The Source and Story of Our Redemption
I woke up this morning just outside Jerusalem, but as I write this, I’m sitting in a sixth floor hotel room on the southwest coast of the Dead Sea. I’m here with about 35 friends, most of them new. If you’re reading this blog, I trust you know and love at least one of these fine folks and are excited to hear about what they’re experiencing in this special place. Let me begin by assuring you that everyone made it from Texas to Israel safely and in good spirits. From what I can tell, everyone is thoroughly enjoying their time so far.
As the crow flies, we’re only about 65 miles southeast of Jerusalem, where we started our day. But we didn’t come straight here. Our objective today was in our journey, not in our final destination. In fact, to say we took a scenic route to the Dead Sea would be quite an understatement.
We began our day by getting oriented to the lay of the land from atop a military lookout called Har Adar (Hebrew for Radar Hill), located about ten miles outside of Jerusalem. Har Adar has a huge observation tower from which you can get a full 360 degree view of the land. Wes, our trip leader and Ronan, our GTI tour guide spent a few minutes telling us about what to expect from our tour, we read a little scripture, sang a couple songs, then loaded back up on our bus to head west (in the opposite direction of the Dead Sea).
The sites we visited today were in the area of Israel known as the Shephelah (Hebrew for lowlands). The Shephelah is made up of low, rolling hills that sit between the Coastal Plain to the West and the much higher Central Hill region of Judah to the East. Connecting these two regions are five valleys that cut East to West through the Shephelah (the Aijalon Valley, the Sorek Valley, the Elah Valley, the Guvrin Valley and the Lachish Valley), each of which is rich with stories from the Old Testament.
Our first stop was at Bet Shemesh (Hebrew for “House of the Sun”) in the Sorek Valley. At Bet Shemesh we read about the Ark of the Covenant’s return to Israel from the Philistines, as well as much of Samson’s story, all of which happened within a few miles of the hillside where we were sitting. We also went down into a fairly recently excavated cistern, where we discussed the importance of water in the Biblical narrative, and the idea that cistern water was a poor substitute for living water (spring water), which is a perfect metaphor for our constant choosing of lesser things over the Living Water of Jesus in our lives.
A border city between Judah and Dan, Beth Shemesh was given to the Levites. Beth Shemesh was the most important Israelite city in the Sorek Valley as it watched both east-west traffic through the Sorek Valley and north-south traffic along the “Diagonal Route.” Recent excavations have shown a thriving city here from the Middle Bronze Age through the Iron II period.
Next, we headed a little further south to Tel Azeka, which looks out over the Elah Valley. This is the site where David, while still a young shepherd boy in Bethlehem, by faith in the strength and faithfulness of God, delivered Israel from the hands of the Philistines by killing their champion, Goliath, with a few small stones and a sling. We read his story and talked about the ways in which it parallels the Gospel, with David representing the Christ character, fighting on our behalf.
Tel Azekah and Elah Valley
The Brook Elah is famous for the five stones it contributed to the young slinger, David. Some surmise that David chose five stones instead of the one needed in case he needed to face Goliath’s four brothers.
Before leaving Tel Azeka, we enjoyed a picnic together, and then stopped by the brook in the Elah Valley where David would have found the stones with which he defeated Goliath.
After that, we moved even further south to Bet Guvrin (Hebrew for “house of the man/hero”). At Bet Guvrin we were able to look at a threshing floor and a couple of olive presses, as well as explore several caves/cistern systems. We also explored a couple of old columbariums, where entire families would have been laid to rest thousands of years ago.
Beth Guvrin (Maresha)
Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park is a national park in central Israel, 13 kilometers from Kiryat Gat, encompassing the ruins of Maresha, one of the important towns of Judah during the time of the First Temple, and Beit Guvrin, an important town in the Roman era, when it was known as Eleutheropolis.
Archaeological artifacts unearthed at the site include a large Jewish cemetery, a Roman-Byzantine amphitheater, a Byzantine church, public baths, mosaics and burial caves.
When we left Bet Guvrin, we headed back to the East, between the Central Hills and the Eastern Negev, which we’ll explore more tomorrow. We arrived at our hotel, checked in, rested a bit, enjoyed a fantastic dinner, and now we’re off to sleep.
Some of you may be curious as to why we’re actually doing this. What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles across the planet to hike around just to see the sites where these old stories took place? I’m glad you asked.
It’s because these stories didn’t happen in these places coincidentally. This land was chosen and ordained by God to be the place where He would come in flesh to redeem the world. Theologian, N.T. Wright said this of the Bible: "God has indeed inspired this book. He has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths, unrelated to space and time.”
Place matters. THIS place matters. It’s upon these hills and in these valleys that God proved Himself time and again to His people. But this isn’t a place that’s best learned about in a book or on a map or from photographs. Those are useful tools, but this is a place that’s best seen with your feet. That’s why we’re here. We’ve come that we might know both the Source and story of our redemption more intimately, believe it more deeply, and live in response to it more fully.
Thanks for following along. More tomorrow!