Israel Study Trip

Bethlehem Shepherds Hill & Cave, Church of Nativity & Joppa

We ate breakfast & left the Grand Court Hotel & Jerusalem around 10am.

At our last breakfast one table was talking history & Amos exclaimed: “Isn’t it amazing that we are sitting in Jerusalem talking about Anabaptist history?”

We visited an area in Bethlehem with a view of the the hillsides that shepherds have watch their flocks for millenia. We took an hour to read from Luke 2, give time reflect on experiences in the last week, sing & pray.

Hills of Bethlehem.

Afterwards Elias gave a tour of a nearby Shepherd’s cave house. He noted that the NT “inn” is a mistranslation of “upper guest room” and what NT is saying is that Joseph’s relatives all already had their guest rooms full.

Elias telling about the shepherd’s cave dwelling.

We ate lunch of falafel (which included a server getting dramatically cut by glass) and then headed to the Church of the Nativity.

Underground falafel shop.

Perhaps more accurately, the churches of the Nativity as it houses Greek Orthodox, Armenian & Catholic areas. It has some nice mosaics on the floor & of course the grotto (cave) where Jesus was born & the “stable” nearby.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Entering the “humble” front door of the Church of the Nativity.

As we left we noted the wall between the Palestinian & Israeli sections of Bethlehem that was built after the last intifada. It had interesting graffiti by the famous Banksy celebrating a future time when unity & peace can be the norm.

From Bethlehem we traveled north west, through the Coastal Plains (where God made the sun to stand still for Joshua while he fought the Caananites) to Joppa. The temperature was noticeably warmer here—just perfect for an evening stroll. Our guide Sufian noted that Joppa, or Jaffa, was named after Noah’s son Japheth. Joppa is the “port of Jerusalem” since it wasn’t a port city. This is one reason there is a Joppa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Modern Tel Aviv from Joppa.

Joppa is where Jonah tried to escape God’s call to the pagan Assyrians. Joppa is also the sight where Peter called pagans “unclean” when God was calling them to be part of His Kingdom. (Acts 10) Peter’s vision at Simon the Tanner’s house changed the course of history. Thankfully Peter responded a bit more enthusiastically than Jonah & Peter’s story doesn’t end with him pouting.

Traditional sight of Simon the Tanner’s house in Old City Joppa.

We had turkey & veal shawarma for dinner courtesy of Isa. Shawarma is meat cut off a spit and put in a pita like a sandwich.

Some of the ladies with their shawarma.
Israel Study Trip

Jerusalem on Shabbat: From Bethany to Gethsemane, Israel Museum Dead Sea Scrolls, Upper Room & Ben Yehuda Street

First thing in the morning of Shabbat (Saturday) we noticed some changes in our routine at the Grand Court Hotel. Guests could use “Shabbat mode” elevators to avoid pressing a button and “breaking a circuit.” We also noticed no scrambled eggs, the toaster was missing and the coffee machines were covered with a cloth.

The little red LED indicates this elevator is set to “Shabbat mode” & will automatically stop at every floor.

Our first activity was walking from Bethany (aka Bet’Haini) to Jerusalem, roughly the path that Jesus took on his triumphal entry. It was steep but not overly hard to walk.

Following the path from Bethany to Jerusalem.

The olive tree garden where traditional site of Gethsemane is located is part way down the Mount of Olives. Gethsemene means “the place of an olive press”. At the present there are no longer that many olive trees around but we were glad for these gardens preserved for relaxing & mediating on Jesus’ struggle to follow the Father’s will.

Andrew leading in some meditation & sharing at a olive garden near Gethsemane.

Our next stop was the Israel Museum. We needed a Covid Green Pass to enter. We focused on the 2nd Temple era model of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea scrolls display. The model of Jerusalem helped me settle in my mind where the City of David was in relation to the Old City.

It was interesting to see the display of actual Dead Sea scrolls.  Some of them looked like they could have been written yesterday.

