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.”
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.”