Jezreel – Valley of Battles, Basket of Bread

The Jezreel Valley in Israel, also known as the Plain of Megiddo or Valley of Megiddo, is a flat, fertile valley just south of the lower Galilee between the Carmel Mountains to the west and the Jordan Valley to the east.

In ancient times, many groups fought here for control of the valley, which was a major regional thoroughfare and a coveted piece of land. The Roman Via Maris, an important trade route connecting Mesopotamia (Iraq), Egypt and Asia Minor (Turkey), passed through the valley and crossed the Carmel Mountains to the Mediterranean sea at the Aruna Pass, also known as the Megiddo Pass, controlled by the city of Megiddo. Excavations have uncovered over 20 successive layers of settlement at and around Megiddo dating from the 8th millennium BCE to the 6th century BCE, with significant settlement beginning in the middle of the 5th millennium BCE.

The area is rich with biblical sites. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Saul battled the Philistines and died here with his sons (1 Samuel 28:1-31:10), Jezebel had Naboath killed and confiscated his Jezreel Valley vineyard for her husband King Ahab (1 Kings 21-28), at the Harod Spring in the valley, Gideon assembled an army to fight and defeat the Midianites (Judges 7:1-8).

excavations at Tel Megiddo, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

excavations at Tel Megiddo, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

In the Christian Bible/New Testament, Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley is the site of the final battle between good and evil. Armageddon = Har Megeddon = the mountain of Megiddo (Revelation 16).

Today, the Jezreel Valley is a major agricultural area.

 

3 Religious Sites in Jordan: Mt Nebo, Madaba, Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Mt. Nebo

Mt. Nebo

Everyone knows about Petra in Jordan; it’s the headliner, and for good reason. But Jordan is also home to some very important religious sites. It’s just across the Jordan River from Israel and very much part of the Holy Land.

Mt.Nebo is traditionally believed to be the site where Moses died and was buried. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, he was denied entrance into the Promised Land but he was allowed to look upon it from Mt.Nebo. As the story goes, Moses and the Israelites had been wandering in the desert for many years. It was hard on everyone. There was a great deal of kvetching and little gratitude, faith or loyalty among the Israelites. When he went out to get water for this mob of moaners, Moses was on his last nerve. “Fine,” he said, “we’ll get you your gosh darn water!” He struck a stone three times and water poured out. In that moment, Moses committed at least three sins and his fate was sealed. He failed in his responsibility as leader by losing his temper. He disobeyed the Lord by striking the stone rather than speaking to it as instructed. And, probably worst of all, he failed to properly credit the Lord for the miracle. His punishment was to never set foot in the Promised Land. It seems a harsh penalty. The poor guy left a life of royal luxury and accepted a thankless mission of extreme hardship. Why not give him some latitude, for pity’s sake? On the other hand, he fell short in his assignment of obedience to the Lord and leadership of the Israelites.

view from Mt. Nebo

view from Mt. Nebo

There’s plenty to ponder while standing on Mt.Nebo looking out over the Jordan Valley. If conditions are right, you can see Jericho and beyond to Jerusalem. Remains of a Byzantine church are incorporated into the modern church on site, which houses some very nice mosaics and the soaring serpentine cross sculpture at the edge of the summit seems to hang from the sky. It’s all very moving.

6th-century Holy Land map in Madaba

6th-century Holy Land map in Madaba

Just down the road about 5 miles is Madaba, famous for mosaics. They’re still excavating Byzantine remains all over town. The Basilica of St. George is the main attraction, where you can see the famous 6th-century map of the holy land in a mosaic floor.

the Jordan River at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

the Jordan River at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

possible (likely?) site of the baptism of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine church

possible (likely?) site of the baptism of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine church

About a 20 minute drive from Madaba at the very southern end of the Jordan River is Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site widely believed to be where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. There’s very strong archaeological evidence to support that belief. After the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, this border area had to be cleared of mines. Excavations began in 1996 and have uncovered Roman and Byzantine remains of baptismal pools, churches, pilgrim lodgings, hermit caves, a monastery and a prayer hall. This is also believed to be the site from which the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.

I’m not at all religious but I was affected by the serenity of this place. Just thinking about it now is calming. My secular being has been similarly moved to the core at Mt. Nebo, Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall… Is there some inherent power in these places that is deeper than their associated spiritual traditions? Or does centuries-of-pilgrim-ardor hang so thick that even casual visitors are swept up in it? Or is it just the suggestion of emotional response that makes it so?

