Day Seven-Walking Where Jesus Walked…and your friends have not

The first part of our morning was consumed with the exciting task of getting our pre-flight COVID tests. As much as we had all enjoyed the trip, when our plane lifted off the tarmac that night, we wanted to be sitting on it.

It was the Sabbath, so clinics were closed but we managed to find an Arab non-emergency “hospital” that would take our cash and swab our noses.

We had another full day in front of us beginning with hiking Wadi Qelt–also known as the Jericho trail–a path through the Judean desert between Jerusalem and Jericho that would have been well traveled by many names we recognize in the Bible. David would have fled from Absolom along this road. Mary and Joseph would have traveled it as part of their journey to Bethlehem. And Christ himself would have traversed it and sometimes stopped along the way to teach his disciples.

It was a beautiful, warm day and I should probably be quiet for a moment and let these photos speak for themselves:

Given the cooler, wetter spring they’ve had in Israel this year, it was much greener than this area would typically be. We saw herds of sheep and goats navigating the rocky mountains and this put a very real spin on the word picture of a shepherd leading his sheep to green pastures and beside still waters.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name sake…” Psalm 23:1-3

Herod, of course, had his fingerprints along this path. An aqueduct he built brings fresh water right through the valley and would have been faithfully filling the swimming pool for his Jericho palace.

We didn’t see any bandits, but that would have been an issue at the time of Christ and perhaps the reason that his famous tale of the Good Samaritan was set along this road. (Luke 10:25-37)

Robbers would not have been the only danger along this path. It had a lot of uneven terrain, a seven mile stretch of scrambling over rocks and up and down inclines…of course, the beautiful views made it absolutely worth every step in March. I don’t believe it would have been enjoyable at all in July or August.

I can’t say I walked the whole way, though…thanks to Abraham and his friendly donkey, Shushu.

After a few minutes on a donkey’s back, I’m convinced once and for all that Mary did NOT ride on a donkey down to Bethlehem. Quite frankly, sitting on a donkey that’s losing it’s footing on the loose rocks on the side of a mountain goes a long way toward making you realize that walking is a great exercise. I’m just saying.

Anyway, it was an awesome way to spend the final morning of our trip and it made the land of the Bible come alive in its own right.

Just as we were reaching our destination, we took a final detour to see what remains of Herod’s winter palace at Jericho. What was once the opulent vacation home of one of the world’s most powerful men is now a pile of ruins surrounded by a few ratty homes and a ton of garbage. Standing in Herod’s Olympic-sized swimming pool made me think of the words of Jesus, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

Herod’s great power and wealth led to a life of heartache and paranoia. He murdered one of his ten wives and at least three of his own sons; He slaughtered innocent babies; and Josephus tells us that he was so hated by his subjects that he ordered the killing of all the Jewish leaders on his death because that was his only hope that there would be mourning.

What a stark contrast to the simple life and death we had retraced in Jerusalem just the day before. A Jewish contractor with no home, no political status, no fancy swimming pools. His life was not wrenched from Him, it was laid down for all of us. And He changed the world.

His teachings are as counter cultural today as they were two thousand years ago…He is the Good Shepherd asking us to place our simple trust in Him and not where moths and corrupt and thieves break in and steal.

The third of Herod’s praetorium pools we visited this trip

We had one final tourist destination, Qumran. As you know, this was where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. Instead of the usual walk through the roped off areas around the digs and watching a move in the museum, we hiked a bit of the cliffs and explored a few caves and tunnels. It was fun. I highly recommend it.

Curtis gave us our final devotional. I’ll be honest and admit I don’t remember it although I’m sure it was good. My brain was just too full at this point. Too many Magnum bars.

We then all ate (okay, almost all ate) an insect in memory of John the Baptist who was likely raised by the Essenes who lived here…I probably shouldn’t tell that detail so it can be a surprise when you come on the next trip. You should. I highly recommend it.

Staci, we saved one for you!

As we headed back toward the van after our second substantial hike of the day and our seventh day of adventure, I noticed that even Jack had stopped taking pictures. When Jack stops taking pictures, you know it’s time to go home.

