Christian Marriage, Part I: Matthew 22:30

Introduction

Recently, a friend of mine who is a retired Methodist pastor asked me to teach his Sunday-school class for a few sessions. I was, of course, flattered and immediately said yes. I haven’t had a chance to do much teaching about Christianity in the “real” world lately and–as I imagine you might suspect–teaching about my faith is one of my favorite things to do.

Then my friend told me that the subject would be “marriage.” K and I will have been married twelve years in June, and we’ve been together seventeen, but all of the members of this particular Sunday-school class have been married far longer, and some have been married longer than I’ve been alive. It felt like a trap, though I’m sure it was not meant as such.

Despite the danger, I wanted to teach too much to back out. Besides, it’s often a good idea to get outside of your comfort zone a little–the best learning is done there. Nevertheless, I needed to sidestep the pitfall of trying to give marriage advice to people who know far better than I.

So, I decided that, while I’d sure teach about Christian ideas of marriage, I’d do so from a theological perspective rather than a practical one. More in my area of knowledge and safer. This led me to the topic we’ll discuss today: one of Jesus’s hard sayings in Matthew 22:30 (also Mark 12:25 and Luke 20:34-35, so it’s pretty clear that the authors of the Gospels thought that this saying was important).

N.B.: Because this has turned out to be a relatively long post, I’ve tried to insert section headings for ease of navigation and so that you, dear reader, can read or skip as much as you want. Trust me, I won’t be offended: I’ll never know what you picked to do. Unless you tell me, in which case I’ll do my best not to be offended.

Matthew 22:23-30

In Matthew 22:23-30, the Sadducees have come to Jesus to test him, and they present him with a hypothetical problem to solve (flashbacks of law school immediately followed). Specifically, they tell him of a woman who was married and widowed without a child, so her husband’s brother married her, but then he died, so the next brother in line married her, but then he died, and so on and so forth until the woman had been married to seven brothers before she died herself. The problem the Sadducees pose, then, is who will she be married to in the afterlife?

Jesus says, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead–have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Matthew 22-29-32.

Whoa! I enjoy being married. I love my wife. When we got married, we intentionally left out the “’til death do us part” language of our vows–we didn’t think that just this life would be enough for us. I want to be connected to her eternally. So what do I do with what Jesus says here?

Research. That’s what I do. And think. Because something’s going on here, and I’m quite sure that Jesus is not telling us that we will not be with those we love in the Kingdom of Heaven. This lead me to identify a problem, a relatively obvious one when you think about it. Our modern Western idea of marriage is not like the idea of Jewish marriage in the first century C.E. To impose our idea of marriage on this statement is to immediately miss the point.

Instead, I came to understand that Jesus is making a point about social justice. Let’s walk through it together:

Context

First, let’s but things in context–geographically, historically and literarily. As you might have seen in my posts about my profound learning experience with Dr. John A. “Jack” Beck, it has been ingrained on my mind now that, when I look at the Scriptures I ask: “Where are we when this takes place?”

Geography

In this instance, that question proved immediately helpful. In Matthew 21:23, we are told that “Jesus entered the temple courts.” So that means that Jesus is on the Temple Mount when speaking with the Sadducees. I soon learned that even that was not enough specificity for this passage of the Gospel. Matthew doesn’t tell us where on the Temple Mount Jesus is more than that he’s there somewhere, so I needed to do some research to see if I could find some information to make a better supposition about where specifically Jesus might have been.

First, let’s talk about the geography of the Temple Mount itself. I recommend Googling to find a picture because one will be helpful, but I’ll try to do a good job describing with words.

Imagine a rectangle (Josephus described the mount as a square a furlong on a side, but I don’t think that’s quite right–it’s possible though that I am mistaken. For sake of argument, bear with me.) with the longer sides oriented roughly north-south. That’s the Temple Mount. The place now known as the Western Wall or the “Wailing” Wall is a part of the north west segment of the entire western wall.  The entrance to the top of the Temple Mount was made via ramps up from doorways in the southern wall–these doorways are now sealed up, but you can see parts of them. There was also a bridge entryway on the southern part of the western wall, connected to Herod’s Stoa on the south end of the Temple Mount. The impressive archway of the bridge and stairs of this entrance have since been destroyed, but you can find both pictures showing where the supports of the arch can been seen in the wall even today and diagrams showing what it would have looked like in the past.

Let’s return to Herod’s Stoa. While his lineage is a little complex, Herod was considered to be a Gentile. Therefore, he could not travel further than the Court of the Gentiles in on the Temple Mount. The Court of the Gentiles is essentially the area of the Temple Mount outside of the walled-in Temple complex proper. Herod built the Stoa as an elaborate three-aisled arched and columned basilica where Herod could stay in luxury while looking out at the Temple–and reminding Israel who was in charge.

On the (outside of) the eastern wall of the Temple Mount with another set of gates was a colonnade or cloistered area known as Solomon’s Porch, so named because it was believed that that part of the Temple area had been built in Solomon’s time (I have not done any research to determine the likelihood that that belief was true).

Near the middle of the Temple Mount itself is the Temple complex, facing (very) roughly east-west). Think of the Temple complex as two compartments, with the entrance into the first compartment from the eastern outer wall of the complex and entrance into the second (western) compartment–where the Temple istelf was–only through the first compartment. The first compartment is known as the Court of the Women (because it was the closest to the Temple women could get). The second compartment, the courtyard around the Temple proper, was known as the Court of Israel.

You’ll notice that I’ve bolded four places around the Temple Mount–the Courts of the Gentiles, Women and Israel and Solomon’s Porch. The scholarship I reviewed indicated that these four locations were the places where Jesus taught when he taught at the Temple. That’s a pretty easy statement to make since, combined, that covers pretty much everywhere but inside the Temple.

With this in mind, let’s look at some textual evidence. As I mentioned above, Matthew tells us that Jesus “entered the temple courts.” That rules out Solomon’s Porch, I think, as the location for this saying. But we can go farther than that.

The day before this confrontation with the Saduccees, Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple. All the texts I looked at stated that the moneychangers would have been located in the Court of the Gentiles. I see no reason to argue with that. When Matthew relates Jesus this previous event, he tells us again (before, really) that Jesus “entered the temple courts.” I think the connection there makes it quite likely that Matthew 22:23-32 also takes place in the Court of the Gentiles.

There’s a logic to this as well. Given that Jesus has come for Jews and Gentiles (although that’s only made explicit later), he would have wanted to teach in as public a place as possible most of the time (though how many Gentiles actually came to the Court of the Gentiles is hard to say). More important, I think, is that the Pharisees and Saducees would have wanted to challenge Jesus in as public a forum as possible–again making the Court of the Gentiles the likeliest place for this scene.

If I had to bet, I’d say Jesus was in the Court of the Gentiles, but there’s no proving that. On other grounds, I think it’s very likely that Jesus was not in the Court of Isreal. Why? Because I think it was important to him (as I’ll argue below) that women be present to hear the words he speaks in this passage.

That’s the geography. Now, let’s talk about the historical context of Jewish marriage in which Jesus’s statement is made.

An Etymological Aside

One of the most surprising things I discovered in my research is a relatively minor etymological note, but one that immediately impressed me. The word baal (sometimes written and pronounced “ba’al“) is sometimes used for the word “husband.” The word itself is most often translated as “lord” or “master” and, when discussed in the OT, usually refers to pagan gods, who are called baals just as we would name our God by saying “the Lord.” There were many baals (though they’re often only referred to as baal): Baal Hadad of Tyre, Baal Hamon, and as a title for the Canaanite god El, just to name a few. Indeed, the probable etymology of the word is from the Mesopotamian god Belu and there’s no question that, whenever used by the Old Testament authors, the connotation of paganism was attached, intentionally or not.

