City of David, Pool of Siloam, Pool of Bethesda, Gabbatha, Via Dolorosa, Garden Tomb (& Golgotha)

January 15, 2019

Update 1/21/2019: An iffy internet connection must have kept this post from completing originally. I pasted in the full post from the notes on my computer and did a little proofreading as well.

I am posting this later because I’ve been up late finishing these posts just about every night here, and tomorrow we have a slower day with time in the morning for me to finish and proofread.  It’s likely that the next post will be delayed as well, because tonight will be a short night so that we can catch a very early bus to the airport for a 7am flight.

We began today by visiting the City of David, which is an archaeological park that sprawls in, around, and under the part of the city where King David had his palace.  This is the oldest part of Jerusalem, and if you remember your Bible history, David had to conquer this city during his reign; it wasn’t originally a part of Israel, probably because it was so hard to conquer.  So Judah possessed the surrounding area, including David’s nearby hometown of Bethlehem, but not Jerusalem.

We saw ruins here from before David, when Jerusalem was a Jebusite city.  We also saw ruins from during David’s reign.  We also saw ruins from 300 years later from the time of Hezekiah, and we saw a Persian wall, which probably came from the time of Nehemiah.  The Persian construction was recognized by the bones – apparently the Persian soldiers buried live dogs beneath their towers (watch dogs?), and so the finding of the dog bones is how they dated that part of the ruin.  Other parts of the ruins could be dated based on construction methods, or on artifacts found under the wall.  Ikey gave us the example that a coin found under the heavy wall tells us with certainty that the wall has to come from after the coin, because you definitely couldn’t get a coin under a massive stone wall after it is built!

There are a few major events that are tied directly to these ruins.  One is the original capture of Jerusalem by the soldiers of David, which required a courageous assault through a water shaft in order to get into a very heavily fortified city.   Ikey told us that the theories keep changing as they excavate further, and the story being told right now might change eventually, but based on what they have found right now, the reason why the water shaft was undefended was because to get into the city via the shaft would require soldiers to navigate a narrow channel at night, which would then become a narrow cave where the soldiers had to move in silence and complete darkness, before eventually they had to dive blindly under the water which completely filled the channel.  We know that Joab received credit for this capture, so he probably was the first one to take that courageous dive, and hoping that he would find a place to come up and get air before he ran out, he took a deep breath and dove in.  Feeling his way forward in the darkness and holding his breath, he made his way through a narrow passage and found himself in the city’s water reservoir.  Then he brought the other soldiers with him. (2 Samuel 5)

We walked in a combination of caves and tunnels that first led to the water reservoir from within the city, so this was construction that predated David.  We paused to look at the gigantic boulders that had been used in the construction of the fortress that David knew was unassailable apart from the water shaft.  We found ourselves standing in a large space with the boulders at our feet, but the door into the fortress was still visible, and they dropped down a screen and projected images to help us see what it might have looked like in the days of David.  At least as reconstructed, it was understandable why the Jebusites taunted David.  It really would have been just about impossible to take that fortress without siege engines, which were a much later invention.

From there we had the opportunity to walk the water shaft that Joab and David’s soldiers used to enter the city (traveling the opposite direction that they did).  This was made quite a bit easier by later tunnels that channeled the water away, and by some work done to make it more accessible for tourists.  So while we could get the idea of the challenge of sneaking through that tunnel into rising water in the dark, it was not a particularly challenging part of the journey for us – just a little uncomfortably narrow.

Those who wish to bring a flashlight and get wet almost up to your waist can go through another famous tunnel here.  King Hezekiah had this tunnel constructed so that the water that would otherwise have been available for the invading Assyrians would be channeled instead into a reservoir within the city (2 Kings 20:20).  This was an amazing feat, involving two separate groups of workers starting at opposite ends and working with hand tools to cut two winding tunnels that met up in the middle.  We could see Hezekiah’s tunnel, but unfortunately, we were not equipped to travel that tunnel, which would have been quite a memory.  Of course, Hezekiah’s tunnel was not a part of an invasion like ours was.  It only ever carried water, tourists, and kids having fun.