Thankfully, we were good and tired so we could sleep some on the fourteen hour flight to Miami. The days had gone by quickly but they left a sincere impression I will be slow to forget.

There was a few tense moments at the airport. I guess we looked like a suspicious band of COVID trafficking terrorists. For a moment; it looked like they weren’t going to let us leave. But never mind that story…I have to save something for another day.

Day Six-The Old City of Jerusalem; in no particular order

We got to sleep in until like…7:00 am. The hotel breakfast was worth getting up for though. By all accounts, the Israelis know how to do coffee.

We needed to be at Herod’s Jerusalem praetorium by 8:00 because Curtis had pulled some strings and they were opening especially for us despite the night of Purim parties. We also needed to hurry through the key sites we wanted to see because it was Friday and many things were shutting down early for Sabbath.

We had seen a fair bit of Herod’s handiwork by now but there was still a lot more to come. Herod’s Jerusalem praetorium is a fairly recent dig which has answered a lot of open questions about where much of the Roman occupation force would have been housed.

Pilate would have been staying at this location at the time of the trial of Christ. In fact, Jesus likely would have been tried on the steps Curtis later took us which are now just an inconspicuous stack of rocks jutting out of the city wall. Pilate would have been roused to preside over the trial of this humble Jew and the crowds chanted, “Crucify him! Crucify him.” But we’ll come back to that.

After a quick walk through the remains of what was once a pretty impressive complex complete with numerous swimming pools (I don’t believe there are any cruise ships with more swimming pools that what Herod had) They let us up the narrow metal stairs onto the ramparts and we walked on the top of the city walls to our next stop of the day. Your friends have not done this. It was fortunate for us because we had five minutes to do a 10-minute walk to the Western Wall. As we walked those thick, high walls it was crazy to think that Jerusalem, for all its defensives, was attacked 52 times and conquered 44 of those with two complete destructions.

We were headed back to catch a new tour that will take you down to digs under the city that date back to first century and even the Hasmonean period (~100 years before Christ). We had a lively Jewish tour guide who very much seemed to enjoy helping us make sense of the various rocks we were looking at. Given all the destruction, it’s pretty amazing that they can piece together the story as much as they have; according to the guide, they have only finished excavating about 5% of the potential sites so we still have a lot to learn. One thing that we continually marveled at are the huge hewn stones used to construct the Temple Mount. To this day, they have no idea how some of those monsters were transported from the quarry.

We could see ways that the Jews had mixed their customs and ceremonies (like ceremonial baths and the many mikvahs) with Roman/Hellenistic ideas like theaters. It helps make sense of the scene back at those judgment steps when the religious leaders prosecuted Jesus:

“But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.” John 19:15

Some of the religious leaders had been put in place by Rome; some profited from the corrupt and lucrative temple system; some were perhaps just caught up in the excitement; regardless, Israel as a nation was less than a hundred years from their own independence with factions still wanting to rebel and others choosing to make the bold claim to have “no king but Ceasar.”

By the time we finished, the Jewish quarter was shutting down so we had lunch in the Arab quarter (and got ripped off a little bit, I might add…not that I’m bitter or anything). I was starting to get a little tired of roasted chicken, humas, and their many salads, but they also brought french fries. I never get tired of french fries.

My feet were starting to complain again from hours on stone, but we had to crisscross the city a few more times in order to get in the sites we wanted to see.

One, the Church of the Holy Sepulture. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Meaning, it was identified by Helena sometime in the 3rd century. Churches have since been destroyed and rebuilt on that site a few times since and the current structure is partially owned and managed by like six or seven different churches. And while it may well be the actual site of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it was hard to feel any connection for me because the place is so gaudy and even downright creepy.

So, to be frank, it was like a breath of fresh air when we went from there to the Garden Tomb. This is another site that has been identified as a potential place for the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And while we can’t know for sure where these history-changing events occurred, I love how the volunteers there–including our blind guide– encourage worship of the risen Christ. And I will just add, there are some compelling facts pointing to this site.

Did I mention we were taking things out of order? It just kinda worked that way. After a quiet communion there at the Garden and a few minutes in the gift shop, our feet hit the stone again and some of us chose to retrace the steps of Jesus the night before the Crucifixion.