No photos were allowed in the Israeli Museum, but what Dead Sea scrolls looked like.

We had falafel at a small shop for lunch.

Eating falafel for lunch.

We visited the traditional sight of the Upper Room & David’s Tomb. David’s Tomb is a Jewish sight which required Jewish protocol which included “No Sleeping”.

Traditional site of the upper room.

We strolled through the market at Damascus Gate. Some bought some souvenirs they weren’t sure they wanted.

The Damascus Gate of Old City.

After supper we did some strolling on Ben Yehuda Street area. Some of us satisfied our fast food craving.

Ben Yehuda Street.
Israel Study Trip

Jerusalem: Western Wall, Temple Mount, Old City & West Bank: Beit Sahour & Bethlehem

On the way to the Old City of Jerusalem we saw the Mount of Olives.

Mount of Olives

The Western Wall is part of the massive retaining wall for Herod’s Temple, closest to the Temple, specifically the Holy of Holy’s, that non-Muslim prayers can be made. Some unique characteristics of Jewish prayer at the wall: Covering the head, placing written prayers in the wall and a swaying motion of those praying.

Some from our group chatting at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

While pondering at the wall Jesus’ words in John 4:21ff came to me: “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth…”

While we now can worship anywhere and no longer need “a temple of cedars built with hands”, place also holds importance and it seemed a bit of a contradiction that pious Jewish would find it sacred to touch the stones laid by King Herod who himself was always eyed with suspicion by Jews of his day.

The Dome of the Rock covers the area traditionally held to be location of Isaac’s binding, Temple Holiest of Holy & where Muslim’s believe Mohammed rose to heaven. This makes an extremely important location for the 3 monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity & Islam.

The Dome of the Rock. Also notice the quite modern looking sundial at the top of the photo.

For a morning snack had some coffee, Jerusalem roll, olive oil and Za’taar, also known as hyssop.

Bread, olive oil & hyssop is a good snack.

We strolled through the Old City for a bit. Also the market shops at Mahane Yehuda Street.

Walking through the ally ways of Old City.

We had an interesting discussion with Moise & Dov Shorashim at their shop near the golden Menorah. Moise had a short talk on his interest that Jews & Christians “have a discussion”. Afterward we discussed Isaiah 53, Psalm 110, how he would recognize the Messiah & other items.

Next we headed to an area A in the West Bank. An ominous signed warned Isareli citizens of dire danger to enter the Palestinian Authority zone.

Area A: “Entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden.”

Our destination was to a Palestinian Christian owned olive wood working shop in Beit Sahour.

Palestinian Christian giving us a tour of his wood carving shop.

Our last destination was Bethlehem to a gift shop and afterward we had supper with a Palestinian Christian family. The two brothers, Isa & Elias where very friendly and hospitable. They served some incredible lamb. Amos discovered Elias could speak German was in his glory. Perhaps the best part was after James lead our group in a song Elias noted they would sing us a song too. He and another family member had good voices & sang “How Great Thou Art” in Arabic! After they finished we all sang it again in the various languages around the table: Arabic, German, English & Romanian.

Joining in a multidenominational, multilingual version of “How Great Thou Art” near Bethlehem.
Israel Study Trip

Nazareth, Mount Carmel, Haifa & Caesarea Maritime

Our first stop was Nazareth, which is about 1 hour from Tiberias. Nat’zereth means “offshoot” which came from the fact that it was established by religious Jews as an offshoot of Bethlehem to start a village without Gentiles. We are reminded Jesus was noted to be “the offshoot” or branch as well.

The Branch out of the root of Jesse

Isaiah 11:1, Revelation 5:5

We visited the “Nazareth  Village” which was a reconstruction of various aspects of Nazareth life in the time of Jesus: the shepherd’s fold, a vineyard, olive press, carpenter, spinning & weaving & synagogue (Beit Knesset: House of Meeting).

