Arrival!

January 9

We’re here!  We had two smooth, on-time, flights and landed in Tel Aviv right on schedule.  If you have done much in the way of traveling in recent years, you know what we encountered.  Today was pretty much par for the course.  We passed through security screenings twice, once in Chicago and again in London.  Our flights in London were so close together that we didn’t get to see any more of London than their airport security.  Cindy stopped at a Starbucks, and we were already boarding by the time she caught up with us – the flights were that close.

We had a couple minor snags.  They accidentally gave me two boarding passes for the second leg of our flight, and none for the first, so TSA sent me back to the desk to get the right one.  One member of our group tried to smuggle toothpaste through in a carry-on, and they unloaded her whole suitcase in London to find it.  But Jan is the one who is really inconvenienced.  Our layover in London was so quick that her suitcase stayed behind.  They are hoping it will catch up with her tomorrow. 

I managed naps on both flights to get maybe four total hours of sleep, so I should sleep well tonight, as I’m sure will the rest of our group.

Upon landing in Israel we came through passport control, where they asked us where we were going, how long we would be here, and then printed off a permit that allows us to be in the country, complete with a photo taken from our passport.  We had to scan that through a machine to exit the secure area, and then we were met by a representative from our tour company, and have been in their good hands ever since.

Tel Aviv is a metropolitan area of two million people, but, as our tour guide keeps reminding us, Israel is a small country (less than half the size of Lake Michigan), and so things are tightly packed.  There are lots of tall buildings and skyscrapers.  The skyline seems to surround you, even as you drive for miles, because the tall buildings aren’t clustered together as much as they are in Milwaukee.  The skyscrapers pop up all over the place, and more are being built just about everywhere.

Our tour guide, Ikey, is an Israeli Jewish man.  To be licensed as a tour guide requires significant study in order to be able to accurately describe a long history that has been built layer upon layer on the same soil over more than three millennia.  We will uncover more of that in the next days.  As I mentioned, today was really just a travel day, and so most of what we learned was about present day Israel.

For those of you trying to picture what we saw today, you can start with most modern American cities.  Lots of pavement, traffic lights, the same cars you would see in the U.S., being driven on the right, just like at home, mostly bumper to bumper.  Then put the road signs in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and English.  We saw lots of palm trees, but also plenty of other vegetation that could have come out of the Midwest.  Most of the billboards are in Hebrew, but English is also surprisingly prominent, at least in Tel Aviv.  We have seen lots of familiar companies with locations here, including McDonald’s, IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Emerson, Intel, Dell, Ace, Office Depot, Toys R Us (still in business internationally), Taco Bell, Ikea, Papa Johns, RE/MAX and more.  We didn’t see it, but GM also has a research facility here, though Israel does not produce any cars (of any make).  We also passed a restaurant (near the Intel location) labelled in bright red neon “Burger Saloon”.  Something makes me question whether the food there would be authentically Israeli.

Ikey told us about present-day Israel as we drove.  Only about 1/3rd of the population is religious, and so there are lots of people here who are ethnically Jews, but are not observant.  Economically, there is not much in the way of manufacturing because of the absence of natural resources, and therefore much of Israel’s economy is driven by the high-tech sector.  We drove by Israel’s “silicon valley”, which is why so many of the companies I mentioned above are tech companies.  I suspect that is also related to the prominence of the English language.  Removing the language barrier for American tech companies can only help strengthen their tech sector.

We also passed by Tel Aviv’s recycling center, situated next to the garbage dump that had served the city for fifty years before they shifted to recycling.  The only thing they separate is glass.  Everything else (including demolished buildings!) goes in one stream through the recycling center so that it can be reused, which is especially important because of Israel’s small physical size and lack of natural resources.

Ikey made a point of challenging some of our preconceptions about Israel.  He started off by pointing out that selective reporting in the media can taint a person’s perspective, mentioning that in Israel, you could hear reports of school shootings in the United States and come to the conclusion that it is a very unsafe place to live (“Why would anyone live there?”).  He wagered that we would see more hitchhikers here than police cars during our stay (though on this rainy, traffic jammed, evening, I think he would have lost that bet).  And then he pointed out that he is an Israeli Jew and our driver (whose name I haven’t caught yet) is a Palestinian Muslim.

All in all, we’ve been made very comfortable as we begin our tours.  I’ve written most of this while on the bus on the way to our hotel in Netanya, and I think right now we are all just eager to have dinner and get some rest.  We lost two hours on our flight from London to Tel Aviv, and those two hours happened to be lunch, so we haven’t had anything really to eat since breakfast.

I’m finishing this up now after arriving at the hotel.  We have a suite with a living area and separate bedroom, with an open air porch in between.  Our view is split between the city of Netanya on the left, and the coast of the Mediteranean Sea on the right.  Unfortunately, we arrived here after dark, so we haven’t seen it in its glory, but it is striking even at night.  After tomorrow’s tour, we will end up in Jerusalem at a different hotel, so this is our only night here.

I am rooming with my college friend and fellow pastor, Luke Jacob.  He and I took a walk after dinner a little ways into Netanya.  The streets are lined with shops and restaurants, many of which seem to operate with English as the primary language (at least for signage) although we saw at least a couple of realtors with listings in French, and then, of course, lots of Hebrew.  The restaurants were open, but many of the shops had closed or were closing (we were walking between 7 and 8pm local time).  For those of you who have read Making Room for Life – I wonder if we were looking at the Hebrew Day Planner in action, as shops shut down so that people could have time for family and relationships. 

