The Gates of Hell

Series: Israel 2022 – Caesarea Philippi

 “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asked the question of his apostles – those closest to him during His ministry on this earth – as they traveled thru the towns around Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. (Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-21)

Caesarea Philippi. This was not a Jewish town or religious center. I’m not even sure that there was a synagogue in the area at that time. (There are old ruins of a synagogue nearby but I was not able to find a date for the ruins.) This was not a place you’d expect the Messiah or even a prophet to visit. It was known throughout the region as a pagan worship center of the Gentiles in Hellenistic times called Paneas. It was a “high place” set aside for worship of the god, Pan. (In Arabic, the name is Banias; hence, the name of the park today.)

Caesarea Philippi is a beautiful park today in Israel’s Golan Heights at the foot of Mount Hermon. It is set aside as an archaeological site and nature preserve. 

When we arrived, we took a walk through a wooded area to the Lebanese Restaurant for lunch. It was a lovely sunny day, and the park was filled with families enjoying the afternoon. Lunch was excellent, by the way. If you ever visit Banias, do try to have a meal at the restaurant. The setting along the stream is lovely and the food was very good.

Lebanese Restaurant in Hermon Stream Nature Reserve
(Photo from Google Maps)

After lunch, we headed up to the old sanctuary walking along the stream, Nahal Hermon in Hebrew and Banias River in Arabic.3 It was so unexpectedly peaceful that I fell in love with this place and hoped we’d stay so I could just wander around for the rest of the day. (Alas, we did not.)

Nahal Hermon/Banias River

We arrived at Paneas at the headwaters of the spring that fed the stream and is also one of three tributaries that feeds into the Jordan River. I was just amazed at the sight.

Paneas at Caesarea Philippi – First Look

In front of us, the ancient Bamah or, “high place”, worship site.8 This had been a cultic sanctuary since the beginning of time, I suppose.  There was a red and tan and black colored cliff right in front of us that is 230’ (70m) long by 131’ (40m) tall. On one side is a large cave that is 66’ (20m) wide by 49’ (15m) tall. Along the front of the cliff is an elevated terrace about 263’ (80m) long on which were built temples and altars for worship of the gods. The cliffside was carved with niches that had once held statues and idols.

In front of the cave was the rushing waters of the spring. In the past, that spring had gushed forth from the mouth of the cave which may have been much larger and even more impressive than it is today.

According to Josephus, the Jewish historian from Roman times:

“… the place is called Panium, where is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when any body lets down any thing to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it …7

During the time of Christ, it was a site dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Paneas had been established by the Greeks sometime after Alexander the Great had conquered the area in the 3rd century BC .1 But the Hebrews had also worshipped Baal Gad (“Master Luck” or god of good fortune) at the site in the past.1 Joshua 11:17, 12:7, and 13:5 references a high place in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon.

The Court of Pan & the Nymphs –
The carved niches would have held statues of the pagan gods.

The place must have been quite ominous in ancient times. To the first Greeks who came here, the site resembled the legendary River Styx, the boundary between the earth and the underworld. They thought this must be a place of death and it came to be thought of as the “Gates of Hades” or, “Hell”.10 In the 3rd century BC, the Ptolemaic kings built a cultic center here and as noted, the Hellenists replaced all the local deities with Pan and the cave itself was dedicated to him.

The Grotto of Pan During Biblical times, the cave was much bigger and the spring waters would have gushed out of the mouth of the cave. The ancient Greeks in the area saw this as the entrance to the underworld, Hades.
A closer view of the large rock inside the Grotto of Pan that was possibly used for sacrifices of goats to the god.

You may remember studying Pan during those mostly boring classes in high school on Greek mythology and culture. There were so many that I got them all confused but I thought Pan was the funny one – you know he was the half-human, half-goat that played a flute and hung around with nymphs, one in particular called Echo. He was a god of wild places much revered by shepherds (well, he was part goat after all). I always think of Pan drinking lots of wine and carousing around. But I read he was a troublemaker and our word, pandemonium, comes from Pan’s name.4

Statue of Pan – This photo was taken in Maryland (USA) at Ladew Topiary Gardens

That’s pretty much all that was happening here for a few centuries – lots of pilgrimages being made to the cave and lots of goats being sacrificed. Greek empires faded and, ultimately, the Roman empire came on strong.

