It’s Tuesday evening in Israel. Today we said good-bye to beautiful, green Galilee and hello to the Judean desert. The contrasts are pretty strong! Galilee in the north is life and freshness. The Dead Sea to the south is death and harshness. Galilee both takes and gives its life-giving water. The Sea of Salt just takes, no exit, so it is dying slowly. But first things first…
We drove south out of Tiberias, watching Galilee fade away out our left windows. In 1969, Israel dammed up the Jordan just south of where it exits Galilee. The purpose was to preserve precious water in the north and not “waste” its run to the Dead Sea. That may or may not have been wise, but, whatever the case, the river quickly becomes little more than a trickle separating Israel and Jordan to the east. I couldn’t help recalling our seeing the raging headwaters we saw up north at Dan a couple of days ago.
Our bus continued south through the land of Issachar. Anton said that Moshe Dayan grew up near here and pointed out river bridges perhaps five hundred yards away that were built by the Romans. Across the border to our east, Jordan’s Gilead Mountains were clearly visible. Hay fields, locust trees, mangoes, and bananas told us we were still in fertile country, but it was also pretty clear that we were changing terrain. More open country. Fewer and smaller trees. Locusts and carobs (you know, the stuff of John the Baptist’s diet) replace Galilee’s dense olives and oaks. Anton said in a couple of months the heat here will be unbearable for most of the day. It’s not unusual to top 120° in August. As we passed the remains of a twelfth-century British Crusader castle, I wondered if those English soldiers did any of that particular construction project during summertime.
First stop, Bet She’an, also known as Roman Scythopolis. I’ll just cut right to the summary—this was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. Some on the trip who have been to Ephesus said it is very similar, if not in some ways better. Bet She’an showcases archaeology at its best. Major excavation and restoration have brought to life a significant Roman city that was a hub of entertainment for ancient citizens and visitors. A long main street (cardo) is lined with giant pillars. A well-preserved theater seated thousands. There is a hippodrome, beautiful mosaics, bath houses, and the ruins of a temple to Dionysius, the god of wine. This was a wild, wild place in its day, and even the rise of Christianity in the 300s didn’t tame the culture much. Only the incursion of Islam in the 7th-century finally brought an end to the hedonism of Scythopolis.
Many of us hiked up to the summit of the mountain or tell that rises above the ruins. This is where biblical Bet She’an was located, and it’s where Scripture says, after dying in battle with the Philistines, the bodies of Saul and Jonathan were brought to this place. A lone tree serves as a marker of the end of the dynasty of Israel’s first king. There are ruins at Bet She’an marking the presence of Canaanites, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, and Muslims over the past 3,500 years. Leaving this great site, we saw the peak of Mt. Gilboa to the west, the place where Saul and Jonathan died.
Late morning, we drove past old Jabesh-Gilead, once taken by Joshua and the Israelites on their way into Canaan. Soon after, we ourselves crossed over into the West Bank. Here, Palestinians and Jewish “settlements” (300,000 Jewish pop.) share space and an uneasy peace. You’d never know it from the fields of sunflowers and garlic, though you do occasionally spot a “Danger: Land Mines” sign. The West Bank is about 3,000 square miles of pretty rugged country—spare natural vegetation, dry and chalky soil (think driving between Sweetwater and Big Spring). This rough place is where Elisha the prophet called home. In this very area the old preacher killed forty-two children who made fun of his being bald. To the east are the mountains of Samaria, and in that direction we saw goats, sheep, and the ancient hillside caves where Bedouin shepherds store food and shelter animals.
We arrived in Jericho on a new road built with American aid money. The Palestinian refugee camps (from 1948) are basically shanty-towns and not easy to look at. There is widespread poverty and, as everyone knows, complicated politics, which seem endemic to this part of the world. We went through several check-points, both Israeli and Palestinian, before we drove into Jericho around 11:30. To the west, rising above Jericho, is the Mount of Temptation. Here Jesus, some say, was tempted by Satan after his baptism. One cave on the mountain is “Elijah’s Cave,” the spot where the prophet was cared for by God at a time when he really needed some caring for.
Jericho is the oldest city in the world, dating back to 8,000 B.C. In Jesus’ day, it was known for its palms. We toured the excavation site of the old city and saw the walls that were probably in place when Joshua’s army arrived there c.1200 B.C. And we all know what happened. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down. And there is, apparently, some evidence that something (earthquake?) brought down or damaged some of the Canaanite wall at about that time frame.
After lunch at a local Palestinian restaurant, we had a special group moment. Cynthia Michaud, one of our tour group members, is getting married in September. We gathered and listened as our leader Gary McCaleb presented Cynthia with a handmade “wedding jar” from Cana, complete with flowers. It is also a wine container, and, even though the maker has deceased and his business is no longer in operation, Gary worked with guide Anton Farah to track one down. Cynthia was very moved, and we prayed a special prayer of blessing over her upcoming marriage to fiancée Cale. It was a nice moment. By the way, one of our other group couples—C.G. and Barbara Gray—will be celebrating 60 years of marriage later this month!
On the way out of Jericho, we saw the great-granddaughter (or something close) of Zacchaeus’ famous sycamore tree. Jericho is, of course, where he lived. It’s also where Blind Bartimaeus begged and near where a certain traveler in a story Jesus told was traveling when he was mugged by thieves and left for dead. Today, Jericho is a bustling city of 8,000 with busy streets and markets (and even a newly built casino).
After Jericho, the terrain turns quickly to extreme desert. Within minutes, the north end of the Dead Sea is visible. Known as the Dead Sea, Sea of Salt, Eastern Sea, or Sea of Lot, the land around this body of water is arid and blistered in appearance. There is an almost eerie surface-of-the-moon feel as you move southward along the eastern bank. It sits on the Afro-Asia fault, the lowest place on earth. 1500 feet deep at its deepest, it's a dying body of water. No Jordan River feeding it anymore. Drying up and receding, the far southern end is now just a reservoir pumped in by Israel to make more salt. The dying Dead Sea is causing sinkholes and other issues. Some think it needs to be filled again. Across on the other side are the mountains of Moab. Nebo, where Moses died. The place where Ruth was from. The area where Balaam got owned by his donkey.
They get less than 3 inches of rain a year down here. Scrub brush and date palms are about all you see. Wild ibexes, snakes, birds of prey. And rocks. Lots of rocks! Think Big Bend National Park—red, craggy mountains and canyons and caves and a chalky soil that reminds you of what we might call caliche back home. We passed Qumran and En Gedi and Masada, three of the places we will visit tomorrow.
By 4:00, we arrived at the Daniel Dead Sea Hotel at the far southern end of the Dead Sea. It’s surprisingly developed here, a little like a miniature Las Vegas rising up out of the desert—hotels, shops, spas, even a McDonald’s. We checked in, and most of us got in our swim gear and made our way to the beach to swim. Check that, I mean float. That’s about all you do. It’s 29% salt and minerals, and you can barely keep you feet on the hard salty sea floor. You bob like a cork. It’s a strange experience everyone should try. You don’t want to get water in your eyes, that’s for sure, and you should be prepared to stay in briefly and shower quickly and thoroughly when you’re out. You leave the water with a slimy salt film all over your body, and it stings if you don’t get it washed off soon.
From our vantage, you can see Mt. Sodom, where it is believed that Sodom and Gomorrah once thrived. Being down here in the badlands didn’t work out well at all for Lot and his clan, but it’s a great and interesting place to visit now. Just in case, though, we will make a point not to turn or look back when we leave tomorrow :-)
שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם Shalom Aleichem
Brent and Melinda