Initially I wondered how careful we needed to be walking the streets after dark.  I relaxed after I saw a group of ten or twelve year old boys scootering across a plaza, unchaperoned.  I also noticed that lots of shops seemed to have merchandise sitting exposed and unguarded, so theft must not be much of a concern, and both men and women seemed to be comfortable walking the streets alone.  Other than one area of graffiti (some in Hebrew, some in English), there was no visible evidence of crime or people being even a little bit concerned about it.  In other words, it felt quite safe.

Thanks for reading.  We appreciate your prayers for our trip and for our families back home!

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Caesarea Maritima, Mt. Carmel, Megiddo, and Nazareth.

January 10, 2019

Wow did we see a lot today!  I’m doing my best to capture as much as possible, but we cover so much ground in so little time that there is no doubt that I am missing quite a bit.  Remember, this is my journal, so I’m writing about as much as I can remember, quite possibly more than you want to read, so there are no hard feelings if you want to skim and skip freely.

Caesarea Maritima

Our first stop today was Caesarea Maritima (not to be confused with Caesarea Philippi.  Lots of cities were named for Caesar).  The history of Caesarea Maritima began with Herod the Great (the same King Herod who wanted the Magi to report back to him the location of Jesus).  Herod wanted to create a great port city to serve the region he ruled, and so he chose a location that had essentially nothing, and commissioned the building of a harbor with two manmade seawalls able to withstand the waves on the Mediterranean.  In the city he built a palace for himself, a racetrack, and a theater (and probably more).  In order to make the city viable, he also built a 15 mile aqueduct.  The dry season in Israel stretches five months with no rain, so an active fresh water supply is a critical part of any development.  And so that little bit of coastland went from being wilderness to being a bustling port city with accommodations and entertainment fit for a king, just like that.

Caesarea was conquered, destroyed, and resettled multiple times, and each time that happens the new city is built on top of the ruins of the previous one, which gradually raises the level of the city itself.  That process is multiplied by the wind and waves of the Mediterranean, which quickly cover everything near the coast with sand and seashells, and so much of what once was there can be buried and forgotten, due to both natural and manmade forces.  In addition, the stones of old buildings are often the most convenient building material with which to make new buildings, and so before some of these sites were recognized as historically significant and protected, the ruins can be even more ruined.

As a result, much of what we saw were foundations or recreations, but they were impressive nonetheless.  We passed by the theater, because that was (in the words of Ikey), 1% original and 99% recreation.  But much of the horse race track was there and had been excavated.  There were still rows and rows of seats that had survived since Herod’s day, and the track itself was easily visible (we walked right across it).  When they first excavated the walls, they discovered that they had been painted to look like they were made of marble, but once excavated, the exposure quickly stripped away the ancient paint.

Ikey told us that up until relatively recently, the racetrack had actually been covered by a parking lot, which sat on top of fifteen or so feet of ground that hundreds of years had deposited.  In one place, as they excavated they had left the house that had been built on top of the racetrack during a later era, so we could see the interplay between the different eras of Caesarea’s history.  It is intriguing to wonder how much more of the city still lays buried.

Caesarea Maritima is a good example of the way that history layers itself.  The city was built and prospered under the Roman and Byzantine empires, but was swapped back and forth with the Muslims and conquered for good in the 600s, and then largely abandoned.  When the Crusaders came, they took Caesarea and fortified it, and so some of the ruins that we were looking at were “only” eight hundred years old, like the house built on top of the stands for the racetrack.  The city was swapped back and forth with the Muslims a couple more times, and then conquered again by the Muslims and destroyed completely, and pretty much lost to history until excavations began uncovering everything Herod had built.

In case you can’t remember, Caesarea Maritima is significant in the scriptures for a couple of reasons.  It is the city where Cornelius lived, who was the first Gentile Christian (Acts 10).  Cornelius is the Roman Centurion who was visited by Peter after God gave Peter the vision of unclean food and declared, “Don’t call anything unclean that I have called clean.”  This is also the city where Paul was on trial and appealed to Caesar (Acts 23-26), and we read that text while standing in what we think was probably the room where Paul stood, saying the very words that I was reading.

That was within the palace Herod had built, the footprint of which was plainly visible, both the official “working” area through which we could walk, and the private area, complete with an impressive freshwater pool built just feet from the shoreline of the Mediterranean. Both the palace and the racetrack were right up against the Sea, almost jutting out into it. The harbor is still being excavated, so there wasn’t much to see there, but originally, that was probably the most impressive of the engineering feet, with the massive breakwaters they created. If it weren’t for the fact that he was paranoid and incredibly violent, Herod the Great would be, well, great.

Mount Carmel

Mount Carmel is the mountain where Elijah faced down the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18).  There is a monastery in the traditional spot where Elijah built the altar to Yahweh and God sent fire from heaven.  The view from the mount is breathtaking, but otherwise, this was my least favorite stop.  I think part of the reason is that, while many of the sites that we see confirm the scriptures, there was nothing here to point at and say, “this is evidence that Elijah was here.”  I know there will be other sites like this, where the only reason for the location is tradition, but I like it better when they can tell me, “we think this might be the spot because…”

Our guide did explain an interesting theory that I had never heard before.  Given the fact that Mt. Carmel is visible for many miles in all directions, it may have been that when word went out through Israel about the competition on Mt. Carmel, part of the message was, “If you see smoke in the morning, Baal is god.  If you see smoke in the afternoon, Yahweh reigns.”  He suggested that Elijah’s taunting and even the elaborate process of digging a trench and going the necessary distance to get water to fill it was intended to make sure that it was obvious that the smoke went up in the afternoon, so that immediately Israel would know that Yahweh was victorious. It made sense in that location, but I’m not sure I’m convinced.

