Thursday, June 4, 2009
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
I'm feeling a little melancholy tonight, not sad, just melancholy. Maybe it's just because I'm tired or maybe because my Israel adventure is coming to an end or I'm just longing to be home. Whatever the source of my mood the following is the story of a sad city, the ancient city of Beth Shan where we visited today. In the Scriptures we first hear about Beth Shan as one of the Canaanite cities that was never driven out of the land when Israel came to take possession of the promised land (Judges 1:27). Beth Shan was eventually conquered, but not by Israel, but by the persistent enemy of Saul and David, those nasty Philistines. In 1 Samuel 31 the Philistines eventually got the best of Saul and his son, Jonathan. It says that “the Israelites fled before them, and many fell slain on Mount Gilboa” (1 Sam. 31:1). By the way Mount Gilboa is easily seen as you drive around the Jezreel Valley like we have been doing in our bus. The Philistines first killed Jonathan. Then, it says that the Philistine archers “wounded [Saul] critically” (1 Sam. 31:3). Saul took his own life, and his body was found the next day by the Philistine aggressors. Here it gets gory... the Philistines cut off Saul's head, stripped off his armor, and they hung his naked dead body from the wall of Beth Shan. Fortunately some brave Israelites rescued the bodies during the night and buried the bones.
When David heard what had happened he sang a sad song: “David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son, Jonathan....” (2 Samuel 1:17). He sings of “how the mighty have fallen” and his love for Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:19-27). He ordered that all of the men of Judah be taught this lament.
Israel's geography is filled with peaks and valleys, up down and around every corner there is peak or valley. And that's real life too isn't it? There are peaks and valleys to living and we have to travel through both. Times of sadness come to all of us. Loss and grief are part of what it means to live. We don't deny it. We don't hide from it. Just read through the Psalms, and observe all of the peaks and the valleys of emotions that the psalmists struggled with. They are filled with lament. Sure there is a lot of praise in the psalms, but there is also a lot of sad songs, lamentations. This morning I read Psalm 130 which begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; O Lord, hear my voice, Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 31:1,2). But we're always urged to move on through the valley, to put our hope in the God of the valley: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:5,6). I don't know if you are in a peak or a valley today, but God is God of both.
As I was taking pictures at Beth Shan I noticed that high on the peak above the ruins of Beth Shan stands a tree, a lonely tree high on the hill. Look real closely in the middle of this picture and you will see it. And I was reminded that there was a man who hung on a tree. His name was Jesus. All who trust in his death on that cross overcome the wages of sin, namely death, eternal sadness and judgment: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (Psalm 130:3,4). In the midst of my peak and valleys this is where I look. What else do we have?
Paul McCartney sang, "Hey Jude, Don't make it bad, take a sad song and make it better. Remember to let her into your heart, then you can start to make it better." If you read the rest of the lyrics to "Hey Jude" it's really not such a bad song (musically or lyrically speaking) about the importance of letting people into your life. And that's good advice. Unfortunately I will always associate this song with playing high school football because in my junior year of high school this was one of the songs that was always played in the locker room while we were putting on our pads. So, this song doesn't make me sad. It just makes my adrenaline start jumping and pumping.
Anyway, there's a better song I'm thinking about that goes more to the point:
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame;
and I love that old cross where the dearest and best
for a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,
till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it some day for a crown.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Last night we sat and watched the sun set over the mountains on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. Then as it turned dark the lights in Tiberias began to shine like a "city set on a hill." About 9 p.m. we sat in the dark by starlight and watched the F-15 jets make their run up to the Golan Heights border with Syria. Their green flashing lights were hard to miss with the eyes. The sonic boom was hard to miss with your ears. Israel is such a small country that we could see them in the sky all the way northup to the border, twenty miles away or so, and then they did a looping turn back south. A great night.
Monday, June 1, 2009
I took a dip in the Sea of Galilee late this afternoon which was nice after hiking all day. We were up in Galilee at Caesarea Philippi today. Caesarea Philippi was named by Herod Philip (one of the sons of Herod the Great) to honor Caesar (and himself). This is an area with powerful springs that bring wtaer out of the cliffs and ultimately into the Jordan River. This city is northeast of the place called Caesarea, so don't confuse the two. One of the remnants at Caesarea Philippi is an ancient cave/shrine structure to honor the Greek god Pan, a god of the woods who chased nymphs around trees. Woo hoo! He was a raw nature god: wild, sexy, earthy. There was a cave at the back of the shrine that some people believe was associated with the Greek idea of hell. So, with all of this in mind think of what happened when Jesus brought his disciples to Caesarea Phlippi.
