January 13, 2019
I went into Bethlehem with low expectations. Frankly, I always question whether the sites that are identified only by tradition and not by archaeological evidence are really correct, and while I know we have the location of Bethlehem correct, I seriously doubt we have the right cave for the place where Jesus was born. And in the end, we didn’t even get to see that cave because today is Sunday, and so naturally, there were services taking place in the church(es) which were built above that cave. We did see parts of the church. But I will come back to all that, because our first stop was a place labeled as the Shepherd’s Field.
The Shepherd’s Field is a Catholic site built in the traditional place where the angels are supposed to have appeared to the shepherds. There is a beautiful round chapel there with an altar in the center and two rows of benches circling it, one on the outside edge and one nearer the altar, with space between to stand. Because we were in Palestinian territory, our guide was Palestinian, a Christian from Bethlehem. He began reading the account of the angels appearing to the shepherds with authentic joy, and I found myself unexpectedly swept into that moment. I closed my eyes and saw the shepherds in the fields suddenly overwhelmed at the presence of the angels, hearing the good news of great joy that a Savior had been born. We were blessed to have the place to ourselves at that moment, and so we sang a couple of Christmas carols within the chapel, but it was the simple reading of the scripture that took me into the moment. While I don’t know how close I was to the spot, I know I was in the fields nearby, within sight of Bethlehem, and it was so easy to visualize the shepherds watching their sheep, receiving the message, and rushing into Bethlehem to find Jesus born there.
From there we walked to where we had a view of Bethlehem and the hillside, with the mountains of Moab (Jordan) just beyond our ability to see (though we saw them plenty yesterday). And it brought to life the story of Naomi and her husband going to Moab in search of food when there was a famine in Israel, and then Naomi attempting to return alone after her husband and both sons had died. But Ruth, her daughter-in-law, accompanied her back to Bethlehem, where Boaz married her. Ruth gave birth to Obed, Obed to Jesse, and Jesse to David. It put into perspective how unlikely was the place of Ruth in the ancestry of both David and Jesus, especially keeping in mind the distance we had driven the previous day and all of the geographic, cultural, religious, and political barriers that separated her from a man like Boaz and the Israelite people.
And that is probably a good segue to talk about the same such divides that we saw today. Again, Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory, but this area was different than those we saw in the West Bank yesterday. This is the area that Israel walled off in 2004 in order to put a stop to the suicide bombings that terrorists were perpetrating in Jerusalem (which is easily visible from Bethlehem), and so the tension was more apparent. Here there were no signs in Hebrew – the Israelis do not come here to shop. We passed through checkpoints, and an Israeli soldier stepped onto the bus for a moment to make sure that we were who we appeared to be. Ikey acknowledged that those terrorist attacks succeeded in breeding fear and mistrust that continues to this day, and the division was much more keenly felt than yesterday.
Another kind of division is apparent at the sight of the cave where tradition (dating back to at least 300 AD or so) located Jesus’ birth. There is a church on the site, with one building but with three separate churches, one that belongs to and is maintained by the Greek Orthodox, one the Arminian Christian Church, and one the Roman Catholic Church. Within the Greek Orthodox part of the building, we saw where they had uncovered an ancient mosaic and a pillar where a fish had been inscribed in the early days of Christianity, and the words, “O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” in Aramaic. Then, people had written their names beneath those words. As our guide explained what we were looking at and read those words, it struck me how unified we actually are, in spite of all the divisions. I had the same problem that those whose names were written on the pillar had. There we were, sinners in need of a Savior, separated by millennia, standing in the same place. “O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And the Lord took on human flesh, here in this town, maybe just yards from where I was standing, for both of us sinners.
That was the paradox of Bethlehem for me. On the one hand, division was evident everywhere. On the other hand, a deeper unity was also evident everywhere, from the joy with which our Palestinian guide welcomed us as his brothers and sisters in Christ, to the simple camaraderie that Ikey had with the Palestinian business man who showed us his olive wood factory and in whose shop we spent an hour (and a lot of souvenir money).
