This past summer I had a chance to tour Israel with some wonderful friends (old and new). Below is a journal of my experiences. I’m posting because I think this kind of fun, but also because my friend Mark Christian and I are leading a similar tour this summer from May24 – June 2. Click here if you’re interested in coming!
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Wednesday was travel day, so not much to report. Flew from Springfield through Chicago and Newark to Tel Aviv. Once arrived (after customs), we hopped on the bus and drove to Tiberias. Landscape looked just like California for the most part! By the time we got north enough it was too dark to see much, but we could make out the lights of Tiberias for sure. Checked in to our hotel, ate a good dinner and had a devo, then off to bed. Woke up to a pretty amazing view of the Sea of Galilee, and am sitting now on the hotel deck overlooking the water. No longer anxious about being gone (which was the feeling that dominated over the last couple weeks), but can’t help but have cautious expectations about what this experience will hold. Hope to be overwhelmed, to be honest! Also to learn of course. I need nothing more than what I already have, but I’d love to know more what that is.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
I woke up early today (Friday) so I could do some writing and thinking from the hotel deck overlooking the Sea of Galilee sunrise. I already feel I will run out of superlatives to describe what I’m seeing. Day one of the actual tour (Thursday) was full and pretty amazing. We woke up to a beautiful view out our hotel window of yesterday’s sun rising over the Sea of Galilee. After breakfast, which was pretty good too(!), we hopped on the bus and headed for Caesarea Maritima. This is the place where Peter evangelized the first Gentile Cornelius, as well as the place Paul was held for a couple years after his Jerusalem arrest. The theater was standard fare (though nowhere near Ephesus!) but the real attraction is the remains of Herod’s harbor palace. He built the palace out over the Mediterranean, in part because this provided natural heating and cooling (and generally speaking, was awesome), but also because it provided him a quick escape to Rome if the Jews were to turn against him. (He lived in constant paranoia, which is why he kept killing all who got too close to him.)
From Caesarea we went to Megiddo. After lunch we watched a video showing how central this hill had been to civilization since the earliest times. When archaeologists excavated the city by cutting a slice out of the mountain like a piece of cake, they discovered over 20 layers representing different versions of the city. New rulers could come in and level the old city, building their own on top of it. It was one of the places Joshua won a battle, King Solomon fortified it with a double wall, and Josiah was killed there by Nebo. Lots of history. Also of course the city overlooking the valley where many believe the “last battle” will actually take place. While I think this is bad interpretation, the meaning of the symbol became much clearer. Megiddo sits almost centerpiece-like overlooking valleys on each side. If you control Megiddo, you control the entire valley system; if you control the valley system, you regulate trade; and if you regulate trade, you rule the world (or at least the area). It is a place where king after king has attempted to establish sole rule. Jesus wins.
We then drove across the valley to Nazareth. The modern city is quite large and spreads out across a higher than expected hillside. Though very different from the tiny village (of about 500 people) that Jesus inhabited, it was still special to be that close. We spent some time upon a cliff overlooking the city (called Mt Precipice), which was probably the place where the Nazarene Jews attempted to throw Jesus down to his death. We also found out that Nathanael’s words still ring true today; in spite of its larger size, those living in the area don’t think much of Nazareth. Interesting to find out that the current city of around 75,000 is about 70% Muslim and 30% Christian. About 40,000 Jews live in a separate city called Upper Nazareth. We spent some time at the Orthodox Church believed (by them) to be at the site of the Annunciation. It was fine, though I’m less enamored all the time by such things. Felt similarly in Cana where we went next to a church supposedly in the place where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water to wine. The guide was pretty sure it was not the place, claiming to have visited the actual location on an archaeological tour a few years ago. I’m inclined to find his explanation convincing.
From Cana we came back to our hotel in Tiberias, where we enjoyed a good dinner and a time of sharing. Mark had me give a devotion to end the day. I talked mostly about Nazareth, unpacking the theme of the danger of familiarity. Those who think they know Jesus best may be the least likely to see him clearly. We’ve got to maintain surprisability if we’re going to be decent disciples. Being on a tour as and among people of means makes me doubly hope the message was heard. But of course a message like this should always be first and persistently self-directed. I hope I have not come to a point where Jesus cannot surprise me. I’d like to think my moving convictions on violence and the overall focus of his coming are evidence to the contrary. But we should never get too comfortable in this regard. Soon we head to the Sea, which is one of the places I am most excited to go. Maybe we’ll even have some strong winds.
