It’s funny how each day here, packed with such a wide range of activities, can somehow end up following an overall theme that is very different to the previous day. Day 5 on our pilgrimage provides a good example of this. We visited the ruins of the ancient cities of Dan and Caesarea Philippi, and the border with war-ravaged Syria. Each place brought its own insights and emotional experience that were framed firmly in Jesus’ question to his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter’s response, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!’ is powerful both in its boldness of declaration and it’s potential idolatry. He made his declaration of faith in a place where there was a myriad of gods worshipped and revered, particularly the reverence of the god of music, Pan (from whom we get ‘pan-flutes’) Pan was half-human, half-goat, not quite the romantic hero you would easily find yourself attracted to! And so it was that when he fell in love with a local nymph she wasn’t all that enamoured and she begged Zeus to help her. He turned her into a bamboo reed, which seems like a practical solution. Unfortunately Pan came across her, realized his unrequited love and cut down the bamboo cane and turned her into a hauntingly beautiful musical instrument, the flute! While all of this may seem to have very little to do with Jesus and his emerging followers it is interesting that it was here, in the midst of the myriad of gods and faith alternatives, that He asks them such a loaded question. The disciples have been with Him for some time now and he needs to see how far their understanding has come. Peters response, typical in its impetuosity, shows that in a land and time of many theological options and distractions, they get it; God has come among them in human flesh, and they believe.
The theme of idolatry also extends to the story, told in Judges and Joshua of how the tribe of Dan acted so dishonorably in their journey to establish themselves in the land of Canaan. While the story is too detailed to explain here, the potted version is that the tribe of Dan sent spies to scope out their future living arrangements. They meet a Levite priest who serves a man named Mica, who for a member of one of the tribes of Israel has a disturbingly vast array of idols. They also realize the land is inhabited by a friendly people, who would probably peacefully co-exist but the tribe of Dan decide to take everything; idols, Levite priest and the city, destroying all the locals in the process. They then build their own fortifications which last still to this day: an impressive ruin of a city that includes stones that are standing up instead of lying down. The significance of this is that any stone placed in unnatural positions, ie standing up, was probably a focus of idolatrous worship.
On the way to the Syrian border we visited a kibbutz which was very much in the firing line during the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Syria and Egypt, rather ingeniously attacked Israel on a holy festival when the use of radios, TVs, or any form of electronic communications was forbidden. In the ensuing war this kibbutz was literally on the front line as the nearby valley, now known as the Valley of Tears, saw a three day tank battle that was a pivotal turning point for the ultimate victory for the nation of Israel. It struck me throughout the day that idolatry is anything that takes us away from complete surrender to God; be it selfies, fears, anxieties, political ideology, financial success, social status, anything. Before we can cast judgement on the political mess that is the Middle East, we need to recognize that we only ever see a small part of a highly complex situation, we have not lived through other people’s horrors, nor have we tried to fully understand both sides, preferring to judge from a safe distance. It also struck me that our tendency to righteous indignation and the certitude of our own opinions can so easily become idolatry. May God forgive us. Shalom. Baden