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 4: First Revelations

Today started at 5:30 a.m., as we scrambled to get our bags packed, eat breakfast and portage said bags out of the Jaffa Gate and down to the bus to leave before 7. Uncharacteristically for me, it’s about 11:00 p.m. local as I write this. Something about the combination of this place and the fellowship of those journeying with me has given me more energy than I typically have.

Our day started with a whirlwind trip through Ceasarea Maritima and its aqueduct, then to Muhraqa Carmelite Monastery (for its position on Mt. Carmel near where Elijah confronted the priests of Baal), to Tel Megiddo, to Nazareth (particularly Mt. Precipice, where the photo above was taken. Er–the photo that would be above if the internet would allow me to upload it) to our hotel on the eastern (formerly Gentile) side of the Sea of Galilee.

In case it wasn’t apparent, the day was packed, with over six miles walked and at least five hours in the bus.

I have much to say about the day’s experiences, but I’ll focus on one idea in particular and leave the rest to germinate further.

Consider on the one hand Caesarea Maritima, a piece of Rome in the Middle East created at the command of Herod the Great, lover of all things Roman as well as power and luxury. And perhaps genius builder. Herod wanted to have a palace (complete with swimming pool) that appeared to float on the sea. He also wanted to create an artificial harbor (reportedly larger than the Athens harbor) on the dangerously shallow coast line where Strato’s Tower had stood.

This required an unprecedented use of hydraulic cement–that is, cement that will set even underwater. The Romans had invented the stuff and used it to build bases for piers and other small-scale projects, but Herod used it both to lay the foundation of his palace and breakwaters for the harbor. The site had no potable water, so Herod built a Roman-style aqueduct to bring water in from thirteen miles away.

Not to be without the finer elements of Roman culture, Ceasarea Maritima boasts a large ampitheatre and a chariot stadium that could have fit 20,000 people. Unwilling to have the same beige limestone look as Jerusalem, marble and granite were imported by sea to create columns, statutes and sheathing for those facades that were not plastered and covered with frescos. Intricate mosaic tilework covered the floors of many buildings and homes, which had indoor heating through the innovative Roman technology for underfloor steamworks and used the tides to sweep latrine waste out to sea twice a day. The remnants of clay pipes providing running water remain evident.

The city must have passed the test, because Pontius Pilate lived in Herod’s Palace there as much as he could (when business did not call him to Jerusalem), as did later provincial overlords. Caesarea Maritima boasted trade (at least for the import of luxury items), the latest in first century CE technologies, and art and architecture worthy of the Empire.

On the other hand, consider Nazareth. If, as I was before today, you’re not familiar with the geography, here’s what you need to know: Though an urban sprawl today, Nazareth was a tiny village in the first century, perhaps a dozen homes and just enough land cleared for subsistence farming. Those homes–they were mostly caves, perhaps expanded for a little extra comfort, but caves nonetheless. These dozen or so cave-homes occupied an elevated bowl shape surrounded on all sides by rugged mountain terrain. Until the Israelis literally (I assure you that the word is being used correctly) cut through the mountainside to build a road, there was no easy way to get to Nazareth. Pick the spot you think will be easiest to climb, and set aside several hours to do it.

This is probably exactly how the people of Nazareth liked it. Given their proximity to the ultra-fertile Jezreel Valley below and the numerous nearby settlements (Nain and Shunem, to name two) where they could have lived, this village’s isolation must have been highly intentional. A handful of Jewish families willing to scratch out an independent living to practice the faith of their forefathers and to avoid contamination by the Greco-Roman culture seducing their many peers. The kind of place our dear President would likely call a “shithole.”

When Jesus uses Rome as an example of the often-corrupting influences of wealth, status and power, he can point to Caesarea Maritima (named for Augustus Caesar) on the coast as a very concrete example of his meaning. At the same time, the King of Kings himself hailed from the unlikeliest and humblest of origins–a dirt-poor and poorly-regarded settlement of religiously-fanatic survivalists. The juxtaposition of these two real, geographically significant places brings sharply into focus the tension between those seductive but ultimately unfulfilling vanities with the extent to which God proved willing to condescend to be present with us in the world. Two very different ideologies (and here I mean God’s in choosing to use Nazareth, not the Nazarene peoples’s own ideas) placed in such close proximity in the same land.

