The Geography of the Christmas Story

Biblical Stories

Nazareth to Bethlehem

Route from Nazareth to Bethlehem

The Bible is filled with stories. They are narratives that don’t take place in a vacuum. For each story of the Bible, there is a cultural context in which it takes place. Many Bible commentators consider the cultural contexts of these stories in order to extract an accurate meaning. There is also an historical-political context to each story. This means paying attention to what took place historically in the region surrounding the events of the story.

“Connecting the Dots”

Additionally, there is also a geographical context to each story. Understanding the geographical surroundings of the story helps the student of the Bible connect the dots between the regions or cities that are part of the narrative. “Connecting the dots” between regions and cities is an integral part of every Israel tour we lead. The Christmas story is one of those narratives where understanding the geographical context sheds light on the amazement of God’s redemptive story.

Nazareth, Israel

The city of Nazareth today

According to the Gospel text, Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth. It is located in the Lower Galilee region (today Nazareth is a city of about 80,000 consisting of primarily Arabs who are citizens of Israel). The town of Nazareth was a small city, so insignificant that it is not even mentioned in the Jewish Talmud. The village consisted of perhaps as few as a dozen families. Located just 4-5 miles away was Sepporis, the primary city in the region.  So in this geographical region of Lower Galilee, Nazareth was insignificant in light of Sepporis.  Yet this was where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary (and later an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:18f). Isn’t that just like God, to call, use, and inspire common people from common places for His redemptive purpose!

When the Time Came

When the time came, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. The direct distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is about 60 miles. However, most Jews traveling from the Galilee in the north to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the south took the Jordan River Valley route.  Intentionally avoiding the region of Samaria, this would have made the trip about 15 miles longer, for a total of about 75 miles.  This route would have taken the young couple through the eastern branch of the Jezreel Valley and past Bethshean before turing south in the Jordan River Valley. This means the journey to Bethlehem would have taken them a good 5-6 days. In regard to Mary’s condition, how about covering this distance while very pregnant? That’s quite impressive actually! Tradition places Mary riding on a donkey led by Joseph walking on foot. However, there is no reason not to believe that she would have walked most of this herself even in her pregnant condition. It was a difficult trip either way!

The Route

Ascent of Adummim

The Ascent of Adummim. This is the route taken by Jospeh and Mary from Jericho to Jerusalem & Bethlehem (credit: Bible Places)

The route would have continued from Jericho, located just north of the Dead Sea, to Jerusalem. This was the ancient “Jericho Road” that ascended about 4,000 feet in elevation up the Ascent of Adummim (the most difficult section of the route) through the Judean Desert to Judea’s capital city in the Judean Hill Country. Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph’s final destination, is located about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. While Bethlehem was probably not as small as Nazareth, it, too, was overshadowed by the awe and glory of Jerusalem. Additionally, located just about 4 miles east of Bethlehem was Herodium, one of Herod the Great’s “palace-fortresses.”  While we can’t specifically place this wicked king residing at Herodium at the precise time of the birth of Christ (he was most likely in his palace in Jerusalem though just 5 miles north), this towering fortress represented something “grand and mighty” in comparison to the humble birth of Jesus.

Now enter the “wise men or Magi. Whoever they were, they traveled from the east quite a distance, crossing the desert region. They must have traveled for months before finally first arriving in Jerusalem and staying there for some time before eventually finding the “house” of Joseph and Mary (Matthew 2:11). The geographical distance these Mede / Persian astronomers would have been at least hundreds of miles, up to 500 miles, depending on where they were from.

Real Places with a Real Reason

Jesus light of the worldWhat does knowing a little about the geography of Christmas do for us?  It helps put into context the remarkable ways that God prepared the scene for the coming of His Son. It places the narrative of Christmas in various and unique geographical regions. Some of these regions are hilly (Lower Galilee), flat (Jezreel Valley, Jordan River Valley), and mountainous (Judean Desert, Hill Country of Judah). Most of all, it places the birth narrative of Jesus in real places with a real reason!

Jesus came “just at the right time” (Gal. 4:4) to provide an answer to sin and its consequences. He came to bring light. He came to be the Light in a dark world!

