Thursday, March 19, 2009

Day One - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Monday, March 9, 2009

Coming up from the airtram station at JFK from my connector flight and making my way through the throng of people, I am greeted by a loud "Elke!" - and, much to my surprise, pronounced properly ("Elka" for all you non-German pronouncing Americans). As I look up, I see Dr. Gary Yates, my Old Testament course professor, coming at me, saying hello and pointing me to a temporary station by our travel agency where I need to go pick up my travel information package. It is about 8:30 pm, and we are getting ready to set off on a ten day trip to Israel with about 180 other students from Liberty, constituting four big tour buses, plus another three busloads of Thomas Road Baptist Church attendees. Oy vey. I have never been on a trip to Israel with that many people, and I kind of dread the things to come.

Mercifully, I had a previous opportunity to meet Dr. Yates and his daughter Erin as well as Dr. Leo Percer, New Testament professor at Liberty University, and his wife Lisa on a trip to Lynchburg just prior to us leaving for Israel. So I know I will know at least four people on this trip - that's a start!

I am taking OBST592, Old Testament Survey II, on this trip as an "Israel Intensive", but am not quite sure what that will mean in practical application. Of course, Dr. Yates sent out a syllabus, but this is a new way of traveling to me. No time to think about this now as I get in line with Dr. Yates and Erin to get our luggage checked in. The wait is a lengthy one as the line, based on the number of travelers, is appropriately long. I suddenly understand why El Al wants passengers there three hours in advance. The line moves inch by inch, but due to the company, we have plenty to chat about. As soon as we reach the roped-off area where scrutiny gets serious and first document checks have occurred, we see a table being set up with "men in black" (Orthodox Jews in traditional garb) placing boxes and plates of cookies as well as drinks on it. They start speaking to passing people and giving them cookies. Tonight starts the Purim holiday, which is evident by some of the young Jewish men having put on make-up and wigs. As much as we want a cookie, too, it is not a good idea to get out of line at this point.

We finally make it up to the main check where a serious-faced young man introduces us to El Al's legendary security by asking us many questions. Dr. Yates immediately gets pulled out into a special area, and the young man comes to collect Erin as soon as he realizes she is Dr. Yates' daughter. With the attention on them, I manage to bypass the special "please open your suitcase" section and proceed straight to the check-in counter. I am totally delighted with this as I am usually the one getting pulled apart. I must have gloated a little too much (read the last blog for why).

Once we are all checked in, we stop by the Purim table and have a brief conversation with the young Israelis staffing it. Their English is limited, but we manage to gather that they are Lubavitcher and part of the Chabad movement. The Lubavitchers' last rebbe is Menachem Mendel Schneerson who is still revered after his death in 1994, and their objective is to convince Jewish people of the benefits of living an Orthodox life. According to Google, "(f)ollowing the initiative of the sixth Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson spurred on the movement to what has become known as shlichus ("serving as an emissary [performing outreach]") after becoming Rebbe in 1950–1951. As a result, Chabad shluchim ("emissaries", sing. shliach) have moved all over the world with the stated mission of persuading non-observant Jews to adopt Orthodox Jewish observance. They assist Jews with all their religious needs, as well as with physical assistance and spiritual guidance and teaching. The stated goal is to encourage Jews to learn more about their Jewish heritage and to practice Judaism."

Getting our first practice in speaking Hebrew, we repeat the blessing for our food (Hamantashen and some more snacks to take with us in a box). Dr. Yates even gets to wear the first kippah of the trip. Checking the time, we realize we need to go to our gate and board the plane. On the way into the plane, I run into Darren Keithley, whom I had "met" on Facebook before leaving. Once aboard the plane, I also meet Shari Kanehl, another Facebook buddy prior to our trip. Next to me are two other Liberty undergrads. We quickly settle into our seats in a very full plane, and off we go to our adventure! The Scriptures we have all studied so diligently are now begging to jump off their 2D pages and become 3D reality to us. God is ready to allow us some of the greatest insights of our lives.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Day Two - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

We have arrived! Baruchim habaim!
Welcome to Israel and Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport.
Upon deplaning, we find our luggage, meet some of our travel mates and then wait for our departure to our evening destination, Ramot Resort Hotel on the Golan side of the Sea of Galilee, Kinneret in the Old Testament and in modern Hebrew. We are met by representatives of the Israeli side of our tour and are guided to transfer buses. On our bus, we meet Tzvika Mizrahi, who introduces himself and tells us to not get used to the bus or guide, as we may be on another bus tomorrow. Yossi is our driver for the evening. As it turns out, Tzvika and Yossi will be my guide and driver for the rest of the trip. Once everybody is onboard and our luggage is stored, we are off for our two hours plus trip to Lake Galilee. Already we have begun to make new friends!

The remainder of our trip to Lake Galilee is fairly quiet as many are getting sleepy after the long night flight. We stop for a quick break along the way and are able to also grab some drinks and snacks at the rest stop. The chocolate waffle cookies I buy are a big hit with the bus as they make the rounds. Mental note to self: get more of these along the way. I have come prepared with nuts and dried fruit to snack on, but sometimes, especially on a day like today, it is good to find chocolate close by. Upon arrival at the hotel, we get off the bus, are very efficiently provided with our room keys and are asked to go to dinner right away as it is getting late. What a nice surprise - the dining room is filled with fragrant food, and we all load up our plates and eat hungrily. Mental note to self: chocolate carbs are only temporarily gratifying.

It is safe to assume that not too many of the weary travelers have a mind to think about the spiritual impact of where they are tonight due to everyone's extreme tiredness, but I do take a moment to step out on my balcony, look over Lake Galilee with the lights of Tiberias on the other shore, take a deep breath and say "Thank You, Lord, for safe transport here and for yet another chance to walk where You have walked". For the eighth time now, I am in the Holy Land - and it is a beautiful place to put my head on my pillow and drift off to sleep. How blessed I am to not have to say "Next year in Jerusalem", but experience "This year in Jerusalem"! How many Jewish hearts must have fervently longed for this experience through dark centuries of the diaspora and persecution.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Day Three - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

View from my room towards TiberiasThe first full day in Israel has begun. Although it is hard to get up that early since my body is still craving some East Coast time zone sleep, I am too excited to think about that much when my alarm goes off on my iPhone at 6:15 AM and abruptly ends my dreams. After a quick look from my balcony outside across the lake and a shower, I go to the breakfast room where most of my fellow travelers have already arrived. I find a seat at one of the tables after feasting my eyes on the plethora of offerings at the breakfast buffet. Sounds strange, but I was looking forward to having pink herring find its way onto my breakfast plate! And the soft cheeses, very similar to German Quark (which, by the way, you can make at home), and the bread! Wonderful. I love being in Israel. Have I mentioned that? Israel has become my favorite place in the world to travel to. I am almost ready to move here for at least a period of time. Well, enough about that.

Full from breakfast, we all grab our bags and head toward the buses. Since Dr. Yates, Erin and I are on the same bus (the Orange Bus!), we find two seat rows behind each other and settle in for a day around Lake Galilee. The bus is buzzing with conversations as everyone visits with old or meets new friends. Tzvika tells us on the mike that "Boker tov" is the Hebrew version of "Good morning" and that the appropriate answer is "Boker or", meaning "Morning light". I have taken some Hebrew but that is a new one to me. I know it is also okay to say "Boker tov" back, but I am tucking it away for extra learning. There are a few pages on the Internet that help with understanding some of these finer details; this one even talks about "Boker tov" vs. "Boker or".

As the bus starts rolling, Tzvika informs us that we will start our day with a joint worship service of all seven buses at the Mount of Beatitudes, that we will then be visiting several sites around the Sea of Galilee and that we will conclude our day with a baptism at Yardenit.

