Megiddo and to’ebah

This is the sixteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 26, AM

Our next stop after the area outside Nazareth was Megiddo, a site on the north side of the Carmel ridge, on the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley. In ancient times it was along the Via Maris, the main route between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and so held strategic and military significance for a long time. In the united monarchy of Israel, it is listed as one of three cities that Solomon fortified (along with Hazor and Gezer, 2 Kgs 9:15). There is a gate there that some archaeologists believe dates to Solomon’s time. In 609 BC, Josiah king of Judah challenged Pharaoh Neco in battle there and was killed (2 Kgs 23:29–30). The site was abandoned sometime during the fourth century BC.

Is8023Many people associate the name “Megiddo” with Revelation 16:16, which places a gathering of armies at a place called “Armageddon” (literally, “mountain of Megiddo”). Normally Armageddon is thought of as a battle, but a close reading of Revelation shows that the battle is never fought. Personally, since so much of Revelation is intended to be symbolic, and since there is no such place as the “mountain of Megiddo,” and since it’s physically impossible for the armies described in Revelation to gather in the space around Megiddo, I don’t think any literal future gathering for battle is likely to be fought at Megiddo. As Darrell Johnson says in his fine book on Revelation, “The name stands for the last resistance of the anti-Christ forces before the coming of the new creation” (Discipleship on the Edge, 290). Likewise, Grant Osborne writes in Revelation Verse by Verse:

We should begin with the connection of Megiddo with warfare, since so many battles were fought there (Judg 4–5, 7; 1 Sam 31; 2 Kgs 23; 2 Chr 35). It is also associated with the obstinate opposition of the world to God and his people, with the primary background being Gog and Magog (Ezek 38–39) and the mourning of the apostate nation in Zechariah 12:9–14, who here represent all the nations who have broken covenant with God. Thus the message in the name “Armageddon” would be that all who stand against God will mourn as they face God’s wrath. It stands for the assembly of all the sinful nations arrayed against God and his people as they come together in defiance to make war against God and the Lamb. (272)

The point Revelation is trying to make, I think, is that evil forces gather with a militaristic mindset, not precisely where. So at Megiddo, our group leader, Tim, (thankfully) didn’t talk about Armageddon. Instead, he talked to us about idolatry.

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It appears that, even during the time when the Israelites occupied Megiddo, there was religious dualism—Yahweh was worshiped along with the goddess Asherah. This from the article on Megiddo in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books: “It is likely that two deities, male and female, are represented in Shrine 2081, presenting at Megiddo a possible early manifestation of the dualism represented by the worship of Yahweh and his Asherah at Kuntillet ʿAjrud in the early eighth century BCE.”

It may seem surprising to those who have read the Bible all their lives that this kind of thing was going on. Weren’t the Israelites monotheists? Well, according to those who wrote the Old Testament, they were supposed to be, but all too often they worshiped other gods, or they practiced syncretism—the worship of Yahweh alongside other gods. The prophets of ancient Israel were always railing against this tendency in their contemporaries, calling idols to’ebah, which means “disgusting” or an “abomination”: “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable [to’ebah] to the Lord, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret” (Deut 27:15).

Is8034In Jeremiah’s time, God was disgusted that the Judahites were likening him to the god Baal, saying he wanted child sacrifice. This was an abomination (Jer 32:35). Baal worship involving child sacrifice was abhorrent to the Greeks, and they put an end to it before Jesus’ day. But there were other things that were still going on in the first century that God also found disgusting. When Jesus entered the temple after his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he says the temple establishment is making it into a “den of robbers,” quoting a passage from Jeremiah that speaks of abominations going on in the temple itself:

“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things [to’ebah]? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!” declares the Lord. (Jer 7:9–11)

Jesus is saying that, just as the old temple was destroyed because the Israelites thought they could do whatever they wanted there and God would look the other way, so the temple of his day would be destroyed because the Jewish leaders blatantly disobeyed God in the temple itself through their greed. It’s a good reminder that religious activity is not what God wants. What does God really require? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).

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Nazareth, or Why Standing in the Exact Spot Is Overrated

This is the fifteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

After I returned from a trip to Israel last summer, I decided I would write a series of reflections on most places we visited before I forgot them all. Now it has been eight months since I got back, and over two months since I wrote the last post.

Life has been busy.

But entering the season of Lent, and beginning to look ahead to Good Friday and Easter, has made me want to pick up this task again. I last wrote about Mount Arbel, a quiet spot overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We visited there in the early afternoon of June 25, and from there we went to a rocky place along the Jordan, north of the Sea of Galilee, where three of our group were baptized. That evening, we went on a boat out onto the sea itself. The next morning, we packed up and left our hotel in Tiberias. Our first stop of the day was Nazareth (sort of).

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June 26, AM

I say “sort of” because we didn’t actually go to Nazareth. Nazareth is a modern city, and while there are churches built on various holy spots, it doesn’t look like the ancient Nazareth where Jesus grew up. So Tim, our leader, took us to a hillside that in ancient times lay somewhere between the Jewish town of Nazareth and the Roman city of Sepphoris, a few miles to the northwest.

