Israel / Jordan 2019

Pwetra Group Picture

In May 2019 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 two tours planned with Tutku Tours in 2020, if you are interested in my “Missionary Journeys of Paul” tour in March 2020, check out the brochure on the Tutku website. If you have questions about the 2020 tour, contact me directly via email or a direct message on twitter @plong42

Day 1 – Grace Christian University Tour of Israel and Jordan 2019

Day 2 – The Old City of Jerusalem

Day 3 – Yad VaShem and the Israeli National Museum

Day 4 – Following Jesus from the Mount of Olives

Day 5 – Caesarea, Megiddo, and The Sea of Galilee

Day 6 – Jesus in Galilee

Day 7 – Jerash, Amman, Mount Nebo

Day 8 – Visiting Petra

Day 9 – From the Red Sea to En Gedi

Day 10 – Masada, Arad and the Dead Sea

Day 11 – En-Gedi, Qumran, and Qasr al Yahud

 

 

 

 

 

 

En-Gedi, Qumran, and Qasr al Yahud

Hyrax, En GediThe last day our the 2019 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 with their pups on the hike and a large group of ibex on the way out of the park.

From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. 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. Even the video at the beginning of the tour tacitly 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 parks 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. 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).

Qasr al Yahud, Baptism of Jesus

My plan was to return to the Old City in Jerusalem for final shopping, but it was the first Friday of Ramadan and many streets were closed to traffic. We could have walked to Jaffa Gate, but that would have cut down on our time. Our guide suggested driving to Jaffa instead. As it turned out this was a good idea. He walked us through several points of interest in Jaffa, although there is little I can say 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). After a 45 minute walk, we turned the group loose in the shops and they contributed much to the local economy.

We stayed at the Tal Hotel in Tel Aviv, just a block from the Mediterranean. This was a very nice stay, although it was far too short: our wake up call was for 2:00 AM and we were at the airport by 3:15 AM for a 6:15 departure. Since I am now back in Michigan, I can cay they long day of travel went well despite an hour delay in Vienna for engine maintenance and extremely long lines at immigration in Chicago (easily the worst I have ever experienced there).

Masada, Arad and the Dead Sea

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 cool 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

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

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.

But the real highlight of Arad is the Citadel. There is a massive 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.

Since the time was getting late, we skipped Mamshit and drove back to the Dead Sea for the traditional swim in the salt water. We went to the En Gedi Spa this time, which was overly crowded with day trippers since it was the Jewish Independence day. We ate lunch there, but it was busy, expensive and not all that great. The swimming was good, although you have to take a shuttle down to the beach since the Dead Sea has receded so far.

Tomorrow is En-Gedi, Qumran, likely a stop at Jesus’s baptism site near the Dead Sea, then a final few hours in the Old City.

From the Red Sea to En Gedi

Every tour has a necessary travel day, in this case we left Petra about 7:5 and drove to the Arava Border crossing to return to Israel. The drive was uneventful, except for a short bathroom break at a new shop with very clean restrooms.

The passage through the Jordanian was quick and easy (you pay the money they let you through), but the Israeli side involved a lengthy bag inspection, about 75% of our group had to open their bags and the search was quick thorough. Since I tend to buy books as souvenirs I always get tagged for inspections (the xray machines cannot see through two or three thick books). It might be frustrating but I appreciate the extreme care for safety and security, as well as the generally friendly people digging through our filthy clothes to check out water bottles filled with Sea of Galilee water.

The only event on the agenda was a swim in the Red Sea at Coral Beach. This is on the national parks pass so entrance was paid for, but snorkeling gear cost about $10 to rent. Some of the group snorkeled, the rest waded into the water in the one or two open swim areas. Several sat in the shade and read a book (my favors option at the beach). It was a very cool day compared to previous years and there was a pleasant steady breeze.

After a stop at the shop at Yotatava (the one with the cows), we drove straight to the En Gedi hotel. This is a beautiful kibbutz turned hotel, The location is right next to the En Gedi Nature Park and the grounds of the hotel are a wild garden of plants and trees. Dinner was exceptional (finally, stuffed grape leaves!)