Friday, May 27, 2016
It’s Saturday afternoon and right now I’m in our Olive Tree Hotel room on the seventh floor overlooking a portion of the city of Jerusalem. And the craziness of that sentence pretty much sums up the whole trip. Did I just type that? Did I just see that? Am I really here? I’ve said “surreal” so many times in the last couple days that I looked it up: “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” Yep. Anyhow, we spent yesterday on and all around the Sea of Galilee. We began with a boat ride that might wind up being my favorite moment on the trip. Outside of the final week, my favorite moment from the life of Jesus is him calming the Sea of Galilee, calling for faith, and watching the disciples go from being afraid to being terrified. Not only were we on that very water, but we also were able to pinpoint the area where Jesus would have docked to meet the demoniac whom he cured and then sent home to tell of God’s kindness throughout the Decapolis. Add to that the walking on water and it really is an experience marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream. We ourselves docked at Magdala (or Migdal), the ancient portions of which have only begun to be uncovered in the last few years. It was the home of Mary Magdalene and a place Jesus certainly visited. We saw a synagogue, very likely one of those around Galilee that Jesus visited, and also some other fascinating ruins (especially the Magdala Stone with the carved seven-candle Menorah.) We headed up the coast from Magdala to the Mount of Beatitudes. Of course there is a big fancy church there now, but there is enough open space in the area to appreciate what the original experience may have been like. I noticed two things that I hope not to forget. One is that indeed the area is not flat! It will be easier to picture Jesus and his fans on a mountainside after seeing the hills all throughout the area. The second and main thing I remember about this area will be the warm sun with a perfectly balanced cool breeze. It was so comfortable I almost fell asleep sitting on some rocks overlooking the Sea. I spent some time reading the beatitudes again, noticing especially how impossible they are to categorize as a group since there seems to be no common denominator beyond their basic form as beatitudes.
We broke for lunch, where for the first time in my life I ate a fish that still had its eyes intact. It was good. After lunch we went to the Primacy of Peter, which is traditionally associated with the miraculous catch of fish and restoration of Peter in John 21. The location itself was not particular moving for me, but here I was able to walk out into the Sea itself. Unfortunately I sank. Nevertheless I will cherish that moment forever!
Capernaum was next on the horizon, both literally and figuratively. Capernaum, today called “the town of Jesus,” is one of the most archaeologically fascinating sites we will visit for two reasons in particular. One is that we have uncovered a substantial synagogue that gave us great information regarding how synagogues were set up. If my memory serves me, this one confirmed much that we believed but were not certain of. I could be wrong on the details, but either way it was indeed impressive to actually walk around the space. The city we are walking through is 400-500 years after the time of Jesus, but you can see in the rocks where the old one was. (The black basalt rock indicates the earlier time period.) Beyond the archaeological value for synagogues in general, this synagogue plays a huge role in the story of Jesus. I know Mark’s Gospel best and from the very start this place is key. Jesus’ first healing in Mark takes place here, and incites no little commotion! It also figures heavily in a key scene at the beginning of Mark 3, after which the Pharisees and Herodians began plotting together how they might put an end to this man. I have a theory about the intertextual allusions of Jesus’ instruction of the man to “stretch out your hand,” but I’ll save that for a different journal. J Also in Capernaum is the home of Peter’s mother-in-law, which later becomes the gathering place for an early house church. Put most broadly, while Nazareth is Jesus’ hometown, Capernaum served as his home base for ministry in and around Galilee.
Saturday, May 29, 2016
On Saturday we woke up and drove down the Jordan heading up to Jerusalem. Since it was the Sabbath day, there was a noticeable difference in traffic compared to our trip to Galilee a few days ago! If much of the landscape heading north looked like portions of California, then the southern trip was like having New Mexico to the east and Colorado to the west. I see now why they’re called “Judean hills.” Along the way we’d see various groups of Bedouins whose nights are spent in tents and days center around finding food for their sheep and goats. For some reason I was struck with the thought that if someone were to ask these shepherds, “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the purpose of your days?” I would have no clue what exactly they’d say. Important to keep these (types of) folks in mind when generalizing about the present or the past. I often present the diversity of early Judaism along the lines of the “major parties” mentioned by Josephus and corroborated elsewhere, but I will be more careful not to pretend everyone belongs in one of these groups.