The reason Tim took us there is that this site was apparently once a quarry. While Jesus is normally thought of as a carpenter (the common translation of Mark 6:3), the Greek word used to describe him is tektōn.tektōn could have been a skilled worker in a number of building materials, which may have included wood but also stone or metal. Tim asked us to imagine Jesus coming out here as a tektōn, working with the stone that would have gone to buildings in Nazareth or Sepphoris.

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This place may have seemed a little farther removed from history than some of the other places we visited, where there is greater certainty that Jesus or some great biblical figure was very close. That is true, but this entire trip the idea was to travel as pilgrims, not as tourists. A tourist, camera always at the ready, would care more about standing in the exact spot where something happened, but a pilgrim is different. Pilgrims are more interested in having a closer experience of God, whether they are standing in the exact spot or not.

A few days ago I listened to a podcast from New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, where he was talking about a recent trip to Israel he had taken with a group of students. On the podcast, he sums up what sets pilgrims apart from tourists (as well as archaeologists and historians):

Sometimes we can get a little negative about people going to these places because they believe that is exactly where Jesus was born, or where he died, and we can throw up historical dust into the eyes of people and say, “We’re not for sure.”

I think that we need to distinguish between a tourist, an archaeologist/historian, and a pilgrim. A tourist is curious. We’re over there trying to see things. We’re there to see, to take pictures, to take selfies, to remember. An archaeologist/historian is going to toss the dust up and say “We’re not sure, we’re not sure, we’re not sure.” But the pilgrim doesn’t care that much if it is the precise location because they’ve come to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or the temple in Jerusalem, or the Mount of Olives, or Gethsemane, or Capernaum, or Nazareth, or Sepphoris because they think it is a thin place, and they’ve come to pray and to seek God. …

We need to recognize that space can sometimes become a thin place, a thin space where we encounter God.

McKnight talks about “thin places”—an idea that originated in Celtic Christianity to describe physical places where a person can have a fuller sense of who God is. This idea can be, and has been, abused, with people believing relics from that place have magical properties and charging large fees to enter and so on. At its best, though, I think there’s a lot of truth to this idea of thin places.

There are thin places that invite reflection and meditation—places where you feel closer to the heavenly realm where God and his angels reside. These thin places are not so much about standing in the exact spot where something happened long ago, trying to document every inch of it. They are, for me anyway, more about being in the same area where God performed a great work, understanding that it was an ordinary place that is much like the place where you live. They are places where you realize that the same God is still working his purposes in the world and inviting people to listen and join in with what he is doing.

P.S.—In case you’re interested, here is the podcast I referenced above. The quote starts at about the 12-minute mark.

Arbel and the Balance of Community and Solitude

This is the fourteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 25, PM

After leaving the impressive ruins of Beth Shan, our group went north to Mount Arbel, which is just west of the Sea of Galilee. There we had lunch (our standard bologna pitas) and then walked out to the east end of the mountain, where we could see a panoramic view of much of Galilee.

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Though this mountain isn’t mentioned by name in the New Testament, Tim sat us down at the overlook and talked about the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:32–56). He believes that, afterward, Mount Arbel is probably the solitary mountain where Jesus went up to pray (Matt 14:23; Mark 6:46). He reasoned that it is the largest mountain in the area, and its name means “mountain of God.” After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus wanted to be alone to pray, and he prayed all night. If he were on Arbel, he would have been able to see the disciples out on the lake. Then, in the early morning, he went out to them on foot.

fullsizeoutput_2732It’s certainly possible that Arbel was the place where Jesus went to pray, especially since the Gospels are unclear about where the feeding of the 5,000 took place. Luke seems to set it in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), though Mark says the disciples left to go to Bethsaida afterward (Mark 6:45). John says the disciples set out for Capernaum afterward (John 6:17); Matthew just says “the other side” (Matt 14:22), and both Matthew and Mark say they ended up at Gennesaret (Matt 14:34; Mark 6:53). I don’t ascribe much importance to these kinds of geographic puzzles one sometimes finds in the Gospels, though. They can usually be chalked up to the Gospel writers not caring as much about geography as modern people do, modern people not always knowing how ancient people used place names, or both.

At any rate, Jesus withdrew to a mountainside after feeding the 5,000, and Arbel is as good a place as any for this to have happened. In fact, even if Jesus didn’t go to the top of Arbel on this particular occasion, it’s hard to believe that he never went there. It is, after all, the highest spot for miles around, and it had a reputation for being a special spot for communing with God. It may also be the site of the Great Commission, which is said to have taken place on a mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16).

So after Tim’s talk, most of the group climbed down the north side of the mountain. It was a steep descent, and it was 100 degrees that afternoon, so we had the option of going down that way or returning to the bus the way we had come. I decided, after hearing about Jesus’ withdrawing to pray, I wanted to spend some time in solitude instead. After waiting for most of the group to disperse, I meandered across the mountain by myself and prayed, with the only sounds I heard coming from the rustling grass and the goats at the base of the mountain.

fullsizeoutput_272eAfter leaving Arbel, we drove to a spot on the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee. We had to search around to find a spot, since it was Sabbath and there were quite a few people enjoying the Sabbath along the river. On the way, as our driver tried to navigate a series of hairpin turns, the bus stopped and our Israeli guide Ariel got out. He opened the luggage bay underneath us, got out a rock the size of a large throw pillow, and laid it next to the road. With the extra bit of traction, the bus was able to proceed.