Let it sink in.

Tomorrow, we’ll spend much of the day in the Golan Heights, visiting a first-century synagogue where Jesus almost undoubtedly preached, the village of Dan in the far north of the country near the borders with Lebanon and Syria (if the weather is clear enough, it might be possible to see Damascus from there) and Caesarea Philippi. It’s hard to think that on this pilgrimage we’ll be so close to the continuing devastation and heartache of the Syrian civil war.

Pilgrimage, Day 3

Today has been a long day. We started the day at the Jerusalem University College campus for a briefing on Dr. Jack Beck’s approach to geography in the Bible.

If it’s not clear that I’m a nerd, this may have been my favorite part of the day. By my understanding, Dr. Beck’s approach is essentially existential–the geography of the land formed a crucial and central part of the worldview and cosmic understanding of the Biblical authors. Understanding the geography of the Holy Land helps us to understand the way that they thought and felt about the subjects about which they wrote.

This existential–and unfortunately, mostly intellectual–understanding informed my day today more than I had anticipated.

After our morning classroom session, we proceeded through Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall, the part of the late retaining wall built for the Second Temple that is closest to where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many of those traveling with our group felt the tangible presence and power of the Lord in approaching the wall. I, unfortunately, did not. I saw a pile of old stones. Historically and religiously significant, of course, but no more directly relevant to my spiritual understanding than any rock formation built from Creation. In some ways, I envy those whose experiences were more profound than my own, and I take some solace in the fact that that’s the majority of our group.

But my own experience also directly relates to some points that Dr. Beck has made as well as more expansive conversations I’ve had with fellow pilgrims. Both Judaism and Islam have significant attachment to physical location Christianity, focused ultimately on the person of Jesus Christ (and, perhaps, on orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy), does not have as strong a (institutional or faith-wide) focus on geographically significant places.

Considering the journey I’m on, with its particular focus on geography, that statement requires some unpacking. For Jews, the physical presence of the Lord within the Temple constitutes a central locus for the religion. For Islam, the Holy City of Mecca represents a physical place strongly tied to the faith it represents and embodies. For Christianity, however, the focus of embodiment is a focus on God adopting human flesh, not upon a geographic locale. And the God who dwells among us is simultaneously more universal and more ephemeral than geography–that is the way of all flesh. In some sense, that perhaps undermines the (temporal) power of Christianity. Ultimately, though, it makes the theology of Christianity far more applicable and far more enduring than those of the other “faiths of the book.”

If that is the case, then the geography of the Holy Land holds power to better help us understand the person and words of Jesus Christ without itself verging on idolatry as the physical bearer of what the Hawai’ians might call “mana.” But the land itself is not a source of salvation as it might be considered to be in Judaism and Islam. This analysis, I hope, is what influenced my lack of strong emotional response to the Western Wall. I found myself more moved by the significance of the devotion of worshippers at the site than the site itself.

After the wall, we traveled to the City of David, that hill to the south of the Temple Mount that likely represents Jerusalem after David seized it from the Jebusites (and, indeed, the city had been called Jebus before the Israelites conquered it). I found the geography here fascinating for its claustrophobic space–an entire settlement containing only 10 acres. Solomon would follow his father by building the First Temple of the Lord, expanding the are of Jerusalem to something closer to 32 acres. The archeology, which has been ongoing for over 20 years at the site, made it clear that the location matched both the Bible in description and the material culture for the period of David.

We had intended to travel through the “wet” tunnel built by King Hezekiah to bring water from the Gihon Spring in the Kidron valley to the Central Valley on the other side of Mount Zion (the ancient mount Zion on which the City of David was built, not the more modern “Mount Zion” partially contained within the Old City walls, on the outside of which the JUC campus sits) but were hindered by scheduling difficulties. We were only able to pass through the earlier Canaanite “dry” tunnel that allowed passage to the pool tower to which water from the spring flowed from behind the fortification walls. This was quite enough.

After that, we walked down Mount Zion to the Pool of Siloam (and then back up) and back to through the Old City to the hotel. My Fitbit marked over 15,000 steps before the end of the day.

