Digging for Answers

NormalKinneret 015The nation of Israel is rich in archeological treasures, with some 20,000 (yes, that’s the correct number!) recognized sites protected by law. In such a small country, it’s almost impossible to excavate or construct anything new without also encountering something very old. In fact, Israel’s Antiquities Law requires every proposed construction site to be examined first and a “salvage” operation done if it is deemed necessary.

Between the surprise finds (first temple era pillar in a field near Bethlehem) and the government or university sponsored professional digs, this year has brought some significant discoveries to light. Many of them are “firsts” for the area.

Here are just a few examples:

hazorThe team members digging at Tel Hazor in the upper Galilee have unearthed many memorable artifacts since reopening the dig in 1990, including a “Hammurabi-style” law code tablet from the 18th-17th century BC. This summer they unexpectedly found the partial remains of an Egyptian sphinx, the base of which pays tribute to Prince Mycerinus who ruled around 2500 BC and who built one of the three pyramids of Giza. It’s the first sphinx to be found anywhere in the Levant (Israel, Lebanon and Syria), and the first dedicated to Mycerinus to be found anywhere in the world. Researchers are still baffled as to how it got to Hazor and what it was doing there.

In June a team excavating the Huqoq Synagogue in Galilee uncovered another breathtaking mosaic dedicated to the story of Samson―his carrying off the gates of Gaza. (Judges 16:1-3) Last year a mosaic picturing Samson and the foxes was found (Judges 15:4-5), as well as another mosaic of two women who might be angels. There is only one other representation of Samson in an excavated synagogue anywhere in Israel.

The oldest known graves to contain flowers were discovered in the Mt. Carmel area of northern Israel in July. The burials from the  non-nomadic Natufian culture are thought to be between 12,000 to 14,000 years old.

In August a clay inscription from the 8th century BC City of David was unearthed that may contain the biblical name of Zechariah son of Benaiah, the father of the prophet Jahaziel. Normal408(2 Chronicles 20:14) Though some modern biblical revisionists have doubted the historical existence of David and Solomon and their royal city of Jerusalem, more and more finds are beginning to confirm their existence.

A 1,000 year old crusader hospital complex was also found in August in an area of the city called the Muristan. “Muristan” is a corruption of the Arabic word for hospital, and it is one of my favorite areas of the Old City near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The partial excavation confirms medieval accounts of the “Hospitallers,” who were lay members of the Order of St. John of the Hospital. Their ministry extended much needed hospitality and healing to early pilgrims visiting Jerusalem.

I’ve loved archeology since I was quite young, so for me a trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite sites: the Herodium, Qumran and the Ophel excavations south of the Temple Mount. And this upcoming trip in Normal1385March will be special, too, because of the places (the City of David ruins and Beit Shean) that I haven’t yet explored in depth. I hope that the pilgrims traveling with us will also enjoy these glimpses into ancient history, and that by seeing the “big picture” they’ll also have a greater appreciation for the context of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website has ten pages of links to news about recent archeological discoveries. Check it out to get a taste of the grand sweep of Israel’s history, faith and culture.

Pictures courtesy the Israeli Ministry of Tourism (www.goisrael.com)

First (and Last) Sight of the Holy Land: Joppa

ImageBefore the conveniences of modern travel, Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land was a seriously daunting endeavor. Though these days the 12+ hours in airports and on planes is indeed grueling, it’s still a breeze compared to what pilgrims experienced hundreds of years ago.

For example, a traveler during the Middle Ages could anticipate at least several weeks of overland travel to Venice, with another five weeks of sea voyage added on from there. (And that was if the weather held steady!) Several old travel accounts describe the preparations for such a journey in detail; in addition to massive amounts of money (much of it for bribes) and provisions (including live chickens), pilgrims were advised to bring along a human-sized box for sleeping on the boat and for transporting their remains back to the home country in case they didn’t survive the trip.

After weeks at sea most travelers were ecstatic to catch their first sight of the Holy Land — the ancient port of Joppa (modern Jaffa or Yafo.) Actually setting foot there, however, was a different story. An old Hungarian commentary on the New Testament explains it this way:

ImageThe passengers on the “Khedivian,” however, while more fortunate than Jonah, for they did not need the help of the sea monsters to land them, still were in the clutches of Arab boatmen, which is nearly as bad, and unlike Jonah, they had to pay for their transportation to town.

