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 (jewishmag.co.il)
  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, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Caesarea Philippi, pages 179-181(This book can be purchased on Amazon.com)

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

Israel 2022: In This Valley

Battles had been fought here. The site is a strategic one. As we stood at Megiddo and looked out over the Jezreel Valley4, war was just about the furthest thing from my mind. The view was incredibly beautiful. The sky was incredibly blue with soft white clouds scattered to the horizon. In the distance across the valley, we could see farms divided into neat squares either planted with winter crops or being prepared for the summer in ombre layers of green and brown and tan. 

View of the Jezreel Valley from Tel Megiddo

Just to my right I saw a couple of cows grazing with the requisite Cattle Egret which I had to take a picture of, of course. It was a bird, after all, and everyone knows how much I love birds. At that moment, there was only peace; nothing in that place, in that valley, spoke to me of war or battles or the end of time.

How could I not include the photo of the cows & Cattle Egrets?

I was standing on the top of Tel Megiddo1. A “tell” is an archaeological mound built over hundreds of years as cities rise and fall in the location and new cities are built in the same location using the previous ruins as foundations for the new cities. Archaeologists believe that there are about 20 levels or strata of ruins at Megiddo with an overlap of Egyptian, Hittite, Mitanni, Assyrian, and Israeli peoples occupying the site at differing times over the centuries with the primary inhabitants being those of Israel, Philistia, and Phoenicia.

Circular altar in Tel Megiddo’s “High Place” (temple) from the Bronze Era

Megiddo is strategically located near the mountain pass through the Carmel Ridge. This is the ancient trade route called Via Maris2 (“by way of the sea”) taken by traders traveling between Egypt and Assyria and Babylon – from north Africa to Asia. This area has been inhabited since about 7000 BCE (before the common era) or BC (before Christ) to me. The pass was always guarded so Megiddo was always fortified…. it is listed as one of Solomon’s chariot cities where many of his horses were stabled and war chariots were kept. Invariably, as long as this city controlled the pass through the mountains to the east, there would always those who would fight to control it.1   

King Solomon’s (or possibly King Ahab’s) stables at this “chariot city”. This could hold about 30 horses; the northern stables could hold about 300.

Three major battles have been fought in the area that were named the “Battle of Megiddo” (see references 5, 6, & 7 below) and a whole plethora of no-named skirmishes. I got totally caught up in the online reading about these battles and the history of this place. It is such fascinating history. But I will spare you with all the details.

Megiddo City Gate possibly built by “forced” labor (slaves?) during the time of King Solomon

But I am not thinking about all this war stuff when we visited the site. From the top of Tel Megiddo, the peaceful Jezreel Valley was laid out before me. This valley is one of the most fertile spots in all of Israel. When we embarked on this tour, I had a vision of Israel as a dry hot desert – you know the kind of geography – with Jesus walking around in dusty leather sandals in the wilderness hungry & thirsty in the sweltering heat while being tempted by the devil. I suppose I thought that all of Israel would be that way – hot, rocky, dry, and dusty.  

In this valley, you just cannot imagine the devil tempting Jesus – maybe I could see him tempting Adam & Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree up here at Jezreel…. but certainly not tempting the son of God to turn stones into bread (Matthew 4:1). For how could anyone go hungry or thirst up here in the land of plenty? Surely, this is the promised land that Joshua scouted out way back there in the book of Numbers (chapter 14).  This is definitely not the wilderness where Jesus was tempted…not even close.

Old millstone on Tel Megiddo

The land here is good and there is plenty of water from the springs at Carmel.  Even the name “Jezreel” is derived from a Hebrew word, “Yizre’el” meaning “God sows”4. They grow all sorts of things here like oranges and watermelons and wheat and beans and cotton and sunflowers and chickpeas – of course, chickpeas, you just can’t make hummus without chickpeas. I cannot imagine what the restaurants in Israel would do without hummus and pita bread!

And I cannot imagine war here in this peaceful beautiful place.