Baal is translated as “husband” in Genesis 20:3; Exodus 21:3 and 22 Deuteronomy 22:22 and 24:4; 2 Samuel 11:36; Joel 1:8; Proverbs 12:4 and 31:11, 23 and 28 and Esther 1:17 and 20. It is by far not the most common word used for husband in OT Hebrew (that is “‘iysh” or, properly, אִישׁ, Strong’s H376). There’s not enough here to make a true argument that the use of the word means anything more than when we refer to a mortal “lord” as opposed to “the Lord” in English, but it is interesting to me.

Historical Context of Marriage

Etymological notes aside, let’s talk about the social culture of marriage. Jewish marriages were (and sometimes still are, though much less often, I think) arranged by the parents and particularly the father. Most of the usages in the Old Testament of the word “marriage” are in the context of a woman being “given” or “taken” in marriage. It’s easier, in fact, to refer to the times when the Hebrew equivalents of the English word are not used in that context–1 Kings 11:2 (“enter into marriage”) and Dan 2:43 (“they will mix with one another in marriage”).

As with many–perhaps most–premodern societies,  marriages were not arranged for love but for the maintenance or creation of economic, political or social ties between families. For farming families, marriage helped consolidate interests between families for farming larger areas cooperatively, a palpable benefit for surviving in hard times. For the elite, as we’re perhaps more familiar in the Western medieval context, marriages were about determination of succession, alliances and control of territory.

As evidence of this, the Old Testament has some relatively complex rules on where and how land can and cannot pass as a result of marriage and children–land cannot be transferred by marriage between the twelve tribes, for instance.

The marriage itself was not just an agreement between spouses, as we tend to think in the modern world–it was a contract between families with much more at stake than how the couple got along.

To marry a woman, a man would give her father a mohar (typically defined as a “bride-price” or “dowry”). We see this in Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:17, 1 Samuel 18:25 and it is the basis of Jacob’s work contract for the hands of Rachel and Leah. Socially, though, this was not considered the “sale” of a woman but was meant to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of a productive member (through marriage). There was some expectation that a father would set aside some or most of the mohar for his daughter’s future, but there was no strict rule requiring this and a second gift was made by the groom to the bride.

Let’s talk specifically about Levirate marriage, since that’s the situation that the Sadducees are refering to in questioning Jesus.

Levirate marriage (which is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10) was the practice where, if a man was married but died leaving a widow and no children, the deceased man’s brother was expected to marry the widow. The first child between the two would be deemed to be the child of the dead man, ostensibly assuring the descent of the man’s name and property. Despite the focus on “protecting the dead man’s name,” the practice was likely meant to be a social protection for women–now outside of their father’s house and without a husband or male children, the widow might be left without social protection or anyone to provide for her. Being a childless widow could be a precarious social position indeed.

If the stories of Ruth and of Onan and Tamar are to be taken as exemplars, it seems that it was more common for women to pursue the idea of Levirate marriage–and for men to sometimes resist it.

Under Mosaic law, women were expected to be absolutely subordinate to men. A man could divorce his wife, but not the other way around. A man could have multiple wives, but a woman could have only one husband (both Josephus and Justin Martyr–who wrote well after Jesus–described the existence of the practice contemporary to their writings). Under Levitical law, a husband had the power of life and death over a woman who committed adultery (as we see Jesus confront even in his time).

There is evidence that women purchased or sold land or otherwise participated in commercial enterprise, so (as always) we need to understand that there was some nuance and complexity to the social status of women but, for the most part, women were subjected to the will and whim of men and were used in marriage as a tool for the management of property and other “masculine” concerns. Women simply did not have the rights or freedoms that, in modern culture, we believe that they are entitled to (and Jesus, as I’m going to argue, would agree).

Literary Context

In the passage before the Saduccees test Jesus on the subject of marriage in the great hereafter, the Pharisees have tested him on whether taxes should be paid to Caesar. He tells them to “…give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Matthew 22:22. In other words, he turns the Pharisee’s question back upon itself by telling them, “you’re asking questions about money and power, but those are not the concerns of God. We’re talking about something much more important.” His Kingdom is not in contention with the petty kingdoms of man.

After the confrontation we’re discussing, Jesus gives the Great Commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind….Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39.

It is significant that the exhange with the Sadducees occurs bookended by these two statements.

Interpretation

One of the commentaries I looked at mentioned (and astutely, I think) that, for the Sadducees at least, this confrontation really isn’t about marriage. The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife (or angels for that matter), so what they’re doing is asking a question that they believe is logically unanswerable so that they can say, “Aha! Can’t figure that one out, can you? See, there is no afterlife, because it wouldn’t make sense!”

This is almost certainly the Sadducees’ goal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing that Jesus is talking about. If it were, he would only have needed to (after noting that they misunderstand the Scriptures) make the statement that God is the God of the living and not the dead–that assertion alone is enough to confound the Sadducees’ purpose.

Yes, the statement about marriage at the resurrection reinforces Jesus’s retort above, but it also does more.

Coming on the heels of the Pharisees’ question about money and taxes, Jesus is telling the Sadducees the same thing he told the Pharisees. Given the social background of Jewish marriage, what the Sadducees are asking, in a sense, is “who will own this woman in the afterlife?” or, to put it in a slightly more sympathetic light, “who will have rights over this woman in the afterlife.”

Jesus’s response says, “Asking that question shows your complete lack of understanding–you’re concerned about power and status in the world and thereby missing all of the important things with which God and the Scriptures are concerned.”

Jesus’s life itself is grand statement that the things that we humans chase so lustily after–fame, wealth and power–are not the more important things of God–relationship, love, creation, meaning. It stands to reason that his responses to doubters carry the same truth underneath them.

And with the Great Commandment(s) following after this passage, we certainly cannot read Jesus’s statement that people do not marry in the afterlife to mean the same thing as “people do not love” in the afterlife. The argument could be made (drawing twistedly on C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I think) that the kind of love in the Great Commandment does not include eros/romantic love but only agape/unselfish love, but the use of marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between the believer and God (or the Church and Jesus) so profoundly throughout the Bible (this is the topic of the next part in this series) seems to indicate otherwise.

Conclusion

What we’re left, then, is a promise of a more socially just existence in the resurrection–the artificial human socioeconomic and political construct of marriage will be replaced by natural and divine relationship that is about those involved and not about power and wealth and land in the world. I can’t help but imagine that there were women in the crowd who heard Jesus make the statement and thought “Thank God!” not because they did not want to love and be loved but because they wanted to be equal–something the old system of Jewish marriage did not allow them.

P.S. – I do not mean any of the above analysis to be a disparagement against modern Jewish marriage practice. Until only recently in our history, Christian marriages were also arranged primarily for economic and political purposes. Even more important, it is my understanding that ideas about Jewish marriage have evolved through the ages so that modern Jewish marriages are every bit as concerned with love, respect and equality within a marriage as Christian ones are (ignoring entirely those fundamental and “evangelical” Christian sects that still maintain that a woman should be subservient in all things.

Topics Coming Up:

The next topic I’ll discuss in this series will be about marriage as metaphor for relationships with God–we’ll start with Scriptures and move into theology and metaphysics.

At some point in this series I’ll return to the two creation stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis and what they might mean for God’s original intent for the values that a marriage ought to uphold.