Coming up over the hills into Jerusalem is difficult to describe. (Surprise, surprise.) It is high, it is big, it is expansive, and it impressive. And incidentally, it’s nothing but blonde brick everywhere, so we’ve devised a new mythology for the color of all Ozark buildings! Anyway, I guess the only word really is breathtaking. We immediately made our way to Bethlehem, which was interesting for numerous reasons. For one thing, Bethlehem feels almost like a prison with high walls and requirements that certain folks stay in there. The cars have different color license plates because some of them can travel freely while others are in or out. I’ll not speak much in here about the current politics of Israel, but suffice it to say it was instructive to see things on the ground. The other noticeable feature of Bethlehem was concrete. We may have seen lots of grass centuries ago, but not today! We did some shopping at a Christian shop where were hopefully able to support local industry, and then went to the Church of the Nativity. (On the way we saw a coffee shop called “Stars & Bucks”!) It is the oldest church in Palestine that has never been destroyed. Like most of these places it is too gaudy for my tastes, but still lovely in parts. At the center spot there is a star on the ground with fourteen points, representing the fourteen-fold pattern of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. We had some free reflection time and my kids where naturally on my mind in the place of Jesus’ birth. I prayed Psalm 23 over both of them. (Earlier in the trip I had a fascinating dream in which God reassured me in a hilarious and appropriate manner that I was not to be anxious about them with regard to this trip or their life as a whole. This marks the second time God may have tried to tell me this, the first coming from some kid who claimed to have the gift of prophecy at a CIY in California. Sometimes I wish it was easier for me to trust these forms of communication.) Also in (or under) this church is the tomb of Jerome, who spent 30 years in Bethlehem translating the Bible into Latin.
During debrief our guide noticed that many of us are a little put off by the whole building fancy churches over holy places dynamic, so he lightly admonished us not to be too harsh. Pointed out that without this we might not have places to visit. Also and more interestingly, he defended the locations with a simple point that I have to admit I’ve never heard. It is natural for the church to have commemorated important locations. What American does not know where 9/11 happened, and what visitor can miss this if they visit Ground Zero? Same dynamic happened with the earliest Christians, who in keeping with regular OT practice had a propensity to memorialize places where God acted on our behalf. Then when Hadrian came through to intensify Romanization of the city, he built pagan altars and temples on these spots in order to display Rome’s superior might. And later when Helena visited the Holy Land she used these pagan spots to identify where events took place, promptly tearing down the idolatry and replacing them with churches. That’s a feasible description of the process to say the least.
That night we gathered for a Saturday night church service in an upper room of our hotel. Mark preached on Joshua leading the Israelites across the Jordan and it was wonderful. He emphasized a couple things, one of which was that the priests walked some distance into the water before God delivered on his promise. “God didn’t stop the water until they got wet.” Afterward I had the opportunity to lead a communion meditation – once again, in Jerusalem. In the evening. In an upper room. Marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream, that’s for sure. I talked about Cyril’s description of this land as a “fifth Gospel.” I’m not exactly a fan of calling it the Holy Land because of Romans 8 and the expansion of that description to include all creation, but it is a land that teaches. I spoke of its value (farming; strategy) as well as its vulnerability (reliant on water from above; fought over regularly with no natural protective boundaries), drawing a line to the cross where where One who was supremely valuable entered our vulnerability to restore our original value as those made in God’s image to rule on God’s behalf. We took communion together, and then headed to bed.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Sunday was our first full day in Jerusalem, and we filled it up! We averaged somewhere around 10-12 miles during our three days touring various parts of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. We entered the Dung Gate on the southern wall of Jerusalem and headed north a bit to the Western Wall. This is the popular “wailing wall,” though from what I understand Jews do not describe it as such. Here you will find Jewish men and women (mostly Orthodox) constantly praying for the restoration of Jerusalem according to their understanding of God’s will for it. After a bit we headed back to the southern wall and turned east to an area where we saw absolutely massive stones at the base of the Temple Mount. They were just underneath what is unfortunately called “Robinson’s Arch” (after its discoverer), which served as an entry point into the Temple Mount for normal people (i.e. non-elites). We got to walk through the ruins of an old market area right there at the base, then curled around and headed further east to place called the “Teaching Steps” just outside the walls. Here they are doing southern wall excavations, but the more relevant point for us is that this is where Acts 2 happened! Mark and I were doubtful of the location (no houses close by), but after later seeing a model of the ancient city our doubt was removed. The Apostles would have been in one of the houses just south of the city, and after the Holy Spirit moved they came to this area where Peter preached “the first Christian sermon” and thousands were saved. This is one area Mark and I can’t want to go back and spend more time reading and talking through that text with the group.
