Our Last Day

Our Last day of touring Israel was a short one, because it ended with an hour ride to Tel Aviv and they recommended that we arrive 3 hours before ours flight, since security is pretty extensive at the Israeli airport.

We started out early for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, partly to beat the crowds, and partly because it was a Friday during Ramadan, which meant more traffic.   Bethlehem is in the West Bank in Area A.  (There are three types of administrative areas in the West Bank: Area A is administered solely by the Palestinian Authority and Israelis are not permitted in.  This includes most of the cities (Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, etc.).  Area B is administered by the Palestinian Authority, but Israelis can come in and out freely.  Area C (60%) is administered by Israel.)  Yes, the issues in Israel/Palestine are complex, and the region is a flashpoint.

(Spoiler alert – the site of Jesus’ birth is not quite what you see on the Christmas cards). In Minnesota as you drive around, you are generally surrounded by trees.  Not so in Israel.  There’s just not a lot of wood. Fruit trees and olive trees are about all you see.  Houses today are usually built of limestone block or concrete.  In the first century, they would have been two rooms built of stone or carved out like a cave, with a third room to house the animals at night.  In Luke, where we read, “she laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn,”  the word translated here as “inn” is translated everywhere else as “guest room”.  Perhaps Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives, and the guest room was already claimed.  Because she wanted some privacy, she went out to the room where the animals were kept.  At any rate, the site that has been revered as the site of Christ’s birth since the 1st century, looks like a cave.  By the 4th century a Greek Orthodox Church was built on top of the cave, and a Roman Catholic Church next to that.  (Those Byzantines built churches on everything!!). We were able to go down to the cave, and kneel where “she laid him in a manger,” then we explored the rest of the cave, that tradition holds was the house.  

Next came a stop at Shepherd’s Field, a convent built in the hills above Bethlehem, where we held our closing worship service.  We finished the time in Bethlehem having lunch with some members of the local Lutheran church.  Brian and I sat with two amazing young adults: Salome, who is a Fulbright scholar, beginning a Masters in Media Studies in Connecticut this summer, and  Elias, who is a Junior at the University in Palestine.  Both are Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank.  Their lives are filled with all the indignities of an unequal system.  (For example, while Israelis can cross easily in and out of the West Bank and are only restricted from the Area A cities, Palestinians cannot go into Israel without a pass, cannot drive across the border (they have to walk), and they can’t use the closest airport (Tel Aviv).  I asked Salome what she saw as the future for her people.  She replied, “People always ask me that. And I don’t know what to say.  I used to be hopeful, but now I think we’re just tired and frustrated.  (It’s interesting that as she was saying that, three Palestinian youth were shooting at Israeli police in Jerusalem.)

Then it was off to the airport.  It has been an incredible trip!  We learned so much about the strengths and struggles of both ancient and modern Israel.  Three great religions, many great cultures, a mix of ancient traditions and modern innovations, all struggling to be together on the same small piece of land.  I’ll be thinking about this for a long time ———-

51 minutes til we land in the Twin Cities!!!



Holy Week in a Day

Today we followed the events of Holy Week — out of order.  As lovely as it might be to walk through the amazing events of Holy Week as they happened, Jerusalem is a major city — with LOTS of traffic, and an insane number of tourists, so if we were going to see anything, we had to do it out of order.  

We began the day at the church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Christians have never lost sight of this space as the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The church here was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE, and again by by a Muslim caliph in 1009. The current church was built in 1100 and is administered by 6 denominations: Roman Catholic, and Greek, Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, and Ethiopian Orthodox.  (Note that protestants did not exist when this church was built.  The Lutheran church is located across the ancient street from this one!)

Inside the church we first visited the altar built over Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion.  I found it incredibly moving to kneel beneath this ancient altar by the limestone of that holy hill.  

Praying at Golgotha

We next went to the place of Jesus resurrection.  Normally one can enter into the chamber that was the grave.  Sadly for us, there was a high mass being held by the Roman Catholics (we think it was an ordination), so we couldn’t get close.  

A service at the Holy Sepulcher

We did, however, go into the Armenian chapel, which is built Next to another 1st century tomb, so we could see what it would have looked like — with an outer chamber for mourning, and inner chambers to lay the boduse.  

A first century tomb

(An interesting note — because the 6 churches that administer the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have had their spats over the years, for the last 800 years, the key to the building has been held by a Muslim family that unlocks the door each morning, and locks it again each evening.)

The second stop of the day was with Mark Brown of the Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, Lutheran World Relief’s hospital for Palestinians.  This particular hospital specializes in oncology (cancer) and nephrology (dialysis). We heard about the hospital, and some of the hardships that Palestinians in the West Bank face.