While my stance that homosexuality is not a sin and that the love between people of the same sex (or gender identity for that matter) should be viewed (from a theological perspective) no differently from that of a heterosexual couple has been discussed on the blog previously and should be relatively well-known by my readers by known, this series is probably a good place to include some comments on that front as well, so look for that in the near future.

Position Statement: Biblical Interpretation

I’ve made allusion to some of my underlying theological positions (my theological “givens,” if you will) in previous posts, but it’s dawned on me that I ought to have some posts that can be linked to easily that reveal my positions (and therefore biases) in my approach to theology so that my readers better understand where I’m coming from (whether or not they agree–there’s plenty of room for reasonable disagreement on many, many theological issues).

I’m going to start with a concise explanation of my position on Biblical interpretation–specifically, my attitudes toward Biblical literalism and inerrancy.

Let’s start with 2 Timothy 16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

I do not reject this premise at all; I believe it. However, I absolutely disagree with the premise that this statement means that the Scriptures should be interpreted literally (there are times for a literal interpretation, to be sure–Jesus’s statements about the Great Commandments are uncharacteristically plainly stated and should be taken for what they are) or that they are infallible.

By way of argument, consider Adam and Eve. In the second story of the creation of Adam and Eve, God gives Adam spirit and life by breathing into him. He is literally “God-breathed,” and, yet, he is thoroughly fallible, mistaken in many things.

Further, God uses humanity to do God’s work, but in a cooperative, not a coercive manner (well, maybe Jonah). Moses is called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, but he is not forced. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus changes him deeply, but it is knowledge, not threat, that makes him a disciple of Jesus. Even Jesus Himself, in the garden of Gethsemane, has the opportunity to reject God’s call upon him, though He does not.

When read as a whole, we see in the Old Testament an continuing revelation of God’s self to the Israelites and an evolving understanding of the nature of God in the Israelites. At the time of Abram we see a man called from polytheism, but at the time of the Exodus we see an understanding of God that is henotheistic (there are many gods but ours is best/strongest/etc.)–even the Ten Commandments begin with a henotheistic understanding, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” True, that statement remains metaphorically accurate in a monotheistic understanding, but because the rest of the Commandments are quite literal, I think we must see it in the henotheistic context.

The OT prophets seek to change the minds of the Israelites from henotheism to true monotheism and to shake off polytheistic ideas about the nature of gods. When Elijah battles the priests of Ba’al (Hadad, most likely) on Mount Carmel, he is making the theological statement (through derision of Ba’al in part) that the God of Israel is not a mere localized deity, is not possessed of human needs and limitations (like travel and sleep) but is rather transcendent and omnipotent.

In large part it takes the Bablyonian Captivity for the Isrealites to grow into the understanding of God to which God has been leading them for centuries (or, depending upon your preferred timeline, millennia). In Ezekiel’s vision we see the image of a mobile God who can follow the Jews to Babylon, who is with them even when they are not present at God’s temple in Jerusalem.

Given the record of the need for continued revelation from God to drag the Jews to a better understanding of God (just as revelation continues to do, whether this revelation proceeds from Scripture or elsewhere), it stands to reason that the writers of the Old Testament (and New, for that matter) sometimes get things wrong. When we read that God has commanded Saul to kill all the women, children and animals of the peoples he has conquered, we should be offended if we are being asked to take the statement literally.

Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible makes very good arguments on this subject. For my part, I tend to follow the understanding of the German theologian Karl Barth. Barth reminds us (I am admittedly simplifying his argument for sake of time and space) that the Scriptures are not the capital “W” Word of God–Jesus is (see the Gospel of John). Therefore, we should read all Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ. That in the Bible that does not comport with the person and teachings of Jesus is something added by man and not by God.

Does this make Biblical interpretation difficult? Absolutely, and humility in approaching the subject ought be the first lesson we learn in the practice of theology.

Jesus speaks metaphorically in the parables for a number of reasons–I think even the most literal of Biblical interpreters would admit to that. So why do we think that other parts of the Bible, particularly those written in styles of literature that rely upon metaphor and symbolism (the OT poetry, the apocalyptic and prophetic modes of both the OT and the NT) should be read literally?

When we believe that only God is infallible, why would we believe that the human contributors to the Bible were made so? When what we see in both the Biblical text itself and in the experience of our lives is that God creates opportunities for humans to work with God but does not force them to do so, why would we believe that God essentially put every word to paper with God’s self? When God came to earth in Jesus Christ as a sacrifice, a teacher, a prophet and an example to us, why would we assume that Scriptures are alone sufficient? When Jesus himself tells the Pharisees and the Sadducees and, yes, even the Disciples that they have misunderstood the Scriptures, why are we so ready to say that a single and narrow interpretation is the only reasonable one? In a world so complex that the head spins to think of it, why would we expect that the answers we find in the Bible are simple, straightforward, and without nuance?

On the other hand, when the Bible is so plainly full of Truths both existential and metaphysical, why should we assume that the proposition is all or nothing–that the Bible has no fallibilities or is completely worthless?

Easter After Israel

It’s now been about two weeks since I arrived home from Israel; as you might note, I haven’t written much since then. But a few days after Easter seems a fitting time to share some of my reflections over the past few weeks. The experience of Easter Sunday has spurred me to think deeply about how my experience of the places where the Easter story unfolded has changed my perception of the narrative.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I tend to relate to my faith through intellect and intuition far more than through emotion. To a great extent, this is simply a matter of the way I’m wired, and while it makes me especially good at some aspects of theology, it doesn’t always prove terribly helpful on my faith journey. Since Maundy Thursday, in revisiting Christ’s death and resurrection through the Gospels, a few thoughts have dawned on me about my own failings in understanding the crux of our faith. Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might be helped by my reflections on weaknesses of my own that my pilgrimage is–I hope–working to remedy.

I have discovered within myself two places where–though I did not know it until recently–my understanding of the Passion and Resurrection were woefully insignificant.

The first of these, given my psyche, is perfectly understandable (I tell myself). I have allowed my understanding of Christ’s redemptive work to be too abstract and global without also realizing how palpable and intimate it is. Seeing the places where the events unfolded, being exposed to the nuances of the location and culture–to the extent that they remain available after 2000 years, has plunged me into the thick of the narrative to consider with great detail what the experiences might have meant to those who experienced them. Given my existential approach to theology, it’s actually rather embarrassing that I’ve for so long neglected the import and emotional impact of being personally involved in the story in favor of looking to the transcendental and eternal truth of the Gospel as if it were merely on of Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by.”

Let me be clear: this is a story with mythopoeic–perhaps better stated as theopoeic or theopoetic–power. There is great and deep truth in the Gospels that needs nothing from historicity to be true. That said, some things, sacrifice especially, have more meaning when someone actually had to endure the suffering and loss. Otherwise the meaning is only a metaphor for the idealistic world, a fine point on our weltschmerz, that “suffering unto death” that underlies the human condition and the existential states that God’s redemptive work addresses and heals. Acts of sacrificial love are only well-intentioned ideas until they are acted upon. There are many of the Bible’s stories that have the exact same meaning regardless of whether they are histories or stories, because they speak to the nature of reality. With Jesus and the entirety of the Incarnation, the something would be lacking from the Gospel message if it the events described did not actually happen. Easter is not merely some celebration of the story; it is a celebration that God, through Jesus, actually did the things that redeem us. He is Risen, indeed.

Thus, the Gospel story should be encountered as personally as possible, because the redemptive acts of the Passion and Resurrection–under whichever theory of atonement we might choose to understand them–are deeply personal and we are living them out, each and every day, though we often fail to see this in the bright lights and constant motion of daily survival.