Armegeddon

We also visited the excavated remains of a fort overlooking the Plain of Megiddo, also known as Armegeddon.  This was destroyed by the Romans and never rebuilt, and so, historically, it is sort of the opposite of Caesarea.  The history of Megiddo ends with the Romans.  The history of Caesarea began with them.  What they have in common, however, is a long history of conquest, which means destruction and rebuilding.  We saw gates that our guide told us were probably commissioned by King Solomon.  They match the design and specifications of other cities where he built gates, but it is impossible to be certain that they weren’t built by Jeroboam, who took the northern ten tribes from Solomon’s son, or another of Israel’s later kings (Jeroboam II was specifically mentioned). 


An older gate we looked at (pre-Solomon) was in a wall so thick that it would have had three separate sets of doors to pass through on your way in, to make it more secure against invaders. Our tour guide pointed out to us that the majority of the wall was built of uncut stones, meaning stones that were simply gathered and fit reasonably well together, with more stones heaped on top.  So the goal in building your wall is to add rocks to make it as wide and high as possible, because an enemy attacking is going to be trying to pull down the stones and cave your wall in.  Only at the gate are the stones cut into nice rectangles, so that they can be fit together nicely.  That wasn’t laziness. That was because we were looking at construction from before metal tools were widely available (or known at all), and so you were as likely to have a chisel in your village as I would be to have a bulldozer in my neighborhood.

The term “high place” appears many times in the Old Testament as a place where sacrifices took place, often to other gods, but even sometimes to Yahweh, though Yahweh had forbidden such sacrifices.  In the book of Kings you hear the refrain lamenting that under a particular king “the high places were not removed.”  The most interesting thing I learned at Megiddo was that those high places were not just an altar on any hill that gave you some elevation, which is what I had always pictured, but rather a designated place atop the wall at the gate where people would make sacrifices before leaving or after arriving, probably as a way to seek favor with their god for their journey, or to thank their god after the journey. 

We also saw mangers that had been excavated near the gate and in the stables, so that pack animals could be fed upon arrival.  How could mangers survive for thousands of years, you ask?  Because they are made of stone, of course, not wood.  And they were shaped as simple rectangular boxes sized just about right for a newborn.  You can understand why it would be a natural place to put a baby to sleep if you were staying in a stable.

There were some other intriguing ruins at Megiddo: the stable I just mentioned, an area where multiple temples had been built, one of which had a circular altar that they had found still covered with bones, an ancient stone staircase leading deep beneath the city to a tunnel that gave them an emergency water supply when besieged, and an ancient grain silo (below the earth, not above it). 

We also had an amazing view of the Plain of Megiddo, which is the reason why Megiddo exists at all.  Because of the sea and the desert, the Plain of Megiddo is essentially THE land route between Egypt and all of Europe, Asia, and Mesopotamia, and so when ancient empires clashed with Egypt, they came through the Plain of Megiddo, a trend that continued as recently as the days of Napoleon and even World War I. I’ve heard it claimed several times, including today, that no place on earth has experienced as much battle as that plain, and so Megiddo was built and rebuilt to serve as a fortress that could guard the Plain of Megiddo below.  Battles ranging from the days of Gideon to the days of World War I brought armies through that land, so you can see why this would be a natural image for God to draw upon in the book of Revelation to describe the battle between good and evil.

Nazareth

Everything today was intriguing, sobering, and/or awe-inspiring, but the highlight for me, by far, was Nazareth.  Nazereth was once a predominantly Christian city.  It is now majority Muslim, but there is still a strong Christian population here, which has created “Nazareth Village”, a reenactment of life in first century Nazareth.  Most of the village is reconstructed, although there were a couple of things that were original, including a winepress and the man-made terraces they used to enable farming.  The terrain here is hilly and rocky, and so even navigating this village meant climbing lots of steps (often uneven), and in order to farm, they had engineered small terraces into the hillside.  I say engineered, because they not only built the retaining walls to keep the soil, they had also put a layer of rock that sloped down the hill beneath the soil of each terrace, so that water would filter through the soil then drain down the rock to the next terrace as a form of natural irrigation.

Here we saw replicas of Roman armor like Paul had in mind when exhorting the Ephesians to put on the armor of God.  We saw a threshing floor and the implements used in the threshing process to separate the grain from the chaff.  We were able to go inside a replica of a tomb and see where niches were carved for ossuaries, and how the stone served to seal the tomb.  We sat in a reconstruction of an actual 1st century synagogue that had been excavated elsewhere. We watched a carpenter working with first century tools, the most interesting of which was a bow drill that could efficiently drill through a piece of wood by means of a bit wrapped with string stretched across a bow of wood.  Our guide repeated something that I had also read from Paul Meier: that the word translated ‘carpenter’ would be better translated ‘builder’, which means that Joseph and Jesus would have not just been familiar with woodworking, but even more, building with stone.  That makes sense when you consider how often Jesus speaks about construction involving stone (the house built on the rock, the cornerstone, “I tell you that you are Peter (rock) and on this rock I will build my church.”  We saw sheep and heard about the need to keep sheep and goats separate (Matthew 25) and the significant differentiator that sheep listen to the voice of their shepherd, and goats don’t, which explains in part why Jesus chose that metaphor for judgment.  We also gained a better understanding of how a shoot could spring up from the stump of Jesse while looking at an olive tree.

