January 12, 2019
As usual, this is incredibly long. That’s for the sake of my memory. Read at will. 🙂
We visited the Spring of Harod, mentioned in Judges 7 as the place where God instructed Gideon to winnow his army down from 32,000 to 300 men, so that it would be apparent that it was by God’s strength and not theirs that they prevailed. The place marked as the Spring of Harod lays at the foot of a steep hill, almost a cliff, where water flows from a cave (though we are a bit suspicious that the water we saw bubbling in the corner was artificially pumped there). Israel has developed the site into a beautiful park, and the spot itself is a place of great beauty, with paths lined with flowering bushes and gorgeous green spaces.
When the Bible talks about hills or mountains versus plains, the contrast could not be more evident. The plains are incredibly flat and wide, and they meet the mountains quite suddenly. As a Midwestern boy, I always picture a plain giving way to foothills which merge into a mountain with a gradual increase in steepness. But it is far more common here to see a plain stretching miles and then abruptly running into a mountain with steep, almost cliff-like (but grass covered) slopes. The words of Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from?” have taken on new meaning. I can picture a soldier facing overwhelming odds, looking at that ridgeline, praying for reinforcements. Where does my help come from? From over that ridgeline.
Everything we talked about related to Gideon was already familiar to me, but the importance of it became more clear from seeing the landscape. You remember the story – the Midianites were oppressing Israel and had an army whose “camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.” So Gideon rallied an army of 32,000 men, which would already be outnumbered, but God told Gideon to send home anyone who was afraid, and 22,000 men went home. Then, God had Gideon have those 10,000 take a drink from the Spring of Harod, and only the 300 who drank from their hands instead of slurping the water up like a dog were allowed to fight.
The significance of both of those qualifications was not new to me. Obviously, the first qualifier left Gideon only with men of courage. The second qualifier left Gideon only with men who were particularly alert and careful, not exposing themselves to attack by putting their faces into the water, even though that would be the quicker way to drink. Still, in my mind, both of those qualifications, courage and great care, seemed optional, since all they did was yell and blow trumpets and hold torches. But I had always pictured (and seen in pictures) Gideon and his men on a ridgeline, far above the enemy. But there is no such ridgeline. Gideon and his men were sneaking through the night across a perfectly flat plain into a position where they were very much vulnerable, a mission that would take great care and great courage.
We almost missed making this stop because we were worried about time, and the Biblical significance of Beth Shean is not very great. But I am so glad we were able to set aside time to stop there. This was the most significant city of the ten cities that make up the Decapolis mentioned in the Gospels, and there are few references to Jesus doing something in the Decapolis, but we don’t know if they happened in this city or another. So we didn’t read any Scripture here.
But, that said, as the most important city of the Decapolis, Beth Shean was a large and significant Greek/Roman city. The whole city was destroyed by a massive earthquake that hit at night in the 700s, collapsing roofs onto sleeping people, lighting fires from lit candles and lamps, and utterly decimating the city so that it never recovered, but providing archaeologists with the ability to find significant buildings more intact than in places that were conquered, resettled, conquered resettelled, etc. Here we saw ruins that I would have thought you needed to go to Greece or Rome to see.
We sat in a nine thousand seat theater that had been constructed at least 1500 years ago. In the earthquake, the upper levels of the theater collapsed, into the theater, but the lower level survived, and only a small portion of it needed to be reconstructed. The stage was intact along with thousands of seats, and a good portion of the back wall that reflects the sound back out to the seats. The theater is a ruin, but it still hosts performances. Frankly, the view was great, the acoustics were still good, and I could easily see watching a play while sitting on those original seats, and enjoying the show very much. Amazing design and construction.
We went from there to a public latrine. This was both ingenious and disgusting. It was a very large rectangular room with stones sticking out from the walls at around bench height, and when our guide told us to take a seat, most of us sat trying to straddle one of those stones. But the way it was designed, a person would actually sit between two such stones, which had been carved to accommodate your backside while you did your business between the two of them. The sewage landed in an outer channel and was carried away, and they had also carved an inner channel which flowed with fresh and clean water for cleansing yourself. Toilet paper consisted of a stick with cotton wrapped around the end. And somehow you did the whole thing while maintaining your modesty by means of the toga you wore. Ingenious. And disgusting.
