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 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.