How holy is the Holy Land?
That’s the question I have wrestled with following a very recent tour of Israel under the superb leadership of Prof. John Lubbe, retired UNISA professor of Semitics and Seminary buddy going back almost fifty years. I’ve been privileged to travel quite widely in the world, but never had the opportunity to visit Israel, and to do this with my wife Melanie!
But what do I mean by ‘holy’? The root meaning is that of separation, special, moral excellence, sacred, etc. According to that very broad definition, our experience of Israel was very, very special in so many ways.
Please bear in mind that this was my first visit to the Holy Land, therefore any opinions shared may appear to be shallow, audacious and out of place. However, having been a Bible student for most of my life, I have also ‘lived with Israel’ for almost half-a-century, pondering her place in the sovereign and saving purpose of God in Christ. Romans chapters 9 to 11 have proved helpful over the years and again on my return.
A final preface: we were in Israel at the height of the recent Israel-Gaza conflict. Our short visit made evident how utterly complex the current political situation is. I can recall how during the Apartheid years in South Africa overseas visitors would fly into our country for a week and proffer all kinds of simplistic solutions. How it irritated me at the time. Enough said. On a more positive note, I have a newspaper clipping before me relating how just some days ago eighty Israeli and Palestinian children happily played soccer together on Dorot Kibbutz in S. Israel, with Simon Peres getting the game started. Maybe the hope lies with our youth?
Here’s my first broad paint brush stroke on the canvas piece. Israel is indeed ‘holy’ in illustrating the historical, spiritual roots of our faith and the Church of Jesus Christ. In contrast to our incredibly young land, South Africa, the place breathes history, the history of a chosen people over millenia called to display God’s glory in the earth.
- We visited Jericho on the way to the Dead Sea, the oldest city in the world, some 11,000 years old!
- There was Mt. Carmel near the modern port of Haifa, the scene of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) and their spectacular defeat.
- On the Dead Sea we spent time at the beautiful waterfall of Ein Gedi, surrounded by caves and wild ibex, where David hid in a cave from King Saul. He had the opportunity to kill him but desisted out of respect for his kingly anointing.
- And Nazareth, where Jesus’ birth was announced to Mary, a young girl probably living in an adapted cave in the hill side near a spring. And the synagogue where Jesus preached. And Cana, the scene of Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine (Jn. 2). I appreciated Irma, our Jewish tour guide’s comment on Mary’s words to the stewards, ‘Just do whatever he tells you’ as typical of a Jewish mom’s boast and confidence that her son could do anything! ‘Just leave it in his capable hands!’ I think even Mary was surprised.
- The recently discovered and carefully restored fishing boat from the Galilean shore displayed in the museum at Ginosar, 2000 years old, much smaller than I would ever have imagined. No wonder Jesus’ fishermen-followers sometimes panicked when it got really stormy on the lake.
- The Mount of the Beatitudes, with the rolling hills by the lake-side where Jesus taught the multitudes who flocked to hear him.
- The magnificent and unique City of David, Gethsemane (which moved me powerfully: in the Catholic Church amid the ancient and gnarled olive trees, one of our tour members spontaneously sang in a beautiful and soaring soprana voice, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ The wonderful acoustics made it goose bump stuff). Then we were shown Golgotha and the Garden Tomb, where we broke bread together and celebrated the risen Lord.
- We had started our tour at Caesarea, the beautiful Mediterraean Roman port built by Herod in honour of Caesar Augustus. I gazed at the ruins of the hippodrome adjoining the beach, standing where Paul was imprisoned, preached and wrote while awaiting trial in faraway Rome.
- And today, when we get past the layered periods of Jewish history witnessed in so many restored and semi-restored ruins, the towering monuments to the Ottoman Empire, Mamelukes, the Crusaders, Arab caliph Omar, the Roman Empire, etc, we eventually get to bedrock Christianity in all its simplicity.
- Who can ignore the miracle of the Qumran Scrolls discovery by an Arab shepherd boy in 1947, giving us a picture of those very early and ascetic Essene communities, and how different they were to the teaching and ways of Jesus and the good news of his kingdom.
- Novelist and film-maker Michael Crichton once said, ‘If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is a part of a tree.’ The fact is that the God of all history had a purpose for his ancient covenant people Israel to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12; Is. 49), and when she failed he revealed his Messiah to effect that holy calling. We owe so much to Israel and especially to that one Israelite, Jesus. The post-exilic prophet Zechariah bridges the centuries, backwards and forwards, when he exclaims “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In those days ten men from all languages and nations from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the edge of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you'” (8:23). I have a small menento of Israel, a polished Galilean pebble I bought on the boat while crossing the lake – it carries a little silver emblem of the Jewish candelabra and star of David flowing into the ichthus sign of the early Christians. I like its symbolism.
The second broad brush stroke… A nation of amazing industry and ingenuity, in many ways ‘the start-up nation of the world.’
- All visitors to Israel are impressed by the magnificent kibbutzim established in the most unlikely places at the cost of blood and sweat and tears, producing abundant vegetables and fruit where previously there was only desert or swamp. South African and global agricultural owes so much to Israeli irrigation ingenuity, both micro and macro. They are also pioneers of the most sophisticated dairy machinery which can detect any early disease in an individual cow’s milk.
- Think of the micro-chip that makes your mobile phone function.
- Think of the fertilisers and other products produced out of the Dead Sea with its 27 odd different minerals. We flopped in the black mud and floated in the salty waters which do wonders for one’s skin.
- Think of the developing forests amid an arid land.
- Think of their start-up pharmaceutical companies.
- Chocolate lovers, think of the Israeli carob fruits enhancing the health of our chocolate products!
- Think of their water supply from Lake Galilee piped to Israel and Jordan, which is even more arid than Israel. Add to this their advanced desalinisation plants for extra water resources.
- My wife noticed how young mothers would tie a knot in their skirt for their children to hang on to while doing shopping in the busy market place and narrow lanes, so the little ones wouldn’t get lost!
The third broad brush stroke on the canvas… well, we’ll have a look at that next time. Thanks for staying with me so far…
[PS. To show how selective I have had to be in my report, consider our packed itinerary: Visits to Caesarea, Megiddo, Mt. Carmel, Akko, Nazareth (Annunciation Church & synagogue), Tel Dan and the Golan Heights, Banias, Gamla, Tiberias, Ginosar, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Tabgha, Capernaum, Magdala, Domus Galilea, the Jordan River, Bet Shean, the Jordan Valley, Qumran, Kalia Beach on the Dead Sea, Jericho, an Orthodox Monastery overlooking Jericho, Ein Gedi, Masada, Jerusalem, Hezekiah’s tunnel, the Garden Tomb, the Mount of Olives, the Via Dolorosa, the Holy Sepulchre Church, Bethlehem & Herodion, a Sound and Light Show at the Tower of David, the Western Wall tunnels, the Israeli Museum & Model of Jerusalem, and finally Jaffa]