In May 2022 I traveled with 27 students, parents and friends to Israel and Jordan. Professor Scott Shaw was a co-leader; without his help it would have been impossible to manage a group of this size. The students were remarkable – very attentive and inquisitive and (almost) always on time. I wrote these posts while in Israel or Jordan on my iPad, so think of them as “live reports from the field.” I revisited them once I was home to add additional photographs when internet was bad and correct some typos.
I have an Israel / Jordan tour planned for May 2023. If you are interested in the Seven Churches of Revelation tour, I highly recommend the Global Smyrna Meeting hosted by Tutku in June 2023. This is a tour of all seven churches with Bible Conference meetings one day and in the evenings (at least go check out the speakers at the conference). For more information on either trip, contact me directly via email or a direct message on twitter @plong42.
The last day of the 2022 Israel tour began at En-Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in a cave (1 Samuel 24). This is one of the more beautiful hikes on the trip since the Israeli Parks service has developed Wadi David as a nature preserve. The mile and a half walk is relatively easy since there are cut stairs and handrails, but there are a few steep flights and one passage through dark tunnel made of river reed. The walk also has several waterfalls and pools, the highlight being the final one at the end of the canyon. We saw a few hyrax and a few ibex on the way into of the park, but it seemed to me that there was less wildlife than previous visited. The water lever at the King David Waterfall seemed lower as well.
From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The last time I was at Qumran, the new visitor’s center was under construction. It is now complete and has a very nice reception area, but the vido and small museum is the same. The film was not working, which is good (in my opinion) because it is a bit strange.
The archaeology of the site is relatively simple, although the water system collects far more water that the site might need to survive. The reason for this is large number of ritual baths used by the community for purification. Almost everything at Qumran is controversial and the Dead Sea Scrolls have encouraged a wide variety of fringe ideas about the nature of both early Judaism and Christianity. The video at the beginning of the tour suggests a relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran community. This provided an opportunity to talk about these theories with the students. At the viewpoint overlooking Cave 4 we had a good discussion about the contents of the Scrolls and their value for biblical studies.
Since we have a long drive to Tel Aviv, we stopped only briefly at Qasr al Yahud, the more likely of the traditional sites for Jesus’s baptism. This site has been open since 2011 and is now on the Israel National Parks card, so it is an easy add-on for for groups using the park pass (see this Times of Israel story on the re-opeing of the site for tourist groups). Qasr means castle, and Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist does indeed look at bit like a castle. Unlike the site at Yardenit in Galilee, this is a far more authentic location since it is in the general area John the Baptist was active (although it is still not certain this is the place). Another clear difference is the lack of commercialism compared to Yardenit. The majority of the crowds queuing to be baptized in the muddy stream of the Jordan were Orthodox, although there appeared to be a handful of protestants and Pentacostals. The site on the other side of the Jordan is only a matter of feet from this location in Israel. The Jordanian site is called Al-Maghtas, “immersion” in Arabic. UNESCO listed the Jordanian side as a world heritage site, but not the western side (likely due to the political situation in West Bank).
For our last few hours we drove through Jerusalem, stopping for lunch at Elvis American Diner in Neve Ilan. (Here is the Atlas Obscura article on the diner, a Times of Israel article, and a YouTube video). This was one of the best hamburgers I have ever had. I highly recommend the Elvis Diner if you are in the area (and tired of falafel, which I was not, but this American group seemed to appreciate meat, fries and ketchup!
When we arrived at Jaffa, the traffic was even crazier than expected for a Friday afternoon. Our guide walked us through several points of interest in Jaffa, although there is little that is authentic. There is a traditional site for the home of Cornelius and a Franciscan church commemorating Peter’s departure from Jaffa to Rome (although that is not in the Bible, if he left for Rome by ship Jaffa is the likely port). There are several spectacular views if the Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv.
We stayed at the Metropolitan Hotel in Tel Aviv, just a block from the Mediterranean. This was a very nice stay in a great hotel. But it was far too short: our wake up call was for 5:30 AM to get to the airport for our 10:30AM flight back to Chicago. Since I am now back in Michigan, I can tell you the flight was delayed in Istanbul, and we had a lost bag in Chicago. That made us an hour and a half late for your ride back to Michigan. I got home about 1:30 AM Sunday, and some of the group had much longer dives home that me.
Since we are staying at the En Gedi Hotel, we are not far from the entrance to Masada. In fact, we were one of the first groups to go up on the cable car. I have done Masada at the end of a day when it is very hot, but this morning it was pleasant and breezy. Masada is a highlight of any Israel tour, although I am surprised some Christian groups day-trip from Jerusalem or skip it altogether. This is unfortunate for both biblical and modern history.
