Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth...

The Valley of Elah from Azekah

Recently I co-led a group of 40 college students to Israel for a 10-day stem to stern tour that covered both biblical and political Israel – not hard given the close proximity of both in such a small land space. I don’t know that I’ve yet processed the whole trip, but if I don’t write this now before my semester begins in earnest I will never get it down. I will deal broadly with both biblical and political ideas broadly with snippets of specific moments here and there.

I’ll deal with the biblical sites first. Given the political situation (everyone in Israel calls the simmering hostilities with the Palestinian areas “the situation”) we were cut off from Bethlehem and Jericho. Everything else reads like Bible: Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi, Garden of Gethsemane, Caesarea by the Sea, Nazareth, Valley of Elah, etc. First… most of the sites are of the “this probably isn’t the place where _______ happened, but this is what it would look like…” Even the Garden of Gethsemane is questionable as the actual locus of the betrayal. The sites still carry a spiritual wallop – especially if you’re Catholic or Orthodox. Baptists don’t do pilgrimages much (maybe to North Carolina) and so most of the sites didn’t have the emotional impact I imagined they’d have whenever I thought about Israel. The ubiquity and proximity of vendors, modernity, etc. also tended to lessen the impact. There were some major exceptions to that though. We were on a hill called Azekah. Azekah faces another hill called Socoh separated by the Valley of Elah – or as 1 Samuel 17 has it – the place where David and Goliath faced off. One creek runs through this place. If one believes in the fundamental historicity (not literalness) of the Bible (and I do as it is the most logical and science-based view) then this was it. We read 1 Samuel 17 and you get a good overview of the battle lines, the creek, and the overall lay of the land as the Israelites ran down the defeated Philistines from behind.

The entire Sea of Galilee area carried a similar gravity. While exact sites of where Jesus stood or preached here or there were hard to find – Jesus undoubtedly walked around (and on) the Sea so to be in the area was to be where he walked, prayed, served, and lived for a big chunk of his time. We had a good presentation about why this one overlook (also the site of an IDF memorial) was probably the where Jesus healed the Gerasene demoniac (casting the demon “Legion” into the pigs where they ran off a cliff – Luke 8). Thirdly, Caesarea Philippi, where Christ made the statement that “on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16), was very beautiful and also moving. There were some Roman ruins there, a cave called “the Gates of Hades” where Pan worshipers made child sacrifices as well as the ruins of a temple to Zeus and a Temple to Pan. Nazareth had a good tour of a first century village which gave a really good overview of what Jesus’ life must’ve been like before He started His ministry. Capernaum, Tiberias, Magdala and other sites were equally good with great digs of synagogues, Roman ruins, etc. The Wailing Wall was interesting and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was moving and also a great possible spot for the tomb of Christ.

The other reason we went was the political situation. I will include our trip to Masada in this portion. Masada was the mountaintop redoubt built by Herod that rebels from the First Jewish Revolt retreated to in 73 AD. The Roman 10th Legion took a few years but finally ramped up there only to find the Jews had killed their own families before the last man took his own life. Death before slavery. In addition we went to Yad Vashem – the Holocaust Memorial. Do not miss this if you get to Jerusalem… the word “moving” doesn’t even begin t describe it. It’s more memorial than museum. The building is thick concrete and built in a triangular shape. At the beginning it is bright and wide open. As you make your way to 1945 the building becomes dark and the walls close in (seen above) – as the world became darker and threatening for the Jews of the mid 1940s. The last room was a list of all the names of the Holocaust gathered so far and room for another couple of million names. I lost it at the names a bit. The rehumanization of what Hitler tried to reduce to numbers and commodities was powerful. Then came the Children’s Memorial – a pitch black room with isolated specks of light and children reading the name and age of all the child victims. Masada and Yad Vashem serve as a bedrock of why Israel is the way it is and how it responds to “the situation.”

