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.

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