The Gospel Reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Matthew 4:12-23) quotes a passage from Isaiah 9:1-4 in the Christian Old Testament and Isaiah 8:23 in the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, which refers to “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali…the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations”.
The late biblical archaeologist and Benedictine monk Bargil Pixner (1921-2002) once noted that the geography of the Holy Land is the fifth gospel in the New Testament. Indeed, a full grasp of the message in Matthew and Isaiah requires some familiarity with the physical world of the authors.
In distributing the land to the tribes of Israel, the northern-most territory was allotted to Dan. What is today the Jezreel Valley and the area of the Sea of Galilee was allotted to Zebulun and Naphtali. Along with the reference to Galilee, we territory the writers are referring to.
“The way of the sea” was an actual highway, known as “Derech HaYam” in Hebrew, and more popularly, “Via Maris” in Latin. Along with the “Ridge Route” and the “King’s Highway”, they were the three major trade routes in ancient Israel. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Via Maris “is situated from the Galilee to the North to Samaria to the South, running through the Jezreel Valley. At the Philistine Plain, the Way broke into two branches, one on the coast and one inland (through the Jezreel Valley, the Sea of Galilee, and Dan), which unites at Megiddo (“Armageddon”)”.
Because of its location Megiddo was the site of many historic battles. Communities along a trade route sometimes prosper and at other times they are also crushed by opposing powers. There is an African saying that “when two elephants fight the grass gets trampled”.
During the Jewish diaspora, the Jezreel Valley was swampy, almost uninhabitable.
And now, Isaiah comes with the message: “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” These are “the people who walked in darkness (and now) have seen a great light; (they are) those who lived in a land of deep darkness – (and now) on them light has shined” (9:1-2).
That is where Matthew picks up to introduce his readers to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is that light that shines to those in darkness and in anguish.
As I read these texts I re-live every single moment I spent in Galilee and I clearly see why the Land of the Bible is the Fifth Gospel.