World of the Bible

Have you ever wondered what life was like during Jesus’ lifetime? This J-Term trip to the Holy Land gave the opportunity to see and experience life in the ancient world. We traveled throughout Galilee, visiting many ancient cities such as Megiddo, Tel Dan, Caesarea Maritima (where Paul was imprisoned and taken to Rome), and Banias Springs/Caesarea Philippi (site of Peter’s confession). We visited an ancient synagogue and Peter’s house in Capernaum (a city called the home of Jesus). We experienced the sound of waves and felt the rush of water touching our hands and feet as we reached for the waters of the Sea of Galilee. At the Jordan River we gave thanks for our baptism…the Holy Spirit moved among the waters, and we ended up participating in the baptism and affirmation of baptism of a few friends from Ohio that we met while touring. The Ohio group needed a pastor, and we had a few!

We traveled to Sepphoris, once headquarters of the Sanhedrin and the possible birth place of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. There we visited an ancient synagogue and were astounded by the beautiful, intricate, well preserved tile murals covering the floor. The Bible came to life as we traveled to Nazareth, the place where the birth of a Savior was announced. We traveled to Bethlehem where in the Church of the Nativity we sang Silent Night to the babe, Jesus.

We experienced current life in Hebron, a city well known in ancient times as because it is along major trade routes and traditionally believed to be the ancient burial site of Abraham, Sarah, Rebekah, Isaac, Leah and Jacob. We were blessed with the opportunity to visit the Ibrahimi mosque. We learned about the worship space and visited the cenotaphs (serve as tombstones) memorializing the burial sites of the patriarchs. Respecting our Muslim brothers and sisters, women covered their heads with scarves (which we adorned beautifully), and hooded robes if not wearing a dress or long sleeve clothing. We enjoyed posing with our new wardrobe in front of the cenotaph dedicated to Rebekah while the men in our group took our photos. It was so cute to see all of them lined up trying to get the best photo! Thanks guys for your work!

We also toured the Jewish synagogue, adjacent the Ibrahimi mosque. Upon our arrival a Jewish gentleman offered to give us a tour. Respecting our Jewish brothers and sisters, men covered their heads with a kippah/yamaka, which they adorned well. We learned about the Jewish worship space, the Ark of the Covenant, and how the space is used by the Jewish community today. He offered commentary on the cave of the Patriarchs and read from the Torah in Hebrew (the original language of the Torah/Old Testament). It was interesting to hear from both Muslims and Jews about the past and current struggles for control and use of the site. Whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish we are human beings created by God and loved by God. This trip to the Holy Land has reiterated for me whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish we are human beings created by God and loved by God and our deep interconnectedness is undeniable.

Oh, Jerusalem, my happy home…when shall I come to thee? We spent several days exploring the Old City of Jerusalem, Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, and the City of David. We sang, “Prince of Peace” as we humbly walked the Palm Sunday Road to the Garden of Gethsemane. Remembering the heartache that Jesus felt, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14: 36) and the accounts of his weeping over Jerusalem. We remembered Jesus’ journey along the Via Dolorosa, traditionally believed to be the path Jesus carried his cross and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where we were able to touch a stone fragment, traditionally believed to be from the tomb Jesus was buried. My spiritual experience of the Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday readings have been greatly enhanced by the experience of walking in remembrance of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For me, this trip has brought a level of reality to the Bible that is not available in the classroom, but can only be experienced.

Ancient Sites in the Holy Land

As a student, taking this course for credit one requirement was to complete a research project on an archeological site (we got to choose) that we would be visiting and give a presentation about that site for the group. Our main interests included: history of the site, connections to the Bible, archeological structures and features, any key questions or disputes surrounding the archeological dig and how the site contributes to our larger view of the biblical world. Through these presentations and visiting the sites I learned a lot about the Bible, history, and life in the ancient world.

