Day Four—A Lesson in Contrast

It was an especially early start as we rolled our bags to the van for a long drive through West Bank to Shiloh. What different scenery as we left the lush Galilee area and headed south to the Judean dessert.

West Bank is largely Arab, of course, and the difference is striking. As an aside, huge amount of humanitarian dollars get spent there including in new construction. We could see the evidence in the form of many large homes and apartments that are newly built but empty. West Bank and the other “occupied territories” present all kinds of complicated issues.

But first, Shiloh.

Shiloh was the home of the tabernacle for three hundred years between the Exodus and the building of Solomon’s temple. What an awesome dig and find! Your friends have not been here.

The team working the dig has done a thorough job (see Associates for Biblical Research) and that makes it extra cool. You can actually see where the tabernacle was erected and it is surreal to think the Ark of the covenant was in that very spot. All around in the surrounding hills, the twelve tribes would have camped prior to their conquest and when they traveled to make their sacrifices three times a year.

In the last few days, we had covered thousands of years from about 64 BC to present history. Now we were stepping another 1400 years back in time from the first century sites we had been largely focused on. I was thankful Curtis was constantly working to help us understand the full timeline of Israel’s colorful history.

And Shiloh definitely holds its share of colorful history. Those hills could tell so many stories over the centuries…from the days of Joshua to more recent civilizations. The site of the tabernacle has been especially convincing through the many pottery finds and even some rare finds such as 8 scarab beetle—the seal of the Egyptian pharaoh which to me is strong evidence for biblical account of the Exodus.

Hannah would have stood there at that tabernacle and prayed in desperation that God would give her a son. A few years later, she would have returned with little Samuel.

I regretted that we didn’t have more time to linger at Shiloh. There have been other civilizations at that site over the years as well (mostly irrelevant to biblical history) and so we really only scratched the surface at that hallowed place.

Masada was our next destination and we soon found ourselves peeling off layers of clothing…some of us eventually making it down to our shirt sleeves for the first time this trip.

What a fascinating place Masada is. Thanks to Herod’s wealth and ingenuity, two thousand years later, we can still appreciate the genius of his water collection and storage enabling a mountain on the top of the desert to house a garrison of men that would virtually never, ever run out of water.

I had been here once before and surprisingly, I think I actually found it more fascinating the second time. There are battling theories about its usage a hundred years after Herod for the last stand of the Jews against the Romans siege (now we are back to 70 AD). I pulled up the history on this and read one lady’s opinion that this has been a mere occupation of days or weeks. Clearly, this “scholar” had never been there to see the synagogue erected on the top, the Torah rooms, and the converted Mikvahs. Jews had definitely made this their home. Not only that, but the Romans trying to lay siege outside had clearly spent some time there as well—they built walls and cities around the city…conquering this hilltop fortress was clearly a substantial effort.

As you know, the Romans eventually did conquer the massive fortress and the story is that the Jews inside had committed mass suicide the night before the Romans entered.

Several of us really wanted to hike the Snake trail down the mountain from Masada, but by the time we were leaving, the trail was closed and we had to ride down in the gondola like your friends did. Nonetheless, Fitbit was pretty happy with me as a job well done.

Our final stop was by the Dead Sea. Only a few of the guys would brave the water considering it was not super warm or super sunny. Since I had been in once previously, and since the changing rooms were locked, I chickened out.

In one day we went from the lush Galilean countryside, through the dirty streets of West Bank, to the simple green valley of Shiloh, up to the dry barren heights of Masada, down to the lowest point on earth dotted with luxury resorts. And we weren’t quite done.

After a quick dinner, we completed our last drive pulling in the Jaffa gate in the dark and winding our way through the narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem.

I loved that we were staying in the Old City. Your friends have not stayed in the sold City…they stayed in the modern city just next door that most people refer to when they say, “Jerusalem.” That is, I would soon love that we’re we staying in the Old City. At that moment, I was much too tired to soak in the lively atmosphere between the high walls and stone streets.

One good shower and day four was in the books.

Day Three

We continued our theme of going where our friends have not gone by heading to Gamala. It was cold. So cold in fact, that it turned out the trail was closed and we could not actually hike out to the site. We were able to huddle above at the overlook, however, and Curtis told us the story. This was the site of the last stand of the Jewish rebellion circa 64 BC. The Rabbi Gamaliel later spoke of it when he encouraged the religious leaders in Jerusalem to leave Jesus alone because if it wasn’t from God it would come to nothing just like the uprising that culminated there at Gamala.

It helped us understand better the political climate of the sliver of time between the Hasmonean dynasty and the failed rebellion that would come in AD 70. Jesus came to a diverse culture full of zealots and Hellenists…Pharisees and Sadducees…Jews and Samaritans…it was an ever-thickening hot mess of strong opinions and corrupt leaders; high taxes and low tolerance of others.

Sounds a little familiar.

Gamla was never rebuilt and it’s ruins were silent. Just us and the birds soaring overhead did not seem to be bothered by the cold.

