Israel Study Trip

Reflections on Israel: God, Stones, People, Singing, and Home Again

From James K. Nolt

God: “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness” (Psalm 48:1). Visiting sites in Israel is a good opportunity to worship God, who chose this place to perform unique acts. It is also a time to mourn how His people rejected Him. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37).

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Inside the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem, November 11

Stones: Big stones, little stones, square stones, round stones. We saw stones “from Dan even to Beersheba.” Stones to build walls, to build pavements, and to build idols and temples. Empire builders destroyed the stones that others had arranged, and then they built other structures, which in turn others destroyed. After they had crossed the Jordan River, God told Joshua to build a stone memorial, so their children would ask, “What mean these stones?” (Joshua 4:21). As we viewed many ruins, we likewise pondered this question.

O where are kings and empires now, Of old that went and came?

But Lord, Thy Church is praying yet, A thousand years the same.”

The ruins of Capernaum remind us of Jesus’ lament, “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day” (Matthew 11:23). Abraham, in contrast, “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10).

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Ruins in Capernaum, November 9

People: Stones help us understand the past and how it shaped our lives, but contacts with living people are more memorable. People memories begin with the fine group of thirteen fellow travelers. How many times we counted, “1, 2, 3, . . . 13.” This reminded me of the dozens of times I counted students on school trips to be sure everyone was there.

There were some negative experiences, such as aggressive salesmen shoving their wares into our hands and demanding that we give an offer, but the majority were positive. And some were superlative, such as a supper in Bethlehem with Palestinian Christians (and singing “How Great Thou Art” in four languages; see Nov. 11 report), and evening Sabbath worship and supper with a Jewish family two evenings later. The modest dress of conservative Jewish women was commendable.

Not only were we watching people, but people were watching us. “Are you Amish?” “Are you Mennonite?” We heard these questions various times or overheard people discussing us. We hope we gave a good Christian witness.

Friendly family at the Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, November 14

Singing: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). We can worship God anywhere, but it was a blessing to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and other songs about Christ’s Birth in Bethlehem; to sing “Tis Midnight” and “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed,” etc. about His suffering and death in the Garden of Gethsemane; and to sing “Lift Your Glad Voices,” “Up from the Grave,” and “Alive Forevermore,” etc. as we visited a possible site of the Resurrection. What shall we sing in Nazareth? Is there any song that uniquely fits there? Yes. “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene.” As we looked across the Kidron Valley at the Eastern Gate, we sang, “I will meet you in the morning, just inside the Eastern Gate . . .”

The Jewish family demonstrated that singing is an important part of their Sabbath routine by their songs at the beginning and end of their meal. Later after we visitors had sung the first two stanzas of “How Great Thou Art,” extolling our Creator God, they welcomed us to sing a distinctly Christian stanza. On the last day, Sunday, our guide sang “Our Father” (the Lord’s Prayer) for us in Arabic.


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Jewish song book, used on the evening of the Sabbath

Home Again, November 15

With mixed feelings we boarded the B-787 late Sunday evening for our approximately 11 ½ hour flight from Tel-Aviv. We landed in Newark, New Jersey, shortly after 4:00 AM, grateful for a safe and enjoyable trip.

Later that morning, Sarah and I attended the funeral of her uncle. And so, the routines of life and death continue, at home and abroad. A mountaintop experience should renew us for the challenges before us, encourage us to be good Christian stewards of life’s opportunities, and help prepare us for death. Thank you, God, for the blessing of this trip; may You be honored in all things!

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Weary travelers on the Newark shuttle bus

Israel Study Trip

The Fall of Masada

By Lester K. Burkholder

(Due to technical difficulties, we weren’t able to post this article earlier when we were at Masada)

A highlight today was ascending the 375 foot high earthen ramp to the top of Masada built by 15,000 Jewish  slaves in 73 AD. Masada is an ancient fortress  built on a 1300 foot high butte  on the eastern edge of the Judean desert and overlooking the Dead Sea.

Jerusalem had fallen to the Romans and Masada was the last Jewish stronghold. On top was the Sicarii remnant of the Jewish nation under siege by the Roman army. They realized that their enslaved Jewish brothers were being forced to build the ramp which, when built, would be their downfall. 

According to Josephus,on April 15, 73AD the Roman troops entered the fortress in full armor.  They found an eerie silence. The 960 residents of Masada had committed mass suicide. Only two women and five children, who had hidden themselve in the cisterns, were found alive.

