I have spent the last nine interesting days with a few of our students in Israel. The trip is a requirement for all of our MDiv students, and with the aid of a generous donor, is essentially free (students pay only for the two credits they earn for the trip and related assignments). Our trip was led by my colleague Jonathan Greer, who is an experienced archeologist working at Tel Dan. He shared his extensive knowledge of archaeology, geography, and culture at each site, and I’m sure I’ll never read the Bible the same way again. This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips that will mark me forever.
I didn’t say anything about the trip beforehand, because I didn’t want to tell the world I wasn’t home, but if you want to see what we’ve been up to, you can check out our blog. I wrote today’s summary, which I’ll post below. We only did a half day of sites, so we could wander around the Old City during our last afternoon. See you tomorrow, honey!
We awoke during the third quarter of the Ohio State-Oregon Championship game and finished breakfast as the Buckeyes were convincingly winning it. Buckeye fans rejoiced, while Michigan and State fans put on a brave face and grudgingly said they were happy for the Big Ten. Even the Belles from Birmingham said they were Auburn fans who cheered when the Buckeyes clobbered Alabama. So everyone seemed pleased.
We first stopped at the Shepherd’s Fields, where we visited a cave, remodeled to hold worship services, and learned some interesting facts. As recently as the 1970’s, shepherds followed strips from Bethlehem to the Dead Sea. They would lead their sheep to the Dead Sea region (Israel’s version of Arizona) during the winter months, and then lead them back toward Bethlehem as summer approached. Shepherds put their animals in the back of the cave, where their breathing and bodies provided heat for the whole cave. The father slept by the front of the cave so he could protect the others. And so these shepherds were easily awakened by the angel chorus 2,000 years ago.
We drove next to Bethlehem, which reinforced the lesson we observed the day before at The Holy Sepulcher: the holier the site, the gaudier it is. The Church of the Nativity is actually two church buildings (a Roman Catholic and an Eastern Orthodox and Armenian that share a building) that divide the cave in which Jesus was born. It’s hard to get a sense of the place when a church has been placed on top and it’s filled with curtains, lights, and pilgrims, but we did learn that 1) Jesus was most likely born somewhere in this spacious, comfortable cave; 2) he was laid in a manger with the animals in the back (sort of like an attached garage); 3) the manger was made out of wood, at least if you believe the generally gullible Crusaders who said they found it; 4) the front part of the cave was either a public inn or, as I think is more likely for Eastern cultures, the residence of a relative of Joseph’s who was hosting the entire clan; and 5) Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate from Bethlehem, perhaps in a room in this cave.
We then drove to our last site on the tour, Herod’s nearby palace, called the Herodium. From his tower Herod could see the Temple in Jerusalem, some 12 or so miles away (we could see the top of the Mount of Olives), and the Dead Sea (Qumran area) some 23 or so miles away. It was a terrific view. We marveled again at Herod’s impressive buildings—his pool, cisterns, tower, and mausoleum. We reflected on how this great builder of Masada, Caesarea, and the Second Temple (one stone we saw there weighs 570 tons!) invested his life in building the wrong things. He died a hated, despised man, while the infant he sought to kill left behind no buildings, but changed the world. Follow Him.