Flowers in bloom on Tel Megiddo

But this is Armageddon.  The place where it is prophesied that the war to end all wars will be fought. From the Greek “Har” (mount) and “Megiddo”, we get Armageddon9. It is the place noted in Revelation 16:16 where nations will gather in the final confrontation between the forces of good (God) and the forces of evil (Satan) “for the great day of the Lord” from Revelation 16:14. Over the past two thousand years, the word has come to mean any world ending catastrophe, any great conflict that would end life as we know it here on earth. Prophecies about the end times abound throughout the Bible. Yet the only cite in the Bible predicting that last great battle to be fought at the Valley of Jezreel or Armageddon is Revelation 16:16. Some theologians and historians say that the battle to be fought in this valley is all symbolic and not necessarily ever going to happen at all…. that the reference is all about conflict in the middle east in general. 

At Tel Megiddo

But I’m a literalist when it comes to scripture – if the Bible says there will be a final confrontation in this valley at this place, then you had best believe that it’s gonna happen in the Jezreel Valley – right there in that same valley I could see spread out in front of me as I stood on Tel Megiddo.

View of the Jezreel Valley – Armageddon – from Tel Megiddo

Scriptural Cites:

  1. Joshua 12:21 – In the list of kings defeated by Joshua, the king of Megiddo.
  2. Joshua 17:11 & 12 – Megiddo was given to the tribe of Manasseh although Manasseh never conquered the city/land.
  3. Judges 1:27-28 – Manasseh fails to drive the Canaanites out of Megiddo.
  4. Judges 5:19-20 – The victory song of Deborah & Barak speaks of the waters of Megiddo.
  5. Judges 6:33 – Gideon defeats the Midianites, the Amalekites, & the “children of the east” 3 in the Valley of Jezreel.
  6. Joel 3:2 – All nations will be brought to the Valley of Jehoshaphat which is believed to be the Valley of Jezreel.
  7. Zechariah 12:2-11 – On that day, the day of wailing in Jerusalem will be as great as the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in Megiddo.
  8. 1 Samuel 28:4 – Philistines gather against Israel & King Saul at Gilboa in the Jezreel Valley.
  9. 1 Samuel 29:1-6 – King Saul defeated by the Philistines in the Jezreel Valley
  10. 1 Kings 4:12 – King Solomon’s governors include Baana in Taanach & Megiddo.
  11. 1 Kings 9:15 – King Solomon uses forced labor to build cities including Megiddo
  12. 1 Kings 10:26 – King Solomon’s chariots and horses kept at the “chariot cities” one of which was Megiddo
  13. 2 Kings 23:29–30 & 2 Chronicles 35:22 – King Josiah is killed at Megiddo by Necho II of Egypt
  14. 2 Kings 9, King Jehu (10th king of Israel) killed all the family members of the House of Omri (King Ahab & Queen Jezebel) in the Jezreel Valley.
  15. 2 Kings 9:27 – King Ahaziah of Judah in the battle with Jehu escapes to Megiddo, is wounded & dies there.
  16. 1 Chronicles 7:29 – Holdings of the descendants of Ephraim are shown to include Megiddo.
  17. Matthew 4:1 – Jesus tempted in the wilderness.
  18. Revelation 16:12-16 – Place of end times gathering of nations/kings identified as Armageddon
  19. Numbers 14:36-38 – Joshua & Caleb sent to the promised land.

Sources for Additional Information About Megiddo & The Jezreel Valley:

(Other than the Biblical cites listed above, my research comes from Wikipedia as shown below.)

  1. Tel Megiddo – Wikipedia
  2. Via Maris – Wikipedia
  3. Canaan – Wikipedia
  4. Jezreel Valley – Wikipedia
  5. Battle of Megiddo (15th century BC) – Wikipedia
  6. Battle of Megiddo (609 BC) – Wikipedia
  7. Battle of Megiddo (1918) – Wikipedia
  8. Revelation 16 New American Standard Bible (biblehub.com)
  9. Armageddon – Wikipedia
  10. Book of Kings – Wikipedia
  11. Book of Chronicles – Wikipedia

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

Pinch Yourself – April 4, 2022

Israel 2022: Caesarea Maritima – Birding Boomers – April 11, 2022

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