Israel, Part 3

Thank you for sharing in our trip to Israel! This blog post will take us through our final two days of touring this beautiful country. Israel is a land of contrast and variety, and we experienced this in many ways. Not only is there great diversity in its people, ethnic groups, cultures and religions, there is also much diversity in its geography. This small country, approximately the size of New Jersey, boasts of snow-capped Mount Hermon in the north (rising 9232 feet above sea level) and the Dead Sea in the south — the lowest place on earth at 1388 feet below sea level. In between these two points (about 130 miles) lie valleys, plains, deserts and hills.

We spent one full day in the Judean desert exploring the ruins of Masada, enjoying the beauty of En Gedi (a desert oasis), and floating in the Dead Sea!

It was fun to see the occasional camel on the side of the highway! Note the rolling hills of the Judean Wilderness in the background. It’s no wonder camels are still in use today.
Masada, which means “the stronghold” in Hebrew, is a mesa in the Judean Desert rising 800 feet above the Dead Sea.

Though it is not mentioned by name in Scripture, Masada figures prominently in Jewish history. This massive mountaintop stronghold was built towards the end of the last century BC by King Herod the Great as a fortress-palace, a place to flee for refuge if needed. In addition to being built on a mountaintop, Herod fortified it even further by building an extensive defense wall around the perimeter. Within the complex were huge cisterns for water (hewn out of solid rock) and storage buildings for food and weapons, in case of a prolonged siege. King Herod never had to flee to Masada but he did enjoy using it as a winter palace. After Herod died in 4 BC, Masada was unoccupied for over 70 years.

In 70 AD, however, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, a group of 960 Jewish nationalists fled to Masada. It was here they took their final stand against the Roman army. Masada, because of its mountaintop location and massive defense wall, proved impregnable for three years. Finally, though, the Romans were able to build an assault ramp and eventually break through the defense wall. When they broke through the wall, however, they found the Jewish men, women and children dead and their food and supplies burned. Deciding they preferred death on their own terms rather than death or enslavement by the Romans, they took their own lives. According to early historians, only two Jewish women and five children survived. The story of Masada is a fascinating but sad bit of Jewish history.

A view of the Judean Desert from the top of Masada looking towards the Dead Sea. Thankfully we were able to take a cable car to the top, though there is a path if you prefer to walk. It’s called “The Snake” and would take at least two hours — in unrelenting desert heat — to get to the top. Not for the faint of heart!
You’ll notice the square imprints in the lower center / right. The Roman army had several encampments around the mountain and these are still visible today. Because of the dry conditions and desolate location, Masada remained remarkably preserved for 2000 years.
A scale model of Masada. You’ll notice the Snake path winding around the right side.
Some of the ruins of Masada.

A short distance from Masada, Ari, our Israeli tour guide, pointed out some caves in the mountains. He told us these are the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946/1947. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest copies of biblical manuscripts that have ever been found. These manuscripts had been wrapped carefully, then tucked into airtight clay jars and sealed. Because of the hot, dry atmosphere of the Dead Sea area (and God’s amazing timetable), these ancient portions of Scripture were preserved throughout the centuries. Today the Scrolls are kept in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum.

The Qumran caves
The Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed. No photography was allowed in the museum, so we weren’t able to get pictures of the Scrolls.

Next, we continued through the desert until we came to the beautiful oasis of En Gedi. En Gedi is a freshwater spring that bubbles up in this rocky, arid region. It was here that David, on the run from King Saul, found refuge in area caves. I Sam. 24 tells the story of King Saul entering a cave to “relieve” himself, not knowing that David and his men were hiding deep in the cave. David silently crept forward and cut off part of Saul’s robe. Later, from the safety of a nearby cliff, David confronted King Saul with the piece of cloth to show him he had no desire of harming the king. As Pastor Marty retold this somewhat comical story, he suggested that the part of the robe David cut off was significant — it was the “royalty mark” on the hem. King Saul knew that because David had not killed him — but only cut off his robe’s royalty mark — David would replace Saul as Israel’s next king. “I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands” (I Sam. 24:20).

Marty then asked us to fast-forward to the time of Jesus. In Mark 5:21-43 and Luke 9:40-56, we read another story about the hem of a King’s robe. One day, while on his way to heal a young girl, Jesus was crowded and pressed upon by a mass of people. He felt power go out of him when a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years touched the hem of his robe (the royalty mark) and was instantly healed. Surely this is the Messiah!

As Marty shared Scripture with us, we sat surrounded by the same ancient mountains and cliffs — in the same beautiful oasis — that David spent time in. It’s very likely that while David was spending long days hiding from King Saul, he wrote a few Psalms. It’s believed that Psalms 57 and 142 were written from the caves of En Gedi, and possibly a few others.

The rugged Judean Wilderness where En Gedi is located.
Places in Scripture where En Gedi is mentioned: Joshua 15:62; I Sam. 23: 29; I Sam. 24:1; 2 Chron. 20:2; Song of Songs 1:14; Ez. 47:10.
Perhaps this is the cave in which David and his men were hiding from King Saul?
“Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy! I look to you for protection. I will hide in the shadow of your wings until the danger passes by” (Ps. 57:1).
Ari asked if anyone wanted to take a hike about “20 minutes straight up.” He told us the sight awaiting us would be worth the climb. And oh my! It definitely was! This is the beautiful and magnificent “David’s Waterfall.” Imagine the joy and surprise David and his men must have felt when coming upon this refreshing waterfall. There were many other gorgeous waterfalls and pools in En Gedi, as well.
“For your unfailing love is as high as the heavens. Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds” (Ps. 57:10).
The obligatory photo op at the Dead Sea 😊. We didn’t get any pictures by the sea itself, since I didn’t want to ruin my phone with sand, salt, water or heat! Floating in the Dead Sea was a fun and unique experience. Because of the high mineral content, you absolutely cannot sink. Steve didn’t believe that was possible, but found out it is!
The City of David overlooking the Kidron Valley.

