Pilgrimage, Day 5: The Modern and the Ancient

For the previous entry, click here.

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.

For the next entry, click here.

This Year in Jerusalem

In less than two months, I’m going to Israel. This will be my favorite kind of trip–a study trip with accompanying professors, homework beforehand, and the goal of coming to understand the cultures, history and geography of Israel and its surrounds to better understand scripture.

I am fortunate enough to have this opportunity because of K’s ministry; this is a trip for young clergy and their spouses. Some of my favorite people are going and we could be going to spend two weeks on the Jersey Shore (place or TV show) and I wouldn’t mind. But we’re going to Israel.

We’ve been given books to read and maps to study and mark up before we go. For me, it is a fascinating and tedious process–I see mentions of peoples or places or cultures from the ancient past and go on hours-long rabbit trails that conclude with me writing prodigious notes to myself on the backs of maps that have little to do with the main point of study. Did you know that there’s a good chance that the near-mythical “Hanging Gardens of Bablyon” were actually constructed by Sennacharib in Ninevah? The same Sennacharib mentioned in the Book of Kings as carrying off people from the Kingdom of Israel and nearly destroying the Kingdom of Judah?

None of that time is wasted, though I imagine it’s going to annoy the hell out of K as I offer (unsolicited) trivia throughout our trip. This course of study has made me feel like I’m in grad school again and–being the perpetual student–I’m loving it. Even moreso, it’s directed my thoughts in some ways that I believe will profoundly effect both my theological work and my fiction writing. Many of the things below will likely see their own posts and soon, but here’s some of what I’ve been brought to ponder lately:

Studying maps and geography has been eye-opening in terms of Biblical (and historical understanding). There are so many things that become clearer about both the broader historical context and the context of passages in the Bible when you understand (however abstractly at the current juncture) the “lay of the land.” The locations and movements of the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Arameans, the Edomites and the Moabites and all the other ancient cultures of the Levant sheds light the context of the Israelite people as they journey from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism (and back-and-forth quite a bit). The strategic importance of the Levant on the world stage and the many times it has changed hands over the millennia is just fascinating. There is much to be said about all this (much of it already written by experts in books, so who am I to spend lots of words on it?), but suffice to say that I have studied history extensively and am only now starting to see lots of things come into clarity now that I am locating events and peoples on the map relative to one another. Even some idea of motives become clear when you put things together. All in all, I’m actually a little disappointed that, in all of my historical studies, none of my classes spent a whole lot of time (if any at all) using the geography of the time and place to place events in context.

Of course, all of this study of geography makes me think of Avar Narn. This, coupled with the fact that I’ve recently spent some time looking through Tolkien’s old maps and drawings and their evolution has me going back to the layout and maps of my own fantasy world. I have posted some previous maps of parts of Avar Narn on this site, but I am afraid to say (but not really) that they will soon be obsolete and superseded as I replace them with a more thorough effort at consistently mapping the world (or at least the continent where most of my stories will be set) in line with its history, cultures, and languages. I am beginning to very much envy Martin’s choice to name everything in Westeros in English. In breaks from the map work for my impending journey, I’ve re-sketched the continent, placed it longitudinally and latitudinally, worked out air and sea currents (as best I know how) and, correspondingly, the various climate zones of the space.

Because of some changes in the history of Avar Narn which have occurred both in direct rewriting of that history and from ideas better explored (or created) in the first Avar Narn novel (still very much in progress, of course), there will be further changes to the locations of some of the nations and peoples as shown on the previous maps. Alongside that, I’ll be doing some renaming of locations to tie them in better with the linguistic work I’ve done for the setting. There will definitely be more posts about all of this in the future.

Back to the theology side, where I’ve also been thinking a lot about historicity in theology. This has been something of a journey and a struggle for me. Intellectually–as I’ve communicated through the blog before–I don’t believe that concern with historicity is the most fruitful or meaningful of concerns in understanding our faith. I believe that the text of scripture is divinely inspired–but also filled with human agency and not to be taken literally–but that it’s just not that important to know whether the Exodus actually happened as written (there’s no corroborating evidence that it did). What is important is what the story of the Exodus tells us about our God and the evolving Israelite understanding of God as a macrocosm of the way in which the individual gradually struggles with an understanding of the divine.

At the same time, I cannot deny that the historical context of the Biblical writings is illuminating in its interpretation. And in addition, I find that archeological and historical research can help us understand the human motives in the Bible and perhaps filter some of that from the divinely inspired aspects. For instance, there’s very little evidence to support that the conquering of Canaan as told in Joshua occurred; the gradual occupation of the land by the Israelites as told in Judges seems far more likely.

I’m fine with this; it doesn’t bother me that the Bible may not be historically accurate on all fronts–it’s not meant to be a history (well, maybe Joshua and Judges are somewhat) and has a different purpose for us that should not be confused with absolute historicity. In the same way, Genesis is not intended to be a science manual for the creation of all things.

What I’m struggling with is how emotionally bound to questions of historicity I find myself (in spite of myself). There’s a pang of upset in my stomach when I find that an event as told in the Bible is probably not actually how something happened.

I believe in the historicity of Jesus, but I’d be a Christian even if I didn’t–I believe that the story of Jesus tells us Truth about the nature of our Creator, Sustainer and Savior that is unfettered by our existential reference points. So why do I find myself caring so much about the answers to historicity? Especially when it’s clear that–in broad strokes at least–the Old Testament narrative about the Jews’ evolving relationship with God is borne out by the historical record. I think that this is a matter of wanting things to simple, clear and absolute. And this from someone who finds great wonder in the complexity, ambiguity and mystery of existence! Perhaps that’s what it comes down to–a minor crisis of identity. And that makes me wonder whether all obsessions with the historicity of Biblical events spawns from that very human concern.

In general, I think that the Christian testimony–as an unfairly broad generalization–would be perceived as more reasonable (which I believe it inherently is) if we were able to communicate our faith in a way that incorporates questions of historicity without being dominated by them. Many a man has gone in search of Noah’s Ark (with many claims to have found it), but even an indisputable confirmation of its existence would not tell us much about who God is that the Bible doesn’t tell us already.

I’m sure you’ll hear more about that as I post (to the extent that I’m able) from Israel, where the question will, in some part, be a constant concern of mine (if not all of us traveling together). Stay tuned for more on all fronts.

See my journal of the trip here.