Unpacking My Trip to Israel, Suitcase #1

Our church decided that it was high time we visited the land of the Bible.  They didn’t exactly ask if we wanted to go, but informed us that they had bought us a trip and told us we were going.  Then, they asked if that was okay. 

And we consented. 

I thought you might enjoy hearing a little about our trip, thus this miniature travelogue.  Let me say from the start that a trip to Israel looks more like a work trip than a vacation.  I wonder if you can write it off on your taxes. 

Don’t get me wrong – we did get to stay in some nice hotels and eat some really fine meals in those hotels, desert tables groaning beneath the weight of some pretty amazing sweets.  We were with a group of friends, and two of my very close friends were on the trip.  We had a riot with them – except when our tour guide was cracking his whip.  But the daily schedule is rigorous and exhausting.  We were up at 6:00 every morning and on the bus by 7:30. A couple of the early days of the trip, we were back to our hotel around 4:30, but as we neared the end of the trip, the days stretched closer to 6:00 in the evening. 

But it was worth it.  Thank you to my church (and to Jeff Voegtlin) for “making” us go!

That said, let me offer some advice to future pilgrims before launching into a couple of takeaways from the trip.  First, you need some way to keep track of what you have seen.  Our church has a private Facebook page which we restrict to our current membership.  I was able to record short video clips at the various sites we visited and then post them to that private Facebook page.  The video clips were an average of a minute to a minute and a half in length, and I had my wife film while I pointed out what I had just learned.  In all, over 8 days of touring, I probably compiled about 40 videos.  We were able to post them while we rode the bus from stop to stop, as the bus had Wifi.  That worked out well for the most part, other than the days we spent in Jerusalem when we didn’t spend much time on the bus.  Our church enjoyed waking up each morning to see what we had posted. 

Second, it is good to do your homework in advance.  Our trip was organized under Imagine Travel, and they provided us with a helpful little book of all the sites we would be visiting (with one exception).  My wife and I both read the book from cover to cover.  I also bought a Kindle edition of John Beck’s excellent little book The Holy Land for Christian Travelers: an Illustrated Guide for Israel.  The book was great and filled in some information that our travel agent’s book didn’t cover.  I found the combination of these books very helpful and felt prepared for the visit in advance.

Third, it is great to have a Jewish guide, one who understood the culture and can explain it, especially if he understands the differences between Christianity and Judaism.  Our group was blessed tremendously to have Mark Sugarman as our guide.  Sugarman grew up in the United States and moved to Israel fifty years ago as a young adult.  He spoke English and Hebrew and a couple of other languages and was himself a committed Jew, which I found helpful in understanding the culture of modern Israel.  Sugarman is a patriot.  He loves Israel passionately, and that came out throughout the trip.  He also loves Donald Trump and spoke often of all that Trump did for Israel.  Though it would be difficult to find, I think the only way to improve on guides would be to have a Christian convert who grew up in Judaism.  But I’m not sure that is possible.

Fourth, it is great to have friends on the trip.  Our group had such camaraderie.  We genuinely enjoyed each other (unless I am delusional – in which case, please, nobody tell me).  We laughed a lot, drove our tour guide crazy, stayed up later than we should have, and genuinely formed a bond over the course of two weeks which makes me very grateful. 

One more thing in advance: it is great to go as a couple.  I couldn’t imagine doing that trip without my wife.  We had such a great time together, and I wouldn’t want to make that kind of memory without her. 

Now to the takeaways…

First, my biggest anticipations

Maybe it sounds odd, but I was really looking forward to standing on Mount Precipice, just outside of Nazareth.  Some believe that it was the place where the men of Nazareth attempted to throw Jesus off the cliff.  Despite the disputes, I looked forward to standing on this mountain because in my preparation, I read about all the significant locations from the Old Testament that are visible from Mount Precipice.  At Mount Tabor, Deborah and Barak gathered their armies.  At Mount Moreh, Gideon gathered with his 300.  At Mount Gilboa, King Saul died.  King Josiah died at Megiddo.  And Elijah faced down the priests of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel.  I imagined Mary and Joseph hiking to the top of this mountain with Jesus and pointing out these sites. 

I wasn’t disappointed with the view from Mount Precipice, though our tour guide gave very little attention to what might have been pointed out to Jesus.  I tried to figure out where each of these locations was, but I was too unfamiliar with the terrain to enjoy it as much as I had hoped. 