My #2 highlight today was seeing how the process of pressing olives works, involving a first step that is similar to grinding grain in a mill, and then three “presses”, from the first one that takes the first and best drops of oil as a sacrifice to God without any pressure, and then two more presses that use a gigantic beam and 750 pounds of weights to put increasing (and incredible!) pressure on the olives to extract the oil.  Why was that a highlight?  Because our guide explained that Gethsemane means “olive press” in Hebrew, and was the location where three times Jesus experienced increasing (and incredible!) pressure, to such an extent that His sweat became like drops of blood.  That was fascinating. [Edit: I looked this up in Hebrew later. Gethsemane means “olive oil” not “olive press”. The only reference to pressing olives I could find in the Old Testament was Micah 6:15, and the verb there was from darak.]

But my #1 highlight of the day was standing next to the winepress that I mentioned earlier, which is really just a shallow pit carved strategically into the ground to allow the grape juice to flow into a pit from which it can be collected.  As I said, the winepress is original, and across the street they found the remains of a watchtower, which they had reconstructed within their grounds, where they had also reconstructed a wall around the area.  And why was this a highlight?  Because the guide had me read Mark 12:1: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.”  Then he pointed to the winepress, the wall and the watchtower, and pointed out that the place where 1st century Nazareth was located was just a fifteen minute walk away.  It is entirely possible that I was standing next to the winepress that Jesus was picturing in His mind when He began telling that parable.  That just about gave me chills.  I’m starting to get why people cross the ocean in order to walk where Jesus walked – even if we can’t be quite certain.

Alright, I’m up way too late finishing this, so I’ll skip the rest of the day, except to mention Tom and Vanessa Saleska because… well because they keep trying to find a way to get into the blog.  😉  I have had several enjoyable conversations with them, though.  If you know Tom, ask him sometime why he had to go see the Dean of Students during his undergrad at River Forest.

In all seriousness, our group from Trinity has done really well.  Today was some challenging terrain and more than a little walking, and everyone has been smiling, laughing, and looking forward to tomorrow.

Thanks for keeping us and our loved ones in your prayers.

Northern Israel and the Sea of Galilee

This really is excessive, but I’m trying to remember as much as I can for my own benefit. Sorry if this drags. Again, skim and skip freely!

January 11, 2019

Sea of Galilee

Our day today began with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.  We had gorgeous, sunny weather and a beautiful view of the surrounding hillside.  For perspective, the Sea of Galilee is actually a lake, and really the only freshwater lake in Israel (remember, water is precious here because there is not enough of it).  The lake is not enormous.  You can easily see from one side to the other, and at its widest point it is less than eight miles across, so not a bad walk for anyone who happens to be able to walk on water. 

Of course the Sea of Galilee is mentioned many times in the Gospels.  Jesus recruited fisherman along the shore to be His disciples, provided two miraculous catches of fish, calmed a storm, walked on the water and pulled Peter out of the water.  It was a beautiful boat ride, though we had a wind plenty strong enough to imagine a storm sweeping up on you before you have a chance to react.  It really is awe inspiring to look around at the landscape, and know you are seeing the same hills and valleys and rock formations that Jesus used as landmarks to make His way from place to place, and that so much of Jesus’ ministry took place around the lake.

We also had the joy of being hosted on the boat by a Jewish follower of Jesus, who sang a couple of Chris Tomlin songs with us, mixing English and his own Hebrew translation together.  That was a beautiful moment that shifted us from learning about Jesus as a historical figure to actually being in the presence of Jesus, in worship.  Not only was our host an outstanding singer, he also exhibited the joy of the Lord in an infectious way, which reminded me of how simple it really is to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  All it really takes is the joy of salvation.

Modern Israel

From there we drove to the northern tip of Israel, where we caught glimpses of both Lebanon and Syria.  We learned a lot of the political history of Israel while on the road, which took us past multiple minefields that still remain from the 1967 Six Day War against Syria, Egypt, and Jordan.  Our guide explained the impending annihilation that he and other Israeli’s had feared as the result of the alliance against them, and the important roles that Israeli intelligence and a preemptive air strike had in their victory. 

As we drove through the Golan Heights, it was hard to imagine being an Israeli soldier, ordered to charge up those steep hills, covered with rocks and mines, where the Syrian army had already fortified themselves in concrete bunkers (many of which were visible, some intact, some less so).  The way Ikey tells the story, Israel was really only able to win the decisive victory that they did because the Syrians attempted to provoke international action against Israel by announcing that Israel had taken a city that was so deep in Syrian territory that it could not possibly be interpreted as a defensive action.  But Syria’s own troops did not know that was a lie, and so thinking that Israel’s army was both in front and behind them, they panicked and ran, and Israel’s infantry moved up the Golan Heights essentially unopposed on the 6th day of the Six Day War.

Of course, there is lots more to the story (and another side to it that we are not going to hear while in Israel).  It was certainly sobering, and when you think of how Israel was outnumbered and, at that stage of history, also outgunned, it underscored something that our guide has said many times: “Israel is a miracle.”