After dinner, I went to find some baklava near the Jaffa Gate to debrief on our experiences. The camaraderie certainly vied for the best part of the day, though I have to say that, ultimately, it’s sharing these experiences with K that ultimately does that.

Tomorrow, very early, we leave to head to Caesarea Maritima, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee.

Pilgrimage, Day 2: Arrival

This evening, at least by Israeli time, I write to you from the Gloria Hotel just inside the Old Jerusalem city walls near the Jaffa gate.

We arrived at about 4:20 p.m. local time after a mostly sleepless night on the plane. An hour-and-a-half or so to get through passport control and baggage claim, an hour from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by bus, a fifteen minute walk up to the Jaffa Gate and the hotel, fifteen minutes to get room keys and take baggage up to the hotel room, and finally dinner at 7:30. After dinner, an intrepid companion and I decided on an evening stroll through the Old City.

It was breathtaking in a number of ways. The beauty of the old stone (the city wall dates from the 16th Century and is a fascinating combination of medieval design approaches. The Old City itself is a tangled ball of streets, sidestreets, alleys, closes and stone stairs, the historical equivalent of the steel canyons of a modern downtown, with stone buildings overhanging on both sides of each street.

My intent was simply to wander and wonder, to soak in all they I could of the environment without being to focused about it, to let it wash over me. This the city did without holding back. We wandered into the Muslim Quarter, where shopkeeps and their children were closing up for the evening. From the instant we encountered the Damascus Gate (we had exited the Old City through the New Gate and followed the outer wall to the Damascus Gate to re-enter), it was clear that things were different there. Four IDF soldiers with M4s stood watch over the entrance, cordoned off by steel traffic barriers like they occupied a make-believe guard tower.

Further into the Quarter, we encountered a squad of eight IDF soldiers in full tactical gear patting down a single young Palestinian man in soccer shorts and a jersey. He cooperated (who wouldn’t with that many assault rifles around) and the whole thing seemed rather low-key, quotidian. Perhaps that’s what bothered me most about the seen, the faces on both sides that resignedly said, “This is just the way things are.”

In an instant, that experience shook me from the reverie of this trip. I came for history. I came for spiritual reflection and introspection. I came for friends and theology. And I forgot that there’s a very real and ongoing struggle here, one with victims and perpetrators and perpetuators on both sides–and dozens of those who have become used to this way of life for each one who wants to do something about it.

To be clear, I have no solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have too little real or meaningful experience from either perspective to do anything but naively say, “Why can’t we all just find a way to peacefully and respectfully co-exist?” I have sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians and a belief that both sides have fault to claim and both sides will have to learn to forgive for their to be any hope.

And while the particulars of Israeli-Palestinian relations trouble me (to the meager extent that I understand them), what I really took away from the scenes I witnessed in the Muslim culture is a reminder. We cannot separate the past from the present just as we cannot separate the present from the past; they are inextricably bound together for eternity. The study of this trip has little meaning if it does not relate the present needs of the world. And I, of course, firmly believe that the message and redemptive work of the Incarnation, the Passion and the Resurrection are every bit as important now as they’ve ever been. As we start our serious work tomorrow, I’ll be going in with eyes open to the need to find something with modern applicability in every past location, person and event we discover.

Pilgrimage: A Preface

On Saturday, K and I leave with a group of young clergy and their spouses (many of whom we are already close with; the rest of whom I assume we’ll be close with by trip’s end) for Israel for just about two weeks.

In perhaps unprecedented verbosity, I’ll be attempting to post notes about each day of the journey. We’ll be in Galilee early on and spend the rest of the trip staying within the walls of Old Jerusalem and making various day trips to bibliohistorical sites (not sure whether I’m inventing words here). I’m told we’ll be hiking about 100 miles over the course of the two weeks.

It’s been a while since we made the decision to go on this trip, but it’s only now feeling real. In previous posts, I’ve expressed some of my thoughts as I’ve done the preparatory work for the trip. I hope that the mini-travelogue of the journey will bring some clarity to those thoughts and inspire new ones to share. As with K, I think my biggest fear is that the journey will not be so profound as we expect and hope for it to be. Only time will tell, but I have faith.