It was here that Jesus asked his disciples, “Who to people say that the Son of Man is?”. Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:13-16). There are several interpretations of what Jesus meant by “the rock”, but I heard a new one today. It could be that Jesus was standing near this shrine to Pan, far away from Jerusalem, in the heart of paganism, and he was saying, “You see this rock mountain symbolizing the power of hell. Well, there is a more powerful rock, the rock of the gospel, and this rock is so powerful that hell can not stand against it. In fact, your mission is to storm the gates of hell, to see people transformed to live their lives for King Jesus and his kingdom.” So, all we know for sure about the context is that this important conversation took place in Caesarea Philippi, that there are big rocks there, and that rocks are certainly used in Scripture to refer to the strength, power, and stability of life in Jesus' kingdom. Remember Jesus parable about the wise man building his house on the stable rock rather than on the shifting sand? “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Mt. 7:24). And that's what it's all about.
Saturday, May 30, 2009
The original excavators literally dug under the city of Jerusalem, underneath houses and businesses to reveal the entire length of the western wall. The excavators were faced with complicated engineering problems, such as maintaining the stability of the structures above them. The original explorers, back in the 1800s describe swimming through the cisterns with a candle to light the way. The modern excavators had to divert the sewage from the houses above them, which on occasion flushed down unexpectedly into the tunnels, which was serving as a general sewage system in many places. After much delicate and difficult work they they found enormous carved stones that are still preserved. There were also remains of the Herodian road which ran alongside the Temple Moun and ancient cisterns that originally were used as water sources. One spot along the wall is not completed. Some scholar speculate that this happened when Herod the Great died and the project was no longer funded, so the workers just picked up their tools and went home.
The biggest stone in the Western Wall is often called the Western Stone. I couldn't fit the whole stone into the picture, but if you look closely at the big stone on top of the smaller stones you can see it in the picture ("smaller stones" is a relative term since the stones on the bottom row weigh several tons apiece themselves). It is one of the heaviest objects ever lifted by human beings without powered machinery. Listen to this: the stone is about the size of a bus, around 40 feet long and about 12 feet wide. They estimate the weight at 570 tons! Think about this. The empty weight of the first 747-400 is about 200 tons, and its maximum takeoff weight (with luggage, people, and fuel) is about 450 tons. They have no idea how this stone was moved into place!!
People did not like the archaeologists digging under their homes, and they had all sorts of fears about their homes and businesses collapsing. One tragedy that has set the course for this site happened on September 24,1996. Prime Minister Netanyah ordered that a new exit be cut through from the Struthion Pool area to the Via Dolorosa nearby. Yasser Arafat commented on the event, alleging the real aim was to make the Temple Mount collapse. This sparked riots in which around 80 people were killed. Normally there is a soldier located at this exit to protect people when they exit the tunnels in the Muslim quarter. Since our tour took place at 10 pm when it was dark and at a time more prone to radical Palestinians harassing people who exit the tunnels we had to retrace our steps and go out the entrance.
Friday, May 29, 2009
Today is a special holiday in Israel called Shavuot. The holiday began last evening and continues today. Friday is also the main day of prayer for Muslims. Consequently the old city has been packed with people and cars are parked wherever people can find a space. People are parking in alleys and on the sides of the hill wherever they can find a spot. There are also Jewish and Muslim pilgrims coming and going every which way. We went down to the Western Wall for a while last night to watch what was going on. We were a little bit late, so some of the crowd had already gone home. But I was able to go up to the front of the western wall and then turn north for a couple of hundred yards where the wall extends underneath the old city. The area under the old city is a combination library/community congregational meeting center. I am assuming that most of the books were copies of the Talmud, the historical rabbinic commentary on the Old Testament. One congregation was having a meeting in this underground area, so we tried not to disturb them. The men were singing a song together. Others were praying in their characteristic bob up and down kind of praying that many of them do. One person told me that they pray like that to keep their focus, so that their minds don't wander. That makes sense, but I haven't talked to a Jewish person about it yet. Some of my friends went down at 4 am this morning for a special worship time that the Jews hold at the western wall. My friends said that the whole area was packed with people and they had to stand way far at the back, about 200 yards away from the front area where the wall is located. Another friend said that he heard several rabbis from the United States at the ceremony. And that makes sense as Shavuot is one of the great gathering festivals of the Jews. You and I know this festival as The Feast of Pentecost. It was on this day nearly two thousand years ago that Peter preached a message of repentance and salvation (Acts 2), possibly on the steps just south of the temple mount (where I was standing the other day). Over 3000 new believers in Jesus the Messiah were added to the church that day, an influx from multiple nations of peoples who were in attendance at Shavuot. So, this is a very important holy day for us as Christians as well. The following press release comes from the government of Israel:
The Shavuot morning prayers are marked by special hymns and scriptural readings, including the Book of Ruth. Special memorial prayers for the departed are also said. Some communities maintain the custom of decorating their synagogues with green plants and flowers. This is in keeping with two traditions: that Mt. Sinai was a green mountain and that Shavuot is a day of judgment for fruit trees. On Shavuot, it is also customary to eat dairy dishes; there are many explanations for this custom.
