The Southern Steps and the Wailing Wall

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

June 28 AM

After emerging from Hezekiah’s Tunnel and taking vans back up toward the Temple Mount, our group made our way to the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall through an ancient sewer. I’m still not sure why we went through a sewer to get there, but it was kind of neat. It didn’t smell like a sewer, at any rate.


At the base of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, we could see heavy stones scattered on the ground, some of them possibly right where they fell when the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70. Above us was what is left of Robinson’s Arch. To our left, and up, was the entrance to the Western (or Wailing) Wall. One of the stones on the ground in front of us was a replica of the top corner stone from the Temple Mount that had fallen among the others. On it were carved instructions that indicated a shofar was to be blown from there at various times such as the beginning of the Sabbath. The original is in the Israel Museum.


From the southwest corner we made our way east to the Southern Steps, which were where the main entrance to the temple was in Jesus’ day. As we walked we heard a haunting, guttural call to prayer from the gray-domed al-Aqsa Mosque above us. At first it was hard to know what it was; the loudspeakers distorted it so that it hardly seemed like a human voice. It may also be that it sounded strange because we were hearing multiple calls to prayer from other mosques in the area.

fullsizeoutput_277fAfter walking around on the Southern Steps and looking at the gates that had been closed up there, we went back around the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, where we had lunch before we went through security to enter the area next to the Wailing Wall. Before I went, I was a little confused about what the Wailing Wall was, so I’ll explain it here. It is one section of the western side of the retaining wall around the Temple Mount. It isn’t all that remains of the temple, but it is the closest place that Jews can get to where the temple used to be and pray. On the Temple Mount itself, only Muslims are technically allowed to pray.


Inside the area, there are separate spaces for men and women, with the men’s area being larger. When we were there, most of the people were Jewish, with a few other non-Jews like us sprinkled in. Anyone who wants to can go up and touch the wall and pray, and find a crack to insert a written prayer. Before approaching to pray, Jews wash in ceremonial basins that are set back from the wall. I went up to the wall, touched it, and prayed, but I didn’t write a prayer down to leave in the cracks.

After spending some time there, several of our group walked back to our hotel through the Muslim Quarter, stopping to get a smoothie along the way. Later that afternoon I would go back out and walk along the Via Dolorosa by myself, and we would have our farewell dinner at a rooftop restaurant and gather once more back at the hotel to share our reflections on the trip, but the official itinerary of our trip ended at the Wailing Wall—so I’ll end my reflections here too.

fullsizeoutput_2859As I mentioned when I wrote about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I found myself conflicted over what it meant for me to visit the Wailing Wall. On the one hand, I think it’s entirely plausible that this is very close to where the ancient temple was, and in it the holy of holies where the God of Israel manifested his presence in a special way. It’s a significant place because of that fact alone.

Yet as a Christian who believes that Jesus is the true temple, the fullest manifestation of God’s presence there has ever been in the world (Matt 12:6), and that his church, united to him by his Spirit, is also the true temple of God (1 Cor 3:16–17), I do not believe that anyone needs to come to the Wailing Wall in order to get closer to God or have his ear. When Jesus came, the temple became redundant. God’s presence is not closer here than it is anywhere else.

So here is where I get into my opinions on geopolitics, which I haven’t really shared during this series describing my trip to Israel. While some Christians believe in an end-times scenario that requires the temple to be rebuilt, I do not. While I do believe that Jesus will return, I don’t think he requires the temple to be rebuilt, or Jews to be occupying the land of Israel, for that to happen. That is based on a particular interpretation of biblical prophetic texts that I disagree with. I think there are pragmatic reasons for the United States to be allied with Israel (they’re a representative democracy in the Middle East, they’re probably a nuclear power, etc.), but not theological ones.

I think it’s important to clarify this because just couple of weeks ago I overheard a man in a restaurant discussing President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The man in the restaurant said that all Christians believed Jerusalem is the capital and the temple should be rebuilt. But he’s wrong.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I think that decisions in this matter should be made out of concern for justice and the flourishing of all people involved, not because certain actions would fulfill prophecies. I believe there are no prophecies of Christ’s return that depend on Jerusalem being the capital or the temple being rebuilt for their fulfillment.

Nevertheless, in this Christmas season where we celebrate Christ’s first advent, I still look forward to his return and pray with the early church: Marana tha! (Come, Lord)! (1 Cor 16:22)


Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the Pool of Siloam

This is the twenty-third post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

Leaving the calm environs of Saint Anne’s, our group walked outside the east wall of the Old City through the Lions’ Gate. The day was cloudy, and cooler than pretty much any other day of the trip so far. Once outside, we made our way south, with the wall of the Temple Mount on our right and the Kidron Valley on our left.

There is now a Muslim cemetery in this area, but also a walkway that allows you to pass on through without having to weave in and out of tombstones. This pathway took us past the Golden Gate, walled up since the Middle Ages.


At the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, our group leader, Tim, stopped us and pointed out the differences between the stones of the wall around the Temple Mount. The smaller stones toward the top date to the Middle Ages, and the larger stones below date to Herod’s temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.


Once past the southern edge of the Temple Mount, we arrived at a narrow hill running north-south called the City of David. The City of David contains ruins that have been labeled the Royal Quarter. This may include the palaces built by David and Solomon, though I think that hasn’t been established definitively. When we got there our Israeli tour guide, Ariel, told us about what had been excavated there.

For us, the main point of interest in the City of David was the Siloam Tunnel, also known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel after the eighth century BC king of Judah who likely had it built between the Gihon Spring and the Pool of Siloam (according to 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:2–5, 30). An inscription was found written on the walls of the tunnel that describes the day it was completed. The original inscription has been removed, but there is a copy of it inserted where the original used to be. Here is how it read:

[ … when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through:—While [ … ] (were) still [ … ] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.

—James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament , 3rd ed. with Supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 321.

The tunnel is open for people to walk through, and has cool water in it that ranges from the ankles to the knees. The height of the tunnel varies quite a bit. The clearance is very high in some places and requires stooping in others. There is also no light inside, so we all made sure we had sandals or water socks on, got out our flashlights, and trooped through single-file. It took about 20 minutes. We stopped at one point, turned off our flashlights, and sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”


(A couple of minutes later I jokingly suggested to Kurt, who was walking in front of me, that we sing the classic passing-the-time tune “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” which he proceeded to do. He was later blamed for this act of levity, so I want to make clear that I suggested it to him. And others joined in. You know who you are.)

At the western end of the tunnel is the Pool of Siloam, which, like the Pool of Bethesda, played a role in one of Jesus’ healings (he told a blind man to wash his eyes there in John 9:7). Thanks to this trip, I’ll never get them confused again. Unlike the Pool of Bethesda, though, this site is only partially excavated. The remainder of the original pool is located on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, and they have not given permission to dig.


I could probably say this about any of the sites we visited on this trip, but what struck me most about Hezekiah’s tunnel is that this is the stuff of real life. The ruler of a tiny ancient kingdom was worried about Assyria, the fiercest military power of his time, and wanted to prepare Jerusalem in advance of a possible siege. So he expanded the city wall in a certain spot and dug a tunnel to bring a water source inside the wall.

When the siege did eventually happen, in 701 BC, Hezekiah and Isaiah the prophet cried out to God, and the besieging army of Assyria was annihilated overnight. The tunnel Hezekiah had dug created a pool that was still there seven hundred years later when Jesus told a blind man he had just healed to go wash in it.

The sudden death of much of an army, the healing of a blind man—these are very unusual events. Miracles, even. But the Bible places them side-by-side with the kinds of things, like an engineering project, that we see every day. God acted in the midst of everyday life—and, I believe, continues to act. Am I looking for what he is doing?