The guide noted that in Jesus’ day did not eat olives as they are too bitter and it took a long time to find the recipe to make them taste good. Amos was overheard exclaiming “My goodness I’m glad they discovered that!”

Demonstrating the 4 steps of pressing olive oil. Stone pressing, God’s oil, human use & lamp oil.

I was especially fascinated by the winepress as it was authentic and dated by archeologists to near the time of Jesus based on pottery found there. Notice the trampling area, the notch to drain and the holding trough in front of it.

In a winepress dated to roughly Jesus’ day.

We passed through the fertile Jezreel Valley and passed Har’Meggido (aka Armageddon) on the way to Mount Carmel. This was an important passage for travelers and armies. Because of this it was the site of the significant battles of the ages like Deborah & Sisera and others.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ evokes the showdowns of Har’Meggido to indicate the victory ahead for Jesus & His Kingdom.

On Mount Carmel overlooking the Brook Kishon and surrounding valley.

Next we arrived at Carmel. We learned that in Hebrew Carm’el means “the vineyard of God”. If you see “el” in a Hebrew word it usually designates “God”. For example: Isra’el. Mount Carmel is of course the sight of the great showdown & victory of Elijah. (Notice the El’Ijah: God is My God!) 1 Kings 18:22. Baal was supposed to be in charge of the rain, but Elijah demonstrated that Yahweh was *actually* in charge of the rain.

A very typical salad bar at Mitzpe Carmel Restaraunt.

From here we grabbed lunch and headed to the modern city of Haifa. Our guide, Sufian, noted that Haifa is the place where Muslims, Jews & others lives together in harmony unlike many other places in Israel.

An view overlooking Ba’hai Gardens, Haifa, bay & port.

Caesarea Maritime is the city built by Herod on the Mediterranean Sea. No expense was spared in its building. It sported seaside palaces with seaside pools, a hippodrome (race track), theater and harbor that was envisioned to compete with Alexandria.

The theater built by Herod in Caesarea. James & Sarah demonstrated the excellent acoustics by singing.

It is here at Caesarea that Peter made the monumental transition to accepting a Gentile and all people as God does. Paul said “I appeal to Caesar” in this city.

The floor of a palace in Caesarea where the apostle Paul appealed to Caesar.

A stone with the Latin inscription: “Pontias Pilate, the prefect of Judea [erected a building] to [the emperor] Tiberias”.

Stone inscription noting Pontias Pilate erected a building to Tiberias in Caesarea.

Israel Study Trip

Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Mount Arbel & Magdala

The first activity today was getting on a boat right from the pier at the Ron Beach Hotel. They raised the American flag and we were on our way. The captain shut down the engines a ways out and we had a time of peaceful reflection on some passages . Andrew read some selections related to Jesus calming the sea and Jesus walking on the water. James lead us in singing “Master the Tempest is Raging”.

Boarding the boat on the Sea of Galilee.

Our voyage ended at Kibbutz Ginosar, which is significant because its where the “Sea of Galilee Boat” was discovered. The boat was significant because it was the 1st New Testament era boat preserved in a fresh water lake.

We soon learned that what we call “Capernaum” is Kfar Nahoum here and means “the village of Nahum”. (Not nessesarily the prophet Nahum, but likely some other person of consequence.) It was also at an intersection of an important trade routes, “the way of the sea” (Matthew 4:15). This explains a few things: Why Jesus used this as a hub for his ministry and why Matthew would be sitting at the “receipt of customs” (collecting toll). Spreading the message of God’s Kingdom at this strategic spot meant it would have the potential of reaching far flung places along the trade routes. It was also a religiously attuned area that would be willing to react rigorously with the message.

The synoquoge in Capernaum. The one under what is seen is likely the one we read about in the New Testatment, built by the loved centurian.