The Sea of GalileeWith the bus making its way around the lake, my thoughts drift to the many people who have come here across the decades of this century and the last to experience this land. What were their motivations? Was it checking a box, yep, have done that in my list of places to see, yep, saw the Sea of Galilee? Was it a pilgrimage to seek forgiveness from a God they only vaguely knew? Was it the desire to understand the historical Jesus better? Was it an attempt to learn ever more about the Lord they loved? With which set of expectations do people come to the land of Israel? Answers are many, I suppose, but for me this eighth trip to Israel is an experiment: can I experience sweet times with my Lord while traveling in a huge group like this? Is there even enough time anywhere, anytime to be by myself and in the presence of Him who saved me? I have been in Israel in the company of one to forty-one others, so this is by far the biggest group I have ever joined, and I have my doubts.

So I enter into this day anxiously awaiting an answer to the question whether it is possible to have one-on-one time with my God. At the same time, I am so excited to show new friends the land I love, the land where our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Yeshua HaMashiach, walked, laughed, loved, worked, healed, taught, lived and died for us - and rose again in triumph on the third day. Already, I see first glimpses of learning in my fellow travelers as they look outside while the bus is rolling along the lake. It is simply the most amazing part of these trips: to see how others fall in love with this country, the place God chose for the people He loves and with whom we have been joined as grafted-in branches of the olive tree, according to Romans 11. My fervent prayer is that by the end of this trip, not only will my fellow travelers have fallen in love with Israel and ever more with their Savior Jesus, but they can say with Paul about their new Jewish friends: "Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved." As Isaiah said, "in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined." May those who have come on this trip with me understand more fully the beauty and wonder of Jesus coming to this blessed land by the time they leave.

Worship at the Mount of BeatitudesJumping off the bus at the Church of the Beatitudes, we find several other buses full of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church travelers unloading as well. This place can be a wonderfully meditative place on a quiet day. I have been here before when there were maybe ten people (and that included nuns and priests from the church) on the grounds. It won't be like this today, but that is okay. I am looking forward to the joint worship service. I love worship, and this will be no exception. Charles Billingsley from Thomas Road Baptist Church is part of the TRBC tour, so we have not just Michael John Clement on the Liberty University side to be a worship leader for our worship times, but Charles as well for the joint worship services. After everyone gets settled, we get started with the worship service. By the way, this is a first for me after all: I have never been down to this worship area as the nuns typically guard it ferociously against illegitimate entrants. Reverend Jonathan Falwell, whose entire family - wife and four kids - have joined him on this journey, addresses the group after a few worship songs. It is amazing how quickly one can go from busy tourist to meditative worshiper if the input, i.e. the Word of the living God, is there. Hallelujah! To imagine that Jesus must have given the Sermon on the Mount not far from here is once again an overwhelming thought.

The beautiful tree at the Church of the BeatitudesWith new thoughts and definitely not focusing on the many bodies anymore, I get up and walk around the grounds. It is that time of the spring again when the tree near the church has the most unique blossoms on it (click on the image to see them larger). I still do not know the type of tree, but I always think about Romans 1:18-20, where Paul writes: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." Oh, if only the world understood this a little better. Man is so pompous in believing he knows it all. In a pensive mood, I walk back to the bus. Most people think mainly of the Beatitudes when they think about the Sermon on the Mount, but further into His sermon, Jesus also said: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it." I feel very secure in my little human house. It is built on the only Rock that provides a steady footing.

A short bus ride later we arrive at Tabgha, the traditional site of the miraculous multiplication of the two fish and five loaves. Tzvika explains that the name Tabgha is an Arabic corruption of the Greek name Heptapegon, which means "Seven Springs". In the chapel, rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 7th century and maintained by the Deutscher Verein vom Heiligen Lande (German Association of the Holy Land - just had to add that ;-) ), a stone is visible with a small altar above it. A beautiful mosaic, which is a quite popular motif in anything touristy (cards, tiles, t-shirts, etc.), can be seen in front of the stone. This stone, by tradition, is where Jesus laid the fish and loaves to give thanks. Personally, it is hard for me to get a "visual" of this miracle while standing in a chapel, so I am, as always, grateful when we leave. The beautiful hillside around us is much more conducive to triggering a mental image in my head. What an amazing God we serve: feeding huge multitudes of people while fully knowing that most of them would turn their backs on Him as time took Jesus towards the cross.

The Synagogue at CapernaumUnlike Tabgha, our next stop is one of my favorite places for mentally floating back in time to when Jesus was actually walking on the dusty paths there: Capernaum, or Kfar Nahum, the town where He spent most of His time while in the Galilee. The synagogue there is a fourth century structure, but its foundation still has stones from the time of Jesus. I love sitting there on a quiet day (again, not today...) and just reading the Scriptures. This is one of the places where I always pray for a time warp. The other is standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee at night. How I wish for just 24 hours that I could be there during that moment in HIStory. After a quick "can you find the Star of David" game with Dr. Yates and Erin (learned that there are actually two on this trip - always knew of only one), we head back toward the bus. Beautiful bougainvillea is waving gently in the breeze on our way out - what a beautiful and peaceful place.

We have seen so much already and yet it is only time for lunch! Hard to believe. Our buses take us back to Tiberias where we are vomited out (love that word, the Romans called an exit of an arena, theater or coliseum "vomitorium") of our buses. Decks Restaurant awaits us where the menu option is pretty much grilled Saint Peter's Fish (Tilapia). The appetizers are very yummy, and even the least fish-loving but hungry traveler gives the Saint Peter's Fish a shot. Some are even brave enough to eat the eye balls after being told that true Christians eat the eyeballs, too. Yeah, okay, no. After our lunch, a music group does a dance for us in some strange looking costumes to the song "Standing on Holy Ground". Let's just say, it will never be the same again when I hear that song. All I remember is the forced smiles on the undoubtedly Jewish dancers when the refrain of "Let us praise Jesus now" plays and they fold their hands as if in prayer. I call that forced worship, or idol worship, to quote what the Jewish anti-missionaries would call Christianity.

Dr. Caner teaching on the Sea of GalileeFinally, we are told to "Look to the seaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa....!", and as we all turn, we see our boat on which we will take a ride on the Sea of Galilee approaching with two man holding red flares at its bow. We quickly move onto the boat once it is docked. On past trips, we have been on small wooden boats that seem to convey a more original look and feel to sailing out on the lake, but this is more like a mini cruise ship. It is pretty packed by the time we leave. Once out on the water - and quite frankly not terribly far out - we stop and have another worship time. Michael John Clement leads worship and Dr. Ergun Caner, the seminary president, preaches this time. Again, I can't help but compare this worship time to the ones in recent years when each person had a moment just to themselves on a much smaller wooden vessel to pray and look back toward the shore where Jesus taught and laughed and worked. I am feeling a sense of letdown for the first time. This is always one of my favorite times in Israel. To sense the boat bobbing on the gentle waves, to feel the wood under my hands as I lean over the railing, to hear no sound but that of the waves because the engine has been cut and to worship with Daniel Carmel, the Fisherman from Galilee, a brother in the Lord, who was saved here while listening to Christian teaching on the lake and who is now a ship captain again on his own boat, is simply an unbelievable experience. I encourage you to click on the link and then on the "About" section to read his story. God is so amazing.

With our time of worship ending quickly, we dock and exit the boat, only to find a throng of giggling and waving Arab school children ready to board after we get off. With a friendly wave, we pass them and get on the bus for our ride to Yardenit for the baptism portion of our day. All the baptizees (is that a word?) go to get changed into sparkling but relatively short white robes. Quite honestly, that makes for some genuinely amusing visions of my fellow travelers, especially the guys with their furry legs sticking out below the white cloth. Yardenit is an interesting place. I was baptized there in 2005, but we only had six people getting baptized, not 200 or however many there were from our group. I stand in awe of the logistics the management at Yardenit has mastered. Benny Hinn comes here to baptize from time to time, and I can only imagine they must have a lot more white robes (including one with a stand-up collar for Rev. Hinn).

