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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day in the Desert, and Up to Jerusalem

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

On Wednesday morning, we turned our collective gaze toward the northeast, to Jerusalem. And, at around 5:00 this evening, we did indeed check into the Grand Court Jerusalem Hotel. We are settling in for the night. I know everyone in our group looks forward to the next 3 days and 4 nights in this amazing ancient (and modern) city.

Okay, but that’s jumping ahead. We left our lodging at the Dead Sea bright and early this morning made our way back up the western shoreline to our first site: Masada. No one has to tell you what you’re looking at. When you get close enough to spot the great table mountain rising up east of the Dead Sea, you know immediately this is Masada, the stuff of lore and epic Hollywood movie-making.

Perhaps the most-repeated phrase of any Israel tour is “built by Herod the Great.” Herod was the Halliburton of his world, building huge projects all over his territory, and he built Masada too. There are ruins from the Hasmonean era, but it was Herod who developed the top of a remote mountain into a retreat palace complex for himself and a sight to behold for everyone else ever since, including the "flower children" of the youth movement who flocked here in the 1960s.

A cable car took us to the summit (a little higher than sea level), where our guide Anton began our walking tour around the 30+ acre site. The first part of the story is Herod. His palace was at the extreme north end of the mountain, perched on the side of the sheer cliff. It was an engineering marvel, complete with a sophisticated plumbing system, cisterns, and personal luxuries made just for the old paranoid king’s however-frequent visits. His bath house was five-star, featuring a changing room, cold-water room, warm-water room, and one for hot water and steam sauna treatments.

Herod died shortly after Jesus was born, and his sons apparently cared nothing for Masada (which means “fortress”), so it eventually became occupied by the Zealots who made it famous. When the Galilee, Jerusalem, and other Jewish communities fell to the Roman armies by 70 A.D., Zealot forces were chased east and fled to Masada to prepare for a last stand. It was a three-year siege with 960 men, women, and children atop the mountain. Rome sent 12,000 soldiers, and their camp sites can still be seen clearly below, along with the massive siege ramp they built up to the east wall. After three long years, in 73 A.D. the Romans finally breached the wall, only to discover that, by casting lots, the residents of Masada had committed mass suicide, choosing freedom over slavery or worse. We went into the room where those lots (names written on potsherds) were discovered. We also sat in the synagogue where scrolls were discovered that seem to be identical to ones at Qumran, just up the road (apparently the monks of Qumran at some point brought books to their neighbors).

It’s not hard to see why Masada is such a popular attraction and such a great point of pride for Jewish people, something like their Gettysburg or Alamo, I suppose. Until very recently, Israeli Army officers took the Oath of Masada in the large open space in the center of the compound. Today, young boy and girls have their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs there, and now there is a large amphitheater below that hosts performers and events. Right now, the opera Aida is the featured attraction.

Next, we moved on to En Gedi. This is where David was chased by the jealous King Saul, and where he took refuge in the caves here. “En Gedi” means “spring of the wild goats (or deer).” The area is teeming with flora and fauna. There are acacia, tamarisk, and broom trees. We saw gazelles, ibexes, birds of prey, and hydrixes (a sort of badger). En Gedi is now a national park and reserve that offers some of Israel’s best natural beauty. The main attraction here is the waterfall, so the majority of our group followed Anton on a long hike up, up, up to its highest point. The walk is pretty tough—and it was a blistering hot day—but we all arrived to find a large crowd (many school kids) playing and taking photos around a lush oasis at the top and back of a deep canyon. The waterfall pours down out of dark caves into a pool below. The cool water and large trees make it clear why David and his mighty men came here and saw this as a place of refuge. The water brought to mind David’s psalm: “As the deer pants for water, so my soul thirsts for you, O God.” Above the falls is the cave where David lived and also the cave where, if you remember the story, he refused to take Saul’s life at a (ahem) very opportune moment. Nature calls kings too.

Our third stop was at Qumran. We ate lunch there first, then went with Anton on a short walking tour of the site. Qumran was an ancient Dead Sea community that produced and eventually hid the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. The small group of people who lived there—called the Essenes—lived on the rocky plain between the mountains and the eastern shore of the Sea of Salt (the beach being much closer to them back then). Ruins have revealed ritual baths (mikvahs), communal dining halls, living quarters, cisterns, rooms in which they copied texts, a cemetery and more. This was a community contemporary with Jesus, but any possible interaction between Jesus and the Essenes has never been established. Many have speculated that the eccentric prophet John the Baptist may have had some ties to Qumran, but again, no proof positive. These were apocalyptic people anticipating a big final war between good and evil. They took purity seriously and were convinced that the establishment religion of the Jerusalem temple was corrupt, its priests were sons of darkness.

But, crisis came knocking. When the Romans came to put down the Jewish Revolt in the 60’s A.D., the monks of Qumran seem to have chosen to hide their writings—Old Testament texts (all but Esther) and religious works of their own—in sealed jars in the almost-inaccessible caves in the mountains around where they lived. The scrolls were discovered in 1947 (it’s a long and fascinating story). Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves, many of which are clearly visible from the Dead Sea valley floor. We stood near Cave 4 (The Cave of the Scrolls). In this cavern alone, 1500 texts were discovered. And what a find the Dead Sea Scrolls turned out to be, providing us with texts older than anything we had previously by many centuries. After decades, all the Scrolls have now been translated.

From Qumran, we started up to Jerusalem. “Up to Jerusalem” is more than an expression—it’s a topographical reality. The road (by the way, the roads here are excellent) to Jerusalem is a long, steady, steep uphill grade. You climb through rocky passes in a stretch of Judean desert that is about as barren as it gets. This is the “Good Samaritan” road, and these days it is lined with Bedouin camps, shacks with tin roofs and lots of donkeys. Soon we crossed over into the West Bank and entered the ancient city of Bethany. The Arabs call it “Azariya” or “Lazarus.” This was the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, Jesus’ friends. This was where Jesus stayed with some frequency and where he was anointed by a woman at a dinner party in the home of Simon the Leper. Bethany is a sad picture today—massive poverty, piles of garbage, few resources, problematic politics. The West Bank is a tough place to live for the mostly Arab Muslim population of 10,000 or so. Nearby, Bethphage is a little closer to Jerusalem—the place where Palm Sunday crowds met Jesus and shouted “Hosanna!” upon his arrival to the City of David.

Here in Bethany we visited the traditional tomb of Lazarus (see John 11). Up a narrow street, passing Palestinian vendors hawking their wares to Christian pilgrims, down into a stairway to a small, dark, musty room we went. There we saw a rock-cut tomb accessed by a low entrance into the ground. Inside were loculi, holes in the wall designed to host bodies of family members as they die. Perhaps this is the place where Lazarus was placed when he died (or a place like it).   

By now it was 4:00 or so. We left Bethany and the West Bank and headed up the east slope of the Mt. of Olives, through the upper Kidron Valley into, at long last, the city of Jerusalem. Our hotel is just north of the Old City. Much more to share in days to come about Jerusalem and what we find here.

Tomorrow: Bethlehem, Herodium, the Garden Tomb, the Israel Museum, Shrine of the Book and the Model Museum.   

שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם  Shalom Aleichem
Brent and Melinda

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