We went out across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives where Jesus went to pray the night of his arrest. The Garden of Gethsemane was empty and there was a slight drizzle of rain that created a peaceful backdrop. There is a large stone there that many believe Jesus prayed on; and a large basilica–one of the few we went in our whole trip.

I could have lingered there a little longer, but we made our way back up to Jerusalem and through the sheeps’ gate and toward the general location of his first trial at Caiaphas’ house. He would later be taken to the Praetorium where we had started out our day or perhaps to the steps we had sat on–just outside the current city walls.

It’s a little hard to absorb it all–even when you’re there for a second time. And it probably didn’t help that we had had to take the places for the events of Jesus’ final days all out of order. But it still helped it all come together in my mind. And there is nothing quite like walking the city on your own two feet, experiencing the awkward blend of old and new; Jewish, Arab and Christian that wets my appetite to know more not only about the biblical history but also the current confusing culture unique to Israel.

Our day wasn’t quite done. We had high hopes to make it to Mamre; but turns out we’ll have to save that for another trip. We did, however, spend a few unplanned Sheckels in a cool gift shop and enjoy some delicious Mexican food in Bethlehem. To close out the night, we drove by the church of the Nativity. Like I said, we took things a little out of order. But we got the bookends right–we started the day with coffee and ended it with a hot shower and a pillow. In the middle, we marveled more than a little bit at this intriguing city of Jerusalem.

Day Five–Long Walk Through Time

Our feet hit the stone early as we headed down to the City of David.  There’s no way to describe out day without a little bit of a history review…If you are at all familiar with the Old Testament, you know that the little boy Hannah brought to the tabernacle at Shiloh would later anoint the first king of Israel, Saul, and the second king of Israel, David.

Roughly 1000 BC David conquered the Jebusite city on a finger of land sandwiched between the Kidron valley and the valley of Hinnom from the inside out by sending someone up the water shaft. He then moved the capital of Israel from Shiloh to this new city, called Jerusalem which not only had a strategic defensive but also an excellent water source, the Gihon spring.

The city was small but Solomon would later add on and build the first temple—a grand structure that would attract attention from around the world.

The View from the City of David

We descended on the City of David along with more tour groups than we had seen at any location we had been in so far in our travels.  Curtis wanted to stay in front of them, so we didn’t linger long as we passed through the excavations of David’s palace and the likely residences of his staff. 

Since the city’s position at the top of hill and it’s water source below created a vulnerability, King Hezekiah connected a water tunnel later to divert the water under the mountain and add to the impenetrability of the city. 

We passed through the enormous caverns leading down to Hezekiah’s tunnel which still flows clear spring water.  It was chilly, but once you get used to it, the water doesn’t seem so bad.  We were the first of the morning through the long, impressive tunnel chisel into rock from two directions for a third of a mile to meet in the middle.  It was a lot longer than you think it’s going to be and a little concerning if you’re claustrophobic.  Thank goodness I had Lonnie behind me constantly saying, “keep moving!”  It is dark, damp, and there are no emergency exits.

The tunnel ends at a pool of water which Jewish men still bathe in for ritual cleansing.  We got through just in time to inconvenience a few who were waiting to take their baths in the chilly out of doors.

Despite all the defensives, Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 BC after a string of godless kings; just like Jeremiah prophesied that it would.  There is evidence of the 18 month siege of the city and of course, the temple was destroyed and all of the implements carried off.

A lot happened between that time and the time of Christ, but the main thing to know when you are visiting is that when Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt by Nehemiah and the temple was rebuilt by Zerubbabel, they were built on the hill above the original site.  Thus, when we refer to the “Old City” and the “Temple Mount” we would be referring to the Jerusalem that Jesus would have traveled to during his lifetime, not the Jerusalem David would have called home.  The mix of this history and the current structures in place make it difficult to picture the cities the way they used to be either at the time of David or the time of Christ (which were very different), but we could catch glimpses such as at the excavated portion of the Pool of Siloam—where travelers to Jerusalem for festivals would have bathed prior to ascending to the temple.  There are some excavations revealing the original steps leading to the temple—one of the few places in Jerusalem where you can walk “where Jesus would have walked.”