I also hoped that I would be able to understand a little more about how to tell authentic sites from traditional sites.  For that, our tour guide was an excellent help.  His favorite phrase was “definitely maybe.”  He would explain very concisely how a site became traditional and if it was disputed, why.  I found that incredibly helpful.  It can be tough to know whether the ruins you are looking at are reconstructed or authentic archeological discoveries.

You probably want me to explain how to know.  My answer is, ask someone who knows.  I still couldn’t explain it.  But I did like looking at the authentic discoveries more than the reconstructions. 

Third, I anticipated that Israel was a shrine-saturated land, and I was not mistaken in that.  Perhaps I should say, my mistake was that I underestimated just how shrine-saturated the land of Israel really is.  Some of the shrines are ridiculous, but others are gorgeous.  I was amazed at the Teardrop Cathedral on the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Nations just outside the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Cathedral of the Beatitudes on the Mount of Beatitudes.  I wasn’t a fan of the Church of the Nativity with all its pomp, or of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which I see as a sham. 

But I have to say, I did not anticipate that I would develop an appreciation for these shrines.  I am reluctant to say it, but they do serve a purpose.  Without them, there would be nothing to see (and no way to see anything) in Bethlehem, which is under the absolute control of the Muslims.  These shrines serve the purpose of preserving something, and I recognize their value in that.

Second, my biggest disappointments

Nevertheless, the shrines disgusted me.  I did not enjoy watching the way people groveled at the shrines.  The idolatry of places and sacred spots cannot please God.  I watched as one lady poured oil on the stone slab at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the church claims that on this slab, the body of Jesus was prepared for burial.  This woman poured her oil on the slab, mopped it up with a shawl, then draped the shawl over her head while she kissed the stone. 

The shrines foist many myths on the people.  The Church of the Nativity has a star on the ground marking the exact spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus – as if this could be known.  They have a marble “manger” marking the spot where the manger sat.  But worse than that, they mark the spot where the wise men stood when they visited baby Jesus – never mind that the wise men came days after Jesus’ birth, visiting the house where Jesus was, rather than the stable where He was born.

I found the Muslim control of key cities in Israel disturbing.  Two major cities associated with our Lord Jesus Christ are under Muslim control – Bethlehem and Bethany, and so forth.  Outside of Bethlehem and in the surrounding area, we were shocked to see huge red signs warning Israelis that they must not enter those places and that their lives would be in danger if they did.  I found it shocking, the obvious racism in these signs.

Our group spent an afternoon at the Holocaust Museum.  I have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC in the past, so I was prepared for this one.  Personally, I prefer the DC museum to the one in Israel.  I will only make two comments about Yad Vasshim, the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum.  First, I recognize that a terrible atrocity was committed against the Jewish people and that the world stood by while it was done.  There is no excuse for the world’s complicity in this crime.  I agree with Israel, that America sat on their hands when they had the power to do something about it. 

It seemed to me that part of the point of Yad Vasshim is to reinforce in the minds of the Israeli people the “us against the world” mindset.  No doubt our Jewish friends would argue that, given the open animosity of most of the world against them, this is absolutely necessary.  The museum was packed with military in training, all being taught about what happened in those dark days. 

While I understand the need to educate young Israelis about the world’s hatred of Jews, I was disappointed at just how overtly anti-Christian Yad Vasshim is.  The museum goes to great lengths to lay the holocaust at the feet of Christianity.  I was disappointed that the museum hardly even recognizes the role that eugenics played in this terrible crime or the fact that Nazi doctrine hated Christianity almost as much as it hated Israel. Perhaps a part of the problem comes from lumping every form of Catholicism and all the Orthodox religions together with the rest of Christianity.

Our group also visited the Temple Museum, which set forth Israel’s great longing to rebuild the temple.  Frankly, I am not a fan of this.  With the death of Christ, God established a new temple – the saint as part of the New Testament church.  I do not look for another.  Though I am disgusted by the Dome on the Rock and see it as a usurper, I also see it as providential that the Dome on the Rock stands on the location of the former temple, preventing the rebuilding of the temple.

Still more to say, but that just about unpacks the first suitcase – maybe a hanger or a stray sock stuck in a corner. We’ll work on suitcase #2 in a jiff.