Mount Arbel is a high peak which overlooks the Galilee area. Was this where Jesus went to pray? Was this the place where Jesus gave the Great Commission? (overlooking the surrounding “world”?) After descended we tried some carob from a tree in a resting area. It tastes kind of like chocolate.

The summit of Mount Arbel.

Those who wanted had the opportunity to get a “Peter’s fish” at Tanureen Galilee Restaurant for lunch.

Lester working on his “Peter’s Fish”.

After lunch we headed to Magdala. This extremely interesting sight was discovered when the construction for a high end hotel was begun. The very first day of the excavation, in 2009, at only about 3 feet of depth the 1st century synagogue & town of Magdala was unexpectedly discovered. Roman coins from 9AD to 44AD were discovered in & around the synoguauge which means this synagogue was used during the life and death of Jesus.

Synagogue that very likely was in use during the life of Jesus.

The synagogue has a mosaic floor, a “temple” reading table and by our count, seating for about 100 people with very spacious aisles. Since the New Testament says Jesus taught “in all the synagogues of Galilee” it is almost certain the Jesus once stood on this very floor.

Ancient town of Magdala.

The ruins of the town of Magdala surrounded the synoguoge includs areas to store live fish, houses and the main road to the nearby Sea of Galilee.

“Put out into the Deep” Chapel in Magdala.

Mary Magdalene is closely associated with the town of Magdala and there is a statue of her and a Women’s Atrium in the Duc in Altum chapel. (“Put out into the Deep” chapel). The atrium celebrates the significant contribution of the women among the first community of believers and throughout history. An inscription encircling the ceiling noted: “The church gives thanks…for the mystery of woman, and for every woman, for her eternal dignity & for the wonders God has worked in & through her in the history of humanity.” Pillars throughout contain the names of women who followed Jesus, with one pillar with no name. To whom is this pillar dedicated? The women that were to come.

We thank God for “the dignity & wonders God has worked” through these women.

We were lead in a meaningful meditation about Jarius’ raised daughter & the woman healed by touching Jesus’ hem in the Encounter Chapel. Andrew talked about the meaning of tzitzit, or tassels or “fringes of the garments” that the woman likely touched: The 4 blue stripes stand for 4 letters of YHWH & the threads & knots in Jewish numerology stand for the 613 laws of Torah. At James’ suggestion we sang a few songs and spent some time praying for some pressing current needs in our world.

Israel Study Trip

Tel Dan, Caesarea Philippi, Golan Heights, Bet’hsaida & the Mount of Beatitudes

The Ron Beach Hotel is acomodating and our room has a view of the Sea of Galilee. It was a welcome sight to see the breakfast buffet had some American fair: Eggs, toast, pancakes etc, along with Israeli options.

On the ride to Tel Dan we saw Rosh Pina, the first settlement (first Ailyah) in 1882. We passed the fort of Hazor, mentioned in Judges as conquered Deborah.

Tel Dan Nature Reserve had both natural beauty and historic interest. First we walked through a wooded area of one of the springs that feeds roughly 50% of the Jordan River.

Spring feeding Jordan River.

Tel Dan is the area of the ancient Israelite city of Dan. We saw (what appeared to be a large Yahweh altar based on diminsions and uncut stone) altar at the gate of the city. Inside we saw the platform where the king or his representive sat to meet with the people “at the gate”.

The gate and wall of ancient Dan.
The king’s place to sit at the gate

There was also a high place for golden calf worship which was indicated by the cut stones, dimensions and steps (which were not allowed by Yahweh worship).

The step, size & cut stone indicates this “high place” was not a sight of Yahweh worship. (metal frame shows how the original altar likely looked)

Before leaving Tel Dan we saw a very ancient Cannanite gate, likely seen or passed through by Abraham when he came here to save Lot. (Genesis 14:14) (We had some discussion about the anicent name of Dan was Layish.)

Ancient Caananite gate that Abraham likely passed through.

