Mount Tabor rises softly, but powerfully, from within the verdant triangle of the Jezreel Valley. A uniquely rounded mountain at an altitude of about 1800 feet, its contours may be viewed and unmistakably identified from miles in any direction. The gentle curve of the summit is crowned by an oblong edifice known as the Church of the Transfiguration. This church, built over the medieval remains of an earlier building, commemorates the New Testament story from Matthew 17:1-9, where Jesus is recognized as the Son of God in the company of Moses, Elijah and three of his disciples. Despite a dispute about the actual location of the events from the text, a visit to Mt.
Tabor is a highlight on many Christian itineraries - its spiritual significance, the madcap ride to the top and the stunning view from the summit attract multitudes of pilgrims. However, the site is less familiar to Jewish tourists who regularly bypass it, unaware not only of the breathtaking view but also of the Biblical significance of Mt. Tabor.
According to Judges 4:13-16, the scene of the battle of Deborah and Barak versus Sisera took place very close to Mount Tabor, near a tributary of the Kishon River, no longer visible today.
Approach the ascent to Mt. Tabor from the Bedouin village of Shibli; as you wind your way through the village keep an eye out for the Bedouin Museum on the right. The residents of this village are all members of a nomadic tribe which has settled permanently here at the foot of Mount Tabor.
They have adapted their lifestyle to the twenty-first century, leaving behind many of the ancient Bedouin customs. The museum, located in the yard of an extended family, preserves the traditional Bedouin culture through a display of authentic tents and artifacts. A visit includes traditional Bedouin hospitality of coffee and herb tea, pita bread and a fascinating explanation about this curious culture (visits must be booked in advance - be sure to mention you would like an English-speaking guide).
A short drive up the road from the museum you will find a large parking lot and rest stop adjacent to the turn-off which leads up the mountain. You may continue to the top in your own car,
or you may leave your vehicle in the lot and ascend the road in a Mercedes stretch taxi leaving the navigation of the road’s sixteen hairpin curves to the driver. Near the top you will pass
the entrance road to the Greek Orthodox Church (not usually open to the public) and then proceed through a magnificent stone Crusader gateway, renovated by monks in the nineteenth
Straight ahead you will find the Church of the Transfiguration, designed by the Franciscan architect Antonio Barluzzi and completed in 1924. The impressive stone façade hints at the splendor of the ornamentation inside, complete with enormous vaulted arches, peacocks and a dazzling mosaic of gold and white tiles depicting Jesus' Transfiguration. Smaller, hidden chapels on either side of the entrance commemorate the company of Moses and Elijah during Jesus' sojourn at the summit.
After visiting inthe church, make your way up the stairs (on your left as you come back outside) to a section of the church’s roof covered with terra cotta tiles to encounter a breathtaking view of the Jezreel Valley to the east and south. You can also see the Hill of Moreh, Kfar Baruch reservoir, Mt. Gilboa the Jordan Valley, Nazareth, Zippori the city of Afula, the villages of Tamra and Naoura as well as the mountains of Gilead in Jordan.
Bringing the stories of the Bible to life amidst the dramatic landscape is easy - just take out your copy and begin to read (out loud, if possible).The battle here between Deborah, Barak and Sisera is played out against the background of the book of Judges, sometime during the 10th century BCE. During this period, after the conquest of the land of Israel by the Israelites, the twelve tribes had no king. They were ruled by a series of charismatic leaders (called judges) who emerged in times of trouble to vanquish the enemies of the Israelites.
At the beginning of Judges 4 the Israelites suffer at the hands of Yavin, a Caananite king ruling from the city of Hatzor, in the northern Israel. Yavin has hired Sisera as his army commander, a military mercenary of Hittite origin (Turkey of today) whose job is to make life miserable for the Israelites. Sisera has nine hundred chariots equipped with state-of-the-art Hittite military technology in the form of iron wheel fittings. This gives him a significant advantage over the Israelites, who are still clueless in the realm of metallurgy. He has cruelly oppressed them for twenty years.
At this time Deborah the prophetess was leading Israel; she held court and mediated disputes under a palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim, south of Mount Tabor. One day she summoned Barak ben Avinoam from the tribe of Naphtali in northern Israel and said to him,
“The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulon and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Yavin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” (Judges 4:6-7).
For reasons we can only try to imagine, Barak was not terribly enthusiastic about his mission; he told Deborah that he will only go if she comes along with him: no Deborah – no Barak. Deborah agreed to accompany him, but not without a catch: she informed Barak that his attitude problem would cost him the glory of victory. He would receive no credit for defeating Sisera – instead, the honor would go to a woman.
Barak gathered ten thousand men and went up to Mount Tabor; when Sisera heard of their activities he took his nine hundred chariots and his soldiers and set off to meet them. Deborah gave Barak the go-ahead:
“Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” (Judges 4:14)
The Biblical account goes on to explain that Barak and his men went down from Tabor into the valley, where Sisera’s army was routed by the Lord; all of the Canaanite soldiers abandoned their chariots and fled on foot. The Song of Deborah, in Judges 5, gives us a better idea of what happened:
“O Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water.” (Judges 5:4)
A torrential downpour in the heat of the battle turned the Jezreel Valley into a huge mud bath. Sisera’s fancy iron chariot fittings turned out to be useless; the soldiers found their vehicles stuck in the mud as the Israelites advanced. Barak’s army chased down the Canaanite soldiers until they killed every last one.
Only Sisera himself escaped, and fled to the tent of Hever the Kenite. (The Kenites were a nomadic tribe who lived in peace with both the Israelites and the Caananites.) Yael, Hever’s wife met him , and warmly welcomed him into their tent. She entreated him not to be afraid and offered her warmest hospitality: She made up the guest-bed, covered him with a blanket and brought him a nice, cool glass of milk. Before the exhausted Sisera went to sleep he instructed Yael to stand in the door of the tent and make sure no one found out he was inside. No sooner did he begin to snore then Yael took up her hammer and nailed a tent peg straight through Sisera’s temple into the ground, killing him. And so, when Barak arrived a little while later in pursuit of Sisera, he found his enemy defeated by a woman, just as Deborah prophesied.
How to get there: From Golani Junction – Take Rte. 56 south. Continue along the road for a while, passing through the town of Kfar Tavor. Pass Gazit Junction (to Ein Dor) on your left, and then turn right at the next turnoff. Drive up through Shibli, staying on the winding main road, until you reach the large parking area for buses and taxis. Park your car there to proceed in a taxi (not always available). Otherwise, continue through the parking lot and make the first left to the summit road for Mount Tabor.
From Afula – Take Rte. 56 north. Pass Movenpick on the left and continue a few kilometers to the next turnoff on the left. Turn left towards Daburriyah and follow the road through the village to the bus/taxi parking lot, which will be on your left.
Note: the roads through the Bedouin villages are winding and confusing, with no signs pointing to the Tabor road. You will probably take a few wrong turns but just keep asking directions from people along the way.
Church opening hours: 8:00-12:00, 2:00-6:00. Closed Saturdays. Modest dress required (no shorts or sleeveless).