Being inside the walls immediately left an impression on me that I didn’t expect. For one thing, everything in and around the Temple is so BIG. Greco-Roman writers are said to have noticed especially three things about this area and its people: the Dead Sea in which all things float, the one day a week that no one works, and the great Temple without a single image of beast or man. And even apart from the Temple Mount itself, the effect of the old city walls is that you really do feel both secluded and safe. You wouldn’t even know that you’re upon a hill, because they almost have a valley-like effect when you see mountains on every side. Old Jerusalem really feels like a world unto itself.
We made our way back through the Dung Gate and headed to Jericho, which was one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting. Both the Old and New Testament connections are meaningful to me. The site was certainly interesting enough (provided quite a view in all directions, and showed some interesting stonework deep down into the old city), and I took a rock from the walls that fell. Or at least that’s what it’ll represent for me! (My all-time favorite line from one of Mark’s sermons: “Stick around long enough to see the walls come down.”) While on the Jericho hill, Casey gave a devotion on the story of Zaccheus. “What do you do with a sellout? You buy him back.” Great word. But while Jericho itself didn’t disappoint, it was the drive out there that I most enjoyed. I think the surprise “favorite” part of the trip for me was seeing the hills of Judea and the surrounding wilderness. I think there was still part of me that pictured Kansas. Nope! On this particular route, the winding divot trails make it very easy to see why bandits favored it. Imagine if you’re at a beach and you reach down with two fingers and drag them around in all sorts of winding directions with some pretty sharp turns here and there, almost like creating a maze. That’s about how it looks (although it’s not actual sand dunes). It would be impossible to walk across in a straight line, so no matter the speed at which you imagine Jesus moving from place to place, slow it down a few paces. (And no matter how big you picture his calves, make them bigger!)
From Jericho we drove to Qumran, where we stood on a platform probably 100 feet from Cave 4. If you’re not a Bible nerd, that’s probably not a big deal, but if you are then you know how crazy that is. Seeing the Qumran community’s “floor plan,” I was struck with two primary observations. It was small. And there were baths everywhere. I knew ritual bathing was big for them, but I didn’t know quite how pervasive a role it played in their community. Our guide focused mostly on the question of whether John the Baptist had been a chartered member of the community, even going around the circle and asking for opinions. He gave his own answer for a negative, a conclusion I agree with though on different grounds. I like how Mark (Scott) put it, “Too many discontinues that overwhelm the few continuities.” Other Mark pointed out the critical point that John was not an isolationist. He was separate but not isolated. In addition to the lack of real positive evidence, my sense is that while he was similar to the Essenes in analyzing the problem (the whole “Jerusalem system” was corrupt), he differed greatly on the solution. They advocated withdrawing until God judged the whole thing and blessed them publicly. John advocated Jesus as Messiah and got out of the way.
After the Qumran visit we drove down to the Jordan – to the area where I do agree Jesus was baptized. Most of our crew were re-baptized as a sort of rededication ceremony. I put my feet in and took what will be one of my most favorite pictures from our time. I noticed not only the smell of the water (took a good scrubbing to get it off!), but also the narrowness of the River. It was probably 20 feet wide at the place we stopped, which differed from my mental image. Interestingly, we also saw a few doves on the way down! I also bought Carson’s souvenir there – an adorable stuffed ibex we’ve named Jordan.