Erin and Dr. Gary YatesRev. Falwell and Charles Billingsley are baptizing on the right; Dr. Caner, Dr. Percer and Dr. Yates on the left, off we go! I am able to find a great spot on a rock right above where we are baptizing, so I get to take some up-close, albeit not always exactly focused photos due to deteriorating light conditions. Dr. Yates starts off on our side. He baptizes my fellow grad student Shari Kanehl from Phoenix (you just have to click on the link to see Dr. Yates' facial expression - I am sure he was thinking about keeping her under a little's a long story). Second is a special person for Dr. Yates to baptize: his daughter Erin. I have to admit that it warms my heart to watch this. How special for a father to be able to baptize his child! I am happy for the two of them and only wish Marilyn, Kallie and Brett were here as well. Dr. Percer follows in the family vein by baptizing his wife Lisa. These two are such lovebirds, and again, it is very special for me to witness this moment. Next follow a lot of baptisms and a lot of photos being taken. For Dr. Yates and Dr. Percer, who didn't come as prepared as Dr. Caner with his waders on, the water of the Jordan on an afternoon turning into evening in March is a very cold place to be. By the end, Dr. Yates is literally shaking...!

Dr. Yates getting baptizedMy personal favorite moment comes at the end when all those still sitting on the rock to take photos demand that Drs. Percer and Yates get baptized by Dr. Caner as well. That is truly a great moment because I know (and he won't admit to it anymore) that Dr. Yates had wanted to get baptized in the Jordan before we ever came on this trip. I learn later that Lisa Percer had also wanted for her husband to get baptized in the Jordan. I am also personally grateful that Dr. Caner didn't hold my professors under water too long! With everyone getting changed, I make a quick stop to fill a bottle with Jordan water for my friend Elke back in the States who so wishes she could have made this trip with me again. Erin, who is already changed, and I head into the gift shop where I purchase some wonderful date honey. Back on the bus, Tzvika asks us about our interest in seeing a diamond factory on the way back. Sure, nothing else to do for evening entertainment! After a quick stop with an educational video and motivated sales people, we climb on the last shuttle bus going back (did we really stay that long?), only to stop a few blocks down the road to pick up Rev. Falwell and his son who have missed their own bus. We give them a lift back to their hotel in Tiberas and then head back to our hotel on the flanks of the Golan Heights. A wonderful dinner awaits us again, which we all feel we worked for today. After a largely unsuccessful attempt to connect to the wireless network in the hotel, I fall into bed exhaustedly, but only after stepping out onto my balcony, smelling the clean cool air and looking out over the dark Sea of Galilee to the sparkling lights of Tiberias on the other side and imaging I will spend my day walking with the Lord tomorrow, listening to His teaching and being fed by His love.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Day Four - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Thursday, March 12, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

Morning comes early in Israel, and with it our itinerary is changing on the fly. Then again, that is something you always have to be prepared for in Israel. As we are getting ready to leave the hotel this morning after another wonderful breakfast, Dr. Caner jumps on the bus and speaks with Tzvika. Turns out, he thought we were going to Caesarea Philippi today, but Tzvika corrects him that we are going to Caesarea Maritima. Two very different places in very different locations. As I said, this is Israel. Change is to be expected. I am, however, surprised that we are backtracking quite a bit to where we came from when we landed. On my prior trips, we always overnighted in Netanya, which happens to be my German hometown's sister city, to have a more natural flow of the itinerary. Since this is Israel, however, distances are mercifully short.

Caesarea MaritimaOn our way to Caeasarea Maritima, or "by the sea" (not only located along the Via Maris or Way of the Sea, but also directly on the Mediterranean), we pass Megiddo Junction and cross the fertile and broad Jezreel Valley, the site believed to be the location of the future final battle between the forces of Satan and Jesus Christ, referred to as Armageddon. We will see more of the valley later, but it makes me take pause to think about where it will all come to a head. Upon leaving the valley, we cross through a more mountainous area and pass Um el-Fahm, a large and apparently rather prosperous Arab town. Soon we reach the coastal plain and reach Caesarea, home of Israel's only golf course and some very expensive homes. Caesarea Maritima, the ruins of Herod's ancient seaport, are close by. This ancient site saw many different groups of occupants through the centuries, as the various parts of the excavation show, including remnants of a large crusader city.

Our first stop is the amphitheater for a joint worship service with the TRBC group. It takes some time for everyone to file in. As soon as everyone is settled in, one of the guides, David Kidron, who "shepherds" the yellow bus, gives us an introduction to Caesarea, followed by a short worship service with Charles Billingsley leading our singing and Dr. Caner providing the Scriptural background to what we see. As we leave the amphitheater, Tzvika explains several areas of this large archaeological site, such as Herod's fresh water swimming pool, a large rectangular area cut into the rock right by the Mediterranean, the stone showing Pontius Pilate was indeed governor in Judea (the original is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem) and the hippodrome, place of Roman entertainment, but also of early Christian suffering. Tzvika shares with us that he recently dived at Caesarea - there is now an underwater museum to explore the amazing building techniques of the Romans.

Erin and the MediterraneanOnce Tzvika sets us free, we have only about fifteen minutes to explore this huge site. Dr. Yates, Erin and I set off on an abbreviated running (not walking) tour of Caesarea. I want to make sure they see the bathhouse excavations. On the way back to the bus, Erin insists on dashing down to the shoreline to say she has had her feet in the Mediterranean - and she literally does when a wave gets her one foot soaked as we are trying to take photos. We make our way back to the bus where there is another photo op: photos with Dr. Caner! There are some attractions in Israel that are not 2,000 plus years old after all. We get back on the bus and stop a few miles down the road to take a quick look at the Roman aqueduct.

Our next stop is Tel Megiddo, so we have a bit of a bus ride ahead of us again. Again, we pass Um el-Fahm, and I find myself thinking about my Israeli Arab friends, the Daas family. I know that life is not terribly easy in Israel for its Arab citizens who, while ethnically speaking, are Palestinian Arabs, yet unlike the Palestinians we typically read about in our press, are citizens of the state of Israel. While they are citizens, it is not an easy life in many ways as occupational choices can be limited. Yet here in Um el-Fahm, as well as in Tira where my friends live, it appears that there is definitely a level of prosperity, and I wonder where this comes from. I know from my friends that property is passed on within the families, yet Arab families tend to be larger than Jewish families (at least among the secular population). It is definitely a thought I need to process further in the future.

Entrance to MegiddoFor now, my mind switches to other things as we pass the Megiddo High Security Prison, where the most ancient church in all of Israel was found not long ago. Some amazing mosaics were discovered here, but needless to say, due to the location of the church in the middle of a high security prison, the chance of seeing them is slim to none unless you commit a serious crime in Israel. I remind myself to keep my eyes on the Israel Antiquities Authority website of Israel in the future. Soon after, I turn my thoughts to Tel Megiddo as our bus pulls into the archaeological site. Tel Megiddo is an amazing witness to history: 26 layers of civilizations are piled on top of each other at this excavation site. Tzvika gives us an explanation at the model of the Tel (which means hill or mound). It is truly mind boggling how many people have passed through here! We leave the model to walk up the hill through two sets of gates, one of which is from the time of Solomon. It features the typical six-chambered gateway found in other excavation sites of Solomonic cities, such as Hazor and Gezer.