The modern portion included a trip to a kibbutz in the Negev called Kfar Aza within site of the Gaza Strip. The kibbutz was fenced with razor wire overlooking its own farm fields (with IDF security) and then a border fence a mile across the field into Gaza. We were there on a Tuesday… the kibbutz had had a rocket strike the Friday prior. They warned us there might be a signal called “Code Red”…. If there was a rocket strike – we would have 10-15 seconds to make it to one of the bomb-proof rooms scattered around the kibbutz. Israel has Iron Dome – their highly successful missile shield, but villages like Kfar Aza are hard to protect because they are so near the border. “Why don’t you leave?” one of our students asked? “This has been our home for over 50 years – why should we leave? This is our home!” was the reply (patient though earnest). We had a speaker from the West Bank as well as an Arab Christian pastor from Bethlehem talk to our group. Both were somewhat wary of the Israeli government, but were highly critical of their own leaders for sowing hate, wasting billions of dollars in aid, etc.) The consensus seems to be there is no resolution in sight. The solution is now – hold as things are. Near Kfar Aza is the town of Sderot – population around 25,000. It has received nearly 3,000 Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip since 2005. The parks have bomb-proof worm-shaped play houses where kids can run during Code Red. The Qassam are homemade rockets. Hamas literally cut down their own light poles to make rockets. Cut the poles into segments, fill segments, with nails, ball bearings, etc., insert crude motor and attach fins and then launch. Most miss, but a few hit – all cause fear. The Palestinian controlled areas have water and electricity provided by Israel – paid for by UN and EU foreign aid – directly to Israel since Hamas doesn’t want to pay Israel directly. Hamas destroyed the power station a while ago with its own rockets. Talk about a metaphor. They could easily build their own power and water infrastructure with all the money they get from foreign aid, but use it to keep their own people cowed, build tunnels from Egypt and into Israel, and pad their own bank accounts. We also toured Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and the Knesset in Jerusalem

After Jerusalem we moved into the north. There we visited the Golan Heights and got a glimpse into Syria – ISIS was a few miles from our position just a few months ago before their defeat. Israel controls the Golan Heights since Syria wouldn’t stop invading and the area is only 30 some odd miles from Damascus and a short tank advance to Tel Aviv. We also visited a Syriac-Maronite Church in El-Jish just over from Lebanon. Now that Hezbollah has finished with ISIS and are nice and battle-hardened they will soon turn their focus back to Israel. Hamas is dangerous, but Hezbollah, as an Iranian proxy has the high dollar equipment and now excellent battle training in the war in Syria. They will be a tough nut to crack. Their rockets can reach anywhere in Israel already though Iron Dome can get most, if not all. Israel is supposedly working on a better missile defense system called “David’s Sling”.

As to the situation generally… I came away even less sympathetic to the Arabs than I did going in, though I feel for any people ensconced in gross ignorance and under the thumb of a terrorist group. The Palestinian Arabs generally do not seem to want to just live and let live. They want to destroy Israel. What is Israel supposed to do with that? Without fail every Israeli, civilian and government official alike, prefaced everything with “We are far from perfect….” They don’t claim to have totally clean hands in every situation. But what they do proclaim – regularly and loudly – is a desire to live peacefully and be left alone. I saw varying levels (and mixtures) of hatred, disdain, and pity for Arabs in Palestinian-controlled areas, but Israel will do what it has to do when the time comes to defend itself. All political parties in Israel seem to agree on that basic point. They’re now in a “Central” position which seems to be stop the Intifadah bombings, contain and respond to missile/rocket launches and just maintain the status quo. Do our interests align perfectly with theirs? No – neither politically nor religiously, but they are our best friend in the area. As to the students… it was a great experience all around for them. Intellectually, it is a no brainer that Israel is small and hard to defend. Seeing the reality of that is a whole new thing. It is really small and really difficult to defend. I was also struck by the ruggedness of it. The mountains are barely comparable to the Appalachians, but the terrain is exceedingly rugged with deep gashes — unsurprising in a land with such a seismic history and at the intersection of the African and Asian tectonic plates. Overall, we did a good job counteracting the media’s malfeasance when it comes to Israel reportage. It didn’t take a, er… a rocket scientist, to get a sense of the threat just from being there.

Other sites included floating in the Dead Sea, seeing Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the “Canaanite Tunnel” which were secret passages under Solomon’s Temple, etc.

14 comments to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth…

  • kishke

    Thanks for that. Interesting review.

    • If you ever get the chance to go jump at it. It’s fascinating, never felt anything but safe and the food and facilities were all great. You can drink the tap water. 🙂

      • kishke

        I’ve been there several times, studied there for a year in my youth, and have close family living there. I drink the water and eat the falafel.
        Next time you go, you might want to visit the village of the Samaritans, on Mount Gerizim overlooking Nablus (Shechem). I was there only briefly, but it’s fascinating. The drive to get there can be a nerve-wracking, though. I went during Ramadan, and driving through Huwwara was a bit tense.

  • Very, very cool and seconding the appreciation for sharing!

  • Scott M.

    All the while,the Arab kleptocracies sink into the sand.

  • Rufus

    I finally got a chance to read your post, Floyd. Very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to write and share that with Threedonia.

    Regarding Yad Vesham, I’ve noticed more museums built in the last 20 years or so using design techniques to impart a psychological mood, along with providing information. Using art, architecture and design can really change the way their visitors view history. It sounds like Yad Vesham is very well designed, despite the near impossibility of recording and sharing the history of the holocaust.

    I can’t imagine what it would be like to see the sights you describe. When I read your description of the Palestinian rockets and their number of attacks and the Israelis perseverance I thought of this Biblical passage:

    Matthew 21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

    22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.