The Dead Sea

When we were in Israel, the weather was very unusual! (I can hear those of you who were on the trip laughing and I’m sorry, Shimon, but I had to get that in there somewhere!) As we continued our journey toward the Dead Sea, the plan had been to travel straight south through the West Bank, but mudslides caused by recent rains had closed that highway. An optional route through the disputed Palestinian territory was considered, but it was deemed unsafe as tour buses like ours are often stoned along that road! Instead, we took a much longer route that skirted around the West Bank.

As we traveled south, we left the fertile valleys of northern Israel where we saw fruit orchards and green fields and entered the desert where very little grows. As we began our descent toward the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on the planet at 427 metres below sea level, it was reminiscent of driving down into the Drumheller Valley here in Alberta, but on a much grander scale. Completely barren except for the occasional acacia tree, it had a strange beauty of it’s own. Suddenly the fears and grumbling of the Israelites as they wandered for 40 years in the desert, took on a whole new meaning for me. Without God’s provision of water, quail and manna, survival would have been absolutely impossible! (Exodus 16:1-17:7)

As soon as we’d settled into our hotel, most of us headed down to the beach. There was no way that the 13ºC (55ºF) air temperature was going to keep us from floating in the Dead Sea! This was our once in a lifetime chance and nothing was going to stop us!

I knew that the Dead Sea was significantly saltier than the ocean, making it much easier to float in, but I had no idea that it was actually more than 8 times as salty! In fact, I think it would be impossible not to float in it! Or perhaps I should say, on it, as the buoyancy is so great that your body really does seem to lie on top of the water. All one has to do is lie back and your legs automatically rise to the surface. It actually takes effort to push them back down into the water to stand up! The high salinity makes the Dead Sea a harsh environment in which plants and animals cannot flourish, hence its name and the very bleak appearance of the seaside area.

Eventually the cold drove us back into the hotel where we spent well over an hour soaking in the heated indoor/outdoor pool that is filled with water from the sea. What a wonderful way to unwind after the intensity of the trip so far! Most of us stayed in the water until the salt began to make our skin tingle. Afterward, even the men commented on how awesome and smooth their skin felt!

 

 

Bet She’an and Harod’s Spring

After three nights at the Sea of Galilee, we bid it farewell and began our journey south toward the Dead Sea. Our first stop was Bet She’an, Israel’s largest archaeological dig. It was here that the bodies of King Saul and his sons were fastened to the wall after their deaths at the hands of the Philistines on nearby Mount Gilboa. (1 Samuel 31)

Archeologists are still excavating the ruins of the Roman era city of Jesus’ time that was destroyed by an earthquake in 740 AD. Strategically located at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley, it was one of the ten cities of the Decapolis and would have been on the route that Jesus took whenever he travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem.

We started our tour at the impressive Roman theatre. The acoustics are so good that when one member of our group stood on stage and sang the rest of us could hear every word from far up in the bleachers.

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Next we moved on to the extensive bathhouse complex.

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The short pillars in the photo above held the floor of the bath. Hot air piped into the hollow space below the floor heated the water above. As our weather was damp and chilly, we all agreed that a soak in such a bath would have been welcome!

We continued our walk down the stone paved main street. In ancient days, its impressive pillars probably supported a covering over the road.

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The mosaic pavement of the portico includes this Greek inscription which reads “In the time of Palladius, son of Porphyrus, the most magnificent governor, the work of the stoa together with the mosaic pavement was made.”

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We appreciated the coolness of the day when we climbed the 163 steps to the top of the mound where we saw remains of the hilltop acropolis. From there, we had a spectacular view of the entire site. What was visible was only the downtown portion of the ancient city, however. Most of the residential areas are still under the ground.

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Everywhere we walked, the ground was strewn with tiny bits of pottery. On our way back down the hill, we discovered that recent rains had washed down hundreds of pieces. We immediately became amateur archeologists searching for treasure! Amazingly, we were allowed to take pieces home with us! There are simply so many of them that they are of little value or interest to those who seriously study the site.