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Oct-Nov 2016 Israel Tour – Day 7

DAY 7 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6

gamla synagogue

Sitting in the 1st century synagogue at Gamla (in the Golan Heights)

Today we headed north to the Golan Heights. It was another sunny and beautiful day, with temps around 80. Departing after breakfast at the hotel, we drove to the NE corner of the Sea of Galilee and up the Golan to where we made our first panoramic stop. With Bethsaida below us, we read from Mark 8 (blind man healed) and Matthew 14 (also John 6). The Feeding of the 5,000 took place right below us! From this corner, Jesus also walked on the water in the middle of the night to His disciples’ boat (Mark 6).

Our first site we visited was Gamla. This was the predominate Jewish city on this NE corner of the lake. Here, the 1st Jewish Revolt took place against the Romans. Here is also a 1st century synagogue. Even though not mentioned, there is a high probability that Jesus taught here (Mt. 9). For this reason, it was special to actually sit in this synagogue! The indirect reference to Gamla is Acts 5 (e.g. about a certain “Judas the Galilean” who may have been from here). Josephus (who was in this battle) records the details in his Jewish Wars.

Rabbi Abun's house katzrin

A reconstructed house at the Katzrin Village (Golan Heights)

Continuing to drive on the plateau of the Golan, Katzrin (also Qatzrin) was our next stop. We visited this Talmudic village where we sat in a reconstructed stone house similar, no doubt, to the houses in Jesus’ day. While crowded in this stone house, we read from Mark 2 about the paralyzed man being lowered down through the flat roof to Jesus below. Jesus not only healed him physically, but also spiritually. Praise God for the “authority” (S’mekah in Hebrew) of Jesus to forgive sins! There is also a synagogue here as well.

Driving now north and east, we stopped at the border with Syria. Shlomo shared some modern history about the 1967 and 1973 wars against these northern neighbors. We actually were able to look over the border into Quneitra, Syria! We prayed for those innocent victims of the civil war in this war-torn country.

Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi

Grabbing lunch “on the go” (e.g. bananas, pretzels, and snacks), we spent the afternoon at two more national parks. The first one was Caesarea Philippi. This was a pagan city during Jesus’ day. But it was in the “region” of this city where Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” It was Peter who replied, “You are the Christ!” (Matthew 16) Here we saw the cultic grotto used in pagan worship, including the niches used for Pan. The Banias spring here serves as one of three tributaries of the Jordan River. The transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17) also may have taken place here too!

Coming down off the Golan now our last stop of the day was Dan. We first walked through the nature preserve. Here is the largest of the tributaries of the Jordan. The walk along the river was beautiful! We enjoyed Shlomo’s recorder playing. We also considered Psalm 42 and sang together. The path leads into the archaeological part of Dan. We sat on the steps of the high place as we read from Judges 18 (the Danites conquered this city, called Laish, and relocated here) and 1 Kings 12. Jeroboam set up a false worship center here, including an altar and golden calf. We also saw the mud-brick gate of Dan, dating to around the time of Abraham.

Dan nature preserve

The Dan Nature Preserve

Since we still had ample daylight, we ascended the hills of Naphtali to Misgav Am. Here we had a tremendous view of Mt. Hermon to the east and Lebanon to the north. We literally were about 1/2 mile from the border. Shlomo shared some modern history about Lebanon. We also heard the story from the Bible (2 Samuel 20) that took place at the tel of Abel Beit Maacah below.

Driving back south through the Huleh Valley, we arrived at our hotel for dinner. We enjoyed an optional gathering down at the water’s edge to conclude the night.

DAY 8 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6 – MT. ARBEL, JORDAN RIVER BAPTISM, MT. CARMEL, CAESAREA, JERUSALEM

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July 2015 Israel Tour – Day 6

DAY 6 – FRIDAY, JULY 17

On top of Arbel

On top of Arbel

Today was a day spent around the Sea of Galilee. Under a sunny ski and warm temps again (90 or so, very pleasant with an afternoon breeze), we began our day by visiting the cliffs of Arbel. Nine in the group hiked to the top while the rest of the group drove to the top from the other side. This is one of the best views of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus spend most of his ministry time in this area, and from the top, it’s a great view of the region.