In ancient times, Shavuot marked the end of the barley harvest, and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Jewish farmers brought their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), where special offerings were brought (Numbers 28:26-31). In honor of Shavuot's status as the "Day of First Fruits" and the "Harvest Festival" (as it is referred to in Numbers 28:26 and Exodus 23:16, respectively), many kibbutzim and moshavim [collective settlements] also organize special celebrations revolving around these themes, including ceremonies in which new produce from the kibbutz or moshav is highlighted. (The Government Press Office, May 26, 2009)
Thursday, May 28, 2009
It sounds like an ancient fermented drink. Serve me up a “Beersheba” please! Beersheba is a town at the southern edge of the territory that the Lord gave to Israel, “from Dan to Beerhsheba” (Judges 20:1; 1 Sam. 3:20; et. al.). Beersheba was an administrative center where people came to trade. It was the primary city of south Israel. Beer Sheba actually can either be translated “The Well of Seven” or “The Well of the Oath.” It was here that Abraham dug a well and settled down (Gen. 21:22-34) after his long wanderings from Haran. “It was here that Abraham “called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God” (Gen. 21:33). I was thinking about this as I stood on the ruins of ancient Beersheba.
A couple of weeks ago I met a couple of computer programmers in Jerusalem. They told me this sad tale of being stuck in Beersheba for a few days with nothing to do. I suppose they meant that they had nothing to do in the evening, and that might have been true. Of course they were in the modern city of Beersheba, and we were out at the archaeological dig, which is only open during the day. So, they didn't even get to see what I would say is the most exciting part of Beersheba, the dig.
Beersheba was also the place where Isaac built an altar to the Lord (Gen. 26:15-23) and where Jacob received direction from the Lord to take his family to Egypt along with a promise that Israel would eventually return to the land (Gen. 46:1-7).
Centuries later the citizens of Beersheba encountered trouble because they had an altar that did not conform to the Lord's directions (Amos 5:5; 8:14). There have actually been worship centers which have been discovered in Beersheba (and nearby Arad). These worship centers may be the “high places” that are spoken of in Scripture, places where false worship took place, such as the worship of Asherah, a female deity, worshiped around something called an “Asherah Pole” which we don't really know what it looked like, since we don't have any archaeological finds that have been verified as an “Asherah Pole.” Why did people in Beersheba (along with Arad, Bethel, Gilgal, and other places) stray from their devotion to “the Eternal God” of Abraham their forefather? (see Amos 5:4,5; 8:14). Perhaps it is for the same reason that we sometimes stray: our hearts are “prone to wander” as the old hymn goes.
Unless we discipline ourselves in “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) we will wander. The root of the word “disciple” is, of course, related to the word “discipline.” One who is a disciple of Jesus disciplines their life to conform to the life of Jesus. It's not that we live perfect lives, but that we are constantly perfecting ourselves. This is an authentic life, a real life, and not a caricature of a Christian who looks down on others. We only look at Jesus as our aim and to Jesus as our strength. To look to our right or left “at other people” is to be diverted from our discipline. The Lord has given us the gift of “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12) as an encouragement to strive to become like Jesus. There are many “religious people” in Israel. Our aim is not to become more “religious.” Our aim is to become more filled with the life of Jesus in us and through us, both individually and corporately.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Picture: Jerusalem looking east from the Mount of Olives
- In Hebrew “Bethlehem” is spelled with two words, “Beit – Lechem” (House of Bread).
- I'm glad I didn't pay a taxi driver to take a visit to Bethlehem (The taxi drivers are very aggressive and when you are walking on the streets they yell out the window or stop you on the sidewalk and ask if they can take you to Bethlehem). The class trip wasn't worth it, and was the most disappointing place I've been.
- Out in the agricultural areas I've seen chickens, goats, sheep, peacocks, burros, camels, but no pigs. Think about it.
- The largest coin by size and weight is ½ argorot, with a beautiful picture of a harp on the back and a big ½ on the front side. It's worth about 12 cents.
- The Palestinians have the cutest children under 5 years old with their brown skin and dark eyes.
- The Orthodox Jews have the most unusual looking teenage boys, all dressed up in their long black suits, and the beginning of their curls on the sides of their heads.
- Some of the girls in the Israeli army would do better in a sorority and should definitely NOT be carrying a gun.
- They take their politics very seriously over here.
- There is a lot, a lot, did I say a lot of tension between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
- I'm not sure which is more annoying, the daily Islamic call to prayer over loud loudspeakers broadcast over the whole city or the Israeli youth singing Jewish songs at 2 am outside my window, the Sound and Light show across the street that goes on until very late every other night, the big iron door that slams and shakes our whole building, or the inconsiderate people who talk loudly out in the hallway late at night. There. I got that off of my chest.
