Episode 22: Galilee
Galilee reminds us that there is no place where God will not go, no group of people whom God does not seek to reach.
In the Gospel of John, Galilee represents more than a mere geographical region extending from the Jezreel Valley, through the fertile lands west of the Sea of Tiberias, and upward into the drier hill country in the north. Repeated references to Galilee contribute to our understanding of the movement involved in Jesus’ ministry; Jesus walks throughout the countryside from Judea in the south to Galilee and other regions in the north. More significantly, Galilee designates a region where people less acceptable to the urbanites of Jerusalem live, even though they may be no less religiously minded.
In the Old Testament
Historically, the region of Galilee is associated with the territory inherited by the two tribes: Naphtali and Zebulun. Part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, this region was devastated by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC. During the early first century many practitioners of Judaism living within this region interacted with the more Hellenized individuals who had settled in the region during Greek, and now Roman rule.
The prophet Isaiah might best describe this region in his statement in Chapter 9 (8:23 LXX). “Do not be in distress, you who have been troubled until now.” This region had many reasons to be distressed, troubled, and downcast. Solomon had given part of their inherited territory to the King of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast in exchange for supplies he provided for building the Temple. The inhabitants of this region were often oppressed under occupying armies from areas farther north whenever they extended their reach and power over this essentially rural region.
Elsewhere in John
The low respect given to inhabitants from this region can be seen in the religious authorities’ response to one of their own at the end of Chapter 7. Nicodemus speaks up to challenge their actions toward Jesus.
“Our law does not judge a man unless it first hears from
him and understands what he is attempting, does it?”
They responded to him, “You’re not from Galilee, are you?
Examine and understand that a prophet has never
arisen from Galilee.” (7:51-52)
Religious leaders were not alone in their disdain for this region. During this same festival some of the crowd had expressed a similar opinion earlier.
Others were saying, “This one is the Messiah,”
but another group said, “The Messiah won’t come
from Galilee, will he?” (7:41)
One reason these inhabitants of Jerusalem viewed Galilee with such disregard originated in the more frequent interaction Jews had with Gentiles in this region.
Episodes reported in John 4 present a favorable view of Jesus’ interaction with different non-Jewish individuals: a woman from a city in Samaria, inhabitants of that city, and a royal official who held slaves within his household. One of the more perplexing statements provided by the evangelist occurs as Jesus transitions from Judea to Galilee.
After two days, Jesus went from that place (Samaria)
to Galilee; for Jesus himself had stated that a prophet
holds no honor within his own hometown. Then, when
he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him because
they had seen everything he had accomplished at the
feast in Jerusalem, since they too had gone to the feast.
The passage is confusing since those who read the gospel assume Jesus is from Nazareth in Galilee. Yet, the Galileans accept Jesus, indicating he truly is not “from” there. One major theme in this Gospel concerns where Jesus is from.
In John 6, Galilee serves as a crucial background for the activities of Jesus and his conversations with his disciples and others. Beginning on the other side of the Sea of Tiberias, as it was officially called after the Roman emperor but known more prominently as the Sea of Galilee, Jesus performs a miraculous feeding sign. The people identify him as the Prophet written about by Moses (see Episode 17). Not wishing them to act presumptively, Jesus disappears into the hills. Leaving him on the far side of the Sea, his disciples get into their boat and begin to cross the body of water. A second sign parallel to one by Moses then occurs when Jesus calms the raging wind. Suddenly, the boat reaches Galilee.
Later that day, many from the far side arrive near Capernaum and begin a dialogue with Jesus. The people end up frustrated by his words, many followers decide to leave Jesus, and we are informed that Judas will betray Jesus. Although a few chapters earlier it appeared Jesus was well received by those inhabiting Galilee, it now appears they, too, are deciding to reject him.
Immediately following, at least in the story time of the Gospel, we learn a distinction between those inhabiting Jerusalem and Judea and those inhabiting Galilee. Those in Judea are seeking to kill Jesus. Even Jesus’ brothers encourage him to go to the Festival in Judea to be acclaimed by the crowds, yet Jesus remains in Galilee. He is hidden, he is safe, at least for the moment. Once Jesus turns southward again, he will not return to Galilee, until after his resurrection.
At the end of the story in John 21, we have an account of Jesus’ disciples fishing in the Sea of Tiberius. Seven are listed, but only three are named. We find Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, and Nathanael, who we now learn originates from Cana of Galilee. This reference calls us to remember the earlier two signs of Cana; the wedding feast and the son healed. Galilee represents a place unpopular with the urban dwellers of Jerusalem, but a place where Jesus can go about freely and where he is often well received.
One key theme throughout the Gospel of John centers around the question, “Where is Jesus from?” Under normal situations, a person would answer, “Nazareth of Galilee.” Both places seem to be associated with less desirable origins. Yet the question remains, where is Jesus from? This theme is not the most important one in the gospel. More important is the question, “Where is Jesus going?” Under normal situations, a person would respond that he is going either to Judea or to Galilee. This answer reflects the geographical framework for these two names. But, Galilee is more than a geographical region; it also represents a place less desirable than urban Jerusalem. Jesus walks about Galilee performing wonderful signs and reaching out to the inhabitants. Ultimately, Galilee represents for the astute reader of this Gospel the personification of John 3:16, “God loved his own in this fashion, he sent his unique Son.” Galilee reminds us that there is no place where God will not go, no group of people whom God does not seek to reach. When we think otherwise, we risk becoming like the urban Jerusalemites who reject Jesus.
Take 5 Minutes More
Geographic names are only one way that we can seek to diminish the value and worth of other individuals. I live in a state referred to by many as a “fly-over” state, indicating that nothing exists in my state worth stopping for in the travel from the east coast to the west. The story and ministry of Jesus seeks to repel this derision in each and every case. Instead of asking where one is from, Jesus forces us to ask, “Where is that person going?” Jesus is not as concerned for our past as he is for our future.
Write down 3-5 terms you use in your own language in order to discount a person’s value or contribution. Now replace each term with one that will focus on that person’s positive future. Take a few moments to pray that you might begin to view others with the same frame of reference God uses, one that originates in love.