We spend quite some time on top of the excavation site to not only admire this truly spectacular archaeological find, but also to take in the vast area across from it, the Jezreel Valley. I am reminded that this place has seen so many battles already, and it has had its disproportionate share of battle deaths, not the least of which was King Josiah, who fell to Pharaoh Necho II at the Battle of Megiddo in 609 BCE. Nazareth is straight across from us on a hilltop at the other side of the valley. Jesus would have looked down on this valley, the future site of Armageddon, every day of his growing years. What a thought. He knew what was ahead for Him, but also for this, our history, as it comes to an end.

Entrance to the water shaft at Tel MegiddoBefore having lunch, we go through the water shaft at Megiddo, which according to the famous Yigael Yadin who also excavated Masada, can be attributed to King Ahab who reigned in the 9th century BCE. To get there, we have to descend 183 steps and then climb out on the other side - about another 65 or so steps up. Water is kind of low at this time, which does not bode well for Israel's water table overall. I was here a few years ago, and abundant water was flowing below our feet to the collecting pool at the end. Water is a true problem in this small country. I am reminded of Leviticus 26:3-4, where God tells Israel: "If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit". IF you walk in my statutes...I think it is a safe bet to assume Israel today is not.

Elke on top of Mount Precipice with the Jezreel Valley below herAfter making our way out of the water shaft, we are finally allowed to go eat - everyone is very hungry by now as it is almost 2 pm. At lunch, I run into the Percers who are also enjoying sitting in the sunshine and tasting some Israeli food. Once done eating, we pack up, get on our bus and head towards Nazareth. We pass through a new tunnel, which I hadn't seen yet on our way up to the city. My hopes of getting to see any part of Nazareth are dashed when the bus drives up a steep hillside slightly outside of town. In the past two years, I have always managed to visit Nazareth Village, which is an amazing place to learn about life in the time of Jesus and which has guides who joyfully share the Good News of Jesus Christ with visitors. But today, I am actually in for a surprise as we are headed to a place I have never been: Mount Precipice, by tradition the "brow of the hill" from which the villagers of Nazareth threatened to throw Jesus after He spoke in their synagogue. As we get out, Dr. Yates shares the passage from Luke 4:16-30 with us. The view from the top here is spectacular as one can see a very big part of truly vast Jezreel Valley and Mount Tabor, by tradition the Mount of Transfiguration, to the east. Mount Tabor is also the site of Barak's military push against Sisera's army. For a little taste of the view from up here, view this.

As we get back on the bus, we are all truly flooded with impressions of our day. From the beautiful sunlit shore of Caesarea Maritima, from where Paul took the Christian faith to Rome when he sailed from there as a prisoner of Rome, to the Valley of Armageddon, where the final battle will be fought, this is HIStory from first to last. How much there is to do for each of us to spread word of the Kingdom of God until that time comes! After a quick clean-up and another delicious dinner, we all head over to a meeting room at the Ramot Resort Hotel to have a worship and teaching time. Michael John Clement is leading the worship music, and Dr. Caner is teaching. What an appropriate close to a truly astounding day. We all turn quiet in our hearts as we worship the King. On my way back to my room, I can't help but feel safe in the knowledge that come what may, I am on the winning side.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Day Five - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Friday, March 13, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

Tel Dan on a trip in March 2005Friday starts with a disapointment that actually has been building since yesterday. From my conversations with Tzvika, I know that we will not be going to Tel Dan. To me, this is one of the most amazing places in Israel. Not only is it a beautiful nature hike, but it is the location of one of King Jeroboam's high places. I have sat here many times in past years to ponder how very close each one of us is to idolatry at any given moment in our lives. We are never far from putting things ahead of God. With Israel, it started with King Jeroboam's decision to allow the people to worship in a place not given to them for worship by God. Tel Dan serves as a vivid reminder of what happens when a whole nation falls to idol worship. (Since we didn't visit Tel Dan this time, I am including a photo from a prior trip to the left.)

As we leave the hotel to drive up to the Golan, I have plenty of time to ponder this. We drive past beautiful scenery on our way north. Israel is very depleted of water after four years of drought, but you would never know this just looking out the bus window. Everything is so lush and green in March. By late April, this gorgeous scenery will be turning brown. But for now the Golan Heights are breathtakingly beautiful. In the distance, we see the beautiful backdrop of snow-capped Mount Hermon. Tzvika tells us that this is the only place in Israel to go skiing. If you accidentally ski down the wrong slope, you are, however, in Syria.

Dr. Yates and his daughter Erin in one of the idol nichesSoon we reach Banias. Known as Caesarea Philippi in the New Testament, this is where Peter confessed Jesus as the Son of the living God when Jesus asked Peter who he thought He was. The mountain flank at Banias is filled with niches carved into the stone where Pan was worshiped in the past. Tzvika explains the name of Banias: Arabs cannot pronounce "P" easily (not a sound in the Arabic language), and so Panias became Banias. I am not an Arabic speaker, so I have to take that at face value. Dr. Yates reads the passage to us as we look towards a place that was so clearly dedicated to idols, yet where Jesus clearly confirmed God's power over the forces of darkness. To have Jesus affirm that the gates of hell would not overcome the church provides a great confirmation to me that come what may, the Word of God will continue to spread! We spend some time walking around the excavations, pretend we are idols worthy of worship (yeah, maybe not) and even climb to a higher spot where you have a decent look down. Regrettably, we again won't have the time to see some of the amazing excavations of the city that were found here. Next trip!

Along the Golan HeightsA short bus ride from Banias takes us higher up past yellow "Danger - Mines!" signs on the fence along the road to our left and right. Cows are grazing peacefully amidst the remaining landmines. Only the day before, we had heard about some Israeli Arabs picnicking on Wednesday in what turned out to be a mine field. One of them, a 24-year old man, stepped on a mine, was severely injured, and Magen David Adom (Israel's version of the Red Cross) had attempted to extract the man via helicopter rescue when he slipped at the last moment and fell to his death. In researching this, I found that there actually is a video clip of this on the Internet - I think I will spare you this gruesome sight...but it serves as a serious reminder of the continued danger of mine fields. Mercifully, they are clearly marked in Israel. We pass through a Druze village nestled in the Golan hills with the spectacular backdrop of Mount Hermon and reach an abandoned Syrian bunker at Mount Bental a short while later. This bunker is located in what is now known as the Valley of Tears, the location of a decisive battle during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. On October 6, 1973, the Israeli 7th Armored Brigade was attacked by the Syrian 7th Infantry Division. The Israelis were completely surprised by the two-front attack on them by Egypt and Syria, which happened during the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Egypt attacked in the Sinai Peninsula, while Syria attacked in the Golan. Since Israel literally shuts down for Yom Kippur, it was very hard to get troops activated. Despite all these factors speaking against military success, the Israeli Army emerged victoriously three weeks later, but not without heavy human toll on all sides.

Oz77 MemorialTo remind of us of the sacrifice of the brave men and women of the Yom Kippur War, Tzvika takes us to one of the war memorials in the Golan - the memorial to the fallen soldiers of the 77th battalion known as Oz77. The jokes and giggles of being in the empty bunker and pretending to fire out of now empty turrets, which somehow seems like the embodiment of a video game my son might play on his computer, quickly cease as our minds turn to what happened here. One of the saddest symbols of death in warfare here is a soldier's helmet placed on three metal beams. Ezekiel 37:1-3 comes to mind as I am thinking about the solemn reminder of the lives lost: 'The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know."' Another part of a verse pops into my head, this one from Isaiah 54:17: "no weapon forged against you will prevail". What exactly does this mean in the context of the people of Israel? Obviously weapons have been successful over the years in exterminating young Jewish lives in the many battles Israel has fought. But the nation of Israel is still here, almost 61 years after it was formed on May 14, 1948. How much Israel had to fight to stay in existence is a little known part of history for most of us. How much God must have been involved to preserve the Jews and Israel becomes clearer to me all the time. God will not ever give up on His people, as Ezekiel reminds us in chapter 33, verses 20-21: "This is what the LORD says: 'If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant...can be broken."