While services at the site of the nativity prevented us from seeing the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, we did see another cave, back at Shepherd’s Field, and our guide explained that living in caves was quite common because it provides protection and natural heating and air conditioning, and not just in ancient times. His grandparents lived in a cave, and his dad, aunts, and uncles were all born there. Looking around at the cave that he showed us, it was not dank and dark and foreboding. I could picture a reasonably comfortable home being fashioned in a cave like that.
He also explained that allowing animals into the cave provided a natural source of heat, and was also very common. The animals wouldn’t have had the run of the place, though, and so when Mary and Joseph find no room in the “inn” and have to stay where the manger is, that is probably still within the home, just not the nice part. And the word translated ‘inn’ was not a hotel, it was just the normal living quarters within the house, the part where animals were not welcome, but guests usually were. That was something I have known since seminary, but couldn’t understand properly until I saw how natural it would be to use your animals to generate some warmth, and how comfortably I could imagine living in a cave.
Our guide described the classic nativity picture for us, complete with a star over the place where Jesus lay and the shepherds arriving to find the magi already there. That is unlikely, however, since Herod killed all the babies two years old and younger, and since the word that describes Jesus at the visit of the magi is the word for a very young child, but not an infant. It is more likely that Jesus was around a year old when the magi arrived, and He would definitely have been a newborn when the shepherds got there, and so the two would not have crossed paths.
I have known all that since seminary, but it’s not something I preach about because I want people to go home on Christmas Eve in awe of God taking on human flesh, not talking about how every manger scene we have ever seen is wrong.
I want to note one more intriguing thing before leaving the cave. This cave was still within the Catholic site marked as the Field of the Shepherds, and it was in use as a small chapel where Catholic groups could arrange to have a mass. We slipped in between two such scheduled masses, and so the altar was set for the Lord’s Supper. And what do we see on the altar? In addition to the elements of Holy Communion, during this Christmas time of year they place an effigy of the baby Jesus. That’s right, there was a baby doll on a tray on the altar. When I asked, our guide indicated that it was intended to be a reminder of the incarnation – God taking on human flesh – during the season of Christmas. But in my mind it was a bit shocking, like singing What Child is This on Christmas Eve and reaching the line, “Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through, the cross be born, for me, for you.” The baby lay on the same altar as the body and blood that Jesus gives to us through His death.
As I mentioned, we stopped to shop in Bethlehem, and we also had the opportunity to tour an olive wood factory, where we learned some interesting facts. Olive wood is seasoned for a minimum of five years before it is carved, so that it will not crack. Many olive wood pieces are produced on machines to keep the expense from being astronomical, but even the machines we saw can only produce a handful of large pieces in a month, and the really nice olive wood carvings are started on the machine, but then detailed by hand by artists. Because these are carvings out of a larger block of wood, they cannot be sure that as they carve they will not encounter a crack in the wood, which can make a piece that took a week to produce worthless, although repair is possible when the crack is not too severe.
In the store we saw a massive and detailed nativity scene that had been priced at $80,000! Let me know if you want me to pick that up for you and have it shipped home (no shipping cost). Of course, there were also many other kinds of carvings at much more reasonable prices.
I learned upon arrival in the country that we should keep receipts for purchases in Israel because many stores are set up so that you can take the receipt to the airport and actually receive a refund for the 17% sales tax you paid. It struck me as crazy for the Israeli government to give up that much income, but it makes more sense now. Because we were shopping in a self-governed Palestinian area, there was no sales tax here. So by refunding sales tax in the rest of the nation, Israel keeps tourist dollars flowing into their economy instead of sending the tourists into Palestinian areas to shop. There might be another motivation, but I would be surprised if that is not at least a part of the puzzle.
From there we drove to the Elah Valley mentioned in 1st Samuel 17. There we stepped off the bus and walked a short path to a muddy but mostly dry streambed. Like just about everything we have seen, the terrain included mountains and valleys, but these were the green and fertile variety – not like the desert that we were in yesterday.
Other than the gravelly path we were walking on, this was an undeveloped site, and so it made for a nice walk with the blue sky overhead and flowers dotting the green landscape. Once we arrived at the streambed, I began reading 1 Samuel 17, and Ikey explained what we were looking at. That stream eventually empties into the Mediterranean Sea, and a certain tribe of seafaring people from the Greek islands had established settlements there in the early days of Israel’s kings. They were called the Philistines.
