Unpacking My Trip to Israel, Suitcase #2

In case you missed it in the previous post, I supplied a few hyperlinks to videos I made on the trip. You might enjoy watching those – who knows. The guy making them is a bit cheesy, but who’s judging?

Third, my biggest surprises

I suppose I could blame it on flannelgraphs and A Beka flashcards, but I had no idea how rugged the terrain would be in Israel.  Galilee sits deep in a valley surrounded on all sides by mountains that rise a thousand feet or more above it.  But nothing could have prepared me for the steep climb into Bethlehem, or the mountain where Jerusalem sits.  For whatever reason, I always pictured Bethlehem as a rolling meadow with a little hill outside of town.  In fact, Bethlehem sits on a mountaintop, with steep climbs on all sides of the city. 

From the City of David, which is the location of David’s palace, sitting on the southern side of the Temple Mount, our guide referenced the 125th Psalm, where David said,

As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the LORD is round about his people from henceforth even for ever.

He then pointed out the mountains that surrounded the City of David from all sides – the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the Mount of Offense, the Mount of Evil Counsel, Mount Zion (which has changed names a few times).  Between Jerusalem and each of these mountains is a deep valley, which shows just how strategic Jerusalem was for defense and how difficult it would be to conquer. 

I was surprised by several of the Old Testament ruins, particularly at Bethsaida, Dan, Beth She’an, the two Caesareas, and Hazor.  I had read about each of them, but still was unprepared for what I saw.  Bethsaida was probably the biggest surprise.  As you know, Bethsaida in Galilee was the hometown of at least three and possibly four of the disciples.  We visited Bethsaida Julias, where Jesus performed several of His greatest miracles, and which He condemned for their unbelief.  In this Bethsaida, we saw ruins dating back to the kingdom of Geshur.  King David married the daughter of the King of Geshur, and their son Absalom fled to this town when he murdered Amnon.  The ruins here are well preserved, including the fisherman’s house and the wine maker’s house, along with the ancient gates of the city.  I confess, I was amazed to think of Jesus walking among these ruins – probably not ruins in his day, and working His miracles.

Throughout my life, I have regularly studied maps of Israel to see if I could find the locations mentioned in Biblical stories.  You cannot possibly imagine how close things are in Israel by looking at a map.  So, I was staggered by the nearness of things.  Our tour guide took us to Beth Shemesh, where the lowing cattle carried the Ark of the Covenant.  There, we viewed the Valley of Sorek below us, and opposite that valley the mountain where Manoah raised the young man Samson.  I had always assumed that Samson had to travel to find the Philistine women he found so attractive.  It never dawned on me until I saw it with my eyes that he literally only had to look down into the valley to see the settlements of the Philistines.

One more related surprise came when we visited Kirjath-Jearim (which our guide carefully pronounced for us: Kiriath-Ye’arim).  This ancient city is also believed to be the New Testament village of Emmaus.  It sits on the Road to Joppa, almost exactly 7 miles from Jerusalem.  As we stood on this mountain and looked back towards Jerusalem, I was amazed to see how near Jerusalem was.  Much of the 7 miles stretches across a valley.  It was across this valley that David brought the Ark of the Covenant when he moved it to Jerusalem.  And across this same valley, Jesus walked with two men and expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).

Our tour made an unexpected stop at the recently excavated Migdal Synagogue in the city of Magdala.  There, we got to see the ruins of an ancient synagogue, dating back to the time of Christ, and in the region of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent most of his ministry.  We can assume that Jesus taught in this very synagogue. 

And finally, we were delighted to see the recently excavated ruins of the Pool of Siloam, near the exit of Hezekiah’s tunnel in Jerusalem.  It was a delight to us to see these still preserved ruins dating back to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fourth, my favorite places

I confess, I have a hard time identifying one place that is my favorite.  So, I’ll tell you my top six and give a brief reason why I enjoyed each.