Our final day in Jerusalem brought us back to the Old City. We began the day just outside the walls of the Old City at the site known as the City of David. Our tour guide, Ari, told us we were going to “walk 2 Samuel 5.” This chapter of Scripture tells us how David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of the city. Apparently the Jebusites, thinking they were safe, taunted David, now the king of Judah, by saying, “‘You’ll never get in here! Even the blind and the lame could keep you out!'” (2 Sam. 5:6a). The Jebusites arrogantly thought Jerusalem was impenetrable because it was built high on a hill and was surrounded by strong walls. David, though, had a brilliant plan. He said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame’ and ‘blind’ who are David’s enemies” (2 Sam. 5:8). So when Ari told us we were going to “walk 2 Sam. 5,” he meant we were literally going to walk through the same water shaft!

The water shaft under the city, discovered in 1867 by Charles Warren, a British engineer and archaeologist.
Walking in the tunnel!
The water shaft led us to the Pool of Siloam. In John 9 we read that it was here Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth.
‘Then Jesus spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud over the blind man’s eyes. He told him, ‘Go wash yourself in the pool of Siloam’ (Siloam means “sent”). So the man went and washed and came back seeing!” (John 9:6-7).

From there we walked to the Western Wall, another one of my favorite places in Jerusalem! The Western Wall, in years past known as the Wailing Wall, is the only fragment of the Great Temple to survive the Roman destruction of 70 AD. It is the most sacred structure of the Jewish people. “Its ancient stones stand testimony to a glorious Jewish past, a proud heritage and an extraordinary national rebirth. It is a focus of Jewish longing and prayer for redemption and renewal.” (taken from an information pamphlet). Non-Jewish worshipers find this area to be sacred and significant, as well. Indeed it felt like a tiny glimpse into heaven (although imperfect), where John’s vision foretells: “I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb…” (Rev. 9:9).

Entering through the gate.
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’
And now here we are, standing inside your gates, O Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:1-2).
There were several Bar Mitzvahs the day we were there. This looks to be a group of students and their teacher.
The Western Wall Plaza is divided into a men’s side and a women’s side. There were bookshelves of prayer books at the entrance of the women’s side. I loved the culture at the Western Wall. It truly seemed as if there were people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” in this special place.
“I will bring them to my holy mountain of Jerusalem and will fill them with joy in my house of prayer. I will accept their burnt offerings and sacrifices, because my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7).
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May all who love this city prosper” (Ps. 122:6).
Thousands of prayers have been whispered by these ancient walls over the years. Prayers, notes, pleas and requests are written on slips of paper and tucked into every available crevice and crack on the wall.
On the men’s side. The men’s and women’s sides were separated by a short wall. There was a riser on the women’s side that the women could stand on and look over into the men’s side.
Leaving the Western Wall and walking through the Old City. Such beautiful, ancient architecture. So much stone!
A doorway leading to someone’s residence.
“O Jerusalem, may there be peace within your walls and prosperity in your palaces” (Ps. 122:7).
“The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there” (Zach. 8:5).

After leaving the Old City, we walked to the Garden Tomb, one of the possible sites of where Jesus was buried and resurrected.

First we were taken to a possible site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Many wonder if this rocky hill is Calvary, Golgotha, in Aramaic — the place of the skull. It is about 50′ high and has two deep crevices that resemble eye sockets, and just below the “eyes” is a formation that resembles a nose (not easy to see in the picture).
The Garden Tomb, the possible site of Jesus burial and resurrection.
Looking at the empty tomb. Is it possible this was the tomb Jesus “borrowed for three days”? (as the Elevation Worship song, Resurrecting, puts it!)

After we left the tomb, we met together in a small nearby chapel. It was the perfect place to come together as a group for one last time of worship. Angie led us in singing and Pastor Marty led us in a time of Scripture reading, prayer and meditation. Then we wrapped up our time together in this Holy Land by celebrating communion. As we ate the bread and drank the wine in this beautiful garden chapel, we were reminded that near here, 2000 years ago, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us. “This is real love — not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (I John 4:10).

Our communion cups were made from olive wood.
A picture of our group on the Mount of Olives.

Thank you for reading these blogs posts! What a joy and privilege to be able to travel to Israel, to walk where Jesus walked, to see what he saw and to experience this unique and ancient land. It’s a trip I will never forget. But one of my biggest takeaways was the reminder that we don’t have to go to a temple or mountain or holy site or any other physical place to experience the presence of Jesus. After all, these places will eventually come to ruin, be replaced by other structures or simply be forgotten over time. The promise of the new covenant — established by the blood of Jesus — is that we are now the temple of God’s Holy Spirit! All who love Jesus and revere Him as their Lord and Savior carry His Spirit — His Presence — within them. “Because I (Jesus) live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:19b-20).

The flag of Israel.
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