Caesarea Philippi has a area that was a rock outcrop that became a center for the worship of various Greek gods. Pan, Nemesis and Hades. The “gate of Hell”, or gateway to the underworld, was considered to be here. All the paganism and a concrete “Gate of Hell” adds to the scene in Matthew when Jesus brought his disciples here and noted that “the gates of hell” will not prevail against the church that He established. Was “the rock” Peter? His confession that Jesus is Lord? Jesus? Whatever Jesus was alluding to, the pagan temples are now only ruins, but His church is still alive.

The “gates of hell” (left) & grotto of Pan (right)
The ruins of the various temples

The Bania springs, located in Caesarea Philippi, are another source of the Jordan River. 

We ate a lunch of salad, Turkish coffee and backlava at the Alsultan Restaurant in the Syrian Druze village of Mas’ada. Just outside the front door was a view of Mount Hermon

Mount Hermon view from Alsultan Restaurant in Ma’sada.

We stopped at a lookout on the Golan Heights with a view of Syria where we bought some olive oil and fruit from a local druze.

Buying some olive oil and fruit from a local Druze vendor.

The Bethsaida site we visited was a town of apparent military importance from ancient times all the way till the Syrians left in 1967. This was very evident by the wall, gates, storage areas & its high perch overlooking the surrounding area. This is also where several of the disciples were called and a blind man was healed, importantly, outside the city. Andrew pointed out that this area was Jewish and very devout in Jesus’ day. A triangle between Bethsaida, Chorazim and Capernaum was where most of Jesus’ ministry occured.  It was also the place where the rabbi and disciple concept was established, which is interesting as Jesus made use of this model and made it applicable to Christianity. We also noted the curse on this town.

The gate & wall of Bethsaida.
The Sea of Galilee from Bethsaida.

At the Mount of the Beatitudes we visited the church and had an enjoyable time reading the beatitudes at an area on the hillside over looking Kinneret. We read it in 3 languagues: Andrew in English, Amos in German and James in Romanian. An open time of commenting yielded interesting & inspiring thoughts and conversation. It was worthwhile to take some time to meditate on this Galilean hillside.

Israel Study Trip

Masada, En Gedi, Qumran & the Dead Sea

The room phone rang at 6am sharp as a wake up call to get ready to leave Hotel Inbar.

Amos & our group song leader, James, leading an appropriate breakfast song

After breakfast we left Arad and had a nice ride through barren, but beautiful, hilly country on the way to Masada. We hiked up the trail that follows the ancient Roman ramp that ultimately assisted in breaching the Masada fortress.

Our group ascending to Masada beside the Roman ramp.

Once we arrived  on Masada Sofian talked about Herod the Great who was rich, did incredible building projects, but as much as he wanted it Jews never accepted him as one of their own. Herod had to be satisfied with his riches and incredible building projects, one of them the palace fortress of Masada. Masada includes ruins of palaces, military quarters, Roman baths, many storage buildings, frescos and mosaics.

Frescos on inside walls and remains of one of Herod’s palaces.

Masada is also, of course, the place of the last stand of the Zealots in 74AD and their famous mass suicide.

En Gedi is a spring and waterfalls near the Dead Sea that scenic and refreshing. David was in “the wilderness of En Gedi” while hiding from Saul. It evokes refreshment in the desert. There was a bit of a hike to see the falls and some of the group elected to relax in the shade instead. They got to visit with a school on an outing. Those who went the whole way to the large falls felt it was worth the effort to get there. It seemed to be popular spot with locals as well.

Typical Judean desert on the left as we traveled north from Masada to Qumran.

We stopped at the Qumran Dead Sea Visitor Center & Restaurant for a refreshing lunch of shwarma, chicken, salad & cold soft drinks.