- There are a lot of priests and nuns in black or brown robes running around the streets, either serving in the various churches or touring the sites.
- The best music I've heard here was the Master's College Chorale singing at a concert in Christ Church.
- The best museum I've been to was the Bible Land's Museum which displays various artifacts from every era and country mentioned in the Old Testament.
- The best food I've eaten was a pasta dish with bacon bits sprinkled in it (not a kosher restaurant!).
- The best coffee I've had is actually the hotel coffee at breakfast.
- I'm still doing my laundry in the bathtub with shampoo because it's easier than hauling it all somewhere.
- I sometimes eat an ice cream bar for my meal BECAUSE I CAN.
- I'm having fun and learning lots, but I do miss not having Kathleen with me.
- If Kathleen were here she could, and would, correct my grammar. And I would like it, really!
- Since I'm auditing the class I'm really glad that I don't have to take the exam this morning.
- The most meaningful times I've had in Jerusalem have been times of worship and reflecting on the Word of God because the Lord created us to worship him and to be in community with Him and his people, not to just look at rocks, though the rocks are interesting.
- God is everywhere, but the Lord is in Jerusalem in a special way because this is the place where he has most chosen to display His glory.
Picture: Damascus Gate Market, on the Palestinian side of the city.
This morning I worshipped with an Arabic congregation here in the old city Jerusalem that is associated with the Christian Missionary and Alliance denomination. I was going to give this post the title, "Worship in Other Tongues", but some of you might not get the joke. The church meets in a building that is right behind "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre", the place that is on the likely location of Jesus' crucifixion and nearby resurrection tomb. I was wondering if the tourists going into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre heard our worship time. It was very, very enthusiastic and joyous, even if I only understood the "Hallelujahs." If you have ever heard Arabian music you know that it has a very distinct beat: "1,2and, 3, 4and!" with a quick beat on the final "and" and with more emphasis on the final "and." Plus, the worship kept building and building beginning with prayer and music on a keyboard and one teenager on the bongos. Then, the worship leader started leading us in Arabic worship songs, always with that same beat. Next, the powerpoint guy hopped up on stage and started playing the drum set (his daughter took over the powerpoint duties). Next a guy stood up and started waving a flag. The keyboard guy added a bunch of trumpets and now everybody is excited. They stood and worshiped a really long time, but were very sincere. The closest parallel I have in my experience is when I've worshiped down in Mexico with the congregations there. One funny thing on my part. I was sitting next to a professor who teaches at a Christian university out in California, and I asked him what would be the theological symbolism of the Nokia telephone clip art they kept flashing on the screen. He leaned over and very dryly said, "I think it's a message to turn off your telephone." Anyway, we worshiped with some other students from Jerusalem University, two from Alaska, one from Australia, one from Canada, and about 15 pastors from Uganda who were in attendance at the service, plus about 100 in the Arabic congregation. The congregation was very indigineous, and I was glad to see the turnout. Fortunately the message was translated into English for us. Two and a half hours later we were out of there, and it was time for lunch and a nap on a day off. I spent the afternoon doing more reading on the family of Herod, and that's been the day.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Friday, May 22, 2009
Picture: Jericho Tower from 9000 BC
One of the greatest cities of the ancient world was a place we know as “Jericho” or in local lingo “Yericho.” Today we saw a tower that goes back at least 9000 BC. We know about Joshua and the children of Israel conquering Jericho, and what a herculean feat that was (Joshua 6). One of the conundrums of Jericho study when I was in seminary was whether or not there were people living in Jericho at the time of the Exodus. In other words there were people who doubt the Bible who criticized the biblical data and said that it conflicts with the archaeological evidence. But, in more recent reconsideration there has been new evidence that Jericho was indeed inhabited during the time of Joshua's conquest. I won't go into all of the technical details. I found an article that summarizes what our professor said at www.biblearcheology.org.
Essentially, there are several key factors that help us date the destruction of Jericho at a time period consistent with Joshua's entry into the promised land including evidence of a sudden fire, pottery dating, and carbon 14 dating.
