When religious tourists travel to Israel looking for the
land where Jesus walked, they often anticipate pleasant, peaceful places. Their
expectations may include a quaint lakeside village of Capernaum, a town like Chorazin
nestled among gently rolling hills, a moderate climate, lush farmland, or quiet
woodlands filled with birdsong.
Reality differs significantly. Jesus spent most of his
ministry in eastern Galilee, around the freshwater Sea of Galilee. The landscape
is more like Arizona or New Mexico than the American Midwest or the South. Rugged
landscapes dominate, where hills rise and fall rather than roll. Cliffs and
precipitous rocky outcrops appear frequently, often rising high above narrow
fertile strips of land by the lake.
By mid-May, temperatures are already in the 90s and can
crack 100. Spring and its rains are long gone and the wild vegetation has
mostly dried out. The streets are dusty, the winds are hot, and you almost
expect a tumbleweed to roll across the road.
It brings to mind the 1948 western film, “The Treasure of
the Sierra Madre,” although without the ever-present cacti. Indeed, cacti are
surprisingly uncommon in Galilee, even though the Sabra cactus is widespread in
Judea and southern Israel.
The absence of cacti should not be taken as an absence of
thorns however. Indeed, thorn bushes and thorny weeds grow in abundance in this
area, and they are nasty.
During my childhood, I often heard Jesus’ Parable of the Sower
from Matthew 13. In the story, the farmer sows seed in the good earth and it
grows strong and tall, but some of the seed falls elsewhere and fails: rocks,
pathways, and among the thorns which “grew up and choked them.” As a child, I thought
the thorns were thistles or nettles and could not understand why the farmer
simply did not weed them out. After all, that’s what my mom had me do in our
It turns out that plants with thorns grow everywhere in the
Galilee and in a wide variety. This month, while I am working in Galilee, I daily
walk a mile along the side of field. Along its edge I have counted eight
different types of thorny weeds, to say nothing of the trees and bushes with
The thorn weeds are beautiful in their blooms, with flowers
ranging from yellow to blue to purple. There is a calf-high plant with blue
stems which dries to a crown shape. There is a waist-high purple thistle with
pointed leaves as well as vicious thorns.
But it is the Globe Thistle which really stands out. It frequently
grows in stands, and can reach as high as 5 or 6 feet. In the spring it bears a
beautiful round, blue flower about the size of a baseball. But as it dries, it
hardens so that any soft areas become hard and spikey.
Along the side of a field, it is easy to see why a sower
would leave behind any seed that fell among them. A hedge of dry Globe Thistles
comprises a formidable obstacle that would discourage even the most keen
But that is not the worst of it. Upper Galilee produces
something like a Scottish Thistle which grows to 8 or 9 feet, towering over any
human being. Walking through a grove (what else can you call it?) of these tall
thistles becomes an experience of ducking and dodging to avoid the spikes, and
even thick clothing provides only a small amount of protection.
In the end, the soft and attractive Galilee of American
Christian imagery exists only in imagination. The reality is that it is a
challenging land whose weeds seem to be dominated by those with thorns, some of
which grow to an intimidating size.
A six-foot man stands beneath Galilean thistles, while another stands before a
thicket of dead Globe Thistles. Inset: A
blooming Globe Thistle. Thanks
to Randy Mohr for his design assistance.