That evening we had another worship gathering, where Alan preached a fantastic word on hearing God’s voice. Lots of Willard in there, so I’m definitely game. Main point was that God speaks to us daily, and we would hear him if we would simply listen. He speaks mainly through (1) a quiet reading of His Word; (2) a clustering of events; (3) “a voice box strikingly similar to my wife’s” – i.e., through people who know both God and us.
Monday, May 30, 2016
Our long and busy Sunday was followed by a long and busy Monday, and both were full of moments we won’t soon forget. We entered Herod’s Gate on the north side of old Jerusalem and spent the morning meandering through the streets to the southern wall of the city. Somewhere near the beginning of our walk someone asked, “How old are these steps?” Our guide Mike casually replied, “500 years. They are new.” Ha! Sensing our laughter, he playfully explained, “Here in the Holy Land 500 years is old is ‘new’. 200 is ‘modern’.” Indeed!
Soon we came to the Antonia Fortress (also identified as the “Ecce Homo” gate after the words Pilate spoke in presenting Jesus to the people). I wish I went in with a better visual of the Fortress, because it took me some time to get my bearings. A fairly sizable, multi-leveled, square structure, the Fortress not accidentally sits just north of the Temple Mount. Herod built it so the Roman leadership could keep an eye on things in the Temple proper while not overly offending Jews by contaminating the compound with their unclean presence. (On multiple occasions, Mike helpfully described the Herods to our crew as a bridge between Romans and Jews. For numerous legitimate reasons, the Jews never fully accepted Herod or his descendants, but they couldn’t deny the beauty and impressiveness of his building projects – including the Temple itself.) This fortress is especially relevant to us because it is likely where Pilate came from Caesarea to try Jesus in light of the accusations brought against him. We went into an area that is now covered (by the crusaders about a millennium ago) but which was an open courtyard in Jesus’ day. All kinds of things happened here, including Jesus being beaten to shreds and receiving a cross to carry to his place of execution. Many were moved at the thought that some of these stones once wore Jesus’ blood as a testimony to the suffering that saved the world. Also carved into one of the stones was a game of some sorts used by the soldiers to divvy up clothing and other small treasures.
Just outside this Fortress begins the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked from Antonia to Golgotha. The well-known fourteen “stations on the cross” were organized as such in the 1700s and are prominently marked. Though the street Jesus walked on is some feet underground today, the effect is nonetheless surreal. For some reason what came to my mind was the impact of these events that is expressed in Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through simple faith in Jesus. We are defined by our status before God, and our status before God is determined by the blood of Jesus spilled in part on this very walkway. Therefore, we need not seek acceptance before God or validation before anyone on the basis of moral performance or beneficial productivity, but rather by leaning on and resting in and pointing to this “man of sorrows.” This road marks the end of our striving and the beginning of our service.
Where it ends is a matter of historical dispute. (The debate can kill the moment just as quickly as the gaudy church that sits on the traditional site.) While we’ll visit the secondary possibility in a couple days, most believe Jesus died and rose again in the area now covered by the famous Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was built in 1052 so the real cave where Jesus rose is 18 feet underground. The Dome over that area is surrounded by sanctuaries belonging to six different churches (Roman Catholic and various Orthodox bodies). Mike assured us that the current arrangement is “99% peaceful.” The Rotunda over the cave is described as “the center of Jerusalem, which is the center of the earth if you lay it flat.” Not sure what to believe about the geography, but the theology couldn’t be stronger.
Next we quickly visited a few noteworthy places. We exited the old city and stopped at the traditional site of “David’s Tomb.” While our guide very much doubted the accuracy, this was the same spot Peter referred to in Acts 2 when he pointed out David’s tomb was proof that David had to be talking about someone else when he spoke of coming out the other side of death. The Tomb sits west-southwest just a ways from the Teaching Steps, so you can almost envision Peter waving his hand pointing over to the place. Nearby we came to Dormition Abbey, where many believe Mary died (the other option is Ephesus, which I am inclined to agree with), after which she was taken to Gethsemane for burial though she never made it thanks to her “Assumption.” Standing on “Mount Zion,” it was interesting to see that she and the Mount of Olives face each other. Next came the church commemorating the place of Peter’s betrayal, and then on to the house of Caiaphas the acting High Priest during the trials and execution of Jesus. Two reasons we know it to be his place of residence: (1) Every Jewish house has a ritual bath; this one had ten. (2) Nearby we have found ruins of a bridge from here on Mount Zion to the Temple Mount. It was sort of a VIP entryway, and would have been very impressive to see. Down in Caiaphas’s house is a pit or “dungeon” of sorts where we think Jesus was held overnight. On a podium the prayer guide was open to Psalm 88, so Mark (Scott) read it and talked a bit. Noted the fact that there are parts we cannot fully pray because he prayed them to the full. (It is a Psalm of mostly despair.) Because Jesus prayed all of this Psalm, we can only pray certain parts as they currently stand. We pray it to an extent because he prayed it all the way.