A few things struck me in Jericho. First was the ancient tower, one of the most ancient standing structures in all of archaeological research and making Jericho one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the ancient world. Secondly, the verdant greenery of the city was a complete contrast to the Judean wilderness northwest of the Jericho. There is a very ancient underground spring that brings water through the limestone all the way from northern Israel down to Jericho. And because of this enormous spring of water there are palm trees, flowers, and green shrubs growing everywhere in this city. Thirdly, I continue to be amazed by the different people I encounter in this part of the world. Today I visited a bit with a young man who has lived in San Jose, California for the last seventeen years. He is married and he now lives in the United States, but was back in Jericho visiting his childhood family, since he is originally from Jericho. He didn't tell me clearly, but since he is from Jericho I presume he is Muslim. What struck me is that the people of the world today are mobile. And it was another reminder to me that it's a small world.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
David (and the Jebusites before him) located the ancient city of Jerusalem as close as they could get to the water source. Of course that's a smart move everywhere throughout history around the planet. Water has always been and still is a precious resource! I grew up in a small town located on the Turkey River. And I now live in a town located along a branch of the Boone River. In Jerusalem there are plenty of hills that are higher than the original Jerusalem site. Fo example, the Mount of Olives towers way higher than David's city. But ancient Jerusalem had the Gihon Spring, a water source that could easily support up to 2,500 people. That's where we went to visit and tour today.
The Gihon Spring runs through a water tunnel we call "Hezekiah's Tunnel", named after the Jewish King by that name.The most thrilling part of the day was hiking through Hezekiah's Tunnel, which is about 1760 feet long, (about a third of a mile or so). The water flowing through the tunnel varies from ankle high to crotch high and the height inside the tunnel is from 4 feet to 40 feet high and about 2 feet wide. The tunnel was built by King Hezekiah around 700 BC, about 2,700 years ago! The reason why it was built was to divert the water from the spring inside of the city gates, so that in a time when the city was under siege they would have an available water source to endure the siege. Hezekiah's men literally tunneled through the bedrock with ancient pick axes from each side until they met in the middle! An ancient inscription was found in which the workers wrote on the wall of the tunnel describing how they met each other in the middle. Read more about this in 2 Chronicles 32:2-4 and 2 Kings 20:20.
The tunnel ends at the Pool of Siloam where people could come and dip in their water buckets and haul the water to their homes. One of my favorite Bible stories is found in John 9 where a blind man is healed by Jesus, and Jesus tells him to “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam” (John 9:7). When questioned hard by the Pharisees about the identity of Jesus and how such a thing could happen the blind man finally says in exasperation, “.... One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see!
So, we give witness to what we see, whether the facts of archaeological remains or the facts of changed lives. It all works together for the glory of God.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
7"Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me."
8Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." 9At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, 10and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat."
11But he replied, "The man who made me well said to me, 'Pick up your mat and walk.' "
12So they asked him, "Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?"
13The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.
14Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Of course, the United States is promoting a “two state solution” and Israel is obfuscating and biding its time, while continuing merrily on its own agenda and pathway. Here is what I saw, and I'm just telling you like it is. Israel is slowly and surely overwhelming the state of Israel with religious Jews who already outnumber the Arab/native population. At the same time they are squeezing the Arabs by progressively taking their land and confining them into extremely restricted zones.
Here are a few examples of what we saw. The picture is the border of the area between an Israeli governed zone, and a Palestinian governed zone. There are actually two completely different roadways, one for the Israeli Jews, and one for the Arab Palestinians, and these roadways are blocked from each other with high walls, barb wire, and guard towers. Essentially the Israelis are putting the Arabs on reservations, much like we did in the United States with our native American population. Only, Israel is a much smaller country than the United States, so the Arab populations are packed into confined ghettos and have little opportunity for integrated economic or social integration. Plus, these reservations are surrounded by the concrete walls and fencing. Furthermore, the Israeli government progressively bulldozes homes of Palestinians whenever the Israelis want to settle Jews into certain areas of the countries. These homes represent the entire life savings of these Palestinian families, and Israel offers them no financial remuneration. Fred described several documented home destructions that he has watched. His organization tries to protest and document these home destructions, but Israel has a master plan that creeps forward with strong force. He also showed us several very nice middle class Jewish neighborhoods that are funded by the Jewish government. So, our United States government funds the Jewish government, and since Israel is a fairly wealthy country, by world standards, they pass on their savings to the Jewish people of Israel by funding nice middle class housing.
I'm sure that Israel would say that the Palestinian fences are required to protect Israel from Palestinian suicide bombers and radicals, but the problem is not the fence itself. One fence from north to south along the west bank border could be built and that would suffice. The problem is the manner in which the fences are built, and the way in which the Arab population is treated. As I said, think of the Palestinian areas as island reservations of people crammed into a small geographical area, and then denied opportunity to enjoy the same standard of living as the majority Jewish population. Think of these islands of people as undesirables (from a Jewish perspective) who are imprisoned within their own country. This is my current understanding of the situation, and if anything changes I will adjust my viewpoint. As my family knows, I like to look at all sides of a situation (as much as possible from a Christian world view) and particularly on political issues I don't like just accepting the standard line.