My second fear has been dispelled just this morning–the Church of the Holy Sepulcher had closed in protest of a tax issue in Israel, but has reopened today.

I will be spending what (little) downtime I have during the trip (that is not spent enjoying the company of my fellow pilgrims or posting my daily post to the blog) continuing to work on my novel in-progress and other creative endeavors, though I don’t expect to be posting any of that during the trip. It’s also high time for another Avarian short story to pique the interest of prospective readers, so I’ll likely be devoting some time to that after my return. I am also working on a pen & paper roleplaying game for Avar Narn, pieces of which will likely be posted to the blog (or a “living document” as I’m writing and working out the kinks in rules). In addition to providing an innovative ruleset and deep setting for fantasy roleplayers (that’s a high bar to set, these days), it will provide a resource for the background of the setting as well.

But for immediate future, I hope you’ll join me on my pilgrimage to the holy land and finds something worth considering as my progressive and existential theology meets the geography and history of the place were the Bible took form, where the Israelites became a people and where God came to Earth. I hope that you’ll leave comments, thoughts and questions on the upcoming travel posts–I will endeavor to respond to anything posted to an entry by the day that follows (in local time).

Kingdom Come: Deliverance – Playing at History (an early review).

I backed Kingdom Come (KC:D) a long time ago–maybe more than two years. An open-world historical medieval RPG? Yes, please! Just the sort of thing that pulls at the desires of a person whose favorite video game is the Witcher 3 and who, for a time, was a professional student of the medieval.

There was, of course, a long roller-coaster of development that followed–teasers, delays, the realization that my computer wouldn’t be able to run the game, the revelation that it would be released on console and so my computer didn’t matter, etc., etc.

Finally, it arrived this week, and I’ve spent some significant time becoming immersed in the Bohemia of 1403. With the caveat that I’m nowhere near finished with this game, this is what I have to report to the present:

If you are the type of person who plays Fallout and Skyrim on survival mode, this game will appeal to you. You must sleep and eat. Your food rots over time, and spoilt food will make you sick. Eat too much and you’ll be sluggish. Take an injury (whether in combat or not!) and you might begin to bleed. Fix it with a bandage quickly or prepare to die. Keep your weapons and armor in good repair or they’ll become ineffective. Get your clothes bloody or dirty and people will notice–and they don’t take you as seriously when they do. Carry weights are (relatively) realistic, and you improve your skills by using them–not easy to do when it comes to using a sword.

The game is relatively “on rails” for the first few hours of play–while you can do your own thing for long whiles at a time, only advancing the main quest will get you to the point where you can seriously begin to play the game. It’s a slow start that left me, at first, with an unfavorable impression of how gameplay with develop that is still being dispelled as I move through the game.

So far, the game doesn’t feel as “open world” as I had hoped. It is true that there are sidequests (and perhaps I just haven’t discovered many of them yet) and you can easily spend hours just “living” in the medieval world–practicing a trade, acting as a merchant, traveling and fighting bandits, etc. In a certain way, I think you could ignore the quests altogether and simply view the game as a “medieval emulator.”

Further, there seems to be an intimation that the world will be expanded and even more opportunities for self-directed tasks will become available as the game progresses. Despite my several hours of play, I’m sure that I just have no gotten that far into the story yet.

And that main story is, at least, an interesting one. Set within a discrete historical event–King Sigismund of Hungary’s invasion of Bohemia on “behalf” of his half-brother King Wenceslaus IV (“the Idle”), who Sigismund had kidnapped, you are thrust into the world as the son of a blacksmith and the vassal of a lord loyal to Wenceslaus and targeted by Sigimunds’ invading army.

The attitudes and motivations of the characters seem deep. You get the expected behavior of some nobility toward the peasantry (particularly in Sir Hans), but this is never flat or without nuance:you earn the friendship and respect of Sir Hans as the story progresses and he is–in private at least–willing to admit his own faults and the shortcomings of his behavior. The struggle between adherence to duty and ideals when faced with the grim necessities of the day plays out on multiple levels, both personal and political. No assumption of medieval life is treated as straightforward, with a range of different lifestyles and living situations that more accurately portrays the era in a way we often miss in movies, dry history books and, especially, fantasy roleplaying, where the “medieval” is more often a pastiche or a facade than an actual description of setting.

