The “Desert” of Bethsaida

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The Feeding of the Five Thousand could not have taken place, as some English translations suggest, in a “desert place” because the text tells us there were villages nearby. By analyzing the meaning of the word translated “desert,” the topography at the scene of this miracle can be clarified.

Photo Above: Swollen by heavy rains, the Jordan River winds its way sough through the Bethsaida Valley and flows into the Sea of Galilee. A square of recently plowed land displays the fertile, black soil of this “desert.” The grove of trees on the lakeshore marks the location of ancient Bethsaida. Photograph by Werner Braun.

The miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand as described in the gospels (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13) raises an interesting question regarding the location of the miracle. Mark and Matthew both refer to it as a “desert place,” but also note that it was green. John does not mention a “desert place,” stating instead that there was “much grass in the place.” In Luke we are told that Jesus went into “a desert place belonging to Bethsaida.”

Author Mendel Nun stands in the enormous ed-Dikkeh Aqueduct, a Roman aqueduct that carried Jordan River water south to the fields of the Bethsaida Valley. The valuable aqueduct was repaired and replastered by local farmers century after century until 1948 when the area came under Israeli sovereignty.

Fertile Bethsaida

Map of the Bethsaida Valley showing its streams and aqueducts. (Courtesy of Yoel Ben-Yosef, Beit Ha-Oganim, Kibbutz Ein Gev.)

Map of the Bethsaida Valley showing its streams and aqueducts. (Courtesy of Yoel Ben-Yosef, Beit Ha-Oganim, Kibbutz Ein Gev.)

The idea of a “desert place” near Bethsaida seems strange. Bethsaida (modern el-Araj) was a first-century fishing village on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The village was located in a small (approx. 12 sq. km., or 4.63 sq. mi.) but fertile plain or valley, the Valley of Bethsaida. This valley is crisscrossed by streams, aqueducts and irrigation canals. The area is not at all what we think of as a “desert.”

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This article originally appeared in issue 53 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

  • Mendel Nun [1918-2010]

    Mendel Nun [1918-2010]

    Galilean fisherman, kibbutz member, author and foremost expert on the Sea of Galilee, Mendel Nun was born into a Zionist family in Latvia in 1918. In 1939 he immigrated to Palestine where he became a member of Ein Gev, which today is a thriving, modern…
    [Read more about author]

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