During the time of Christ, the area had been placed under Herod the Great’s rule. When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, his “kingdom” was divided into a tetrarch and split between his three sons. One son, Philip II, inherited governance of the northern areas and founded the city called Caesarea Philippi. After Philip II died in 34 AD, his nephew Herod Agrippa I assumed rule over Caesarea Philippi. Enough history.1

A view of what the site would have looked like at the time that Jesus visited.

I keep asking myself why Jesus would come here?  Why travel this far north from Galilee where there were not too many Jewish communities? There are ruins of an old synagogue nearby but I’m not sure it was there during the 1st century AD. According to Google Maps, the distance from Capernaum on the Galilee to Caesarea Philippi is about 54 kilometers (33.55 miles) and would take about 12 hours straight-up walking…. maybe 2-3 days if you’re eating and sleeping along the way. That’s quite a distance. Scripture tells us that Jesus made one trip to Caesarea Philippi, and it was from here that He began His last trip to Jerusalem (which is another 180 kilometers/111.84 miles to the south).10

Screenshot from Google – Galilee to Caesarea Philippi

Was He here just to see this place famous for pagan worship?

Many Gentiles came here to worship and make offerings to Pan but why would a Jewish teacher come here? He spent very little time in Gentile cities overall. So, why here? If you’re looking for an answer, I do not have one. It puzzles me. But it was against this backdrop that Jesus posed that question to Peter.

Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 6:15)

Peter answered,

You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

Standing there looking at the cliff with all the niches carved out to hold pagan idols, I wondered what Peter and the other apostles thought about knowing they were standing right there in the presence of God… the real one.  No silly half-goats or wood nymphs playing flutes and causing trouble…. but the actual Messiah, the one who came to heal and to save all of mankind was there with them. For three years, He had traveled around teaching, healing the sick, calming storms, and even raising the dead. And now He was nearing the end of His ministry. Why had He come here?

Scripture tells us that Jesus held these conversations with the apostles in/around Caesarea Philippi. (Matthew 16:13) I do not know exactly where He stood when He called Peter “the stone” and told his followers that He would build His church on “the rock”. (Matthew 16:18) But, right where we stood looking at that awesome cliffside where the pagans made sacrifices to save their souls thinking that the cave was indeed the entrance to the underworld…to Hades, I can imagine Jesus telling the apostles that the “Gates of Hell” would not prevail against His church…the Church that He would build on the foundation of His own broken body.

The temples and altars at Caesarea Philippi are all gone. The spring no longer gushes out of the mouth of the cave but flows out further down the hill. The niches no longer hold idols. No more offerings are made to false gods. No one anywhere thinks of Pan as anything but a little made-up creature from the Greek myths they studied in high school.

But the church that Christ raised up…the church that He built…that church remains strong and continues to grow even today. Indeed! It will prevail for it is built upon the rock that is Jesus Christ himself and will continue forever and ever.

In the 3rd century AD, a Byzantine Church was built over the Temple of Augustus in front of the Cave. This photo is a detail of the floor mosaics from the church. Note the crosses in the circles in the mosaic design.

Sources for Historical Information About Caesarea Philippi:

  1. Caesarea Philippi – Wikipedia
  2. Baal – Wikipedia
  3. Banias River – Wikipedia
  4. Banyas – Archaeology in Israel (
  5. Banias – Wikipedia
  6. Altar Dedicated to Pan Unearthed in Golan Heights – Archaeology Magazine
  7. Banias Temples – Sanctuary of Pan – BibleWalks 500+ sites
  8. High Places, Altars and the Bamah – Biblical Archaeology Society
  9. Banias Springs – Israel Travel Centre
  10. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, , USA, Caesarea Philippi, pages 179-181(This book can be purchased on

