Last June I traveled to Israel for the first time. It was one of those “study tours,” a structured, rigorous trip aimed at seeing as many biblically-relevant sites as possible – and learning as much as possible.
Israel. I try not to overuse the term “unique,” but it applies to this nation and its people. It exceeds my faculties and surpasses my knowledge. How does one fully appreciate such a trip? How can you capture the experience? What should I learn from it?
Perhaps it would be best to start with the negative. As a Christian, I came to value my time to Israel not for an experience of place. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about being baptized in the Jordan River, as opposed to a baptismal in Washington, DC or a swimming pool in Bakersfield, CA. My heart didn’t skip a beat when I touched the rock where Jesus was likely born or the rock where he was likely crucified. And the prayers I offered up at these places, though perhaps a bit more informed than they would have been otherwise, were not exceptionally sanctified compared to my prayers in America.
The legions of sketchy souvenir and pilgrimage shops around these places soured the experience. Watching them profit off tourists’ (should I call them pilgrims’?) attempts at piety, I thought of the money changers that Jesus purged from the temple: I don’t want your trinkets. I recall Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:
The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Here, man seems to be looking on the outside, but the God of the Bible strikes me as more concerned with the inside.
There are competing Catholic and Orthodox churches built on most of these traditional locations, lending an aura of spiritual significance to the place. At first blush I find this off-putting. It’s as if two millennia of religiosity, conflict, tradition, and superstition have marred and obscured their original simplicity – the earthiness of the place. I want to be careful here, though. I won’t presume to search out the heart postures of the people in these churches making the sign of the cross in front of a rock. As a born-and-raised Evangelical (who happens to be Baptist at the moment), I cannot empathize well with the high-churched and their icons, incense, and relics. Perhaps these physical elements aid their worship. I admit I feel a heightened sense of solemnity and awe in these Constantine-era churches, but I’m still wary. They’re just rocks, after all.
No, the true value of my time in the Holy Land was more subtle than that, but I think more beneficial in the long term. More than anything, it gave me a new appreciation for the poetry of Scripture – the beauty of its prose and the richness of its historical narrative. For me the parts of the trip that really mattered happened in the brief moments, the quiet moments alone in the places that inspired the biblical authors. At the spring of Engedi, where David fled from Saul and cut off part of his cloak in the cave, I contemplated the Psalms that may have been inspired by this brook in the wilderness:
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.
At Masada, one of Herod’s fortresses during the first century AD, we considered the words of the prophet Jeremiah. The fortress is basically in a desert, but it utilized a brilliant system of irrigation to catch and store rainwater in massive cisterns carved into the mountain. These cisterns were lined with plaster to keep water from escaping, and in the event of a siege they would have stored enough water to supply the defenders for years. They would have provided a lifeline in desperate times, but they could be damaged, infested with debris, and eventually exhausted, so they were a poor substitute for a natural spring. In Jeremiah 2, the prophet uses them as a metaphor for the vapid pleasures of the world compared to finding satisfaction in God:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, 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.
While staying on the Sea of Galilee, one evening I walked to the shore and contemplated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, watching as the sun set over the hills where he preached. Why should I worry? God knows what I need. The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure. Will you sell yourself to buy the one you’ve found?
When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth,” he may have pointed to a port on the Galilee called Magdala, which was a major exporter of salted fish at the time. When he says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he may have pointed to a real city on a hill overlooking the Galilee, the lights of which would have been visible across the entire region.
After all these years, we’re so used to those metaphors. It’s easy for me to lose sight of their tangible, historical roots.
Outside of the geopolitical conflicts that torment the region, we hear mostly good things about the Holy Land – the glory of Jerusalem, the richness of its history, the fertility of its fields. But I think its religious significance gives us rose-tinted glasses. Israel isn’t a beautiful, remarkable land, at least not relative to many other places in the world. It’s southern California without Hollywood, Santa Monica, or San Diego. The hills and fields around Galilee look almost exactly the same as the Grapevine that connects California’s central valley to Los Angeles. I’ve taken it dozens of times. No one drives that route for its scenery.
But isn’t that just like God? Israel historically has strategic value, with the ancient International Coastal Highway running through it, creating a critical juncture of commerce between Asia, Africa, and Europe. For thousands of years, the world’s eye has been drawn to the land of Israel, and still is. And yet if God wanted his people to have a beautiful country or to be a world superpower, he could have picked a lot of other places. But God doesn’t operate by the same calculus we do. Here’s what he tells Israel about his rationale in Deuteronomy:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.
The divine reasoning is similar in the formation of the church, as the Apostle Paul writes:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.
There is much theological debate among Christians over the significance of Israel today and its relationship to the church, but regardless of your position, both give us insight into God’s nature – his care for the poor and downcast, his concern for the integrity of the heart, his tendency to favor the underdog, his desire to make himself known to the world through his people, his longing to satisfy us with himself, and perhaps most incredibly, his willingness to get dirty.
I don’t know for sure if I touched the exact spots where Jesus was born and died. Just as you never step in the same river twice, I didn’t swim in the same Galilee water that Jesus walked on. But that doesn’t negate the reality that he did, in fact, enter history as a flesh-and-blood man – the same history on the same planet that I am living on right now 2,000 years later. Indeed, the land of Israel reinforces that reality, standing as a testament to it. God left the abstract realm of spirituality and ideals and theory, and he came down and got in the dust and grime and corruption of the human experience. He wept and hungered and wearied and bled, so that someday we wouldn’t have to.
In Israel. That’s a remarkable thing to consider.