It also put into perspective how fortunate we are that the Israeli people have worked so hard to excavate, preserve, and provide safe access to people from all nations and faiths to visit the many holy sites throughout the land.  I found myself thanking God for Israel several times today, because of the privilege that it is to be made so welcome at holy sites related to a faith that is so small a minority that it could never hold any political sway in this country, at least at a national level. Many governments would not do so, even for the sake of a lucrative tourist trade.

I used to be mystified that the Dome of the Rock could exist on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in a Jewish nation.  I assumed that fear of war with Arab nations paralyzed Israel, which is what kept the nation from removing the Mosque in order to reclaim the ancient Jewish holy site.  I no longer believe that.  Of course, there is no question that to take action against the Dome of the Rock would start a war.  But Israel is not paralyzed.  This is a nation that really does respect people of all faiths.  In Jewish and Muslim majority areas, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, but in Christian areas, it is Saturday and Sunday, and even the post office closes according to the local schedule.  While there are predominantly Muslim or Jewish or Christian areas that we have encountered, the uneasiness that I imagined when people of these differing cultures mix is not evident. The boundaries really do seem to be more political than religious.

Caesarea Philippi

In Caesarea Philippi, we saw the ruins of a pagan temple.  This was a pagan city (a part of the Decapolis, if you remember that term from the Gospels), and near the pagan temple there is a river that used to flow right out of a cave in the cliff.  Because of the significance of water in Israel and the foreboding look of the cliff and the cave within it, along with the influence of the pagan temple, this cave was labeled the “Gate of Hades” in the days of Jesus.  It was therefore a natural place for Jesus to talk about the gates of hell that will not prevail against the church (Matthew 16). 

These ruins were sort of the opposite of a holy site. This was not a place where God was revered. Rather, it was a place where cultic prostitution was practiced and a false god worshipped in evil ways.

In addition to the ruins, this is also the site of some gorgeous hiking trails which we glimpsed, but of course we didn’t have time to do any hiking. 

Dan

Dan is very near Caesarea Philippi in the northern tip of Israel, and is the site of a nature reserve with beautiful trails leading to ruins that date back mostly to the early days of the Israelite kings.  This was another area that was (for the most part) the opposite of a holy place.  The period of the kings is not as familiar as the time of Jesus, so first, a quick history review: There were basically three kings who ruled over the twelve tribes: Saul, David, and Solomon.  Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, took some bad advice and threatened to oppress the people, and ten of the twelve tribes said, “We don’t need this”, walked away from Reheboam, and crowned a man named Jereboam.  Jereboam then ruled what will now be called the Northern Kingdom or Israel (as opposed to Judah), while his rival, Reheboam, ruled over the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom (Judah).

One of the problems that Jereboam anticipated as ruler of the twelve tribes was the fact that the people of Israel would still be traveling three times a year to Jerusalem to observe the required festivals and worship Yahweh at the temple that Solomon had built.  Since Jerusalem was still in the hands Reheboam, son of Solomon, he anticipated losing the hearts of his people and them reuniting with Judah.  So he established two new places of worship, one far in the south, and one in the north, at Dan.  Here he erected altars to statues of golden calves and declared that the people in his tribes should worship there, to keep them separate from the other two tribes still ruled by his rival.

When they excavated Dan, they found the remains of the shrine he had built, including the foundation of the altar, the steps that would have ascended to allow sacrificing, and another set of steps that ascended up to the platform where Jereboam’s golden calf was once placed.  We climbed our way through the ruins of the city, and were able to see this. It was a bit sobering, and made the reality of idol worship more real than Caesarea Philippi had done, probably because the altar was still evident and the deception of the people so intentional on the part of Jereboam. It was also striking to see how they used stairs to make the “god” more impressive by always ensuring that it was looming over you.

We also got to see a more intact example of the high place at the gate, like the one I mentioned yesterday from Megiddo.  The high place was not built on the wall, like I had first understood, but rather just outside it, so that a person would sacrifice just after leaving the city or before arriving.  Obviously, all of this was the worship of false gods, breaking the first commandment.

One final surprise that Ikey had not hinted at was an even more ancient gate of the city, one made not of stone but of mud brick. This gate was dated to be about four thousand years old. Because mud bricks do not last, the inhabitants of the city eventually filled it in to keep the archway from collapsing (and must have created another gate), and then it was buried over time and survived until excavation. This was quite striking to look at, and Ikey pointed out that when Abraham was pursuing the kings who had kidnapped Lot, after rescuing Lot, he chased them as far as Dan. It is possible, though by no means certain, that we were looking at the gate that they had escaped inside when Abraham decided to turn around (Genesis 14). Ikey was very proud of the fact that this gate is also the oldest archway in the world.

Capernaum

We returned to the region around the Sea of Galilee to visit Capernaum, which was the location of a great deal of Jesus’ ministry.  There was a lot to see there that we did not have time for, but we did see two major highlights.  One was the synagogue, which was built in the 4th century A.D. (long after Jesus), but was built directly on top of the synagogue that existed in Jesus’ day, which was plainly visible in the exposed foundation.  We stood in the synagogue and read the account of Jesus casting out a demon while standing in that spot (though not in that building, since, again, it was built much later with the old synagogue as its foundation).

We also saw the ruins of an ancient Christian church that had been built to incorporate two walls that were from first century Capernaum.  As an aside, when something is “first century”, that means it came from the period when Jesus walked the earth (0-30 AD, roughly) and those who knew Jesus personally were still living (0-99 AD, roughly).  So that ties it directly to the time period of Jesus, Peter, Paul, etc.