Again, Jesus likely did come here although it was not specifically named in Scripture. He likely brought His simple message to these redneck farmers. Maybe many times.

From there we took a hard turn and studied some of Israel’s modern history from the unlikely university of the Eli Cohen. Your friends have not been here.

The building lies in a quiet strip of nothing, almost on the current Syrian border (and within the disputed territory). It was a fabulous and fabulously cold experience to walk through the long, graffiti covered halls and ponder the years of hatred and conflict, plotting and planning that was hosted in the many rooms. (If you aren’t familiar with Eli Cohen, you can see the dramatized version of his story in the Prime Video feature, Impossible Spy)

We shivered our way back to the van and it took a while even then to warm up. We headed from there to Banis—there’s nothing quite like visiting the gates of hell on a snowy March day.

Banis is beautiful but it was the site of some of the most grotesque pagan practices of that time. There is record of Jesus coming to this area—known then as Cesarea Philipi. In fact, Jesus may have stood on the same rock we stood on near the temple to the god Pan a/k/a the “Gates of Hell” when he famously declared that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

It was sunny, windy, and snowy alternately so we didn’t loiter too long before making our way into the restaurant there for a delicious “Lebanese” lunch.

When we were sufficient full of chicken kabobs and hummus, we headed towards Nimrods castle—not an original plan but kinda a cool place if you ever find yourself in Israel with a couple of hours to kill.

The most pressing question on many of our minds was…how in the world did they heat this place? I can’t even imagine living in a stone structure on top of a snowy mountain with nothing but cold wind for company. Brrr.

Clearly, tons of time and effort was spent building this incredible defensive. It now provides an amazing house for the Irex (?) which appear to be living there quite comfortably despite the weather.

Our last stop was beside the side of the road to get some fresh pomegranate juice. The local vendors seemed very glad to see a van of tourists pull up. I suspect it has been a long two years of shut down for them.

I was exhausted by the time we reached the guest ranch and more interested in a hot bath than dinner. The front desk lady took one look at me and asked, “where on earth did you go on this cold day?”

So I told her: A cold place, a really cold place, and an even colder place.

So I told her: A cold place, a really cold place, and an even colder place. I guess I should have told her the truth: a closed national park, the Israeli/Syrian border, and the gates of hell. So…what did you do today?

Day Two-the Galilee

Morning dawned over the Sea of Galilee.

Unfortunately, I could not pull myself out of bed to watch, so all I saw of the beautiful hues is what dared to peak around the edges of the curtain.

When I did pull myself out of bed, I made my way as far down to the water as I could, which was still a ways away but within view of our corner of the lake. I tucked myself behind some rocks and took the time to sit and read my Bible and then just be quiet. It is rare in life that I have the opportunity to sit and be quiet.

We had a last minute change of plans enabling us to hike Mt Arbel. Wow, was that cool! Your friends have not done this!

While it’s not a biblical site, it has a colorful recurrence in history including unsuccessful fortifications during political rebellions both shortly before and after the time of Christ. An understanding of them informs your understanding of the Galilean people and even why they may have viewed Christ as an up-and-coming political savior.

It’s hard to describe the amazing views over Magdala and the Sea…the cows parking themselves along the path…the bright red and yellow flowers. I cannot stress enough how different it was to see Israel in March instead of late May.

The climb gets aggressive a/k/a fun along the way. Let’s just say I understand why they close the trail when it rains.

All in all, we were proud of our time, we did it in about one hours and thirty-five minutes including time to snap photos along the way.

Our next stop was up a windy hill in the now Arab town of Nazareth. It was chilly as we piled out of the van and into a neat little dining area used by the folks at Nazareth village to feed us a period lunch.

Nazareth Village is a recreation of first century Nazareth. It is helpful in bringing the ruins to life and letting you see what a corner of the village might have been like.

The coolest part of Nazareth Village is the first century wine press. Jesus quite possibly stood on that very community wine press…(contrary to popular misconception, there are not many places one can walk where Jesus actually walked). This is one. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, it’s just one rock in the midst of many rocks that make up a rocky mountain. But if you take the time to investigate, it’s not hard to picture little Jesus stomping on grapes alongside his friends.

Probably one of Israel’s best kept secrets, Nazareth Village does a great job with its recreation and commentary and I was thankful for their interpretations that helped make the “everyday” come alive—including the climax in the synagogue.

While Capernaum was Jesus’ headquarters during the ministry years, Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown–Likely populated by just a few hundred who would have seen Jesus grow up. They were not ready to accept Him as Messiah and when he stood in their synagogue and read the passage of Isaiah prophesying of the Messiah and pointed to himself as diety and hinted that hinted that He had come for the gentiles as well, the fine folks of Nazareth did their best to throw him off a cliff. Not exactly a warm welcome from your friends and relatives. (Luke 4:16-30).

Actually being in the town helps you understand this story—it hugs the side of the mountain and they apparently had a designated spot for just such executions.

Our Muslim friends would contend that Jesus did not claim to be God. A simple reading of the gospels would show that not only did He claim to be God…the Jews around him knew precisely that He was making this bold proclamation on several occasions; often at the threat of His life.