What the streets near the temple might have looked like in Jesus’ time

We worked our way toward the temple mount—the site where the temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian captivity and where Herod would later “renovate” on top of an enormous and impressive temple mount.  Curtis took us up the actual front steps of the temple mount…you can’t access the mount itself from there anymore, but I didn’t realize how much happened there on the temple steps until we sat and looked at several of the verses.  The Temple was the hub of Jewish life in Jesus’ day and he would have first been carried here as an infant, later be “lost” here as an adolescent and later make a nuisance of himself here as he threw out moneychangers and overturned tables of merchandise. 

Herod’s temple, of course, was also destroyed as Jesus himself predicted and access is now restricted due to the site being controlled by the Islamic Waqf.  We timed our day so that we would be able to enter the temple mount during the one hour it was allowing tourists.  They confiscated the Bible one person in our group had in his backpack and they cracked me up by asking me to wrap my neck due to it being too exposed!

Jews do not go up to the Temple Mount for fear of stepping on the site of the Holy of Holies and thus pray and do their worship at the small section of the Western Wall of the mount that’s been exposed. But I thought it was worth the hassle of covering my collarbone to walk around the sacred site was well worth it even though it is now the site of a mosque and, of course, the Dome of the Rock.

They kicked us off the Temple Mount in no time at all which was a shame except for the fact that I was starting to melt under the raincoat zipped up to my chin.

We were ushered out through the Muslim quarter which was a buz with vendors selling food and trinkets. For a country so concerned with COVID, there were sure a lot of people in the narrow streets.

We eventually found our way to the Jewish quarter and to the Blue and White art studio. There, a world-class Messianic Jewish artist named Udi tells the story of Christ through art. He has become particularly special to our family.

We had walked about seven miles so far in this day and the fun was just beginning. It was Purim and the Jewish quarter was getting into party mode. They dress up in costumes and celebrate the historical rescue of their people from the wicked Haman through the story of Esther as if it were yesterday.

Technically, it was “free time” in the city but most of us followed Curtis back to the Arab quarter to meet up with a new friend–a licensed antiquities dealer with a winner manner and a crazy-disorganized shop.

Ancient Roman glass vases were pulled out of old shoeboxes stuffed with trash…he pulled out one valuable after another from shopping bags and piles of debri. It was getting chilly again so I was glad to be sitting by the heater upon which the tea kettle was perched.

What made the experience especially surreal were the recommendation letters he showed us from an eclectic clientele including Chuck Swindoll, Bill Clinton, Gavin Newsom, Metalica, and others. He has been featured in National Geographic on more than one occasion. We passed a few happy hours shivering and marveling at tiny treasures.

Eventually, my interest in food began to eclipse my appreciation of old coins and pottery and we walked outside the Jaffa gate to a classy Italian restaurant in the Mamilla mall. I was exhausted and my feet were complaining from a long day of walking on stone, but it was Purim and the city was still very much alive so we decided to pay an evening visit to the heart of the city–the Western Wall.

Did I mention the Jews know how to party? They abstain form a lot of things but alcohol is not among them. All in all, though, it seemed to be a sincere celebration of the deliverance of God.

On this particular day, we had walked about twelve miles and climbed the equivalent of 64 flights of stairs. We had covered about 1700 years of history from David to the Dome of the Rock. As we finally puttered our way back to the hotel, I didn’t feel like we could have packed much more into our first day in the Old City.

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.

Day 6. Jerusalem!

Our last day started at the top of the Mount of Olives…where Jesus spent a good bit of time and, in fact, wept over the city of Jerusalem.  It was also where Jesus and his disciples went after the last supper.  The mountain got it’s name from the many olive groves–including the Garden of Gethsemane (at least, as we know it). The mountain was used as a burial site and has about 150,000 graves…including (by tradition) the graves of some of the prophets.

From there we walked to the Garden of Gethsemane.  There were quite a few people there which didn’t give much opportunity to appreciate  what it would have been like the last night before the cross as the Lord prayed in agony.  I wished the trees could talk–some of the trees still thriving there may date back to the time of Christ.

