Beautiful Tel Dan Nature Reserve

Tel Dan Nature Reserve is a beautiful park with bubbling brooks and gushing water in a cool, mainly shaded foliage-rich park. The springs form the beginnings of the River Dan, one of the main sources of Israel’s drinking water. On Tel Dan are a gate from Canaanite times, remnants of a wall and gate from the Israelite period, and a cultic site first used by Jeroboam for worship of a golden calf when the northern Israelite tribes seceded from the southern kingdom. The kids will also enjoy the natural wading pool in the middle of the park. Consider also a visit to the nearby museum of Beit Ussishkin.

The tribe of Dan: Following the conquest of Canaan, the tribe of Dan was assigned an area in what is now the larger Tel Aviv area. As evidenced by the story of Samson, who was from this tribe, the tribe found it difficult to establish itself because of opposition by the Philistines. The people therefore captured the city of Laish on this tel in the north of Israel, and the entire tribe moved to this fertile area. As the Book of Judges tells us: “They proceeded to Laish, a people tranquil and unsuspecting, and they put them to the sword and burned down the town.” (Judges 18:27). This city had an alliance with Sidon, but Sidon was unable to come to the aid of Laish because of the distance (Judges 18:28),. This suggests that the inhabitants of Laish may have been Phoenician, or alternatively that they were Canaanite and had an alliance with the Sidonites.

 

The sources of the River Jordan: The Jordan River has 3 sources - the Dan, Hermon and Snir. Of these the Dan provides the greatest amount of water,  equivalent to the other two rivers combined. Prior to the Six Day War, the source of the Dan was the only one of these rivers in Israeli hands. One of the consequences of the Six Day War was that all river sources originating in the Golan were taken over by Israel. The water of the Dan comes from water and snow on Mount Hermon which seeps into the ground and emerges in hundreds of springs at the base of Mount Hermon.

More rushing water.jpeg

THE PARK

Time: About 2½ hours.

Distance: About 5 km.

Direction: Enter “Tel Dan” into Waze and click on “Tel Dan Nature Reserve.”

Admission: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Summer hours are Sunday to Thursday and Saturday 8.00 am to 5.00 pm and Friday and holiday eves 8.00 am to 4.00 pm. In the winter the park closes 1 hour earlier. Just beyond the entrance to the park are WC’s, a gift shop selling hot and cold drinks and snack foods, and a large shaded picnic area with benches. Their phone number is 04 695-1579. This is their website. 

Israelite gate and high place.jpeg

Israelite Gate from First Temple times.

What is a Jewish cultic center doing in Tel Dan?

 

The division of the Israelite kingdom into two had been prophesied to King Solomon as a consequence of his dissolute lifestyle (I Kings 11:11) , and it occurred during the reign of his son Rehoboam. Listening to his young advisors, Rehoboam refused to lighten the taxation burden imposed by his father when the northern tribes requested that he do so. He replied to them: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions (1 Kings 12:14). This reply did not go down well with any of the tribes, except for the tribes of Yehuda and Benjamin, and they seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah to form the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

 

To prevent the people from drifting back to Jerusalem, their new ruler Jeroboam set up two alters, one in the south of his kingdom in Beth El and the other in the north in Dan for worship of a golden calf: “When this people goes up to offer sacrifices in the Temple of God, in Jerusalem, the hearts of this people will turn to their master to Rehoboam the king of Judah, and they shall kill me and return to Rehoboam, the king of Judah. The king took counsel and made two golden calves, and he said to them [the people], saying: “It is far for you to go up to Jerusalem, here are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (I Kings 12:27-28). This is the site Jeroboam set up.

 

Jeroboam's plan was not necessarily a refutation of monotheism. He was representing the One God, just as the pagan statues represented the forces of nature. However, doing this is specifically prohibited in the Ten Commandments – “You shall not make for yourself a graven image nor any manner of likeness of anything which is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them.” (Exodus 20:4-5). The  Israelites had also tried this once before at Sinai with the episode of the golden calf and the consequences had been disastrous.

 

Some of the ruins seen here are those of Jeroboam's original temple, with later periods being added. The aluminum frame marks the outline of the altar. Note also the high place (bamah) and the staircase. The high place may have been built by King Ahab in the 9th century BCE. The stairs were used to go up to the high place and may have been built by Jeroboam II in the 8th century BCE. Cultic practices continued here until the destruction of the tel by the Assyrians in 432 BCE. The walls surrounding the temple were built by the Greeks many years later. Archaeologists found a stone in the sanctuary inscribed in Greek and Aramaic: “to the God who is in Dan.” The original is in Jerusalem’s Skirball Museum.