When we got there, three of our group were baptized, first giving their testimonies of how they came to know God and what he has meant to them. After the baptisms, all of us had the opportunity to remember our own baptism. Though the rocks were slippery and there was only about two feet of water, we had a wonderful time of meditation on what it has meant for us that Jesus has called us to follow him. Then we finished the day by going out on the Sea of Galilee in a boat.

This was a day when I thought a lot about the interplay between solitude and community. I’ve always enjoyed solitude; when I read Henri Nouwen’s short book Out of Solitude many years ago it spoke to me because I often find it easier to communicate with God, to feel his presence, in solitude and silence. I loved the group experience of this trip, but I relished those times, like up on Arbel, where I had the chance to be alone for a moment.

But I’m also prone to overdo the solitude thing. Nouwen writes that it is in solitude that Jesus found the courage to do his Father’s will. His time in solitude drove him back out to service in the world. If I were him, I would have wanted to stay up on the mountain, but that would have defeated the purpose of solitude.

I’ve done it enough times to know that when I don’t let solitude drive me out to engagement, I can get anxious or depressed. I can start to soothe myself and fill time by eating or watching stupid television or listening to podcasts I’m not even excited about. What I really need is to listen closely for when I’m being pushed back out into the world, and let solitude lead me into greater caring and greater engagement with community.

Beth Shan and Looking for the Unimpressive

This is the thirteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 25 AM

On the day after going north of the Sea of Galilee to the Golan Heights, we went south 12 miles to a place that was called Beth Shan in the Old Testament. It was in Egyptian hands for a long time, and then occupied by the Canaanites during and after the arrival of the Israelites (Josh 17:16). It was in possession of the Philistines during the early Israelite monarchy; the bodies of Saul and his sons were hung on the city wall there after their deaths (1 Sam 31:11–13).

Our bus let us out near the base of the north side of the tell and we walked up to the top, where we were met with a view of the impressive Greek and Roman city that later grew there, called Scythopolis. It is not mentioned by name in the New Testament, though during that time it was the westernmost city of the Decapolis, the only one west of the Jordan River (Matt 4:25). It is mentioned a few times in the Apocrypha (Jdt 3;10; 2 Macc 12:29–30). It later became a center of Christianity, was conquered by a Muslim invasion of 634, and was destroyed by an earthquake in 749. The area continued to be occupied, and the name of the ancient city is preserved in the modern town of Beit She’an.

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This site is much grander than the little fishing villages like Capernaum and Chorazin where Jesus spent much of his ministry. There was a bath house, an amphitheater, and many public buildings and temples. As we walked through the excavated town, I reflected on how even the most impressive societies can come to ruin.

I grew up in the evangelical Christian subculture in the United States (and when I say “evangelical” I’m not talking about a voting bloc but a group, found across different denominations, that has a particular focus on the cross, the Bible, conversion, and active participation in God’s mission in the world). The evangelical subculture is often the opposite of impressive. With some exceptions, much of the art has been derivative and kitschy, and the intellectuals among us have lamented how evangelicals as a whole can be anti-intellectual (though Mark Noll has more recently expressed hope regarding evangelical scholarship).

fullsizeoutput_272cBecause my first experience of Christianity was as part of a subculture, I have received over and over, both explicitly and implicitly, the message that Christianity is something that you are supposed to leave behind when you gain an understanding of the world outside that subculture. You’re supposed to grow up in the church, and then when you become an adult, you realize the world is more complicated than you originally thought and leave Jesus behind.

Maybe because I’ve always had a contrarian streak, I have never been comfortable with this assumption. In fact, I have gone the other way: when I realized that there was a bigger world outside my subculture, I decided to go deeper—not back into my subculture, but into Jesus and the broad, deep story of his church. And I discovered that not only was he bigger than the subculture I had been a part of, but he was big enough to encompass the wider world.

is737Our group leader, Tim, reflected that there are impressive stones at Scythopolis, but the Bible says we who follow Jesus are living stones (1 Pet 2:4–5). We are a place that says to the world, “The presence of God is here”—a temple. This temple may not be outwardly impressive in the eyes of the world, but neither was Jesus. Neither were the little fishing villages where he spent most of his time compared to the glittering Scythopolis.

When I see a place like Scythopolis, I think of the culture that currently holds sway, that I feel pressure to conform to. I realize that this culture that seems so powerful now will be gone soon. There are many wonderful things about the United States and its culture, but it will not last forever. Jesus and the group of people he gathered around himself came before it, and will remain after it.

I encourage you, then, to look for the little and seemingly unimportant ways in which God likes to work. Advent is a perfect time to do that, as we reflect on how Jesus came not as a powerful king but as a baby born into poverty and scandal.

