February 15: Today we left the Galilee and headed south to the desert, and the Dead Sea area.
Before getting too far though, we stopped at a Kibbutz named Gesher so we could get a feel for some of Israel’s more recent history. A kibbutz is a settlement of people who work towards the collective good of their community. It’s a unique thing to Israel, and learning about the lifestyle today took us out of ancient history and more into the history of Israel over the last century. Many pioneers of the Kibbutz movement were Jews fleeing persecution around Europe, and many of these started prior to the formation of Israel as an independent state. They were not religious communities, like say – the Amish communities are in the US. It was more of a secular movement which relied on concepts of socialism, independent spirits, and fiercely creative plans on making a living on land that many other people didn’t want. Our guide at the Gesher gave us some great history on the wars of 1948, and 1967 and the role of his Kibbutz at stopping the progress of the Jordanian army. These were brave people who stared down trained soldiers, blew up bridges, and fought to keep the land they had worked so hard for. Pretty inspiring. We discussed later as a group, that this stop wasn’t ‘about Jesus’ per-se. But the story of Jesus didn’t stop at the cross, or in 1st century Galilee. It continues today, and is active in the events of present-time Israel and into the future. Jesus will return here.
After the Kibbutz, we headed further south into the desert and stopped at one of the best preserved Roman ruins in Israel. An ancient town named Bet-She’an. Bet-She’an was a premier city in the first half of the last millennia, and it was one of the leading cities of the Decapolis.
It honestly felt like we were on a trip to Greece as we walked past the many columns and arches. Check out some of the pics, it’s really incredibly preserved. Many cultures lived in this city over the last four thousand years. Caananites, Egyptians, Philistines, Romans, Byzantine Christians – etc. etc. From a Biblical perspective, this place is important because it’s where the Philistines hung King Saul and his son John’s body from the walls after defeating them in battle and decapitating them. As a group, we’ve contemplated all these cities that have basically collapsed into the ground – so many that we’ve visited over the past four days. Cities that were really important hustle-bustle big time players in their world. Where people lived their lives and ‘important’ things happened. And yet – the only reason we know they’re even there is because someone started digging them up out of the ground. The lesson? Every beautiful earthly powerful thing will fade into dust. Treasure in heaven is where it’s at. Because nothing will last here. Things aren’t important. But our work for the kingdom will ring out into eternity.
Next we went to the oldest city on the earth – Jericho. There have been settlements found by archaeologists in Jericho dating back 11,000 years. In the narrative of the conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua, the Battle of Jericho is the first battle that is described. According to Joshua 6:1-27, the walls of Jericho fell after Joshua's Israelite army marched around the city blowing their trumpets. Jesus made it a point to stop here on his trips to Jerusalem, as it was a crossroads town, and was in need for some good healing. In fact, homeless outcasts often lined the roads in and out of town because it was a good place to encounter the well-to-do traders and political elites. As Jesus drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped. “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind beggar said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. (Luke 18:35-43)
Today, Jericho is under Palestinian authority and is located in the West Bank. It looks a bit worse for wear, and while there is a small Christian population, it is mostly Muslim. The calls for prayer rang out during our time there. We did get to hear some awesome testimony from a representative of the Palestinian Bible Society. He works right in the midst of a tough environment to gently demonstrate the love of Christ to his neighbors in Jericho. His pure faith and courage – inspired many of us to reflect on how far we’d go for our faith. What would we risk for Jesus?
Message for Res from Simon at the Palestinian Bible Society
After Jericho – the landscape really changed dramatically with tall brown desert rockfaces, soaring into the sky…and the Dead Sea lapping away at the bottom of the cliffs. The Dead Sea is huge. It looks like an ocean. The Sea of Galilee in retrospect seems like a very large lake in comparison. We checked in to our hotel tonight, and have plans to explore some biblical desert sites tomorrow.
P.S. Many of us road camels for the first time today. Lots of laughter. Some very big childlike smiles from even the most mature in our group. But then - soaring into the air on the back of a ridiculous looking creature can have that affect on people.