From a certain perspective, perhaps I should offer myself some grace, because I lacked the tools to place myself within the events before my journey. I had not seen much of Israel, even in pictures, so I had little my imagination could grasp (except for illustrations in children’s picture books, bad Biblical reenactments and fleeting glimpses from documentaries) to build an image of the action and setting.

And that is especially true in America, I think. As a recent comment I overheard about Sunday’s live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates, the images we associate with the strength demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels falls into the same problem that plagued the people who encountered Him directly when He dwelt on the Earth: we superimpose our social ideas of strength upon Him rather than seeing the true strength He demonstrates in His sacrifice. We want a warrior king instead of a humble servant to represent the things we should aspire to. A pastor friend of mine likes to point to the “P90X Jesus” as an iconographic example of this–the image of an Olympic athlete with .001% body fat displayed on the cross (and usually white to boot).

A better understanding of the particulars of the people who experienced the Incarnation, the culture into which Jesus came and the places where Jesus preached and died both brings the truth of the story home and reinforces the actual meaning of the story rather than allowing this to be a mutable myth that we can make to be a mirror of ourselves.

The second realization I had is that I take for granted knowing the ending of the Easter story. I know that the Resurrection follows Good Friday and never stop to consider what it must have felt like not to have known–no matter how much faith one might have had in the expectations of what would come to pass.

When the disciples watched Jesus die, watched His suffering without any power to stop or alleviate it, were forced to doubt the reality of all He had taught them. I imagine most of you have read the C.S. Lewis quotation arguing that Jesus was either God or a madman; now imagine having invested three years of your life to answer that question, believing that Jesus is God, and then watching Him die, yourself likely a criminal subject to personal persecution if you too much attention comes to you.

Kafka could not have written a story of greater absurdity, Satre one of more extreme existential strength. There is no avoiding, I think, that if you were a follower of Jesus on Good Friday, you felt your soul on that cross with him though your body remained free, felt each nail pounded slowly deeper into your very essence, felt your ability to breathe and not to panic slowly fade to oblivion, felt everything you ever knew or believed threatened, felt forsaken by the One in whom you placed all your trust.

How fortunate we are never to have suffered this dark night of the soul! Though, I suspect that most of us at one point or another in our struggle to come to faith have encountered something similar in substance though lesser in degree.

As we march toward Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us try to feel the wonder and amazement when the disciples encountered the living Christ, how their faith had been fully, finally and undeniably affirmed, how nothing in the world could touch them or hold them after seeing the ultimate truth of Creation. That is redemption. That is grace.

Pilgrimage, Day 13: Reflections

Today will be the last post journaling my pilgrimage to the Holy Land; early tomorrow morning, we set off for Tel Aviv to return home. This is an amazing place, and there’s still much more to see, but I’m ready to come home. The pace of our touring has driven me to the point of exhaustion, and my brain is supersaturated with new knowledge and ideas. Even today, a scheduled half-day on our agenda, seemed a chore.

I am sure that there will be a number of posts in the near future that are more theologically focused and that draw on the many things I’ve learned on this journey. For now, I’ll share some general reflections on the trip as a whole (after a brief run-down of the day’s sites).

We started the morning early as usual, traveling to the Mount of Olives and working our way down to the Church of All Nations (at traditional Gethsemane). Along the way, we discussed the reason for Jesus sending the disciples to fetch a donkey only when he’d already ascended the Mount of Olives and was ready to descend into Jerusalem, the course of Jesus’s movements through the Old City during Passion Week (while overlooking the city–this made things very easy to follow) and generally discussing the Crucifixion and Resurrection. After lunch, we went to the Garden Tomb (very unlikely to actually have much to do with the Passion, though there’s some evidence that the stoning of Saint Steven occurred there) to celebrate Communion. While the rest of our group took the bus back to the south side of the Old City to the hotel, K and I decided to walk through the nearby Damascus Gate and through the Muslim Quarter back to the hotel (she had not yet been that way). As has been the case with all of our experiences, all of the people we met along the way were friendly and warm.

Before we left, while working on the preparatory materials, I posted about my struggle with my position on the historicity of many Biblical events. I’d like to follow up on that now.

I’ve never really doubted the historicity of Jesus Christ, his ministry, death and resurrection (though I’d still be a Christian if I did, because there is something eternally True about who Christ is and what the Incarnation means for existence and about the nature of God even if the events described did not actually happen). It’s mostly been parts of the Old Testament that I see as more metaphorical or literary than historical.

The first comment I have on the subject after my experiences here is that visiting the places I’ve now been, seeing the things that I’ve seen, and knowing the things I now know, I feel an added realism and gravity to many Biblical events–they seem less distant, abstract and simply allegorical (even if I didn’t consciously think of them as abstract or merely allegorical) than before.

That said, I’m not sure that my overall position on historicity has changed. One reason for this my fundamental approach to scripture. As I’ve said before, I follow Barth in seeing the person of Jesus as the essential revelation of Christianity, the lens through which anything else in our faith must be viewed. This causes some immediate conundrums (conundra?) that must be resolved in reading the Old Testament, which will discuss momentarily. Secondly, I tend to see a greater emphasis on the human side of scripture than to look for a heavier divine hand in the text’s creation. This is a fundamental point on which I disagree with Dr. Beck, who by my understanding (based on hearing him speak for two weeks and fully admitting that I might have misunderstood, so if you’re interest in his ideas, I recommend skipping my opinion and going direct to the source) favors a reading of scripture that emphasizes God’s direct hand in the events described, sees a greater level of divine guidance in the writing of scripture than I, and looks more to divine providence in the outcomes of events described than I tend to attribute to them. Before I give an example of our differences, I would like to reaffirm that Dr. Beck makes some very strong arguments for his position that are well worth considering whether you end up agreeing with all of them or not–certainly you’ll find some that make perfect sense. His books are readily found on Amazon under “John A. Beck.”

By way of illustration, let’s look at the Book of Joshua–something we were confronted with in our visit to Jericho yesterday. When considering Joshua, Jack tends to take the position that the story as written follows–at least in the fundamentals–actual historical events. He is careful to look at the archeological and scientific evidence very objectively, I think, but (as is mine), his fundamental conclusions are influenced by his starting theology (as all interpretive acts are).

From the get-go, I am admittedly biased against the Book of Joshua. It is a book of the Bible in which God apparently condones killing and the removal of people from ancestral lands by force. This does not comport with my understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and therefore does not comport with my understanding of the Triune God. As such, I am inclined to believe that much of the “God told us to take this land from the Canaanites” reflects the broader theology about how gods worked at the time.

There is, however, a hitch to this. In Joshua 5:13-15 (an amazingly tightly written piece of scripture, I might add), before the siege of Jericho, Joshua encounters an angel who describes himself (itself?) as “the commander of the army of the Lord.” The angel is holding out a sword to Joshua, drawing on the ancient Egyptian motif of the “presentation of the sword” in which a deity presents the leader of an army with his sword as an endorsement of and prediction of victory for an upcoming battle, an example of which can be seen at the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (there relating to victory over the mysterious “Sea Peoples”). But when Joshua asks whose side the angel is one, the angel simply says, “No.” This is typically translated as “neither,” but the simple negative is more accurate. When we look at the pieces together–that the angel, not Joshua, is the commander of the army of the Lord, that the angel (and therefore God) is not on either side of the battle and that the fall of Jericho initially occurs without bloodshed (for God causes the wall of the city to fall without an assault), we see something pointing toward the message of Jesus: God’s victories are not achieved through the perpetration of violence. And then the next sentence, in echo of similar statements made about the Moabite god Chemosh, the Joshua tells his men that “the city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord” (through complete destruction, returning us to a narrative that runs counter to the teachings and example of the Messiah. (Thanks is owed to Dr. John Harmon for pointing out to me this passage in Joshua and the ancient Egyptian practice it plays off of).

