Visiting the land of Israel has been a dream that I have entertained since I began studying the Scriptures academically, over twenty five years ago. The more I studied the Bible the more I realized how important the geography of the land was to the story. I felt that so much of the biblical storyline was so closely connected to the physical layout of the land that in order to fully understand what I was reading, I needed to actually see, feel and touch the land where the events took place. Thus I realized that until I actually visited the place and looked at it, my understanding of the biblical story was, to some extent, incomplete.
The trip itself was all I imagined it would be. We landed in Israel and hit the ground running. We were tired from a very long plane ride when we landed in Tel Aviv, but Mark and Cam recharged us with their own energy and enthusiasm. After a quick meeting with the rest of the forty people, we drove straight to an olive grove where Mark explained the basic geography of Israel and got us started with what to expect from the trip and how it will be conducted. He explained that we would be starting in the desert and why that was important. He explained he would be following the Rabbinic way of teaching and that we would be challenged to see old things in a new way and new things in an old way. After that it was down to the Dead Sea and getting settled in at the hotel.
For me there were so many highlights on this trip that it is hard to mention just a few. One was the group itself. I could not have asked for a better group to travel with. We began as virtual strangers, but ended up as a community. It was wonderful to see each person pulling their weight on the hikes and giving or receiving help to each other as each needed it. No one was left behind to feel inadequate or a drain on the rest. We all worked together to encourage each other. The bus rides were filled with humour and laughter, as we all joked and kidded each other. They were also times for deeper communication over what we had just seen or experienced. I found myself part of a small group that sat in the first third of the bus and we grew to know and understand each other in a profound way. For the rest of my life I will treasure some of the friendships that were born on that bus.
For me the most profound experience was the desert. The four days we spent hiking up and down it gave me a new insight in to the Lord. As Mark said, the God of the desert is experienced very differently than the God of the city. Living in the city gives us a sense that God is a God who fawns and dotes and fusses over us as if we were the only things on his mind. In the city if we stub our toe or cut our finger, there are a hundred different ointments and places that we can go to and buy relief. If we suffered a more serious health problem, all we have to do is dial 911 and at least two different health professionals will come screaming down the road to help us. They will fuss over us, hook us up to the best machines, and transport us to the nearest hospital where a myriad of other professionals will give us their undivided attention. This leads us to project that God too is like that. He doesn’t want us to suffer the slightest pain, the smallest loss, the littlest discomfort but will move heaven and earth to rush to our side, pick us up and kiss it better.
It was this concept of the 911 God that I found challenged in the desert. There in the heat and desolation, if you fell and hurt yourself no body came to help you. There was no 911 to call. No hospital within miles to which you could be rushed. In the desert I experienced the tough side of God and I realized that God is sometimes hard. I think of how Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away because Ishmael was not the chosen seed and could not share the inheritance with Isaac. Abraham was sad, but he had to do it. That was a tough thing to do. To send a mother with her adolescent child into the desert with a little water and provisions is not easy but that is what God asked of Abraham. To those like me in the city, even the thought that God would demand such a thing is unthinkable.
The God of the desert does not run to my aid every time I fall and scrape my knee. He may just tell me to suck it up and keep going. We are not familiar with a God like this. But watching shepherds working their flocks in the heat and dust, made me better appreciate God’s role as a shepherd. Those shepherds were tough characters. I believe they cared deeply for their sheep but they were not sentimental toward them and they did not fawn over them.
I also gained a new insight into shepherding that helps explain some of the experiences I’ve gone through in life. I learned that the shepherd calls to his sheep via a series of whistles or songs. But there’s always that one sheep which has not learned the voice of the shepherd and so tends to wander off. I was told that the shepherd will strike that sheep on its leg so that it cannot walk for a while. During that time the shepherd treats the leg and carries the sheep on his shoulders until the leg is healed. By being carried along the errant sheep hears the voice of shepherd all day long. When the leg has healed and the sheep is let go, it has learned the shepherd’s voice and will not wander away. The paradox in this is that in order to save the sheep the shepherd has to hurt it. And further, in hurting the sheep, the shepherd inconveniences himself as he now has to carry that hobbled sheep on his shoulders until it is healed. But he is willing to do it. He is willing to inconvenience himself in order to save the sheep. I wonder if God has done that with me. There have been times when I felt God has called me to suffer. I now see that not only was that to prevent me from wandering away, but all that time, I was being carried on his shoulders, listening and learning his voice to better hear it the next time.
The second thing I learned was from what we did in the desert of En Gedi. This was the area to which David fled when he fell out of favour with Saul. Saul pursued him up and down that desert and David barely managed to stay one step ahead of his pursuer. What struck me about the area was how the rocks were dotted with caves and trails. David made use of those trails and caves in the cat and mouse game he played with Saul. One slip and he would have tasted Saul’s spear. But it never happened. The rocks and caves provided him protection and he made full use of them. In fact it was while he was hiding deep in one of those caves that the tables were turned and Saul nearly fell victim to David.