Abraham Gate.jpeg

Abraham’s Gate, the gate of the city of Laish.

Cultic center, built by Jeroboam during the split of the two kingdoms and initially used for the worship of a golden calf.

NAVIGATING THE PARK

Make sure to take a brochure (also available in English) at the visitor center. It contains a map showing the various paths within the park. The most direct route to Ancient Dan is on a paved road suitable for a wheelchair or stroller. However, this misses a lot of the park. There is also a Short Trail that covers the streams, takes about an hour, but misses out on all the history. To cover almost everything takes about 2½ hours and is about 5 Km. There is some stepping on stones surrounded by water, but it is an easy path and no special footwear is advised, although it is suggested not to use flipflops.

  • My suggestion is from the first intersection to take the Long Trail to the Dan Spring. At the next intersection, take the right turn to the Garden of Eden. Continue past the flour mill to join the paved path and this will take you past the Wading Pool to the Israelite Gate.

 

This is a gate from First Temple times. Note the bench inside the city gate. There is a good chance that the city elders sat here, since this is where administrative and legal affairs for the city typically took place. The raised square platform may have been for the king’s throne. Tel Dan was occupied until the Roman period when it was abandoned and settlement moved to Banias. There is a (modern) WC near the gate.

  • Continue further along the paved road to Abraham’s Gate, which is part of the gate of the ancient city of Laish. It was built in the 18th century BCE using covered mud bricks and is completely intact. It is called Abraham’s gate, because Abraham could well have passed by here on his way to Syria when rescuing his nephew Lot (Genesis 14:14).

 

  • To view the Cultic Site (definitely worthwhile), go back to the Israelite city, go through the gate, climb up through the city ruins, and this path will lead you to the Cultic Site. While here, take the short circular route to the Bunker Lookout. This bunker was used by the Israel Defense Forces prior to the Six Day War. You can see the slopes of Mount Hermon, Syrian earthworks for their intended diversion of the Hizbani River, and the Lebanese village of el-Hiyyam.

  • Choose a way back from the Cultic site using the brochure map, depending on what else you would like to see and the time you have available.

NEARBY PLACES OF INTEREST

Beit Ussishkin – an archeological and nature museum

Beit Ussishkin Museum is an archeology and nature museum in Kibbutz Dan. It is adjacent to Tel Dan Reserve and displays the nature, geography and archaeology of this part of the Galilee panhandle. It is run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Enter “Beit Usshishkin” and click on “Beit Usshishkin Nature Museum.” A visit is recommended. It is open Sunday to Thursday 8.00 am to 4.00 pm, and Friday and Saturday by appointment. Their phone number is 04 694-1704.  This is their website. 

 

The museum was initiated in the 1950’s because of concerns that drainage of the Hulah Valley would eliminate much of the wildlife of the area. A 10-minute move with English subtitles is shown. The displays of wildlife with stuffed animals are impressive. Some of the archeological findings from Tel Dan are also shown. This includes the Tel Dan Steele written in the 9th century BCE. This monumental victory stone slab was chiseled in the Phoenician script and on it the king of Aram-Damascus, prides himself on killing 70 kings, including Jehoram son of Ahab and “Ahaziahu son of Jehoram king of the House of David”. This steele created considerable excitement in the archeological world when discovered since this was the first time that the expression “house of David” had ever been found. It thus verified that King David actually existed and even formed a dynasty as told by the Bible. The original is in the Israel Museum.

 

It is likely that Tel Dan changed hands several times in the struggle between the Arameans and Northern Kingdom. We know from the Bible that Chaza’el, king of Aram, conquered the Northern Kingdom, although he was unable to capture Jerusalem. He is the probable author of this victory steele.  The Bible ascribes the death of these two kings, the king of Israel and of Judah, to Jehu, a usurper king of Israel, and not to Chaza’el, although Jehu did have an alliance with Chaza'el (2 Kings 9).

 

 

Tel DAN STEELEjpeg.jpeg

Replication of the Tel Dan Steele which mentions the “house of David.” It is written in the Phoenician script.