Galilee of the Gentiles – Monday after Epiphany – Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25
The text of today is preceded by the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Here we are at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He leaves Nazareth and settles in Capernaum, a busy fishing and trading centre on the Sea of Galilee. Zebulun and Naphtali are northern provinces (once tribes) and Capernaum is in Naphtali while Nazareth is in Zebulun. These provinces fell to the Assyrian KingTiglath-pileser III in 732 B.C., a full decade before the fall of the other provinces. Some might accuse Jesus of withdrawing to Galilee lest he share John’s fate, but Galilee is ruled by the same Herod Antipas who arrested John, so Jesus cannot escape danger there. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus goes to Galilee as a fulfilment of prophecy (v. 14).
Galilee was small geographically but had a large population; approximately 204 towns with populations of 15,000 or more people according to the historian Josephus. This provides opportunity for many people to hear Jesus’ message. Most of Jesus’ ministry will take place in Galilee. Almost all of his teaching and healing ministries will take place in Galilee.
One might wonder why Galilee is referred to as “Galilee of the Gentiles”. Galilee was considered by some as a contemptuous place especially by the religious elite of Jerusalem in the south. The scrupulous people of Judea held Galileans in disdain. When Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46), his question reflected a general low opinion of Galilee and Galileans, half pagan in cult, and bilingual and the people spoke Greek as well as Aramaic.
When the Israelites first settled in Canaan, God said, “When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:51-52). However, Naphtali, Asher, and Zebulun (three of the five tribes that settled Galilee) failed to drive out the Gentiles, but instead dwelled in their midst (Judges 1:30-33).
In addition, Galilee was surrounded on three sides by Gentiles; Phoenicians on the west along the Mediterranean coast, Aram or Syria to the north and northeast, and Bashan to the southeast. Major trade routes passed through Galilee, and it was often invaded. Galileans, therefore, had more dealings with Gentiles and were more open to new ideas than the Judeans (Barclay). By the time of Jesus, Galilee had more Gentiles than Jews.
Into this walks Jesus. “The people who sat in darkness saw a great light, to those who sat in the region and shadow of death, to them light has dawned” (v. 16). This is a quotation from Isaiah 9:2. The people to whom Jesus brings his ministry have been ‘sitting in darkness’, but Jesus’ coming brings them great light. Interestingly Isaiah 9:2 reads “the people who WALKED in darkness.” By the time of Jesus this darkness has become so dark that Matthew is compelled to indicated the paralysis of the darkness has caused people to simply become immobile and SIT in this darkness.
Matthew indicates that God has chosen “Galilee of the Gentiles” (v. 15c) to be the place where light will shine rather than Judea, the home of the temple and the place where darkness will prevail at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:45). Light and darkness are used in both Old and New Testaments as metaphors for good and evil, order and chaos, security and danger, joy and sorrow, truth and untruth, life and death, salvation and condemnation (Isaiah 5:20; John 3:19-21; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-18).
Having begun to assemble his disciples, Jesus turns to his work. He teaches in the synagogues. He pronounces “the good news of the kingdom.” He makes the sick and infirmed whole. These will be the defining characteristics of Jesus’ daily labours in Matthew. Teaching, proclaiming the kingdom, and healing are integrated components of his ministry, not discrete pieces.