If the archeology were heavily in favor of the Joshua narrative, I admit that I would have to incorporate the likely historicity of Joshua into my theology, however much might have to change to do so. Currently, it is not. At Tel Es-Sultan, there is not sufficient evidence of the events described in the Bible ever having occurred, though Kathleen Kenyon’s modification of some of her early analysis leaves the possibility open. The next city Joshua attacks, Ai, also remains problematic historically and archeologically. The very name “Ai” means “the ruin;” thus the site of the city is most likely Et-Tell (Khirbet Haijah), whose name means the same thing.

The archeology at Ai shows that the city was occupied starting around 3100 BCE that was violently destroyed around 2400 BCE. Those Biblical chronologies offered by scholars who affirm the historicity of the conquest of Joshua place the conquest sometime after 1445 BCE and probably around 1400 BCE. Et-Tell was not resettled until Iron Age 1 (roughly 1300 BCE to 1000 BCE) and, even then, was probably settled peacefully. There are some scholarly opinions that the Biblical story has confused the conquering of Bethel with Ai; the two cities are only about 3 km apart. This is possible, but the uncertain archeology is further troubled by the fact that the beginning of the Book of Judges gives a different story about the Jews coming into Canaan.

The beginning of Judges, following on the heels of the Book of Joshua, describes a more gradual settling of Canaan by the Jews (lead by Caleb, as the book opens with the phrase “After the death of Joshua…”). Here, the Jews make incremental gains against the indigenous peoples, first settling the Negev Desert and only later capturing the hill country of Judah. Jerusalem is the first named city to be captured by the Jews, and though Jericho is mentioned (it is the “City of Palms” in Judges 1:16), it follows upon the mention of a gift of springs by Caleb to Aksah and Othniel. The spring at Jericho may be the link between paragraphs.

Current archeology sees the Israelites beginning to define themselves as a people relatively peacefully within Canaan and then eventually absorbing the Canaanites. Overall, though, the proper historical understanding of the Book of Joshua and the description of the Israelite conquering of Canaan is–while highly questionable–unresolved. Thus, it remains open to interpretation.

As mentioned, above, starting from different theological positions–each resulting from a prioritization of certain aspects of God over others–different results may be reached by reasonable people.

And so, I remain skeptical as to the historicity of certain events described in the Old Testament, though I do believe that the events described by the Bible do more accurately reflect historical events from the time of David onward.

I am completely convinced by Dr. Beck that an understanding of the geography of the Bible provides an invaluable interpretive tool in pursuing the meaning of any particular piece of scripture–regardless of historicity. Here, I continue to have some issues that I have not settled on an answer to, yet.

Why is the geography of the Bible so important. I don’t think that this is a mere artifact of the human influence on the writing of scripture–too often do the geographic details tie events together in ways that add to narrative complexity and create new skeins of interrelatedness for such a simple answer to be sufficient, I think. As I’ve said in other posts, I often find the “poetic” truth of the Bible to be one of its most convincing and convicting aspects–the geography of the Holy Land adds to the depth of this poetry in ways I cannot ignore.

As I noted earlier in this journey, standing in places where Jesus stood (or at least very nearby) and seeing the sites of many Biblical events (most of which I believe are historical, some of which I carry my doubts about) added a gravity and sense of realism (not historical but existentially tangible) to my relationship with Biblical events that lacked before I came here. That alone was worth the trip. The tools taught by Dr. Beck also would have been sufficient in isolation to make the travel well worth it. Being here has undoubtedly changed me, but I have yet to discover all the subtle ways that it has.

I also commented on previous entries how unsettled I have been by the conflict that bubbles in this land, occasionally erupting to the surface like some angry volcano. I still cannot say that I understand the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian dynamic, but I must admit that, by knee-jerk reaction, this trip has given me far more sympathy for the Palestinians than the Israelis. But that must remain a personal observation–I remain too out of my depth to attempt any objective evaluation or to offer any solution. The current sociopolitical climate does, however, accentuate the need for Jesus in our lives to draw us away from conflict and toward love and mutual respect.

I feel that I must end this post with thanks to Dr. Jack Beck. It has been a true pleasure to hear him teach and preach and to be in fellowship with him these past two weeks. His passion is infectious, his faith inspiring, his knowledge daunting.

Pilgrimage, Day 12: The Lost

Today, we had the good fortune (or perhaps divine grace) to travel parts of the West Bank that are often inaccessible to Westerners for security concerns. Specifically, we were able to travel in and through the area around Nablus, a city where bullet holes in many buildings, the proximity of aggressive Israeli settlements and the presence of Palestinian banners of a distinctly militant nature are a constant reminder of the tension in the region that regularly spills into violence. The most experienced of our group members who travel frequently in Israel said they had not been able to visit the region for the past several years (not that there was constant violence, but the timing never worked out).

That’s a shame, because the modern city of Nablus (from Greek Neopolis) contains several essential Old and New Testament sites. First among these is the town of Shechem. Shechem makes an early appearance in Scripture: in Genesis 12:6, God appears to Abram and told Abram that his children would be given that land, confirming God’s first covenant with Abram. In response, Abram builds an altar to the Lord there.

Jacob builds his well in Israel at Sychar, only a stone’s throw away from the site of Shechem. To this we’ll return for the most important episode that takes place here.

Later, in Joshua 24, Joshua assembles the tribes of Israel at Shechem to renew the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. The split between Israel to the north and Judah to the south also occurs at Shechem, when the Israelites rebel against Rehoboam after he listens to his friends instead of his elders.

Before we discuss Shechem’s most important event, we need to understand something about the Samaritans. Fortunately, we were able to do just that today.

Although the Samaritans appear frequently in the New Testament, only about 840 of them remain today. Where do they come from, and why is there so much animosity between them and the Jews in the Gospels?

When the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity, they did not take all of the Jews; some remained in the land of Israel. This caused a fundamental rift between those who went into captivity and those who did not. First, let us remember that in the 6th century, deities were largely thought of as localized. Those who remained in the land assumed that Yahweh remained with them and that the captive Israelites had been removed from God’s presence. Following the vision of Ezekiel (and the maintenance of their Israelite heritage during the captivity), the captive Israelites tended to see God as leaving Israel and traveling with them, leaving behind the land. The extent to which either group realized that God could be in both places simultaneously is unclear.

The return of the captive Israelites brought the brewing conflict to a head. In addition to this theological dispute, the two groups conflicted over the ownership of the land, as captive families returned to find ancestral lands occupied. Further, the captive Israelites distrusted the native Israelites for intermarrying with other local peoples who were pagan; they believed that such associated diluted the purity (of thought if not ethnically) of the natives. For their part, the natives asserted that the captivity had corrupted the Israelites who left by exposing them to Babylonian religion and culture. Both parties believed (and continue to believe) that they are the “true” Israelites and that the other group has been corrupted away from true faith.

When the returning captives began to rebuild the Temple, they refused to allow the native Israelites to take part. Correspondingly, the nascent Samaritans moved their site of worship to Mt. Gerizim, claiming that it was the original place Joshua had determined the Temple should be upon coming into the land. Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), Mt. Gerizim overlooks Shechem. The area became known as Samaria.