The reason why the ruins of the church are significant is because the painstaking way in which they incorporated those two first century walls tells us that very early Christians thought those walls were of tremendous significance.  That, along with the close proximity to the synagogue, suggests that this was likely the home where Jesus healed the mother-in-law of Simon Peter and Andrew, and then went on to perform miracle after miracle as people lined up in the streets (Mark 1).

That ruin was protected.  We could see it but not walk in it, and the Catholic Church had built a new church above it, suspended from support beams that stretch past the ruins.  The design of the church above is unique.  Our guide compared it to a UFO, and it did have a distinctly flying saucer kind of look, circular and hovering in the air.  But that, of course, is quite modern.

We also learned some interesting things about Capernaum.  Capernaum was near the border between the territory ruled by Herod the Great’s son Philip and the territory ruled by another son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas (the one you remember from the trial of Jesus and the beheading of John the Baptist).  Our guide suggested that was strategic on the part of Jesus, because it meant that if the authorities got too interested in Jesus on one side of the Jordan River, He could take a walk to the other side and escape into someone else’s jurisdiction until things cooled down.  I’m not sure how significant that really is, since it was mostly religious authorities who objected to Jesus, but it was an interesting observation.  Our guide also pointed out that Capernaum was strategically located for intersecting with travelers, who could that take word about Jesus all over Israel.  He thought those two factors may have been the reason why Jesus centered so much of His ministry in Capernaum.

But I suspect it had more to do with the other detail we learned today.  Capernaum was not an affluent town.  You can tell by the absence of plaster on any of the walls, which meant that you lived with bugs crawling in and out of the rocks from which all your walls were built.   And that strikes me as being a more likely reason why Jesus chose Capernaum.  In Nazareth, He read the prophecy from Isaiah and declared that He, Himself, had been appointed to preach good news to the poor.  Then He was rejected in Nazareth and established his new home in Capernaum, a place where He would literally preach good news to the poor.

Oh, and this is a good time to mention that all these ruins still exist 2000 years later because everything was built of stone.  City walls were stone.  House walls were stone.  Interior walls were stone.  The streets were made of stone.  Everything was made of stone, and there is still stone all over the place, riddling the landscape.  Most of what we saw today, all around the Sea of Galilee and northern Israel, was small mountains covered with stones, like the Golan Heights.

Mount of Beatitudes

The Mount of Beatitudes is the location of a small Catholic church with a balcony affording a nice view of the Sea of Galilee and the hillside.  The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) are the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which was, naturally, preached on a mountain.  The problem is, the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by mountains, so I found it a little hard to believe that we really knew which spot was THE spot, or even which mountain was THE mountain where the sermon had been preached.  We took a quick look inside the church, which was pretty enough, but I just don’t get to excited about elaborate buildings.  In fact, it put me in mind of standing next to the altar that Jereboam constructed for his golden calf.  When the Lord of all creation has taken on human flesh, stood in a spot near here, and spoken the words we are reading, we really don’t need manmade efforts to make the place special.  The building and grounds were gorgeous, but felt (too me) more like a substitute for the Living God than a tribute to Him.  Of course, we experienced the place as tourists, not as worshippers.  If the place were quietly reverent instead of overrun by tour groups, I probably would have experienced it differently.

I also had a little bit of an epiphany walking back to the bus.  We were passing other tour groups, and having already encountered Christians from Asia, Ethiopia, and France, and probably other regions I was not aware of, having worshipped with a Christian Israeli on the boat this morning, and having seen the Beatitudes translated into many languages on the grounds, the global nature of our faith was driven home.  Earlier in the day we had driven through the battlefields, seen the fences intended to keep you from stepping into a minefield, seen tank treads and trenches, and heard the story of the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel took the Golan Heights from Syria.  In other words, earlier I had seen humanity ripped apart, and here I had also seen humanity united in Christ, and the beauty of God’s desire for His people came home: every people, every tribe, every nation, every language united with Him and each other.  What a beautiful future!

Magdala

Magdala is the city that was the home of Mary Magdalene.  It was a coastal city on the Sea of Galilee that was only rediscovered in the last ten years or so.  The Jewish historian Josephus describes the city’s destruction at the hands of the Romans on their way to destroying Jerusalem, and so we had historical records that told us about the city, but the destruction was so complete that the city ceased to exist for two thousand years, and was buried over time.

By God’s providence, it was discovered after the land had been purchased by a Catholic man who wanted to build a retreat center on the Sea of Galilee.  During construction, they encountered ruins.  By itself, that is not that interesting of an occurrence in Israel, but as they worked and uncovered more buried stone, they eventually encountered a stone of great significance.  It was the stone used for reading in the synagogue (the lectern, so to speak), and that piqued the interest of archeologists so that they began excavations in earnest and uncovered the first century synagogue of Magdala, and then a significant portion of the surrounding city.  Since this city was destroyed so shortly after the time of Jesus, and since it is directly in the path that He would have walked from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, there is no question that Jesus actually walked on the stones we were walking on. 

There must have been some serious negotiations with the Israeli government, because the ruins here were not set apart and protected in their entirety, but instead are being incorporated almost seamlessly into the hotel/resort, back under construction, and into the Catholic Church that has now been built on the site.  They actually stretched the church over the ruins of the marketplace, but not in the UFO looking way that they did in Capernaum.  Rather, you walk down a ramp to the base of the marketplace, turn to walk what feels like under the church, but suddenly you find that you are actually in the church, with a chapel right in front of you that continues to use the stone base of the marketplace as its floor.  Two staircases give you the opportunity to walk up into the narthex area of the church, all without passing through any door or doorway.  It is very well done.

