The Golan Heights is a strategic point in the north of Israel. Situated between Lebanon and Syria, it was a crucial area of land in biblical times and continues to be a critical area for the security of Israel today.
The Golan is known as Bashan in the Bible, referenced in Deuteronomy 4:43, 1 Kings 4:13, Psalm 22:12, and Isaiah 2:13 for example. This is where the half-tribe of Manasseh settled, and Golan is named as a city of refuge in Joshua 21:27.
Following the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel seized nearly two-thirds of the Golan from Syrian control. This area is a strategic point to secure the northern border of Israel and historically has been a contested area. You may remember headlines last year in 2019 when the United States made a bold declaration and formally recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
A good friend of mine in the U.S. military told me the Golan Heights is one of his favorite places in all of Israel.
Not only is this area important from a military perspective as a prime lookout, but it has some of the most breathtaking, and yet contrasting, views in the Land where you can see both rolling hills and Syrian fortresses.
In the highest part of the Golan sits Mount Hermon, Israel’s highest mountain. Snow-capped in winters, this summit is home to Israel’s only ski resort in the winter and stands at nearly 10,000 feet tall. It is where the Jordan River begins on its journey, flowing south into the Sea of Galilee almost 60 miles away.
The dew of Hermon described in Psalm 133 paints a picture of majesty and beauty.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
Can you imagine the view David had as he wrote this psalm, looking to the height of Mount Hermon in the north? Envisioning the stream of water flowing and making its way south to the mountains of Zion in Jerusalem?
This gentle stream, like the delicate flow of oil running down the beard of Aaron the high priest, was likened to the blessing of brothers in unity where the Lord commands blessing and life forevermore.
Hermon is also given mention in Judges 3:3 and 1 Chronicles 5:23 as home to the rulers of the Philistines and their high places of worship. These “high places” were significant to cultures entertaining idols because it was thought that the higher the point, the holier it was. Think of the high places later torn down by the prophet Elijah or the righteous kings Hezekiah and Josiah, who confronted idol worship and the Canaanite gods.
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Caesarea Philippi and Dan
If you wander through the Golan Heights with a Bible in your hand, you will inevitably reach the city of Caesarea Philippi, at the base of Mount Hermon.
This Greco-Roman city was located near the ancient city of Dan. Do you remember the corrupt king Jeroboam who made two golden calves? He set one in Bethel and the second one in Dan (1 Kings 12:25-33).
This foundation of idol worship gave way to Dan becoming a center of Baal worship in the region as the Israelites became attracted to fertility cults and allowed it to become a pagan stronghold.
In Matthew 16 we find Jesus taking His disciples to Caesarea Philippi. The backstory on this city is very significant to the greater meaning of this passage. To set the stage for you, this is where Herod the Great built the Temple of Augustus in 19 BC in honor of Caesar.
The temple was carved into a natural rock formation in front of a cave containing a natural spring.
The cave was believed to be resided by the Greek god Pan, giving the city its name Panias, or Banias as it is named today. Worship of Pan, god of the goats, included vile acts linked to lust, fertility, and animal sacrifice. It is said that this city was so wicked that the rabbis forbade Jews to come to this area.
And precisely to this setting Jesus brings His disciples in Matthew 16. They probably spent days walking the 25-mile journey north from the Galilee. Perhaps this long distance permitted Jesus to remind His disciples of the pagan stronghold this area was.
It dates all the way back to the days when the tribe of Dan settled in the region and compromised their faith by allowing syncretism to seep in.
Conversation at the Rock
In the midst of idol worship and the celebration of a false god, Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” He purposely took them to a setting that exemplified such lewd acts of pagan sacrifice and immorality that would make our modern-day sin cities look juvenile. Yet Jesus took the opportunity to draw such great distinction between the Kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.
Peter answers Jesus’ question with the proclamation that He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. To which Jesus replies, “flesh and blood have not revealed this to you… and on this rock I will build my Church.” (Matt. 16:17-18)
Perhaps Jesus was pointing to the very rock formation where the temple to the Greek god Pan was built. A “rock” that contained what visitors deemed the “gates of hell,” a natural spring with flowing water believed to be a gateway to the underworld.
When Jesus said “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” perhaps He was using the imagery of a physical place to exemplify a greater spiritual reality – that no evil, no idol, and no false god will stand against the greatness of the Messiah and His Body, His Church.
The next time you read some of these passages in your Bible, remember the God of the Book still speaks today. Ask Him to reveal treasures in His Word.
Take time to study the geography of the Book and get wrapped up in the story. God’s Word is alive and active today and the Holy Spirit is ready to speak a fresh word in stories you may have read countless times before.