Tomorrow we will will visit several desert sites, including at Masada, Arad and Mamshit. Our internet is slow here, so I will add some photographs later.

Visiting Petra 

Today was our big 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, A new addition this year is a very nice museum just outside the entrance. I highly recommend a visit. It takes about an hour; 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 Mo’Taz led us down the long walk to the treasury building, 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 is 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 quite chilly in the Siq).

Pwetra Group Picture

There was quite a crowd at the Treasury, which means tourism in Jordan is doing much better. I also noticed there are far fewer little boy is trying to sell things in the past few visits. Occasionally someone will try to sell a postcard set for a dollar but it was less oppressive then previous years. I also noticed several of the shops along the way have closed or perhaps moved. I’m not sure if this has to do with a lack of tourism over the last few years caused by fears of traveling in the least, but it is sad to see some of these shops closed. Nevertheless I did see a familiar older Bedouin selling obviously fake coins. Capitalism wins in the end

After our lunch of sandwiches and fruit (and ice cream, naturally), we split up into several groups. One other smaller group hiked up to the Canaanite cultic center. Although I’ve never been up there I understand it has an excellent view of the entire Petra area. Another group went up to the Monastery. This is another tomb like the Treasury, but it is quite a distance from the main site at Petra and up about 850 steps. (Better left to the young in my thinking.) There were a few really ambitious people on this trip who went to both (and visited the Royal Tombs as well!)

Another group went with me to the temple of Zeus and they walked to the Byzantine church 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. The Park service has put a large fence type barrier up inside the main cave so that you can’t walk all the way up to the front anymore. We walked back to the Treasury for final pictures and more water before the long uphill walk back up the seek to the visitor center. I got back to the visitor’s center about 4 PM so I visited the new museum for an hour before meeting the  rest of the group. I did contribute to the local economy by purchasing two books at the museum.

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. SO naturally they stayed up late playing games in the hotel lobby for a few hours. that might have had something to do with teh lack of air conditioning in the rooms.

Tomorrow we crossed back into Israel at the Arava crossing near the Red Sea. Will have some time for the students to swim in the Red Sea and do some snorkeling if they want.

Following Jesus from the Mount of Olives

After a lighter walking day yesterday, we started at the Mount of Olives with the goal of walking across the Kidron Valley, up to the City of David, through Hezekiah’s tunnel, back up to the Southern Wall excavations and the Davidson Museum. I also planned to give the students some free time to experience shopping in the Old City (which really is quite the experience!)

We left the Hotel about 7:30 hoping to avoid the crowds at the Mount of Olives. this was successful, there was only one other small group there when we arrived so we were able to get one of the prime viewpoints on the Mount. By this time we’ve walked around the Old City and seen several models of the city of Jerusalem so the students were asking good questions about locations of various things we were seeing.

From there we walked down to Dominus Flevit, a church about halfway down the Mount commemorating the location where, according to tradition, Jesus wept over Jerusalem before the Temple action (Luke 20:41-44). There were no other groups when we arrived so we has a nice spot to look over the valley and discuss the Triumphal Entry and Jewish Messianic expectations in the first century. As we were leaving a very large pilgrimage group from India entered the gate to the church singing hymns and waving olive branches.

Continuing down the steep walk we visited the Church of all Nations, the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane. This is another site which is usually crowded, and today was no exception. After a quick look at the olive trees many of the students went into the church to see the Agony Stone, the traditional place where Jesus wept on the night he was betrayed. We read Luke 22:39-46 (Jesus’s prayer) and 22:47-53 (the arrest). This gave us a chance to discuss the meaning of Jesus’s prayer asking God to “take this cup” from him.

