Today we visited the most important place for modern Jewish people. The Western Wall, known as the “Wailing Wall” is an exposed portion of the ancient temple mount from the time of Christ. When the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD the walls around the base of the temple mount were all that remained. The Western Wall is particular important because it is close to where the Holy of Holies would have been inside the temple.
Until 1967, when Jerusalem was controlled by Muslims, the Jewish people had very little access to visit any of their holy sites. This fairly small section of the original temple mount was open to Jewish people one day each year. It seems to symbolize both their access to God and their vulnerable national identity. But because they believe that the temple was meant to be a “house of prayer for all people”, the Western Wall is open to be of all religious faiths. As moved closer to the wall, we became more than tourists – we became participants.
Like other holy sites, appropriate dress was required. For the Catholic sites that means that men take off their hats. At the Jewish sites men have to cover their heads. Free yarmulkes are available for all who wish to approach in prayer. It took a moment to figure out how to make it sit properly on my head. It was early in the morning, so it seems that the crowd was smaller. I threaded my way through the rabbis praying with their disciples and approached the ancient stones. This is all that remains from the temple. Huge stones that are worn by sun and rain and countless people.
As I placed my hands, then my forehead on the wall, I felt that the rock was cool to the touch. The wall was enormous. Hebrew prayers filled the air. A general murmur rose above the crowd. I felt small. And somewhat insecure. Had I covered my head properly? Was it ok for me to come close to the wall?
I suppose that some of the insecurity rose from the experience of being on the “turf” of another religion. But I think some of it was bigger than that. The purpose of the temple is to show God’s holiness. His “otherness”. His bigness. And our consequent smallness. Modern western culture does not emphasize this aspect of the divine. Our secular culture seeks to eliminate God altogether, or at least minimize his presence. Even Christianity in the west tends to focus on making God accessible.
But this is not the God of the Bible. The New Testament is rooted firmly in the old. We are told that we can approach God’s throne in prayer with confidence – not because God is small, inconsequential and cuddly. But we are invited to approach God’s throne in prayer with confidence because we have been cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ. Our confidence does not lie in God’s smallness, or in our own preparations. But our confidence lies in the mediation of Christ.
I don’t want to diminish our confidence in prayer in even the smallest degree. But I do hope to retain this fresh reminder of God’s grandeur. I think of the words of the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:28-29)
We started the day in the Dead Sea - which was 1411 meters below sea level and ended the day in Jerusalem - which is 2470 feet above seal level. That is an elevation change of almost 4000 feet. Needless to say we spent the day going "up." Along the way we stopped at fantastic sites in Masada and En Gedi. Both have historic significant and are truly marvelous natural landmarks.
Much of this route ran parallel to the ancient pathway between Jericho and Jerusalem. Pilgrims from Galilee would have bypassed the most direct route to Jerusalem in order to avoid their long term enemies - the Samaritans. Most people associate the term "Samaritan" with a story that Jesus told in which the Samaritan did something unexpectedly "good." But if we are not familiar with the historic context we can easily miss the main assumption of the story. That is - no one expected a Samaritan to be "good", especially to a Jewish person. This historic enemies had a long history of mistreating each other.
The ancient road from Jericho to Jerusalem runs along a valley known as a "wadi." Water would be available in this valley more frequently and would provided necessary nourishment for both the travelers and their pack animals. We pulled of the main highway to catch a glimpse of the landscape. At the ruins of an old monastery we bartered with Bedouin merchants for trinkets and fruit. This nomadic people still live in the desert and like to trace their lineage all the way back to the patriarchs. Seeing the remoteness of this passageway emphasizes why it made sense for the traveler in Jesus' story to get attacked on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. It also gives a vivid picture of why the many psalms that were written about the approach to Jerusalem are called the "Psalms of Ascent." This final leg of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was literally one long "ascent." One of them was particularly relevant for travelers in a dangerous country:
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
(Psalm 121, a psalm of ascent)
This route is also the path that Jesus and his disciples took during his fateful trip to Jerusalem. It was in Jericho that Jesus met a "wee little man" called Zacheus and brought salvation to the house of this rich outcast. From there, Luke tells us simple that Jesus continued his journey:
And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. (Lk. 19:28)
It was there that his earthly ministry would take a deadly turn and Jesus would complete his greatest work. It is a reminder that danger is not limited to the road to Jerusalem. For Jesus the greatest danger awaited him after his arrival to this fortified city. We will see more of that the next two days.
I woke up at 5:30 without an alarm clock, jogged and hiked to the top of a nearby mountain peak and finished with a refreshing swim in the sea of Galilee.
Now, there are several parts of that sentence that are highly abnormal. But that is the nature of such an unusual trip in an extraordinary place. Today we headed South from Galilee, visited Nazareth, the ruins of a 1st century Roman city, Qumran (the location of the Dead Sea Scrolls), and concluded with a swim (bob) in the Dead Sea.