After this we visited Qumran, which was the settlement where those who came to be called Essenes lived and perhaps more famously stowed thousands of scrolls which was discovered starting in 1947. We saw the ruins of a community that expected the soon “end of the world” and so tried to live as the sons of light. They had a focus on remaining pure, which involved a lot of washing, so there were several mikvah ruins in Qumran. We learned that Qumran means “two moons” because the ancients could see both the moon & its reflection in the Dead Sea. We also saw what is thought to be the cave where the first Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947.

A cave near Qumram where Dead Sea scrolls were found.

The Dead Sea loomed in the back ground and all day but now we headed to it. The Dead Sea is unique for various reasons: its extreme saltiness, its lowness (below sea level), its many supposed therapeutic quality and, environmentally, how quickly its disaapearing. It is shrinking at a rate of about 1 meter a year, according to our guide. On the high way north we noted a rock that marked how deep the Dead Sea was 100 years ago.

The Dead Sea as seen from Qumran

We also tried out the amazing floating characteristics of the Dead Sea. And, yes, you can read a magazine while floating. But don’t try reading your phone, the slimy constitution of the water permeates everything.

A person floating while reading a magazine.

We ended the day in Tiberias beside Lake Kinneret (aka Sea of Galilee) at the Ron Beach Hotel.

Israel Study Trip

Tel Arad, Tel Be’er Sheva & Ein Advat

This morning we awoke refreshed to a sunny day in Arad, Israel. It seemed quite a few of us took a short “break” from sleeping at about 1am for an hour or two, due to a bit of time zone adjustment, but everyone seems to be feeling good and refreshed.

Our Sabbath (Saturday) breakfast at the Inbar Hotel was not the typical American eggs, bacon and toast, instead it was salad, cheese, breads and various others items, pretty well described by Amos Hoover as, “I don’t know exactly what I have.”

At breakfast our covid PCR tests notices started coming back and our guide, Sofian, worked through typing our passport numbers to check if we were all negative and…great, we were! No extended isolation needed.

our bus, Andrew & tel Arad

Our first stop was tel Arad (tel designating an ancient city ruins) and there we saw a well preserved ancient temple to Yahweh which was buried with dirt, possibly to hide it during the time when Hezekiah was destroying temples other than the one in Jerusalem. It was interesting that the altar was the same dimensions as other Yahweh altars. We also saw a home and city walls from the time of the Caananites. A nice breeze kept us cool and blew some hats off heads.

Ken at the ancient wall at tel Arad

Next we headed to Be’er Sheva. Andrew reminded us that the borders of ancient Israel were from Dan in the north to Be’er Sheva in the south. Here we were able to see the ancient city gate location, main streets, homes & a deep & very large cistern. We paused in the shade to sing, say the Shema and learn some Hebrew from our guide. Good morning is “Boker Tov” is the one I can remember as I’m writing, but some others learned more.

Singing, saying the shema & learning some Hebrew

As we were driving to our next stop we noticed something shining in the distance that got our attention. (we could actually see it from tel Arad) This turned out to be the fascinating Ashalim Power Station which uses 52,000 mirrors to focus the sun’s light on a tower which can generate electricity from the tremendous heat.

Ashalim Power Station (courtesy The Guardian)

We finished the day by doing a rigorous hike at Ein Advat (also known as Wadi Zin). Andrew noted that the Wilderness of Zin is associated with the “water from the rock” (Numbers 27:14) The hike included beauty: canyon rock formations, water falls, streams & water pools.

Some of the natural beauty at Ein Advat

It also included a challenging hike & climb for a group that are not youngsters anymore. The anticipated steep climb, steps and even ladders at points dissuaded some of the group from continuing, but Amos, James, Neal, Lester, Matt, Andrew & Linda climbed the whole way to the end. Our guide thinks that Amos, at 88 years old, takes the prize for the oldest hiker he knows to complete it. When Amos was asked what the hardship level from was on a scale of 1 to 10 he put it at about a 9.5. Andrew treated those who made it to the end with a Magnum ice-cream bar.

A steep part of the hike