Not only did we visit Mt. Gerizim this morning (where the ruins of a Byzantine church stand over the likely location of the Samaritan Temple (which was destroyed by the Hasmonean rulers), but we were able to enter into the current Samaritan worship space (and outdoor Temple in Nablus) and to converse with a Samaritan whose father is the second-highest priest in the religion.

There are “Five Ones” that define Samaritan belief. One God; one book (the Pentateuch); one prophet (Moses); one Temple (Mt. Gerizim); one afterlife (resurrection and paradise).

It was into this land, at Jacob’s Well in Samaria, that Jesus came. John 4:4 states that Jesus had to go through Samaria (he is going back to Galilee from Jerusalem). Geographically, this is patently untrue–it would have been easier and faster for Jesus either travel west to the “International” or “Coastal” highway along Israel’s coastal plain or to travel east from Jerusalem to the “King’s Highway” in the Transjordan Highlands. He goes north along the “ridge route” through Samaria for some other purpose. Resting at Jacob’s Well, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman. After a bit of rather confrontational interaction (she is surprised that a Jew would talk to her at all and is therefore suspicious), the woman believes Jesus to be a prophet and tests him by asking whether the Temple or Mt. Gerizim is the proper place to worship. Jesus answers by telling her, “Woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come (emphasis mine) when worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24).

Sarcastically, the woman responds by saying that the Messiah is coming and will explain everything. Jesus responds by telling her that he is the Messiah. He has gone specifically to that well for that woman in particular and to show that his salvation (while it may come from the Jews) is not only for the Jews. The only other time that Jesus states specifically that he is the Messiah is to Peter near Caesarea Philippi–once for the Jews, and once for the Gentiles (at least as Jews would have considered the Samaritans). This mirrors the “feeding of the thousands” stories, where one feeding miracle is done for Gentiles and one for the Jews.

At the site of Jacob’s Well, I decided not to drink the water from the well. On the one hand, I was turned off by how commercial the site seemed (you could drink from the well for free, but you had to pay if you wanted to take some of the water with you). On the other hand, I believe Jesus when he told the Samaritan woman that “he who drinks from this (Jacob’s) well will be thirsty again, but he who drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” The well, then, seemed unnecessary.

After lunch, we visited Tel es-Sultan, the site of the earliest Jericho settlement. Dr. Beck shared some interesting insights with us (as he shared most of the information above with us), but I remain unconvinced about the historicity of the Joshua narrative. I’ll discuss why sometime soon.

We ended the afternoon in the Judean wilderness, getting a feel for the desolation meant in the wilderness stories in the New Testament. This terrain is different from the wasteland closer to the Jordan Rift Valley. We reviewed the story of the Good Samaritan and Psalm 23 before having some individual quiet time. Powerful stuff.

All along the way today, my heart broke for some of the living conditions of the Palestinian people. The factional strife, arguments over the rightful ownership of the land, and willingness to resort to violence to achieve some abstract ideological victory remains strong in this land, in some way unchanged since Jesus’s day.

Thank God for our Savior.

Pilgrimage, Day 11: Dead Things

Today’s missive will likely be relatively short on account of exhaustion. We started the morning at 5:00 a.m. to be on the bus early so that we might beat both other visitors and the heat to Masada.

If you’re not familiar, Masada (“the fortress”) is another palace-fortress built by Herod the Great, this one on a mountaintop overlooking the western edge of the Dead Sea. In ancient times, at least, the point on the Dead Sea that Masada guarded allowed passage to the eastern side and to the (formerly Moabite) city of Bab edh-Dhra. As a side note, some scholars believe that Bab Edh-Dhra is a candidate for the ancient city of Sodom, but the historical details of the city (size, period active, time and nature of demise) do not seem to fit very well.

Masada, even in ruins, is impressive. In addition to the fortifications, Herod built not one, but two palaces atop the plateau. The first, the Western Palace, was nice enough, but Herod wanted to build a “hanging” palace that occupies the very edge of the habitable space on the mountain. He did this and, like the Herodium, then had a personal palace and one for guests. The fortress also boasted a swimming pool (because why not?), a tannery, a Roman-style bathhouse, several dovecotes and cisterns for over one million gallons of water. Herod’s goal was to build a palace-fortress that would be siege-proof. Only a winding footpath–called the Snake Path for its serpentine nature–wide enough for two at a time made its way up the mountain to the fortress. Storehouses were built that could hold years of supplies–grain, oil and other foodstuffs and goods. Soil was brought up the mountain so that additional food could be farmed to extend the fortification’s rations.

But Herod isn’t really the center of the story here. During the Revolt of the Jews against Roman occupation in 66 C.E., the Sicarii captured the fortress (how remains a mystery). The wilderness stronghold (little grows near the Dead Sea and even today only sporadic and artificially-irrigated date palm farms can be found) became the fortress of last refuge for many Jews, not all of them Sicarii or even rebels.

In 72 CE, the Romans laid siege to Masada, perhaps bringing as many as 9,000 fighting men (and maybe 15,000 people total) against 960 defenders. The Romans first built eight forts at the base of the mountain and an encircling wall to prevent any escape. Then, over several long months, the Roman forces built a dirt ramp up to the fortress’s western wall. They attacked with a metal-clad siege tower, battering rams and ballistae supported by auxiliary archers and legionaries. The defenders fought bravely and fiercely to repel the Romans, but the attackers managed to achieve a break in the wall. Strangely, they then pulled back, waiting for the next day to launch a new assault.

The defenders knew that they were done. Rather than become subject to the Romans (through surrender or capture), they elected to take their own lives. But since Judaism forbids suicide, the men killed their wives and children and then drew lots to determine who would slay whom, repeating the process until one man was assigned to kill the remaining nine, set fire to the buildings, and then kill himself. And that’s exactly what they did.

To this day, Masada remains a warning used to teach children about the consequences of allowing Europeans and Westerners to come into their country to assert control. “Masada shall never fall again” is the preferred slogan, often used by the IDF.

Though we ascended by cable car, a number of us decided that we would walk back down the Snake Path. This was a mistake, one my knees have so far not let me forget. The Fitbit says I traveled 9 miles and 60 floors over the course of the day today. Much of this was the Snake Path.

After Masada, we went to Ein Gedi, a wilderness spring in the Wadi Arugot to which David fled from Saul. We went on a hike through and up the spring’s stream to get a feel for oasis geography as set against the geography of the rest of the Judean wilderness.

We followed the hike (and accompanying lecture) with a quick bite to eat and a short drive to Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near Qumran, and current scholarship links the Dead Sea Scrolls to a radical Jewish sect in existence around the period from 1st Century B.C.E. To 1st Century C.E. called the Essenes, who are believed to have copied or created the scrolls at Qumran before hiding them in the nearby hills. The ruins there are a minor interest, but probably would not be either a national park or a tourist stop if it were not for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The day ended with a trip to a (very commercial) nearby beach on the Dead Sea for a quick float. I opted not to participate in this given the very abbreviated time available to change, float, rinse off, shower off and then change clothes to be ready to leave.

Tomorrow, we will (depending upon safety and stability in the region), head toward Nablus and Shechem in Palestine-held territory before another hike of the wilderness and a visit to Jericho.

Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

Pilgrimage, Day 9: Souvenirs

We had the morning to ourselves today. I found out shortly after posting yesterday that the Aedicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is used for mass every morning from 4:30 to 7:30, which shot through my plans of an early-morning expedition to avoid the crowds. This was, in many ways a blessing, though, as I really did need a morning to catch up on sleep–at least somewhat.

