Life in the city
Hello family and friends! Today we saw the sights and learned about the history of Jerusalem. First, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast at our final lodging location, the Grand Court Jerusalem Hotel. We had a brief morning devotional and then boarded the bus, heading to our first site of the day, the Israel Museum.
When we arrived at the museum, we sat outside next to the model of ancient Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple, and Yehuda gave a wonderfully informative talk about the model, along with numerous interesting historical facts about many of the details of the model. Now, when I say "model", it doesn't sound like much. But let me tell you, this thing is impressive! It was built in the early 1960s to honor the son of a hotel owner, who had died in Israel's War of Independence. The model was initially located on the grounds of the Holyland Hotel in Jerusalem. In the early 2000s, the model was relocated to the grounds of the Israel Museum, updated and refurbished, and opened again in July, 2006, next to the Shrine of the Book. It is built to a scale of 1:50, and made primarily of local limestone. Looking at the model from the walkway above, we were able to see the topography of the land and surrounding areas, the architecture, and could get an idea of life in the city at the time of the Second Temple.
We left the city model, and entered the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls museum is housed. The outside of the Shrine is a large white dome, which was designed to mimic the shape of the tops of the jars where the scrolls were found, hidden for 2,000 years in small caves at Qumran. The 7 jars contained priceless biblical manuscripts, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and were found by two Bedouin shepherd boys in 1947. Before we entered the Shrine, Yehuda continued his teaching and explained some of the rules of the Shrine. For example, there is no photography of any kind allowed inside the Shrine of the Book. When you enter the main center of the shrine, it is supposed to be a silent place. The only relatively complete segment that was found, is the book of Isaiah, which is there, except for 2.5 chapters. The center of the shrine is constructed beautifully, with the top made to resemble the end of a scroll (one of the handles a person would hold as the scroll was unrolled). The real Isaiah scroll is not on display, but a reproduction is housed in the exhibit. This was done to protect the scroll from damage by light and radiation. There are also housed, in the Shrine of the Book, exhibits on the Aleppo Codex, which is a medieval bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible dated around 935 CE. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls (written between 250 BCE and about 68-70 CE) were found in 1947, this was the earliest known version of the Bible.
We left the Israel Museum, and headed to our next stop, at Herodium National Park. Along the way, Yehuda provided education about the area, as we traveled through the West Bank, with different zones of control (Israeli and Arab). He pointed out large red signs written in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, which stated Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter Zone A, and warned it is "dangerous to your lives". Zone B is under Arab control, except for the security aspect, and Zone C is under Israeli control. The road we traveled on is Zone C, but along each side is Zone A. As we neared the site, the oddly shaped, conical peak of Herodium was visible, set high on a hilltop on the edge of the Judean wilderness. It was built by Herod the Great in 23-15 BCE. We made a steep climb from the park entrance to reach the top of the site, and from there we had a fantastic view of Bethlehem and the Judean hills. We could even see the Mount of Olives. We toured a fairly sophisticated water system with large cisterns, and we were able to walk through the tunnels that used to contain the large quantities of water needed for this site. It was dark and cool in the water system, and there were lots of steep staircases and opportunities to smack one's head on the rocks above if you weren't careful. This place was all about Herod the Great and was a grand display of his power and wealth representing the Roman Empire. Herod's tomb is also located here.
Herodium is 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem and 8 miles south of Jerusalem. Its summit is 2,460 feet above sea level.
Herod built or re-built eleven fortresses. This one he constructed on the location of his victory over Antigonus in 40 BC.
At this site, Pastor Terry Feix talked about "the big picture", and helped us to put together many of the things we have learned from the sites we have visited. There are two prominent features that stand out concerning Herod the great; his ego was insatiable, and he was really paranoid. Herodium was quite visible, and seemed to be an "in your face" gesture, proving his power as if to say "look what I can do". He built ornate palaces, swimming pools and bath houses surrounded by lush greenery, in the desert where water is scarce. People feared him, but didn't like him. Terry mentioned that as he was nearing death, he ordered murders to be committed on the day of his death, so that somebody would be mourning and crying when he died. It sounds pretty pitiful, but really paints a picture of this man's sense of self-importance, his knowledge that he was not adored, and his disregard for how the people felt about him. In stark contrast, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, which was in the shadow of Herodium, a symbol of worldly power. He came to this world as the most helpless and dependent of living things; a newborn baby. He lived as a common man. He overcame the world. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, it says "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." The Bible is rich with accounts of this premise coming to fruition, as in the story of David and Goliath, weak vs. strong, powerless vs. powerful, poor vs. wealth. Pastor Terry talked about how the story of Jesus' simple arrival into this world of sin is so much more than just a great story. God used the circumstances of His birth to mock all the things of the world, giving us a clear picture of how different the Kingdom of God is from the kingdom of man.