All this to say that when David says in Ps.71:3 – “For you are my rock and my fortress”, I now understand what he means. We in the west tend to describe God using abstract concepts. For us God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, sovereign, etc. And then we comb the scriptures to find texts to back up the abstraction. But to the Hebrew mind God is much more concrete. To David God is the rock because in that rock, David found protection from Saul, shade from the sun and shelter from the storm. This is not to say that David was pantheistic. But he experienced the reality of God in the literal reality of a rock that protected him from his enemy.
Once after a long, hot hike, we arrived at a beautiful oasis. There Mark gave a short lesson on this concrete understanding of God and then invited us to jump into the pool as a tangible experience of jumping into the life of God. Those of us who did were immediately cooled and refreshed. And I understood why the Hebrews referred to God as Living Water.
My third insight occurred at the base of a mountain in Caesarea Philippi. We visited the ruins of Herod’s two temples built side by side into the rock. One temple was to the Greek god Pan, the other to his friend Caesar Augustus. The god Pan was a half man, half goat figure and stood for everything immoral. In his temple there was a gate that was called the “gates of hell” because it was believed that the dead entered through them to the underworld. It was to this place that 2000 years ago, Jesus took the disciples and asked them the question: “Who do people say I am?” The disciples answered by naming various prophets. Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon answered for them all, “You are the Christ, the son of the Blessed.” Jesus acknowledged his answer and then said to Simon that his name will no longer be Simon but Peter (Gk. petros) and that on this rock (Gk. petra) Jesus would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. For years we have debated what Jesus meant by the rock upon which he would build his church. To Roman Catholics it is Peter himself. To Protestants it is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God.
I now believe that it is neither. Most likely, when Jesus said he would build his church, “on this rock” he was pointing to the rock upon which the two temples stood. That rock that was now the location of pagan worship and immorality was to Jesus symbolic of the world upon which Satan had built his pagan empire. Jesus was pointing to the rock and saying that in that place that was now dedicated to everything wicked, he would build the temple of God. The point is unmistakable. The world which is presently the kingdom of Satan, will become, as Rev. 11:15 states, the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Jesus will turn the pagan world into the kingdom of God and the powers of Satan (symbolized by the actual gates of hell in Pan’s temple) would not be able to stop him. I gained a new understanding of that passage and it makes much more sense to me now.
The last point I will make has to do with Jesus. We visited the Mount of Olives and sat down for a brief meditation and time of praise. From where we sat, we could see the ruins of the Jerusalem temple just a few hundred meters away across the Kidron Valley. I remembered how, long ago, Jesus had gone into that temple - which at that time would have been an incredibly glorious building - and created a no small stir by overturning the tables of the money changers and driving people out with a whip. He and his disciples then left the temple via the east gate, crossed the Kidron Valley and sat on the Mount of Olives – possibly on the very spot where we had sat. [By the way, that journey mimicked the prophecy of Ezekiel (9-11) where Ezekiel in a vision saw the glory of God departing the temple via the east gate, going across the Kidron Valley, hovering for a bit on the Mount of Olives and then departing.] Well, Jesus was literally fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision of the departure of the LORD from his temple by retracing the journey the glory of God took. And of course, in Ezekiel’s vision, once the presence of God leaves, it means you are vulnerable to enemy attack, as indeed happened when the Babylonians arrived and destroyed Jerusalem. As Jesus was leaving the temple, his disciples commented on how great the building was - as indeed it would have been. But Jesus said something strange. He replied that soon not one stone of the temple would be left standing upon another.
Well, while Jesus ‘hovered’ on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him and asked for an explanation and Jesus gave it to them in a cryptic prophetic statement: “when you see the Abomination of Desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place…” (Mt. 24:15) What Jesus was referring to by the Abomination of Desolation is explained by Luke in simple language (since Luke is most likely writing to non Jews to whom the term would have been meaningless): “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies…” (21:20). Jesus was predicting the destruction of the temple by the Romans. An event which took place some forty years later in 70 A.D.
The point in all of this was that we witnessed the reality of Jesus’ words. There before us were the stones of the temple, scattered about where the Romans had thrown them. It just drove home to me the infallibility of Jesus’ word and how literally they were fulfilled. And if those words of Jesus were fulfilled then so would all of them be – especially his word that he is coming back to reclaim this earth and establish his Kingdom upon it forever.
I could go on to list many more experiences that gave me new insights into the Scriptures. But already, I am at four pages. The things I have noted have been life changing. They will be reflected in my life and in my teaching. My students will be the ultimate beneficiaries of this trip.
Ivan De Silva
Part-Time Instructor in Religious Studies
Trinity Western University