Do you know which story is contained in 1 Samuel 17 yet?
The Philistines marched up, following that streambed until they were cut off by King Saul’s army, encamped in the valley where we were standing. So the Philistines set up camp on a hillside nearby and sent out their champion, Goliath, to taunt the Israelites.
Ikey referenced the movie Troy as an example of how the Greeks approached warfare. Rather than everyone on one side trying to kill everyone on the other side, they would send forth champions to determine the battle, and presumably the army whose champion was killed would turn tail and run. This makes sense of the way Goliath was taunting the Israelites. Since the Philistines were from the Greek Islands, they approached warfare like the Greeks, sent out a champion, and expected Israel to do the same.
Of course, no one from Israel wanted to face Goliath except one young man who was not even in the army, but who trusted in the living God: David. Then Ikey demonstrated how a slingshot worked. According to Ikey, when he was a boy he and some friends had gotten into an altercation with some other boys, one of whom slung a stone at him so hard that it hit the wall behind him and shattered into multiple pieces. He also told us that in ancient times they used to hunt birds with slingshots! So if David had perfected his slingshot technique while whiling away the time in the fields, it certainly could have been a precise and lethal weapon in his hands.
While we don’t know for sure where the battle would have taken place, Ikey indicated that they have pinned down the location of the Philistine camp, and of course the stream is an obvious landmark. Where Israel camped can’t be determined for sure, but he also pointed out that we don’t even know where the camps were for some of our Civil War battlefields, and that was only 150 years ago.
On our drive to the Elah valley we saw the two thousand year old Roman road for the first time. It looked kind of like a hiking path, but paved and maybe a little wider than most trails. The area we glimpsed was mostly stairs. Ikey explained that when movies show chariots driving the Roman Road, that’s pure Hollywood. Wheels were used for heavy loads, but because of the lack of shock absorbers, they were not normally used as a method of conveyance for people. It would have been too uncomfortable. Since the traffic was on horse or on foot, the Roman road included stairs. In that particular spot it was difficult to imagine them making the road with ramps instead of stairs. There are just too many slopes, and too steep. Stairs looked like the only reasonable option to me.
Our last stop of the day was at the Israel Museum, for the Dead Sea scrolls exhibit and the model of Jerusalem. The significance of the Dead Sea scrolls is that they confirmed that the text we have of the Old Testament has remained unchanged across the millennia. Whereas at one time people said, “We can’t be sure that we know what Isaiah really wrote, because all we have are copies of copies of copies and so the text has been changed over time.” In addition, secular scholars always dated the book of Daniel very late, because his prophecies are so accurate regarding the changing of the empires that they assumed it had to have been written after the events had happened (because they would not believe that true prophecy was possible). But when the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, we found verses from every Old Testament book except Esther and Nehemiah that were from before the time of Jesus, and yet they matched up beautifully with the copies of copies of copies that we had been working from until that time. So, like I said, they confirmed that the text we have of the Old Testament has remained unchanged across the millennia.
That is really helpful and significant, but not all that interesting to look at (and I had seen fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls in Milwaukee when they were in town). So that part of the museum was less riveting to me.
What was more intriguing to look at was the model of Jerusalem. This is a scale model of the city in the time of Jesus that has been constructed with a footprint roughly the size of a house. It is so large that they built a walkway around it so that you can get a bird’s eye view of it from every side. We could see where the temple was; we could see the temple steps where Jesus taught, the marketplace where He chased away the moneychangers, the palace where He stood before Pontius Pilate, and landmarks along the Via Dolorosa. Ikey was also pointing us to other, less obvious, landmarks, but it was difficult to follow since you have to stand at a distance in order to see the whole thing, so I missed some of what he was showing us.
Ikey also talked about the label “Song of Ascents” that you read above many of the psalms in your Bible. He said that those were the psalms that were sung when people ascended the temple steps at the Passover. I thought I remembered that those psalms were used along the road, ascending up to the mountain of Jerusalem. It is possible that both are correct, though in different time periods. That’s something that I will have to look into at another time.
Thanks for praying for us and our families!