Jesus was arrested and taken down into the city–a steep walk even now.  There are lots more sites and cathedrals along the way, but we were more excited about sticking to the actual story than taking in the tradition, relics, and various churches–all wanting their piece of the holy land–along the way.

The first trial would have taken place either at/near the temple or the house of Caiaphas–somewhere with a courtyard.  Jesus had broken the Sabbath in their minds on many occasions, but that was not a capital offense, so the Pharisees needed something else.  Thus, Jesus was charged with the capital crime of destroying the temple.  But when they could not find the required two witnesses to corroborate any of the accusations, they got him on another charge–blasphemy.  He claimed to be the Son of God by His own admission.

Actually being there–even in a rebuilt city–gave us some appreciation for the various places Christ would have been taken that night.  The determined religious leaders covered quite a bit of ground, taking him from the Mount of Olives to Caiphus, to Pilate, to Herod, to Pilate, then the place of the execution.  Most of the way is now in the Muslim quarter of Old Jerusalem although the alleged “Via Dolorosa” winds through a good part of the city…mostly 30 feet or so above where Jesus would have actually carried the cross.

IMG_0432The temple itself, of course, is now a Muslim holy site.  One of the nearby shopkeepers, however, in exchange for our willingness to browse in this shop, gave us access to the rooftop of a Muslim school with incredible views into the Temple Mount.

The people who had seen Jesus in Bethesda–just steps away from there–heal a paralytic, and so many other signs and wonders now yelled, “Crucify him,” “We want Barabbas!” and even, “We have no king by Ceaser!”  Even Pilate could tell that He had been delivered up because of envy, but he feared a riot…so he let the people have their way.

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A view of the remains of the pool of Bethesda

At some point, Jesus was taken to the governor’s headquarters, stripped and scourged.  And from there, he was taken to Golgotha–or the place of a skull.

There are two prevailing views on where Golgotha or Calvary is and the fact is, no one knows for sure.  But we went to the place called the “Garden Tomb” which helped us catch a glimpse of what that last night might have been like.

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You can’t see it well from this picture, but there is a definite skull like rock formation in this cliff…and it otherwise fits the biblical description of the crucifixion well, being just outside the city walls (at that time) and in a traffic thoroughfare where they held frequent executions.  It may have actually been on the parking lot or the cliff above…again…we don’t know.  But either would stand in stark contrast to the fanfare of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher–which is partially owned by six different spatting denominations.

From there, the body may have been laid in the garden tomb, hewn out of the hillside nearby.  Again, we don’t know, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.  Why would we look for the living among the dead?  His bones aren’t there…or anywhere.

He is Risen! 

The past, present, and future of Jerusalem is a story unrivaled by any other place.  As we walked the streets, the words of the song, The Holy City rang in my head.  One day, Jesus will return in like manner as He left.  May He find us celebrating the fact that He came, lived, died, and ultimately won victory won over sin and death.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem!
Lift up your gates and sing!
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your king!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 5. The City of David

IMG_0358We started out our day Friday walking to the City of David.  This is confusing, so hang with me here…

David founded Jerusalem, taking the hill from the Jebusites and moving the capital from the Judean area of Hebron into a more central area not previously identified with any tribe.

IMG_0355He built a fantastic city which has remains (recently excavated) that we believe include his palace.  They even found some clay seals which have some of the names of biblical authorities around David’s time.  The clay–which would otherwise have disintegrated–was inadvertently “fired” by later conquerors of Jerusalem providing us some little bits of history thousands of years later.  Pretty cool.

In that time, for defensive reasons, people like to build cities on top of hills.  But most water sources were in the valleys.  Which is why you would have daughters.  Preferably, a bunch of them.

But even if you had girls to carry your water, there was another problem–a city without an internal water supply was not defensible at all.  So, as we have seen at other places, the people came up with some truly ingenious ways of working through that issue.  In this case, it included building a fortress around the water.  It is not completely preserved, but parts of it have been excavated and they are incredible–especially considering the types of tools that would have been available to them at that time.  Basically, bronze.

