History Set in Stone

Geology tends to be one of those subject you need to learn for the Tour Guide test, but which everyone dreads. Rocks were formed over periods of time which are difficult to grasp and change over similarly unfathomable time frames. Rocks are not alive, go through no changes, and do not interact with anything intentionally. Let’s face it, stones are….boring.

Genesis pushes us to walk the land of Israel and learn about it in order to gain a deeper appreciation and connect us to it. How can studying dead, cold rocks connect you to a place?

When you go around to different sites in Israel, one common thread that stands out is that the building here have been constructed throughout the ages from stone. The climate here is not conducive for massive forests to provide wood, nor are mud bricks a good long-term option for the downpours in the winter; stone became the building material of choice. Good news for us today, as rock structures last a long time and hundreds and thousands of years later we can reconstruct buildings from long ago.

capenaum-kfar-nahumStones can also give us clues as to the people who used the buildings. One place geology and rocks shed light on history is in the synagogue in Kfar Nahum. This impressive synagogue from the 4th/5th century has been reconstructed to its original size. It was constructed of white limestone, the most common stone in Israel, which occurs in many areas, but not here in Kfar Nahum. The entire rest of the town which has been preserved as it was more or less between the 1st and 4th century C.E. was made of the local stone, black basalt; and right there, in the center stood a white limestone massive synagogue.

We know that this town was populated at the time by Romans and Christians as well as Jews. The Christian Byzantine emperor, Theodosius II, made an edict in 423 C.E. stating that Jews were not allowed to build any new synagogues. Is this a case of an extant limestone building being moved lock, stock and barrel from somewhere else? Did the Jewish community of the town want a “designer” synagogue which would stand out in the town? One can only imagine the expense that went into the erection of the white synagogue here, the massive stones which needed to be moved from somewhere else, somewhere where limestone is found, to be placed here. The non-Jews living here at the time may not have felt so positively about this beautiful white synagogue being erected in their black basalt town.

I remember bringing my children here for the first time – children who were brought up in a religious Jewish environment.  Here, in Kfar Nahum, looking at the white synagogue in the black town, one can start to understand the world of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  For Christians, seeing the lavish synagogue can shed light on the social inequalities which fueled Jesus’ teachings.

Michaelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the test of the sculptor to discover it.” In Israel, every stone has a story inside of it and if you are attentive, even the actual rocks can give you their insights.

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