In the morning we visited Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me as we toured a recreated 1st century village staffed mostly by a group of local Arab Christians. It is like "Old Bedford Village" for the Ancient Near East. They had recreated aspects of village life from the 1st century on a plot of land in modern day Nazareth. The location is about a 5 minute walk from where it is believed Jesus lived. I enjoyed watching the recreations of ancient work and living spaces. Here are some pictures:
(top left) Shepherd in front of a sheep pen.
(top middle) Builder (carpenter) working with wood.
(top right) Weaver spinning wool into yarn.
(bottom left) Inside a recreated synagogue.
(bottom middle) Wheel for crushing olives, followed by a three state process of presses.
(bottom right) Inside a recreated home.
Where yesterday was marked by the sharp reality of being in Israel and visiting known sites, today was full of uncertainty. The views were beautiful, but a common theme for the day was… “maybe.” We started the day with a short hike to the overlook of Mt. Arbel. (left) The view was stunning. We gazed downward at the town of Migdal (1st century home of Mary Magdalene) and the Sea of Galilee. It is a spectacular spot and invites speculation about whether this could have been one of the lonely places that Jesus withdrew to for his regular prayer retreats. The answer is… “maybe.”
Next, we visited the church of the Beatitudes. The Catholic tradition holds that this is the spot where Jesus preached his famous sermon from Matthew 5-7, called the sermon on the Mount. Like most itinerant preachers Jesus probably preached a similar message in many places. (That is the easiest explanation for the differences between the gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke.) But is this the location that Matthew refers to in his Gospel? There are no historic markers to link this spot to the text, but it is a very nice location and it is certainly representative of the types of places that Jesus preached in regularly during his 3 year ministry in this immediate vicinity. So, again we have a solid "maybe" about this being the exact location. We had the same experience in the afternoon as we visited a church that commemorates the reinstatement of Peter in John 21. Neither John or Matthew seemed interested in giving those particular stories exact locations, so I don’t think it is profitable to press that too far. "Maybe" seems "OK" for this venture.
In between we saw visited an extraordinary excavation in ancient Dan, in the far North of Israel. Unfortunately, this is one of the historic locations of one of the two golden calves used in the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the Kingdom was divided. When it came to following the commands of God, the people of this region wavered for a while with “maybe” then clearly choose the path of disobedience. On the positive side, it is pretty certain that an ancient Gate was uncovered from around 1900 BC, placing it in the time of Abraham. (below) That makes it most likely one of the oldest gates ever recovered in the history of the world.
We also traveled into the Golan Heights. The region did not contain prominent biblical locations but it served to draw us back into the uncertainties of our modern moment. We toured the barracks of a border region where saw the former habitation of the Syrian Army. Recaptured in the 6 days war, the Golan Heights provide a protective barrier for modern Israel, but the region remains disputed. We were so close to Syria that at one point we could hear gunfire in the distance. Unlike central Israel the area is sparsely inhabited in spite of its bountiful farmland. Fewer people are willing to settle down in a region that remains in striking distance from Syria. Will Israel and her neighbors find a way to establish a lasting peace? The answer is a solid… “maybe.”
We slept like logs after a fitful night on the plane. I woke early enough for a jog. After a quick breakfast our bus pulled out at 7:30 am for a long day of sight seeing.
(Photo) "Touristicus Americanus" - this species is not native to the region, but is spotted frequently throughout the landscape.
The advantage of a group tour like this is that you get to see a lot of stuff in a short period of time. The disadvantage... you see a lot of stuff in a short period of time.
We visited Cesaerea first in the morning. When Herod the Great built a deep water port here, the city thrived. But gradually the city faded and only recently was it replaced. This is highlighted by the smokestack of a modern natural gas power-plant rising above the ruins of the Roman ampi-theater. We were reminded that it was here that Peter first preached to the Gentiles and here that Paul appealed to Cesaer and began his journey to Rome in chains. On the darker side, we saw a stone commemorating a building project by the infamous Pontius Pilate and stood in the Hippodrome where later Jews and Christian's were fed to the lions. Our tour guide reminded us: "This sand has absorbed the blood of the martyrs."
We flew from site to site throughout the day. We visited Mt. Carmel (below) and saw a commemorative statue of the prophet Elijah's deadly context with the prophets of Baal. Then we visited the ruins of the ancient city of Megido. Here 25 layers of habitation stretch back through seven millennia. The valley next to this region is known as the valley of Armageddon, site of John's apocalyptic conflict between good and evil.
Then we visited the sea of Galilee. It is much smaller than I had imagined. We took a ride out onto the water on a modern boat and viewed a recently excavated fishing vessel from the first century. We closed the day with a visit to Capernaum. Since Jesus based much of his ministry out of this village, it was a very special stop. The ruins of a 3rd or 4th century synagogue are built on the ruins of a synagogue from the first century. (below) There is really no doubt that this is the ancient village of Caperaum, no doubt that this is the spot of the synagogue, and not doubt that Jesus preached in the synagogue of Capernaum.
Therefore, we can be quite certain that we are standing on a place where Jesus did ministry. I have never before had the ability to say that. I'm still soaking that in. It was quite moving when our tour guide read, "I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die..." (Jn 6:48-50)
"...Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum." (Jn. 6:59)