ICYMI (In case you missed it) – Previous blogs in the Israel 2022 series:

Israel 2022: Pinch Yourself – April 4, 2022

Israel 2022: Caesarea Maritima – April 11, 2022

Israel 2022: Contested on Mount Carmel – April 20, 2022

Israel 2022: In This Valley – April 30, 2022

Israel 2022: Sea of Galilee – May 9, 2022

Israel 2022: A Very Old Boat – May 31, 2022

Israel 2022: A Blessing & A Curse – Capernaum – June 20, 2022

Israel 2022: One Little Boy Named David – July 5, 2022

One Little Boy Named David

Series: Israel 2022 – Valley of Elah

He’s singing to us.

We are standing at the edge a field of what looks to me like winter wheat. The bus had pulled off the highway and we’d all walked down the edge of the road and into the field. I was hoping that the farmer who owned the field did not come driving by and stop to run us out of his field lest we trample the crop. He didn’t and we didn’t – we stayed on the very edge and did no damage.2

And Dr. Yarbrough4 is singing to us – not what I’d expected at all. Since when do doctors sing to you? (I think I’ve been going on the wrong tours. I kind of like this singing thing.)

“Only a boy named David
Only a little brook
Only a boy named David
But five little stones he took.
Only a boy named David
Only a little sling
Only a boy named David
But he could pray and sing

And one little stone went in the sling
And the sling went round and round
And one little stone went in the sling
And the sling went round and round
And round and round
And round and round
And round and round and round
And one little stone went up in the air
And the giant came tumbling down.”

No sooner than he started singing that song than I was taken back maybe sixty years. I know that song! I cannot remember where I learned it (Sunday School?) but, in my head, I was singing right along with him. I imagined that everyone in this group was probably singing along too. Even if they did not know the song exactly, doesn’t everyone everywhere know the story of David & Goliath from the Bible? The song pretty much says it all.

We were in the Valley of Elah, named for the terebinth trees that grow there. And, like the Sea of Galilee, it doesn’t seem to have changed much over the past several thousand years….at least from where we were standing. It’s a long shallow relatively flat valley that lies between the low hills of Judah. In ancient times, this valley was significant in that the main road from the coastal cities and those in the interior of Judah – Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Hebron – ran right through the valley.

The Philistines controlled most of the valley leaving the Israelites with only a small portion at the northeast corner. Should the Philistines push through and conquer that small corner, then all of the interior of Judah would be open to them. King Saul and his men were all that stood between the Philistines and Judah.

Looking over to the side of the valley where the Philistines were encamped.

They met in this valley. On one hillside, the Philistines, and on the other, the Israelites.

This was created using Google Maps (Note 6) with my annotations to give you an overview of the battle.

For us, the Valley of Elah was a short stop on the way to Jerusalem.  We were driving up the highway heading towards Jerusalem and the bus pulls over. We all got off and walked down the side of the highway through a lovely area with quite a few pretty flowers – almost a garden by the side of the road.

Poppies growing in the Valley of Elah

At that point, I wasn’t quite sure where we were or why we had stopped there. But I figured it was something special…and I was right. We were led away from the roadway to a spot just at the edge of the field. And, as a gentle breeze rustled through the winter wheat, we listened to the story of the battle of the two fierce champions who engaged in a battle to the death.

Dr. Yarbrough took us through 1 Samuel 17 and the battle between the Israelites under King Saul and the Philistines with their champion, Goliath. Goliath, a giant from Gath who was well-versed in fighting and combat would take on a small untrained shepherd boy armed only with his trust in God, a leather sling, and five small stones he had taken from the nearby brook.

Somewhere down there is the Brook Elah. It is dry much of the year now.

Goliath was, indeed, a giant of a man. Standing somewhere between 6’9” (206cm) and 9’9” (297cm) depending on your source (Masoretic or Dead Sea Scrolls/Josephus/Septuagint), he wore armor of bronze with a bronze helmet weighing more than 5000 shekels (125.6 lbs./57kg). He had a javelin of bronze slung across his shoulders and carried a spear whose shaft was as large as a weaver’s beam (ok, big) and a point weighing in at 600 shekels (15.1 lbs./6.8 kg).3 No matter how you look at it, he was a BIG man, and a 15-pound spear point could do some serious damage. It was no wonder everyone was so frightened.