While these are interesting questions to consider, perhaps why we respond the way we do is far less important than the response itself. Aspire to faith in experience and acceptance of the unexplained. Ultimately, no matter our system of belief, the source of the feelings inspired by these places is the same for all of us. What differs is how we explain those feelings.

Visit Mt. Nebo, Madaba and Bethany Beyond the Jordan and feel for yourself: www.yallatours.com/jordan

Redemption & Resurrection

Redemption, resurrection, renewal, promise and freedom are themes of our current season. Over the ages, countless traditions have marked the springtime miracle of life bursting forth from seemingly cold, dead earth.

I’m thinking of three traditions in particular, two of which are probably obvious to those of us in the West, Passover and Easter. This year, the week of Passover overlaps Christian Holy Week, the period between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. To add a hint of scandal, I’m also thinking of the ecstatic Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece. All three involve breaking free of physical and spiritual bondage of some sort and emerging as a more complete, connected and authentic individual, community member and earthling.

Passover celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led by the divinely chosen but less-than-willing Moses. They are reborn as a nation and set on a path by the Lord to the Promised Land. The physical redemption of the Israelites is honored during the 7-day holiday and it is also a time of spiritual redemption. Along with house cleaning of the soul there is house cleaning of the house. The Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and, unable to wait for bread to rise, they took unleavened bread to sustain them on their journey. A big part of Passover tradition is to rid the home of all traces of leavened stuff and anything that might consider leavening if given the opportunity. Cupboards and pantries are cleansed of breads and pastries, pastas and most grains and, for good measure, the whole house is usually given a major spring cleaning.

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo Jordan, as seen by the Israelites after wandering in the desert for 40 years

the view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo Jordan, as seen by the Israelites after wandering in the desert for 40 years

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, a sign of redemption and liberation from death. Through Jesus we are shown that death is not an end but a new beginning, a passage to another life. Easter symbols are all about fertility and new life – eggs, chicks, bunnies, Easter Lilies…

the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before being arrested

the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before being arrested

the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested

the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

Dionysian rites were held in the spring across the Greek and Roman world. Dionysus was associated with the season of rebirth because he was a twice-born god. His mortal mother Semele died while pregnant with Dionysus when she insisted that Zeus, the father of her baby, appear before her in his full godliness. Semele was not equipped for such a sight and perished instantly. Zeus provided the fetal Dionysus a substitute womb inside his thigh, from which Dionysus was born again some time later.

There were also strong liberation themes in Dionysian rites, which were characterized by wild abandon. Dionysus was god of the vine and wine was used to break down restrictive social barriers and inhibitions. Celebrants drank and danced into tranced-out frenzy, transcending the mundane world to be spiritually unified with the god. Woohoo!

La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William Bouquereau, 1884

La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William Bouquereau, 1884

Merry Christmas from Bethlehem!

Bethlehem

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.

Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.

Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.

Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Othodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Deborah

Deborah by Charles Landelle, 1901

Deborah was a heroine of the Jewish people during the time of Judges, around 1,100 BCE, 100 or so years after the Israelites entered the promised land of Canaan. We don’t know much about Deborah, least of all how she came to be a leader in a time when women generally had very little power. The Bible tells that she would sit beneath a palm tree to advise her people.

While Deborah was growing up, the people of Israel were dominated and harassed by the Canaanites all along their borders. Filling in the blanks a bit, we can imagine how an intelligent, determined and unusually assertive girl might be shaped to take action, if given the power. According to the story, she was given the power and she did take action. She ordered her general, Barak, to assemble an army. For some reason, Barak did not want to go into battle unless Deborah went too, so she did.

Mt. Tabor in the Lower Galilee, where Deborah initially led her army.

Mt. Tabor in the Lower Galilee, where Deborah initially led her army.

Although outnumbered, Deborah, Barak and their troops prevailed, thanks in part to heavy rains that bogged down the Canaanite chariots in mud and swamped them with flash floods. The Canaanite general Sisera was the only survivor of the battle. He took off on foot.

The Yizael Valley, where Deborah's army wiped out the Canaanite army. It lies between Mt. Tabor in the east and Mt. Carmel in the west. Deborah used the strengths of her enemies (heavy armor and chariots) against them by drawing them into the swampy muck of the Kishon River plain, which cuts through the valley.

The Yizael Valley, where Deborah’s army wiped out the Canaanite army. It lies between Mt. Tabor in the east and Mt. Carmel in the west. Deborah used the strengths of her enemies (heavy armor and chariots) against them by drawing them into the swampy muck of the Kishon River plain, which cuts through the valley.

