When Jesus preached a sermon, told a parable, or gave a discourse, He always used object lessons that were familiar to His hearers in order to illustrate His point. The archaeology and geography of Bethsaida provides the background for two of His parables. These parables, referred to as the “parable of the two builders,” are recorded in Matthew 7:24-27 (Sermon on the Mount) and Luke 6:47-49 (Sermon on the Plain). The evidence suggests that these were two different sermons that were given at different times, several months apart.
As I understand the chronology of the life of Christ; Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior at the wedding at Cana of Galilee during the summer of AD 26 (John 2:11). In the spring of AD 28, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to become “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20).
As Jesus trained His disciples in the art of “fishing for men” they visited the synagogues of Galilee. At one point, He sat down on the slopes of a mountain overlooking the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and addressed His disciples – those who had already trusted Him as Savior and decided to follow Him – yet He also allowed the crowd that had gathered to listen in on His sermon (Matt. 5:1). His primary audience, however, was His disciples. This sermon, delivered in the Spring of AD 28, is known today as the Sermon on the Mount.
The next day, Peter was “recalled” after catching a miraculous draught of fish and realizing the Lord Jesus could be trusted to provide his daily needs. At this point in his walk with the Lord, Peter “forsook all and followed Him” (Luke 5:11). Later that summer, Jesus again addressed His disciples on the Plains of Bethsaida (Luke 6:20-49). This sermon, commonly called the Sermon on the Plain, reflects a deeper commitment to the call of discipleship. Yet Jesus ends both sermons with similar parables. For a discussion of this chronology and its spiritual implications, see Franz 1993: 92-9.
These parables conclude two sermons that lay “down the standards of conduct appropriate to a disciple of Jesus as he lives in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God” (Hodges 1985: 21). Jesus contrasted two examples of disciples: one hears the words of the sermon and does what is instructed, while the other hears the words but does not act on what was heard. Jesus likened the first disciple to a wise builder who built his house on the rock and the second disciple to a foolish builder who built his house on the sand. The house that withstood the rains, flood, and winds was the one which had a deep foundation down to bedrock (Luke 6:48).
Where was the sand to which Jesus pointed as an object lesson in these parables? It must be by the Sea of Galilee because that is where Jesus gave the parable. Also, Josephus the First Century AD Jewish historian described the “Lake of Gennesar [as]... everywhere ending in pebbly or sandy beaches” (Wars 3: 506, 507; LCL 2:719). K. E. Wilken, a German traveler who visited the site of Tel el-Araj, the site of Bethsaida in Galilee, observed two strata of human occupation sandwiched between “alluvial sand” when a cistern at the site collapsed (Kraeling 1956: 388, 389). A casual visit to the site reveals the same alluvial sand today. (For a discussion of the location of Bethsaida, see Franz 1995: 6-11).
I think this alluvial sand is the background to the parables of the two builders, and something with which the disciples were well familiar. Bethsaida in Galilee was the birthplace of Philip, Andrew and Peter (John 1:44; 12:21). They knew that the alluvial sand was very hard in the summertime. Perhaps they recalled “Uncle Akiva” or “Cousin Ezra” building their houses on this hard alluvial sand. One may have dug a foundation down to bedrock while the other did not. When the early rains and the winter rains came, the Jordan River overflowed its banks. This, along with the winter windstorms caused the house that was not built with a foundation to collapse.
Interestingly, on February 21, 1978, the Israel Water Systems put in a channel for some pipes in the area of Tel el-Araj. At a depth of three meters under the water table, carved basalt stones of different sizes were observed. They appeared to be part of the foundation of a building (Sharavani 1978). Unfortunately, no pottery was collected that would help date the structure. This would reflect the building method described in the parables.
If the hard alluvial sand of Bethsaida is the background for these parables, then the issue is not where the houses were built, i.e., on sand or rock, because both houses were built on the hard alluvial sand during the summer months. The important point is how the houses were built, i.e., with or without a foundation that was dug down to bedrock. The contrast is obvious. The wise builder looked to the future and knew the early rains would come and the Jordan River would overflow its banks and loosen up the hard alluvial sand and make it unstable. If the house had no foundation, it would collapse. The foolish builder, on the other hand, thought only of the present and thought the hard alluvial sand would remain in that state throughout the winter months. Much to his surprise, it did not. The wise builder was concerned that the house would remain standing when the sand became loose and soft, so he dug a deep foundation down to bedrock. On the other hand, the foolish builder was only concerned with the outward appearance of his house so he did not dig a foundation for his house. The wise builder counted the cost and put time, energy and effort into building a foundation for his house, while the foolish builder took shortcuts and ignored the need for a foundation.
The application of these two parables is also quite obvious. Jesus intended His disciples to hear His words of these two sermons and obey them. The wise builder dug a foundation and built his house on top if it, so when the winds, rains, and floods came the house remained standing. Likewise, the serious disciple of the Lord Jesus must put time, energy and effort into living the Christian life as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain. Paul, in the same vein, said those believers who successfully lived the Christian life will be rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ (I Cor. 3:10-15). On the other hand, the foolish builder did not dig a foundation for his house so it collapsed. Jesus likened this to a disciple who only heard the words of the Sermons and did nothing about them. Paul described this manifestation of the believer’s works as being burned with fire at the Judgment Seat of Christ. That believer would suffer loss, yet he himself would be saved, yet so as through the fire (I Cor. 3:15). This believer would also be ashamed at the coming of the Lord Jesus (I John 2:28).
May we follow the admonition of James,... an “ear-witness” to the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain, when he instructs us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
1993 The Greatest Fish Story Ever Told. Bible and Spade 6/3: 92-96.
1995 Text and Tell: The Excavations at Bethsaida. Archaeology in the Biblical World 3/1: 6-11.
1985 Grace in Eclipse. A Study on Eternal Rewards. Dallas, TX: Redencion Viva.
1976 Jewish Wars. Books 1-3. Trans. by H. Thackeray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 203.
1956 Rand McNally Bible Atlas. New York: Rand McNally.
1978 Personal letter to Mendel Nun, Kibbutz Ein Gev. March 20, 1978.
This article first appeared in Archaeology in the Biblical World, (1995) 3/1: 6-11. It was revised and updated on November 9, 2007.