I grabbed a quick breakfast to meet up with several others from the group at Razzouk’s at 8:30 to pick up my one necessary souvenir for the trip (pictured above).

The Razzouk family, a lineage of Coptic Christians, have been tattooists for over seven-hundred years, starting in Egypt and later making their way to Jerusalem. The Copts have a long tradition of tattooing a cross on one or both wrists as a clear sign of commitment to faith–members of the Coptic Christian group in Egypt are currently being persecuted, and their distinctive tattoos make them an easy target but also stand defiantly in acknowledgment of their faith despite the risk such a stance brings. Not only this, but the Razzouks have a long history of specialty in pilgrimage tattoos. Combine that with the fact that the shop is named one of the 5 best places to get a tattoo in the world, the history of pilgrimage tattoos (in general) going back to the middle ages and the fact that I’d long thought that, if I ever got a tattoo, it’d be a symbol of my faith, and I was sold.

It doesn’t hurt to have companions in the adventure, and even K got her own tattoo, one she designed herself after a time of prayer. The current representative of the family, Wassim Razzouk, demonstrated great kindness in opening on a Sunday morning to fit our hectic schedule. So, six of us went in to receive the indelible commemorative mark of our pilgrimage.

After deciding to get a tattoo in the first place (before the trip), I agonized over what kind of cross to get. I was immediately attracted to the Jerusalem cross, but weary of its crusader connotations, as very little about the crusaders matches either with my theological understanding or the identity and witness I want to present to the world. This conundrum forced me to resort to my basic instinct (not the movie): research.

Traditionally, the Jerusalem cross is attributed to the crusader, Godfrey of Bouillon, the “Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre” (he apparently rejected the title of “king” out of piety), who ruled Jerusalem after its capture in 1099 in the First Crusade. It has even been theorized that the symbol had been part of Godfrey’s family’s heraldry since before the crusades ever started. Additionally, the Jerusalem cross did not become part of the symbol for the crusader kingdom until the 13th century, long after Godfrey had died.

The Jerusalem cross was used by various European nations even after the ultimate failure of the crusades (whatever success may have actually looked like) and is still used by the Franciscan Custodians of the city’s holy sites.

After grasping the history, I looked to uncover more about the meaning of the cross. Many meanings have been assigned to the device: the five wounds of Christ, Christ and the four Evangelists, Christ and the four Gospels, Christ and the four corners of the Earth (a la Matthew 28). I would not consider myself Evangelistic under the meaning of word as a category of doctrine and belief, but I do belief in spreading the Gospel. I tend to believe that God’s love for all people will eventually bring them to paradise (through Christ’s redemptive act) and, regardless of what limits one believes in on the extent of salvation under Christian doctrine, I certainly believe that following the path of Christ is the only true way to sanctification and right relationship with all things in existence.

I can get on board easily with any of the other meanings commonly attributed to the Jerusalem cross, and can even add a few of my own: Christ and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a personal favorite. Additionally, the Jerusalem cross (as a tattoo) has for centuries been a sign of pilgrimage for Christians of all denominations and doctrines.

With this understanding, I decided to get my first (and probably only) tattoo.

This afternoon was taken up with a New Testament walk of the Old City of Jerusalem. We spent time discussing the likely location of the Upper Room, the appearance of Christ to the disciples after the Resurrection, and the start of Pentecost. Jack argues convincingly that the Pentecost must have quickly moved to the southern steps of the Temple Mount, as that’s the only space in 1st Century Jerusalem that was likely able to accommodate a crowd of the size described in scripture. We sat on the southern steps of the Temple Mount, where Jews would have ascended to the top of the Temple Mount during Jesus’s time, while we talked. We passed through the Hurva Square, where the rich and powerful–particularly the Sadducees–lived in palatial homes that would have rivaled modern American homes in size and splendor. There’s much to be said about the Sadducees of Jesus’s day and what we can learn from them in our own spiritual practice (mostly by not emulating them), but I’ll save that for a later date.

After all of this, we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Our group passed into the old cistern known as St. Helena’s Chapel, where St. Helena (the Emperor Constantine’s mother) reported finding pieces of the True Cross. There, we held a short worship with scripture reading, sermon, prayer and a song. I found the experience quite moving. From there, we went our separate ways to explore the Church. K and I opted to head upwards to the described by the church as Golgotha, the highest point of the 1st Century quarry (that still exists) that would have been near the place where Jesus was crucified if not the place. Our timing was good, as we didn’t have to shuffle shoulder to shoulder through a line for very long and the brief prayer against the rock (rather, against the glass that protects the rock) was an awesome experience.

Tomorrow, we head to Bethlehem and some sites in that area. Bethlehem itself is divided by a wall separating Jewish-Israeli territory from Palestinian territory. We will be able to cross through this barrier relatively easy, but I again expect the present tragedy of this place to intrude upon its sacred history.

Pilgrimage, Day 8: Geography

My Fitbit says I’ve walked 8 miles today. I think it may be under-recording. I was told before I came that, “It’s uphill to and from everything in Israel.” You laugh, but it’s true.

Today, even more than the previous days, felt like a graduate-level field study, as Dr. Beck took us through the Hill Country of Judah and the Shephelah (the “humble hills” or foothills) to learn the geography, geology and vegetation of the areas. This had us making some extensive hikes through national parks where Israel has intentionally shepherded the flora toward what it might have looked like in earlier times.

The timing for this expedition had been well-selected, but nevertheless provided some additional obstacles. Being Shabbat, everything in the City was closed, so we were limited in the availability of sites to visit. However, many non-observant or non-Jewish Israeli citizens flood the parks and outdoors to enjoy some time away from work. And then there are the tourists, about whom I suppose I cannot complain.

One of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was to “be interested in everything.” It was an off-handedly-given bit of wisdom, but one I took to heart. Today was one of those days when it is truly easy to be interested in everything.

I have studied geography and geology, both in school and informally to help me build better worlds for writing and roleplaying games. I’ve never heard large-scale geologic forces explained so clearly in such detail as done today by Jack Beck. We learned about the formation of three layers of different strata of limestone when the land was inundated by prehistoric seas. He taught about tectonic uplift that forced some of these layers into the ridges and valleys of the Hill Country of Judah and–to a lesser extent, the Shephelah. After that, Dr. Beck explained the processes of erosion that broke down some of those layers, carried off and redistributed some of the sediment created by that process, and left a land of varying hardness and fertility of soil.

This explanation segued seamlessly into a discussion of terrace farming (we were, of course, standing near the top of a ridge that had been terraced for just such purposes and looking down on both the macro-features of the landscape and the terraces themselves) and farming by scratch plow, as was done in Biblical times. Naturally, this then developed into an analysis of Jesus’s saying in Luke 9:62 that “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.”

Before this string of instruction, we’d learned about the commonest plants in (these parts) of Israel and how that might influence our reading of passages that made reference to plants, whether specifically or by type or attribute.

This all took place in a national park in the Jerusalem Mountains around the ruins of Sataf–formerly a Palestinian village whose inhabitants were forcibly removed by Jews in 1948. Now, the terraces are being restored to give insight into historical agriculture, as well as providing some hobby gardens for nearby citizens.

From Sataf we went to Beth-Shemesh, just down the Sorek Valley from where we had hiked earlier. A village that changed hands between the Canaanites, Philistines and Israelites several times (Shamash was a Mesopotamian solar god, but the town name is probably more related to the sun in general, as in “House of the Rising Sun”), Beth-Shemesh is the site of 1 Samuel 6, when the Philistines return the Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites to undo the suffering that had fallen upon them since capturing it. It is, of course, now a ruined fortress, but a wonderful location to review the scripture from. Of special note, Beth-Shemesh was one of the Levitical cities, and what happens when the Ark arrives? They send it on to Kiriath-Jearim, because the Levites there, like the Philistines, don’t know what to do with it.

