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Report from Jerusalem - Ben Volman
July 10, 2018
By Ben Volman, Messianic Rabbi & Toronto Ministry Team Leader.

Written during Chosen People Ministries' 70th Anniversary Tour of Israel.

After our first few days in Israel, quite honestly, I’m exhausted, so what else can I do but write? The tour has us walking, climbing, and even crawling ha’artez—“the land”—and the heat has climbed to 39 degrees Celsius for the past few days.

On the opening day of the archaeological tour, as our massive white bus pulls away from the hotel, our guide, Dr. Randall Price, begins with a quote from Numbers 27:12 and the Shehekhiyanu prayer:  Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us, sustained us and allowed us to reach this season.

Soon afterwards, the bus emerges from the Naomi Shemer tunnel and into the Judean desert.  Naomi’s song, “Jerusalem of Gold” became the theme song the Six Day War and now her name is etched into our experience of the city itself.

The bus takes us down toward the Dead Sea and the formidable barren brown hills where the Essene sect of the Qumran had its desert settlements and left us the lasting witness of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dr. Price, an outstanding archaeologist, is leading us over rough desert terrain to a cave high above the road. The path we take is stony, at times narrow with some intimidating drops. Sue and I are equipped with walking sticks that fold into our packs—soon admired by our climbing companions. (Thank you Elizabeth Fennel—hearing Sue talk about her concerns on the rigorous schedule, she suggested making the investment. Well worth it.)

By the time we get to the top, we’re covered in sweat. But the view of the Dead Sea and the surrounding landscape, is amazing and Randall himself had excavated this cave. He and his crew had made some very satisfying discoveries here which was totally filled with sand and rock when they arrived. Now it is a hollowed out cave including a rear tunnel going down another 60 feet. But no new scrolls.

Later we head to the Jordan River where we dip into the waters at the historic crossroads where Israel entered the land and the river—in spring flood times—parted for the people to go through into “the good land.” Of course, the site is most famous for being the site where Yohanan had immersed Yeshua. We are surrounded by groups doing immersions. Sue and I roll up our pants, put on special rubber shoes. The water is cool and Sue and I take a moment to pray for our own hopes of new beginnings in God’s grace.

Our morning closes with a visit to nearby Jericho (okay, nearby if you’re travelling by bus). We are very conscious of being in Palestinian Territory. There is a ping in my phone. My phone company congratulates me that I have crossed another border—and I am getting charged another $10. I shut down the phone.

The famous 10,000 year old city—“city of the palm trees”—is where we see a fascinating film on the long history of this place, including the extensive archaeological work of Kathleen Kenyon. She did the most rigorously well-known study of the ruins of ancient Jericho. Decades ago, when I attended seminary, we were taught her considered opinion that there was no city here when the Jewish people came from Egypt; and therefore no sign that they had destroyed the city according to the Biblical record. Her major reason for this claim was that the pottery associated with this period couldn’t be found in her extensive, scientifically thorough examination of the ruins.  As it turned out, she was wrong—the pottery was actually there, she didn’t know how to recognize it. The leading challenger to her views did his work at the University of Toronto. At the same time, there was a layer showing a thoroughly burnt city—again, she claimed that this was not the work of the Israeli invasion. Randall respectfully disagrees.  We look at the trench where she did most of her work. It’s a very small slice of the ancient city site.  Awfully big claims from a very limited examination of the historical record.

In contrast, we look at the site through Randall’s eyes—including the layer of burnt ash. He shows us where the evidence shows the collapse of the ancient mud walls, perhaps by a timely earthquake.

Controversy in the crucible of history. It’s alive all around us. We conclude the day heading back toward Jerusalem and the site of ancient Bethany, now an Arab town called Azaria—a form of the name of its most famous occupant, Lazarus. We go down a cramped ancient staircase of worn stones to the traditional site of his tomb.  We descend in groups of 10 clinging to the wonderfully cold stone walls. At the bottom, the entrance to the actual tomb has a stone entrance that requires you to crawl in. I follow my old friend, Alan Shore. We look around at the ancient stones—is this actually the tomb? There are some of the traditional shelf areas where a body might be laid. But no feeling of certainty for either of us.

I later approach our tour guide, Michael. I note to him that at no time did Randall suggest that this was possibly the original site. He smiles and tells us, “We guides have a saying. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

After supper, the cool evening breeze on the hotel terrace washes the day’s heat out of our bones and I’m grateful to be in this amazing city. All around us are believers from around the globe—Australia to England to Argentina; Hong Kong to New Zealand to the Ukraine. Every day has unexpected treasures—and experiences.

In Numbers 27:12, God tells Moses, “…look out at the land which I have given the people of Isra’el.”  Outside the window, the broad fields of the Jordan valley are on one side and Mount Gilboa, site of the last battle of Saul, ascends on the other. The adventure goes on.

Filed under: Israel, Jewish History


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