Oh Little Town of Bethlehem…

A Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year. Or as they say in Greece, “Kala Christougianna!”

As millions of people across the globe pause this day to reflect on the birth of Jesus the Anointed One by Mary, the elect, chosen one of God, I felt it appropriate to skip ahead in the Israel recap and tell of our experience in the Little Town of Bet Lekhem.

Bet Lekhem, or as we say “Bethlehem”, is one of the most hotly disputed cities on the face of the planet. It’s only 10km south of Jerusalem and is located within the West Bank. No Israeli citizen, whether Jew, Christian, Muslim, or atheist, is allowed to enter the city limits. We had to unload the bus and get on another one with a Palestinian driver and a Palestinian Christian tour-guide. The entire city is surrounded by cement walls about 15ft high with barbed wire across the top. After passing through the checkpoints it was as if we had entered another world, and in a way we did. Bethlehem is a Muslim city. It’s poorer, dirtier, and more third-world than the rest of Israel.

The main place we went in Bethlehem was the church of the Nativity, which is actually shared by 4 or 5 different Christian denominations. It’s a large cathedral built over the supposed birth place of Jesus, which was really the back of a small cave system. When Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem for the census there was no room in the inn, but really the inn wasn’t where they would have stayed anyway, at least not an inn like we think of. They really would have stayed in a deeper cave system which was set up for temporary housing of all the travelers. The “stable” was in the very back of the cave where the livestock and pack animals were kept. There was no room in the rest of the cave, so Mary and Joseph were forced to go all the way to the back of the cave to the stable. It is here that the Virgin Mary gave birth the the Messiah, the King of the Jews.

The church itself was built shortly after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and stood longer than any of its contemporaries. When the Muslims were marching through the holy land to take it back from the crusaders, they were destroying all the cathedrals along the way. But when they came to the Church of the Nativity, they saw a portrait of the Magi from the East and left the building standing because their people had already been there.

Below the building, beneath the altar area is the traditional location of the birth of Jesus and where he was laid in the manger. We were able to go down there and were hurried through the line, not giving us much time to take it all in. It was neat to say that we have been there, but it’s not the location itself that affects me, it’s the event and the people. I don’t worship the place; I, like the magi, worship the King who was born in that place on that day 2ooo years ago.

From the city of David, the great king of Israel, came Jesus, the Great King over all the earth. From the “House of Bread” (lit. translation of Bet Lekhem), came the Bread of Life. From one of the most disputed cities in modern history came one of the most disputed historical figures.

As we celebrate this day as a remembrance of the birth of our Savior, let us not fall into the trap of celebrating the day itself, or traditions, or materialism for that matter. Let us continually celebrate the coming of God to His creation in the form of a helpless, vulnerable baby. He grew up, matured, and lived a perfect life during a time of hostility, political upheaval, and concern about the future. I would say that life hasn’t changed much since those days, just a different context. It’s amazing that the story of Jesus, from his miraculous birth to his sacrificial death, continues to have the same impact on the world as it did 2000 years ago.

Merry Christmas to all, and let us all be thankful for the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Holy Land Saga, pt. 2.1

Day 3: Tue 11/18/08


Tel-Dan:

When thinking about historically/biblically important cities and/or archaeological sites, the ancient city of Dan might not make the top of your list. However, as I found out today, it is actually very important for several reasons.


First, from the archaeological evidence in the layers of the city, we can tell that there were three distinct times when the city was completely destroyed and then rebuilt. The first dates back to the time of the Exodus/ Conquest of Canaan (ca. 13th Cent. BC). The second dates back to the 11th Cent. BC, which lines up perfectly with the biblical account of the tribe of Dan’s moving from southern Israel to the northernmost territory and destroying the city of Lashish. The third destruction layer dates to the approximate time of the Assyrian invasion of Israel.


Secondly, it confirms the account in the Old Testament of King Jeroboam’s construction of two cult centers for Israel, one of which was right here in Dan. The remains of the foundation for a large altar have been discovered, along with the foundation of what could have been a replica of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. This is where the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom would come and make sacrifices to an image of a golden calf, similar to the one built by Aaron at Mt. Sinai.

