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Land of Faith
The land of Israel is inextricably linked to our Western concept of God. Whether one is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, it was in this land that the Patriarchs of the faith walked. The land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem in particular, is the focus of the world's three major monotheistic religions. Unfortunately, Israel has also been home of religious zealotry that has led to bloodshed. Be that as it may, Israel still has a magnetic pull for the faithful.
As a Christian, I have longed to see this land with my own eyes--to see where the prophets of old took a stand, to see the land where divine revelation was made known, to see the landscape that Christ walked. Seeing the area where the narrative of Scripture was played out brings new life to the words. Seeing the literal fulfillment of prophecies made centuries ago gives new weight to one's faith. One reads the prophet Isaiah, "he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord" (NIV translation used for all Scripture quotations), and one is tempted to believe the words are merely biblical hyperbole, but to see the seemingly miraculous agriculture that takes places in this rocky, desert land and one sees prophecy fulfilled. Sixty percent of the land is classified as arid or semi-arid, so any agricultural activity must be highly water-efficient. Expecting barrenness, one sees abundant produce--watered as the Sea of Galilee's water is pumped throughout the land. Since the 1948 re-establishment of the nation, agricultural output has increased by 1200 percent, with no increase in the amount of water consumed. Vineyards and fields filled with pomegranates, bananas, oranges, lemons, almonds, and date palms cover the land. I saw strawberries produced in the land the size of a teacup. Abandoned and covered in rumble for centuries, the land now blossoms with produce. The agricultural acumen of the nation has indeed made it "like a garden of Eden." Many see the modern establishment of the Jewish State as a direct fulfillment of the words of the prophet Amos, "I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them (Amos 9:15)."
Our tour started in the small port city of Jaffa, referred to as "Joppa," in the Bible. The city has a long history. Tradition says it was founded by Japheth, Noah's son, shortly after the flood. Because of its location, the area has always been a strategic objective for armies doing battle in the region. It was in this village that the Apostle Peter received the vision that led to the Gospel being taken to the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-15). The city is also mentioned in several Old Testament passages. It was to this city that Jonah fled, hoping to catch a ship and avoid doing the Lord's will (Jonah 1:3). It was the port city that received building material for the construction of Solomon's Temple (2 Chronicles 2:16), and for the second temple (Ezra 3:7). The city is small today and lies in sight of Tel Aviv, a modern Western style city.
Tel Aviv seems out of place in this land of faith, with all the decadence associated with Western cities. But even there, in the market, I saw a faith principle in action. The fruits and vegetables were laid out on tables lining the streets, at the bottom of the tables were boxes of the same fruit and vegetables, to be moved to the table tops as space became available, I assumed. Not so. These boxes were placed there for the poor. Those with means purchase from the table tops, those without merely take what they need from the boxes--no questions asked.
A few miles up the coast one finds the ruins of Caesarea. Herod the Great named the city in honor of Caesar Augustus. Built along the lines of a typical Roman city, Caesarea was Israel's most important port city during the New Testament period. After AD 6 the city was home for the region's Roman governors, the seat of Roman power in Palestine. It was here that the Apostle Paul was brought after his arrest in Jerusalem. The remains of the city's theater overlook the sea, and at times the sea was used as part of the set. Using intensive labor, the harbor was completely manmade.
Not far away, on a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean, is Mount Carmel. On this rugged piece of turf, the prophet Elijah had his showdown with 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah. Today there is a Carmelite church built over Elijah's cave. Every once in awhile one may see a Carmelite Father wistfully looking out to sea--reminiscent of Elijah's servant looking for the approaching rain cloud after years of drought (1 Kings 18:43-44).
The Galilee region is the area where most of Jesus' ministry took place. Originally the area of the western Upper Galilee was assigned to the tribe of Asher, the tribe that was to have an abundance of oil according to Deuteronomy 33:24. Today the rocky hillsides give way to valleys filled with olive trees, some of which are over 2,000 years old, and the olive oil flows plentifully.
