Come with your faith, that is all God needs to use you well
We began our 10 day journey early this morning in the cool crisp setting of the Judean Mountains. We are being led by an incredible local tour guide named Yehuda with Terry Feix providing us the Biblical lessons at each sight. Our group stepped into Yad Hashmonah, an incredible walk through of a typical biblical garden.
As we overlooked the mountains, sitting on wooden benches in what could be considered an outdoor sanctuary, Terry laid out three major learning objectives for this trip:
1. We learn about and connect with the people who have and who currently inhabit this land. As Christians, we have a kinship with the people of Israel.
2. We learn about and connect with the place itself. A deeper understanding of the geography, the plants, the climate will thoroughly enrich the way we read the Bible.
3. We dig into the promises that have been made to God's people over time. As Christians, we believe that the ultimate fulfillment of the promise to Abraham came in Jesus Christ. And given we are in Christ, we are heirs of that promise.
We should enjoy this trip, but the most important aspect is to be faithful with what we learn. As we learn about the people, the places, and the promises, as we get to be eye-witnesses to the place that God decided to tell His story, the Bible should come alive within us in a new way.
Walking through Yad Hashmonah was like going back in time and stepping into the garden of an Israelite during Biblical times. As we began our tour, we read from Isaiah chapter 5, which says:
"Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard; My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hew out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes."
The landscape of the land promised to the people of Israel was challenging. We got to see what a vineyard constructed on a rugged mountain slope looks like, how fertile soil had to be developed, how the large stones of the day had to be managed and cleared, and we got to understand more deeply what a choice vine truly was. We learned how the wine press and wine vats worked, how the olive oil was produced, and how the people of that time managed the land. As you read the text in Isaiah 5 and you look upon the landscape, you can understand the love that was behind the promise made to God's people. Just like the people could put such care in creating the fertile soil and environment necessary for a vineyard on a rugged mountain slope to yield choice grapes, so does God care for us so much that he has done everything to condition our hearts to to yield good fruit.
The Biblical Village on the slope of Yad HaShmonah provides visitors with hands-on exposure to the manners and customs of the ancient Israelites. The garden includes olive trees and press, grape vines and several winepresses, wheat field and threshing floor, watchtower, Bedouin tents, ancient Galilean synagogue, and a burial cave. All have been constructed according to the best archaeological knowledge of ancient life.
However there is a difference between choice grapes and wild grapes. We learned that the wild grapes had a very different color and tasted bitter, to the point that the people would not even use them. They were tossed aside. The text in Isaiah points towards a judgment prophecy. God had tended his vineyard with great care and attention, yet he found wild grapes. His people lacked the faith that would produce good fruit.
As we finished up the tour of the garden, we then contrasted this text with a reading from John 15. We see the same theme, with the same prophetic message, but with such great hope. Jesus tells us:
"I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."
It is through faith in Him that we are connected to the vine. And because we are connected to the vine, we will bear good fruit. As we put our complete trust in Christ, we find that day after day, he transforms our life and from that connection to the vine we get the water, the nutrients, the strength to bear choice fruit. Yet we can not do it on our own, we must be in Christ. We do not yield choice fruit and then become connected to the vine, it is the vine working through its branches that yields the results.
We then moved onto Beth Shemesh. We hiked passed wildflowers as we went up to the top of a large hill. As we hiked, we picked up the mustard seed plant. This beautiful yellow plant was everywhere. It grows in abundance and you can understand why Jesus used it in such an important illustration about what he can do through our faith. People all throughout the region would immediately understand his reference to the mustard seed. As we reached the top, we could look on the horizon and see the portion of the mountain range where Samson was born. We could also easily see the track he would have made to come from his home and traverse down the river valley to the area controlled by the Philistines. It was there that Samson meets Delilah. It would have been a long but manageable walk for Samson. We learned about the culture of the Philistines, how it would have been tempting to engage in their culture and put his own desires above his commitment to God. We learned how Samson continued to cross the line, how he kept engaging in the delights of the Philistines, how we slowly broke all the vows made to God, and how eventually God left him. When you see it all so clearly with your own eyes, it becomes so much easier to relate to Samson and to apply the lesson to our own walk with Christ.
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.
From the same vantage point we could also see the path taken when the Arc of the Covenant was returned to God's people from the Philistines. We then climbed down (very carefully) into a water cistern. We learned how the people depended upon the water that would be collected from these cisterns. However, the water would get very dirty, animals would die in the water, sediment would collect, and the drinking quality was so much poorer that fresh flowing water. As Terry led us in a lesson in the depths of the underground cistern, seeing that cistern for yourself helps you understand what was meant when God spoke through Jeremiah and said:
"For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water."
God is the fountain of living water. But so often we develop cisterns for ourselves, hoping that we can sustain our own needs and meet our own desires. But not only can what we create for ourselves not come close to living water, eventually, the cistern will dry up completely and will hold no water. In Christ we will never thirst, on our own our water supply will fail.
Next we traveled to Bet Guvrin. We got to go underground and see the Columbarium caves. We had no idea what these large holes carved out of the chalk rock formation were for. But we soon found out they were just clean and safe places for birds to coup. The people would then harvest the eggs and get a new source of fertilizer to use for their gardens (increases the chances of the vineyards yielding choice fruit.....). A few of us almost broke our wrists climbing up the shaft of the cave and we learned so much about the history of the people who developed these underground caverns.
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.
For our last stop of the day, we traveled to Azekah, where on a tall hilltop we were able to look out on the two mountain slopes that held the Philistine and Israelite armies on the day that David battled Goliath. We got to see the valley that separated the two mountain slopes and two armies. It was in this valley that Goliath challenged the Israelites and insulted our God. With this picture in sight and with the stories earlier in the day in mind, it was easy to contrast the stories of David and Samson. Samson was strong relative to his enemies, David was small and weak relative to Goliath. Samson put his trust in the things of the world, David put his trust in God. And as we see so many times in the Bible, God reveals His glory through our weakness.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:12)
Samson's story was tragic whereas David's faith yielded a story that should encourage us as Christians today. We should look at the faith of David and always remember that no matter how strong the enemy seems, God is stronger.
As Terry so eloquently summed up for us, "Come with your faith, that is all God needs to use you well."
We finished our day with a bus drive to our hotel on the Dead Sea. What an adventure Day 1 was! God revealed his wisdom in such a clear way, please pray for us that we would have ears to hear, eyes to see, and soft hearts to absorb his wisdom for Day 2.
Azekah (Heb: עזקה, ʿazeqah) was a town in the Shephelah guarding the upper reaches of the Valley of Elah, about 26 km (16 mi) northwest of Hebron. The current tell (ruin) by that name has been identified with the biblical Azekah, dating back to the Canaanite period. According to Eusebius' Onomasticon, the name meant "white" in the Canaanite tongue. The tell is pear shaped with the tip pointing northward. Due to its location in the Elah Valley it functioned as one of the main Judahite border cities, sitting on the boundary between the lower and higher Shephelah. Although listed in Joshua 15:35 as being a city in the plain, it is actually partly in the hill country, partly in the plain.