Tel Dan has a bit of everything—archaeology, history, lots of water, lush greenery, biblical sites, battle sites from recent Israeli wars and amazing views.
When you ask people who have never been to the Holy Land what the first thing is that comes to mind when thinking of Israel, they often answer: the desert. They picture Israel as a place that is very dry, with lots of sand and camels roaming about. In truth, nearly half of Israel’s territory is desert, but that is not all there is! Tourists are often quite surprised when I take them to the lush nature reserve of Tel Dan.
Tel Dan is one of my favorite places in Israel to visit. Why? Because Tel Dan has a little bit of everything—archaeology, history, lots of water, lush greenery, biblical sites, battle sites from recent Israeli wars and amazing views. Something for everyone. In this short article, I can’t possibly cover all of Tel Dan but, I will mention some highlights.
When you enter the trail, the first thing you notice is a beautiful, flowing river, which is a good size by Israeli standards. Ok, it is not the Nile or the Mississippi, but it is nonetheless impressive. The Dan is one of the three rivers in the north that feed the Jordan River, which in turn enters the Sea of Galilee, the largest fresh water lake in Israel. This is the largest of the three rivers, providing approximately 240 million cubic meters of water every year. The water is so fresh and crisp that you can literally bend down, scoop some up in your hand and drink it.
How did the river get its name, and for that matter, why is the park called Tel Dan? When the Israelites entered the land of Israel approximately 3400 years ago, they divided the land up among the tribes of Israel. The lottery to divide the land took place in the capital at the time, which was the city of Shiloh, where the tabernacle was located and would remain for 369 years. The tribe of Dan actually received land along the coast in the area which is today Tel Aviv and its environs. According to the bible, in the Book of Judges, the tribe of Dan “was seeking a heritage in which to dwell for an adequate heritage had not yet fallen to them…”(Judges 18:1) In order to find additional space for their tribe, they sent spies out to find a place that they could conquer. The spies discovered this beautiful, lush piece of land in the north, which they ultimately conquered. The tribe of Dan settled the land, and it is from this tribe that the river and the nature reserve derive its name. The Israelite city of Dan has been excavated, and the living area as well as the markets have been exposed.
One of the most important archaeological finds in history was made at Tel Dan. Three pieces of an inscribed stone (stele) were discovered in 1993-1994. The stone contained the first and only mention of the “House of David” outside of the Bible. For those who believed that the biblical King David was a mythical figure, this find struck a serious blow. The Tel Dan stele can be seen today at the Israel museum in Jerusalem.
Another amazing site at Tel Dan is the Canaanite gate. This is the oldest intact city gate in the world, dating back some 4000 years! When you see the sign for the gate, it says “Canaanite Gate,” but it also says just beneath, “Abraham’s gate.” What is that supposed to mean?
The bible tells us that Abraham’s nephew Lot was captured during a war between the four kings and the five kings. When Abraham heard, he pursued Lot’s captors and chased them all the way up until Dan (Genesis chapter 14). Considering that cities in the ancient world had a wall and one main gate to the city, this is the gate the in all likelihood Abraham would have entered when he came to Dan!
(You might ask why does the Bible called it Dan back then, when Dan, son of Jacob, was not even born yet. The answer is that the Bible here is writing for the reader and wants the reader to know the place it is referring to so it writes anachronistically and refers to it by a name that the reader will recognize.)
So those are some of the highlights of Tel Dan, hopefully enough to interest you to learn more or, better yet, to come visit. Tel Dan truly is a very rich nature reserve with something for everyone.
By Rabbi Moshe Rothchild
Licensed Tour Guide