Jumping forward, years later, King Hezekiah would come up with yet another solution.  He changed the city wall and dug an amazing tunnel through the mountain–600 yards to divert that water and bring it inside. The Bible recounts this story and the fact that they started on the two ends and managed to meet in the middle.  It is almost unbelievable, but our eyes saw it and half of us had the fun of walking up the tunnel back into the city, ending near the pool of Siloam.  The water is still cold–running as high as our thighs in some places.

Tell you what, things they built back they were built to last.  No wonder Hezekiah liked to show off. Interestingly, the Syrians did come to attack Hezekiah, God struck them with blindness and they did not prevail at that time.

Some of the history is hard to picture even standing there on the spot because the cities have been built, destroyed, and rebuilt so many times over the thousands of years. Walls have been moved; buildings have changed purposes, etc. Until fairly recently, there was not a lot of effort to excavate or preserve much of anything in the City of David…the old, old Jerusalem. In fact, most of it is just an Arab neighborhood.

Of course, we know that the first temple site was also in the City of David (annexed to it, actually), not built by David, but by his son, Solomon. That temple was destroyed and later reconstructed by Ezra.

The next really impressive temple was actually built by Herod, not long before the days of Christ. It was really more of a political move for Herod and it served to both appease the Jews and provide for a center of commerce. At Jesus’ time, there was a new Jerusalem (now, the “Old City”) on the mountain above the City of David, and on it, Herod enclosed a huge site into a large table (now, the “Temple Mount”). The stones used to build this site are incredible. We saw one 6000 tons: is was 32 feet long and 15 feet deep. Curtis used the level app on its phone and we could see that 2000 years later, it was still perfectly level. The stones aren’t cemented together in any way—they don’t have to be I guess. Even now with our modern tools, a 6000 ton stone isn’t going much of anywhere.

As Jesus prophesied, the temple which stood there during his day was completely torn down and hundreds of years later, the Dome of the Rock was built there and the Muslims claim it now as a holy site. The temple mount remains, however, as an incredible tribute to Herod’s construction prowess. And, of course, it is still the site of much biblical history from Jesus as a young boy to his throwing out money changers just days before his death. The massive size of it also gives perspective on how many pilgrims would have traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover in those days. Thousands from all over would have heard and known of Jesus and taken the stories back to their cities and villages.

Gilad thinks of Jesus as one man in a sea of similar ones who claimed to be a Messiah—some who were trouble makers and some who were crazy. Had it not been for his two incredible PR people—Peter and Paul—he doesn’t think he would have made much of a splash in history at all. (Of course, there is this little thing of the resurrection that set Jesus apart, but more on that tomorrow.)

He said, somewhat critically, although perhaps just as an observation, “You people see Jesus is everything. You read the Old Testament and you think everything points to Jesus.”

And he’s right.

And I’ve seen Jesus in Israel—from the City of David (his great great-great-great grandfather) to the stories we heard of recent Jewish history while watching  Jewish boys playing in the streets of the Jewish quarter.  The story is one of law and grace.  Law which came through Moses and grace which came through Jesus Christ.

The Jewish people have a history that ties together the Old and New Testaments. The fact that they are still around at all after the wars, desolations, holocausts, dispersions, and drama that checkers their past screams of a God who chose them to be His people and who sent his Son as a Savior.

Day 3.5 – Just a Little Addendum

One of the things we learned in Capernaum gave us a taste of how the 613 Levitical laws have turned into the myriads of Jewish rules and regulations. If you are familiar with the law of Moses, you know that God said not to boil a kid in its mothers milk.
Well, apparently, that rule became “don’t boil a kid in any goats’ milk.” That became “don’t cook meat in a pot right after you have dairy in it.” That became “don’t use the same pot for dairy as you do for meat.” Ever. That called for two entirely different sets of cookware. That also became” don’t eat meat and dairy together” (lest they meet in your stomach). That became…in same cases…”don’t use the same kitchen to cook meat as you do dairy.”

That is just one example. Imagine doing that for all 613 laws.  Could get a tad cumbersome after a while.