We made the trek back to our bus and headed to Bethlehem, where we had lunch before visiting the Church of the Nativity. The town of Bethlehem has many biblical associations, as it was here that Jacob buried his beloved wife Rachel, Ruth fell in love with her kinsman Boaz, and their great-grandson David was born. But the birth of Jesus Christ in this small town is the event that truly transformed the course of history. As we drove to the site, we were joined by Adel, who is a Christian Palestinian professional tour guide. He accompanied us on the tour of the Church of the Nativity, providing commentary along the way. The entrance to the church is a very small door, and we had to bend at the waist to get low enough to enter. Yehuda explained this was done to keep animals and their waste from entering. The manger noted in Luke 2:7, is referring to a cave area, which is where the animals were kept in those days. In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine had a large church constructed over the manger area. The Church of the Nativity stands over the spot where it is believed the baby Jesus came into the world. The spot is marked by a shrine with a silver star in the floor to indicate the sacred location. We were not able to spend much time in this area, as the Armenian Church had a service beginning. We toured other parts of this site, including the cave where St. Jerome spent 30 years translating the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, beginning around 386 CE. This first official vernacular version of the Bible was known as The Vulgate, and remained the authoritative version for Catholics until the 20th century. The Church of the Nativity is shared by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church, with all three maintaining monastic communities on the site. Inside the church, we saw part of the original mosaic flooring under trapdoors in the floor we were walking on, and the mosaics date from around 336 CE. It's pretty amazing they are still there and intact! We also went into Saint Catherine's, which is the Roman Catholic Church presence on the site, and rested briefly in a beautiful garden area between the churches. There was a large renovation project underway and much of the architecture and adornments of this site were not visible, as they were covered or relocated to prevent damage during the construction.
Biblical scholars believe Bethlehem, located in the "hill country" of Judah, may be the same as the Biblical Ephrath, which means "fertile", as there is a reference to it in the Book of Micah as Bethlehem Ephratah. The Bible also calls it Beth-Lehem Judah, and the New Testament describes it as the "City of David". It is first mentioned in the Tanakh and the Bible as the place where the matriarch Rachel died and was buried "by the wayside" (Gen. 48:7). Rachel's Tomb, the traditional grave site, stands at the entrance to Bethlehem. According to the Book of Ruth, the valley to the east is where Ruth of Moab gleaned the fields and returned to town with Naomi. It was the home of Jesse, father of King David of Israel, and the site of David's anointment by the prophet Samuel. It was from the well of Bethlehem that three of his warriors brought him water when he was hiding in the cave of Adullam.
As we left the Church of the Nativity, I found myself feeling humbled at the thought of our Savior entering the world just as each of us had when we were born. He was completely human, yet completely divine. I believe He came to us in this way so that we would have the assurance of knowing that He has felt our human emotions, our physical and spiritual pain, and knows exactly what it means to be human. He lived a life without sin, the only human being who can make that claim. But He understood the temptations, and became Our Redeemer, so that we could choose freedom from sin. We serve an awesome and mighty and loving God!
We finished up day 9 by shopping at Johnny's, which is a souvenir shop in Bethlehem, which is part of Palestine. Pastor Terry, Laura, and Yehuda had explained the reason for choosing this particular shop, as it is one of few Christian-owned business remaining in Bethlehem, and by giving them our business, we are able to support Christians in this area where they are struggling to survive. The people at Johnny's were very nice and helpful, and had a beautiful selection of olive wood carved items. Yehuda explained the difference in the quality of the olive wood items, as some are hand-carved by local craftsmen as their sole income source, made with older wood (olive wood becomes much harder as it ages) which makes them more valuable, and some are manufactured by machine using varying grades of wood. We spent some time in the shop looking at the inventory, and I saw most of the group leaving with at least one shopping bag. I got a very pretty olive wood bowl, and a small olive wood dish with five loaves of bread and two fishes. My sons, ages 6 and 3, will really enjoy hearing this story with these cool props and Mom's personal experience of having visited the actual site where the miracle occurred. I can't wait to share some stories with them! The oldest is already pretty excited about the Baby Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on water. But enough about my babies (should have forewarned about a proud parent moment - thank you for accommodating!)
It was a busy day with a lot of walking, but it was another incredible day here in Israel. I have really enjoyed the fellowship with these wonderful people in our group. We have some awesome young people, us hip middle-agers, and some of the coolest members of the "more seasoned" crowd. It has been such a blessing getting to know them and forming friendships that will surely last long after this amazing journey ends.
We have another busy day planned for tomorrow with a crazy-early wake-up call at 5:30 AM! I cannot wait to see what unfolds.
Thank you for reading.