Caesarea Philippi and the Gates of Hell

This is the twelfth post in a series of reflections on my recent trip to Israel (to read them all, click here).

June 24 PM

On our day in the Golan Heights, we went north all the way until we reached a place called Banias, near the foot of Mount Hermon. Today it is part of the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve.

In Old Testament times, this area was the northernmost part of the region of Bashan. When the Israelites took over the area from the Canaanites, the tribe of Dan established a city there that they called Dan. When it was given to Herod Philip in New Testament times, he renamed it Caesarea Philippi.

In both the Old and New Testaments, it was a center of pagan worship. Mount Hermon itself had been called Baal Hermon after the Canaanite storm god Baal, who was said to live on the mountain (Judg 3:3) . Even after the Israelites took it over from the Canaanites, an Israelite king set up a worship center there with a golden calf (1 Kgs 12:25–33). There was a temple dedicated to Pan there in New Testament times, as well as a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus. Pan was a symbol of fertility, and there was a statue of Pan with a huge removable penis that would be paraded around during festivals.

The Romans called this place the rock of the gods.

Jesus called it the gates of Hades.

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In Matthew 16:13–23, Jesus took his disciples up to Caesarea Philippi. There he asked them who people were saying he was. After they listed a few options (John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah), he asked him who they thought he was. Peter, never one to hesitate, said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus responded, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18).

What are the gates of Hades? There have been many different interpretations. After we took a look at the site and then found some shade, our guide, Tim, pointed us back to the grotto that had been associated with the worship of Pan. A stream used to come out of the grotto, but an earthquake has stopped it up. It was believed in ancient times that this grotto contained access to the underworld.

If the “gates of Hades” might well have referred to their physical location, then what about “this rock”? The two most common interpretations of “this rock” are Peter himself and Peter’s confession in verse 16. The first interpretation is embraced by Catholics, who regard Peter as the first pope, and also some Protestants, who regard this as a reference to Peter’s prominence in the early church. The second interpretation instead says that the confession “Jesus is the Christ” is the foundation of the church.

fullsizeoutput_2713Tim argued that the “this rock” Jesus spoke of was neither Peter himself nor his confession, but the place where they were standing at the time. This interpretation is also set forth in the Lexham Geographic Commentary (a resource from my employer that came out this year, but is currently only available in some Logos Bible Software base packages):

In light of the massive rock scarp against which Caesarea Philippi was built and into which were hewn images of dead gods and goddesses, Jesus may have been using petra  [“rock”] to refer to the worldviews represented in that rock face. They appeared to be insurmountable but, here, Jesus was declared to be the Living God. In other words, this encounter represented a stinging condemnation of all forms of pagan worship. This is even more dramatic in light of the layers of religious history that had accumulated here. …

For Jesus to own in Caesarea Philippi the titles Son of the living God as well as Son of Man would upend all of the pagan notions associated with the location. Further, Jesus soon commenced teaching them about a radically different death and resurrection from the myth that enshrouded the Baal narratives (Matt 16:21).

According to this interpretation, Jesus was standing with his disciples in a center of pagan worship and fascination with death—a focus of demonic activity. He was claiming that his church would be built on (or “against”) such places. Despite the pressure to conform to the ways of the world, Jesus is saying, his church would thrive. It is even viewed as the aggressor, coming against the gates of Hades to rescue people from its grip. Even places like Caesarea Philippi would not be able to prevail against his church.

As I write this post, I’m thinking about the results of the latest US election. How could I not? Over the last few days, I’ve listened to people’s reactions to the election of Donald Trump as president. Some have been triumphalistic, some have been cautiously optimistic, but most have been angry or despairing (maybe because I live in the bluest of blue states).

fullsizeoutput_2706I will not deligitimize other people’s responses, especially since I am in no sense a minority and am not feeling any existential threat based on what Trump or some of his supporters have said during his campaign. I don’t think there’s room for me to tell other people how to feel.

As a member of Christ’s church, though, I also don’t there is room for me to look to the results of elections as my source of either despair or joy. Yes, politics is important, and it is important to work to make government as just as it can be. But while important, politics are not ultimate. I cannot demonize people who might disagree with me politically; there are in fact real demons that I ought to be concerned with—demons that invite people to worship created things, and especially themselves, resulting in their destruction. As I look to the future, I need to ask, What is the gate I am facing? And am I attacking it for the kingdom of God—not doing so triumphalistically but following the self-sacrificial way of Christ—or retreating into comfort and passivity?

Gamla, Masada, and Symbolism

It’s been over a month since my last post about my trip to Israel last summer, but it’s a rainy day and my wife is out of town, so now is as good a time as any to get back to it. This is the eleventh such post (to read them all, click here).

June 24 AM

On our second day in Galilee, we went east of the Sea of Galilee and into the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Before then it belonged to Syria, and this is as close to Syria as we would get on this trip. I remember one of the mornings we were in Galilee I got up early and sat on the west side of the sea at our hotel. In the quiet, I could hear booming across the water. I don’t know for sure that these were the sounds of the long civil war going on in Syria, but that may have been what I was hearing.