We leave the war memorial to learn even more about Oz77 at Kibbutz El-Rom where we watch a very moving movie about the experience of the Oz77 regiment commander and his tank crew in the Yom Kippur War. One of the most notable parts of the movie comes at the very end of it: the story of a man dressed in white causing the Syrian tank advance to be suspended. The only reference I could find to something similar is the story of a miracle of the Yom Kippur War, which sounds similar to what we heard in the movie:
    "An Israeli wrote me: 'I was down in the battlefield and saw on the hilltop a man completely dressed in white helping our soldiers from foxhole to foxhole. Whenever the man lifted his arms up towards heaven, the battle always went in the favor of our Israeli troops. I gave my binoculars to my General to get a better look. He, too, saw the man in white, who then disappeared in front of our eyes!'"

God is definitely busy keeping the nation of Israel in place. To me, it is a wonderful confirmation of something that I already know: God has not given up on Israel and her people. They are still the apple of His eye, even in their still ongoing disobedience as Zechariah 2:8 confirms by stating "for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye".

Golani Brigade MemorialLunch is at the kibbutz. By the time we get there, the food choices are rather limited since we are the last bus. Not entirely sure why we always eat so late, but it is all good, and no one has starved yet. Kind of glad I brought my snacks! After lunch, a wonderful time spent with Dr. Yates and his daughter and Dr. & Mrs. Percer plus several students, we get on the bus to head back towards the Sea of Galilee. Along the way, we make one more stop at the war memorial at Gadot Overlook, or Mitzpe Gadot. This memorial provides a beautiful lookout over the Golan Heights and contains a memorial to the fallen members of the very famous Golani Brigade. On the way up to the Golan earlier in the day, Tzvika had told us about the prestige associated with joining this elite unit. Young men train hard to make the cut to become part of the Golani Brigade. From the way Tzika had described it, it is quite an honor. As this video shows, it is also obviously quite a dangerous place to serve. One interesting tidbit (fact or tall tale?) we learn at the war memorial is that Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who infiltrated Syrian military and government circles and who was executed in Damascus after he was caught, told the Syrians to plant eucalyptus trees on their bases to camouflage them. In a climate that supports a limited vegetation, the eucalyptus groves were dead give-aways for the Israeli military on where to find Syrian troops.

Erin Yates and Elke Speliopoulos in the Golan HeightsAfter a beautiful ride through the Golan back to the hotel, we enjoy another wonderful dinner at the Ramot Resort Hotel. I have to say that the food here is excellent. We compliment the cooks on the deliciousness factor of what they have prepared. After dinner, I catch Dr. Yates and ask him about sitting down to study Isaiah in Hebrew. We had talked about this prior to our trip, and both of us packed our Hebrew Bibles. I am thrilled to get this chance to practice my newly acquired - and rather rudimentary - Hebrew skills and to have Dr. Yates help me step through my favorite passage in all of Scripture: Isaiah 6. As we go through this wonderful and rich portion of the Bible, I suddenly realize that my one-on-one moments with the Lord can happen right here - not alone, but in the presence of Him who is worthy of all praise! Dr. Yates shows me one truly amazing expression and its relevance in another portion of Isaiah in chapter 52. In chapter 6, verse 1, Isaiah uses the expression "high and lifted up" (רָם וְנִשָּׂא). In chapter 52, verse 13, this same expression is used for the Servant (יָרוּם וְנִשָּׂא). This phraseology is used only one more time in Scripture: in Isaiah 57:15. So the same attribute ascribed to the most high God is used to describe the Servant at the beginning of one of Isaiah's Servant passages (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12)! There is only one who fits the Servant of Isaiah (read Isaiah 52:13-53:12): our Lord Jesus Christ, Yeshua HaMashiach! Jesus is the Son of God, and He and the Father are one, according to His own words. He is God. Not a mere prophet, not an idol, but God Incarnate. What an amazing confirmation of what I believe from a original language Bible study. Thank You, Lord, (and definitely thank you, Dr. Yates) for an enormous blessing while sitting in the lobby of a hotel at the Sea of Galilee! As the saying (and Don Moen's song) goes: "God is good all the time. All the time, God is good." Amen and amen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Day Six - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Shabbat, March 14, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

Rainbow over the Sea of GalileeOur last morning at Ramot Resort Hotel on the Sea of Galilee starts with an amazing breakfast surprise: a rainbow over the lake! What an incredibly moving moment - it is as if God is saying hello to us directly. The Golan Heights behind us remind me of Psalm 50:9-12, one of my favorite passages in the Bible because it assures me each time I read it that God is in control and can provide for me: Map of Israel
    "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it."
It is an easy thing for God to sell a cow or two to feed Elke and her family!

Getting on the bus today is difficult as I always hate leaving this area of Israel. It is just so beautiful! Not to mention that it is significantly easier to feel in communion with our Lord in a place that is as tranquil as the Sea of Galilee. Since I have been here seven times before, I know the hustle and bustle of the days ahead in Jerusalem. Don't get me wrong - I absolutely love being in Jerusalem, but it is a very different feeling from being here at the lake. So with a bit of sadness, I wave goodbye to the lake as we take the road towards Beth She'an and then on to the Dead Sea. To get a visual of where we will be traveling, look for the Sea of Galilee in the north of this map (click it to make it bigger) and then follow the road due south to the Dead Sea.

Beth She'anBeit She'an is our first stop of the day. On the bus in front of me, Dr. Yates is getting pretty excited as this is definitely one of the Old Testament sites he wants to see, and I am getting excited because I want to show him this amazing place! King Saul and his sons' mutilated bodies were hung from the walls of Beit She'an after they fell to the Philistines on Mount Gilboa nearby. 1 Samuel 31:8-12 describes the outcome of the battle and how the valiant men of Jabesh Gilead, whom Saul had helped against the Ammonite king, came to cut down the bodies and bury them. The city, known as Scythopolis during the Hellenistic period and one of the Decapolis cities described in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Mark (e.g. Mark 5:20), is a major archaeological excavation site. It is simply an amazing story that Tzvika tells us about a farmer plowing a field and finding something sticking out of the ground. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the top of a column, the only visible remnant of a city destroyed - and then abandoned - after a massive earthquake in 749 BCE. In various excavations, ancient Beit She'an (if you see a different spelling on a web page, don't panic - it's quite common to find multiple transliterations of Hebrew names) was excavated and presents itself in a truly amazing display to its visitors. Major excavations were undertaken between 1921 and 1933 and then again in 1983 and between 1989-1996. Before we start our quick walk-through, Tzvika tells us about ancient pottery shards, which we might find at Beit She'an and which we are more than welcome to take if we found them. There is a lot to be seen, but we don't have much time once again, and so as soon as Tzvika releases us, we run once again so I can show Dr. Yates and Erin the key sights. As we are making our way through the excavation site, Erin is quite busy scouting for pot shards on the ground. She actually finds several and proudly packs them in her backpack to inspect later on the bus.