After Nazareth, we squeaked in a visit to Magdala–the fish processing hometown of Mary the Magdalene. The Bible doesn’t specifically record Jesus coming to Magdala, but it most certainly was one of the other “cities and villages” where he would have preached in the synagogue. This town destroyed in the revolt during 70 AD and never rebuilt. It was only discovered in 2009 and the ruins which stand in the way of a hotel parking lot include the floor and benches from a true first century parking lot. Coins they found in the floor indicate it would have been in use during Jesus’ time.

“And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all.” Luke 4:14-15

We had dinner at an empty restaurant just down the street from Magdala and then those of us who were not too cold and exhausted ended the day warming our hands by a fire next to the Sea of Galilee. A perfect bookend to a perfect day.

Israel Travels – Day One

There is no easy way to get up the next morning after an overnight flight coupled with a 7 hour jump ahead in time. But I didn’t second guess the alarm clock because Curtis had us on a tight time schedule leaving the hotel at 8:00. Most everyone had just enough time to grab a cup of coffee.

Our first stop was the beach just before Caesarea. We marveled at the powerful aqueduct Herod had built to bring fresh water to the new city he was building along with the largest port of Israel.

Here we were introduced to the land of Israel—the small, complicated patch of planet earth God chose to be the stage for his chosen people roughly 2000 BC. It’s an unlikely crossroads between three major continents—the epicenter of wars and conflict, ideology and history.

There was a brisk breeze and rain sprinkled on and off as we walked and talked. The beach was rich with tiny shells and smooth stones.

Along the natural berms near the ocean, erosion has exposed layers of civilization where you can find broken pieces of pottery that so quietly hold the stories from a thousand of years gone ago.

Broken pottery buried underneath the floor of a later civilization

This is my second journey to Israel and I’m so glad to be back. There is more than what can be absorbed in just a few days. This trip was promised to take us “where our friends haven’t gone” (and a few places they have).

Following the beach we pulled into Cesarea—which was almost devoid of tourists. We stopped in a small rock hallow along the shore and discussed the sordid history of Herod the Great and his powerful and ruthless family legacy.

Caesarea Maritime was built as a pledge of loyalty by Herod to Octavian…the man who would later call himself Caesar Augustus—the self-proclaimed savior of the world (just ahead of the coming of a quiet, working-class contractor across the ocean whose legacy would turn the world upside down).

I accidentally left my phone in the van and I regret not didn’t get any photos in this amazing port town but we talked about the birth of the gentile church here at Caesarea about 10 years after the ascension of Christ. One would be remiss not to miss the amazing hippodrome and theater.

The rain drove us back to the van and we made a quick stop for a mall lunch on the way to Capernaum—the fishing village that would be Christ’s home during much of his ministry years.

The cramped stone houses just feet from the waters edge would have held no secrets and left no need for social media or even telephones.

Peter’s house is almost certainly identified and it was surreal to stand so close to the walls that may have witnessed Christ miracles such as healing Peters’ mother in law. The city of 1,500 was sometime gathered at the door of this unassuming home such that the roof was torn off for access to Jesus.

We also went to the synagogue which although destroyed and later rebuilt since the time of Christ, still boasts to be the site of Christs casting out a demon.

Interestingly, Capernaum’s strategic position as a rest stop along the Via Maris made it a convenient place for collection of taxes (think Matthew) and location for a Roman garrison (think Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant).

Capernaum is the site of many more miracles such as the healing of Jairas’ daughter, and catching a fish for tribute tax money. How many can you name? This trip has made me pay so much more attention to the “where” and the “when” of the Bible stories we have mindlessly read over and over.

Unfortunately, Capernaum did not—despite their interest in Jesus—respond to him as Messiah. Consequently, it incurred one of Christ’s sternest warnings in Matthew 11:21-24.

From Capernaum we traveled to Hippos. This is a fairly recent dig opening to the public really for the first time. Your friends have not been here.

While this more up-scale town was not specifically named as such in Scripture, it’s position in the Decapolis on the other side of the Galilee allows us to identify it as the likely place where Jesus comes to heal one man who has been possessed by demons.

Jesus’ peculiar stop in an unclean, far-off town to radically change the life of one crazy man lit a flame that quickly raged into a bonfire. He would likely be in this same town where 4,000 would be listening so long that Jesus felt the need to feed them from a few loaves and fish.

It is very possible that as Jesus gave his famous Sermon on the Mount just across the sea (likely near Capernaum) he might have used Hippos as his illustration when he spoke the words “Ye are the light of the world; a city set on a hill cannot be hid.” Maybe not. But just the same, we used this spot to renew our commitments to be a city on a hill to light up the night in this darkening world.

Unfortunately, our candles would not light in the chilly wind, so we resigned ourselves to waving our cellphone lights over the Sea of Galilee. A beautiful way to end our first day in the little strip of land God chose as the setting for the birth of His son.

Did I Mention it was Cold? it was cold. It was green. It was beautiful.