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It still astonishes me that I can have in my possession a piece of someone’s kitchenware from a time when people still thought the world was flat! Who was that person? What did she carry in her container? Was she still alive when the earthquake destroyed her city?

Leaving Bet She’an, we traveled next to Harod’s Spring where God instructed Gideon to reduce the size of his army from 32 000 to 300 and gave him victory over the Midianites. (Judges 7) When they were told to drink from the spring, 300 men lapped water with their hands to their mouths while the rest got down on their knees to drink. These were the ones that God told Gideon to take into battle with him. It was pointed out to us that those who used their hands to scoop up the water would have had their eyes forward, alert to their surroundings, while the others had their heads down. We, too, are admonished to be alert, on guard against Satan’s attacks. (1 Peter 5:8) In spite of recent rains, Harod’s Spring was almost dry, but with a bit of imagination, we could visualize what happened there.

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Tel Dan and Caesarea Philippi

Tel Dan National Park in northern Israel is both a lush nature reserve and a fascinating archeological site. Unlike most of Israel, water is abundant there. It flows from underground springs with amazing force forming one of the main tributaries of the Jordan River.

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The area takes its name from the tribe of Dan who settled there during the 11th century BC after attacking the peaceful and unsuspecting people of the Canaanite city of Laish and burning it to the ground. (Judges 18) The Biblical history of this place goes all the way back to the book of Genesis! It was to here that Abraham and 318 trained men went in pursuit of those who had captured and carried off his nephew, Lot. (Genesis 14:11-16)

In 1979, the remains of a 7 metre tall gate constructed of sun-dried mud brick on a foundation of large basalt stones was unearthed. Now protected by an enormous canopy, it is the only one of its kind to have survived and is thought to date back to the days of Abraham, nearly 4000 years ago!

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During several decades of excavation under the direction of Professor Avraham Biran of the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, many other significant remains dating back to kings Jeroboam, Ahab and Jeroboam II have been unearthed. Most impressive to me was the site constructed by Jeroboam to house one of the two golden calves that he set up as gods for his people as alternatives to going up to Jerusalem to worship. (1 Kings 12:26-30) I had often read of the “high places” where people of the Old Testament set up their idols, but I had always visualized them as hilltop shrines. In reality, Jeroboam’s high place was simply an elevated platform at the front of his place of worship. Archaeologists think that it was probably roofed.

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Jeroboam’s high place

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The metal frame in front of the high place indicates the size and shape of an altar that would have stood there.

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Probably used for the ritual cleansing of animals before they were sacrificed on the altar.

Another extremely significant find at Tel Dan was the David stone. Inscriptions on the broken slab provided the first historical evidence of the Bible’s King David, proving that he was a genuine historical figure.

From Tel Dan, we moved on to Caesarea Philippi, a historic site of New Testament significance. It was here that the apostle Peter first identified Jesus as Messiah and Christ declared, “On this rock, I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) It’s often thought that he was referring to Peter as the rock, especially since the name Peter means “rock”, but Peter’s given name was actually Simon meaning “He (God) has heard”. Once we saw the site, another interpretation made complete sense.

In Jesus’ time, Caesarea Philippi was dedicated to the worship of Pan; god of hunting, of shepherds and flocks, and of the mountain wilds. He was depicted as having the upper body of a man and the hindquarters, legs and horns of a goat. Being a rustic god, Pan was not worshipped in temples, but in natural settings, usually caves or grottoes. Caesarea Philippi was a place steeped in debauchery. Spirits were thought to come and go from the underworld through a giant cave known as “The Gate of Hades”. Adjacent to the cave is a rocky escarpment with a series of niches hewn into it. Statues of Pan were placed in these recesses. Human sacrifices were made by tossing the victims into a sinkhole at the back of the cave. It was in front of this rock that Jesus stood when he made his statement. I believe that it was his intention to establish his church in worldly places, places steeped in idolatry and sin, and even the hideous practices of a place like Caesarea Philippi would not stop him! We, too, are called to take the light of our faith into the dark places of the world.