The landing at Jaffa is a great experience. Scores of clumsy-looking row-boats are tossing about in the angry waves diving up and down, guided somewhat by the long oars of the Arab sailors. A swarm of them surround the vessel. They rise and fall, dashing one into the other in the mad effort of each rower to get nearer the rope gangway first.

One minute the boat nearest the rope ladder raised by the billows almost mounts into the ships, and the next, it sinks below the steps into a frightful gulf. Now the boat is up as high as a mountain, and the next moment it is in a deep ravine.  No better description can be given of this landing than the Psalmist’s, “For He commandeth and raised the stormy winds which lifted up the waves thereof. They mounted up the heaven, they go down the depths, they reel to and fro and again stagger like a drunken man and are at their wits end.”

Once through the narrow opening between the rocks, we are in calmer waters and we approach the only landing stairs that reach the dock or quay. Occasionally, when the water is shallow and the boats cannot come close to the dock, the passengers are taken in the bare arms of an Arab, and the Arab, wading into the water, carries the passenger to the landing place where he finds himself at once in a new world amidst new people, new streets and new houses.

In retrospect, disembarking from a jumbo jet seems quite tame in comparison.

ImageJaffa/Joppa is the last stop on our pilgrimage itinerary before heading back to the States. And while it doesn’t have a direct connection to the earthly life and death of Jesus, it’s still an important biblical site. The Old Testament prophet Jonah set sail from here in an attempt to flee his mission from God to call the pagans in Ninevah to repentance. And coming full circle, it was here in the home of Simon the Tanner (a site we will visit) that Saint Peter’s divine vision of clean and unclean animals convinced him to take the gospel message to the Gentiles, a fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “go into all the nations.”

Many improvements have been made to historical Joppa since our last pilgrimage in 2009, which will definitely enhance the ending of our trip. (You can watch a video about the new Visitor Center and other sites here.) I’m really looking forward to the visit — minus the wading ashore, of course!

Notice on the old map above that Jerusalem is the center or “navel” of the world. We’ll get a “birds-eye” look at that navel on the floor in an area of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Getting past the “tinsel”

Last week I was the “storyteller” for the elementary students in our Vacation  Bible School. Our theme this year was “Christmas in July,” and we retold the miraculous good news of God sending His Son Jesus to be born our Savior and Lord.

On the evening that we talked about the shepherds and angels, I took in some of my pictures from our first trip to the Holy Land to show them. The kids were fascinated by the fact that I had been there, and they were eager to learn more about each site — the Church of the Nativity, the countryside around “Shepherd’s Fields,” and a modern-day cave that is still used to house sheep.

Bethlehem-30-Grotto of the NativityBut one of the more precocious first-graders surprised and somewhat stymied me with his serious concern about the Church of the Nativity. Looking up from the shot of the Grotto of the Nativity with its marble-enclosed silver star, he frowned and asked “Why did people do that? Why did they cover up the place that Jesus was born?”

“Out of the mouths of babes,” I thought to myself as I tried to explain that building impressive — and highly decorative — monuments was a way that earlier Christians honored Jesus’ birth, life and death. But he also reminded me that older and wiser Christians have also shared those same kind of feelings.

For example, an online article on the See The Holy Land website tells of St. Jerome’s anguish when a silver manger was installed in the grotto of the original 4th Century church. And E. M. Blaiklock, a Christian scholar from New Zealand, is still renowned decades after his death for his unfavorable description of the cave as “hung and cluttered with all the tinsel of men’s devotions.”

agonyI have to admit that the “tinsel” has never gotten in the way for me spiritually. As I posted earlier about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I am deeply moved to know that I am standing, kneeling or sitting in places where devoted pilgrims have gone before me. Whether its the equally marble-encrusted Church of the Pater Noster (commemorating Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s Prayer), or the modern Church of All Nations (honoring His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane), or the simply designed Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, I am able to commune with my Lord through the beauty of the structure and its art.