Tomorrow I start the class. I received the syllabus today. We are digging into the geographical, archaeological, and historical background of Jerusalem (some of which I've already done myself, so hopefully not too much of a repeat). Then it's off to places further afield.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
I picked up a book from the Jerusalem University library the other day with the title,
Those of you who have read Dan Brown's “Davinci Code” will recognize Craig Evan's teasing echo of Brown's book in the opening pages of “Fabricating Jesus.” Evans writes,
- “The Gospel of Thomas” - in comparison with the New Testament Gospels – is late, not early; secondary, not authentic. Contrary to what a few scholars maintain, the “Gospel of Thomas” originated in Syria and probably no earlier than the end of the second century.”
- “The Gospel of Peter”, which describes a talking cross, is late and incredible. In fact, the fragmentary document that we have may not be the “Gospel of Peter” at all. The document that we have may date to the fourth or fifth century.
- The “secret” version of the Gospel of Mark, allegedly found in the Mar Saba Monastery, is a modern hoax. Analysis of the hand-writing betrays the tell-tale signs of forgery.
- The distinctive conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are rejected by most scholars in North America and Europe.
- There is absolutely no credible evidence that Jesus had a wife or a child.
- The evidence is compelling that the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are our best sources for understanding the historical Jesus, The New Testament Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony and truthfully and accurately relate the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
- Jesus was not a Cynic; in all probability he never encountered a Cynic.
- No killer monks (albino or otherwise) number among the membership of Opus Dei.
- All descriptions of documents, literature and archaeology in this book are accurate.”
Even if you don't understand all of what Craig Evans is writing about you can appreciate the fact that there are scholars like him who do the hard work of crashing the weak foundations of silly ideas about Jesus, like the suggestion that he married Mary Magdalene and had a child with her, or that these “other sources” give us an accurate rendition of the life of Jesus. While I appreciated my time the other day at the Israel museum Dead Sea Scrolls display I didn't find any hidden truths about Jesus. Rather, we can take such documents for what they purport to be, the documents of a particular community as it seeks to live out its communal life. In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls this is the Qumran community that had some areas and ideas in common with the New Testament, but certainly nothing that undermines our faith or causes us to throw everything out the window.
The picture is Christ Church, where I have been worshiping on Sundays.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
This fortress stands on a strategic hill that is the highest spot in all directions. So, the Hasmonean kings, around 150 BC, built a wall and watchtowers. When Herod came to power he added three massive towers in 37-34 BC. He did this both to defend the city and to guard his nearby royal palace. He named these three towers after his “beloved family and friends.” I put that in quotation marks because if you do any research on Herod you know he was one of the most wicked kings in history, and he actually named one of the towers after his second wife, Miriam, WHOM HE PREVIOUSLY HAD EXECUTED, and whose tomb was nearby. He named the other two towers after Phasael, a brother who committed suicide, an Hippicus, one of his friends. The only tower that still stands today is Phasael, and the view is absolutely beautiful.
There is a whole subsequent history to the Citadel that corresponds with the history of the whole city. It was conquered and rebuilt several times, and bears the archeological remains of that history. For me, the tower was an illustration of the awesome power and wealth that impacted the ancient world, but also the fact that even the most powerful people come and go. "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fail, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fall, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:6-8).
Friday, May 15, 2009
Towards the end of the 19th century British general Charles Gordon caused a dispute among archeologists when he argued that this skull shaped hill was the place of Jesus crucifixion. “They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of the Skull)” (Mark 15:22). As you can see from the picture the hill does look like a skull. It is in a stone quarry, and there were some ancient tombs that were dug up. The problem is that the scholars tell us that the tombs go all the way back to around BC and they are in an entirely different configuration from those in use in Jesus' time. And, I don't know. I guess you have to rely on the experts.
This is a whole lot more pleasant place to visit than the other proposed site of Jesus death and resurrection (The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is usually crowded with tourists and filled with smells and robes). The Garden Tomb has been developed by the British into a lovely garden spot and the guides greet you in their pleasant English accent that invites you to enjoy the garden, which is exactly what I did. My legs were tired so I sat and meditated on some Scripture passages including, “God made him who had no sin to became sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21)... the great exchange. And one of my favorites: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). One of the things I've discovered here is that people have very strong religious opinions, especially the Muslims. I knew this from my study of Islam, but I have been reminded of how much they like to discuss religious things through a couple of conversations. Unfortunately, without actually having the time to sit down with a Bible or look at extended academic points both conversations ended with “My Koran says....” versus “My Bible says...”
