Saturday April 22nd
On Saturday morning, I pulled the curtains back in our room so we could see our last sunrise on the Sea of Galilee. Our bags were packed, and we were due in the lobby by 7:00am so the bus could be loaded, and we could get on the road. We were heading south!
Our first stop of the day was Beit She’an. (1 Samuel 31:8-13)
Excavations of Beit She’an began in the 1920’s, and archeologists have since identified eighteen different levels of occupation. During Roman rule, it became the capital city of the Decapolis.
Walking through the national park, columns stand far taller than the average person. Some have fallen over, but many remain in the same place they were raised over one thousand years earlier.
There are remains of a theater thought to have held 5,000 people, streets made of intricate mosaics, and bathhouses that boasted sauna technology.
In this picture, you can see the columns that the floor used to sit on top of. Hot water was ushered in through the walls and steam would push up, creating a “dry sauna.” To create a “wet sauna” or steam room, they would pour water onto the hot floor. Let me tell you, the Romans walked so the Four Seasons could run.
Near the back of the national park is a set of about 150 stairs you can take to see a view of the whole city. And it is worth the climb.
From Beit She’an we made our way to Jericho.
The first thing you see when pulling into the remains of ancient Jericho is Elisha’s spring. This freshwater spring has made Jericho an oasis for thousands of years, as it has given people access to water in an otherwise very dry, desert area.
When we arrived, we saw many people cleaning their hands and feet, and even dunking their heads in the running water. This is because in 2 Kings 2:19-22, it is said that the prophet Elisha healed the water, making it safe to drink and able to provide fruitful land.
We then walked around the remains of Jericho, trying to imagine the famous story in the Bible where the Israelites marched around the city for seven days. It is a story I’ve heard since elementary school, way back when it was one of the Veggie Tales videos we watched on Fridays. As we walked, the familiar song echoed in the back of my head, Keep walking, but you won’t knock down our wall. Keep walking, but she isn’t gonna fall!
Spoiler alert: she fell.
Our final stop of the day was the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which up until this trip, I did not know was a real place. I’d heard it the Lord’s Prayer—“yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”—but I’d always thought it was a metaphor.
Back in the bus, our group collapsed into our seats. The promised heat of the southern cities in Israel (and the already five full days of our “pilgrimage”) had started to creep up on us.
The drive to our new hotel was relatively quiet until we approached the tunnel. Just then Ruby started playing a song through the speakers that sounded like the equivalent of the Jerusalem national anthem. She told us to look to our left when we came through the tunnel to get our first glimpse of the city.
I was so grateful to have a window seat on the left side of the bus. Because when the end of the tunnel appeared up ahead and the bus thrust us back into the gold light of the late afternoon, I had a front row seat and wow.
I’d been in Israel for almost a week, but I suddenly felt like I was seeing it for the first time.
The white stone, the accordion layered architecture, the glittering Dome of the Rock, and the gorgeous pops of green. There was nothing like it.
“Wow,” I kept saying over and over again, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head. “Wow.”
Sunday April 23rd,
Sunday started at the Israel Museum.
We arrived right at opening and immediately headed inside to see “the model.”
On the patio, just through the two sets of double doors, there is a model of what Jerusalem would have looked like in 66 BC, the night before the Jews revolted against the Romans, during which much of the city was destroyed.
With a laser pointer, Ruby pointed out areas on the model that we would be visiting over the next few days. She also demonstrated just how far Jesus would have had to walk during his arrest, trial and ultimate crucifixion. It gave new meaning to the phrase “walk out your faith.”
“Now,” Ruby said as we walked away from the model. “Let me tell you a story.”
She told us the story of a young shepherd in the 1940’s. He was out tending to his flock and passing the time when he threw a rock into a nearby cave and heard something shatter. Expecting it to be treasure, he climbed into the cave and found a series of clay pots, one of which he’d hit. Inside the pots were a series of scrolls. Over the next seven years, ten more caves were explored and upwards of 800 manuscripts were found, some that dated back 2,000 years. Among the scrolls, were excerpts from every book in the Old Testament of the Bible except for the book of Esther.
Walking into a dimly lit room in the museum, we saw the scrolls. So fragile yet so resilient. There was something so powerful about seeing handwritten text survive the test of time, of words out living the people who wrote them, carrying their message to generations. (You can see digital versions of the scrolls here.)
From the Israel Museum we headed to the Holocaust History Museum.
It goes without saying that this was a very heavy place. I have attended multiple museums and exhibits here in the States that cover the Holocaust, but to be in a country so rich in the Jewish culture, where the Star of David, once worn on the sleeves of Jews who were to be sent to concentration camps, now flies freely on the flags that line every street, it added an extra punch. And not only that, but the museum itself is designed with so much extra intention and artistry.
Here you can see the museum from the outside, it is triangular in shape, representing an inescapable prison, if you tried to climb the inside of a triangle, you would simply slide back down.
Inside, the museum path moves in a zig zag pattern. From the entrance, you can see the exit—a straight shot up the middle. You can see the sunlight coming through the double doors at the other end of the building, but you can’t walk right to it. You have to zig zag, walking through the rooms showcasing the hatred, brutality, violence, and tragedy.
In a separate exhibit, there are a series of candles, reflected in a room full of mirrors. You look up and down, side to side and all you can see are those candles. As you walk through the room, a voice reads the name, age, and country of origin of one of the almost two million children killed in the Holocaust.
In another exhibit, there are floor to ceiling shelves flush with binders containing the names of every single person killed. It was a chilling reminder that, while we know the history, these were people that could have been walking around this country, on these very streets, where we now got to tour leisurely.
From the museums, we drove to Bethlehem.
“We are having Maklouba for lunch,” Ruby said as we pulled up to a banquet hall in the West Bank.
Maklouba means “upside down” in Arabic.
We sat down at long banquet tables and immediately dove into the hummus and pita bread, then watched as the chef carried a deep pot to a table at the front of the room.
He leaned the pot forward, showing piping hot rice and vegetables, then the servers started a countdown.
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” the room chanted as the chef lifted the pot in the air and flipped it over with a bang. When he lifted it back up, chicken sat on top of the rice and vegetables and it looked delicious.
After lunch, we got to shop a little at the neighboring store. My mom and I bought some souvenirs to bring back to family and friends, and we each picked out an authentic olive wood carving as a trinket to commemorate our trip.
From there, we went to the Church of the Nativity, the place Jesus was born, followed by the Shepherd’s Field, the place where the angel appeared to the shepherds to tell them of Jesus’ birth.
These were perhaps some of the most jarring sites we saw because they challenged the images of Jesus’ birth I’d had my whole life. For one thing, the “barn” I always envisioned as I heard the story on Christmas Eve, was like the barn I’d seen while visiting my family in the Midwest: Tall and wooden and bright red.
“In the middle east,” Ruby said as we peaked into the structure she was pointing at, “this would be what a ‘barn’ would have looked like.”
She was pointing at a cave. Stone. Cold. A single spotlight of sun shining in.
I’d pictured the Shepherd’s field to be vast, flat plains, with thick, soft grass—a sheep’s version of Hometown Buffet—when in reality it was hilly, rocky and sparse.
Standing looking out at the view, I thought of the hospitals with skilled doctors we have now, and the cellphones that can alert the world of good (or bad) news in an instant. Then I thought of Mary on that stone floor, and the shepherds that had to walk miles to tell people of what they heard.
Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the ruins of Beit She’an, this story is one that has stood the test of time, being passed from generation to generation. Good news shared over and over and over, ever since that night in the Shepherd’s Field.
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