From there we walked through a market area and saw beautiful mosaic floors, and also saw those same beautiful floors covered up in places by marble slabs where they had wanted to update the pavement. The marblework was astonishing. In places there were uneven rock walls that were later covered by marble slabs that were probably about 1 foot square. But since the rock wall was uneven, the back of each marble slab had been carved exactly to mate against the uneven rock wall, making the two flush and producing a wall that was perfectly smooth. Amazing!
There were ten or twelve foot columns jutting into the sky that had supported roofs over the street (usually reconstructed from the two or three pieces they had broken into during the earthquake). The scope of the ruin is amazing, and provided a better feel for the size and luxury of the city than even Caesarea Maritima did. The bathhouse (which included another latrine, but also much more) was an astonishing luxury. I had heard of Roman bathhouses before and never understood why people made such a big deal of them, but now I know. They were a marvel of engineering. They had a fire room contained within, but they had engineered them such that the smoke was drawn DOWN instead of up, and through a channel under the bathhouse in such a way that the fire warmed the floors of the various rooms. And there were several rooms. Besides the latrine, there was a workout area to work up a little sweat, a sauna, a warm bath area, and a cool water pool. There were also rooms that could have served as waiting areas or lounges, and an alcove that served as a Christian baptismal font. Astonishing engineering and luxury. I got a sense of why Roman culture spread so far and took such a firm hold.
I am also amazed at how we are able to walk right into and on an ancient ruin like that. In America, anything over a hundred years old is protected with a glass case in a museum, but these ruins are made of stone, and so you walk on the mosaics and the marble, lean against the walls, sit on the seats, touch the ancient plaster, and give the ancient latrine a test-sit.
The one Biblical reference to Beth Shean is that it was the place where Saul and Jonathan’s bodies were hung on the wall of the city after they were killed and Israel was defeated (1 Samuel 31). The scripture says that the men of Jabesh Gilead went and reclaimed their bodies from the wall so that they could receive proper burial. I gained a new appreciation for what courage and strength that took. It wasn’t just venturing near an enemy city, it was also assailing a city built to be a fortress at the top of a really steep incline. We didn’t look at these, the most ancient ruins at the site, because the climb was long and steep and the ruins predate the stone construction, so we would have just seen much deteriorated mud bricks, but the mount dominated the background of the later city that we were exploring.
We actually crossed from Israel into Jordan to visit the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism, and the place where John the Baptist’s ministry took place. When it says that John was in the desert, the Bible is not exaggerating! Except for right on the bank of the river, it is a barren desert, and not a flat one either. It was a significant undertaking for those crowds to walk to John by the river! Of course, in the days of Joshua the same area was a fertile land with clusters of grapes so heavy it took two men to carry them, so when it shifted to desert is uncertain. But in any case, it was not an afternoon stroll to go hear John preach or be baptized by him.
Like I said, this was actually in Jordan, and access to the site is provided through a special arrangement between Israel and Jordan. Since the river and the desert (and the fifty year old minefield under the desert) provide such natural barriers, security was minimal. We were in a thoroughly fenced in area with nothing but a few buildings – changing rooms for those who come here to be baptized or enter the river in remembrance of their baptism, bathrooms, a pavilion for groups, and decks that provide convenient access to the river.
The river itself was maybe twenty feet wide, with lots of lush vegetation around it with a width of maybe another twenty feet on each bank before it went back to desert. We could clearly see to the other side of the river, where a similar deck had been built and a Christian Church stood, though there was almost no one there except one Jordanian soldier who was keeping an eye on everything from there. Our side was busy with various people entering the river and going underneath in remembrance of their baptisms, and at least one person who was preparing to be baptized by a heavily vested clergyman from an Eastern Orthodox Church (we think).
This site didn’t capture me. The development to make it so convenient for us along with the muddy brown color of the water made it hard to picture Jesus stepping into that water to be baptized. But other than those two things, it looked about like I have pictured it, with reeds poking up out of the water. It probably didn’t help that we learned on the way there that the water in the Jordan is actually being pumped up out of the Sea of Galilee, because the level of the lake has fallen so much from where it once was.