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The Gate of Hades

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Israel, land of tension

It’s impossible to visit Israel and walk the paths that Jesus walked without also confronting the current issues there. In addition to bringing scripture to life for us, our recent journey will also give me a greater interest in and hopefully, a better understanding of the news from that part of the world.

Early on the morning of Monday, January 25th, we set off for Metula, the northernmost town in Israel. This quiet agricultural community, set amongst orchards of apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots, kiwifruit and lychees, sits just inside the border with Lebanon. Standing at a viewpoint on the edge of town, we peered through a razor wire fence and watched UN vehicles on patrol. Around the corner was a preschool with bullet holes in its windows from Lebanese snipers! All seems to be quiet at the moment, however, and tourism rivals agriculture as the community’s economic base.

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Metula

Later in the day, after visiting two amazing Biblical sites that will be the focus of my next post, we climbed high into the Golan Heights, a rocky plateau seized from Syria in the final stages of the 1967 Six-Day War. It was here that we discovered that it does indeed snow in Israel! Apparently, it’s not unusual to see it on the upper slopes of Mount Hermon, but there was several inches on the ground in the Druze village where we stopped for lunch.

The Druze are an Arabic speaking ethnic and religious minority group found mostly in Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel.  With no country of their own, they form a close-knit, cohesive community but also integrate fully into their adopted homelands and are intensely loyal to them.

It was only when we exited the occupied territory again that we began to get a sense of what living in a land like Israel might do to one’s psyche. Though we felt no danger at all, our beloved guide, Shimon Zemer, told us that every time he crosses the border back into Israel proper, he breathes a sigh of relief and is able to relax again.

Before returning to Tiberias, we made one more stop, a visit to an Israeli Defense Forces base. Every Jew in Israel, over the age of 18, with the exception of those with a criminal record and the ultra-Orthodox Jews (as Shimon would say, “we shall talk about that later”) are required to serve in the army, males for three years and females for two.

The base that we visited is a supply centre where tanks, vehicles and supplies of all kinds are kept in readiness should war break out. We were shown one of 30 supply rooms filled with backpacks, each one already packed with clothing in the correct size for a specific soldier. The men in our group were especially fascinated with the tanks that we were shown, especially one, perhaps the most powerful in the world, that can travel 80 to 90 km/hour and while doing so, zero in on and launch a missile at a target 20 km away! We were allowed to take photographs, but only if we promised not to publish them on social media.

 

Galilee

The land of Galilee was nothing like I expected it to be. In the past, when I read accounts of Jesus teaching the multitudes and feeding the 5000, I visualized them sitting on grassy slopes. In reality, the rugged hillsides of Galilee are strewn with boulders of black volcanic basalt and I suspect that some of Jesus’ listeners chose to sit on rocks instead of on the ground.

Today, a Catholic monastery surrounded by beautiful grounds is located on the Mount of Beatitudes where Christ delivered his Sermon on the Mount. After a short devotional in the gardens and singing Amazing Grace in the chapel where the acoustics were fabulous, we were sent off to read the sermon on our own. The storm that had been following us ever since our morning boat ride on the Sea of Galilee caught up to us about that time, however, and it was difficult to find a sheltered spot to do our assigned reading. The pages in that part of our travel Bible will probably be forever wrinkled, a reminder of standing in the wind and rain while we read Matthew 5:1-16!

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Fortunately, the rain didn’t last long and by the time we reached our next stop at Kurzi, which has been identified as the site where Jesus cast a legion of demons into a herd of swine (Mark 5:1-13), it had stopped. After investigating the remains of the oldest Byzantine church in Israel, we climbed the hillside to the probable location of the tombs mentioned in scripture. Looking down, it was hard to imagine the herd of pigs plunging into the lake and drowning because the water is actually quite a long way off. Remains of wharves have been found at the bottom of the hill, however, where bananas are now cultivated. Clearly the Sea of Galilee was significantly larger in Jesus’ day.

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This is actually a major concern for Israel today as the Sea of Galilee is the country’s largest fresh water reservoir. Many years of below average rainfall have caused the water level to drop significantly as water is drawn from the lake for irrigation and other uses at a rate faster than it is replenished by nature.