Our first stop in the Golan Heights was the site of an ancient town called Gamla. The name comes from the Hebrew word for “camel,” and the town got that name because it was built on a ridge that looks like a camel’s hump.

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Gamla. The Sea of Galilee is in the upper right.

Gamla is not mentioned in the Bible, but in the years leading up to the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66–70) it was a hotbed of Zealot activity. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus records that the Romans attacked and destroyed the town in 67 (Jewish War 4.1–83). Josephus himself was present with the Roman general Vespasian when the town was taken.

It is especially significant to those who are interested in biblical archaeology because a Jewish synagogue was found there. Since it was destroyed in 67 and left untouched for almost 2,000 years, it sheds light on what Jewish synagogue life was like in Jesus’ day. It is even possible that Jesus visited this synagogue in the course of his itinerant ministry in Galilee.

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Our group in the synagogue at Gamla. Tim has on a Jewish prayer shawl.

As we sat in the synagogue at Gamla, Tim, our guide, talked to us about the Zealots. At least one of Jesus’ disciples was a Zealot (Simon the Zealot), and Judas Iscariot might have been one as well (“Iscariot” might be a reference to the sicarii, “dagger bearers,” a subgroup of the Zealots who were part of fomenting the revolt against Rome. However, scholars are not united on this interpretation.) At the same time that Jesus called people who were adamantly opposed to the Roman occupation, however, he also called Matthew, a tax collector who was working for Rome. It is amazing to think that Jesus was able to transcend such deep political differences among his disciples. As deep as political differences are in our own day, there is hope that they can be transcended.

This was not the only site related to the First Jewish Revolt that we visited. Two days before, on the morning of June 22, we visited Masada, the famous fortress by the Dead Sea where the last of the Jewish rebels were defeated by the Romans in AD 73 (the end of the revolt is often given the date of AD 70, since that is when the temple was destroyed, but the Romans didn’t get around to crushing the last of the revolt for another three years).

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From the top of Masada, you can still see the rectangular ruins of the Roman camps all around.

It was striking to me, visiting Gamla and Masada, how symbols can mean different things to different people. Both places, but especially Masada, are now symbols of Jewish pride and heroism. There is a sentiment in Israel, expressed to us by our Israeli tour guide Ariel, that “Masada will not fall again.” While both places were ultimately conquered by the Romans, the Jews who were fighting there did not surrender.

For readers of the New Testament, on the other hand, the entire First Jewish Revolt is a symbol of the refusal to accept the way of Jesus. I think not only of Jesus’ predictions that the temple would be destroyed, but also of his words toward the end of his public ministry: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate” (Matt 23:37–38).

All this makes me think about symbols and how they are interpreted differently. Premkumar Williams wrote this in an essay in a book called Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends:

Symbols can be very potent in the way they bring order to our seemingly chaotic experiences and give them appropriate meaning. At a ball game, the singing of the national anthem might mean more to a veteran than to the person next to him. His training and time spent away from home, views on life and sacrifice, scars and skirmishes, all are brought to attention when he stands with his hand over his heart. By itself, the anthem is but a piece of music, but for him (and many others) it is a potent symbol. Shared memories and experiences are embodied in the symbols that accompany a healthy community. Recalling a common past is a significant way to re-member (put the body back together) who we are. (125–126)

“Recalling a common past” through symbols helps to bind a group together, but sometimes it leads to blind spots. What if the national anthem means different things to different people, the way Masada is a symbol of heroism to some and foolish pride to others? I don’t want to minimize the importance of symbols; I think it’s impossible to live without them. But I do think that recognizing that symbols mean different things to different people is a way to exercise humility and be open to hearing the experiences of others. You may still disagree with each other in the end about the nature of reality and the way to move forward (I still believe in the New Testament interpretation of the First Jewish Revolt rather than the modern Israeli one), but seeking to understand how symbols operate can minimize blind spots and give you a fuller understanding of reality.

Galilee and the God of the Ordinary

This is the tenth post in a series of reflections on my recent trip to Israel (to read them all, click here).

June 23

On our first morning in Galilee, we took a bus from our hotel in Tiberias up to the Mount of Beatitudes. The bus dropped us off next to the Church of the Beatitudes, but we didn’t go inside. Instead, we walked out to a place on the hill where we had a panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee and sat down on some black rocks. One by one, five members of our group stood up and recited the Sermon on the Mount.

Is510Afterward we visited the site of Capernaum, which served as Jesus’ headquarters during his Galilean ministry. It is home to a synagogue from the fourth century, which was built on top of a previous synagogue that dates to the time of Jesus.

Close to the synagogue is a house that many scholars believe was Peter’s house. Today there is a church built above it, though the remains of the house are still visible underneath. The shore of the Sea of Galilee is not far away.

Is524Our third stop that morning was Chorazin, another one of the small Galilean towns where Jesus spent much of his ministry. Then, after stopping for some falafel, we went to Qatzrin, a reconstructed Israelite village. Our group leader, Tim, took us there so we could have a better idea of what ancient villages really looked like, including intact rooms and thatched roofs held up by wood beams. We sat inside a house for a bit while Tim recounted for us the story of the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof.