Jericho and Mount of Temptation
In Jericho, we glimpsed the excavation where they found walls that had collapsed outward, though we didn’t stop to tour. That the walls fell outward is significant, because this is a (mud)brick wall, not a stone wall, so it wouldn’t have been pulled out by attackers, it would have been battered in. But I just know that from previous reading. We didn’t spend any time on it.
We also saw an old Sycamore tree (in the city where Zachaeus climbed such a tree in order to see Jesus), which was clearly there specifically so tourists could stop and take a picture of it, but all in all, there was not much to see here. From Jericho we could also see the nearby Mount of Temptation. This is the traditional site where they believe that Jesus’ temptation took place, but there is not much to see other than a very barren mountain (and the church that they started to build at the top, but ran out of money and abandoned after laying the foundation). Our guide referenced a cave that you can see if you are willing to take a cable car and do some climbing, but he treated it pretty lightly – I don’t think the historicity of the place impresses him much. Especially when you consider the way that Satan whisked Jesus around, I doubt that we really know where His temptation took place.
Jericho is a Muslim, Palestinian, city, so as we came into the city we were able to see the contrast between Israeli territory and the areas that are governed by the Palestinians, and the contrast is quite stark. Israel is clearly a first world country in every way. The heart of Jericho also felt like a first world country, just with less developed technology (no electronics stores or LED signs, and the one elevator we encountered did not work), but the outskirts reminded me of my time in Africa, with homes built of mudbrick, some of which had collapsed and were gradually eroding away. Some of the shops were really stands with some kind of tent material stretched over the top, and there was a fruit market lined up along the edge of the street. There was lots more garbage on the ground, and the remains of old cars and buildings sat abandoned in some places. However, Ikey told us that it’s not so much that it is run down, but rather, “that’s just the way it is” and “this is a developing community.”
We stopped for lunch here in a touristy restaurant/gift shop/scenic outlook that was very American friendly. There were multiple Palestinian people who spoke excellent English, the prices were in dollars instead of shekels, and French fries were available on the buffet. As we drove, Ikey called our attention to the fact that many of the signs on the shops were written in Hebrew as well as Arabic, indicating that the Palestinian people want Hebrew business. In his opinion, a lot of the tension between Palestinians and Jews is not racial or cultural, but more the result of the Palestinians lacking a good leader who is able to unite the people and help them establish themselves and develop their communities.
As we left, we passed a Catholic school, and Ikey pointed out all the children who were walking home unchaperoned and said, “You see that in Chicago?” We picture the West Bank as being so dangerous, but Christian kids walk to and from school, by themselves, every day.
The children were going to school today (Saturday) because this is a Muslim community and so the schools are closed on Friday. But because of the Christian community, they will also be off tomorrow. In Jewish communities the weekend is Friday and Saturday and the kids would be back in school on Sunday.
One of the best things about traveling abroad is the constant reminder that the things that divide us, ultimately, are artificial and temporary, and that nothing prevents us from peace and cooperation except our own unwillingness. Of course, tourism dollars create an incentive for us to be at peace and cooperate, and so it is somewhat artificial when you experience it this way. But if money can motivate that kind of change, so can other forces, and of course, ultimately Christ is one who tears down every barrier so that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, for Christ is all and is in all. By the way, that reference to Colossians 3 was in my mind because the Scythian people were associated with Beth Shean – although they had a reputation for being worse than barbarians, which is hard to reconcile with the luxurious ruins we saw today. Of course, the people who built the Colosseum also threw people to the lions there.
As we drove south through Israel, we began at the Sea of Galilee with lots of green mountains and plains, but that green Is almost always littered with rocks that range in size from small to boulder. These are all volcanic rocks, which is why they are scattered on the surface.
We saw some fertile plains, like the one where the battle of Gideon took place, then as we drove south, gradually the green gave way to rock, and in more and more places rock jutted out through the greenery so that the bones of the mountains stood exposed. In other words, the land was rock instead of having rocks scattered on top of it. Near the place where we visited the Jordan, the desert was rocky and hilly, with a terrain something like the Badlands in South Dakota, but less smooth (everything seems less eroded to me in Israel… the edges of mountains and hills and rocks are all so jagged).
As we drew further south, near the Dead Sea, the desert is pure mountain, large, foreboding, jagged, with almost no greenery. It is a wasteland, and I can easily understand how caves here could remain unexplored for thousands of years like the one that held the Dead Sea scrolls of Qumran. These mountains draw quite close to the Dead Sea at times, so you have desolation and barrenness right up to the edge of beautiful blue water that stretches into the distance.