Samson’s story also takes place around Beth-Shemesh–the city of Timnah is just to the southeast.

After Beth-Shemesh, we made a short stop at the Bell Caves. This is not a Biblical site, but an artifact of Roman occupation. The caves were formed when the Romans bored a small hole in the ground through which they extracted limestone blocks for building. Over time, the spaces began to form the bell shaped caves which exist there now. None of the bell caves (at least that we witnessed) were fully enclosed; all either joined adjacent caves or opened to the outside, the result of a combination of deliberate carving or accidental collapses.

Our last stop for the day was Shaaraim–“Two Gates.” The archeological site is unique for several reasons. First, it is a single-occupation site rather than a tel–study indicates that the site was active only between 1000 BCE and 925 BCE. More important, perhaps, is that the city has (as you might suppose) two gates. Despite the fortifications inherent to a gatehouse, a gate constitutes a weak point in a defensive wall, so most ancient cities only had one. Other unique features of this settlement were a 10,000 square foot citadel with a three-foot thick outer wall and the use of casement walls in the main town wall. Casement walls are a sort of double wall with space in between them. During peace, the space can be used for additional storage, but during war time stones can be taken from the interior of the city to quickly reinforce the exterior wall. Given the timing and the location, the site was probably built by David or Solomon.

And it was David who brought us there. From this elevated position, it is easy to see into the Elah Valley, to Socoh where the Philistine army containing Goliath had arrayed itself against Saul’s forces at the intersection of three roads leading deeper into Israelite territory–if the Israelites failed here, their interior cities would be threatened (the area that would become the”City of David” and later “Jerusalem” was still in the control of the Jebusites).

We talked at length about the story of David and Goliath, and in his typical style of half-teaching, half-preaching, Dr. Beck made the story come alive with new color and depth, as he is wont to do.

We have tomorrow morning free to do as we like. I intend to make a (very) early trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pick up the one souvenir I want to bring home, and spend a leisurely morning enjoying coffee and watching people pass. In the afternoon, we’ll be on a walking tour of New Testament Jerusalem.

Pilgrimage, Day 7: O Brother, Where Am I?

Today we left Galilee, traveling first to the Harod Spring (where Gideon had his men drink the water to determine who would accompany him in battle against the Midianites) and the Jezreel Spring (at Tel Jezreel in Samaria, where King Ahab and Jezebel would make their capital).

From thence to Beth-Shean, the site of the palace of Egyptian governors in the 13th Century B.C.E. and the site of Scythopolis, one of the Greco-Roman Decapoli founded near the trade routes. Scythopolis was founded by the Ptolemys after they took control of the Egypt and the Levant in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death.

This brings me to my first point today: After conquering Egypt, Alexander turned West to visit the oracle at the Siwa Oasis (known to the Greeks as Ammonia). It was here that the oracle pronounced Alexander the son of a god and the man began to incorporate divinity into his own identity. Alexander’s conquest enabled the Ptolemys to build the Decapoli. Between Alexander and Augustus–not to mention the men who came before and after Christ claiming to be the prophesied messiah–I am struck by just how much the shadows of human men declaring themselves to be divine loomed over this land.

Scythopolis itself was nothing short of amazing, reminding me very much of Roman ruins found in Italy. Of course, many cultures had built at Beth-Shean at least as far back as the aforementioned Egyptians until an 8th Century earthquake caused the settlement to be moved. The Greco-Romans had built the largest city there, which was followed by the Byzantines, who rebuilt and expanded in their own time.

I must admit to completely nerding out about the ruins there (is anyone surprised?). Running water, heated bathhouses, Cyclopean architecture, a 7,000-person theatre, marble-clad streets (marble is not often found natively in Israel, if at all), intricate mosaics–all of the standards for Roman achievement. But I also realized a great deficiency in my own learning (much to my chagrin, of course). The Byzantines must have considered themselves the inheritors and reconcilers of the competing cultures of the Holy Land, combining the best of Roman knowledge and achievement with Christianity. Despite this, I know relatively little about them. I’ve read Precopius’s Secret History (though I don’t remember much of it), can recognize the artwork and can name some rulers and events. But almost all of my learning about the Byzantines is tangential, a side-effect of my Western-Eurocentric historical focus and mindset. There’s no time right now, but I must soon make it a priority to study that culture and civilization for its own sake.

From there, we headed south along the Jordan to Beth-arabah, the likeliest site for Jesus’s baptism by John the–well, you know. In a power play against Syria and Jordan, after seizing the Golan Heights and preventing the former from having access to Galilean water, Israel built a dam at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, allowing them to control the outflow of the Jordan River. I’m told the river flow volume is about 5% of what it once was. Standing on a platform by the side of the river, I did not doubt it. A plaque commemorating the 2013 water level was a good fifteen feet or more over my head.

That journey led us through the West Bank–the first of several times we’ll visit that area. I was moved by the obvious difference between that place and other parts of Israel–increased poverty, dilapidated buildings, an atmosphere of desperation. We passed a sign warning Israeli citizens that the road next to the sign led to a Palestinian settlement and that, therefore, that road was not safe for them. To be clear, Palestinians are also Israeli citizens, so the sign spoke volumes about the deep divides here.

I titled an earlier post “The Ancient and the Modern;” the clearest example of that juxtaposition to date was in the West Bank, where we watched young shepherds lead their flocks in the same manner as has been done for millennia–while playing on their cell phones.

Once to the Jordan, we held a short baptismal remembrance service–keep in mind that Methodists consider re-baptism anathema–followed by singing “Down to the River to Pray” before dipping our hands in the water and making the sign of the cross on our foreheads. There is a spiritual resonance at that place (assisted by the presence of white doves and a strong wind that picked up soon after we arrived), but, for me at least, it was overshadowed by the present-day realities. This spot on the Jordan is also the border between Israel and Jordan. As such, we had to pass through a road lined on either side with warnings of the mine fields laid nearby. The detritus of past warfare littered those fields, rusted remnants of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. At the river, a buoyed line provided the border between nations–we were warned not to approach the border lest the guards on either side go to high alert. Those soldiers–Jordanians on one side and two eighteen-year-old IDF soldiers on our side–eyed one another like gunfighters at high noon. What caught my eye–and my cynicism–most about this standoff was that all of the soldiers (on both sides) were armed with American weapons.

After passing through some of the Judean wilderness, we arrived back in Jerusalem to the Knight’s Palace Hotel at about 4:30. With 2 hours to kill until dinner, we spread out across the Old City. After investigating some nearby shops that had been recommended to us (I have little desire to bring home souvenirs), we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m not fond of crowds, or waiting, so I resolved to return to the Church to see the things I wanted to see: Golgotha and the Tomb.

I cannot be certain, of course, that the spaces asserted by the Church are the actual locations of Christ’s execution and (attempt at) burial, but having done some research, there’s a very good case to be made here. As the Church opens at 4:00 a.m., I’ve resolved to make an early-morning trip in hopes of avoiding the crowds.

After the Church, we headed back to the Western Wall for a second look. It’s Friday, so shabbat is being observed today and the Wall was understandably crowded, and becoming moreso by the moment.

Tomorrow, we venture into the Judean wilderness itself, as well as the shephelah (the foothills). I’m convinced that yesterday’s experience at Mount Arbel will be the lens through which I see the rest of this journey–another seven days.