Lying nearly 700 feet below sea level, a twisting road leads down to the Sea of Galilee. After a long dry spell a few years back a fishing boat from the time of Jesus was discovered along the shores. I guess it was inevitable that a tourist attraction would follow. Today visitors can take a ride on a boat built like the ancient vessel and watch a fellow dressed as Peter--if you can ignore the wristwatch and name brand athletic shoes sticking out from the fisherman's smock--cast a fishing net as the apostle did long ago.
Not to be missed are the ruins of Capernaum, "the town of Jesus," as the sign says. Capernaum was a small fishing village at the time of Christ and was the center of his Galilean ministry. See the remains of a 4th-Century synagogue. This isn't the synagogue in which Jesus preached (Mark 1:21, John 6:59), but would have been built on the same spot. Right next door, between the synagogue and the harbor, is a site identified as "the house of Peter." Traditionally this is the house where Jesus stayed (Matthew 8:14-16), the one which had a section of its roof removed so a paralytic could be lowered for Jesus to heal (Mark 2:3-4). Overlooking the sea and not far away is the Mount of the Beatitudes, where, it is supposed Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). The acoustics of the hill are excellent and the location would be perfectly logical.
Just down the shore a ways is Tabgha and the Catholic chapel called the Church of the Loaves and Fishes. During the winter months Capernaum's fishermen would follow the schooling musht, commonly referred to as "St. Peter's fish," which came for the area's warm springs. Christian tradition says that Jesus often met with his disciples by a prominent rock by the springs. Upon that rock, the church structure now stands. The church altar is built around an outcropping of rock called "The Lord's Table." Traditionally, the post-resurrection meal he served his disciples was served upon that rock (John 21:13).
At the time of Christ, Palestine was ruled by the iron fist of Rome. The Roman influence is still evident today from the Roman architecture found among ruins to several questionable Christian sites "located" by Helena, mother of Constantine some 300+ years after Christ, to the city of Tiberias. This city, constructed on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee by Herod Antipas as his capital, was dedicated in AD 18 and named in honor of Caesar Tiberias. It may have been the most important port on the Galilee Sea in Jesus' day as the sea itself is referred to as "the Sea of Tiberias," in John 21:1. Today it is a quiet little resort town.
Most people traveling to Israel are not coming for a vacation but for deeply religious reasons. In fact, 60% of all visitors are Christians making a religious pilgrimage. Part of such a visit should include seeing "The Galilee Experience." The sound and slide presentation covers 4,000 years of Galilee history in 38 minutes by a computer-controlled program utilizing 27 projectors and 2,000 slides. The project is managed by Evangelical Christians living in Tiberias.
On the Jordan River, not far from where it provides an outlet for the Sea of Galilee, is one of the traditional Baptismal sites. At last count there were three locations claiming to be the location. One reason this site is promoted is because of an abundance of doves in the region--never mind that the dove appearing at Christ's baptism was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The location is designed to handle a large flow of tourists with a gift shop and changing facilities for those wishing to be baptized--and there seems to always be a steady stream of candidates.
Nazareth, hometown of Jesus after his family's return from Egypt, is an Arab municipality of tightly packed structures lining the hillside with narrow streets and triple-parked cars. The Church of the Annunciation is supposedly built over the location Mary was standing when the angel brought her the news that she would bear Messiah. Saint Joseph's Church is built over the remains of a carpentry shop. There is a church built over the synagogue from which Jesus was expelled, the Church of the Synagogue, operated by the Franciscans. Down the hill from Nazareth is the city of Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle. Apparently Jesus left his home village but didn't travel far to begin his ministry. Today there are three churches (Russian Orthodox, Franciscan, and Greek Orthodox) supposedly on the site where the miracle of the wine occurred.
Leaving Nazareth, on the way to Jericho, approaching the Navot (Naboth) Junction, the fertile ground is covered with almond trees. The fertility of the area is the reason it was coveted by King Ahab (1 Kings 21:1-4). Not far away, by Yissakarr Junction, is Gideon's Spring. Everywhere one looks, it seems, history is tied directly to the landscape. Bedouins can still be seen on the hills tending their flocks, as their ancestors have done for centuries. These traditional, wandering shepherds have no permanent home. When asked about the situation one Bedouin answered, "Tell me the difference between your homes and your jails, then you will understand the Bedouins."