David? Not so much. He is described as a young shepherd boy, ruddy and handsome…but a boy, nonetheless… with not a lick of fear, it seems. He volunteered when no one else would. When he tried on King Saul’s armor, it was way too heavy for him such that he said he couldn’t walk in it and refused to wear it. So, he left the tools of a warrior behind and took only the tools of a shepherd, his staff, his pouch with the five stones he gathered from the stream, his sling….and, his trust in the Lord.

For 40 days, Goliath had challenged the Israelites to send their champion to fight him. Until David, there were no volunteers. David wanted to know, Just who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?3

Goliath was not amused when David came out to fight. Am I a dog,” he said to David, that you come at me with sticks?” “Come here, he called to David, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!3 Big words from a big man.

David’s response: You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand. This day I will strike you down, cut off your head, and give the carcasses of the Philistines to the birds of the air and the creatures of the earth. Then the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.  And all those assembled here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and He will give all of you into our hands.3

Of course, you know the rest. David put the stone in the sling, slung it round and round (just like in the song), and the stone hit Goliath on the forehead and sunk in. Goliath came tumbling down…. or, as Dr. Yarbrough would sing, “went splat”.  The Philistines ran away, and the Israelites won the battle.

For Saul, it was the beginning of the end. For David, it was just the beginning.

For us, it was another opportunity to see a Biblical story through new eyes…now having seen the hills and the battlefield and the little brook where the stones came from, we will always remember the place and how it felt to be there and how peaceful it is in the valley today.

One of our guides from Sar-El Tours gives us a demonstration on how to use a sling.

The combat between David and Goliath way back in 1010 BC has come to mean any contest where the odds are greatly skewed against one opponent, the obvious underdog… in this case, Israel and its champion, David.  But I am reminded and, once again, quote Dr. Bremer5 who told us, where God is concerned,

“Numbers don’t count, and the odds don’t matter.

When you go into battle, as Paul said in Ephesians 6:14, you should gird up your loins and trust in the Almighty God of the universe.

As we left the valley, I collected a stone….a tiny memory of the valley where David & Goliath fought.

Scriptural Sources:

  1. 1 Samuel 17

Notes & Sources for Additional Information:

  1. These are the lyrics that came closer to those I remember from my childhood and the song that Dr. Yarbrough sang that day in the Valley of Elah. I imagine there are many versions of the children’s song or, perhaps, our Sunday School teachers took a few liberties in teaching us back before the internet started documenting everything.  Or maybe, I just remembered incorrectly. In my memory, it is a “babbling brook” and the “play and sing” was not included. Also, in Dr. Yarbrough’s version, the giant “went splat” rather than “came tumbling down” which I like much better and I’m sure as kids, it was much more fun for the giant to go splat.
  2. Wikipedia (#14 below), since July 2019, the Israel Nature & Parks Authority has stepped up to ensure that treats from development and possible shale oil extraction would be alleviated and the valley preserved.
  3. 1 Samuel 17, BibleHub.Com
  4. Dr. Mark Yarbrough – Dallas Theological Seminary
  5. Dr. Stephen J. Bramer – Dallas Theological Seminary.
  6. Valley of Elah from Google Maps
  7. Valley of Elah – Wikipedia

Want More?

ICYMI (In case you missed it) – Previous blogs in the Israel 2022 series:

Israel 2022: Pinch Yourself – April 4, 2022

Israel 2022: Caesarea Maritima – April 11, 2022

Israel 2022: Contested on Mount Carmel – April 20, 2022

Israel 2022: In This Valley – April 30, 2022

Israel 2022: Sea of Galilee – May 9, 2022

Israel 2022: A Very Old Boat – May 31, 2022

Israel 2022: A Blessing & A Curse – Capernaum – June 20, 2022