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.


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  2. Hi! Great blog and photos!

  3. Wow! That is a whirlwind of a day. You covered a lot of ground on that day.