I have also found that the ordinary tourist is very open to spiritual discussions after they get to know you. Maybe it's because they are in Jerusalem and it opens you up your spiritual side. Maybe it's because you can sometimes discuss things for a little while with a total stranger because he won't hold you accountable for what you discover since you will never see him again. Especially, in both cases of a couple of fairly deep spiritual conversations with two guys I will identify as spiritual seekers they were very interested in conversations after I let on that I am studying here as a pastor. One of the guys had several questions about different approaches to understanding Jesus and how that works out in finding a church. The other guy had lots of questions about end times stuff, which isn't really my forte, but of course I know enough about what the Bible says to have a conversation with someone who is trying to figure it out. As I say, I guess when you are in Jerusalem you start thinking about end of the world scenarios, so that's what we talked about. I didn't really want to get into premillenialism and amillenialism with him. I've always liked what one of my professors used to say. He would say that he was a panmillenialist... it will all pan out in the end. Anyway, I tried to direct this guy back to the book of John, and just encouraged him to start reading that first before he tries to figure out how the world will end.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
It has been fun here to recognize and read various Hebrew words on road signs and billboards. The only problem is that modern Hebrew does not have the vowels inserted in the words, kind of like if I were to spell the word “covenant” with just the consonants “cvnnt.” After a while you could get used to it, but it would take some practice. Ancient Hebrews did not insert the vowels when writing Hebrew. They just knew where the vowels were at, and what the sounds were like. So, modern Hebrew is really a return to an ancient practice. Fortunately for those of us who study biblical Hebrew there were a group of scribes in the middle ages who inserted the vowels for us. These look like little chicken scratches under the consonants, but are very helpful in reading. I asked a Jew about this, and he said that when the students are learning the Hebrew language in elementary school the vowels are inserted, but as they become more proficient they learn to read and write without the vowels.
One of the good things here in Israel is that due to the many transplanted Americans and the universal language of most educated people worldwide, namely English, all of the road signs, and many other significant signs are both in English and Hebrew. Today I came across a sign for one of my favorite Hebrew words, a word that many of us have heard before, the Hebrew word “hesed”, a special word that refers to God's loving kindness. The word was used in reference to a local synagogue, a very appropriate word to name a synagogue I guess.
Nor am I referring to the cats of Egypt who had God like status as the goddess "Bast." Of course you've probably heard the joke about the difference between dog theology and cat theology. When dogs think of their human owner they think, “You are God. Thank you for feeding me.” When cats think of their human owner they think, “I am God. Feed me.” According to a Wikipedia article; "As a revered animal and one very important to Egyptian society and religion, the cat was afforded the same mummification after death as humans. Mummified cats were given in offering to Bast; in 1888, an Egyptian farmer accidentally uncovered a large tomb containing tens of thousands of mummified cats and kittens. This discovery outside the town of Beni Hasan contained around eighty thousand cat mummies, dating back to 1000-2000 BC.
The reason I bring up cats is because they are all over Jerusalem. Everywhere you go there are cats slinking about. I guess they are for rodent control. But I am not joking.
There was an article in the local Jerusalem Post newspaper today: CAT SCAMS PET SCAN.... “For three days, Rambam Medical Center imaging technology experts couldn't understand why their positron-emission tomography (PET)/ computerized tomography (CT) scanner was malfunctioning. When technicians arrived and opened it, they found a purring cat inside. The feline apparently turned off an internal switch and delayed the examination of dozens of patients.”
I found a pride of cats (I know there are lion prides, how about cats?) at a local park. They were sunning themselves and climbing all over an older gentleman. I'm not sure if he comes to the park to feed them, or if he owned the cats (technically I guess no one owns a cat). Anyway, I thought it was a good picture and an opportunity to comment on one of three things I find ubiquitous in Jerusalem that we don't have in Adel, Iowa.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
The museum has an unusual architecture that is hard to describe. You travel down a horizontal tube that is shaped in a triangular shape, and as you traverse the tube you travel through time from the mid 1930s to mid 1940s, in an audiovisual experience that immerses you into the lives of Nazis and Jews in Germany and the surrounding nations. This is a very emotional experience, and not for the faint of heart. When you see the suffering of these people and the actual shoes that were left behind it's very shocking.
Lessons I am reflecting on...
- Be aware of what is happening in the world. Even today there are places of severe repression and extermination of peoples such as what has happened in Darfur, Sudan during the last decade. Most of us have little day to day concern for people on the other side of the planet who are suffering severely under evil regimes.
- Remember that ideas have consequences. A part of the theology of the Christian church in 1930 Germany was that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus. Along this was an inherent racial prejudice against the Jewish people. Hitler played on these anti-Semitic feelings to develop into hatred against the Jews.
- You never know were hate will lead you. Hitler didn't announce the extermination of the Jews on his first day in office. It was a gradual introduction of more and more extreme measures. That so many ordinary German citizens would be complicit in such crimes is what boggles my mind. With my German heritage I naturally ask the question, “What would I have done if I were living there?”
- Protect the liberties of all people through a commitment to the American constitution. We are only one dictator away from a Hitler. All it takes is for people to allow themselves to become dependent on a politician or a political party over and above our commitment to the constitutional process and we are right where Germany ended up. If you suspend or abrogate laws without due process under the constitution, then you ultimately allow "might is right" to rule the day and anything is possible.