3020But knowing that this isn’t the case for many — especially “first-timers” — Randy and I are also careful to balance our hosted pilgrimage with sites that are more au naturel. For example, we will: imagine the pagan idols at Banias, the rocky spot where Jesus asked “Who do you say I am?” and praised Peter (the Rock) for his budding faith; listen to a teacher while sitting on the steps outside the Temple Mount where Jesus probably taught his disciples; pray and sing in what might have been the dungeon where Jesus spent his final night before the crucifixion; and, worship Sunday morning in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.

And if you are thinking of going with us in March, please remember that everything you see and every site you experience will be thoroughly explained by an experienced Christian guide, with a more relaxed pace that will allow you the time to get in touch with the “spiritual reality” of each place. Add to that three evening Bible Studies that correspond to the chronology and geography of Jesus life, and I promise you an unforgettable trip that will make the Bible and your faith come alive!

The Herodium

HerodiumOne of Randy’s favorite sites in Israel is the Herodium or Herodion, a magnificent archeological treasure located about 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem. From a distance it looks like a simple dormant volcano; but it is actually the ruins of a lavish combination fortress-palace built by King Herod the Great. One of his most awe-inspiring building projects, Herod named the stronghold after himself and chose it as his final resting place.

In its heyday, it must have been a sight to behold―and to terrify. Towering above the surrounding countryside, it could be seen from as far away as Jerusalem. It was a man-made marvel and a symbol of the supreme power and control that Herod wielded, even over the natural environment.

The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, describes its construction and appearance in this way:

TTW-tran-3-05-11-Cthis fortress … is naturally strong and very suitable for such a structure, for reasonably nearby is a hill, raised to a (greater) height by the hand of man and rounded off in the shape of a breast. At intervals it has round towers, and it has a steep ascent formed of two hundred steps of hewn stone. Within it are costly royal apartments made for security and for ornament at the same time. At the base of the hill there are pleasure grounds built in such a way as to be worth seeing, among other things because of the way in which water, which is lacking in that place, is brought in from a distance and at great expense. The surrounding plain was built up as a city second to none, with the hill serving as an acropolis for the other dwellings. (Wars of the Jews, 1, 21, 10 and Antiquities of the Jews XIV, 13, 9.)

Claychandelier_420From the excavations of the artificial mountain, archeologists have been able to determine that Herod’s private residence was splendidly appointed. The floors were enhanced with colored tiles and mosaics and the walls with frescoed paintings. Colonnaded porticoes enclosed a private pleasure garden. And a Roman-style bathhouse was roofed with a dome, possibly the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Everything was built or manufactured to perfection, the picture above of a clay chandelier being only one small example.

herodion32s - CopyThe ruins at the base are no less impressive. Amidst the administrative buildings, Herod built a race track and a pool large enough to accommodate small boats. Almost twice as large as modern Olympic size pools, Herod had the water piped in via aqueduct from reservoirs near Bethlehem. In a country which is assured of rain only a few months of the year, this would have been extravagant excess. Not to mention the cost to the local residents―again according to Josephus:

So they threw down all the hedges and walls which the inhabitants had made about their gardens and groves of trees, and cut down all the fruit trees that lay between them and the wall of the city, and filled up all the hollow places and the chasms, and demolished the rocky precipices with iron instruments; and thereby made all the place level … (Wars, 5.3.2)

herod tombOne of the most recent archeological discoveries is Herod’s tomb, which was found in 2007 about half way up the hillside. (On our last trip to Israel in 2009, we were able to see only a small portion of the tomb excavations.) Since that time a team led by the discoverer, Ehud Netzer, has been able to guess at a better reconstruction of the tomb and sarcophagus — a stone container for the decomposed bones of the dead. You can appreciate the granduer of Herod’s personal monument by watching this video from an exhibition at the Israel Museum.

Walking around the top of the Herodium makes it a bit easier to “get inside” King Herod’s head. The view is not only militarily strategic; it’s breath-taking. One could easily succumb to the exalted feeling and imagine he (or she) really was “on top of the world” in regard to wealth, power and influence. And it makes it a bit easier to “get inside” Jesus’ head, too. His teaching about “faith moving mountains” is easier to understand when you know that he may have had this very practical example in mind.

There are many great links out there about this particular pilgrimage site. Here are some that I highly recommend: