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.

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.

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).

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”?

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.

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.


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.

Advice About Visiting the Dead Sea from Someone Who Went There Once

I’ve been writing reflections on the pilgrimage to Israel I took in June of this year. To read all of them, click here.

Here are nine pieces of advice I gleaned from the two days I spent at the Dead Sea last month:

  1. When you’re going down the steep descent toward the water your ears will start to pop, and you might wonder what is going on and think maybe you have a cold or something, but then you remember you’re headed to the lowest place on earth and such things happen there.
  2. Hotels on the Dead Sea are apparently quite large. No matter how many people are staying there, the sheer size of the place will completely engulf them. I don’t know of any organization that could hold a convention there large enough to feel like it was even halfway full. Maybe there are fifty people in the lobby? Maybe there are three? Who knows? It feels like a mausoleum either way.

    Can you count the people in this picture from the David Dead Sea Hotel?
  3. When you are at the hotel buffet, think about how the oxygen level is 5 percent higher at the Dead Sea than at sea level, and that people go there specifically to train for marathons. See if this discourages you in any way from getting seconds.
  1. The hotel you stay at may have a spa. At such spas I’m told there is such a thing as a chocolate wrap, which I can only imagine makes you look like an enormous Magnum bar or maybe like you fell into a chocolate fountain at a wedding. There is also a “deep facial,” which lasts 70 (!) minutes and involves the “removal of black heads with facial massage.” I would kind of like to see it done, but on someone else please.

    Wooden stick not included in chocolate wrap
  2. If you are there in the summer and you are outside and a breeze kicks up, it will not be refreshing. It will feel as if there is an array of hair dryers pointed at you.
  3. You may notice some unusual choices of music coming over the speakers in the hotel lobby. I, for one, came to really enjoy the salsa version of Coldplay’s “Clocks.”
  4. If you go down to the beach early in the morning to watch the sunrise, it will be beautiful but you will only be able to enjoy the beauty intermittently as you must constantly swat the flies away from your ankles.

    I paused in my swatting long enough to take this
  5. If you get water in your eye because you got a little too exuberant while floating in the sea, do not wipe it out. Think of the saddest thing, like maybe the ending of Old Yeller or the part where Bambi’s mother dies or any Sufjan Stevens song, and wait for the tears to come. It will only take a minute. I do not know how people actually rub Dead Sea mud on their faces (which is a thing) without getting the just the tiniest droplet in their eye. Props to them; I couldn’t even float for 10 minutes before the fun was over and I had to stagger out of the water.
  6. Also if you float in the Dead Sea, don’t go hiking beforehand. You will have scrapes on your legs. You will have chafed bits. And they will BURN. And when you get out you will have to shamble back to the hotel zombie-style because there is NO SHUTTLE, at least not at this time of night, and ransack your suitcase for any kind of lotion.

I know you want to hear the salsa version of “Clocks.” For your listening pleasure:

Lachish and Signal Fires

I’ve been writing reflections on the pilgrimage to Israel I took in June of this year. To read all of them, click here.

June 20, PM

Our group’s last stop on our first full day in Israel (after Azekah, Beth Shemesh, and Mareshah, where we had lunch in an olive grove—not to be confused with an Olive Garden) was Lachish.

On top of the tel at Lachish

Like the previous places, Lachish (pronounced la-KEESH) was a town in the Shephelah, between the coastal plain to the west and the Judean mountains to the east. It is first mentioned in the Old Testament as a Canaanite city that the Israelites conquered under Joshua (Josh 10:31–33). Like Azekah, it was one of the cities Rehoboam of Judah fortified after the kingdom was divided (2 Chr 11:9). Later, in the eighth century BC, Judah was a vassal state of Assyria, but rebelled under Hezekiah. The Assyrian king Sennacherib then laid siege to Lachish and conquered it in 701 BC, establishing his field headquarters there and sending threatening messages to Jerusalem (2 Kgs 18:13–37; 2 Chr 32:9–19; Isa 36). A siege ramp is still visible at the site from this time. Sennacherib commemorated his victory over Lachish with a relief in his palace at Nineveh; that relief is now in the British Museum. Sennacherib also declared on the Sennacherib Prism that, after besieging 46 fortified cities, he locked up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.” Notably, in light of the biblical account in which things did not go well for Sennacherib from that point (2 Kgs 19:35), the prism does not record that he took the city.

Judah later reoccupied Lachish, but the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered it around 588 BC. Nineteen ostraca (inscribed potsherds) were found in a guardhouse from this time. One of them talks about not being able to see the signal fires from Azekah, which was toward the end of the Babylonian conquest the only other remaining fortified city in Judah besides Jerusalem (Jer 34:7).

Lachish OstracaAt Lachish, we sat at the base of the tel and talked about Hezekiah’s response to Sennacherib, taking the threatening letter he received from the Assyrian king and praying over it (2 Kgs 19:14–19; Isa 37:14–20). At several places during the trip our group leader, Tim, presented Hezekiah as one of the overlooked heroes of the Old Testament. We often talk about Abraham, Joseph, David, and several others as great examples, but Hezekiah should get more credit. Of him it was said that “he trusted in Yahweh the God of Israel; there was no one like him, before or after, among all the kings of Judah” (2 Kgs 18:5). He rebelled against a major world power and believed that God would take care of his people in spite of the retaliation that would inevitably follow; that takes a lot of trust.

Tim also talked about the signal fires mentioned in the ostraca. It’s an evocative image: looking for a signal fire from a nearby city, relying on it to give you a sense that you are not alone, that you’re in this together—then one day you don’t see it. And you know why you don’t see it. How hopeless and lonely they must have felt!

Is252Tim asked us whether, in our lives, we are there for others with our signal fires. Are we a reliable source of encouragement? Can people look to us and gain a sense that they’re not alone? I often don’t think of myself as someone that other people could look up to; I’m just muddling through like everyone else. The real role models, I tell myself, are people who are older than me. But over time, especially as I’ve found myself in more leadership roles, I’ve started to grow in my awareness that people are watching. I sometimes want to respond, “Don’t do it! I’m going to fail!” Or maybe go full Charles Barkley: “I am not a role model.”

The reason I’m ambivalent about providing a signal fire for others is because I know how discouraging it is when others’ fires have gone out: the couples where one has cheated on the other; the ones where they have both decided to call it quits; the church leader who decides to give up on following Jesus. Seeing others persevere through difficult times gives me hope that it can be done, but seeing them give up is gut-wrenching.

Even though I’m sometimes ambivalent about providing a signal fire, I have to conclude that I am providing one whether I like it or not. I can put my head in the sand and act like no one’s watching. Or, I can try to give encouragement where I can, because I know my actions don’t just affect me; they have a ripple effect that I don’t always anticipate. It’s still true that I will fail in some ways. But it’s not crazy to think that I can use my life to encourage others, even if the only encouragement I can provide sometimes is to just keep going, keep burning.

Beth Shemesh and Desolation

I’ve been writing reflections on the pilgrimage to Israel I took in June of this year. To read all of them, click here.

June 20, AM

On the morning of our second day in Israel, we left Azekah and went to Beth Shemesh, another site in the Shephelah (“lowlands”) of Israel. The name beth shemesh means “house of the sun,” and it’s possible that there was a temple (“house”) dedicated to the Canaanite sun god there at one time. It lies on the Valley of Sorek, an east-west valley that connects the coastal plain with the Judean mountains. In the Old Testament, after the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant in the time of Samuel, they put it on a cart pulled by two cows. The cows headed east up the Valley of Sorek and stopped at Beth Shemesh (1 Sam 6:1–14). Later, in the eighth century BC, Amaziah king of Judah and Jehoash king of Israel fought each other at Beth Shemesh (2 Kgs 14:8–11). About 50 years after this, the Philistines captured Beth Shemesh (2 Chr 28:18). There is a destruction layer at the site that likely dates to the campaign of the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BC.

As at Azekah, to get to Beth Shemesh we got out of the bus on the side of the road and walked. We went along the Valley of Sorek and climbed a small hill to the site, where there is an active archaeological dig. We were welcomed by Dr. Dale Manor of Harding University, the field director of the dig. According to his website, he “was wearing the fedora before Indiana Jones” (it doesn’t say how long he has been fighting Nazis).

Dr. Manor telling us about Beth Shemesh

He told us a few things about the site: An Egyptian palace was here, owned by a woman who was mentioned in the 14th century BC Amarna Letters. A scarab found here names Amenhotep III. At a higher level, there is a temple from the time of the judges (ca. 1100 BC) that is still in the process of being excavated. Recently, two store jar handles were recovered that say lemelek (“belonging to the king”) on them. These probably date to the time of Hezekiah (eighth century BC).

After hearing from Dr. Manor, our group went into an underground cistern. There our group leader, Tim, talked to us about Samson, who lived in the area. Zorah (his birthplace) was across the Valley of Sorek to the northeast (Judg 13:2; 16:31). Timnah was down the valley to the west, in Philistine territory (Judg 14:1–6). Farther down the valley was Ashkelon (Judg 14:9). Tim talked about Samson’s mighty exploits, but also his failure to remain faithful to God. As he had at Azekah, Tim talked about the Shephelah as a place of pressure and conflict, and encouraged us to think about how we should act in our own “shephelahs.” These are places in our lives where we face tensions and temptations, where it’s easy to become tired and worn down.

My dad, who was also on the trip, wrote a blog post a few days ago about our visit to Beth Shemesh. He mentioned that in contemplating the idea of personal shephelahs he thought of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age. I thought of this as well. (It’s almost as if we are related. Also, we might have read some of the same books.)

Part of Taylor’s argument is that we live in a time of cross-pressures. Both religious and atheist forms of fundamentalism get all the press, but most of us live in a middle area where we wrestle with faith, doubt, and longing. We have gone, Taylor says, “from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” But it doesn’t all work in one direction: believers are tempted to doubt, and doubters are tempted to believe. While the world may be disenchanted for many people—faith is regarded as something childish to leave behind, like belief in monsters and fairies—a lot of them still experience a sense of loss at this disenchantment, and a sense that what they are left with may not be enough to make meaning of life.

Beth Shemesh, overlooking the Valley of Sorek

When Tim asked us on this day, “What will you do in your Shephelah?” I thought of the cross-pressures of faith, doubt, and longing in a secular age. I also thought of Gordon Smith, who taught a class on spiritual discernment when I was at Regent College. It was a popular class; lots of people at Regent were looking for guidance on what to do in the next chapter of their lives. In his teaching on discernment, Smith took two concepts from Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises: consolation and desolation.

In his book The Voice of Jesus, Smith writes that consolation is “our emotional response to a set of circumstances that reflect the power and goodness of God” (139). In contrast, desolation is “an emotional response to the multiple ways in which we experience a broken world” (138–39). Desolation is a valid response, since the world is in fact broken in many ways. But the rule for discernment, Smith says, is this: Act on a decision only in consolation. When we are in desolation, we cannot trust ourselves to see clearly and act rightly. “We can trust ourselves and act in confidence only when we know that our hearts are in tune with the Spirit” (139).

Samson, it seemed, acted often out of desolation. He was angry, vengeful, lustful, and continually reacted in destructive ways. As I go through my own shephelahs, I want to remember that they are a normal part of life. Everyone lives in them at times. But I also want to remember that they are not the place to make major decisions. When I am tired, worn down, or feeling tempted, I need to continue on the path I am on—the path I started to follow when I was seeing more clearly—and not change course in response to feelings of desolation.

Azekah and Action

I’ve been writing reflections on the pilgrimage to Israel I took in June of this year. To read all of them, click here.

June 20, AM

Our first stop on our second day (the first full one) was Azekah. As we had at Gezer, we hiked up to the site without knowing what it was, this time getting off the bus by the side of the road. Our group leader, Tim, wanted to start off the trip by getting us acquainted with various locations in the Shephelah, the foothills between the coastal plain to the west and the Judean mountains to the east. The word shephelah means “lowland”; some Bibles translate it that way, while others treat it as a proper name. For a few hundred years while Israel was trying to establish itself in the land, it was a place of pressure and conflict.

The Valley of Elah, looking southwest from Azekah

While Gezer was on the Aijalon Valley, Azekah overlooked the Valley of Elah. The Philistines occupied the coastal plain at the western end of the valley, and camped near Azekah when David fought Goliath (1 Sam 17). Even after the Israelites were more established, the Shephelah continued to be an area of conflict. After the kingdom was divided, Azekah became a town along the Judean border with the northern kingdom of Israel, and Rehoboam fortified it against his northern neighbors (2 Chr 11:5–10). An Assyrian inscription claims that Sennacherib conquered Azekah during his invasion of Judah in 701 BC (2 Kgs 18–19).

As we looked south over the Valley of Elah, Tim talked to us about David and Goliath while we sat on benches where the words of 1 Samuel 17 were inscribed in Hebrew. In listening to this story that I had heard many times, what struck me this time was that Samuel had already anointed David king, although to all appearances he was still a young shepherd. David’s brothers had been present when David was anointed king, and yet they treated him as their pesky little brother. David had faith in both God’s own character and what God had said about him, even though it seemed like very little had changed: nothing was different about his outward circumstances, and the Philistines still looked more powerful than the Israelites.

Is209Here I reflected on the ways I so often refuse to believe that God is able and desires to act in the world. The ways I feel inadequate, like I don’t belong, like I have little to contribute, when these things are not an accurate representation of reality at its deepest level. The ways I insist on gathering more data when I know it would be better to act; I would just rather not risk being vulnerable.

At the end of his talk, Tim asked, “God has given each of us a pouch with stones. What will you do with those stones?” The stones I have are not those that other people have. Am I okay with that? Am I content to believe that it isn’t so much about the stones at all, but the God who guides them?

Gezer and Memorial Stones

I’ve been writing reflections on the pilgrimage to Israel I took in June of this year. To read all of them, click here.

June 19, AM

On our first day in Israel, we drove to a gravel parking lot and walked down a dusty white gravel trail toward Gezer. We didn’t know it was Gezer. As would be the case throughout the trip, our group leader, Tim, didn’t tell us where we were until we got there. Instead of looking ahead to the site, I could only think about what I was experiencing in the moment: “Gosh, it’s hot. The sun sure is bright on this path. I should’ve brought contacts so I could wear sunglasses right now. I did not quite get the chemical taste out of my water pack,” etc.

Is108We climbed up a hill and got to Gezer, which was on the border between the coastal plain and the Judean foothills (Shephelah). It was on a trade route between Jerusalem and the Via Maris along the Aijalon Valley, which runs east-west. You can look out from the site and get a broad view of the coastal plain to the west. There is a gate that dates to the time of Solomon. It is similar to those found at Hazor and Megiddo, which Solomon also fortified (1 Kgs 9:15–17). Solomon almost certainly went there, either to sit as judge or to check on the progress of the fortifications. There is a destruction layer that dates to around 950 BC, which is what one would expect from the biblical account, in which the Egyptian pharaoh conquered it and gave it to Solomon. Another destruction shortly thereafter may date to the raid of Pharaoh Shishak around 924 BC (1 Kgs 14:25). There is another destruction layer dating to around 732 BC, which would come from the conquest of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III. The Gezer Calendar was found there; it may be the earliest-known specimen of Hebrew writing, and would also be a cool name for a band.

Also in this area is a series of massebot (sg. massebah), memorial stones. These were set up by Canaanites and predate the Israelite period, and so may be a predecessor to the famous “high places” that are mentioned throughout the Old Testament. Sometimes setting up massebot is depicted as a good thing (Gen 28:18–22; 35:14; Exod 24:4; Isa 19:19), and sometimes bad (Exod 23:24; Lev 26:1; Deut 7:5; 1 Kgs 14:23), depending on whether their purpose was associated with true worship or idolatry. On the positive side, they can serve as a reminder of a place and time where people have experienced God.

Is118This trip was itself a massebah. It will serve as a reminder of what God has done. But memorial stones and other reminders of God’s actions can be misused. In 2 Kgs 18:4, King Hezekiah smashed the massebot in his kingdom, and also broke apart the bronze snake that Moses had lifted up in the wilderness. Its original purpose had been good, but the people began to burn incense to it, looking to it as a means to control their environment. This was idolatry, and the snake was no longer a reminder of what God had done. It had to be destroyed.

I’m reminded also of Peter’s response to seeing Jesus transfigured on the mountain and being joined by Moses and Elijah. He says to Jesus, “Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Luke 9:33). Instead of taking it for what it was—a singular experience of seeing the glory of God—he wanted to prolong the moment. On this trip I met God, but I knew it had to end. I can treasure the experience, but must not seek to prolong or relive it. I met several people I may not see again; and with those I will see, even on a weekly basis, it will not be the same as it was on the trip. But the good news is that though this particular experience of God has come to an end, God has not left.

So I will set up a memorial stone in my heart (and maybe in my yard). I will always remember it is there, always be grateful for the experience, and continue to tell others about what it means. And I will move on to the place I will meet God next.