Speaking of Hezekiah, we were also able stand in the vicinity of David’s palace and the city wall, and look across the valley to where the army of Sennacherib would have been camped when they besieged Jerusalem.  It was very easy to visualize the taunting that went on from the Assyrians, who made a point of speaking in Hebrew in order to demoralize the soldiers of Hezekiah.  Isaiah the prophet predicted victory for Israel, in spite of the fact that Assyrians had rolled over much greater cities on the way.  At the same time, Sennacherib’s envoy continued to remind them of the suffering that was seemingly sure to come because of the siege, and he urged them to surrender.  The envoy went so far as to mock the living God while taunting Hezekiah’s soldiers, and after Hezekiah turned to God in a desperate prayer, God put to death 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, and Sennacherib’s army turned around and went home (Isaiah 36-37).

It strikes me as a tribute to Jerusalem’s fortifications that when you read the account, it is clear that even the powerful Assyrian army with their siege engines chose to wait and starve the people of Jerusalem rather than assault those walls.

Much of David’s palace has not been excavated. I have mentioned before the impressive coexistence that you find everywhere in Jerusalem.  As I was writing this we passed a bus stop where a Jewish young man was reading the scripture sitting next to a Muslim woman wearing her full hijab.  But we also saw the other side of that diversity.  The reason why more of David’s palace has not been excavated is that the Palestinian authority has decreed that if anyone sells his home to a Jew, he should be killed, preferably by his own family.  As a result, there are homes sitting on top of the ruins that no amount of money can buy, and so the ruins that lie directly beneath them cannot be excavated.  That said, deeper underground the archaeologists have been able to excavate, and so some of the tunnels we were walking in were actually under homes just like that.  So even though the property above belongs to a private party who won’t sell, they have been able to excavate under the ground, as long as the tunnel comes out in property that they have been able to acquire.  It is a complicated place.

There is a whole network of caves, caverns, and tunnels from different periods that all intersect here.  We climbed some steep stairs, ducked under cave ceilings, and turned sideways to squeeze between narrow walls.  I love that kind of exploring, and I could happily spend two or three days just exploring an archaeological park like this.  Put together (moderately) challenging climbing, fascinating history, and some sweeping views, and you have laid out a great day for me.   We have been in several places like that, where I wish I could have a couple days just in the one spot.

The most memorable moment of the day took place here for me, and it had nothing to do with any of the ruins or the scripture readings.  I was near the end of our trail of tourists and paused for a moment to wait as others ascended the stairs, next to a young man who was sitting alone, reading what I had already guessed was a Bible.  He looked up and greeted us, and then asked where we were from, and I told him Wisconsin.  I was carrying my Bible in my hand, and I don’t know he saw it or just thought of the United States as a Christian country, but he then asked if we were Christians.  When I said, “yes” he smiled from ear to ear, jumped up, and wrapped me in a long and enthusiastic hug.  Then he proceeded to hug the other couple members of our group who were nearby.  We didn’t really have a conversation because our group was on the move, but the joy he had at recognizing us as brothers and sisters in Christ was like nothing I have ever seen before.  He was from South Korea, and he clearly liked Americans and really found joy in encountering brothers and sisters in Christ.  That has been a joy for me as well.  We are encountering Christians from all over the world here, and glimpsing the different cultures makes God’s desire to reach every nation, tribe, people and language very real and beautiful.

Even the non-Christian cultures that we are glimpsing have a certain beauty to them.  The Muslim call to prayer sounds at the appointed times throughout the city with a haunting beauty, and the deep dedication of so many people of faith, both Arabs and Jews, is easy to admire.  But that admiration carries with it a deep sorrow.  These are not just religions I am looking at.  These are people, who want only to make a way through life, put food on the table, raise families, and enter eternity with those families.  And either they have not heard the message or they are not willing to permit God to give them that gift in Jesus Christ, and so they continue to strive to make their own way into eternal life, a mountain that is much too steep to climb.

Of course, after hearing about the Palestinian law against selling property to Jews, it is also evident that the peace on the surface here is maintained in large part by ensuring that no one crosses the lines between the religions, and there would be a significant price to pay for anyone who converts to Christianity. 

Pool of Siloam

Our final stop in the City of David took us to a site from the time of Jesus, the pool of Siloam.  This was an ancient pool that has only been partially excavated, in this case because a Greek Orthodox Church doesn’t want them digging up their courtyard (although there’s no death penalty involved in this case).  What can be plainly seen is the set of steps leading down to what remains of the pool.   This is the pool where the blind man came after Jesus put mud on his eyes and told him to go here and wash (John 9).  He went into the water blind and came out seeing. 