Dr. Yates is testing the public facilities at Beit She'anRegrettably, making it to the top of the hill, to the ancient Eyptian city area of Tel Beit She'an with its 5,000 years of history, is out of the question with the time we have been given. This would have also been the place where Saul and his sons were hung. From what I have learned, the city, in its Hellenistic and Roman periods, moved to the lower level many centuries later. Instead of heading up the hill, we make our way through the bath house, which has been restored to show how it would have operated in the Roman time, visit the market place (or agora) and then head down the Cardo (the main street) to see the remnants of temples and - for morning amusement - the ancient latrines. We take turns sitting on the stones extending from the wall as I share what I had been told on an earlier trip: in ancient days, an orchestra would play in the middle of the rectangular latrine area, which served both genders, in order to drown out other man-made sounds. Instead of toilet tissue, leaves served in its place. As time is running out, we head back up towards the visitors center, making sure to use some more modern facilities with running water and toilet paper on the way out. Erin inspects her pot shards on the bus and asks Tzvika about her finds. Tzvika tells her that one particular piece she has found, a rather large tile, is modern. Erin is very disappointed until Tzvika reminds her that modern at Beit She'an means 7th century CE. Everyone seems to have picked up similar souvenirs, and we admire the treasures as the bus turns south towards the Dead Sea.

As we travel along the road along the Jordanian border with the Jordan River trickling below us and out of sight in the no man's land between Israel and Jordan, we get a glimpse of Mount Gilboa. The scenery changes in a matter of minutes from green to desert. We pass a security check point with armed Israeli soldiers that tells us we are entering the West Bank, an area slightly smaller than Delaware which has been under Israeli military control since the 1967 war, but is governed by the Palestinian Authority and occupied by almost 2.5 million Palestinian Arabs. Needless to say, the whole topic has a lot more to it than can be discussed here. Passing through the checkpoint and thinking about the Palestinian area is a visual reminder of the conflict that began when Abraham chose to not wait on the Lord to have a child with Sarah, but instead decided to have a child with Hagar, as described in Genesis 16. Ishmael, the son out of this relationship, is the father of the Arab people.

Shulamit Falls at Ein GediWe pass Jericho, off to our right, the ancient City of Palms, destroyed when God caused the walls to fall after the Israelites marched around the city. Amidst a scenery changing to sand and desert mountain ridges, we reach the Dead Sea, a salt sea which is the lowest point on dry land on earth. Tzvika explains to us that the Dead Sea has been evaporating more quickly than its only intake, the Jordan River, can fill, which by the time it reaches the Dead Sea is only a trickle. Both Israel and Jordan divert waters from the Jordan for irrigation purposes. This has led to an ecological crisis at the Dead Sea with sinkholes posing significant danger. Hotels that were built on the shore are now abandoned because the water front has moved too far away from the hotel. There is currently a project underway, which is a joint endeavor by Jordan and Israel to save the Dead Sea, which borders both countries, however, scientists warn that this might cause other environmental disasters for the Dead Sea. As we are driving, we pass Ein Gedi, the oasis in the cleft of the rocks with a beautiful water fall where David hid from King Saul. I am reminded of God's solution described in Ezekiel 20:8-10 where Ezekiel shares what was revealed to him about the future: "He said to me, "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Sea. When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Great Sea." As I like to say, I fully intend to run the bait shop at Ein Gedi in the future! Regrettably, we are not stopping today to visit my future shop location, but it is a beautiful place to visit as evidenced by the photo from a prior trip.

The lower terrace of King Herod's palace at MasadaSoon we reach a unique looking mountain: Masada, the mountain fortress built by Herod the Great. Its location was unknown until 1838 when two Americans, E. Robinson and E. Smith, discovered the fortress while viewing the rock through a telescope from Ein Gedi. While there were earlier excavations at Masada in the 1950s, Masada was excavated in a full scale fashion by Yigael Yadin in 1963-1965. Masada was the site of a true tragedy, which serves today as a symbol of resolve and courage in responding to national threats for the people of Israel: in 66 CE, the Roman army broke through the walls of Masada after building a huge earthen ramp, only to find 960 zealots who had barricaded themselves here dead - men, women and children. They chose death rather than becoming slaves or having their women raped. The first-century historian Josephus describes this scene in great detail. He speaks of men drawing lots to see who would kill whom and who would be the last (and only) one to commit suicide. We ride the cable car to the top of the mountain, and in a somber fashion, we look at the excavations. I have never been to the lower levels of Herod's three-tiered palace at Masada as they were never open to visitors, and so I ask Tzvika about this. He tells me, to my great joy and amazement, that they are open now since the stairs have been fixed. He even tells me where to access them. By now, Tzvika has gotten used to me always looking beyond what a "first timer" sees, and so he just looks at me and says: "I will see you at the synagogue." Since I know exactly where this is, I ask Dr. Yates and Erin whether they want to come with me. Down many stairs we go, but the price is worth it: we are standing on the lower levels of the palace. Especially the very bottom terrace is absolutely beautiful with columns and wall paintings still visible. However, I know that this is also the place where three skeletons were found by Yadin, a man, a woman and a child. What tragedy took place here.

From the top of Masada looking towards the Dead SeaThe way up is pure Stairmaster! I have to admit I am huffing and puffing a bit when I reach the top, but now we need to dash to find the rest of the group, but not before taking a quick detour to see the restored bathhouse with its beautiful Roman heating system. We catch up with our bus at the synagogue and join them for the rest of the tour. Masada is not directly described in the Scriptures, but the book of 1 Samuel often refers to David staying in the desert stronghold. For example, 1 Samuel 24:22 describes tells us that "...Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold." Might this be the place the Scriptures refer to? While the palace was not built until Herod's time, the location certainly was one that would have been an easily defensible one. Soon we are on our way back down, taking one last look at the footprints of the Roman forts still visible from the cable car. I am certain that many minds are turning to the question of "What would I have done in this situation?" Not an easy one to think through, and I am eternally grateful that I am not in such a desperate situation that death seems the only way out. As we leave the visitor center, I am clutching my newly purchased sweatshirt, which proclaims what the Jewish heart thinks when thinking of this mountain fortress: "Masada will not fall again".

Cave 4 at QumranOur next stop is Qumran. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd looking for lost goats, threw a rock into a cave, of which there are many in this area, and heard the sound of breaking pottery. As it turned out, he had made probably the most profound discovery in modern history: the first of about 900 scrolls found successively in other caves over the course of a few years, dating from about the third century BCE to 68 CE, thereby backdating the earliest known Scriptures available to scholars by about 1,000 years. Most amazingly, the Qumran scrolls, better known by the name Dead Sea Scrolls, proved that the Scriptures available before then had been transmitted with an extremely high degree of consistency. All the books of the Old Testament were found as part of this discovery with the exception of Esther, the only book in the Scriptures not directly mentioning God. In addition, sectarian writing was found there as well as apocryphal and pseudoepigraphical material. Here is a short video clip of what the area looks like (after a brief commercial, sorry). It is believed by some scholars that the Essenes, a strict Jewish sect, were the people who lived at the settlement at Qumran and who wrote and then hid the Scripture scrolls. What amazes me most are some of the surrounding facts about this find: Professor Eliezer Sukenik, the father of Yigael Yadin who excavated Masada and many other sites, bought the scrolls from an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem on November 29, 1947, the very day the United Nations voted to recognize a Jewish state. He was the first to realize that the scrolls were over 2,000 years old. Why on that day? I see God's hand in this discovery, especially as the scroll that has been preserved in its entirety is the scroll of Isaiah, the book in the Hebrew Scriptures with the clearest Messianic prophecies pointing to Jesus. How great is our God that He can put together these puzzle pieces to lead man to the Truth! After we look at the excavations briefly, we are released to eat lunch and then visit the very large gift shop at Qumran with not just an exquisite Dead Sea cosmetics section but also a very good book selection.

