Initially I had grandiose plans for writing daily letters describing what I’m seeing here in the Holy Land. Well, our schedules are grueling and I’m wiped out most evenings so I thought I’d just give a quick summary of what I’ve seen so far.
We visited several Old Testament cities on our second day. We saw excavations of Hezekiah’s walls in the Jewish Quarter. These were built after Hezekiah realized that Assyria would have Jerusalem in its sights after capturing the Northern kingdom. We also walked through the tunnels he had dug in order to provide more water for the city in case of a siege. These tunnels are underneath what was originally “David’s City.” This very small area (about 10 acres at most) was the size of David’s Jerusalem before Solomon built the Temple. Archaeology in the city is provocative stuff. Muslims do what they can to prevent any digging because any proof that Jews have of ancient claims on the city is to be avoided at all costs. At the end of the trip through the tunnels we wound up at the pool of Siloam. It is amazing to realize how far Jesus sent the blind man, down many stairs, to wash in the pool to be healed!
The next day we visited the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock is a 7th century Muslim shrine thought to be built exactly on the spot of the Holy of Holies from Herod’s Temple. This is a very sensitive location and Jews are only allowed on top in small numbers and with armed guards. Ariel Sharon sparked the Second Intifada by coming up here and delivering a speech. Next we proceeded to the Pool of Bethesda where the man lame for 38 years was healed by Jesus. We walked along the Via Dolorosa, which some think was the path that Jesus would have taken to his crucifixion. Next we went to the Western (Wailing) Wall and saw several Bar Mitzvahs in action. We ended the day at the southern end of the Temple pavement. You can still see enormous piles of stones from the Temple which Roman soldiers pushed off the Mount in 70 AD. We sat on the steps that provided access to the Temple mount in Jesus day and provided ample room for rabbis to teach their disciples. This is one place where rock is exposed that would have been there when Jesus was here; a place the Lord himself once walked!
We took a road trip south of Jerusalem the next day. First we visited the Herodian—an artificial mountain that Herod the Great turned into a security fortress, palace, and ultimately his tomb. From here you can see Jerusalem in the haze to the North. Next we proceeded to Bethlehem. The church here, built by Constantine’s mother in the fourth century, is amazingly preserved and thought to actually be the spot where Jesus was born. The Christian population in Bethlehem is dwindling and a mosque right next to the church blares prayers and sermons in the direction of the church. We ended the day on the Mount of Olives looking west over the city. Here I was impressed with just how hilly, indeed mountainous, this city is. You actually look down on the city from the Mount. Here Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and wept over the recalcitrant city.
Following that we took a day trip to the Jordan and Benjamin (area north of Jerusalem). My favorite part of this trip was hiking from the Judean wilderness down a gorge that still has an active monastery (St. George). All along this gorge you can see caves that once housed hermits from the monastery. This hike made vivid just how high Jerusalem is and just how low the Jordan (or Rift) Valley is. Jerusalem is 2,577 feet above sea level; the Dead Sea is 1,300 feet below. Jerusalem is roughly 13 miles from Jericho. This gives new meaning to “going up” to Jerusalem! From the valley we proceeded back up and north of Jerusalem to various high points in the Benjamin plateau. From there we could see places like Ramah (Samuel’s home town), Gibeah (Saul’s home town), Ai and Mizpeh. On our way home we passed the very canyon that Jonathan climbed down and back up to make his experimental raid on the Philistines.
Next we had a three day field study to the southwestern hill territory, the southern desert, and the Dead Sea region. The first day we visited the Valley of Elah where David confronted Goliath, Beth Shemesh where Samson lived, and Lachish, which was taken by the Assyrians (2 Kings 18.14 mentions this) before they besieged Jerusalem. We also got to visit a live archaeological dig. We ended the day at the beach in Ashkelon.
The next day we went to various cities in the Negev (southern desert) that were strategic border locations protecting Judah to the south. We visited Beersheba, which is famous in part because of the phrase “from Dan to Beersheba” that describes the northern/southern limits of the Land. Here Abraham negotiated a pact with Abimelech and dug wells. We visited Ben Gurion’s (the first prime minister of modern Israel) tomb and then climbed a canyon in the Wilderness of Zin which—an area the children of Israel would have traversed in their wanderings. We ended the day at a location called Avdat.
We visited Masada next. This is the stronghold along the Dead Sea that David probably used and that Herod the Great fortified and lavishly built up. Most people consider this Herod’s most amazing achievement. It had palaces, a synagogue, dove houses for meat, space for agriculture, huge water cisterns, and nearly impregnable fortifications. It probably took the Romans around a year to successfully besiege this city in 70 AD and capture it from the remaining Jewish rebels. Josephus’ account of the mass suicide pact of this group of rebels is harrowing.
We took a dip in the Dead Sea next. This was incredible. The mineral content of the ocean is about 5%, the Great Salt Lake is about 9%, and the Dead Sea is about 34%. You feel like your body is made of cork as you float. From there we made a quick hike to En Gedi, a rare spot where lush springs feed into the Dead Sea. Actually, that water doesn’t flow there today since water is so scarce; it is pumped to agricultural locations. We ended the day at Qumran. This is where a Bedouin shepherd stumbled upon jars containing scrolls of the Old Testament. These scrolls and thousands of other fragments gave us the oldest known texts of the Old Testament, almost 1,000 years older than anything we had before that. They also affirmed the reliability of the Old Testament as we have it. They were kept by a community of ascetic Jews who separated from the Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day because they believed it was corrupted. John the Baptist may have actually spent time with this community.
Today we went to Shiloh. This is the place where the Ark resided at least until it was captured by the Philistines in Samuel’s time. There is a Jewish settlement that owns the land and a theater that gives the story of the location. After that we visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This museum houses the largest amount of archaeological finds and art in Israel.
Whew! I’m tired just writing all that. I want everyone to know how grateful I am for this opportunity. This is an experience I will never forget. I hope you can reap some fruit from the things I’m soaking up here.