Pool of Bethesda and Saint Anne’s

This is the twenty-second post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

First thing in the morning on the last full day of our pilgrimage to Israel, we gathered outside our hotel and made our way out the New Gate. Our first stop of the day was on the other side of the Old City in the Muslim Quarter, just north of the Temple Mount and close to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa.


We were here to visit what remains of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a lame man according to John chapter 5. It is quite large and deep, and you can descend the steps into it (there is very little water in it now).

After an introductory talk from our group leader, Tim, the group split up and poked around in the ruins for a few minutes while we tried to imagine what it would have been like to be at this pool when it was a gathering place for “the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” who were waiting for an angel to trouble the waters.


Then we went into Saint Anne’s Church, which is right next to the pool. It’s a medieval church built by Crusaders, and in virtually any description of Saint Anne’s in any tour book you will see a mention of its remarkable acoustics. When you enter the church, you have an overwhelming urge to sing. So we gathered in the space in front of the altar and did.


Then we went back outside to the leafy courtyard between the church and the street and split up into our “family groups”—bunches of about four people each that we always kept an eye out for when we moved from place to place so we didn’t lose anyone. We then spent some time sharing prayer requests and praying for each other.

This stop, with an ancient site right next to a medieval church, gave me a window into a very different kind of trip to Israel. Our trip was largely focused on archaeological sites, which I was very grateful for; I loved being able to walk around the ruins, feel the heat, and imagine what it would have been like to have been there during biblical events.

A different kind of trip would have focused more on Christian history—on the ways in which the church over the centuries has commemorated biblical events and taught about them. I’m glad our trip focused on archaeological sites, and I’m glad we got to go to some sites that you don’t always see on an Israel trip itinerary, like Arad. And we did visit a few churches—St. Anne’s, of course, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the church built over Peter’s house in Capernaum.

If I ever go back to Israel, though, I think it would be nice to supplement this first experience by exploring a few of the churches we didn’t make it into, like the Church of the Beatitudes or the Church of the Nativity.


Shrine of the Book and Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This is the twenty-first post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 PM

Once we got to Jerusalem, the hiking part of the trip was largely over. On this day, we had gone to the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Herodium, and Bethlehem, and had barely broken a sweat. The final stop in the afternoon was the air-conditioned and comfy Shrine of the Book, where several of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display along with the Aleppo Codex. The roof of the building looks like a lid on one of the clay jars where the famous scrolls were found.

fullsizeoutput_2764The Shrine of the Book is on the grounds of the Israel Museum, which is focused on art and archaeology. Also on the grounds, close to the Shrine of the Book, there is an open-air model of what first-century Jerusalem looked like before the revolt that began in AD 66 and ended in the destruction of the city, including the temple.

We weren’t able to visit Qumran during our time at the Dead Sea during this trip, but I’m glad we made it to see the scrolls themselves. And the model is fascinating. Here’s a panoramic view of it, looking toward the temple complex from what would have been the Mount of Olives:


We boarded the bus and passed by the Knesset, then returned to our hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem with a couple of hours to spare before dinner. My dad and I wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was not far from our hotel in the Christian Quarter, so we hustled over there and looked around for a bit before heading back to the hotel in time to eat. But at dinner, our group leader, Tim, said he would lead anyone who was interested to see the church, so my dad and I went back and spent a bit more time inside.

Is978At this point I can’t remember what I noticed on the first visit versus the second visit a couple of hours later, so I’ll just give some overall impressions. Just inside the entrance to the church is a large stone slab. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw several people (mostly women) kneeling around it with bags they had brought with them. Out of these bags they took items like small crosses or pieces of cloth and rubbed them on the slab, then put them back in the bags. I found out later that this is called the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus was allegedly prepared for burial.

Both the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are also supposed to be inside the church. To get to the site of the crucifixion, you climb some stairs just inside the main entrance to the right. The site of the burial is in a rotunda on the main floor, to the left of the Stone of Anointing. In the center of the rotunda is a shrine, a small building called an aedicule, outside of which pilgrims form a line so they can be let inside a few at a time by an unenthusiastic priest. When we were there, the aedicule was encased in scaffolding.