Beth Shan is an ancient city and one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world. There have been 26 layers of civilization uncovered at the site. After the defeat and death of King Saul, the Philistines fastened his body to the city walls, according to 1 Samuel 31:10. Situated along an ancient crossroads, the city was always important. During the time of Christ, it was one of the cities of the Decapolis.
After the full revelation of his identity (Matthew 16:13-21) to his disciples, Christ made plans for going to Jerusalem. Jerusalem represents the climatic location of his mission. It was here that he would present the Kingdom of God to the religious leaders. It was here that those leaders would reject that Kingdom out of jealousy and concern for their own positions and deliver Christ up before the Romans for death. It was here that he would die for the sin of the world.
Higher in elevation than the surrounding desert terrain, Jerusalem was a Jebusite city conquered by King David about 3,000 years ago. The city sat atop Mount Moriah with the Kidron and Hinnon Valleys on either side being the original city's borders. David was looking for a location owned by neither of the tribes but yet accessible to all. Midway between the northern and southern tribes, the city satisfied those desires. It was here that David would establish his government. He would lay plans for the Temple, actually purchasing the site where the Temple would one day stand from his own funds (2 Samuel 24:21-25). This centralized location would become the religious center of Israel. The city was under almost constant change from the time of David until the time of the Romans. The Tower of David Museum, located by the Jaffa Gate in the Old City, offers a detailed history of the city from 3150 BC through the present.
Lying east of Jerusalem, just across the Kidron Valley, is the Mount of Olives. Here one finds the Church of the Ascension and The Church of the Lord's Prayer. The Church of the Lord's Prayer is built over what was a residential cave--thought to be where Jesus stayed since the Bible says specifically that he did not have a home. Logically, if this was where he resorted, it makes sense that this may have been the location where he taught his disciples to pray. The Lord's Prayer is recorded in 106 languages on the church walls. The mount offers an excellent view of the city. Here Jesus often met with his disciples. It was here that he stood, viewing the city, before beginning his triumphal entry (Matthew 21). It was here, when asked by his disciples about the coming destruction of the Temple, that Jesus delivered the Olivet Discourse, recorded in Matthew 24-25 and Mark 13. It was here, on the flank of the mount that Jesus wept over Jerusalem's coming fate (Luke 19:41-42).
The walls of Old Jerusalem encompass an area less than one square mile in size. A visit to the Holy Land would be incomplete without walking around the Old City. The focus for Muslims and Jews is the Temple Mount area. The Moslem Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque now sit atop the mount. The Western Wall is the primary focal point for the Jewish people. Here one may regularly witness Bar Mitzvahs taking place. This is the Jewish religious initiation ceremony for a 13 year-old boy. During the ceremony he is given his own phylacteries; small boxes with leather straps containing Scripture portions. These are then bound to the forehead and the forearm, literally following Deuteronomy 6:8.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem claims to be built over Christ's empty tomb. The first church on the site was built in the fourth century. Today's structure dates from the 12th century. The church is under the auspices of six branches of the Christian faith: Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, and Ethiopian, each carrying out its own services. Just outside the Old City walls, on Mount Moriah, is the Garden Tomb, a site that presents itself as possibly being the location of Christ's tomb. Cut from solid rock with a rolling stone closure, the tomb dates from the time of Christ and wasn't completely finished--indicating a hurried use. As far as is known, it is the only garden site from Christ's time, near the execution site.
The Upper Room is another Jerusalem site visited by Christians. Located on Mount Zion, near the traditional tomb of King David, the original room was the location of some important events. It was here that Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples, and it was here that the Holy Spirit arrived on the Day of Pentecost, giving birth to the Church. The room that is there today, of course, isn't the original room, but is of Crusader design. In the room, I witnessed a group of visiting South African Christians spontaneously sing, "I Love You Lord." It is a moving, spiritual experience to see the reaction of Christian pilgrims, and to know that the true location where Jesus' followers waited after his resurrection for the coming Holy Spirit is probably very near.
Seeing the Holy Land firsthand, is a bit like Ezekial's vision (Ezekial 37). Seeing the land, seeing the location where the events took place is to see flesh come upon the bones of Scripture reading.
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Text and Photos [c] Thomas R. Fletcher