After a lunch of falafel or schwarma on pita, we headed back to the Mount of Olives to visit four churches: Bethphage (where the Palm Sunday parade began), Dominus Flevit (remembering Jesus weeping over Jerusalem), Pater Noster (associated with the ascension), and Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The word “Gethsemane” means “olive press” and the garden is filled with olive trees.

The Garden of Gethsemane

Tomorrow is our last day.  We’ll continue going out of order… since we’re visiting Bethlehem.


Today was a day of historical whiplash.  We visited the Temple Mount, which was built on Mount Moriah (the location of the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22)), Solomon built a temple there, The Babylonians destroyed it in 587 BCE, Herod the Great rebuilt the temple, Jesus taught there, it was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE, the Dome of the Rock was built there in 691 CE, and  Israel reclaimed it during the Six Days War in 1967.  As we walked around the Mount, we kept going between different millennia.  I love biblical history, but even I kept getting confused — soooo much history!!

The day stared, however, with a very 20th century issue.  We arrived at the Temple Mount early, after receiving a lot of instructions: “You have to have your shoulders and ankles covered for visiting the wailing wall, you can’t bring any food or drink because it’s Ramadan, you should not wear any religious jewelry, no one can take a religious book onto the Mount. — The space may be central to three great religions, but we do make it difficult for each other!  

Anyway, we arrived at the security entrance for the Temple Mount, about the time a “suspicious package” was discovered.  They moved us away from the entrance and we watched as the bomb squad arrived and had a robot investigate the package.  Turns out some tourist had left their souvenir bag on a wall.  But they take security very seriously.  Nobody wants a holy war.  

When we finally got onto the Temple Mount I found it quiet and peaceful — almost like a park.  We went through all the history there, then went down to the Western or “Wailing” Wall.  It is the only wall of the Temple that is still standing.  As Dr Luker explained, it is now the closest a Jew can get to the holy of holies (the presence of God on earth).  Hundreds of people were offering prayers at the site.  We joined them, writing prayers and placing them in the wall.  The depth of prayer and emotion there was palpable.  I found it very moving.

The women’s section of the Western Wall

Next we visited the Davidson Center, the archeological dig of the rest of the Western Wall.  We got to see the street where Temple sacrifices would have been sold, and the teaching steps, where Jesus taught during the days before his arrest.  (One of the few places we are certain that Jesus stood.)

When we left the Temple area, we entered the Jewish quarter of the Old City.  (The Old City is divided into 4 quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian.)  We visited with an Orthodox Jew who runs a small shop.  But his main work is to have conversations with Christian groups, explaining a bit about Judaism and looking at some of the misconceptions Christians have of Jews and vice versa.  He was brilliant.  I could have listened to him for hours.

After lunch (I’m really going to miss Israeli food when I get home!), we went to the City of David and Hezekiah’s tunnel.  In 700 BCE, when the Assyrians were threatening to lay siege in Jerusalem, King Hezekiah built a tunnel to divert the water flow from the spring outside the city, so it would flow under the city and the Assyrians couldn’t capture their water source.  With picks and axes they dug a tunnel, 1300 feet long.  We got to walk that tunnel.  (The water ranged between ankle deep and knee deep, and we had to duck down through most of it).  It’s so amazing to imagine that the tunnel was carved 2700 years ago.  Such a feat of engineering! 

Tomorrow we follow the route of Holy Week.



In the Desert

Once again it is hot.  Which makes it all the more amazing that people chose to live out in the desert.  (Although I hear that in the winter/rainy season these hills are covered with grasses, and in the spring, they are covered with flowers.) Today we learned about 3 desert communities: a Roman palace, a Jewish faith community, and an Eastern Orthodox monastery. 

Masada was built by Herod the Great as a hilltop palace overlooking the Dead Sea.  And such a palace it was!  Frescos and mosaics, ornate columns, several Roman baths (like pools or hot tubs) and a throne room for receiving royal guests — all built on the top and side of a mountain– in 30 BCE.  There was plentiful water from rains flowing down trenches into cisterns, and storehouses full of food.  

Which leads to the tragic story of Masada.  In 66 CE, Jewish Zealots rebelled against the Romans. The most radical of the group, the Sicari, escaped to Masada, and overpowered the garrison guarding it.  Others joined them after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. There was plenty food and water to hold out for years.  Around 3 years later, a Roman legion laid siege on the fortress, with 8000 troops.  They built a ramp up the side and brought up a battering ram.  The 960 rebels (including families) decided they would rather die than be enslaved or worse by the Romans.  Every head of household killed his family; ten men were chosen by lots to kill the other men, then one was chosen to kill the 10 and fall on his sword.  When the Romans arrived, they found no one alive.  (2 women and 3 children did survive by hiding in a cistern, and carried the story out with them.)  Is it an inspiring story of freedom vs slavery or is it a sad end for radical terrorists?  I guess that depends on who’s telling the story.