We had somehow missed the Upper Room which is just near David’s Tomb, so after Caiaphas’s house we backtracked a bit to catch it. It’s larger than I assumed, and here Mark and I did our own half-imitation of Jesus laying his head on the chest of the young Apostle John. We left the Room and headed for a bus stop where all of a sudden Jim Johnson jumped off a bus! We hugged him quick and he ran back on the bus before it sped away. I knew he was in town and we had texted a bit, but I didn’t really expect to see him. Crazy.
Later we drove up the east side of the city and entered through a gate that has enjoyed numerous names through the years – Lion’s Gate, Stephen’s Gate, Mary’s Gate, Sheep Gate. The Stephen label most interested me, and indeed the whole eastern slope of the city drops about half a mile at 45º angle. The purpose of this mini-entry into the city was to visit the Church of St Ann. She was Mary’s mother, but the reason we visited was for the cathedral’s famous acoustics. We sang a few songs and it was indeed beautiful. Speaking of beautiful, the other place we visited inside the walls was the ancient Pool(s) of Bethesda featured in John 5. I’m not sure what my expectations, but this place blew them away. Not only is it large, but the whole area is impressively engineered and designed.
We traced our steps back out of the city and trekked about a quarter mile south to Gethsemane. I’m not sure why, but the church there has changed its name from “Basilica of the Agony” to “Church for All Nations.” Some of the olive trees there are old enough to have been there when Jesus visited. The area is a little manicured for me, but across is a less messed-with area being a private fence what I was able to view for a few minutes. That gave me more of a sense of the reality. From here we drove up and around to the top of the Mount of Olives overlooking the city. This will be one of the moments I most remember. I couldn’t do anything but keep saying things like, “My goodness,” “Wow,” “You gotta be kidding me,” and “I can’t believe I’m here seeing this” – all in reference to the view of Jerusalem. The whole past few days just comes together when you’re up there. So many historical moments come to mind. Revolutionaries gathering for a hopefully inspired attack on the corrupt Temple leadership. Jesus silencing the disciples’ awe of the city by not only promising its destruction, but in some ways pointing to that destruction as vindication of my claims. This was the city Jesus came to reach but which for the most part rejected him. He wept over it. He predicted its doom. He would soon die outside its walls.
That night we caught a light show pretty much unlike anything we had experienced. The story of Jerusalem (and the Holy Land more broadly) was the theme of the show, told through picture and music (with some words but not many) from earliest history through its various stages – of mostly conflict – up to the present time. What was unique was that the show was depicted on a portion of the actual old city wall. Pretty impressive and unforgettable.
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
We woke up early Tuesday and drove toward Masada. Once again, for whatever reason, observing the hills of the Judean wilderness brought me joy. Our guide explained that the piece of land between mountains along the line of the Jordan River – land he described as a “hot dog sandwich” – is called the Syrian-African rift, a name showing just how long it is given that it stretches from Africa in the south to Syria in the north.
