Biblical Geography

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.  In yesterday’s post we placed our gospel reading in context of the unfolding of the events after Jesus’ time in the desert and before the calling of his disciples. In today’s post we explore the meaning behind the Biblical land travelog that opens our gospel passage.

When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” (Mt 4:12-16)

Jesus’ first stop in Galilee was Nazareth, the village where he grew up (2:23). Matthew does not dwell on Nazareth (cf. Luke 4:16–30), preferring to stress Capernaum because its location has prophetic significance. Capernaum is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, roughly two miles west of the Jordan River.

While Capernaum is mentioned in the other Gospels as a scene of Jesus’ ministry, only Matthew makes explicit that Jesus now made it his home or at least a ‘base’ to which Jesus and his disciples returned from time to time from their itinerant ministry. Matthew’s reason for mentioning this may be due to his own connection with the town where he served as a tax collector (Mt 9:9) or there may be a more theological motive in stressing the unique opportunity offered to this town which failed to believe (11:23–24). In any case, Capernaum, as a busy lakeside town, ensured a wider audience for Jesus’ teaching than Nazareth; leaving Nazareth may also reflect the rejection of Jesus by his own people recorded in Luke 4:16–30.

Because Capernaum is not mentioned in the OT, Matthew stressed its location in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (cf. Joshua 19:32–39); these two are mentioned in Isaiah 8:22-9:2. The territory of these two tribes was the first to be devastated (733-32 B.C.) at the time of the Assyrian invasion.

The expression “the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan” in Isaiah describes Galilee from the perspective of the Assyrian invader, as the land west of the river. “Galilee of the Gentiles” was now an even more appropriate description than in Isaiah’s day, as successive movements of population had given it a predominantly Gentile population until a deliberate Judaizing policy was adopted by the Hasmonaean rulers, resulting in a thoroughly mixed population in Jesus’ time.

Matthew finds that the area is the place of revelation of the Jewish Messiah in Isaiah’s prediction of new light dawning in Galilee after the devastation caused by the Assyrian invasion. After Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz that the Lord’s sign to him was that a virgin would give birth (Is 7:14), Isaiah goes on to prophesize of a new salvation under a future Davidic King in which the lands lost to the Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III in Ahaz’s time, would be restored to the rule of the throne of David. Isaiah describes those lands as “distress and darkness, oppressive gloom, murky, without light” (Is 8:22). It was true during the time under Assyrian rule, but even in Jesus’ time Galilee was often the underdog both in political fortunes and in the eyes of official Jewish religion.  But in Jesus’ ministry in the region “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen” (Mt 4:16)

Matthew connects the political darkness facing Israel in the days of Isaiah to the spiritual problem that caused it. Israel’s defection from the Mosaic covenant had led to her oppression by other kingdoms. Centuries later the linger effects point to the need for the redemption from sin that was now coming through Jesus the Messiah. In this way, Matthew highlights another fulfillment theme. Galilee was looked down upon by the Jerusalem establishment and those who supported it. Its population was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. It was to this darkened place (cf. Ps 107:10; Luke 1:79) that Jesus brought the light of the Kingdom of God. His mission was not primarily geared toward the Gentiles during these early days of the Galilean ministry, but the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry in a remote, despised place, largely populated by Gentiles, foreshadows the expansion of mission to all the nations at the end of Jesus’ ministry (Mt 28:19).

Image credit: Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter, c. 1636-40, by Nicholas Poussin, Public Domain

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