Thirdly, this city gives insight into the strategy involved in developing an ancient city. Three key ingredients to insuring the life of a city are water, fertile land surrounding the city, and a major trade/ travel route nearby. The location of Tel-Dan has all three. The city was built along the larger of the two tributaries which make up the Jordan River, flowing down from Mt. Hermon. The land surrounding the city is some of the most fertile land in Galilee. Also, there is a major trade route which was used to carry goods from the Mediterranean Sea all the way in to Damascus in order to avoid the mountainous region to the north.

The Nature Reserve around the city is one of the more beautiful places in all of Israel. There are trees and shrubs, vines and wildflowers, all flourishing around the rushing waters which flow into the Jordan.


Another amazing discovery near Tel-Dan is part of a wall from the time of Abraham. In fact, Abraham most likely saw and walked through the gate in the wall which has been preserved for nearly 4000 years. This section of the wall/ gate also contains one of the oldest arches in the world.


Tel-Dan has been one of my favorite historical sites thus far simply because it has shed so much light on some stories of the Bible. It has really brought life to the Old Testament.

Holy Land Saga, pt. 2

Day 2: Mon 11/17/08


Bethsaida:

This was the home town of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It was a small fishing town off the coast of the Sea of Galilee with a population less than 800. I say “was” because Bethsaida is one of the three cities in which Jesus preached that is no longer a city. Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Korazin are the three towns that Jesus actually prophecies against because of their unbelief, and none of those three towns are functioning cities today.


One of the coolest parts about the site is the location. From the hill upon which the town was located you can see the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Mt. of Tiberius, Capernaum, and most of the rest of the Sea. I would like to have seen it in the days of Jesus.


Sea of Galilee:

After seeing Bethsaida, we went down to the Sea of Galilee and were able to take a boat out onto the water. The feeling of being out on the very Sea that played such an important role in the ministry of Jesus was incredible. Words cannot accurately describe how awesome it was. All the Sunday school stories were flying through my head: Jesus calming the storm, walking on the water, preaching offshore in a boat, crossing the Sea to the mountains on the opposite side to find some privacy, telling the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, visiting the Sea and cooking breakfast after his resurrection. The Sea of Galilee and the surrounding cities played such a major role in his ministry that it’s difficult to even list all the events that took place in and around the Sea.


The boat ride itself was really fun. When we first set off from shore, the crew raised an American flag alongside the Israeli flag and played the national anthem, which was kind of cool. The crew also let us sing some songs and have a devotional time out on the water. After that one of the crew members gave us a fishing demonstration with the same type of net that would have been used in the first century. We didn’t catch anything (and we tried both sides), but it was still cool to see how these nets worked.


Back on shore, we went inside a small museum dedicated to the so-called “Jesus Boat.” It is the remains of a 2000 year old boat which was miraculously well preserved. It dates back to ca. 50BC, and was most likely still in use up until the Romans marched through Israel in the late AD 60s. It is speculated that this boat may have belonged to one or more of the disciples, like Peter or James. We know that very few fishermen could actually afford their own boats, much less one as large and as top-quality as this one. We do know, however, that Peter was living in the more up-scale town of Capernaum. We also know that James and John were the sons of Zebedee, who was a wealthy enough fisherman to have hired hands working for him. It’s possible that this 2000 year old boat could have either belonged to one of those families, or it could have at least been a boat in which Jesus road or from which he preached.


The Sea of Galilee may not be that large, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in beauty. The way the water and the surrounding mountains come together is an inspiring sight to behold. I can see why Jesus liked this area so much.


Capernaum:

There are really two main features among the ruins of Capernaum: Peter’s house and the Synagogue. Capernaum is one of those three towns which is no longer functioning as a town and stands in ruins as Jesus prophesied. We do know that it was in use for a few hundred years after the time of Jesus because of the synagogue which was built in the early 4th Century AD. This synagogue was actually built directly on top of the synagogue in which Jesus would have preached in the town on several occasions.


The most famous feature of Capernaum by far is the house of Peter, in which Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. This is one of the few exact spots in Galilee of which we are completely sure that Jesus was there. We know this because after only a couple generations a shrine was set up in that exact location. Peter’s house, right off the Sea of Galilee, was well known to all the disciples and many of the early Christians, so not enough time had passed for the exact location to be forgotten.


Today, there is a Catholic church constructed virtually hovering above the foundations of the house. Thankfully, we can look below the church building and see the whole foundation of the house. Ironically, the Catholic church holds Peter to be the first “Pope,” yet the very fact that he had a mother-in-law disqualified him from actually being a priest, much less the Pope.