Masada itself was, to repeat myself, impressive. Built onto a mountain by Herod as a winter resort, the north face boasts Herod’s three-tiered palace. On the east is the Serpent Trail, which Josephus describes as fairly treacherous. Though less treacherous today, it is not easy to hike! A few of us did so and barely made it to the top in time for the presentation. (Or I should say, those on top had to wait for us to arrive.) A little under halfway up, Mark had to turn back, and I also had a rough time toward the end of the thing. That sun doesn’t get any cooler as it rises! On the other side of the mountain there is more of a stepped or layered shape to the rock, which brings me to the main even Masada is known for. Toward the end of the war between Rome and Jerusalem (AD 66-70), some Jews escaped and fled through the desert toward the Jordan. They decided they would hide up on Masada, which at the time had been deserted. Over 1000 people made their way not only to the fortress but up to the top of it, where they held out for over two years while the Romans below sieged. The Romans couldn’t do much about the situation, because the natural feature of the rock provided such a solid protective boundary. There was no way they were making it up the east side with the Jews having such advantageous high ground and the path providing such a slow way up. They were able to build on top of layers of the west side, however, such that eventually they could climb over the walls and invade. When they got over the wall, all they found were a couple women and some children, because everyone else was dead. Once the Jews realized they were doomed, they selected 10 men by lots to kill everyone and then take each other’s lies. There were not murders; on the contrary, this was an agreed upon collective suicide (proven by the fact that a few dissented from participation).
The fortress up top boasted a few notable features. It had a relatively small synagogue, which would have been very important to the zealots. There was also a bath system constructed by Herod that involved some elaborate engineering – the sun was used to heat water that flowed underneath the bath and then steamed up the walls only to recycle itself back down to the bottom in order to repeat the process. I’m not doing a great job of explaining it, but I think that’s the gist. In one main bath area Herod placed a statue of Caesar to remind folks of the one to whom they should be thankful even for such gifts as a soothing bath. Of course the zealots would accept neither the statue nor the theology that it represented.
We naturally wondered how the Jews made it in the desert for that long, and the answer is that the rain water conservation system was ten times more impressive than the baths themselves. Using what I’d describe as a natural gutter drainage system, with the help of workers to haul buckets of water, they stored water in cisterns with plastered walls and then washed it through sand so as to render it useful for various purposes; if the cisterns were full, there’d be enough for seven years.
We sat in the small synagogue for a while where Mark Scott talked about some lessons we can learn from Masada. He offered four thoughts: (1) Masada warns us against the faulty dilemma fallacy. The zealot community saw only two options: mass suicide or defeat at the hands of Rome. Perhaps they were right, but we mustn’t assume too little of God’s capabilities and will. (2) Masada shows the strength of conviction, and if those who (we believe) believed wrongly acted with such resolve and consistency, surely those who hold the truth should manifest no less. (3) Masada reminds us to understand others before we criticize them. We weren’t there, so we must pause before passing judgment at least long enough to realize we cannot know what it was actually like. (4) Masada invites us to remember that it is the LORD who says, “Vengeance is mine.”
From Masada we bussed back to Qumran, and I have to admit that I wasn’t feeling great. My legs were shot from the hike, my stomach had been in not-awesome shape for a few days, and the general wear and tear was wearing and tearing. But then I walked into the Qumran café and ran into my friend Dan Hamel! This was the second unexpected but very welcomed sighting of a person I hardly expected to see on the other side of the globe – and in this case I had no idea he was in the country! Suffice it to say it did my heart good and my body followed suit. I left refreshed, and in part I credit that encounter for renewed energy that helped me fully enjoy the remainder of our trip. Incidentally, I also picked up a copy of Josephus’s Jewish War at the Qumran bookstore.
We continued on from Qumran down to the Dead Sea. Everyone always talks about how you float in this Sea, and while I suppose I figured I’d not be the one exception to the seemingly universal rule, I did have a little skepticism. I’ve never floated in my life! But sure enough, you just lay back and salt does the rest. It was a pretty bizarre sensation, and one I hope to experience again.
That evening we went to the Israel museum, which held a couple of memorable surprises. First was a full model of old Jerusalem probably about thirty feet long by fifteen feet wide. (I’m bad at distances so those are very general estimates.) It gave such great perspective to so much of what we had been seeing, and even corroborated some of the sites we were skeptical about (like the Teaching Steps). We also saw a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, though I figured since I’d seen quite a large exhibit years ago I wouldn’t be too overwhelmed. What I was surprised to see and will not forget, however, was a fully unrolled copy of the Isaiah scroll! (For the non-nerds, one part of why the Dead Sea Scrolls were so valuable is that they were a few centuries older than our oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament, but their similarity showed that ours were indeed accurate renditions of the originals. The Isaiah scroll is one prominent example of this dynamic.)