When Sisera came to a Bedouin camp, he asked a woman there, Yael, for some water. She gave him milk instead, which, on top of a terrible day of combat and fleeing for his life, made him drowsy. When he lay down for a nap, Yael nailed his head to the ground with a tent spike, in one temple and out the other. That was the end of Sisera and, apparently, the Canaanite threat as well.

After the victory, the people of Israel enjoyed 40 years of peace under Deborah.

Read about Deborah in Judges 4 & 5.

The capital of Canaan during the time of Deborah was Hazor in the Upper Galilee. Today, that site is known as Tel Hazor. It's a national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Israel's largest archaeological sites.

The capital of Canaan during the time of Deborah was Hazor in the Upper Galilee. Today, that site is known as Tel Hazor. It’s a national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Israel’s largest archaeological sites.

 

Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

The Mount of Olives looks out on Jerusalem’s Old City from the east. In purely geographical terms, it shelters Jerusalem from the Judean Desert and catches and directs precious water toward the city. It was once covered in olive trees, but not so much any more.

For 3,000 years the Mount of Olives has been Judaism’s most sacred burial ground. Some 150,000 Jews are buried there, including biblical prophets and revered rabbis. The Kabbalistic Zohar text tells that when the Messiah comes, the Mount of Olives will be his first stop and on that day, the righteous will rise from the dead.

Looking out at Jerusalem's Old City from the Mount of Olives, with the ancient Jewish cemetery in the foreground.

Looking out at Jerusalem’s Old City from the Mount of Olives, with the ancient Jewish cemetery in the foreground.

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The Jesus Boat

one of replicas of the ancient

one of replicas of the ancient “Jesus Boat” carrying a Ya’lla group on the Sea of Galilee

One of the most popular experiences included in our Christian tours of Israel is the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.

The Sea of Galilee is actually a large freshwater lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles across, better known in Israel as Kinneret, Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias. The lake feeds the Dead Sea, via the Jordan River, and, at roughly 700 feet below sea level, it’s the 2nd lowest lake on the planet, after the Dead Sea. It’s located in the Galilee region in northern Israel.

During a period of severe drought in 1986, the lake receded significantly, revealing the remains of an ancient boat buried in the sediment. The boat was excavated and dated to the 1st century, the time of Jesus. The boat is now housed in a small museum at Kibbutz Ginosar on the western shore of the lake. Close replicas of the boat take passengers on the lake past Christian sites, such as Tabgha (site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes) and Capernaum (the headquarters of Jesus’ ministry), and stop to visit the remains of the ancient boat.

remains of a 1st-century Galilean fishing boat known as the Jesus Boat or the Ginosar Boat

remains of a 1st-century Galilean fishing boat known as the Jesus Boat or the Ginosar Boat

For Christians, the lake and its surroundings are significant as the area where much of Jesus’ ministry and many of his miracles took place. Four of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew and the brothers James and John.

One day, after hours of pulling up empty nets, the four fishermen had just pulled into shore. (Andrew was already a disciple of Jesus, the first, but he hadn’t yet convinced the others.) Jesus approached and asked Peter to take him out on the lake a little way so that he could better address the crowd that had gathered to hear his teaching. Later, after the crowd had dispersed, Jesus asked Peter to move into deep water and cast out his nets. Peter thought this would be a waste of time, based on his experience earlier in the day, but out of respect, he did as Jesus asked. When the nets were pulled in, they were so heavy with fish the boat couldn’t hold them all. James and John came to help and their boat was also filled to the brim with fish. Jesus gained three more disciples that day.

Later in his ministry, Jesus had spent a long day preaching to a large crowd near the lake and needed to rest. While he and his disciples sailed to a quiet spot on the opposite shore, Jesus took a nap. When they reached the middle of the lake, a nasty squall rose up, bad enough to terrify the experienced fishermen on board. Jesus slept peacefully through the waves crashing on the deck and the pitching and rolling of the boat, until the disciples woke him, certain they were about to die. He told the storm to simmer down, which it promptly did, expressed his disappointment in his disciples’ lack of faith, and resumed his nap.

the Sea of Galilee

the Sea of Galilee

I could go on and on about Jesus and the Sea of Galilee, but I’ll save some stories for future posts.

The city of Tiberias on the western shore of the lake makes a good hub for visiting the area. For privately escorted Christian tours that include a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and a visit to the ancient boat at Ginosar look here and here.