The site itself was not that much to look at, but Ikey pointed out to us that Jesus is only recorded as doing two miracles in Jerusalem, healing one man who was blind, the other lame.  If you are interested, take a look back at the text from when David first conquered Jerusalem (1 Samuel 5), and look for the connection.

Bethesda

The pool of Bethesda is the place where Jesus encountered a crippled man.  This text (John 5) raises a lot of questions in my mind.  John tells us that a great number of disabled people used to lay here, but Jesus healed only one.  Why?  And when Jesus asks this man if he wants to be healed, his answer implies that his problem is that someone more able is always able to get down the stairs and into the pool first when the water is stirred.  There is an alternate Greek text that is almost certainly not original, but gives someone’s answer to the question of why: Because “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters.  The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had.”

I can’t believe that is true, because it is so unlike the miracles that we read of in the scriptures, which are always so purposeful and never arbitrary, and certainly don’t reward more able individuals over others.  But whatever the back story is, this pool has a reputation for healing, and one man receives healing (and a later warning against continuing in sin) from Jesus here.

Some of this had been excavated, and other parts of the pools (there were actually two) are still parking lot.  There was a fancy church built right over the pools, so that people would actually worship above the waters, but that was destroyed and so the ruins we were looking at were a combination of the ruins of the church and the ruins of the pool from Jesus’ day.  A set of stairs going down into the pool are visible, but I found it difficult to distinguish one set of ruins from the other, so while I got the general idea, there was no “aha” moment here for me today.

There is also a church built by the Crusaders which is still standing at the site.  This is a stone church with incredible reverberation, and so many groups come here to literally hear themselves sing.  We formed a semi-circle facing the apse (the curved area where the altar is located) and sang Beautiful Savior and then another hymn (Abide with Me?).  I found singing on pitch to be a little bit difficult, because the sound really does reverberate like nothing you have ever heard, and so as you are singing you hear the voices of your choir still reverberating notes that you sang three beats ago.  I can understand where one would arrive at the conclusion that “the angels were singing with us” because it does sound like there are more voices than the ones you see standing there.

Gabbatha

This is the “stone pavement” mentioned in John 19.  The stone pavement where Jesus was judged actually doesn’t exist anymore, as it was destroyed by the Romans, but this is still the traditional place to begin the Via Dolorosa.  They found a stone pavement during excavations in the mid-1800s (if I caught the date correctly), and assumed that this was where Pilate judged Jesus.  As a result it became the first stop on the Via Dolorosa, but further excavation revealed that it was actually a part of the triumphal arch that Emperor Hadrian built to commemorate his victory over the Jews.  However, it is still possible that the stones we were sitting on were from Pontius Pilate’s stone pavement, since construction in that area is going to employ the stone that is closest at hand, which would have come from the destruction of the nearby Antonia Fortress where the Gabbatha had been located.  We then walked through the triumphal arch (all underground), which was intriguing to look at, but none of this was particularly inspiring (you will hear me say that again).

Via Dolorosa

We proceeded to the next couple of stops on the Via Dolorosa, and as I just warned you, it was not particularly inspiring.  The Via Dolorosa is the traditional route that took Jesus from judgment before Pilate to the crucifixion, and so I had high expectations for this afternoon.  I thought that we would be spending a lot of time meditating on the passion of our Lord, growing into a deeper understanding of His suffering, and gaining a deeper appreciation for what our sin did to Jesus: the price God paid to make us His own again.

But in reality the Via Dolorosa is not a good place for meditation or reading scripture.  The portion we walked is a very busy one lane street with occasional cars and lots and lots of people accessing the local market which was on the left side as we walked.  Some of the shops sold produce, some were bakeries, there was a pharmacy and I saw two shops clearly labeled “Money Changer”.  Most of the crowd around us was made up of Muslim natives of Jerusalem, who were shopping for groceries, getting kids home from school, or otherwise going about their business in the shops.  Intermingled with these shops were others that existed for the sake of tourists.  Ikey warned us that this was an area in which we were likely to be pick-pocketed in the street and deceived in the shop by fake olive wood or even outrageous credit card charges, and so there was no temptation to do any shopping here, at least for me.

We only paused at a couple of the stops on the Via Dolorosa, and I basically missed them because I was distracted by observing the crowds and shops, and so, again, this was not particularly inspiring.

Garden Tomb

From there we walked to the Garden Tomb.  This is one of two sites that people believe may have been the place where Jesus was buried.  We will visit the other (older) one tomorrow.