Floating in the Dead Sea with the Jordanian mountains in the backgroundThe shopping time has given us just enough time to lightly digest our lunch so we can now look forward to the pleasure of the afternoon: floating in the Dead Sea! After a short ride to the shore of the Dead Sea, we head for the changing booths (if you can call our communal get naked and jump in your bathing suit experience that - Liberty disclaimer: it is at least gender separated) and then make our way into the water. It is truly an amazing experience to float in the saline-rich waters of the Dead Sea. I like to say that the water has the viscosity of light salad oil, but scientifically speaking, the water has ten times the salinity of the oceans. This makes everything, including humans, float. Nothing lives in the Dead Sea, so the good news it that nobody will be nibbling on your toes. Instead thick black mud is available in abundance, and everyone in the group makes liberal use of it. It has very beneficial properties for the human skin, and we are all hoping to come out of this experience smoother and younger looking. Well, maybe that is just my thinking. Don't want to project on others, especially the young pups we are traveling with. After taking our slow turns at the few showers, we sit back to enjoy an ice cream and wait for everyone to be ready. It was a fun experience, and a few of us prudish Americans definitely have to leave some of our shame behind due to liberal exposure - thanks to the limited changing options!

Jerusalem at night (not my own photo)On the bus, everyone settles down and becomes more quiet as darkness begins to settle in as we drive back towards Jerusalem. Through the mountains of the Judean wilderness, the road takes us closer to the final goal of our trip: Yerushalayim, the Holy City, Jerusalem of Gold. And as we come around one final bend, Tzvika puts on the music I have been waiting for: "Jerusalem". To catch that first glimpse of the Temple Mount and the golden roof of the Dome of the Rock with the backdrop of the city all dressed in white, due to the Jerusalem Stone the houses are built from, is always breathtaking. There are Oohs and Aahs around the bus as people realize what it is they are looking at. This is the moment where I usually have tears swell up in my eyes because I am so grateful to my God that I get to be here once again - THIS year in Jerusalem!

A few moments later we arrive at the Grand Court Hotel, our home for the next few nights. Even though we are supposed to go straight to dinner, I opt for a quick shower first to wash off the remaining salt. After dinner, my friend Mike who is a US Air Force civilian stops by the hotel, and several of my fellow travelers join us at the table in the lobby to hear from an American living in Tel Aviv how life in Israel is. It is good to see Mike, and I believe he is equally happy to spend the evening with some other Americans. After we say our goodbyes, I try to connect to the Internet to upload my photos, but the connection is just painfully slow to the point where you can't do anything. As my friend Amir reminds me, I shouldn't get mad about the wireless connection as it is "holy wireless" :-) . A bit frustrated, I go to my room and collapse into my bed. It was a long day today, and I am genuinely tired. The thought of seeing my beloved city in the morning puts a final smile on my face as I drift off to sleep.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Day Seven - In Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Sunday, March 15, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

We are here. I wake up with the acute awareness of having reached my city - Jerusalem. My joy is a bit tampered after a look outside my window. Since I am on the subterranean level of the hotel where there is a walk-out patio, I can quickly detect the puddles with raindrops forming concentric circles as they fall in the already standing water. It wouldn't be a true trip to Israel without some rain, especially in March. We already had a bit of a precursor yesterday when it rained in the Galilee over night. But now it is really coming down. Not a pretty day to be walking around Jerusalem, but any day with rain is a good day in Israel. The land so urgently needs it!

Dr. Caner briefing the groupAfter breakfast (oh, I remember all the good food at the Grand Court from last year!), we get on the bus. Dr. Caner jumps on to tell us that we will have a joint teaching time with the Thomas Road Baptist Church group on the Mount of Olives and that they will then go back to the hotel due to the rain (are you kidding me?). I give Joanne my cheapie rain cover I had brought since I have an umbrella. Our first stop, as we already heard from Dr. Caner, is at the top of the Mount of Olives. We get off, only to be greeted by rain. Blessings from heaven! You just have to keep a positive outlook on things. We snap our obligatory photos of each other in front of the Temple Mount, the Eastern Gate (or Golden Gate, a key site as far as Biblical prophecy goes) and the Dome of the Rock with its beautiful gold domed roof. Dr. Yates and I spend a few moments looking for the excavations of the City of David to our left, but they are too far away to make out much. We won't go through Hezekiah's Tunnel this year - bummer, because that would have taken us down in that direction, and Dr. Yates could have seen some of these excavations. Next trip! (Boy, that has become an often repeated phrase, hasn't it?) There is now a fabulous website that shows some of the site and the story of its excavation. We will get to go up on the Temple Mount, according to Tzvika, so that is something to definitely look forward to: to stand where the First and Second Temple once stood is a truly astounding experience.

Liberty University at the Mount of OlivesDr. Caner's teaching is wonderful, but wet. I fear for the open Bible in his hand. Before we head down the Mount of Olives, we line up the entire Liberty contingent for the obligatory Jerusalem souvenir photo. This is a new experience for me - 182 bodies lined up for one commemorative shot. It is not easy juggling all the moving parts, such as hats, rain covers and umbrellas, and still getting a good group shot. I have to give the photographer a lot of credit - the photo came out quite well. On our way, we encounter some Arab vendors who are very smart: they hawk umbrellas. "One umbrella $5." Yeah right. Only first time Jerusalem visitors are that gullible (oops, quite a few are...). I tell a couple of those walking with me to wait a bit until most people clear out, then I walk up to the vendors and tell them I will buy two umbrellas - for $4. "Oh no, sorry Miss, cannot do that." "Thank you then and goodbye." "Wait, wait, okay, okay, but don't tell anyone you bought for this low." "Understood." Two minutes later, another fellow traveler realizes what just happened and says "Shoot, for $2, I would have bought one, too." So Elke walks back with $2 in her hand, and another umbrella is bought. We begin our descent down the Mount of Olives, and to come with us, you can take a look at this interactive map from a Jordanian travel agency.

Jewish Cemetery on Mount of OlivesWith the hotel with probably the best view of Jerusalem, the 7 Arches Hotel, behind us, we begin walking down the very steep road leading us down the Mount of Olives towards the Garden of Gethsemane. To our left, graves upon graves are lining the road next to us and are stretching far back along the mountain side. This is the Jewish Cemetery where Jews have longed to be buried since their return to the land of Israel in the belief that the resurrection when the Messiah comes will begin here. Zechariah 14:4 says "On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward.". Ezekiel 43:1-5 tells us that the glory of the God of Israel will return through the Eastern Gate. Christian graves are in the Kidron Valley below us (among them Oskar Schindler's tomb), and the Muslim ones are close to the Eastern (or Golden) Gate. I have learned on prior trips that Muslims want to stop the advance of the Jewish Messiah by putting a cemetery in front of the Eastern Gate. Wikipedia phrases it like this:
"In Jewish tradition, this is the gate through which the Messiah will enter Jerusalem. Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I sealed off the Golden Gate in 1541 to prevent the Messiah's entrance. The Muslims also built a cemetery in front of the gate, in the belief that the precursor to the Messiah, Elijah, would not be able to pass through, since he is a Kohen. This belief is erroneous because a Kohen is permitted to enter a cemetery in which primarily non-Jews are buried."

Well, there you have it in writing (even from Wikipedia): nothing and no one will stop the Messiah, whom we know to be Jesus Christ, Yeshua HaMashiach, from entering back into His city.

Ossuaries at Dominus FlevitWe take a right detour off the road to enter into the garden of Dominus Flevit. This church features the most beautiful view of the Temple Mount through its chapel window. Dominus Flevit means "the Lord wept", and it is easy to see how this could have been the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. Matthew 23:37-40 describes Jesus' outpouring of grief over a non-believing Jerusalem:
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

The reason we are stopping here is not for the view as regrettably there is a Catholic mass being held in the chapel, but rather to look at the ossuaries or bone boxes. These date back to the time of Jesus and truly give a good insight to us as to why Luke would describe Jesus telling a man who wanted to follow Him but first wanted to bury his father to follow Him now. With ancient Jewish burial rituals, it took one year to wait for the body to decompose and for the relatives to come back and gather the bones into an ossuary for final burial.

