We stand alone in the room of stone. Husam gestures, “This is the grave of Jethro, the teacher of Moses.”
I knew it was coming and yet his words catch me by surprise. Husam’s face is sober. His words are deliberate. Moses had a mentor. And, according to the biblical text, a father-in-law.
The foundation story behind this grave, known locally as Nabi Shu’ayb, draws its energy from the book of Exodus. Here, a “priest of Midian” alternatively named Ru-el, Hovav, or Jethro, gives a home to the runaway prince of Egypt. Jethro also gives him a daughter to wife (Exo 2:21), encouragement in the worship of YHWH (Exo 18:10), and practical advice for leading the People of God in the wilderness (Exo 18:17-23).
But where did this Jethro-of-the-desert come from? How did he become a “priest of Midian”? What did he know of YHWH (and how did he know it)? How did he end up buried in the hills of Galilee? The answers to such questions are lost in the dust of time. Jethro is some kind of Melchizedekian figure who appears out of nowhere at just the right time and place to facilitate the biblical story. Such mysteries beg for elaboration.
Husam, like his people, is mystery specialist. His grand mustachio, baggy pants, and unique headdress identify him as a member of the Druze community. The Druze are an Arabic speaking group of about a million people who live around the intersection of Lebanon, Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Their community is closed, their faith, secretive. They are clearly monotheistic and unitarian, but do not identify as Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. They are a people very much unto themselves.
What is relevant for the moment is that our Jethro is remembered by the Druze as the great prophet Shu’ayb and the father of monotheism. In Islamic thought, Shu’ayb was a descendent of Abraham sent by God to warn the Midianites of their evil ways. In this way, Jethro’s legacy continues right up to the present.
And we now stand in his memory. On polished limestone. In our socks.
Husam gestures to the cenotaph, a large box covered in green tapestry. Not knowing exactly what to do, I clasp my hands with my head bowed and wait for Husam to make the next move. There is not a sound. I feel slightly awkward but do not fidget.
This room of stone sits on the roof of a large four story structure. Crowned by a white dome, the surrounding area is adorned with an arcade of columns, porches, and a fountain. It is immaculate. On the way up the stairs, I noted earlier phases of the structure, suggesting its long history. It is a famous pilgrimage site for the Druze.
Husam clears his throat then directs my attention to another feature of the room. Near the far wall is a indentation in the limestone. Husam touches it and encourages me to do the same. I feel the stone. It is cold and smooth.
“Once,” Husam says, “Shu’ayb was angry.” Husam stomps the floor with one foot, suggesting the method by which the footprint in stone was created.
Strong hamstring, I think.
I know from my reading that pilgrims in the past used to put oil in the footprint and rub it on their bodies. I ask Husam about this.
“Not any more,” he clips.
After another moment of silence, I ask if I can take a picture.
“Yes . . . " he begins. Then "No,” he answers. “No photos inside.”
I expected this, but thought it worth a try.
I thank Husam, exit the room. We shake hands then I lace up my boots.
The view from the roof toward Arbel cliffs is wonderful. I can see the northern outline of the Sea of Galilee.
On the way out of this shrine of Nabi Shu’ayb, I stop by the gateman’s kiosk. Like Husam, he too wears the traditional garments of the Druze. He pours hot coffee from his thermos into a paper cup and hands it to me.
Druze hospitality. You can't escape it. I thank him. He nods. I think I see a smile beneath his grand mustachio.