Magdala made a nice contrast to Capernaum, because it was quite affluent, and even to the untrained eye that was immediately evident from the plaster, the smoother walls and floors, and the mosaic in the synagogue.  Even two thousand years later, it looked like a more appealing place to live than Capernaum.  But while Jesus certainly would have passed through Magdala, there are no accounts of Him doing anything there.  Perhaps the wealthy people felt less need of a Savior.  As Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

One last note about Magdala:  When Josephus described the destruction of Magdalla, he mentioned that they pulled down the stones of their own buildings and used them to barricade the walls to try to slow the Romans down.  We were able to see one such wall, confirming what the Jewish historian had written two thousand years ago.

Thanks for praying for us and our families!

Gideon, Beth Shean, Jordan River, Jericho, Masada, En Gedi

January 12, 2019

As usual, this is incredibly long. That’s for the sake of my memory. Read at will. 🙂

Gideon

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.

Beth Shean

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.

Jordan River

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.

Terrain

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

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.

Ein Gedi

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!

Bethlehem, Valley of Elah, Israel Museum

January 13, 2019

Bethlehem

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.

Elah Valley

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.

Israel Museum

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!

Palm Sunday Road, Gethsemane, the Home of Caiaphas, the Temple Courts

January 14, 2019

Wow, today was intense!  I say that, but even writing those words shames me.   Today we began meditating on the events of Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord as we visited sites related to these events.  It was intense just to think about, and Jesus lived this.  That is intense!

Palm Sunday Road

We walked a portion of the Palm Sunday road and talked about the cloaks and palm branches.  Ikey impressed upon us the significance of that act.  The idea was that they didn’t want the dust of the road kicking up around the feet of Jesus’ donkey, and so to honor Him they “paved” the road in front of Him with cloaks and palm branches.  The cloaks they laid before Jesus would have probably been one of only two sets of clothing that they owned, so laying them down on the dusty road was a significant act, and one that showed tremendous respect for Jesus. 

Gethsemane

The road from Bethany to Jerusalem (the Palm Sunday road) goes past the Mount of Olives, which is a large and long mountain hillside, and so we went straight from Palm Sunday to the evening of Maundy Thursday.  We were provided access to a garden on the Mount of Olives, somewhere in the vicinity of Gethsemane, where we took time to read the account of Jesus being arrested and spent some time in personal meditation.

This wasn’t a moment of particular insight, but it was a powerful moment of experiencing God.  Sitting in that garden, you could easily see the other side of the valley from which Judas and the soldiers were approaching while carrying torches and weapons.  Since their approach would have been unmistakable, Jesus could very, very easily have disappeared into the dark vastness of the Mount of Olives (like the disciples did).  The agony of Jesus in the garden came into shaper perspective as I reflected on the choice that He clearly had to simply walk the other direction.  I could not have done what He did.  I think about how I struggle to resist even small selfish temptations, to forgo a simple pleasure in order to love a neighbor as myself, and here Jesus, in this moment, tramples on the temptation to do what anyone would expect a human being to do: preserve His own life.  I have a theological answer to the question, “Why did Jesus need to be truly God in order to save us?”  But in this moment, it was the very human reality that answered the question.  No human could have chosen to drink the cup that Jesus did when He said, “Not my will, but thine be done.”  Only God could have seen what was coming and not run the other direction.

We went from there into the Church of All Nations, but I am really not into church buildings, so I will just say that it was beautiful and leave it at that.  In the courtyard there we saw ancient olive trees.  Because the root of an olive tree can sprout up new shoots and keep growing, even after it has been cut down, it is possible that these trees were growing from roots that had been there in Jesus’ day, which is why they are of interest, I suppose.  Again, neat, but not like the kind of experience we would have next.

The house of Caiaphas

We went to the house of Caiaphas next, which also has a church built on the site, but the areas that were of interest were in the basement, not the sanctuary.  There we saw what would have been the stable of the high priest, carved from stone into a cave under his home.  The reason why this was of interest was the fact that little loops had been carved into the pillars in order to conveniently tie up the horses, and little loops had been carved into the ceiling in order to conveniently tie up the prisoners while they were scourged.

To my knowledge, the Bible doesn’t record a scourging of Jesus in the home of Caiaphas, so while it is possible that Jesus’ physical suffering began in this location, we don’t know that.  What the sight did emphasize in no uncertain terms was that Caiaphas was not merely a misguided religious leader.  He was a man of power who was not reluctant to use and abuse his authority in order to protect himself and his interests.  The power arrayed against Jesus took on a much more substantial form as I looked at the secondary use that he had given his stable.

The other basement location we visited had once been a cistern, but then was converted from a cistern into an empty stone pit.  And why would Caiaphas want to have a pit in his house?  It would certainly be a handy place to keep prisoners.  Ikey suggested that I read Psalm 88 while the group stood in that pit (now made easily accessible for tourists).  If you have a few minutes, imagine yourself sitting alone in the bottom of a pit and read Psalm 88.  The psalms are the prayer book of Jesus, and never was there a more appropriate psalm than this one, if indeed Caiaphas had Him placed in that pit while the Sanhedrin gathered, or before he dared to wake Pilate.  I will never read that psalm the same way again.