Next we drove to Magdala. Here we saw the 1st century AD synagogue. Even though not mentioned in the Gospels, Jesus must have taught here. We visited the new chapel built on the grounds, enjoying the reading of Mathew 13 and singing.  Staying on this NW corner of the lake, we next visited Chorazim, one of the three cities condemned by Jesus (Luke 10). We read Matthew 23 from within the 3rd century AD synagogue made from basalt.

Capernaum

Capernaum

Finally before lunch, we visited Capernaum, the “ministry home-town” of Jesus. It was here where He first called His disciples. He also displayed His authority (“s’mekah”) here through His teaching, healing, and forgiving of sin. We read from Mark 1, 2, and nine; Luke 7; and John 6.

After a great “St. Peter’s fish” lunch, we drove to the southern end of the Sea of Galilee to Yardenit. Seven chose to re-affirm their faith by getting baptized in the Jordan River. It was a special time! Close by we visited the Kinneret Cemetery where we heard of the life story of a certain “Rachel, the Poet.”

Boat Ride

Boat Ride

We ended the day with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and a visit to the Mt. of Beatitudes. It was very windy on the lake, making reading Mark 4 and Matthew 14 (the “storm narratives” very real!). We enjoyed a time of worship on the boat as well. On the Mt. of Beatitudes, we heard Matthew 5 read in Hebrew. We also talked about God’s kingdom. We walked down the path to the shoreline of the lake.

We returned to our hotel for dinner and an optional gathering on the beach of the lake. Some went swimming too. It was a special way to end another great day here in Israel.

DAY 6 – FRIDAY, JULY 17: GOLAN HEIGHTS, DAN, CAESAREA PHILIPPI, QATZRIN, GAMLA, KATZRIN

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July 2013 Israel-Jordan Tour – Day 7

DAY 7: SUNDAY, JULY 14 This is the day that we leave for Jerusalem.  Prior to leaving the hotel, we visited the ancient boat that was found right here on the grounds by two brothers in 1986.  Leaving the Sea of Galilee region, we traveled to the Lower Galilee to the site of Sepporis.  This was a dominating Jewish city located only 4 miles from Jesus’ home town of Nazareth.  Here we saw beautiful mosaics, a Roman villa, and theater.  Close by is the precipice of Nazareth.  This was our first view of the Jezreel Valley.  From here we saw Mt. Tabor (Judges 4 & 5), the Hill of Moreh (Judges 7), and Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18).  We also … Continue reading

July 2013 Israel-Jordan Tour – Day 6

DAY 6: SATURDAY, JULY 13 It was another beautiful day here in the Galilee.  We began the day by visiting Arbel, the mountain/cliff that overlooks the NW corner of the lake below.  About a third of the group left at 7 a.m. in order to climb to the top.  The trail winds around the cliff until it ascends the top cliff part to the top.  The rest of the group approached Arbel from the other side, hiking the last part of it to the top.  What a great view!  Leaving Arbel, we headed to the north once again into the Golan Heights.  On the way, we stopped at Magdala.  We were able to actually walk out to the current excavation … Continue reading

July 2013 Israel-Jordan Tour – Day 5

DAY 5: FRIDAY, JULY 12 What a great first day here in the Galilee.  We start the day by driving to the Mt. of Beatitudes.  Located on the NW corner of the Sea of Galilee, we sat down at the top of a natural theater where Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount probably took place.  We read portions of Matthew 5.  We walked down to the lake’s edge, recalling his kingdom parables he shared (e.g. from Matthew 13).  From here we headed north in the Golan for rafting down the Jordan River.  We enjoyed gently floating down the river together.  It as a relaxing and peaceful time. Following lunch and staying in this area for most of the afternoon, we next … Continue reading

Nothing like being in the “Land of the Bible”

There is nothing like being in the “land of the Bible!”  The stories come alive through the lens of archaeology, historical geography, and the culture.  Each narrative of the Bible has acontext.  We are about to begin our 4th day of the tour.  We head to the Golan Heights today.  Sea of Galilee region tomorrow.  The life of Christ will burst open in full color. If you want to follow our day-to-day experiences, visit www.biblicalisraeltours.com by … Continue reading