- Deal with your feelings of hatred, superiority, prejudice toward others. We are sinful (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”). Jesus said that hatred is what leads to murder (Matthew 5:21-26), so settle your angry feelings quickly and completely.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
One of the things I struggled with in seminary was evaluating ancient culture by merely looking at archeological finds in books. I found it hard to connect the object with the culture. In other words, it's one thing to see a picture in a book; it's something completely different to see the archeological objects in person. I went to the Bible Lands museum today, which is a museum that collects artifacts and studies such things from a Jewish perspective. I studied artifacts from the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Philistines, Aramaeans, Hittites, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. There were things I've seen in books that I actually had opportunity to personally see today. And it makes all the difference in the world in connecting the dots. It's not that you can't do it to a certain extent from a book. But, it's really amazing to stand in front of a granite statue of an Egyptian princess that is taller and wider than you are.
Israel has always been a small country at the crossroads of history. They were impacted, influenced, pushed back and forth by the surrounding nations. And, while they were God's people they absorbed customs and culture from the people around them, for better or worse. Understanding these customs helps us to understand Scripture better. The better we understand what God was saying to the original recipients of Scripture the better we understand what he is saying to us. We can more easily strip away that which is only culture and that which is God's principle for us to apply today.
Two areas I found especially interesting were the areas on the use of seals on documents and the development of language. First, beginning around 5000 BC there were stamp seals made of clay or stone. They functioned much like our signature functions today: they identified the owner of an object. As time went on another kind of seal was developed, a kind of round seal, that looks like a little barrel (as small as the tip of your finger). The outside of the seal carried some kind of information, like someone's name or title. Of course, I had read about seals before, but one thing I didn't understand was that they were used by people at all levels of society. The material a seal was made out of corresponded to his wealth and status.
In the Bible seals were used to endorse a law (Is. 8:16) or a covenant (Neh. 9:38). When Daniel was thrown in the lion's den Kind Darius sealed the stone cover with his ring and with the rings of his assistants (Dan. 6:17). In the New Testament the tomb of Jesus was secured with a seal (Mt. 27:66). And, when we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior Ephesians 1:13-14 says that when we respond to the good news of Jesus we are “marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:14).
For example, if I had been driving today I would have missed two beautiful parks that I walked through. The first one had a quiet stream of water flowing through it with different rock formations throughout. The second one is called the Valley of the Cross because there is a monastery at the bottom called “The Monastery of the Cross.” The monastery was a bit south of where I was going or I would have gone over to explore it further. My guess is that 99 percent of Americans who come to Israel never get near this park or the monastery. The Valley of the Cross looked to me more like what I think the Garden of Gethsemane would have looked like in Jesus' time. The current Garden of Gethsemane is surrounded by buildings and churches. But, the Valley of the Cross is a large area of limestone, olive trees, flowers, and birds. In fact, in area about one mile square the monastery is the only building standing there. And, this is extremely unusual in a compact city like Jerusalem where good property is valuable and converted to housing or industry.
Addendum: I got slightly lost for a minute or two, so I thought I would ask a soldier who was sitting on a bench. She didn't have a clue. I'm going to give her the benefit of doubt, thinking that maybe she was not a local, but someone who was brought into town to help with the security for the pope. I went back to looking at my map, compared where I was at a crossroads and made sure I was heading away from the sun (west), and in 30 seconds I was back on track. That confirmed my belief that if you have a good map you can always figure out how to get where you need to go. Of course these days, if you want to spend the money you buy a GPS. Then, you never know where you are, but you always know how to get there.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Then, this evening I went for a walk across the street from the old city. Less than a hundred yards from all of this old stuff is an ultra modern mall, that is very similar to Jordan Creek in West Des Moines. The shops are brand new, and the people walking around are young and hip. I grabbed a coffee and a brownie in the coffee shop and walked around for a bit. Then, on my way back there were about 75 Roman Catholic youth from Poland who were doing a very spiritual dance and song right outside the coffee shop. What was really fun was that as I was watching suddenly a couple of the waitresses from the coffee shop joined in the dance and had the most joyous looks on their faces as they were whirling and stepping with the youth from Poland. There always seems to be something surprising happening here, and this was it for today.
One of big events in the news of Israel is the arrival of the Pope in Jerusalem. All week long I have been seeing preparations in the old city for his arrival. For example, down in the Kidron Valley a gigantic platform stage was erected, seating set up in cordoned sections interspersed with imported olive trees and tons of gravel so that people in robes don't have to walk on the dirty grimy floor of the Kidron Valley. Actually they've cleaned up everything around the city. One of our tour guides said that the city is not usually this clean, but they are giving it the spit and shine for the Pope.