In all these places, I was struck by how ordinary they were. There were no grand edifices, no soaring temples that would give you a sense of the grandness of God by their beauty and spaciousness. The Mount of Beatitudes is an average-looking hillside. Capernaum and Chorazin weren’t very big towns.They were achingly average, and yet some people want to see them so badly that they will dig up their remains, and other people will fly across the planet to stand on those remains. These places were infused with meaning and made significant by the things that happened there.

Last weekend I saw the movie Don’t Think Twice, about an improv troupe where one of the members gets chosen for the cast of a “Saturday Night Live”-style show. When he becomes successful, the group has to deal with the repercussions of his newfound fame, including deciding whether it is worth it for them to continue pursuing that kind of success. One of the interesting things about the movie was that “making it,” being successful in the eyes of the world, is not always all it’s cracked up to be. Often, toiling away in obscurity, doing something you think is worthwhile and meaningful with your friends, is much better. Mike Birbiglia, who wrote and starred in the movie, said as much in an essay in the New York Times:

Forget the gatekeepers. As far as I’m concerned, what you create in a 30-seat, hole-in-the-wall improv theater in Phoenix can be far more meaningful than a mediocre sitcom being half-watched by seven million people. America doesn’t need more stuff. We need more great stuff. You could make that.

This is a principle that applies to more than just performing. The most significant things are often done out of the limelight, in an obscure place. Not only that, but they can often only be done there. Jesus knew this. He did not want to be a public figure; he wanted to do what he saw his Father doing. The fact that Jesus’ own brothers assumed he wanted to be famous was a sign that they didn’t believe in him:

When the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him. (John 7:2–5)

Seeing the ordinariness of the places where Jesus spent so much of his time had a huge impact on me. I knew in theory that they were small, but standing there and looking around brought me to a new level of awareness. And it made me question some of the ways in which I unconsciously go along with the way the world sees things: assuming that hidden acts in small places are therefore insignificant.

Too often, I think I assume that the only sign of significance is drawing a crowd (for example, how many people read this blog post). Is this assumption keeping me from doing something that has value in itself, apart from how many people see it? How can I pursue fidelity and excellence where I am, doing stuff that is, in Birbiglia’s words, “small but great,” and not caring about being successful or admired in the world’s eyes?

 

Arad and Contextualization

June 22, PM

This is the ninth post in a series of reflections on my recent trip to Israel (to read them all, click here).

Our group’s last stop of the afternoon, before getting on the bus and heading north along the Jordan River Valley to Galilee, was at the top of a windy hill. To the south you could see the city of Arad. It turns out what used to be on top of that hill was a southern Judean border town also called Arad. It is not unusual for a city bearing the name of an ancient one to be built in the same vicinity, but not quite the same spot.

Is4091The most interesting find at Arad is a temple that bore some similarity to the one in Jerusalem. There was an altar in a courtyard (with the same dimensions as the one in Exod 27:1), a holy place, and a holy of holies, where a tablet and two small incense altars were found. This temple, which seems to have been dedicated to the worship of Yahweh, was not destroyed or gradually dismantled. It was carefully buried. In the eighth century BC, King Hezekiah of Judah tried to centralize Yahweh worship in Jerusalem and put a stop to syncretism—worshiping Yahweh along with other gods. The burial may have been part of this reform, which is referenced in 2 Chronicles 32:11–12 (see also 2 Kgs 18:22; Isa 36:7; 2 Chr 31:1):

When Hezekiah says, “The Lord our God will save us from the hand of the king of Assyria,” he is misleading you, to let you die of hunger and thirst. Did not Hezekiah himself remove this god’s high places and altars, saying to Judah and Jerusalem, “You must worship before one altar and burn sacrifices on it”?

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The altar, in case you can’t tell from the interpretive sign on the right, is in the foreground

As we sat in what used to be the courtyard of this temple, our tour leader, Tim, talked to us about the ancient practice of sacrifice. Why did the Israelites sacrifice animals? I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the typical Christian answer to this question: “It foreshadowed Jesus’ perfect sacrifice.” Well, sure. The New Testament, especially the book of Hebrews, tells us that. But even though we now know these sacrifices ultimately found their fulfillment in Jesus, it’s still worthwhile to ask why the Israelites thought they were doing it. How did it make sense to them?

Tim’s answer was that sacrifices were signs and reminders of the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. Sacrifice was an aspect of covenants that was already part of ancient Near Eastern cultures. All the surrounding cultures made sacrifices to appease the gods. God included it in his covenant with Israel so they could understand what he was doing with them. He used something they knew from their culture. But as we see God doing in various other places in the Old Testament, he took up something people were familiar with and made subtle changes to it to make a point about how he differed from other gods.

One example of this is in Genesis 1:21, where God creates “great creatures of the sea.” In other cultures, these were sea monsters that represented chaos, and the same Hebrew word is translated “monster” elsewhere in the Old Testament (Job 7:12; Isa 27:1). In the Genesis creation story, though, great frightening monsters are no threat to God; he makes them cavort in the sea.