It was amazing to see the influences of Roman civilization preserved through archeology at sites such as Caesarea Maritima and Sepphoris. I thought about how the Roman influence affected the lives of Jesus, Paul and the early Church. The Roman Empire was vast and mighty. Standing in front of a once great Roman city brought alive the radicalness and political tones of Jesus’ message. Jesus boldly proclaimed the “Kingdom of God” is near. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” Our visit with the Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Catholic Church, enlightened my understanding of the radicalness of the Sermon on the Mount. Chacour shared with us that the word for “blessed” in Aramaic (Jesus’ native tongue) also means to ‘stand up’. Stand up, rise-up, move, all you who are poor in spirit for yours is the kingdom of God! Chacour emphasized the Sermon on the Mount as being a call to action…a call to be peacemakers and workers for justice. After seeing the Roman archeological sites one thing became clearer to me…Jesus’ radical good news spoke truth to the power. Visiting the ancient sites and researching one site in particular I feel has given me a new appreciation for archeology, history, biblical studies.

To learn more about the history of the Bible and life in the ancient world we ventured to Masada; a site used by Herod the Great and significant for the discovery of several ancient biblical scrolls. Many trekked the long windy path up the mountain while others enjoyed the trip by cable car. Another ancient site known for biblical scrolls is Qumran…and we would not miss it! It was very neat to see the caves where so many of our oldest known scrolls containing many biblical materials were discovered. For biblical studies, Qumran is a gold mine! We also, enjoyed a visit to the Israeli Museum which houses the Dead Sea scroll exhibit.

Current Struggles in the Holy Land

In today's wold our view of the Middle East is greatly impacted by media. As we traveled to the Holy Land, we packed our bags knowing about the tragic war in Gaza. As we packed our bags, we did so also knowing, that 44 Bishops representing the ELCA and ELCIC (Canada) along with spouses and ELCA churchwide members were packing their bags. As the Bishops prepared for their trip Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson in a January 1, 2009 news release remarked that the trip is “timelier than ever.” All of us who traveled to the Holy Land during this time were afforded the opportunity to learn firsthand of the struggles facing Palestinians and Israelis and the hope for peace. The realities of occupation were present as we visited the “Security Wall”, passed through military checkpoints, visited a Palestinian refugee camp, and listened to life stories of hardship from Palestinians. The realities of needing security and the struggle for a Jewish home land were present as we visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and heard from a young Israeli and Jewish “Settlers”. We listened to life stories of discrimination and racism experienced by Jews.

Interfaith Experiences: In a region that is sacred to three of the world’s largest religious communities as well as inhabited by those religious communities the urgent need to understand and work with peoples of other faith traditions is necessary if any peaceable and just solution is to exist. One of my highlights was learning more about Judaism and Islam. My undergraduate work in cultural anthropology ignited in me a passion for exploring the role of religion in culture…this trip to the Holy Land was no disappointment!

Jewish Tradition: We had several experiences of Jewish faith and culture. In the early few days of our trip we stayed at a Jewish Kibbutz in Ein Gev. We learned about life on a kibbutz, a particular form of Jewish communal living in which resources are shared communally…a concept that our group became very in touch with due to a few lost luggage bags…oh, the perils of travel. We were surprised and blessed to join Catholic Theological Union (seminary in Hyde Park, Chicago) and Rabbi Sandmel (professor at CTU and friend of LSTC) for a lecture on Jewish life, Shabbat (Sabbath), and expressions of various Jewish groups and politics. Who could have guessed several thousand miles away from Chicago we would see people we knew! Rabbi Sandmel’s lecture was helpful for understanding our later visits to the Western Wall/Wailing Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism, as a remnant of the Holy Temple that was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE.

When we arrived at the Western Wall there were many praying…praying with scriptures, rocking back and forth in a weeping fashion…calling upon the Lord. In Jewish tradition it is believed that at this place God is most present (standing before the wall one is closest to the Holy of Holies) and whatever is prayed from here shall be granted. Many of us navigated through people to have our moment of prayer at the wall. I observed some praying silently, others aloud, and some left wrote prayers on paper tucked in the walls cracks (In the Holy Land sticking paper in walls is a common form of prayer). While at the Western Wall I could feel the feel the sacredness of that space. It was holy ground. In addition, we observed a Shabbat (Sabbath) celebration at the wall. Many Jewish communities worshiped, prayed, danced, and sang. The area was packed with people. Then later that evening, we experienced a Jewish Shabbat complete with Kosher wine and food which was led by Dalia Landau, an Israeli Jew and interfaith peace worker. We learned about the various elements and meaning of Shabbat ritual. It was a delightful evening and a great learning experience hearing about Dalia’s life and faith.

