place and the expectations associated with it provided context and imputed meaning to the actions of Yochanan HaMatbil and Yeshua. Without this context much of the meaning of what transpired is missed. This example sets the stage nicely for us, and armed with this new awareness we can now take a fresh look at a number of well-known historical events, some recorded in the Brit HaHadashah (the New Testament), and some reported to us by later historians.
The transfiguration of Yeshua, when he ascended a tall mountain –either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon according to various traditions – took place in the region of eastern Galilee/Transjordan. If it was Mount Tabor then it was in Galilee. If it took place at Mount Hermon it would qualify as being in the region of the “wilderness of Damascus.” What is significant about this scene? Let’s review it briefly, according to the account of Matthew 17:1-9:
…Yeshua took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Yeshua, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Yeshua came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Yeshua himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Yeshua ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
This scene is noteworthy because in it Yeshua, standing alongside the other two expected deliverers of the Hebrew people, reveals his identity. And where does this take place? In the very region where that deliverance was expected to begin. I am inclined to believe that the scene of this event was Mount Hermon, which is precisely on the northeastern border of the Promised Land, within view of the city of Damascus. In any case, it is clear that where this scene takes place is almost as important as what actually occurred.
This pattern played itself out several times. Consider the case of Peter, the leader of the disciples, in Matt. 16:13-21:
Now when Yeshua came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Yeshua answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Yeshua began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
Caesarea Philippi was a small town at the base of Mount Hermon, in the far northeastern corner of Israel. Here Peter, the original leader of the followers of Yeshua first “discovers” or confesses Yeshua’s identity as the messiah, the son of God, which Yeshua confirms to those gathered. Again in this story the where is every bit as important as the what. This revelation of Yeshua’s identity to his followers took place in the same region where many expected the apocalyptic deliverer to appear.
Paul on the Road to Damascus
Sha’ul, later known as Paul, the leader of the mission to the Gentiles, had an even more dramatic experience, recorded in Acts 9:
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Yeshua, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” … But the Lord said to him (Ananias), “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Yeshua, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Yeshua in the synagogues, saying “He is the Son of God.”
It is no mere coincidence that this scene plays out on the road in the wilderness south of the city of Damascus – the same place where Yeshua first revealed his identity, and where Peter, the leader of Yeshua’s followers first understood and confessed Yeshua’s identity as messiah and son of God. A close inspection of the Brit HaHadasha reveals that virtually all the prominent revelations of Yeshua’s identity took place precisely in this region.
As an aside, it is interesting to contrast this widespread belief in a messianic deliverer from northeastern Galilee/Transjordan with the statement made by the Chief Priests and Pharisees in the Temple. Yeshua was speaking in the Temple and Nicodemus spoke to the Priests and Pharisees who were seeking to arrest him in John 7:51-52:
“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”
This sentiment by the Chief Priests and Pharisees provides an interesting contrast with our thesis that there was a widespread expectation of a messianic deliverer who would appear in the region south of Damascus. As it turns out, this statement by the authorities in Jerusalem reflects a well-known controversy between the Judeans and the Galileans, which was characterized by a general disdain among Judeans toward their Galilean comrades. One way this disdain manifested itself was in Judeans stereotyping Galileans as uneducated and Torah-ignorant. They looked down on popular Galilean beliefs and traditions. The evidence of history strongly contradicts a number of the tenets of the Judean stigma however, as synagogues were in fact widespread in Galilee and prophets in previous centuries had in fact come from Galilee. Further, in their argument they focus specifically on a “prophet,” ignoring the messianic aspect altogether. In a further irony, subsequent centuries saw rabbinic teachers turn around and prophesy that the messiah would, in fact, appear in Galilee, with names like “Menachem son of Amiel,” mentioned in the Book of Zerubabel and others.
In our next installment we will look at some final examples from the Brit HaHadasha and the subsequent decades and highlight some ways in which this popular expectation surrounding the region south of Damascus influenced events in the history of the Yeshua-believing community.