Here my first surprise was to realize that when we read that they laid Jesus in a tomb nearby, there is a good chance that meant REALLY near.  I expected Golgotha to be a separate site that we would visit at another time, but in fact there are probably only 100 yards or so between the suggested site of the crucifixion and the tomb in which they believe that Jesus was laid.  And so we walked into a (modern) garden to a kind of viewing deck, from which we could look at a rock cliff that vaguely had the look of a skull (remember Golgotha means “place of the skull”).  Our guide (an employee of the Garden Tomb, not Ikey) explained that this was a site that had been used for executions by the Jews even before the Romans came, and so there is a double reason to call it the “place of the skull”.  It is also located near two major roads, one to Damascus and one to Jericho, and so would have been an ideal place for Rome to hang criminals on a cross in order to send the message to Jerusalem and throughout the empire: “You don’t mess with Rome.”

At present, it is not much to look at.  On the mount there is a stone wall with some writing in Arabic, and the skull-like appearance of the stone was more clear in a photograph taken a century ago than at present.  At the base of the hill was a parking lot full of tourist buses.  It takes some imagination to see it as the place where Jesus was crucified, but the logic of it certainly makes sense, and when you remove the modern day improvements, it does sort of look “right” as a place of death and brutality.  It was not the “green hill far away, outside a city wall” from the song, but rather an exposed and jagged cliff of barren stone.

They call it the Garden Tomb, fitting the description in John 19, because they found a winepress here, and where there is a winepress, there are grapes being grown.  And in the garden they also found a tomb, with a large space where the body would be prepared, and then an alcove to the right where there were spaces to place three bodies.  This also fits the description in Mark 16 of a young man dressed in white, sitting on the right side, to deliver the news of resurrection to the women.  They also found a Byzantine cross painted on the wall inside the tomb, a cross which they have dated to around A.D. 450, which indicates that this was considered a sacred place, connected with Jesus, from as early as then.

All in all, there is an impressive collection of evidence marshalled here to suggest that we actually stepped into the tomb that Jesus stepped out of on the day of resurrection.  If anything, that actually made it more difficult for me to believe.  It was a little bit too perfect (and too tourist friendly).  This site did not carry the same awe for me that the home of Caiaphas did, or the chapel on the Shepherd’s fields.

Instead, I found myself reflecting on what it should say to us that God did not see fit to preserve these “holy” sites in such a way that we could view them with complete confidence.  Without question, it is a faith affirming experience to take a trip like this, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity.  At the same time, to God it is not such a big deal that a Muslim built a wall on the site where Jesus paid for our sins, that the Dome of the Rock stands where the temple once did, or that we can’t be completely sure which tomb the women found empty after Jesus rose.  What matters to Him is the people, the men whose hands built the wall above or drove the buses parked below, the women shopping for groceries and walking kids to school, so many of whom see God as a master whose favor must be earned through stringent obedience to an arbitrary set of laws, or as a distant judge who waits passively for us to figure out what he is really after.  And for these people Jesus died.  On this hill or another, God was present in this world, drawing near to the human race so that He could draw the human race near to Him.  I have a modicum of interest in determining what the accurate site of these events really is, but I have a deeply abiding sorrow mixed with longing for these people.  I feel, I think, what God feels, and even this shadow of His love for the world breaks my heart.

We had enjoyed lunch today at a restaurant called City View which had, of course, a sweeping view of the city.  I couldn’t help but hear the words of Jesus, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longed to gather you together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  I wanted to weep with Jesus for Jerusalem.

As I said, the Garden Tomb was made very tourist friendly.  They have a number of areas set aside for groups to reserve and celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a worship service here.  I had prepared a liturgy that took us through the story of God’s relationship with life, from creating a world teeming with life to the first death (an animal to cover the shame of Adam and Eve), to the first murder (Cain and Abel), to mankind’s struggle against death (Psalm 90), to God’s promise to overcome death (Isaiah 25), to the temporary resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 (though he would die again), to Jesus’ eternal victory over death (Matthew 28) that becomes our victory over death (1 Corinthians 15).  It was a meaningful walk through the scriptures, sitting just a short distance from the tomb marked as the place of that victory.  Unfortunately, as happens to preachers, I found myself managing the service, the clock, competing with distractions (another group worshipping very loudly not far away), and in general not able to experience the service the way that I hope others did. 

Thank you for praying for us and our families!

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