Christian Tradition: Lutheran Interfaith Ministries: Back to the Mount of Olives we go! Hey, that could be a song. Augusta Victoria Hospital is a ministry of the Lutheran World Federation providing quality healthcare in the West Bank. Augusta Victoria is an excellent example of the Lutheran presence in the Holy Land working for the life and welfare of all people regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, or religion. Like any good hospital…health and wellness are essential. LSTC along with the ELCA have been promoting health and wellness…on this part of the tour in particular we felt “the burn” of health and wellness. That is, the burn of leg muscles working hard. We climbed the bell tower of Augusta Victoria…all 200+ stairs, one way! I am pretty sure I earned at least three days of couch sitting and a bowl of ice cream after that! Though the views from the tower were fantastic!

Because I am from the Southeast Michigan Synod and our partner church is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land it was very exciting to have the privilege of meeting with Bishop Munib Younan and Rev. Mitri Raheb, Christmas Lutheran Church, Pastor. Both shared personal life stories as Palestinians as well as stories representing the realities of an occupied people. For both, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue combined with faith-in-action is a regular part of their ministries. The ELCJHL works very closely with Palestinian Muslims. Their work is a testimony to the possibilities and the need for Christian-Muslim interreligious dialogue. The need for Christian-Jewish dialogue was also emphasized. It was interesting to hear Younan speak of the role of the Church/Christians as helping to balance interreligious conversation. Though Christians account for a small portion of the population in the region the witness of the Church is essential to the interfaith conversation and peace process. When I think of why the church should engage in interreligious dialogue I think of 1 John 4:20-21, how can you love God of whom you cannot see, if you do not love your neighbor of whom you can see? I greatly enjoyed learning about the ministries of the ELCJHL and of Christmas Lutheran Church. This trip really brought to light the world’s great need for building bridges of understanding with persons of other religious/faith traditions for the sake of peace in the world.

Islamic Tradition: In Bethlehem we met with the Mufti of Bethlehem, visited the Omar Mosque and observed evening prayer. This was not my first time attending mosque but for many the group it was. It was exciting for me to see our group look to this experince with great excitment, anticipation and interest. The Mufti (a scholar/overseer of Islamic Law) shared with us various aspects of the Muslim faith, the five pillars of Islam, and most notably that Islam is a religion of peace. He shared with us the meaning of Jihad. Jihad is an Arabic word which literally means “to struggle”…to struggle with one’s faith…to struggle spiritually…to struggle with the realities of oppression, etc. I learned that central to Islam is living the will of God. As the Mufti said, “In Islam we strive in the way of Allah or to live the will of Allah.” I greatly enjoyed observing evening prayer at the mosque. We observed prayer repetitions (like the Catholic use of the Rosary) to God…giving thanks to God/Allah and asking God/Allah to help them live their lives according to God/Allah’s will. We observed the participants prostrate so that their knees and foreheads were touching the floor, in total humility and submission to God. I thought it was interesting to experience how common language can be a bridge for different faiths. For example, in my experience it is often thought that Muslims and Christians worship a different God. The Muslim God is Allah. When we worshiped at Christmas Lutheran Church, an Arabic speaking congregation, God is referred to as Allah. When they pray it is to Allah. That is because the word for God in Arabic is Allah. Whether Muslim, Christian, or Jew we worship the same, one God and we are all part of the same family…the Abrahamic family. It was a great experience to have the opportunity to attend a mosque and learn more about the Muslim faith.

The Holy Land

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) On this trip we met with Israeli peace and justice workers. We met with Palestinian peace and justice workers. We listened to female and male perspectives and life experiences. We met with many people representing various Israeli and Palestinian organizations involved in cross-cultural and interfaith work. It was an inspiring trip! What I learned is that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is much more complex than what we hear in the news. Our visits with Israelis and Palestinians all shared a hope for the future and a hope for peace in the Holy Land. The knowledge and deeper understanding that I have come away with about the Israeli-Palestinian struggles because of this trip is priceless. Everyone should visit the Holy Land to see and hear the current struggles. As I will attest, while on this trip, I always felt safe.

What would a trip to the Holy Land be without a good mud manicure in the Dead Sea? Perhaps a cleaner one, but probably less fun! Thanks for reading about our trip! I hope you will consider traveling with LSTC to learn about ancient sites and current struggles in the Holy Land in the future. It is a trip of a lifetime!