A view of Herold’s private bath. The family living room is the round room on the next level.

The second stop was Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered.) This was a community of Jews, about the time of Jesus, that believed the leadership in Jerusalem was corrupt.  So they went out into the desert to live lives of purity as they waited for the Messiah.  Much like a Christian monastic community, they spent their time in community work, prayer and the study of scripture.  The community was known as the Essenes, and there is evidence that John the Baptist may have been a part of the community for a couple years.  When the Romans destroyed their community, during the same time as Masada, they hid their scrolls in caves.  They were discovered there in 1947.  

At this point, Dr. Luker pointed out to us that in Jesus day there was not one overall “Judaism,” but several “Judiasms, or sects”  The Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots and others.  After around 33CE, the Notsrim (Hebrew for those who followed the Nazarene, Jesus) were added to the mix.  After the fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70CE, all except the Pharisees and Notsrim faded into history.

One of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered

We next stopped at an overlook of the Wadi Qelt (Qelt Valley).  There is a monastery there from the 5th century CE, along the path from Jerusalem to Jericho. (Sound familiar?  That path appears in the parable of the Good Samaritan.)  

The Monastery of St George

Take a look at the picture of the monastery.  There is a spring there, so even in this dry season, there is green.   There are deep shadows, even in early afternoon, because of the depth of the valley.   This makes the paths treacherous.  Dr Luker challenged us to look at that scene and hear the 23rd Psalm in a new way.  — the shepherd leading a flock to green pastures and still waters there in the desert — and “though I walk through the darkest valley I will fear no evil” —  

I’ll leave you with that.  We’re in Jerusalem now, and its dinner time.

Just for fun

If you want a good laugh, here are a few pictures from our free day.  We stayed at the En Gedi Hotel, which gave us free access to the En Gedi Dead Sea Spa.  So we all visited the mud pits, floated in the Dead Sea, and swam in the pool.  (But no one could bring themselves to soak in the sulfur baths.)  En Gedi is a lovely green oasis in the middle of the desert.

There’s so much salt in the Dead Sea, you can’t sink!

Heading South

Traveling always has it’s small pleasures — last night a few of us walked down by the shore and found a little restaurant by the water where we could watch the full moon rise over the Sea of Galilee.  

On the other hand, there are also glitches, which is why we found ourselves on a wine tour at 9 am Sunday morning. (It had closed early the day before when we were scheduled to be there.)  Apparently the Golan Heights is a great place for vineyards.  We visited the Golan Heights winery, the largest in the country, heard about how kosher wine is made, and of course, had a wine tasting.

We headed south into the West Bank.  The West Bank (meaning west bank of the Jordan river) belonged to the nation of Jordan until 1967 when Israel took the territory.  According to the Oslo accords, they were working toward Palestinian autonomy there, but after the second intifada, that is all in limbo.  

Out first stop was at Qaser El Yahud, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism.  There we had our Sunday worship service, remembering baptism, and got a little wet (though the water was murky)

As we entered the city of Jericho, there was a sign, “Citizens of Israel may not enter the city of Jericho.”  We were entering a city controlled by the Palestinian authority.  There was obvious poverty in the city, but Dr Luker informed us that it was much better than it had been.  Construction was beginning again.  After the second intifada began in 2001, the city was isolated by a 6 foot trench dug around it, for about 4 years there were severe limits on who could enter or leave the city.  Now that things are peaceful, they can start to renew.

We stopped in 2 places in Jericho.  First, at a lunch spot named “Temptation Restaurant” so called because it was at the base of Mt Hermon, the traditional site of Jesus’ temptation on the mountain. (Matt. 4:8-10). Next we visited the ruins of the ancient city of Jericho. (Joshua 2 & 6). It is the oldest city on earth, and the lowest spot on earth.  

Tonight we are staying in the desert (but don’t feel sorry for us… we are at a resort with beautiful views, a swimming pool and a chance to swim in the Dead Sea.)  Tomorrow is our free day.  I’ll write again on Tuesday.  

By the way, is anybody reading this?  I haven’t seen any comments!  (Questions? Thoughts?)  If you don’t see the comment box, click on the title of the day’s post and go to the bottom.  You should see it there.

