What I Didn’t Know – with a title like that, this blog could get long, folks. Maybe clarifying it will make the task of writing this less daunting. So… What I Didn’t Know About Israel Before Going There.
Well, actually, that’s going to take forever, too.
To make a long story (hopefully) a little shorter, there are some things that I didn’t know about Israel and the Holy Land before I set out to take this trip. What’s there to know apart from what we have in Scripture? More than you would think. And detailing some of it here might help you as you pray for another part of the world, as you plan a trip, or as you challenge yourself to think differently about things that we (as Americans) are taught to think about the Middle East.
See? This might take a while. So I’ll start with the easiest…
What I Didn’t Know About Israel Before Going There
Israel and Palestine and the relationship between the two… it’s complicated. I read a few books on the subject before I left, trying to get a grasp of the history of the region, knowing that terms like “West Bank” and “Gaza Strip” are almost synonymous with war and terrorism and extremism in my mind. I also came in with a different bias, having spent time in Lebanon several years ago where their view of Israel is less than glowing. (And where we were wondering if there wasn’t something to it as Israeli jets flew over restricted airspace in Beirut one day while we were there, flying low enough to cause the most awful commotion all around us, prompting more fighting down south at the border between the two countries.) Wes and I have spent time in Muslim countries where we’ve been told, “We are cousins. You are Isaac; we are Ishmael,” and we certainly read Scripture with that in mind. But after reading the history of Palestine and Israel… well, they are Isaac and Ishmael in the truest sense. And contrary to what the media and our own culture would have us believe, the history between the two cultures (who aren’t cousins but brothers, living side by side) isn’t as simple as good versus bad. Why does this matter? Why should we care? Because God loves Israelis and Palestinians both. Displacing people and creating barriers isn’t going to speed along the coming of His kingdom, and having hard hearts toward the plight of those who have been persecuted will do nothing to honor God. There needs to be compassion on both sides, and as Christians looking at the situation, we need to think beyond politics. Am I speaking in terms too nuanced? Maybe. I’m still learning so I’m hesitant to say too much. We met many Palestinian Christians while we were in Israel, and despite the (literal) barriers that force them into only certain parts of the country and the political pressure that threatens their continued existence in the only home they’ve known since (literally) Biblical times, they’ve not reverted to extremism or terrorism either one because of Christ, because of their love for their Savior, and, like us in a non-persecuted American culture, a desire to honor Him. We spoke with one such believer while we were there, and he told us that most Americans assume since he’s a Palestinian and an Arab both (“I’m not ashamed to be either,” he assured us) that he must be a Muslim as well. When he corrected one such person, telling him that “I am a Christian, like you,” he was then asked when he’d become a believer, when a missionary had come to Palestine to reach him with the Gospel, what that missionary’s name was. He replied with “The missionary who reached my people came to Palestine two thousand years ago, and He was sent by God Himself. His name was Jesus. I am a Galilean, just as my Savior was.” When we think of Israelis and Palestinians, we must remember that they were the very people that Christ came from (He was one of them!) and the very people that He reached.
The religious sites are more accurate than you would think. When I was in seminary, I heard a professor speak disparagingly of the traditional religious sites in Israel, telling us all that it was unlikely that the sites venerated for centuries were accurate since they were “founded” (for lack of a better word) three hundred years after Christ by Constantine’s mother who was clearly not there when the Biblical story was unfolding. (Obviously.) I’ve believed that until this trip, thinking that the greatest part of my visit would simply be being in places where Jesus might have walked, experiencing the culture of the areas where He spent His life. Once I got there, though, I heard about how these traditional sites were established. Some of them began to be venerated before Christ ever even went to the cross, like the site where the angel told Mary that she would have a child. As soon as Jesus began performing miracles, that site – Mary’s parents’ home – became a place that was well known far and wide. The other sites took on a similar significance, with people of the time knowing exactly just where it was that Jesus was born, where He did miracles, where He was beaten, where He carried His cross, where He died, and where the empty tomb lay. When Jerusalem fell in 70 AD, those sites were still well known to the Romans who, knowing the spiritual significance of them, built their own pagan temples on the places, believing that spiritual power rested there. (Wes says this was common across all cultures of Biblical times. They would have wanted to destroy the remnants of devotion to this so called Jesus Messiah, but they would have wanted to tap into the spiritual power behind those very sites. Crazy, huh?) So when Constantine became a believer and sent his mother to reclaim those sites, she went to the right ones. And even after the centuries of strife and wars and overturning and fighting and destroying that followed — well, the Byzantine era sites (the very ones Constantine claimed) have been found beneath the rubble. And they’ve been reclaimed, again and again, and modern archeological excavations agree with the traditional sites! We went through the places – the traditional places – where Jesus was whipped and thrown into prison, the very stones which are underneath a church that was built centuries ago to protect them, and our guide told us that there are those who doubt the accuracy. “But the archaeological evidence,” he said, leaving the rest unsaid. Wes and I walked out of the church a few moments later, and stretched out all before us and below us were the remains of an ancient dungeon, cell after cell. “The archeology matches up with the traditional site,” Wes whispered as I fought back tears, knowing that we’d just stood inside the very cell where Jesus had lain, bleeding from the thirty-nine lashes, our hands on the very stones where He’d rested His head. Chills, y’all, each and every time we entered one of these places. He was there. He was really there. And I’m crying again. The gravity of being there where He was. Thank You, Jesus, for suffering for me.
There are churches built on top of the sites. So that bedazzled picture from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? Yeah, that’s not how it looked on the night that Jesus was born. Churches have been built on top of these sites, to mark them, to protect them, and to provide a place for worship. There is a church built on top of Golgotha, y’all, but there’s part of the stone left exposed, the very place He bled, left in a shrine surrounded by even more bedazzled hoo-haas and ornamentation. The pomp and pageantry of it all is admittedly something out of my comfort zone, but those places are still of holy significance. So you better believe I got down on my knees in that incense-filled tomb, crawling past all of the candles and the gold and the assorted baubles and anointing oil to lay my hands on the very stone where they laid the body of Jesus and where HE STOOD BACK UP THREE DAYS LATER. (Tears again. Y’all. Go to Israel.)
It’s safe. I hear a lot of people express some hesitation about going to Israel because of the political climate and the unrest in the region that we hear about so often. Israel’s tourism industry is huge (as you would imagine), and thousands of people go there every year from countries far and wide. Yes, it’s the Middle East, and yes, there are issues in the area. But our experience as tourists was completely safe. One night Wes and I even walked by ourselves to another neighborhood to pick up some Cokes at a mini-market, and we never felt unsafe. Israel is safe. Palestine is safe. So go ahead. Book that trip! (Can you tell that I think you should book a trip?!)
Up next… Galilee and Nazareth, where I’m reduced to a teary, blubbering mess. Again. (It’s a theme with this trip, y’all.)