Interestingly, when Jesus came, He himself raised the bar on a number of the laws of Moses. “Thou shalt not kill” became “don’t hate.”  “Thou shalt not commit adultery” became “don’t lust.”

At the same time, He did not seem to appreciate the efforts of the Pharisees to enforce the rules as they extrapolated them. He was not impressed with their efforts to tithe down to a tenth of their spices. He healed on the Sabbath. He broke rules and tradition by reaching out to foreigners and women.

It seems the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is that they were concerned about the external while He was concerned about the internal.  Jesus reduced the law down to two commandments: love God; love others. Then He became the perfect fulfillment of that law.

We left for Jerusalem and Gilad taught us a lot as we drove through the annexed territory known as the West Bank.  We pulled in just about sunset and it was amazing to see the city spread over the mountain in the dimming light.

Since it was the beginning of the Israeli Independence Day, he warned us that Jerusalem would be a bit of a zoo.  And he was right.  At least, the Jewish side. It’s really remarkable how Jerusalem (new city) is divided into two by two very different people groups living side by side.

We checked in to our hotel and then tried to walk around a bit. It was already 8:30 pm though and the streets were filling with all ages getting ready to party hardy. They had stages set up for bands and music and all manner of booths selling everything from cotton candy to blow up torture devises. I’m not joking.

We decided to have a late dinner and upon putting in our table request, were a bit puzzled by the question they asked us…meat or dairy?

Yep, they have two completely different sides of the restaurant with two completely different menus. We opted for meat side considering the fact that we’ve had mostly vegetables since we’ve been here. We ended the meal with dairy-free ice cream and chocolate mousse and watched out the window as the party continued to gain momentum.

People wore the Star of David on their hats, headbands, faces, and it was printed on their blow up pitch forks and spiked mallets. I’m still not joking.

And there was nothing joking about the soldiers we saw walking around, (some dressed in civilian clothes) carrying M-4s. None of them looked over 21.  It was a wild scene in certain respects, but it was clearly an accepted part of the culture here. Anything goes…As long as you don’t mix your meat and dairy.

Thankfully, they warned us about the fireworks that would be going off in the middle of the night. Otherwise, we might have thought it was…something else. Still a little bazaar to think that they shoot off fireworks in the middle of a crowded city. I mean, for a bunch of people that won’t eat meat and dairy in the same sitting.

I mean that respectfully, of course. When we woke up this morning, the streets had been cleared and cleaned. It was as if nothing ever happened.  Any city that can pull that off deserves respect.

 

Day 3. Jesus Was Here

IMG_0211We stayed in little cottages on the Sea of Galilee. It was after dusk when we arrived so it was hard to get a good picture. Gilad was apologetic for the darkness as well as the brownness of this time of year, but it was still beautiful. If you look across the sea, you can see into Syria and Lebanon.

Everyone else went to dinner but I went to bed. It was not a successful attempt at sleep, however. Tired as I was, my body seemed to know it was 2:30 pm, not 9:30 pm and I could not sleep. It didn’t help that my phone kept buzzing, beeping, and ringing. I was afraid to turn it off because it was my only alarm. I’m not so sure the international cell phone plan is such a good thing after all.

This day was spent around Galilee–basically, in the area where Jesus spent most of his ministry. In His time–just like today–one side on the sea was non-Jewish. So when Jesus went to the other side to get away, he was really going out of the country and into gentile territory. And, in His infinite wisdom, He didn’t have an international cell phone plan.

IMG_0171Jesus would have stood on that bank when He called His disciples out of their careers as fisherman into a new calling as fishers of men. A few years later, He would have fixed breakfast somewhere on those rocks just before returning to heaven.

We read some of the other stories of the Sea of Galilee from Mark, including Jesus calming the sea and his casting many devils out of the man who lived among the tombs.

From there, we saw the remains of the poor town of Capernaum as well as the Mount Beatitude and the place believed to be where Jesus fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. To this day, it is a desolate place with no place to buy food.

But you can get cell service.

The mix of Jewish, Christian, and Catholic influences have made for interesting touring. Many of the sites are now owned and run by the Catholic Church.   At first I found it a little irritating to see the Bible stories turned into basilicas and relics, but the reality is that the sites would probably never have been preserved if they hadn’t. The average Jew neither knows nor cares anything about New Testament history. Of course, the same is true for the Arabs.

