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

For the previous entry, click here.

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

For the previous entry, click here.

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.

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Pilgrimage, Day 11: Dead Things

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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.

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Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

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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.”

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Pilgrimage, Day 9: Souvenirs

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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.

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Pilgrimage, Day 8: Geography

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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.

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

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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.

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Pilgrimage, Day 6: All Jesus All the Time

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We spent the majority of the day today in Capernaum and on Mt. Arbel. I’m not able to express my feelings about these experiences in words just yet, so I’ll share some of my thoughts instead.

Capernaum was Jesus’s “home base” during his ministry. The town sits on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee (a glorified lake, really), firmly within Jewish territory but not too far from Gentile settlements. It makes great practical sense–Capernaum lies near the international trade routes and near many of the other major settlements of Galilee. Even more, archeology indicates that Capernaum was a manufacturing center for grain and olive oil–meaning that people from all the smaller villages nearby likely came to the town with their raw materials, allowing Jesus’s ministry to reach farther more efficiently.

There were other realizations today. Prime among them, which has been building since we got here, is just how poor my mental imagery of Biblical scenes had been–the imaginative equivalent of a painted-craft-paper background in an elementary school play. This land is diverse in form and terrain, beautiful and full of life (both plant and animal). More than this, I’m starting to realize just how visual Jesus’s mode of speaking and teaching is. It’s axiomatic to say that Jesus spoke in parables that would make sense to the disciples, but it’s another thing altogether to say that Jesus had the objects he used in his analogies before him at the time he spoke the parables. This makes good pedagogic sense as he’s attempting to use the mundane to explain the complex and supernal. When you see a donkey mill–the kind of mill often used for milling grain in 1st Century Israel–and know that the device was so common that there was almost certainly one in front the disciples when Jesus says that it would be better to tie a millstone to your neck and throw yourself into the ocean (the Sea of Galilee, too, is likely in view at the time, a wholly different and more complete understanding comes into focus.

As Dr. Beck argues in his books and on this trip–very rightly so, I think–Jesus made great use of geography and the things that could be seen at the locations where he gave particular lessons and made particular statements.

This takes us to Mt. Arbel, the likeliest location for the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission. Rather than rehashing, I’ll refer you again to Dr. Beck’s books for the full laying-out of the argument. But, sitting on the mountain, going through the Sermon on the Mount, listening to Jack’s explanation, I could not help but be moved. Until today, I had not had the visceral emotional response to being were Jesus walked and taught that I had hoped to have. Today, though, things became real at a very fundamental level. There’s something about putting Jesus’s words into geographical and visual context that makes them feel more embodied (and therefore more “real” and relatable) and at the same time more spiritually profound.

I’m also realizing just how perfect the place and time of the Incarnation was. As I mentioned in previous posts, the Roman Empire makes a perfect example for the kind of craving for wealth, power and dominance that Jesus argues against. That Israel represents the great international route between the Middle East and Egypt by land and is linked to Europe and the rest of Africa by sea, means the message has a way to reach the world. The place itself and its history provides the context for a revelation that directly addresses the people of the place and yet remains universal in applicability.

For me, especially, with my heavy philosophical bent, this journey is really convicting me of the embodied, present and concrete nature of Jesus’s life teachings, and Passion. When we arrived, we were told that, like Abram, God has called us to Israel, that there is something for God to reveal to each of us here. This confrontation with the Incarnation as something no longer abstract and far away in time and place may be just the thing God brought me here to show me. It’s certainly something I needed, even if I didn’t know that I needed it.

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Pilgrimage, Day 5: The Modern and the Ancient

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I’m trying to get a jump on posting for the day instead of, as I’ve done the past few days, waiting until the last moment. It’s about 4:00 p.m. local and, having finished our touring day (since the winter hours for Israeli national sites has them close at four), we are on the bus back to the Sea of Galilee.

As I mentioned yesterday, we spent today in the Golan Heights. We heard sporadic artillery fire, all of which came from an Israeli tank proving ground close to our first visited site. Burnt-out tank hulks left from the six-day war occasionally cropped up in the otherwise beautiful scenery. We spent about 10 minutes driving behind an IDF humvee with a remote-controlled turret boasting a 50-cal machinegun and a TOW missile launcher. Overhead were the vapor trails of fighter jets penetrating just into Syrian airspace just before hitting their afterburners back to sovereign skies. At least once, we passed a barbed wire fence warning of unexploded mines on the other side. Still, there was never a concern for safety, just an ever-present reminder of the frailty of human nature and the conflict that results from such weakness.

The closest we came to the actual border was on the (dormant) cinder cone of the volcano, Mt. Bental, where we surveyed the land while standing next to two U.N. observers tasked with keeping watch over the “no man’s land” that starts a scant few miles from the base of the mountain and its nearby twin. Just across the border, about due east, lay the ruins of Quneitra, destroyed in the Yom Kippur War. Just north of that, the town of New Quneitra, where the inhabits rebuilt after being unable to salvage the ruins. Damascus lay just outside of view, thirty-seven miles to the Northeast. It was a strange feeling to be so close to such tragedy and unable to do a damn thing about it.