Up North

Today we spent the day in the Golan Heights, a piece of land that is considered Syria by the international community, but Israel has occupied since the Six Days War in 1967.  After the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the UN created a buffer zone between the two countries.  (More on that later.)

Our first stop was in the national park, Tel Dan. (A “tel” is an archeological term meaning a mound under which is the ruins of one or more cities.)  We took a hike along a trail named the Garden of Eden, (which also had a sign for the “Winnie the Pooh tree.” Who knew?)

At the end of the trail was the excavation of the city of Dan (about 950 BCE).  Dan was the northernmost of the 12 tribes of Israel.  The excavation included the gate, (fortified against attack), the seat (where important decisions were made – see Ruth 4), and a huge temple built by Jeroboam (the first king to rule the northern kingdom after civil war split Israel after Solomon).  

We continued on to the border with Lebanon.  There were bunkers from the war in 1947, and we looked over a peaceful field which is apparently full of land mines.  When we were heading back we passed another excavation dating from 1750 BCE – the time of Abraham.  Given that Abraham came in this direction from Ur, it’s fascinating to think he might have gone in that very gate.  

Next came Caesarea Philippi, now known as Banius.  It was a temple to the Greek god Pan, though there were several shrines to other gods as well, including Caesar Augustus.  On one side of the temple there was a cave filled with water from a spring that was so deep they believed the water came from the river Styx in hades.  It was known as the “gates of hell.”   (If you want to know the significance for Christians, read Matthew 16:13-20.

After Caesarea Philippi, we drove to a Druze village for lunch.  They had an amazing sandwich of soft white cheese, with a dressing of herbs and spices, smeared on a large thin flatbread, wrapped up then grilled.  A delicious version of grilled cheese.

After lunch we made one more stop – at the Syrian border.  We stopped at an overlook with picnic tables and a sign to explain what we were seeing.  It seemed strange to be looking out over a valley with the UN compound in the middle, a Syrian village in the distance, and behind us on the hill was an Israeli army installation. 

This is our last night in Tiberius.  Tomorrow we head south for En Gedi by the Dead Sea.  

Around the Sea of Galilee

It was 5000 degrees and sunny in Capernaum today.  (Actually, it was 100.  It just felt like 5000.)  Water and shade were everyone’s friend. 

Today we traced the ministry of Jesus around the sea.  We began the day at the Mount of Beatitudes.  It is a traditional site. (A historical site is the exact, proven location of an event.  A traditional site is one that celebrates an event when no one knows the location.)  At the Mount of Beatitudes is a lovely church (20th century) and beautiful gardens. Very serene and spiritual…or it would have been if there weren’t 20,000 tourists roaming around with tour books and selfie sticks.  Luckily, our guide had reserved a small chapel area overlooking the sea for us to share a service of Holy Communion.  

We moved on to the traditional site of Jesus’ breakfast on the beach after the resurrection (John 21).  Standing on the almost deserted beach by the sea, I could almost imagine the smell of fish roasting over a wood fire while tired and wet disciples gathered around the risen Lord.  In the background was a Byzantine church, silently keeping watch over the beach.  

Next stop was Bethsaida, the home of Peter, Andrew, James and John.  We saw excavated ruins of a fisherman’s house, (it had fishing implements in it, that’s why they knew it was a fisherman’s house.). It wasn’t necessarily Peter’s house, but who knows?  I had never noticed before that the Gospel of John says that Phillip, Peter and Andrew are all from Bethsaida, but Mark’s gospel says Peter has a house in Capernaum.  Does Peter have two houses, one in the mixed Jewish/Gentile village of Bethsaida and one in the Jewish Capernaum for business purposes?  Is one house his mother-in-law’s? Are the two gospels just disagreeing?  It’s interesting to speculate.

Next we went to the Jordan river north of the Sea of Galilee.  Dr Luker made his case for the baptism of Jesus being located there instead of the traditional place south of the sea.  It was an interesting argument.  I’ll have to think on that one.  Given the heat index, Brian and Craig decided to “wade in the water” as it were.

In 1986 an ancient boat from the first century was discovered in the mud when the sea was low.  It was painstakingly preserved, and is now located in a museum near Tiberius.  It’s interesting that the boat matches a Roman mosaic from the same time period which was recently found in Magdala.  After seeing the boat, we got on a boat to cross over to Tiberius for lunch.  

For our late lunch Brian and I ordered St Peter’s fish (otherwise known as tilapia), the most populous fish in the Sea of Galilee.  It’s served whole and other than the ick factor of the fish staring at me, it was delicious.