Despite this, at least as far as I’ve played, the real joy of the game is in the way it immerses you into the historical world with a sense of realism and reasonableness. For instance, fighting several poorly armed bandits by yourself is difficult; attacking multiple well-armed or well-trained enemies (to say nothing of those who are both) is near suicidal. Unless you use tricks, like stealth, surprise and ambush, weakening the enemy with ranged weapons, hit and run tactics and any other approach that generally makes the fight less fair. This was the reality of the middle ages, just as it is today–no matter how good you are, fights are brutal and deadly, and fighting honorably will likely just get you killed.

Each fight is, however, very interesting. As a student of historical medieval martial arts myself, as both scholar (my Master’s Thesis was entitled “Shakespeare, the Sword and Self-fashioning”) and a martial artist (mostly with the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts or ARMA), I’m especially keen on in-game fighting that captures something of the speed, grace and precision of actual swordplay–something very difficult to do in a video-game because of the infinite array of techniques, maneuvers and responses in combat with a blade. KC:D does the best I’ve seen yet, with the combat not only accounting for the directionality of attacks, but incorporating parries, feints, grappling, counter-attacks and animations that perfectly capture some of the techniques used. This is no clumsy hack-and-slash; the only video game that has even come close to this kind of swordplay was Mount & Blade (whose new edition should be out later this year). While satisfying, this also means that combat is difficult and partially based upon your own twitchy-skill. It should be noted that there is only one difficulty mode for the game (so far as I’ve discovered): realistic.

As a side note, I am note a fan of the Dark Souls games. I just feel that should be said when I communicate how much I’ve enjoyed the difficulty of the game.

For the first few hours of the game, I was very frustrated by the save system. The game automatically saves when you sleep, complete an important quest step, or drink Saviour Schnapps. Saviour Schnapps is expensive, takes up inventory space, and can get you drink. At the beginning, when your skills are low and the game is at its most difficult, you will die a lot and have to replay moderate sections of the game (at least I did). As I progressed into the game and got into the mindset, I actually began to enjoy the save system. In a game that strives for immersion and realism, this save system reinforces these without becoming full-on rogue-like. You cannot get lucky for a minimal gain, save, and replay until you get the next minimal gain and save again. Three men in armor down that path? Best just to go a different way. This goes a long way into breaking the hero mentality we usually carry with us into video games; I particularly respect that.

This is not to say that playing heroic (or superheroic) characters in games is not appropriate, good design, or fulfilling–it certainly can be. But the occasional game that makes us live in an alternate world as a regular person–even one who may be an exceptional fighter (though still clearly mortal) provides a truly rewarding exception as well. In some sense, I do wish the game had some aspect of the fantastic to it, but that’s really only because I’m such a fan of fantasy. Realistically (and more sensibly), it’s great to see such an enjoyable game and interesting world and narrative created without any need to resort to the “unrealistic.”

As is probably indicated by the amount of words I’ve dedicated to this preemptive review, I’m really enjoying this game. If you’re willing to devote the time to acclimate to this game’s approach to play–and you’re willing to accept the design principles on which the game was built–I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

In some ways, at its heart, this game is a history lesson you play–one about everyday living in the medieval world.

History and Historicity

I wrote in a recent post about some of the difficulties with issues of history and historicity in the Old Testament I’ve had in preparing for my impending journey to Israel. Having had some time to clarify my thoughts, I thought I’d share them.

First, I want to focus on an exemplum of my thoughts and then I’ll speak more generally. Let’s begin with the Bablyonian Captivity. Or, rather, a little bit before that.

In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah confronts Ahab, the monarch of the Kingdom of Israel, on Mount Carmel in a rather memorable set of contests. Really, Elijah is confronting the worship of Baal in the Kingdom of Israel here, but Ahab is culpable for allowing the Israelites to stray from the worship of Yahweh alone.