Continuing on around the north end of the lake, we came to the recent excavation of the ancient city of Bethsaida where we walked on a stretch of cobblestone highway some 3000 years old!

Our last stop of the day was Capernaum which was the centre of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Here we saw the remnants of a beautiful 4th century synagogue that was built over the remains of the synagogue of Jesus’ day. Surrounding it were the remains of houses and other buildings. It is believed that the home of the apostle Peter, where Jesus is known to have spent a lot of time, lies beneath one of these.

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As we returned to our hotel in Tiberias, I felt privileged to have walked so many of the places where our Lord walked, but I also realized that Jesus was not particularly concerned about the places, but about the people who inhabited them. It was a blessing to walk where He walked physically, but how much more we need to walk as He walked spiritually, in humility and obedience, bringing salt and light to a lost and hurting world. (Matthew 5:13-16)

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Boats on the Sea of Galilee

We arrived at our hotel in Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret, shortly after dark on Saturday, January 24th. Sunday morning began with what was definitely one of the highlights of our pilgrimage to Israel; worshipping on a boat on a stormy Sea of Galilee! The original plan had been to travel by boat to another spot along the lake and have the bus pick us up there, but the water was too rough for that and since Jesus wasn’t there to calm the storm (Matthew 8:23-27), we went out and back to the same spot staying fairly close to shore. The boat was aptly named Faith and we all agreed that it was somehow very fitting that we were buffeted by wind and waves just as Jesus and his disciples had been.

As soon as we put out from shore, the Canadian flag was raised and Captain Daniel Carmel, who is also a Christian singer and songwriter with an amazing testimony, declared the boat temporary Canadian territory and “the warmest spot in Canada today!” My heart was full as we all stood and sang O Canada. After a short devotional, we sang hymns and songs of praise and listened to Captain Daniel sing one of his own songs entitled Jerusalem. It was a very moving experience.

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Too soon, we were back on shore and on our way to our next destination, the Jesus Boat Museum on a kibbutz at Ginosar. In 1986, at a time when the water level was particularly low, the remains of a 27 meter long fishing boat from the time of Jesus was discovered in the mud on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee by brothers Moshe and Yuval Lufan. Of tremendous historical importance, it was unearthed by a team of archeologists who took particular care to keep the ancient wood wet so that it wouldn’t dry out and crumble. Encased in expanding foam, it was then floated to a spot where it could be lifted from the water by a crane and moved. It was submerged in a chemical bath for seven years to preserve the wood before it was finally put on display. Though there is no evidence to definitively connect the boat to Jesus or any of his disciples, it is an amazing relic from their day.

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Mount Carmel, Megiddo and Nazareth

Moving inland toward the Sea of Galilee, we stopped to visit several interesting and very significant sites. The first was Mount Carmel where the prophet Elijah called down the fire of God and defeated the prophets of Baal. (1 Kings 18:19-40) Unfortunately, fog obscured our views of the Kishon Valley below.

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For most of our time in Israel, the weather was unusually cool and wet even for winter. Warm weather clothing stayed in our suitcases while we dressed in layers to fend off the chill. I was very happy to have taken gloves, a warm hat and an umbrella with me!

After Mount Carmel, we continued on to Megiddo (Hebrew for Armageddon) where many, many layers of archeological remains going back thousands of years have been excavated. Here, a giant fortress believed to have been built by King Solomon once stood.

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At Megiddo, we had the first of several underground experiences. Descending approximately 180 stairs deep into a shaft in the ground, we followed a tunnel that brought water to the fortress from a small spring outside its walls.

Moving on, our next stop was Nazareth, the childhood home of Christ, where we toured a recreated first century village complete with cultivated terraces and vineyards, an ancient winepress, an operating olive press and a synagogue representing the one where Jesus identified himself to his townspeople as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a coming Messiah. (Luke 4:14-30)

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As we left the village, we were each given a tiny oil lamp, a reminder that we are called to be the light of Christ to a lost and hurting world.

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