Masada was king Herod’s monumental fortress on the top of a flat mountain some 1500 feet above the Dead Sea. To get to the top we ride a cable car (which claims to hold 80 people, and they put about 120 in the car I rode up). We spent most of our time on the north end of the mountain, where we had several really good conversations about what “really happened” here and how Josephus knew (or did not know) the speech of Eliazer. Several students walked down the 180 steps to the rooms on the front of the mountain. I did not hike down the stairs this year, so a few of us got to listen to a younger Israeli guide give her talk on Masada. She was very kid to allow us to listen, although she warned us she was a “Masada Mythbuster.” Tobe honest, she did not say anything than what I (and our Israeli guide) said to our group.
After walking down the back of Masada and meeting our bus, we drove to Arad. There are two parts to this hike, a lower city excavated to the Canaanite period and an Israelite upper citadel excavated and restored to the eighth or ninth century. I take my group through the Canaanite section first, but many groups skip it entirely in order to get to the “good stuff” more quickly. I want my group to see the differences and similarities between Canaanite culture and Israelite. One example is the Arad House, a reconstructed Canaanite house. At Tamar there is a partially reconstructed Israelite four-room house. The contrast between the two is one of the indicators of when Israelite culture enters The Negev.
For me, the real highlight of Arad is the Citadel. There is a large Solomonic gate and a number of smaller rooms, but the main thing to see here is a Israelite high place. It is similar to the Solomon’s temple, but much smaller. There is an altar for sacrifice, a holy place and a Holy of Holies. Inside the Holy of Holies is a Canaanite standing stone, which may indicate the site allowed for both the worship of the Lord and the local Baal. In 2 Kings 18:4 Hezekiah removed all the high places, perhaps shutting down this particular Temple. Josiah will do the same thing in 2 Kings 23.
After finishing at Arad, we drove back to the Dead Sea for the traditional swim in the salt water. We went to a public area in Ein Bokek this time, which was not at all crowded The swimming was good and the beach is well maintained.
Tomorrow is En-Gedi, Qumran, likely a stop at Jesus’s baptism site near the Dead Sea, then a final few hours in Jaffa.
Today was the walk through Petra, for many of our students this is a major highlight on the trip. I have been coming to Petra since 2005 and during this time the park has undergone a number of significant changes as tourism has continued to increase. The visitors center now has a large plaza with the number of shops and a small museum. Jeff’s Books and the Indiana Jones store is still there, but the whole entrance is cleaner and well organized. I highly recommend you visit the museum just outside the entrance, a thorough visit might take an hour. (I bought two museum publications in the bookstore, they have a nice selection of serious books among all the usual tourist stuff). There are several short films on aspects of Nabatean Petra as well a a good mix of artifacts from each period of the site. I would have a room dedicated to the Bedouin who lived in the caves until only a few decades ago, but other than that it is a well-designed museum.
Our guide Osama led us down the long walk to the Treasury, stopping from time to time to explain various features of the tombs or the water system in the Siq (the famous gorge through which one enters Petra). This was one of the coolest day I have ever had for a May visit to Petra, barely 80 degrees Fahrenheit most of the day (the morning was even chilly in the Siq).
The area in front of the Treasury was extremely crowded when we arrived, which means tourism in Jordan is doing better after COVID. Unfortunately, the sellers were everywhere and there were far more camels that I ever remember. I did see a familiar Bedouin selling obviously fake coins and “silver” bracelets. If you visit Petra, you must remember there are no real coins for sale there.
After our lunch of sandwiches (falafel for me, with pomegranate juice), we split up into several groups. One brave group went up to the Monastery. This is another tomb like the Treasury, but it is quite far from the main site at Petra at the top of about 850 uneven steps. If you can make this hike, you ought to do it, but maybe leave that one to the young. Another group went with me to the temple of Zeus a Byzantine church (called the Petra Church) and then to the Royal Tombs. This is a fairly easy walk up a series of steps, and provides an excellent view of the entire valley. I had not visited the church before, there are some unusual mosaics in the church (I would like to find documentation to identify a few of these). There was a cache of papyri found in this church as well.
By the time we reached the Urn Tomb there were fewer tourists and we were able to spend some time in the cool of the cave looking at the patterns on the walls. I have an excellent singer in the group, and she led us in How Great Thou Art. The music echoed beautifully, very inspiring. We walked back to the Treasury for final pictures and more water before the long uphill walk back up the Siq to the visitor center.
We met at 7 o’clock for dinner most of the students told me they were absolutely exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I did more that 22,000 steps today, which google tells me is over ten miles.
Tomorrow we crossed back into Israel at the Rabin / Arava crossing near the Red Sea. We should have sometime to swim and snorkel in the Red Sea, but we have to do another COVID test to re-enter Israel so that may take us some extra time. FYI, Israel announced they are discontinuing the test requirement on May 20, three days after we reenter! The theme of this tour seems to be “bad timing.”