By this point, we were all hot and tired, but we had two stops to make.  One was Capernaum, where Peter’s (second) home was located.  There are excavated ruins of the whole first century village, but the location of Peter’s house is pretty definite, since by the end of the first century a church had been located there.  We finished up with a stop at Tabgha, the traditional site of the miracle of loaves and fishes.  By the altar is a famous 5th century mosaic with 2 fish and 4 loaves.  Why  4 loaves?  Because the fifth is on the altar.  God’s miracle of abundance happened then, and it happens every time we share the supper.



Caesar, Mary, and a Palestinian Christian School

Wow!  It was a busy day! We left the hotel at 8 am, heading for Caesarea.  This was a city with a man-made port created for Caesar Augustus by Herod the Great around 10 BCE.  There was a palace with a lovely view of the Mediterranean, a theater with perfect acoustics even now, and a amphitheater for chariot racing and athletic contests.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city gave way to a smaller Byzantine city, complete with bathhouse and octagonal church.  Later, it became a still smaller crusader city until it was destroyed by the Muslim conquest of AD 640. 

This is where St Peter met Cornelius after having his dream in Jaffa (remember that from a couple days ago?) that opened up Christianity to the world. (Acts 10). It is also where St Paul was tried for inciting a riot, then was imprisoned for 2 years before he was sent off to Rome. 

When we left Caesarea, we headed to the Mar Elias Educational Institution, a school for Palestinian children, both Christian and Muslim. We toured their lovely chapel, then had lunch in the elementary school cafeteria with 4 amazing 8th graders.  Brian and I sat with Wedian (whose English was phenomenal, by the way!) She told us about her family, asked if we liked Hilary or Trump 😊, and told us she’ like to go to college in England (because she loves Harry Potter) but England is too scary a place right now.  (Don’t miss the irony here.  This is a Palestinian-Arab-Christian living in Israel, who thinks England is unsafe.)  Needless to say, we fell in love with her.  

Our final stop for the day was Nazareth.  I found the church of the Annunciation incredibly moving.  Dr. Luker (our guide) told us he was convinced that this was the location of the house where Jesus grew up.  Several churches have been built on the spot, but recent excavations have revealed an early synagogue with Christian graffiti and the oldest written occurrence of a “Hail Mary”. Beneath that were the remains of a first century village including homes with cave stables next to them.  Given that early Christians built churches around the homes of people who were important to the movement, there is a good chance that this was actually Mary’s house.  

In the lower level of the church there are several ancient sites: the foundation of a Byzantine church, a small chapel dedicated to the martyr Conan, a relative of Mary, and Mary’s house itself.  As I looked at that house, I wondered about the “hidden years of Jesus” while he was growing up in Nazareth.  How Mary tucked him into bed or tickled him or helped him learn right from wrong.  We so often think of Mary as the “theotokos” the bearer of God.  But today all I could think of was how active a role she played in His life.  

The church also contained pictures of Mary from all over the world, each with her dressed in traditional costume.  They were beautiful.  The one from the US is the only one that depicts Mary pregnant.  It too was beautiful. 
As we left Nazareth, we drove by the Church of Mary’s Well, which was probably at the site of the spring she drew water from.  (Because, as Dr Luker pointed out, it was close to the village, and springs don’t usually get up and move around.)  It pointed out something that I’ve found disconcerting the past couple days.  Modern life has sprung up and surrounded these holy sites, so it’s all mashed together.  Right next to the church was Jo’s Place, “Best Falafel in Nazareth.”

For the next 3 nights we’re in Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee.  Quite the seaside tourist destination!

Day 3: A History of Modern Israel

Today we spent most of our time at the Yitzhak Rabin center, which chronicled his life, and thus the history of 20th century Israel.  With extra details from our guide, Kobi, we learned about the Arab Israeli war of 1948. We heard about the 6 days war (1967) and the Yom Kippur war (1973), along with 70 years of sometimes good, but often tense relations with neighboring countries.  Three major religions, vast immigration, cultural diversity, regional instability, and building up a modern nation make for a complex history with issues that have no simple answers.  Tomorrow one of the visits we will make is to meet Elias Chacor: a Christian, Israeli, Palestinian.  It will be interesting to add his story to the mix.  

After a huge lunch of schwarma, we decided against a hike by the river, (it was already in the 90’s) and opted for a visit to a stalactite cave. It was fun joining a group of about 20 Orthodox Jewish boys on a school field trip.  The tour was all in Hebrew, but Kobi translated the basics.  

At dinner time we said farewell to Kobi, and joined our main tour.  Tomorrow we begin focusing on ancient Israel.  The bus leaves at 8am… so goodnight for now.  



The view of Tel Aviv from the Rabin Center


A last sunset over the Mediterranean. We move inland tomorrow.

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