The four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal are asked to pick between two bulls brought to the mountain, to cut it to pieces and to smoke if over a fire; Elijah–as Yahweh’s sole remaining prophet–will do the same with the other. Then they will each call upon their respective gods and see who “shows up.” As the Baalite priests beseech their god, they get no response. With memorable taunts (Maybe your god is sleeping and needs to be awakened? Maybe he’s traveling? Maybe he’s busy defecating?), Elijah insults Baal’s prophets until it comes time for him to beseech Yahweh. When he does, the Israelite God sends his “fire” down to earth to light the prepared wood, burn up the bull carcass and the stones, soil and water prepared around the altar. After this, the priests of Baal are slaughtered by the gathered people.

I’m not actually interested in the historicity of this particular story but in what it tells us about the culture of the time (Ahab’s existence is attested outside of the Bible and he was probably king of Israel around the middle of the 9th Century BCE). As we find in the cultures surrounding Isreal-Palestine at that time, gods were viewed to be local; they were the gods of particular cities or nations. We see this explicit in other places even in the Bible, where the Isrealite God states that “he” is the God of Israel (hence the epithet “Israelite God,” I suppose).

What’s happening between the lines in this passage in Kings is a divine turf war. Baal (which is a title that means “lord” and which is borne by several distinct deity figures and used generally to mean “a god”) is a god of the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre. If you look on a map of Biblical Israel, you’ll see that Tyre is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (on an island, actually) just a short journey north from Mount Carmel. The question being answered by Elijah’s story is, roughly put, “If Baal is the god of Tyre, and Yahweh is the god of Israel, and they’re both geographically close to one another, which has dominion in the middle ground?” Clearly the answer is Yahweh.

I mention the above passage because it sets us up for the real point about history and historicity in the Old Testament that I want to make in this post. When in the (very early) 6th Century BCE the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzer sacked Jerusalem and deported the Israelites to Bablyon, a crisis of faith occurred. Again, as a brief aside, this event is attested in the historical record outside of the Bible. If the Israelites were to worship the God of (the nation/land) Israel, how could they do that when they’d been transported to Babylon, the land of the Babylonian gods.

And here comes the prophet Ezekiel. In the verses that open the book that bears his name, Ezekiel tells us that he has a vision of God while among the exiled Israelites in Babylon “on the banks of the Kebar River.”

In this vision, as the Biblical historian Cynthia R. Chapman says, “God gets wheels.” Literally; Ezekiel sees God enthroned upon what I can’t help thinking of as a super-high-tech, four-likeness-of-living-creature-powered motorized wheelchair. That strange image aside, the point of the vision is that the God of Israel is mobile, that God is personally and actually present with the Israelites even in their exile. As a side note, my NIV says that Ezekiel is taken back to the “Kebar River near Tel Aviv”–this should be read as Tel Abib (in modern-day Iraq) by the Chebar River.

Hearing about the underlying spiritual-cultural concerns with regards to these (and other) Old Testament passages did much to “resolve” my problem of “historicity” in the OT (for purposes of this post, I have left aside all of the issues of the construction of the Old Testament text–whether discussion of the three hypotheses of its construction or the timing of its creation).

What I find here is something that makes much more sense to me than either extreme of the historicity debate–humans writing stories of their evolving understanding of and relationship with God. These stories are neither entirely myth nor entirely history; they are stories that draw upon historical experience (and the religious issues raised by that experience), mythological content that may or may not be based in fact (I’m not worried about the answer to that), revelation of the nature of God from God (there’s that spirit-breathed bit), and human reactions and struggles in response to that revelation.

I see this especially as the Israelite understanding of the nature of God breaks free from social precedent and evolves from polytheism to henotheism to true monotheism.

In some ways, what we have in the Old Testament is the macrocosm of Jacob’s struggle with God at Penuel–a back and forth between God and man that may defy explanation but results in relationship.

Does that make interpreting the Bible difficult? Absolutely; I don’t have an answer for you on how we best sort God’s intent from the voice of the writers from the historical record from the cultural context, etc. But I’m certainly willing to say that it’s not supposed to be easy. I can’t imagine that God would decide not to directly appear before all people in an unmistakeable way (which, to be clear, God hasn’t) and yet make Biblical interpretation something as simple as looking at words verbatim.

In the near future, I’m going to return to the Babylonian captivity and the Book of Job to talk a bit about theodicy in Christianity.