As Gilad read the story of various miracles which took place at each site, He gave us a “Jewish” interpretation. Which was basically that they were not miracles at all–just allegories. I guess when you don’t want to believe Jesus is the Son of God, that is what you do–change literal into allegorical. But, as Curtis pointed out, one thing He could not explain was why the people in the stories would marvel. Lives were changed when Jesus touched them. People were not just healed physically, but willing to follow the Lord anywhere.

Magdala was our next stop. I was less familiar with this place (although we all know at least one of its citizens–Mary Magdalene), but the ruins were interesting and the history was fascinating. Basically, the entire fishing village was martyred for its Jewish faith by the Romans around 67 AD.

What was most interesting about this town, however, was that while most of the ruins we have seen–including temples, synagogues, and churches (though old and historical)–were built hundreds of years after the time of Christ, Magdala has remains of one which was existing at the actual time of Christ. In other words, given the close proximity to Capernaum, this was ground Jesus probably actually walked in and stones he actually sat on…not 30 feet above them and not built in His honor 300 or 1300 years later.  He was actually here.

IMG_0192 The synagogue was the remains of a fairly small stone structure with one podium and two rows of seating along the walls where Jesus would have read  from the Torah.  I could almost hear his voice ringing in the hall, Today, this Scripture had been fulfilled in your hearing. 

You can choose not to believe it and you can argue a lot of things, but this man and his fisherman followers definitely turned this world upside down. People are not traveling here from all over the world and all walks of life because of allegories and parables.

Truly, this was the Son of God. 

We stopped for lunch at a little Arab cafe and ate an interesting assortment of salads, bread, and sauces. The waiter spared us no smiles, slapped the food on the table, and didn’t mind touching it in the process. I tried not to think about that part. I was hungry.

Even without a scrap of meat on the table, the tab came to $10 a person.  This country is not cheap.

We headed up Mt Tabor–otherwise known as the Mount of Transfiguration. We stopped along the way to look down over the plains including the place where Deborah and Barak conquered Cicera and where Gideon and his army of 300 beat the Mideonites. We were also overlooking the plain where Elisha brought the Shunamite woman’s son back to life.

The Mount of Transfiguration, like so many of the other sites, has a Catholic Church built on top. The views were beautiful though and we could see the whole country it seemed. The story of the transfiguration from the gospels reiterates Jesus claim to be the Messiah as God foreordained and as John the Baptist declared.1

Our last stop of the day was at the Jordan River. Because it was the end of the day and the start of a holiday, we weren’t able to see the associated church or go down to the traditional baptismal site.

But Gilad said he could get us down to the Jordan another way. And he did.  Turned out to be one of the strangest experiences ever.

I thought someone was joking when they said they saw American Indians. But the next thing I knew, we were driving up to an arch decorated with a canoe and an American Indian mannequin.   There was a strip of land with water access decorated with totem poles, canoes, feathers, carnival games…the whole deal. IMG_0220

Apparently, in the normal course of things, you can rent a canoe and paddle the Jordan. Business must have been winding up for the day and there were just a few scattered Indian looking people, some girls sun bathing in next to nothing, and a little child running around in less than next to nothing.

So…as I mentioned…it was weird. Kinda hard to put my mind in the context of the baptism of Christ given the Totem poles and all. And sort of an anti climactic end to the day.

So…we watched the guys skip rocks and then left and got ice cream. That helped a lot. Seriously, I hadn’t had chocolate since yesterday morning.  That’s a lot of life lived between chocolate.

With that need met, we loaded up and headed for Jerusalem.  But I’ll save that story for another day except to tell you along the way we passed another site Gilad said is actually more likely the true baptismal site.  I think I’m going with that story. No totem poles. No cell service.

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PS – Anita wanted some olive oil and we stopped at a fascinating tea and spice kind of shop. Probably fifty different kinds of spices in open baskets competing for air.  Many shekels were spent on that diversion.  PPS – Donna…this place would have killed you. And all the Mileskis.  Period.