We left at 730AM for a drive north and west to Caesarea. Everyone was on time, but due to an extremely large group in the hotel and the complication of Sabbath elevators, a few were just a bit late. Since it was the Sabbath it was virtually no traffic on the road. We had a little stomach sickness today, hopefully that works itself out with a good night’s sleep.
Caesarea has always been one of my favorite places to visit on an Israel trip. The city is Herod the Great’s tribute to the Roman Empire. By building such a beautiful city Herod demonstrates he is the ideal Roman client king and makes the claim that Judea is not something backwards end of the Roman empire, it can hold its own against any other Greco-Roman city.We spent a little time talking in the theater about the death of Herod in Acts 12 and Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea later in the book of Acts. This was likely a house arrest, Paul was likely in a similar situation to his house arrest at the end of Acts.
This was my first visit to Caesarea since the new visitor’s center was finished. It has a small museum with a few artifacts, but the main feature is a film about Herod’s life and his need to impress Rome by building the city. It is a bit too influenced by Game of Thrones, but it fairly accurate and gives first time visitors an insight into why the city is so intentionally Roman.
As for biblical significance, Caesarea is the city Peter visit when he preached to Cornelius in Acts 10. In Acts 12 Herod Agrippa was struck dead when he entered the theater looking like a God (a story confirmed by Josephus). Philip the Evangelist lived in Caesarea with his four daughters when Paul passed through the city on his return from Ephesus. Paul also spent two years under house arrest awaiting trial while Felix was the governor. Later, when Festus was governor, Paul made his famous appeal to Caesar in Caesarea.
From Caesarea we traveled through Mount Carmel to Megiddo. I visited Megiddo on my 2019 trip, and the visitor’s center has been significantly improved during the COVID shutdown.The short video has been updated with flashy edits, drone shots and interviews with Israel Finklestein. Overall, it tells the story f the site as well as the history of excavations in less that ten minutes. The old model of the site has been upgraded with some video overlays, but that was not particularly effective.
Why is Megiddo important for biblical Studies? According to 1 Kings 9:15 Solomon fortified Megiddo along with Hazor and Gezer. Jehu assassinated Ahaziah (2 Kings 9:27) and Josiah was killed in battle by the Egyptian army led by Necho II (2 Kings 23:29). Aside from the spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley, there is a 3000 BC Canaanite cult center and a major granary and other storage buildings. But the main thing to see at Megiddo is the water system, a passage carved through the rock to a hidden spring. (Megiddo is the inspiration for James Michner’s The Source).
We continued across the Jezreel Valley to Nazareth, although we did not do much in this very crowded and busy city (which looks nothing like it did in Jesus’s day). We drove up to a view point some 1290 feet above sea level. Although it is highly unlikely, some Christians this this is the place where the people Nazareth tried to throw Jesus off a cliff in Luke 4:29. The precipice is outside of town and clearly very high, but it is so far from the original Nazareth village of the first century to be an authentic location.
From Nazareth we made our way through Cana to the Sea of Galilee. Since we had time this afternoon, we visited Migdal. Like Megiddo, there has been a great deal of work in the three years since I visited. The hotel is now finished (and it is beautiful) and the grounds have been improved. This was the first time we went into the church, there are some interesting modern mosaics there and a stunning mural of the woman who touched Jesus’s tassels in a small chapel in the lower level. I appreciated the attention to detail: the entry to the church used the same mosaic motif as the synagogue found on the property and the lower chapel was designed to look like the building.
Although this village was the home of Mary Magdalene, the place is rarely mentioned in the Bible. However, a first-century Synagogue was recently excavated along with an unusual carved stone found near the center of the synagogue. Some scholars have suggested the stone was carved to look like the Second Temple, although this is not particularly conclusive. What is important is this is a first century synagogue not far from Capernaum. Although there is no evidence Jesus taught in this particular synagogue, the gospels portray him is teaching in many of the synagogues in Galilee. So it gave us an opportunity to discuss what teaching at the synagogue might have been like. There are a number of other excavated buildings adjacent to the synagogue including what appeared to be two or three mikvoth.
The group ended up walking all the way to the Sea of Galilee to put their feet in the lake and take pictures knee-deep in the water.We checked into the Nof Ginosar Hotel and had an excellent dinner. Since we are a student group we are saying in the Village rooms, which are small, comfortable bungalow style rooms with a camp-like atmosphere. The walls are thin, as I type this I can hear the man in the next room taking face-timing someone (fortunately I do not speak enough Hebrew to follow the conversation).
Tomorrow we will visit sites related to the life of Jesus, beginning with a hike up Mount Arbel to view the Sea of Galilee.