Seeing Israel at a gallop

In January, I was privileged to join eight other Baptist editors for a tour of Israel. Since that time I’ve wanted to share some of the experience with you but haven’t been able. This travelogue format might work best at describing a very full week in Israel. I hope you enjoy it. GL

Day one?Tel Aviv: We had a very thorough night’s sleep after a 10-hour flight that ended with most of us being awake for over 30 hours. Our plane arrived late afternoon and we didn’t sleep until nearly 11, local time.

Our first stop that morning was Joppa, actually a part of the Tel Aviv metro area. This is the site of Jonah’s flight from the Lord and also the home of Simon the Tanner whom Paul visited after his encounter with the resurrected Christ. We actually saw a house, that looked to have been built within the past two or three centuries, with a hand-lettered sign proclaiming it to be the house of Simon the Tanner. I have my doubts. Joppa is also the place where Napoleon was surprised at the vigor with which the locals resisted his invasion.

From Tel Aviv and Joppa we went north to visit the Baptist village. Founded in the 1950s, Baptist workers here sponsor a baseball league, a softball league (the best ball fields in the country), and American-style football games on the property. They also host training for Baptist groups and a couple of churches.

In what was to become an almost endless and fascinating series of excavation sites, our group wandered through the ancient city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast as we traveled further north. Workers have unearthed walls from the Crusader era, a palace from the time of Herod, and an entire hippodrome. The ingenious planning and grandeur of the place were evident at every turn.

We’re back on the bus to visit a can’t-miss stop on any trip to Israel, Megiddo. Of course we recognize the place from the common association with the biblical prophecy of the great battle of Armageddon (Har-Megedo or “Mountain of Megedo”). The currently exposed layer on top of this smallish hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley reveals a fortified city from Solomon’s time. The place is just a giant dig site. It has 25 layers of different eras of building. Solomon’s layer is number 16.

We spent that evening in Haifa, the great port city on the western side of Mount Carmel. It’s a beautiful and modern city. The port area still shows signs of rocket attacks out of Lebanon two years ago. The central feature of the western slope of Carmel is the tomb of a forerunner of the Baha’i religion. It’s very pretty and surrounded by well-kept tropical gardens.

Day two?After touring Haifa a bit we traveled to the eastern side of Carmel, to the traditional site of Elijah’s confrontation with the pagan priests and King Ahab. It’s one the most impressive vistas in the country. The hill overlooks the Jezreel (northwest of Megiddo) and it’s easy to imagine that the audience for the great showdown included those 20 miles away.

The rest of our day was spent in Nazareth. The Church of the Annunciation is a beautiful contemporary cathedral dedicated to the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would bear the Messiah.

Nazareth is also the location of a Baptist school and seminary staffed by Christians of various nationalities. Most of the students are Arabic. The location was at one time the Near East Mission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

We spent that night in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee. It’s a beautiful location and one of the places it’s easiest to imagine as unchanged since Jesus’ preaching ministry.

Day three?Early that morning we boarded a boat to travel out on the Sea of Galilee. It was a brisk day but very scenic. From our boat we could see most of the shoreline sites of Jesus’ Galilean ministry we would visit later?the Mount of the Beatitudes (with accompanying church), the church commemorating Peter’s primacy, and Capernaum, the location of Peter’s house (with a church built on stilts over the excavation) and an extensive collection of houses and artifacts from that once-large town.

North of the sea, we traveled through lovely Galilee into the region of Dan, far in the north. Here we saw the snows of Mount Herman and the ancient city of Caesarea Philippi. Yes, there are two Ceasareas, one by the Mediterrean (day one), and this one in the far north of the country. Caesarea is located near where the headwaters of the Jordan flow out of Herman. It’s just a very park-like area in a region we usually assume to be desert.

Here also we drove past miles of minefields as we traveled across the Golan Heights. At our northernmost point we overlooked the United Nations base tasked with guaranteeing the security on the border between Syria and Israel. Above that, and behind our scenic overlook, was a huge Israeli listening post apparently meant to backstop the U.N. in that same task.

The sun is going down as we descend the heights back down to the Galilee. We circumnavigate the little sea and return to Tiberias for a second night.

Day four?Checking out of Tiberias, we head south along the Jordan Valley toward the Dead Sea. We are far below sea level the whole way and the view into Jordan, across a heavily fortified frontier, is covered with haze from the river valley. It’s nearly three hours to the end point of the Jordan.

We all decided to pass on swimming in the Dead Sea and went on down to Masada, another can’t miss location. After looking through the visitors’ center we ascended from 1,400 below sea level to 65 feet above sea level on a cable car.

The fortress is another Herodian project. His paranoidness wanted a place to hide if people decided they were through with him. Of course it’s primary place in history was when a group of Jewish rebels hid in the fortress during the destruction of Jerusalem from 70-72 AD. The Romans were tenacious and built an enormous ramp up to the gates of the hilltop stronghold. At this point, the Jews committed suicide amidst food and water that would have lasted for years. A good bit of the palace and other buildings have been excavated. It’s a moving place with a view that seems to go on forever. Some Israeli military units hike up to Masada to take their induction vows.

After a stop at En Gedi, a commune in the garden spot of the Judean desert, we continued north to Qumran, site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Archeologists have dug up enough to give us an idea about how the Essene monastics lived around the first century. God provided just the right place for the preservation of ancient biblical material in this dry and remote location.

From there we headed toward Jerusalem. When people refer to going up to Jerusalem, they aren’t kidding, especially if you’re coming from the Jordan Valley.

Day five?It’s surprisingly cold in Jerusalem. At 7:30 AM we’re on the Temple Mount and there is ice on the Moslem washing pool. Being a high place, we’re also huddling together against a sharp wind. The significance of the place is moving, but right now it is a Moslem stronghold and has been for centuries.

Then we make the trek from the Mount of Olives, a great cemetery and site of most of the photos you see of Jerusalem, down to Gethsemene, and then toward the eastern gate of the city. This hike is the traditional Palm Sunday route of Jesus.

A current and working archeological site is in the old Jebusite city of David (2 Samuel 5). The location was formerly within the walls of the city but now is not. The excavation includes the tunnel of Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:20) that goes from the city to the brook of Gihon. Visitors can actually wade through the 600-yard

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