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
We only visited a few places on our final day of touring, but each was full and moving in their own ways. We began at a church commemorating the birthplace of John the Baptist. The church itself wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but two features caught my grateful attention. One was a line of over thirty-three panels outside the church with Luke 2.68-79 in different languages. The other was a title for John that for some reason I had not seen before: St. John the Precursor. I love that! John’s greatest ability was knowing when to shrink so that Jesus could be rightly magnified.
Next we spent some time at the Holocaust Museum, which was both horrifying and difficult to describe. Rather than try, I’ll share two short anecdotes. One quote that struck me is as follows: “It is indeed a wonder how the world exists after so much screaming.” And another story stood out to me: In a successful attempt not to let their captors judgment have the last word (in this world) on their lives, some Jews of Kovno wrote our their story, drew pictures of each other’s faces, and buried it in hopes that their biography and art would be found and their memory retained.
We ended our tour at the Garden Tomb, a place I would like to have a few hours to meander and reflect. This is widely regarded by many Protestants to be the true site of Jesus’ death and nearby burial and resurrection. This is believed for four primary reasons: (1) The rock has the shape of a skull and so corresponds to the name “Golgotha” or “place of the skull.” It looked much more like a skull in pictures than in real life, and our guide confirmed that in the last few years some of the “nose” has fallen off due to changes in the earth. (Which makes me a bit skeptical of making too much of the rock’s shape.) (2) It is outside the city, which is required by the book of Hebrews. To get to it, you exit the Damascus Gate and take a right. (3) It is public and therefore visible and therefore would serve as an effective deterrent to those considering challenging the might of Rome. It would have been extra busy at Passover. (4) We know it was a place of Jewish execution – not crucifixion per se, which only the Romans could perform, but by pushing people over a wall and stoning them. (I find myself less convinced than I expected I would, perhaps in relation to the opposite effect at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Reason two seems irrelevant because both sites were outside the walls. Reason three likewise applies to both (as well as countless other locations).)
Somewhat famously I’m gathering, right beneath the proposed rock is a busy bus station, which many of our number found frustrating and even offensive. Up on top of the hill is a mosque, and our reverent observation of the rock’s features was interrupted by a Muslim call to prayer – also bothersome to many. No disrespect toward anyone’s perfectly legitimate feelings, but I found all of this perfectly appropriate. The crucifixion did not happen in a quiet corner where reflective meditation is easy, but right in the bustle of public life. The goal of its public nature was publicity, specifically the effective deterrent of showing off the brutal and bloody power of Rome. But in this public place, another power was manifest for all to see – subtler, to be sure, but also so much mightier that the former power is exposed as little more than monopoly money. And this act of dying was an affront to all false gods and sincere but ultimately futile attempts to curry God’s favor or defend his honor through politics or religion.
Standing in the nearby tomb was one of the most moving times of the trip for me. The tomb is large or small depending only on your expectation. It was large enough to house the bones of a family, but small enough that we had to duck down to get in and take turns inside. One side is now for walking and the other gated off half consists of a grave cut into the stone on the left (where Jesus was laid) and a similar structure to the right (where angels sat). My skepticism about the location did little to deter the Spirit from reminding me of more important truth. It happened. I’m not sure if it happened here, but it happened someplace. What matters is that it happened someplace. Someplace normal. On, and then off, a very normal rock that wasn’t normal anymore. And yet it was. The new normal.
Outside we had a communion service. Alan spoke on a theology of blessing. One line stuck out to me: “To speak of ‘mere words’ is to speak of ‘mere dynamite’.” I was reminded of Dallas Willard teaching that the reason we so feverishly seek one another’s approval is that we were made for blessing – to bless and be blessed in return. Powerful words. More powerful words followed, this time in the form of a communion meditation led by Warren which moved us all. We then prayed over our guide Mike, which seemed to genuinely touch his soul.
Later that evening we shared our favorite times from the trip and Casey brought a final word. “The goal of pilgrimage is not to bring back a token of the past journey, but to let the past journey transform your future.”
As we ended the trip, more than anything I am grateful for the chance to have gone. I do not believe that I or anyone else need a “pilgrimage” to live a perfectly full and joyful Christian Life, but I am also profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to go. Already the Bible comes alive more than before, and I only expect more of the same. All land is holy in Christ and sanctified by the Spirit’s presence, but this land is still special in many ways. The trip was awesome. God is good.