Our guide suggested we visit the Tome of Mary, just a short walk from the Garden of Gethsemane. This is a Greek Orthodox church commemorating the death of Jesus’s mother Mary; the Dormition is the Roman Catholic site and there is a place in Ephesus which claims Mary moved there before she died (or ascended to Heaven). The reason to visit this crusader era church is to see how deep the Kidron valley was in earlier centuries, the tomb itself is 25 feet or more below the current level of the valley. What made this visit very special is that we were able to witness part of a Coptic celebration of the Eucharist. After two men sang several hymns, the priest consecrated the bread and the wine. To be honest, I did not see any other Coptic Christians there, but it was the first time many of my students had even heard of Copts. To witness this this very ancient liturgy was very memorable.

Fir the last several tours I have led the students on a a walk through the Kidron Valley. This involves crossing the busy street (probably the most dangerous thing we did on this tour) in order to follow a walking path down past the Tomb of Absalom and back up the other side of the valley to the City of David. The parks service has cleaned this area up considerably ]and there are free toilets (not the cleanest in Jerusalem but good enough!) In the last two years the the City of David has sponsored a Bedouin style tent experience (we shared some nice mint tea) and there are camel rides steps for mounting the camels (this is more humane than forcing them to kneel). For the first time in the years I have been taking students down into the valley Uzziah’s Tomb was open. Like the tombs of Absalom and Zechariah, this tomb had nothing to do with the biblical king, dating to no more than 150 B.C.

There is a promenade on the west side of the Kidron which makes for an easier walk (I did stop halfway to explain the view and catch my breath). The walk ends at the south east corner of the Temple Mount, near the Southern Temple archaeology park, offering a unique view of that end of the southern Wall. It is just a short walk from there to the City of David. Many of the viewing areas have been upgraded (in front of teh Stepped Wall, for example).

What most people want to see at the City of David is Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This is the water system built by Hezekiah according to 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:30. After a short walk down through tunnels to the Canaanite spring, there is a split in the Tunnel between the “wet” tunnel and the “dry” Canaanite tunnel. The wet tunnel has water flowing over the knees, and is completely dark. About half the group walked through the wet tunnel. I, however, took the the rest of the group through the dry tunnels.

The dry Canaanite tunnel exits near the Jebusite walls, and the park has re-configured the walk further down the hill to the pool of Siloam. We no longer exit the park and walk along the street (which is busy and potentially dangerous). There are now a series of wooden walkways within the park and partially through a private neighborhood. This is much more convenient and it appears the site is developing additional viewpoints along the way.

The pool of Siloam is mentioned in connection with Jesus healing a blind man (John 9:7). In the first century it may have functioned as a public mikveh for pilgrims arriving at Jerusalem from the south. Since the pool was discovered more than ten years ago, additional work has been done to expose steps which appear to lead all the way up to Wilson’s Arch. After a shuttle ride back to the entrance to the City of David park, we entered the Givat Parking Lot Excavation, an ongoing new work across from the Dung Gate. The highlight of this part of the City of David experience is that the first century sewer has been cleared from the excavations, under the modern road and most of the Davidson museum, exiting just under Robinson’s arch. The tunnel is not too small, occasionally about five feet high (but higher in places) and just wider than my shoulders. It was quite a thrill to get to the end of the tunnel and see the Herodian stones and climb the stairs to the first century streets on the southern end of the Western Wall.

We had to hurry through the Davidson Museum since we arrive near closing time, but had a good long visit to the excavations on the southern end of the Temple Mount, The highlight for most people are the steps leading up to Herod’s Temple. This is one of the places in the Old City where we can say with some confidence Jesus walked up and down these steps, as did the apostles when they went up to the Temple to worship in the book of Acts.

Most of us had a late lunch (yes, I did have falafel again), some were satisfied with ice cream a short rest. Most people took the rest of the afternoon to shop in the Old City. I always enjoy watching people as the encounter the sights and smells of the market and try to negotiate the often bewildering bargaining style. Oddly enough, most Americans are not prepared for the aggressive tactics of some of the shop owners. I noticed more shops with signs indicating the prices marked are in Israeli shekels and are non-negotiable. I appreciate this, especially given some of the more guilt-based sales techniques. I personally just get the old “hey Mr. Mustache, come into my shop” followed by a really awkward pat on the belly.

We leave Jerusalem early tomorrow morning and head north to Caesarea, the Megiddo and finally our hotel on the Sea of Galilee.

Yad VaShem and the Israeli National Museum

When I plan a trip to Israel, there are certain dates I check in order to avoid problems in Jerusalem. For example, it is very difficult to move a large group around on Jerusalem Day. But one date I have not checked in the past is 27 Nisan, Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura, the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. But as it happens, I scheduled a visit to the Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. Other than a delay for the Prime Minister’s motorcade (“wave to Bibi” our driver said), our only inconvenience was not visiting Mount Herzl (closed for some official visit, we were told).

As we were waiting to enter the museum, all of the sirens in the city began at exactly 10:00 and we all stood in silence for two  minutes to remember the victims of the Holocaust. It was an eerie moment, but fitting for our experience in the Yad VaShem museum.

I have visited the museum many times, but this is the first time I have used the self-guiding audio players. I highly recommend it, although if you intended to listen to it all it would add several hours to your visit. I try to point students into certain directions, especially to the display on the role of anti-Semitic Christianity in the rise of Nazism. This was terrible theology and not at all the teaching of the Bible, yet people justified pure evil by appealing selectively to a few verses badly interpreted.

The museum is designed to physically represent the descent into the horrors of the Holocaust. The story is told through pictures and film documenting the beginnings of the anti-Jewish attacks in Germany and elsewhere. Many displays have video interviews with survivors which are (for me) challenging to watch without physically breaking down. In fact, I was standing next to one of our group and I heard her sob as she watched a film of people being loaded on to a train bound for a death camp. Several of my students said they were overwhelmed by the things they saw in the Yad VaShem.

After lunch we visited the Israel National Museum. There are three main things to see at this museum for biblical studies (the focus of this trip). First is model of Jerusalem in the first century. This model used to be at the Holy Land Hotel but was moved to this museum a few years ago. Although someone might raise a minor objection to nearly every detail of the model, it is extremely helpful for visually seeing the whole city as it might have appeared in the first century. Several of my students considered this the highlight of the museum since they are “visual learners.”

The second highlight of the museum is the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are presented. There are a series of displays illustrating how the scrolls were found and some artifacts from Qumran, but the main room has examples of several types of scrolls found int eh caves at Qumran. These include Scripture (a few panels from the Great Isaiah scroll were on display), several apocryphal books (including the Genesis Apocryphon), and several of examples of the literature created by the Essenes (the Temple Scroll, the Habakkuk Pesher and the Thanksgiving Scroll). The Shrine of the Book also has a small display for the Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible in book form (just slightly older than the Leningrad Codex). If you visit the Shrine of the Book be sure to go down the stairs and see this display. There is a new (to me) display just outside the Shrine of the Book with pictures from the original excavation of Qumran (with several color pictures I had never seen before.

The third highlight is the archaeological wing of the museum. This section alone could take several hours to fully digest, we were only able to see some of the highlights. The Tel Dan inscription is on display and there are several inscriptions from the Second Temple. There is a fragment of the warning to Gentiles to stay out of the Jewish section of the temple courts, the so-called Trumpeting Stone which indicated where a priest sounded a trumpet from the Temple Mount, and the Theodotus Inscription.

Two other items should be mentioned because of their connection to the crucifixion of Jesus. Discovered in 1990, the Caiaphas Ossuary is an ornate bone box inscribed “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” The bones belong to a 60-year-old male, likely the Caiaphas mentioned in the New Testament. In the same corner of the display is an ankle bone from a crucified man. Normally the Romans would not want the nail to pass through bone since it is more difficult to remove and reuse the nail for another crucifixion. In this case, the ankle was entombed along with the nail and later placed in a bone box for secondary burial. Although no one would doubt the Romans crucified many people, this is the only archaeological evidence of a person who was crucified and then buried.

Tomorrow we will start at the top of the Mount of Olives and work our way across the Kidron Valley and up to the City of David and finally to the Southern Temple excavations at the Davidson Museum.