Masada does not have great Biblical significance, but is an incredibly impressive sight, and, in my opinion, could just about qualify as a wonder of the ancient world. Herod the Great commissioned a palace/fortress at the top of an isolated mountain in the desert. Water had to be collected from a plateau, aqueducted to the base of the mountain, and carried by hand to the top, an entirely uphill walk that would have taken us nearly an hour, without carrying jars of water. And at the top, Herod built a fortress the size of a small city, complete with a palace constructed in three levels on a cliff jutting out from the mountain, including a bathhouse, and elsewhere on the mountain, a swimming pool. Yes, he had enough water carried to the top of a mountain in the desert to provide for himself, his retinue, his soldiers, and a nice bath and swimming pool, to boot.
Almost equally impressive is the achievement of the Romans in 73 A.D., who chased the last band of 976 Jewish rebels to Masada, and then brought a force of 15,000 into the desert. There, in four months, they built a siege ramp stretching from the dessert floor all the way up to within a siege tower’s reach of the mountain fortress. That would be impressive anywhere, but they somehow kept 15,000 people fed and watered in the desert during that entire time.
That is the very quick version of the story. You can find movies and documentaries that tell it with all the drama and the bloodshed. Historically, that was a very significant moment because Rome really believed that it was putting an end to the Jewish people as a nation. They had slaughtered the Jews across the entire nation, and invested massive effort into obliterating the very last holdouts, even though it required a ludicrous effort and 15,000 men. And from that moment until 1948, the Jewish people had no country to call their own. They were scattered among the nations, but, in a way that might be unique in all of history, they still maintained their Jewish identity and culture.
We sat in the synagogue that had been built by Herod the Great on the top of that mountain, and Ikey told us that among the documents that they had found in the synagogue was a page from the book of Ezekiel – the valley of the dry bones in which God asks Ezekiel, “Can these dry bones live?” Ezekiel wisely answered, “You alone know.” Ikey impressed upon us how unlikely it was in that moment that a Jew would ever again set foot on Masada, or call this land his own, when for 2000 years there was no homeland. Only God could know that such a thing was possible. “Can these dry bones live?” “You alone know.”
On an unrelated note – the view from Masada was incredible. Herod knew how to pick the sites. Of course, more than likely there were some bodies scattered over the desert in order to make such a marvel happen.
This name has stayed in my memory from a study I led on Song of Songs, where the beloved compares the man she loves to “a cluster of henna blossoms from the vineyards of En Gedi”. Since Song of Songs is so full of imagery of lush gardens in a fertile land, I expected to see a lush oasis. It is not! En Gedi is a tiny trickle of a waterfall right now, and that in the rainy season. It creates more of a fertile canyon than a valley, and it would certainly be a stretch to call it lush. But since it is surrounded by rocky mountains and desert wasteland, the image actually makes much more sense than if the place itself were a beautiful oasis. It would take great effort and sacrifice to bring a bouquet of flowers from the vineyards of En Gedi, and that fact alone would make them precious, even more than if they were especially beautiful but easy to acquire. In addition, it is an image of beauty in the midst of a wasteland and life where one would expect to see only death – a powerful image.
But none of that is the reason why we stopped here. The significance of En Gedi comes from 1st Samuel 24. This is where King Saul was pursuing David, went alone into a cave to relieve himself, and chose the cave where David and his men were hiding. But David refused to take the life of the Lord’s anointed, and spared Saul’s life.
Which cave it was would be impossible to guess, as the mountains are full of caves easily visible from the road, and I’m sure many more that are not so easily visible. But it was certainly easy to imagine those events taking place here, looking at the canyon, the mountains, and the various caves and outcroppings.
Archaeology in Israel
One final note: Ikey explained why there has been so much excavation in the last few decades. When the iron curtain fell, about one million Jews entered the country in a year and a half, increasing the population by 25 percent in a space of less than two years. What does the government do with all of these people who need homes and jobs? “They provide them with apartments, furnish them with shovels, and send them off to dig.” I’m sure it was a bit more complex than that, but it makes sense that, with so many people in need of jobs, manual labor under archaeologists could be part of the answer.
Thanks for praying for us and our families!