November 17, 2019

Thinking of Israel: 2019

Tel Dan Nature Reserve in Northern Israel Tel Dan Nature Reserve in Northern Israel © Lev Tsimbler - Dreamstime.com

In thinking of Israel, there are three routes of discovery or pilgrimage to be made. There is following the flow of the River Jordon from beginning to end, the ascent to Jerusalem, and then Jerusalem itself. And in doing so, you will be in the proximity of a place where the historic Jesus once occupied.

In the thinking of any given site in Israel, what can never be said is “In the beginning”. For in the Middle East, history is layered so thick that the only meaningful beginning for any given place is nothing short of the Genesis 3 expulsion from the Garden.

Tel Dan

Therefore, I am going to choose the Tel Dan as a starting point for this ride down the Jordan. And I am going to choose as a starting time about the death of Solomon and the subsequent death of the solitary kingdom under his son Rehoboam in 939.

In my eye, Dan has been historically blessed with reliable water, fertile soil, and easily defendable high ground. It was near enough to a main route of commerce to serve their needs, but far enough away to avoid constant attention. It was perhaps an enviable set of assets that needed defending often and regularly over hundreds if not thousands of years. In those days, if the defense of your city was successful then your culture carried on for another day. If it was not, your culture might cease to exist and its evidence be reduced to some busted pottery or a few courses of stone of what was once a house or fortification.

The entire chapter of Judges 18 describes how the tribe of Dan went north and did just that to the people of Laish. And in this fine place they called Dan, they lived until the Assyrians did it to them. And so the bones of Dan’s culture joined the bones of the Laish culture which joined the bones of those before them. It was, and perhaps still is, an eat until you are eaten world. The remains of all of that history is now simply known as the Tel Dan.  

But during the time of Solomon, the area of Dan and the tribe bearing their ancestral namesake was likely a stable and thriving northern outpost of the unified kingdom. However, trouble darkens Dan’s future in 1 Kings 11:9-13 where God warns Solomon of the consequences of turning his heart from God. And in 1 Kings 12:16-17 God was faithful to his promise and split the kingdom. And Jeroboam was made king of the northern tribes into what was called Israel (1 Kings 12:20).

With the heavy hand of God’s disapproval on the new Yahweh denying king and kingdom of Israel began a series of never ending problems that would eventually sweep over even the isolated Dan. One of Jeroboam’s concerns was losing the hearts of his people if they continued the required pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. He feared that the people’s hearts would return to Judah under Rehoboam and they would return and kill him (1 Kings 12:27).

Therefore, he gave the people Dan and Bethel (1Kings 12:28) to worship within Israel and not Yahweh’s Temple in Rehoboam’s Judah. And ignoring the second commandment of Yahweh he commissioned two golden calves for the people to visually focus their worship. (1 Kings 12:28). And to make it seem more legitimate to the people, he erected smaller replicas of Yahweh’s Jerusalem Temple in each of the two city’s high places(V29). Then to pile sin upon sin he appointed priests that were not Levites to hold the feasts and do the sacrifices. This continued through all of the evil northern kings of Israel until prophet predicted wrath of God fell on the by the Assyrians in 722bc.

On the day of my visit to what is left of the Tel that was the city and culture of Dan, my tour bus drives us north from the Sea of Galilee for about an hour. Our approach in the spring is through green fertile fields that I’m told turn increasingly brown as the summer strengthens. The entrance to the Tel Dan Reserve is not impressive. The land on either side of the two lane country road is over grown with trees and brush that completely denies the history behind them.

The most common way to experience the Tel is a trail that follows the youthful Jordon for about a mile. Again, being spring time, the water is high and strong. At places, the water reaches the path and the rocks are slippery. Multiple springs cross our path and add to the flow. Our guide points out meaningful sites along the way.

 

It is a beautiful walk but there is not much evidence of the historical evolution of the site until the end. The first notable evidence of any significant excavated ruins is the waist high walls of Temple replica. It is complete with the same chambers and the south facing entry as the Temple. I check the door alignment on my phone compass and found it to be a little off from true south.

We are guided about two hundred yards behind the temple to an overlook of a broad valley. On the crest of where we stand is a trench and bunker from the 1967 war. In the distance is a town with a sizable space between sides. That space is the new border of Israel and Syria. Before us is a battle field of just 50 years ago. It is a witness to the never ending struggles in the area of a place know as the Tel Dan.

Back in the ruins we see more and more things to marvel over. There are plenty of  newly uncovered portions of buildings, walls, gates and fortifications. It is impressive.

        

Just inside of the most massive of the defensive walls was the place where the elders and ruler would have sat. Just around the corner it was easy to see how the forceful entry into the city would have been difficult for an invader. Standing near the walls took very little imagination to visualize attackers rushing the area.

We are guided around the corner to an old elaborate and well preserved city entry made of mud. This would have been an impressive structure around 2,800 or so years ago. Its survival is largely due to it being buried for most of it history. So it was not washed away or purposefully torn down. Now, it is protected with its own roofed enclosure. If only such things could speak to us about what has happened here.

Between 930 when Jeraboam became king and 722 when the Assyrians annihilated the top ten tribes, is only 208 years. This substitute temple in Dan lasted less than that. I understand this to be a clear witness to the patience of God. For around two hundred years Dan hosted a pagan temple as an open affront to Yahweh. This temple was attended to by false priests outside the tribe of Levi, sacrificing to manmade gods, enticing the people away from their one true God. God warned this northern kingdom over and over with his prophets. But eventually his judgment came to call on the city of Dan in the form of the Assyrians. And the people as well as the stone were buried for thousands of years.

Speaking of stones, in this place, there are walls build of stone from many different times. They represent times of expansion and then episodes of destruction. It is easy to compress the hundreds of years between cycles, for it is sometimes the paper thin space between two stones. I am drawn to think how each of these cycles represents multiple generations living relatively peacefully before being annihilated and forgotten. It was a life where large sections of time would see relatively minor conflicts punctuated by genocide.

Tel Dan is disturbing place. It is an appropriate reminder of the consequences of turning your back to God. It is an appropriate place for me to start reliving my pilgrimage through Israel in 2019.

 

 

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