First, I loved visiting the Garden Tomb.  Our tour guide helpfully took us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre first, and then we visited the Garden Tomb.  That gave us a taste of the traditional sight and then let us see the excellent reasons to think that the Garden Tomb is the authentic site of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.  As our Garden Tomb guide explained, the Romans loved to crucify alongside a main road.  The Garden Tomb is located right next to the crossroads of the road to Jericho and the road to Damascus – a prime spot for a crucifixion.  The Garden Tomb has as a backdrop a cliff face that looks like a skull, and many believe this cliff face was called Golgotha because of that resemblance.  The Garden Tomb is located in an ancient garden, discovered in 1841 by Dr. Edward Robinson.  The garden was owned by a wealthy gardener, which fits with what the Bible tells us about Joseph of Arimathea. 

Second, I loved the view from the City of David.  Our guide pointed out a grate, now covered by plexiglass, that covers a deep shaft lowering into a very large room.  We can be almost certain that Jeremiah was lowered into this prison when the King of Israel considered his prophetic message to be subversive.  In the city of David, I could see how easily David could have watched Bathsheba, as the neighboring ground is far beneath the palace area.

Third, I loved Caesarea Maritima (Caesarea on the Sea).  What a beautiful location.  But especially, to remember what happened there – Paul stood trial there, and Peter preached the gospel to a Gentile who became the first Gentile convert to Christianity.  We stood at the place where Paul may have stood trial, just outside the Herodian hippodrome, where ancient chariot races were held.

Fourth, Tel Dan amazed us.  Archeologists have rebuilt much of the city wall so we can see what it was like to enter an ancient city, where the governor sat at the gate to examine all who entered.  Dan includes a replica of the altar Jereboam built that snared Israel and led to the eventual destruction at the hands of the Assyrians.  In order to unite the Jews and Canaanites of the northern ten tribes, Jereboam built side-by-side an altar to Yahweh and an altar to Baal, so that the people of his kingdom would have one place to worship. And at Dan, archeologists uncovered a set of city gates dating back to the time Abram pursued Chedorlaomer all the way to Dan (as described in Genesis 14).

Beth She’an is an amazing place.  Much has been restored by the Jewish Antiquities authority so that you can see what the capital of the Decapolis looked like. 

But my favorite place of all was Hazor.  The ruins there show evidence of a great fire, described in Joshua 11.  Archeologists believe that the stone palace burned because of a storage facility filled with olive oil.  The fire must have burned especially hot, because the basalt walls cracked, suggesting a heat exceeding 2,000° F. 

Finally, some takeaway points

I learned two things that stand out in my mind from my visit to Israel.  First, I learned that Jesus came to the crossroads of the world.  Throughout world history, Israel has been the most coveted land because of its position at the center of the major trade routes of the world.  When Jesus chose the land of Israel to be the place where He entered the world, He made Capernaum the place where He would conduct most of His earthly ministry.  Capernaum is located right on the Via Maris, the longest road in the world and the major trade route running from the southern tip of Africa to the far northern regions of Europe.  And when Jesus was crucified, I believe He was crucified on the crossroads of the two major trade routes of the world. 

Some have rightly suggested that churches strive for a strategic approach to ministry – that we aim for the decisive point, the point at which we can do the most damage to the enemy.  This idea of strategic ministry struck me when considering the obvious way that Jesus placed Himself where He could shake the world.

Second, I was reminded once again that the Bible is rooted in place and time, and history.  We shouldn’t look at the things of this life as if they are pointless or meaningless, as if they only serve the purpose of spanning the time between this life and the next.  God has placed us in this world, in a particular place, and at a particular time.  We are called to serve the Lord in our generation. 

The glory of the gospel, and the glory of God’s Word, is that it is for all times and all places.  But that doesn’t keep us from noting the particular times or places where God has worked.  These places bear witness to the truth of Scripture.

Rather, it ought to encourage us to serve Him more faithfully where we are.  God never intended that His work and ministry be limited to a particular region of the world.  He designed His kingdom so that it would spread from shore to shore and then beyond, to the distant corners of the world.  The apostles understood this, and sought to expand the reach of Christ’s kingdom to distant shores.  We are blessed by their work, as the gospel has reached us as well. 

But we also have a responsibility to do the same.  Our ability to travel to Israel and tour the places where Jesus accomplished the work of redemption gives us a tremendous blessing.  It makes the Bible come alive for us.  It reminds us that these things happened in a particular place and at a particular time.  It provides valuable support for the truth of Scripture. And especially, I was reminded that we ought to be abounding in the work of the Lord.