The aedicule and the dome above


Once inside the aedicule, you crouch through a low doorway, three or four at a time, into a cramped space with another stone slab (smaller than the Stone of Anointing) on the right. Under this slab is, according to tradition, where Jesus was buried. You kneel for a minute or so in front of the marble slab. You can touch it. Then the unenthusiastic priest tells you your time is up. I didn’t take any pictures inside, but National Geographic ran a photo essay last fall on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that included this picture of the inside:

Source: Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations

I know that many people have had meaningful spiritual experiences inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and maybe at another time it would have been the same for me. But on this visit, being inside the church was more disorienting than anything. Maybe it is because I went in cold, not really knowing what to expect. It began with the trinkets being rubbed on the Stone of Anointing, and continued throughout. I was constantly looking around to see what other people were doing, and wondering why they were doing what they were doing.

It’s not that I don’t think the site has significance. The site of the crucifixion and burial don’t look anything like what they would have looked like in the first century, but I have no reason to doubt that these are really the places where Jesus died and was buried. Because longstanding tradition has placed it here, I do think this is likely where it all happened.

But as I wandered through the church, from the site of the crucifixion to the Stone of Anointing to the aedicule to the Chapel of Adam, deep in the bowels of the building, this was my prayer: I’m so glad you’re not here anymore. It’s amazing to think that a site could be so important because Jesus rose from the dead and left it: “He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6).

Herodium and Self-Preservation

This is the twentieth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

After being turned away at the Temple Mount and then visiting the Mount of Olives on the morning of our first full day in Jerusalem, our group traveled south to an ancient site called Herodium, which is today in the West Bank. This was one of several palace fortresses built by Herod the Great. Out of all of them he decided that he wanted to be buried here, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Wars of the Jews 1.673). The archaeologist Ehud Netser found what is likely Herod’s tomb in 2007. When it was found, the ossuary (bone box) in the tomb had been smashed. It may be that a generation after Herod’s death, during the Jewish revolt from AD 66–70, the Zealots rebelling against Rome took hammers to what was left of Herod.


Herodium is an impressive spot, built into the top of a flat-topped hill. From this hill you get panoramic views: to the northwest you can see Bethlehem, and even Jerusalem a bit farther away due north. To the southeast you can see the wilderness sloping down toward the Dead Sea. And though Herodium is in the Judean desert, you get a nice breeze at the top of the hill. Maybe that’s why Herod liked it so much.


The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say where the magi met with Herod to speak with him about the birth of Jesus, though it does say they went to Jerusalem initially (Matt 2:1–12). Since Herod loved this spot, it’s not impossible that they met him here. In any case, when standing on top of the hill, it’s not hard to imagine the wise men (however many of them there were) coming out of the wilderness to the east. And with Bethlehem so close by, it’s also not hard to imagine jealous old Herod looking down on it and fretting about this new king who was entering the world right under his nose.

He did all he could to preserve himself and hang on to what he’d worked for—including killing opposition leaders, young children, and members of his own family—and it was still taken from him. It’s hard to submit, hard to let go of control, but in the end we will all be forced to do so whether we want it or not.


After enjoying the views and hearing about the history of the place, we went down into the tunnel system built into the hill, where we took a pause in the coolness, prayed, and sang. Then we continued through the tunnels out of the fortress and drove into Bethlehem.


In Bethlehem we had lunch and browsed around one of the few souvenir shops we visited on the trip. I bought a miniature olive-wood nativity scene, because how can you not when you’re in Bethlehem? I also bought a small icon magnet of St. Nicholas that now adorns our refrigerator. Of course, St. Nicholas has nothing to do with Bethlehem, but he’s come to have a lot to do with Christmas.

On the way back in to Jerusalem, we got stuck in traffic and one of us (this is the internet, so I’ll never say who) had to go to the bathroom and ended up going by the side of the road, shielded by umbrellas. Whenever our group of travelers gathers again, it seems that moment always comes up in conversation.

The Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and Nearing the End

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

June 27 AM

On our group’s first morning in Jerusalem—the first day of the trip that did not dawn already blazing hot—our first stop was going to be the Temple Mount. We trooped outside the old city wall to the bus, rode around to the other side of the old city, got out and through the Dung Gate, and settled into the security line before it was scheduled to open.

We waited.

And we waited some more.

Then we received word that there had been some unrest on the Temple Mount the day before, and the opening for that day was delayed indefinitely. It would eventually open later that day, but by that time we had already decided to get back on the bus and move to the Mount of Olives. We would not get to visit the Temple Mount this trip.

On the Mount of Olives in my standard uniform for the trip: broad-brimmed hat, hydration pack, breathable shirt (shorts and hiking boots not pictured)

On the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley east of ancient Jerusalem, we sat in a small amphitheater while our group leader, Tim, talked to us about Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he said, the Sunday before Passover, on the day the lambs were being selected for the feast. Around ten years before this, Josephus tells us that Thaddeus claimed to be messiah and around 4,000 people were killed. Tensions, in other words, were high.

The pilgrims

When Jesus appeared at the top of the Mount of Olives, the crowd accompanying him shouted “Hosanna” (“Save us”). They waved palm branches, the Zealot symbol of freedom, which was earlier used on coins from the Maccabean period (Luke 19:31–37). But instead of inciting a revolt, Jesus wept (Luke 19:42–45). He was indeed claiming to be king, and he was indeed making a political statement—but not in the sense that he was setting himself up as the kind of kind the world was used to. He was forcing the hands of those who were opposed to him. He knew that this would get him killed.

The many burial plots on the Mount of Olives

From the top of the Mount of Olives, we walked down toward the Temple Mount to Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed on the night that he was arrested. “Gethsemane” means “olive press,” and there are many olive trees still present there. Of course, as is the case with so many places mentioned in the Bible, it isn’t clear where the exact spot Jesus prayed is. A few places compete for the honor, and we went to two such places on this morning. But as I wrote in my post on Nazareth, I think standing in the exact spot is overrated. We spent some time contemplating in one spot, then took a quick walk around the walled garden next to the Church of All Nations.

A very old olive tree in the garden next to the Church of All Nations

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus in Gethsemane said he was not leading a revolt, and the disciples fled (Matt 26:55–56). Perhaps they fled because they realized only then that Jesus would not lead an open rebellion against Rome. Perhaps also Judas betrayed Jesus because he wanted to force Jesus’ hand and spark a revolution. I first heard of this theory from Dorothy Sayers’s book The Man Born to Be King, and I think it has a lot of merit. Ultimately, though, no one knows exactly why Judas betrayed Jesus. The important thing is that Jesus knew he would die, and he went to his death willingly. And he calls those who follow him to take up their crosses as well (Mark 8:31–38).

The facade of the Church of All Nations, with the retaining wall around the Temple Mount to the right

Night in Jerusalem

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

June 26 PM

In the afternoon of June 26 our tour bus left Caesarea, and Galilee, and took us to where we would spend our final three days. By that point in the trip we had been in Israel (with a couple of trips into the West Bank) for a week, and we had not yet set foot in Jerusalem.

When we got there, the bus driver parked just outside the old city walls, between the Jaffa Gate and the New Gate, and we walked in to our hotel: the Knights’ Palace. It was a charming little place, a former seminary, with a medieval feel: stone exterior and interior, with suits of armor in the hallway and portraits whose eyes seem to follow you like you’re in an episode of Scooby-Doo.


The old city of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. The Knights’ Palace is in the Christian Quarter, wedged up against the northwest wall of the old city and not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After checking in, most of our group spent the evening going on a walk around the city.

Walking just inside the Jaffa Gate

I love walking in cities at night. While I’ve spent plenty of time wandering around the major cities I’ve lived in (Prague, Budapest, Vancouver) both during the day and at night, it’s the night walks that have stuck with me, even years afterward.