Mt. Tiberias:

This mountain is the only lookout point (at least the only one accessible in the Israeli side) from which the entirety of the Sea of Galilee can be seen. Interestingly, the forest on the top of the mountain through which we hiked is called the “Switzerland Forest” because the majority of the funds to put in the trail and the lookout were provided by Jews who emigrated from Switzerland.


The view from the top is spectacular to say the least. By the time we got to the lookout point, the water was beginning to turn all shades of deep blues and purples. The sky around us was mellowing softly, and the breeze was blowing through the trees. It was fitting that our guide, Yosi, played a song for us on his flute that was inspired by the beauty of this region.


Mt. Tiberias overshadows the city of Tiberias, which is the largest city on the Sea of Galilee. If you remember, the Sea is called the Sea of Tiberias at many points in the gospels. The city, the mountain, and the Sea at one point were all named in honor of Emperor Tiberias who took over after Augustus. Bernice, sister of Felix (governor of the region in Paul’s day), had a palace in Tiberias. She, like many tourists today, made the city on the Sea her winter home because the climate is more tropical along the coast of the Sea. According to our guide (and Josephus) she was the most evil woman to ever step foot in Israel. I won’t go into great detail as to why he said that, but I just found it interesting.


“Mount of the Beatitudes”:

Our last stop of the day was on the Mount (hill, really) where Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount. We arrived at sunset, which was absolutely phenomenal. As the sun was dipping below the hills, we read from Matthew 5-7 in the possible location where Jesus would have given the sermon. A more perfect scene could not be set.


The way the hill is set up, it makes sense why Jesus chose this spot. The shoreline at the base of the hill is flat for about 100 yards or so. From there it rises sharply upward for about 30 feet and then levels off again for a couple hundred yards. This explains why Matthew records the sermon as taking place on a hill and Luke records the sermon as being given on a level place. It’s both, really.


Anyway, there were some key parts of the sermon that resounded more resiliently in the actual context of even modern day Israel; sayings like, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” or “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” There is still much fighting going on between Israel and her neighboring States over land and borders. The Jewish people are still caught up in an unhealthy sense of nationalism, which I believe could parallel that of the 1st Century. Jesus was basically telling them to stop fighting, stop worrying so much about the politics of everything, and pursue those things which are more important. Be peacemakers, not rebels and rioters. Seek God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of man. It’s a lesson the Jews needed 2000 years ago, it’s a lesson they need today, and it’s a lesson that American Christians also need to take to heart.

Chick-flick Temple



We just got back this evening from our trip to Southern Greece, called the Peloponnese. It was an amazing trip, and hopefully I will get caught up through the Egypt trip and the Peloponnese before we fly to Israel next Sunday.

So here we go, back to Egypt…

Temple of Philae:
After a long trip South by way of scary night train, we arrived in the city of Aswan, which is located on the North side of the largest man-made lake in the world, Lake Nasser. The first temple we visited was the Temple of Philae (or “Love” in Eng.). It is named thus because the reliefs on the walls depict the love story between the goddess Isis and her lover Osiris. It’s a pretty gruesome story:
Set is the evil brother of Osiris, and he decides to kill Osiris and cut him up into tiny little pieces. This devastates Isis, who recovers all of Osiris’ body parts except for a certain, uh, “private” part. She reaches the simple solution for this problem by forging a new “member” our of gold. After this, Osiris is resurrected from the dead, and he and Isis give birth to Horus, whose eye gets ripped out by Set in a battle of revenge.

OK, enough with the sappy Egyptian love stories. Here’s the really neat thing about this temple: It is a very close replica to Solomon’s original Temple in Jerusalem. How do we know this? Because there are two other replicas that were built in Egypt after Judea was conquered by the Babylonians. Thousands of Jews fled to Egypt and, in light of the Temple being destroyed, the built a complete replica in Northern Egypt and another one in Southern Egypt on Elephantine Island (which is undergoing excavation as right now and is one of the possible locations for the Ark of the Covenant). When the Ptolemies took power, after Alexander’s kingdom was divided, one of the Ptolemies (the 3rd I think) built the Temple of Philae based off of the design of the two replicas of Solomon’s Temple.

Another cool thing about this temple: the entire structure had to be moved onto a nearby hill because it would have been under water after the Aswan High Dam was built.

So I can rightfully say that I have been inside a full size ancient replica of Solomon’s Temple. How cool is that?