Mount Bental was our second stop today. Our first was Gamla or Gamala (the “Camel”), a humpbacked hill set deep in a canyon to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee that had been heavily fortified by the Sicarii (sometimes called “Zealots”) who probably had many commonalities of thought with the Nazarenes. The whole thing quickly reminded me of the Rebel Alliances’s base on Hoth, a fortification from which to strike out at the (Roman) Empire during the 66 C.E. revolt. In 67, Agrippa II failed for seven months to take the fortress and kill its inhabitants. Vespasian then arrived with three legions and built ballistae to fire 1300 stone balls and 1600 arrows into the fortress. This caused a breach, but the Romans suffered heavy casualties in the close quarters combat that ensued, with the defenders going so far as to topple interior walls onto the invaders, forcing a general retreat. A second assault was successful, with tradition holding that the core survivors fled to the citadel at the top of the hill to cast off their wives and daughters before jumping off themselves. A northern Masada.

Josephus says that the Romans killed 10,000 at Gamla. I find that highly suspect, based on the size of the settlement (at least as is currently visible) and the poor likelihood that a defending force of that size (1) would have been able to withstand siege for seven months without running out of supplies and (2) would have chosen to turtle up in their fortress and allow the Romans to seize the initiative when they had superior numbers and knowledge of the terrain.

Our interest was in the first-century synagogue in Gamla, the lower architecture of which is relatively well-preserved. It is highly probable that Jesus taught their during his Galilean ministry. The trek down the ravine to the fortress (and back up!) was exhausting but worth it.

After Bental, we first visited Caesarea Philippi and then Dan. At Caesarea Philippi, the Romans built a temple to Pan inside an artificial cave in which sprang one part of the headwaters of the Jordan river–a cave that was often thought of as a gateway to hell. A temple to the genius of Augustus Ceasar was also erected. At Dan, the King of Israel Jeroboam had an altar built and a golden calf idol placed so that his people would not have to travel south to the Temple in Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah to worship (and be tempted to defect).

It was between these two places that Jesus brought the disciples when he asked them “Who is it that people say that I am?” Behind him, Mt. Hermon, the only “real” mountain in Israel and thus the likeliest spot meant by Matthew when he describes Satan taking Jesus to the mountain to show him the splendor of nations and to offer them to him. Mt. Herom overshadows the ancient international highway, where the caravans of goods from the various nations would have represented their splendor without any miraculous or “magical| move on Satan’s part. When (soon after answering that Jesus is the “the Anointed One, Son of the Living God”) Peter tells Jesus that he cannot go to Jerusalem to die, Jesus responds “Get behind me, Satan!” just as he had previously told (actual) Satan.

Additionally, Caesarea Philippi represented the waywardness of Roman paganism while Dan represented the errancy of the Kingdom of Israel in falling away from worship of Yahweh (and the Canaanite paganism with its idols as well). It was a perfect–if unexpected–placed to pose the question of identity and capability to the disciples. Satan, death, Hell, the Empire, paganism–all were present to view the declaration.

The ideas above came either from our wonderful guide, Jack Beck (I suggest reading his books and watching his documentaries) , or from some of the Methodist pastors with whom I’m traveling.

To conclude, I’ll give you an idea of my own. You have likely heard the comparison and juxtaposition of the Caesars as divine figures with Jesus as the Son of God. Let’s nuance that a little more: the Romans didn’t actually worship the Emperor; they worshipped the genius of the Emperor. This is a little hard to explain, and a scholar of Imperial Rome would do it far better than I, but let’s give it a shot, shall we?

The Romans believed in numen, something akin to the Hawai’ian idea of “mana.” Spiritual power infused things to different degrees, from the small gods of the household and the spirits of ancestors to the greater gods of the state pantheon. The genius of the Emperor, then, was the numinous or divine power behind and within the Emperor. This may have become one in essence with the personality of the Emperor upon death, but during life the Emperor himself and the Emperor’s genius were related–closely–but distinct. The Roman Emperor has a divine force within him but is not divine in essence.

Contrast that with the orthodox Christian doctrine of the nature of Jesus Christ–both fully human and fully divine, with those aspects inseparable from one another, the perfect union of humanity and divinity in the same (consubstantial) essence. While I’m not sure that this comparison addresses anything not already spoken to by the volumes of theology already written, it does provide a sort of bridge into discussion of the nature of Christ by way of comparison. Clearly, I’m still very much focused on the sharp contrast between the Roman as a representation of the faulty ideas the culture of the world gives us and the spiritual truth that Jesus speaks, and does, and is.

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