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The holy of holies is in the foreground, with the holy place and the courtyard beyond

There were likely other things going on with regard to the significance of sacrifices in the Old Testament, and there are many scholarly rabbit holes to go down. I went down some of them while I was thinking about this blog post, which is why there is a gap of several days between this post and the previous one. In the end, I decided that I just couldn’t do a good job of addressing that question here.

What I’ll say instead is that Arad reminded me that God loves to contextualize. He loves to condescend, to speak to us in terms we can understand, in ways that both use and challenge our cultural patterns of thought.When it comes to sacrifice, while other cultures saw it as a way to feed their gods, it does not appear to have been the case in Israel. The one God does not need people to feed him or sustain him. He used ancient ways of seeing the world to reveal himself, but staying within those cultural thought forms was not the goal. Showing himself to people, having a relationship with them, was the goal.

This is part of the reason why Jesus had such trouble with religious authorities who were so focused on following rules that they missed the heart of God behind those rules. It wasn’t that rules were bad. Jesus himself appears to have been a good first-century Jewish man who followed the rules. The conflict lay in the fact that Jesus’ religious opponents used the rules as a means of self-justification. But even though Jesus followed the rules, people who were very different from him—people who were not good at following the rules—were attracted to him. They wanted to be with him because he was primarily focused on what the law was intended to do: reveal God’s loving heart to them. It makes me wonder: Am I adopting a cultural pattern of thought that God is challenging? How can I speak to people in a way they will understand?

Ein Gedi and Water

This is the eighth post in a series of reflections on my recent trip to Israel (to read them all, click here).

June 22, AM

bottle-and-glassOn the morning after hiking in the dry Wadi Qelt, we went to a place where water was abundant. Ein Gedi is on the west side of the Dead Sea, and its name means “goat spring.” Now they bottle some of the water that emerges from the ground here, and every day in the aisle of our bus there were packs of two-liter bottles of Ein Gedi water to fill up our hydration packs.

Ein Gedi is a national park and nature preserve. The first things we noticed when we got there were all the hyraxes and ibexes hanging around near the trail. Hyraxes look kind of like guinea pigs, but their closest relatives are the elephant and the manatee.

(At least that’s what the scientists tell us. But it’s possible a group of fun-loving scientists might have gotten together and said, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we told everybody these cute little fuzzy creatures were related to elephants? They’d have to believe us. We’re scientists.” Then, after a good giggle, they got back to applying for grants to study the effects that prolonged exposure to sunshine and tropical drinks have on scientists.)

Also, according to Leviticus 11:5, hyraxes are not kosher, which explains why we didn’t see any barbecued hyrax at any of the hotel buffets we visited.

At Ein Gedi we sat near nahal david, “David’s stream.” There our group leader, Tim, talked to us about David’s time here 3000 years ago, described in 1 Samuel 24. David was hiding from King Saul, who was jealous of him and trying to kill him. When Saul went into a cave to relieve himself, David had the opportunity to kill him but cut a corner off Saul’s robe instead. Then it says David was conscience-stricken, but at first it doesn’t seem like he did anything wrong. And when he found out about what had happened, Saul told David, “I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands” (1 Sam 24:20). Why?

Is4008Tim told us that in Numbers 15:38, the Israelites were commanded to wear tassels on the end of their robes. These were called tzitzit. Jacob Milgrom writes in the JPS Commentary on Numbers: “The nature of tsitsit is illuminated by the literature and art of the ancient Near East, which shows that the hem was ornate in comparison with the rest of the outer robe. The more important the individual, the more elaborate the embroidery of his hem. Its significance lies not in its artistry but in its symbolism as an extension of its owner’s person and authority.” [1]

Tim told us (and Milgrom agrees, though surprisingly you don’t hear this opinion from many non-Jewish interpreters) that what David cut off was the tzitzit, the symbol of Saul’s authority. This is why, after he cut it, David was conscience-stricken. Milgrom writes of this story: “What was the reason for David’s remorse and for Saul’s response? The answer rests in the meaning of the hem: It was an extension of Saul’s person and authority. David felt remorse in taking it because God had not so ordered. Saul, however, regarded it as a sign from God that his authority had been transferred to David: He was now cut off from the throne.” Tim also mentioned that the idea of a tzitzit as a symbol of authority sheds light on a New Testament story. The woman with the flow of blood touched the “edge” of Jesus’ garment and was healed. She likely touched his tzitzit (Luke 8:43–48).

In addition to David’s time at Ein Gedi, Tim also talked about water as a symbol of God. He spoke about the water-drawing ceremony (called simchat beit hashoeivah) that was part of Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles. Every day during the seven-day feast, a priest would take water in a jug from the Pool of Siloam, south of the Temple Mount. He led a procession to the temple, where he would pour it in a basin on the altar. On the last day of the feast he would walk around the altar seven times before pouring it out while a choir sang the Hallel (Psalms 113–118). This ceremony commemorated God’s provision of water in the past, and looked ahead to future rain (see Zech 14:16–17). It also looked ahead even further, to the pouring out of living waters foretold by Zechariah 13:1: “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

When Jesus was at the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, he called out during this ceremony, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37–38). He was saying, in effect, that he was what this ceremony was looking forward to. He was the answer to their prayers.