Silent WitnessesWith a worried look at the sky, I continue to walk towards the Garden of Gethsemane with the group. Worried because I know how slippery the stones along the road leading down can get, and I have seen more than one person there take a spill on a rainy day. Mercifully, we all make it down safely and enter into the already very crowded garden area. Most people here walk by the olive trees without realizing how old these trees truly are. They are called the "Silent Witnesses" for a reason because it is very likely that they were already producing fruit here during Jesus' time in Jerusalem. Olive trees can be chopped down to the roots and still regenerate. It is truly a beautiful symbol of life. One of my favorite verses in the Scriptures always seems to materialize before my eyes when I stand in front of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is in Romans 11:17-19 that the Jewish people are depicted as the original olive tree. It says:
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in."

Wikipedia quotes Lewington and Parker from their book Ancient Trees by saying that "yields from trees grown from suckers or seeds are poor; it must be budded or grafted onto other specimens to do well". I found this particularly interesting in light of the passage in Romans. We have been grafted onto the strong tree of Judaism, and we, as New Testament believers, should never forget that. Jesus is not "blond, blue-eyed and seven feet tall", as my guide Mickey on trips past used to note, "...neither does He speak Italian". We enter the Church of All Nations, a beautiful church built on the grounds of the Garden of Gethsemane to commemorate Jesus' prayer there. In its center is an enclosed area of bedrock, which is by tradition the place where Jesus prayed prior to His arrest. I send Erin and Dr. Yates on a mission to find the American Eagle in the church. This church was built by donations from several nations (hence the name), and the national emblems are on the ceiling. My favorite part of the Church of All Nations is the view across the street: you are almost completely aligned with the Eastern Gate, which was also referred to as the Beautiful Gate in the New Testament in the story in Acts 3 of Peter healing the lame beggar.

Inside the Church of the AssumptionLeaving the Garden of Gethsemane, we cross the street to an area directly across, which is normally closed off. For a little donation, we are able to have our worship time there, which is very wonderful because outside of our (albeit large) group, there is no one there. After a time of praise and teaching, we are told we have a few minutes to look around. A thought pops into my head, and I excitedly walk over to Erin and Dr. Yates who are taking photos in front of the olive trees. Just around the corner from this garden, there is the Church of the Assumption (Mary's Tomb). I had only been there twice before briefly, but I remember how simply amazing I found this church with its beautiful crusader staircase. Dr. Yates and Erin are up for it, so we go on yet another one of our very quickly executed excursions. Most amazingly, outside of two old Greek Orthodox priests who eye us a bit suspiciously, there is no one else in the church. The staircase alone is worth walking down into the church. By Greek Orthodox tradition, this is where the tomb of Mary is. By Catholic tradition, her tomb is on Mount Zion in the Abbey of the Dormition, or Hagia Maria Sion Abbey, as it is now officially called. Take your pick. Reminds me of Bethlehem where there are three Shepherds' Fields to choose from. Dr. Yates gets a little too close to Mary's tomb for my taste. I can see a Greek Orthodox priest come running at him any second now. Dr. Yates is apparently too well behaved after all and doesn't get too close, as this does not happen. We make our way back out, thanking the old Greek Orthodox priest sitting at the bottom of the stairs for allowing us to visit. He almost breaks a smile. At the top of the stairs, we make a quick left, as this is where the Grotto of the Betrayal is. We can only take a quick look as another Greek Orthodox priest is about to detect us, but we note the engravings and decorations on the ceiling of this cave. After a very quick run towards where the buses are, we make it on the bus without anyone having noticed us missing.

Orthodox Jewish scholarsA few minutes later, we arrive at Mount Zion where we get off to visit David's Tomb and then the traditional Last Supper Room or Cenacle. David's Tomb has greatly changed since I first visited it a few years back. It used to be "unisex", meaning men and women were able to walk up to the tomb in the same room. Now, it is separated by a divider wall, a clear indication of how much the Orthodox Jews have begun to assert themselves on the strict gender separation required of them. Tzvika and I have a brief conversation about this topic as we are exiting, and he voices his annoyance at how much this is starting to impact every day life in Israel. A good example of this is the call for separated buses in Jerusalem. As we are talking, I have to suppress a chuckle as I see some of our guys exiting the men's section with their "french fry boats" on their heads. If you don't have a head covering, you can take one of the paper kippot (plural of kippah), but I have to say they look pretty silly. For a couple of dollars (or shekels), they could have looked a lot more stylish with a real kippah covering their heads. Dr. Yates heads back into the men's section armed with my camera to get a shot of the two Orthodox men studying the Talmud there. These old men study and study, yet they have no idea that their Messiah has already come and is getting ready to come back. When He returns, their eyes will open wide and "Baruch HaShem" (Blessed be the Name) will come from their lips, fulfilling Jesus' words.

The window in the Upper RoomAfter exiting David's Tomb, we try to get up to the Upper Room, which is right above from David's Tomb, but Tzvika initially finds all doors closed. We finally make it up there, but it is already pretty crowded by other groups. I remember being in this room with only our small travel group a few years back, and it felt a lot more spacious, but now I just feel like a sardine and hardly in a worshipful mood. My favorite part there is actually a beautiful window with Arabic script, testimony to its earlier status as a mosque and the many Muslim occupiers (and others) of Jerusalem of the past.

Our final stop of the day is for a Dr. Caner teaching session at the Sheraton Hotel where our travel mates from Thomas Road Baptist Church are staying. Dr. Yates is just dying to get into the Old City and see some history, so I seek permission from my professor (oh...that just happens to be Dr. Yates) to skip the teaching session and investigate the Old City. We quickly find some others in the group who are willing to take our backpacks back to the hotel and discreetly exchange them with us later. We grab a city map at the reception - and off we go. A quick cab ride later, we are at Jaffa Gate and make our way into the Jewish Quarter. Our walk takes us past remnants of the ancient Cardo and the Broad Wall, a wall King Hezekiah built to defend against Assyria. After some quick shopping to get a Hebrew language sports shirt for Dr. Yates' son, we head down the stairs towards the Western Wall. On the way down, we pass the golden menorah, made from solid gold through donations of Jews around the globe and crafted by the Temple Institute. On prior trips, I have been to the Temple Institute to see their amazing collection of recreated vessels and priestly garments to be ready for the third Temple. They have even identified Cohen (priests) and have outfitted them with the appropriate garments. They are ready to go!

The Western Wall at DuskAfter passing the security checks, we are finally at the Western Wall. Dr. Yates and Erin and I separate, as there are sides for men and women. To me, it is always a very emotional moment. Emotional not only because I am as close as I will ever be to where the Holy of Holies stood and the Shekinah glory of God resided in the First Temple, but also because I observe so many devout Jewish women and men who honestly seek God. Some are weeping as they are praying. For some, it may be rote worship, but with several it is obvious they are seeking God's face. My prayer at the Western Wall is not just for a speedy return of Jesus Christ, but also for Him to reveal Himself to these women and men who are so diligently seeking Him. I walk up to the wall to place a slip of paper into the wall. My friend Elke, who couldn't come with me on this trip, had asked me to place it in the wall for her. We meet up with Dr. Yates who has been to the wall on the men's side and head back through the Muslim Quarter towards our hotel. As we walk out of the Old City, we take a quick look at the Roman gate below the Damascus Gate. The gates of the Old City of Jerusalem are truly a beautiful sight to behold! A few minutes further, past Arab Muslim stores and through small side streets, we reach the hotel, but not before Dr. Yates almost gets arrested for (almost) taking a photo of the US Consulate on Nablus Road. Oops. I should have known, but didn't think. Good thing we have digital cameras - a film would have been gone, as the security guard checks Dr. Yates' camera. It turns out that we are the first ones at dinner, and the rest of the group slowly trickles in for dinner. We try to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was a very good day, despite the rain.