Sights and Insights: From idol worship to place of faith

Dr. Wayne Stiles discovers how Arab mispronunciation of the letter P gave the Banias, one of Israel's most beautiful rivers, its name.

Banias 311 (photo credit: Wayne Stiles)
Banias 311
(photo credit: Wayne Stiles)
Wayne Stiles is an author who has never recovered from his travels in Israel—and loves to write about them from his desk in Texas.
In a land where water is life, it’s no wonder that one of the major sources of water would become a major place of worship. Regrettably, the god worshiped at Banias was not the God of Israel.
Standing at the foot of Mount Hermon, I looked up and imagined the melting snows at the peak seeping into the ground and appearing at its base where I stood. From the mouth of a large cave bubbles a cold, clear stream that helps to form the headwaters of the Jordan River. Josephus referred to the streams that flow here as the fountain of the Jordan.
Photo: Wayne Stiles
Photo: Wayne Stiles
What an absolutely beautiful area! The flowing streams and the nearby waterfalls offer some of the most pleasant and inviting surroundings for holidays and family outings. In antiquity, however, the site was used for far less honorable activities.
Archaeology has uncovered an open-air shrine above the cave from which the water flows. Niches in the side of the cliff (still visible today) held statues of the Greek god Pan—the mythical half man, half goat who played the panpipe. We get the word “panic” from this frightful god, and it’s no small wonder! Pan had a thirst for carnal pleasure and once was chasing a nymph named Syrinx who turned herself into a stand of marsh reeds (well, that’s the story). So Pan made a flute from the reeds, and that’s how the panpipe got its name—it’s also why the Walt Disney character Peter Pan plays the flute.
Because Arabs cannot pronounce the letter P, the name Panias (for “Pan”) has morphed into “Banias”—the name that exists today. The site has been identified in Scripture with the names Baal-gad (Joshua 11:17; 12:7; 13:5), Baal-hermon (Judges 3:3), and Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13).
Photo: Wayne Stiles
Photo: Wayne Stiles
In 197 BC, Antiochus III overthrew the Egyptians at Banias and made way for Antiochus IV to persecute the Jews. The Maccabean Revolt followed. Having received the area from Caesar Augustus in 20 BC, Herod the Great constructed there a temple of white marble in honor of Caesar. Eighteen years later, Herod’s son Philip inherited the site and named it Caesarea. But to distinguish it from Herod’s harbor along the seacoast, Philip appended his own name to the place—Caesarea Philippi. The Crusaders used the site—along with the high vantage of nearby Nimrod’s Fortress—as an outpost to face the Sultan of Damascus. Later, the Crusaders compromised with the Muslims and divided the use of the nearby fertile plains.
As I walked the beautifully shaded, rocky pathways, I noticed many rock badgers, or hyraxes, that scampered back into their crags. Hebrew poetry refers to these animals as wise because they seek sanctuary in a safe place (Psalm 104:18; Proverbs 30:26). But the Torah calls them unclean (Leviticus 11:5; Deuteronomy 14:7)—a label more appropriate to their idolatrous surroundings.
Photo: Wayne Stiles
Photo: Wayne Stiles
I think it’s ironic that Jesus brought his twelve disciples all the way up to the pagan region of Banias/Caesarea Philippi to ask them the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). The people, of course, saw Jesus as nothing more than a good man, a moral teacher, whom some would even call a prophet. “But who do you say that I am?” he asked his followers. They responded that they believed he was the Messiah of God (Matthew 16:16).
Every time I go to Banias, I love to read the words of Psalm 42, written perhaps in this very area. Here the sons of Korah claimed faith in God in spite of the opposition all around them:
Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls;
All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me. . . .
As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me,
While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God. —Psalm 42:7, 10-11
How to Get There: Take Route 90 north toward Kiryat Shmona and turn east on Route 99. Keep right at the Si’on Junction and watch for signs to both the Banias Spring (Caesarea Philippi) and the Banias Waterfalls—two locations in close proximity. Nimrod’s Fortress will be on the nearby slopes of Mount Hermon.
What to Do There: Certainly see the cave from which the headwaters of the Jordan seep. Look at the nearby niches and try to imagine the idol worship that occurred there. Sitting on a shaded bench, read Matthew 16:16-28. If you’re feeling up to it, take the trail from the parking lot and hike up to Nimrod’s Fortress, where you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the surrounding area. (Or you could drive up there.) For sure, take the short drive to the Banias Falls and hike down to the river and the marvelous waterfalls. While you’re there, read Psalm 42, as it likely was written of these falls.
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