Is4010At the end of our time there, Tim asked, “If life can sometimes be a desert, why do we only dip our toe in the water? Why don’t we have a deeper experience of the water source? Why only a little taste?” I think the reason I don’t often have a fuller experience of living water is that I like to keep up the illusion of control. We’re helpless when we enter this world, and we’re often helpless just before we leave, but for a long stretch in the middle we can pretend that we can make it on our own, that we’re not absolutely helpless and dependent. Letting go of whatever scraps of pretended control I’m clinging to feels scary. I’m made to live by faith, but much of the time I resist and make life harder than it needs to be. I’d rather stay in the desert that I’ve deceived myself into believing I can control than be carried along in living water.

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 410.

Ain’t No Wadi Like a West Bank Wadi

… cause a West Bank wadi is hot.

This is the seventh post in a series of reflections on my recent trip to Israel (to read them all, click here).

On the morning of June 21, our group headed north from our hotel along the Dead Sea and into the West Bank. We went for a long hike along the Wadi Qelt (also known as the Prat River), which begins near Jerusalem, runs east through the West Bank, and empties into the Jordan River near Jericho.

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The focus of this hike was on experiencing the Judean wilderness. Traditionally, this is where Jesus was tempted for forty days (Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). It is also the area where, in Jesus’ parable, a man who was beaten and left to die by robbers was rescued by a Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37). There are remains of an aqueduct along the Wadi Qelt that Herod the Great built to bring water to his palace near Jericho. In later times, desert-dwelling Christian monks were drawn to live there, and it is today home to Saint George’s Orthodox Monastery.

Along the hike our group leader, Tim, had us sit down on a sunny hillside above the wadi and talked to us about the significance of shade in the Bible. In our culture, shadows often evoke something sinister, but in the arid climate of Israel they were an image of protection. Sometimes the Hebrew word for shade or shadow (tsel) is even translated “protection,” as in Numbers 14:9 niv: “Do not be afraid of the people of the land. … Their protection [tsel] is gone, but the Lord is with us.”

Is332God himself is represented in Scripture by tsel. Several psalms talk about taking refuge in the shadow of God’s wings (Pss 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7). Others call God tsel more directly: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps 91:1); “The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand” (Ps 121:5).

The imagery of shade as protection, and God as shade, was driven home to us on this hike. The sun beat down on us, and there were few plants or rocks big enough to provide shade. In Tim’s talk, he pointed out that we often get just enough shade in life to keep going. God doesn’t promise that life will be easy, but he does promise that he will serve as shade. Also, when we are in the wilderness we are not alone. Jesus has entered the wilderness with us, and has gone ahead of us, enduring testing on our behalf. He keeps us going so we can provide shade for others.

Tim ended his talk by asking us, when we got home, to ask those close to us whether we provided shade for them. In fact, we would be given the opportunity to provide shade for one another before the end of the hike. Soon after Tim’s talk, a few in the group began having trouble with the heat and had to slow down and take frequent breaks from walking. The group became stretched out along the trail, with several people staying behind to assist those who were struggling.

At one point we began to descend a rocky hillside, and the path was not always clear. I saw that if I kept up with the first group, the people behind would not be able to see the way easily. So I stopped and sat down on the hillside in the sun by myself. I don’t know how long it was; maybe just five minutes. But it was long enough for me to reflect on Jesus’ temptation in this harsh wilderness to be spectacular, to be relevant, to do what messiahs did by giving people what they wanted—and his resistance to that temptation.

Is343I don’t think stopping and waiting was especially heroic; just about everyone in our group who was able to help someone else did so in one way or another. But I do think that stopping and waiting when I had the ability and inclination to go on was crucial for me. That moment of deciding to serve was a pivotal point of the trip, and I think many others in the group had similar moments on that hike.

Later that night (after visiting the ministry Seeds of Hope in Jericho and then taking a dip in the Dead Sea), I wrote this on the GTI Tours blog:

Like so many wildernesses in the Bible, the Judean wilderness is a place of testing. … As we hiked, many of us were tested by the heat, by the terrain, and by our own tired bodies.

But wildernesses are also places where God reveals himself, where he proves to be a refuge for his people. David hid out in the wilderness when Saul was trying to kill him. John the Baptist announced his message in the wilderness, quoting Isaiah: “in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord” (Isa 40:3). When we’re tested, it is tempting to respond by digging deeper into ourselves, trying to pass the test using our own intelligence and determination, not letting others know the degree to which we need help. But while intelligence and determination are two of God’s gifts to us, he didn’t make us to get by on those alone. He made us to rely on him, and on others whom he has placed in our lives.

We all find ourselves in the wilderness at one time or another. I pray that God will help me to show compassion to those who might be in a wilderness that isn’t readily visible to other people. And when I’m in my own wilderness, to not rely on my own intelligence and determination but to ask for the help of both God and other people.