Maybe this is because my senses are heightened when I’m walking around at night, knowing there is a higher likelihood that I’ll be the victim of some crime. Or, more likely, walking at night just seems more intimate. With the sky dark and the lampposts lit up, cityscapes (especially squares) feel to me almost like a living room. There are fewer people around, and some of the inhibitions that people have in the daylight crowds go away; you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know (you’re also more likely to be propositioned by a prostitute or see stag parties singing/yelling to everyone around as they stagger down the street—two lingering memories from my time in Prague).

Standing near the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

Tim led us through the warren of narrow streets that first night, looking for a way up to a rooftop from which we could look east and see the Dome of the Rock. Along the way, we saw the Israeli police questioning a young boy who had apparently thrown a rock at someone. In Jerusalem, little things like that can apparently get out of control quickly.

Then we came back down from the roof, meandered through the Jewish Quarter to Hurva Square, and headed east to a place where we could overlook the Western Wall.

fullsizeoutput_2755It was stunning, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Of the three nights we spent in Jerusalem, no matter how tired I was after that day’s excursions, I went walking around at night to take in as much as I could: enjoying the views, watching the people, eating the gelato (who knew you could get gelato in the old city?). I was a little nervous about getting lost by myself, so I had to look for people to go with, but thankfully there were plenty of other people who were also excited to do night exploring (thanks, Kurt & Suzie, Jenna & Abigail!).


Caesarea and Kingdom Building

It’s hard to believe it’s now been almost a year since the pilgrimage to Israel I made with a group from my church last summer. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to try to write reflections on every stop we made, but I’m actually pretty close to finishing now. This is the seventeenth post (to read them all, click here).

June 26 PM

Our last stop in northern Israel before heading to Jerusalem was Caesarea. There were two Caesareas—Caesarea Philippi, which we had visited a couple of days earlier, and the one on the coast, which is usually just called Caesarea (or Caesarea Maritima if you want to differentiate it from the other one).

Standing at one end of the hippodrome

Like so many extant ruins around Israel, Herod the Great picked this spot to build a palace. He wanted a harbor here so he could get a cut of the trade that passed through, so he conducted a building project from about 22–10 BC so an artificial harbor could be created. The palace covered twenty-six acres, and there was a theater and hippodrome here as well. Josephus wrote that Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great entered this theater dressed in robes of silver that shone in the sun. When the crowd acclaimed him as a god, he accepted their praise, and he died shortly thereafter (this is also recorded in the New Testament in Acts 12:20–23). There was also a lighthouse, and ruins of the breakwater are still visible underwater. The site includes red columns from Egypt and black columns from Greece.

Looking toward the hippodrome, with the palace in the foreground

From AD 6, when the Romans took over Palestine, Caesarea was the headquarters of the Roman governors. In 1961 there was a stone found here with an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate. The apostle Paul passed through here on his missionary journeys, and he was imprisoned here for two years before he was sent to be tried in Rome (Acts 23:23–26:32).

A replica of the Pilate inscription; the original is in the Israel Museum

When our group arrived, we went up to the top of the theater and felt the ocean breeze while our group leader, Tim, explained the history of the place and showed us some points of interest. Then we went north to the ruins of the ancient palace. Just below the palace, on the beach, we found ancient pieces of pottery and marble that had been eroded by the waves. Then we continued north through the hippodrome.

Is8059 After we left Caesarea, we stopped at an aqueduct not far away, then continued on to Jerusalem for the night.


When Tim gave us an overview of Caesarea, he ended by saying that Herod the Great built this to show he was great. That is what he wanted to do with his many building projects, and at least in some sense he succeeded, since we can still see parts of what he built and we still know his name. But of course the palace is in ruins and nobody uses the hippodrome anymore. And even though we know his name, we don’t love Herod. He doesn’t have a place in our hearts. So Tim asked, “What kind of kingdom are you building?”

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.


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).


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).


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.


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.