One of my favorite places in Israel is the site known as “Mount Precipice” in modern Nazareth. Nazareth is built on a hill and overlooks the broad, flat, fertile plain to the south known as the Jezreel Valley.
The Jezreel Valley runs east-west, and it makes a natural buffer zone between Galilee in the north and Samaria in the south.
Mount Precipice is quite close to the site of first-century Nazareth—it’s a walk of a bit more than a mile. I don’t expect that Jesus came there every day, but I suspect that when he wanted to be alone to think, he came there and sat on one of the giant rocks and enjoyed the view and had a chat with God.
The View of the Jezreel Valley
Napoleon called the Jezreel Valley the greatest battlefield on earth. I’m not a general. When I look at the valley, I see food growing. I see farms. Here’s a picture I took a few years ago, looking down on the Jezreel Valley from Mount Precipice.
The view is south and just a little bit west, with the camera angled downward to show the rocky slope. You can see a modern highway and modern farms in the valley. An ancient road ran south from Nazareth approximately where you see the highway in the picture. That was one of the two roads Jesus could take to go to Jerusalem for Passover, but it was a little hazardous because it went straight south through the enemy territory of Samaria. We know he took that road at least twice, and probably often. It’s the shortest route to Jerusalem from Nazareth, 64 miles south as the crow flies. That would be a three-day walk if you’re really pressing the pace, and four days at a moderate speed.
Mount Tabor to the East
If you look east from Mount Precipice, you see that the Jezreel Valley continues all the way until it reaches the Jordan River on the misty horizon. The valley passes between two mountains. On the north is Mount Tabor, which looks like an upside-down bowl. On the south, there’s a range of hills called the hills of Gilboa. In the photo below, Mount Tabor is on the left and the hills of Gilboa are on the right.
When Jesus stood on this spot, looking at these hills, his mind would have instantly remembered the famous battles that happened there.
In the time of the Judges, the prophetess Deborah forced the commander of the Israelite army, Barak, to go to battle against the Canaanite general Sisera. Deborah and Barak set up a strong camp on the slopes of Mount Tabor. Sisera attacked from the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, coming north against the Israelite forces. With 900 chariots, he should have routed the Israelite army. Instead, Barak’s foot soldiers ran down the slopes of Mount Tabor and destroyed the Canaanite army. Sisera fled for his life, and ended up in the tent of a woman named Jael, who hammered a tent peg through his head while he slept. You can read all the details in Judges 4.
A century or so later, King Saul met his end on the field of battle with the Philistines. In that battle, the Philistines held the territory around Mount Tabor and Saul set up a position on the hills of Gilboa. The battle went badly. Saul and three of his sons were killed. The Philistines hung their bodies on the walls of a nearby city, Bet Shan, which is in the far distance in the photo, not visible in the haze. The story is told in 1 Samuel 31:2-12.
Jesus and the Kingdom of God
So when Jesus sat on the edge of Mount Precipice, he must have thought about these battles. And I think he wondered what was in store for Israel in his own future. During the decades he was growing up, Galilee, Samaria, and Judea were in turmoil. Local strongmen gathered bands of armed men and tried to attack the Romans. We know some of their stories, because they’re mentioned in the New Testament and in the works of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.
During this time, tales were told in village squares about a man who would rise up and defeat the enemies of Israel. This man would be a son of David. He would destroy the Romans. He would sit again on the throne of David in Jerusalem. He would purify the Temple. And God himself would return in a visible Presence to the Temple. That would be the Kingdom of God on earth. And that son of David would also be known by a traditional title–“son of God”–which was the standard biblical name for the reigning king of Israel. You can read the traditional coronation psalm for the king of Israel in Psalm 2.
That was the theory, anyway. In practice, things didn’t turn out quite that way, but that’s what people were thinking. And if his countrymen were thinking about it, Jesus was thinking about it too. There is no sign of any warrior mentality in Jesus. But there is every sign that the world he grew up in was a warrior culture. And that was a problem, because one part of that warrior culture was led by the dominant wing of the party known as Pharisees. But that’s a story for another day.
How Mount Precipice Got Its Name
Mount Precipice is called that because of a famous story found in the gospel of Luke. Jesus had made a name for himself throughout Galilee. He came back to Nazareth, possibly expecting a hero’s welcome. Instead, he got stony looks and angry fists. Things came to a head on Shabbat when Jesus read a passage from the book of Isaiah. He stopped right in the middle—just before the good part about the Day of Vengeance. It’s not clear if that was the tipping point, but somehow his friends and neighbors got extremely angry. Emotions took over and a mob formed. They hauled him to “the precipice” and tried to throw him down. You can read the full story in Luke 4:16-30.
The story is also told in my latest novel, Son of Mary. I may have used a few more words than the author of the gospel of Luke, but it’s the same story.
We don’t know for sure where this “precipice” was. Long tradition says it was the site now known as Mount Precipice, but tradition is not proof. I’ve been around Nazareth a fair bit, and I think Mount Precipice is as good a candiate as any. While Mount Precipice is not exactly a cliff, it’s also not a safe place. You can do a lot of damage if you push a person over a drop of even 10 or 15 feet, if they land on jagged rocks. If you have more rocks to drop on him to finish him off, then you’ve got all the ingredients needed for a traditional stoning.
Here’s a picture I took of a spot that I think would fit the story quite well.
Mount Precipice is Part of the Story of Jesus
However you slice it, Mount Precipice is part of the story of Jesus. Whether he came there with a mob, or he came there alone, he was there. And now you’ve been there too, at least in pictures. Maybe someday you can go in person.
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