What happens in Israel is important to Christianity. The Temple era was over, and from its roots the new shoot of Christianity would flourish.

Israel Study Trip


Friday was a long day, and packed full of interest and inspiration. The first thing this morning we had our PCR Covid tests done in preparation for flying home on Sunday night. We were relieved when within a few hours they all came back negative. Praise the Lord!

Then we went to the Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. The golden Dome of the Rock was right in front of us across the Kidron valley.

Jerusalem is a city of stone. Above left is a picture of the city wall showing layers of stone as the wall was rebuilt multiple times over the centuries. Next is a picture of the sealed-up Golden Gate on the east wall of the Temple Mount. The picture on the right is a close-up of Herodian stone. Notice the frame chiseled around the edge of the stone. This is typical of Herod’s stonework.

We sat awhile at the Southern Steps. The lower steps are original from the Second Temple era, so we sat and walked where Jesus went up into the temple. We read about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which some theologians believe may have happened somewhere here in the vicinity of the temple. The remains of at least 50 ritual baths in front of us showed that there would have been plenty of room and plenty of water to baptize “about 3000 souls.”

Stonework in the City of David, the oldest part of the city which David captured from the Jebusites. Clay seals were found in this area bearing the names of people mentioned in the Bible as being part of the court of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah.

We visited the garden tomb. Whether this tomb or the Holy Sepulchre site are the actual place where Jesus was laid, one thing is the same about them–they’re both empty! It was a beautiful day to sit in the garden and sing about the Resurrection.

A great highlight of the day was walking through Hezekiah’s tunnel. Our guide strongly advised putting our phones safely away, since if we dropped them they would be gone! Since I already dropped my phone at least twice on this trip, I decided to follow this advice, therefore I have no pictures. The water was clear and somewhat cold, and fun to walk through. Some of us found the tunnel uncomfortably narrow and low at spots, but we all made it through. It was amazing to look at the chisel marks in those ancient stone walls and think of the people who formed them long ago.

The evening was the best part of all. We spent the evening with an Orthodox Jewish family, attending prayers with them, eating supper with them, and discussing many things. Our minds and hearts are full, and you might hear more about these things tomorrow…

A young man who came to Israel from Cleveland, Ohio, to study at the yeshiva and serve in the Israeli military. His wife is beside him, and the yeshiva behind him. We were allowed to go in and look at the large room where about 400 students gather to study. Each student has a section of the table, and you can see their vast collection of books, all about the Tanakh, our Old Testament.

The parents and oldest daughter of the family who hosted us. The mother is lighting the candles to bring in the Sabbath.
Israel Study Trip

Around the Sea of Galilee

The back of our hotel in Tiberias, beside the Sea of Galilee,
whose modern name is Lake Kinneret

The highest peak in the photo above is Mt. Arbel. The other side of the mountain is full of caves, with a bloody history. These caves were used by Jews as hideouts during a rebellion in 37 BC. Herod the Great (before he was great) crushed the rebellion by lowering soldiers over the cliff in cages to drag the rebels and their families out of the caves and drop them down the cliffs.

A view from the top of Mt. Arbel
The excavated ruins of Kfar Nahum (village of Nahum) now known as Capernaum.
This is the village where Jesus lived during most of His ministry

This is a grindstone of black basalt, a rock which is very common in this area. Jesus said, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” Quite possibly a millstone and the sea were in sight of the people when He said it.

The Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

The picture above is a recently excavated synagogue at Magdala from the time of Jesus. Notice the pillars, the seating around the inner square, and more seating around the outer edge, with a beautiful mosaic floor in the aisle between. The Bible tells us Jesus taught in all the synagogues in Galilee, so He very likely walked these very stones. In the center is a beautifully carved stone that was likely part of the lectern where the scriptures were read.

A closer look at the mosaic floor
Above is a modern chapel which we also toured. We had a time of singing in the rotunda under the dome, and a prayer service in a chapel in which there is a famous picture of the woman touching Jesus’ hem.
Israel Study Trip


“Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

All thirteen of us arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, and all our sheaves of paperwork intact. It got a little confusing to figure out who needed to see which papers when.

Our flight was delayed more than an hour, but otherwise went very smoothly. Praise the Lord, we got through all the paperwork of customs and the PCR test. Now we’re on our bus heading South to Arad to our first hotel. Our bus driver is named John, and our guide is Sufian, both Palestinian Christians.