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)
I will be flying to Israel tomorrow for a seven day educational trip. The journey will begin tonight when I pick up my mom and head out to Philadelphia where we will met other team members for this tour of the Holy Lands. I am really looking forward to time with my mom. And I am really looking forward to a break. But I have to admit that I am a little ambivalent about traveling to the "Holy Land." Is it a pilgrimage? Should we think of a particular land as being more holy?
The idea of a pilgrimage to a holy land is woven into the fabric of many world religions. It reminds me of the Middle English classic, the Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer's imaginative tale about religious pilgrims in 14th century England is required reading for many students. It begins:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote...
And specially from every shires ende, Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
(When April with its showers sweet, The drought of March has pierced to the root...
And, especially, from every shire's end, Of England, to Canterbury they wend,)
Chaucer's pilgrims were journeying to see the shrine of the martyr Thomas Becket. They believed that his bones would make the place holy and give them special access to God's power. As Chaucer wrote, "the blessed martyr helped them when they were sick." But Protestants have always been cautious about the idea of calling a certain location "holy." In the Old Testament God's Spirit was present in the temple in a particular way, especially in the Holy of Holies. However, at death of Jesus the veil of this inner sanctum was torn in two and 50 days later the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church at Pentecost. Instead of emphasizing the presence of God in a physical building, the New Testament speaks of the people of God as being a new "living temple." (I Peter 2:5, Eph 2:22) God's Spirit is tied not to a geographic location, but to people who call on him through faith in Christ. Jesus promised that his Spirit would be present when two of more of his followers gather in his name. (Matt 18:20)
I can remember, years ago, a former pastor saying about his trip to Israel, "I would rather be where Jesus is than be where Jesus was." Since Jesus dwells in his church, it is appropriate to remember that we are best able to draw near to God ... not by traveling to a historic location, but by drawing near to Christian fellowship.
But. That is not all. While it certainly more important to be where Jesus is, there is significance to the geographic locations where Jesus was. Once I get over my initial cynicism about pilgrimages, there is a great deal that is exciting and helpful about a trip to Israel. I am reminded that Christian faith is centered around the idea of Incarnation. God came near and revealed himself through the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus was a particular person who lived in a particular place. This is what some theologians have called the "scandal of the incarnation." That is, Jesus did not live everywhere. He lived in a specific place -mostly Galilee, and died in a specific place - outside of Jerusalem. He spoke a particular language - Aramaic. He was Jewish. He traveled (and walked) on particular waters - the sea of Galilee. He told stories to people embedded in the first century middle eastern world of fishermen, farmers and scoundrels.
I am growing increasingly excited about seeing those places. I am thankful for the incredible privilege I have to make this trip. I plan to share pictures and reflections during my time there. If you are interested in following along, keep an eye on this blog over the next week or so.