We also stood in the courtyard outside where we read about Jesus being denied by Peter.  After seeing the instruments of torture and despair that Caiaphas had at his disposal, I could much better appreciate the temptation to deny Jesus and save your own skin.  I doubt Peter was at risk of suffering the same fate as Jesus, but Caiaphas could introduce plenty of suffering even without the help of Pontius Pilate and the Romans.

From that courtyard, we could also see back over to the Mount of Olives.  One likely path that Jesus would have taken from the upper room to Gethsemane led right past the home of Caiaphas.  There is artwork there depicting Jesus and his disciples passing by, free and singing psalms, moving towards the Mount of Olives.  Then, another image depicts Jesus bound and being dragged by soldiers in the opposite direction.  Looking from that artwork to the jagged edges of the stone steps (and nothing is flat, so everything is steps in Jerusalem), it was easy to imagine the soldiers giving a quick tug on the bonds or a shove from behind to send a prisoner sprawling and bleeding from wounds opened by those sharp stones.

The visit to the home of Caiaphas made the suffering of Jesus very real and very personal.  Like I said, this morning was intense.

By the way, that this is the location of Caiaphas’ home is a matter of tradition.  Before coming to Israel, whenever I heard that, I assumed that meant that we had nothing more than hearsay to go on: traditions that had been passed on orally until the tourist trade in Israel decided to capitalize on it.  Far from it!  Often, when we say that tradition indicates that this is the site, our evidence comes from the fact that churches have been built there, and so the tradition can be dated to the date of the earliest church built on that site.  In this case, the earliest church built on the site was put there by Emperor Constantine’s mother, which means this tradition dates to the early 300s.  That is still three centuries after Jesus, but it is also the first century in which Christianity was legal.  In other words, this tradition is as old as it possibly can be, since it wasn’t legal to construct a church building until then.  In addition, a pilgrim to Jerusalem even earlier than that wrote a blog (okay, not a blog, but a record) about his trip, which described the site that local Christians showed him during his visit, and that description fits the place where we were today.

Of course, whether or not we were in the exact place is ultimately not important.  What does matter is that we are gaining a better appreciation for the reality of what Jesus experienced for us.  The passion became much more personal today – and we are really just getting started.

What I’m Skipping

I am glossing over a lot because I’ve been up late finishing this blog just about every night, and I really need to get some rest.  We visited Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  We learned about the Essene community, their emphasis on ritual purity and the abundance of their ritual baths, their extreme asceticism, and their 364 day calendar.  But since that doesn’t have much direct Biblical relevance, I’m skipping it.  We also floated in the Dead Sea, because you are supposed to do that when you come to Israel.  I could have lived without the experience, and having done it, I won’t feel any need to do so a second time.  So, on to the good stuff.

The Temple Courts

We spent time in the archaeological park around the temple.  Again, I’m glossing over things to get to bed, but here are a few highlights.  We saw the ritual baths that Jewish pilgrims would have used in order to be ritually pure before they went to offer their sacrifice at the temple.  These are pools of water with a set of stairs for walking into the pool and then back out.  There are an enormous number of them, and our guide suggested that this is probably where the apostles found enough water to baptize 3000 people in a single day, the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

We also got to see the temple steps where Jesus would sometimes sit and teach.  This is also (roughly) where Peter and John healed the crippled beggar in the name of Jesus.  According to Ikey, when Neal Armstrong visited Israel, his guide was the chief archaeologist of Israel.  While here, Neal said something to the effect of, “I was the first man to walk on the moon, but I would consider it a greater honor to place my feet where my Lord Jesus walked.”  And this is where the archaeologist brought him.  We walked on those same steps.

We also had the opportunity to look at the stone work of how the temple had been built.  To clarify: we were not really looking at the temple.  We were looking at the temple courts constructed by Herod the Great surrounding the temple.  The temple itself already existed when Herod added these courts to accommodate the crowds who came for Passover, and, of course, to make a name for himself.  Archaeologists owe a great debt of gratitude to Herod the Great’s enormous ego, which not only caused him to undertake building projects that boggle the mind, but also to mark them as his own through details like the outline with which each stone of His temple courts was marked. 

The temple proper was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, and so were many aspects of the temple courts that Herod had built.  Other aspects of the temple courts survived and then were just buried by later construction, and so we could see some of both – the destruction and what had survived.  The only word to describe what Herod the Great accomplished here is ‘impossible’.  It is simply not possible by any means I can imagine.  He built with stones of varying lengths, some of which only weighed a few tons, but others that were larger than a school bus, 35 feet long, 7 feet deep, 4 feet tall (guessing) in one solid stone.  And not only did they manage to put a stone that weighed hundreds and hundreds of tons into place precisely where they wanted it, layer after layer climbing above the ground, but they also cut it so precisely that they did not use any mortar.  The stones just laid one on top of another.

That does not sound all that impressive until you realize that if there is any gap at all, if one stone is a credit card shorter than the stones on either side, then when you lay the layers of stone on top of it, those stones will crack.  What Herod accomplished here is impossible.  But it is there, waiting for you to come to Israel and see it, so it must have happened.  In some ways, it is like my faith in Jesus.  I know it is impossible that Jesus died and rose from the dead.  But based on the personal relationship I have with Him and the ways in which I can see His hand in my life, it is also impossible that He did not.  Faith fills the gap between one impossibility and another, and proves to me that the impossible must, in fact, have happened.

So, the engineering part of me and the disciple of Jesus part of me were both awed today.  Wow.

Thanks for praying for us and our families.


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!