Arbel Cliff PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Arbel Cliff
In the early morning or late afternoon, this cliff provides an excellent view over the area of Jesus' Galilean ministry. Opposite, on the northern shore, we can spot Capernaum. To its right the Upper Jordan spills into the lake, and just beyond that was a big city from the First Testament period that may have been the Bethsaida of the Gospels. To the left of Capernaum is an area of seven springs called Tabgha, where for the last 1600 years (if not more) Christians have commemorated Jesus' teachings and miracles. Above Tabgha is the Mount of Beatitudes, and thirty miles beyond it arises Mt. Hermon (9146 feet above sea level), at whose foot lay Caesarea Philippi (Banias).

Directly below us on the shore (a drop of a thousand feet) lay Magadan, famous for its fish, which 6th-century pilgrims renamed Magdala , associating it with Mary Magdalene. The plain of Gennesareth, as Josephus called it, stretches away from us to the north. We can see the abundant variety of trees: olives, citrus and avocado, as well as date palms. Josephus' description gives us an idea of what this plain would have looked like to Jesus and the disciples. 

Facing south: To the right of nearby Upper Tiberias (the water tower), we can see the top of the perfectly rounded Mt. Tabor. Just west of it is the Nazareth ridge, which belonged to the Israelite tribe of Zebulon. We, for our part, are standing in Naftali. And so we have around us all the ingredients of Matthew 4: 12 - 20.

The eastern side of the lake makes up part of the Golan Heights. Here we can locate Kursi, the ancient Gergesa. (In Matthew 8:28, Gergesa is the place where Jesus cast demons into swine.) Above Kibbutz Ein Gev one can discern the acropolis of Hippos (a.k.a. Sussita), a city of the Decapolis.
Looking north again, this time to the mountains of Upper Galilee, we see Safed (Tzfat), at 2800 feet the highest city in the State of Israel, famous as the home of Jewish mysticism in the 16th century.
Backtracking on the path, we can spot many caves in the cliff across the way, called Mount Nittai. There are also cliffs below us in the Arbel (enlarge picture, right). A piece of history is connected with them, told by Josephus in War,   Book I, 16.2:

But when Herod had reached Sepphoris, in a very great snow, he took the city without any difficulty; the guards that should have kept it flying away before it was assaulted; where he gave an opportunity to his followers that had been in distress to refresh themselves, there being in that city a great abundance of necessaries. After which he hasted away to the robbers that were in the caves, who overran a great part of the country, and did as great mischief to its inhabitants as a war itself could have done. Accordingly, he sent beforehand three cohorts of footmen, and one troop of horsemen, to the village Arbela, and came himself forty days afterwards with the rest of his forces....

But Herod followed them, and slew them as he followed them, and destroyed a great part of them, till those that remained were scattered beyond the river; and Galilee was freed from the terrors they had been under, excepting from those that remained, and lay concealed in caves, which required longer time ere they could be conquered...

In the mean time Antony abode at Athens, while Ventidius called for Silo and Herod to come to the war against the Parthians, but ordered them first to settle the affairs of Judea; so Herod willingly dismissed Silo to go to Ventidius, but he made an expedition himself against those that lay in the caves. Now these caves were in the precipices of craggy mountains, and could not be come at from any side, since they had only some winding pathways, very narrow, by which they got up to them; but the rock that lay on their front had beneath it valleys of a vast depth, and of an almost perpendicular declivity; insomuch that the king was doubtful for a long time what to do, by reason of a kind of impossibility there was of attacking the place.

Yet did he at length make use of a contrivance that was subject to the utmost hazard; for he let down the most hardy of his men in chests, and set them at the mouths of the dens. Now these men slew the robbers and their families, and when they made resistance, they sent in fire upon them; and as Herod was desirous of saving some of them, he had proclamation made, that they should come and deliver themselves up to him; but not one of them came willingly to him; and of those that were compelled to come, many preferred death to captivity.

And here a certain old man, the father of seven children, whose children, together with their mother, desired him to give them leave to go out, upon the assurance and right hand that was offered them, slew them after the following manner: He ordered every one of them to go out, while he stood himself at the cave's mouth, and slew that son of his perpetually who went out. Herod was near enough to see this sight, and his bowels of compassion were moved at it, and he stretched out his right hand to the old man, and besought him to spare his children; yet did not he relent at all upon what he said, but over and above reproached Herod on the lowness of his descent, and slew his wife as well as his children; and when he had thrown their dead bodies down the precipice, he at last threw himself down after them.

Just west of Moshav Arbel, there is a partial restoration of an ancient synagogue from the 4th (?) until the 8th centuries AD. For Arbela was a Jewish town in the Roman period.