The Tour, the Guide, the Tell — What Shlomo Taught in Israel

On our tour of Israel awhile back, we moved so fast and saw so many things that it was almost overwhelming. There’s an expression that was used for new people at work who are trying to get assimilated into our company and are trying to learn and absorb too much information at once. They call it “drinking from a fire hose”. That phrase was used on our tour more than once because of all of the information and locations that came flying at us in a short time. Such was our experience for twelve days in the Holy Land.

  

Many Cultures, Many Encounters

We went from the airport to Joppa to Tel Aviv to Caesarea Maritime to Capernaum to Magdala to the Dead Sea. We were on the Golan Heights, at the Syrian border, went into Palestine, and looked just across the border into Jordan. Our group stood in mountaintop trenches next to UN observers. Our tour took us to Mt. Carmel, where we imagined Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal and looked out over Megiddo and the future site of Armageddon. We encountered diverse cultures and people. I even met a nice Palestinian guard!

Our group saw multiple levels of civilization stacked upon modern times, old times, medieval times, and ancient history. We visited museums and memorials, tells and tombs, boats and borders. Our tour took us from the Sea of Galilee to the City of David, and from Dan to the Dead Sea. We encountered religion and royalty, sometimes in the same place. Prince William happened to be visiting Jerusalem the same time we were, and we ended up in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the same time. (Y’ all, I was like FIFTEEN FEET from Prince William!)

It was a wonderful, bucket list tour. Our guide Shlomo Ben Asher was a teacher, a Rabbi and a fount of wisdom as he led us through the Holy Land (which is fitting, since the name Shlomo is a modern Hebrew derivative of Solomon). He taught us brilliantly about not just Israel’s ancient history, but about who Israel is today. Shlomo shared Hebrew music and poetry, woven into the tapestry of modern Israeli culture and life. The tour made quite an impression on me, so I put it into verse:

Solomon the Wise

I once met a modern Rabbi from the kibbutz Ein-Shemer
Who took me through the Holy Land, and showed me all the treasures there.
Shlomo son of Asher helped me look at Israel through his eyes,
Teaching our group of Baptist pilgrims just like Solomon the wise.
Ancient history came to life in Israel everywhere we went,
As we Moved faster than a nomad bedouin could unfold his tent!
We saw Israel’s treasures from the Syrian border to the South,                              Learning from the stream of wisdom as it came from Shlomo’s mouth!
From Joppa to the Dead Sea we were starting early, finishing late,
Learning more of history than Herod who was called the great!
Of Israel’s sumptuous banquet we could only get a little taste,
But led by the wisdom of Solomon, we did not let a moment waste.

Somehow, like a miracle, I’ve slept almost where David slept;
I’ve seen fields and hills where sheep by the future shepherd-King were kept.                 We saw the very stars that glistened, listened as he sang his song,
And I saw his city in Jerusalem, still alive and strong.
I have seen the evidence where men unearthed the temple wall,
Reflecting on the fact that men and walls, like David, also fall…
We observed Mt Carmel, where Elijah called for holy fire,
Where he called for Baal and his unholy prophets to retire!
I have witnessed tells where ancient truth was excavated out,
Centuries of dirt obscuring what the truth might be about,
And churches built on holy sites or old traditions they would tout,
With Truth and legend intertwined so much that it could make you doubt.

Like Elijah, I could look upon the Valley of Jezreel,
Thinking of its storied past and all the things it made me feel:
Will this tranquil place become the Armageddon battlefield?
Mary Magdalena, did you ever know or could you see
That groups would come from Mexico, that someday archaeology
Would find your village’s synagogue near the shores of Galilee?                                       Your hero and your exorcism have been so far-reaching
That they brought us to this place, this week, for Shlomo’s teaching.

I have seen so many things I want forever to recall:
The oasis of En Gedi, where David went when he was chased by Saul;
Herod’s grand and ancient hall, and desperate Masada’s fall…
Going in the Garden Tomb, or praying on the wailing wall;
So many things both big and small, and in this list not nearly all!
Ancient Scriptures, Dead Sea floating, doing Galilean boating!
Marketplaces. Children playing. Rabbis swaying as they’re praying.
The Dome of the Rock, so mean in spirit that they will not let you near it;
Their loud intrusive call to prayer–you can’t ignore it if you hear it–
The Holocaust, so much regret; so much the world should not forget…
Modern life and ancient tells are my mosaic of Israel.

I’ve been near the place where Peter wept because a chicken squawked!
I have heard some politics, where threatening words like trash are talked;
We went to the marketplace where goods were sold and wares were hawked;
But I have seen the Holy Land, and walked where Jesus walked.

Men may turn from ancient truths and follow after new;
Men may scoff at Scripture and debate its point of view,
And men may say there is no God by what they say and do;
But I have been to The Holy Land. And I know it’s true.

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Land That is More than Land: Why Do They Call It “Holy”?

In Genesis, God calls Abram to go to a specific land, and the world has never been the same since. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1, NIV) Abram went, and the evidence of his calling is still all over that land today. It is well-known that Abram is considered to be the father of the three major religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), all of whom trace their roots to his calling, and their origin to this specific place..

I visited the Holy Land, and it was amazing. I’d have to say that on the one hand, it is merely a geographical region composed of a Mediterranean coastline, some mountainous terrain, the Jordan Valley, and a fair amount of forbidding desert. In the ancient world, it did indeed sit strategically between Turkey, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Because of that, it was thus situated directly in the path of every marauding force and conquering army that ever journeyed along that one and only route to success.

A Brief History

Topography and the availability of water enhanced its unique position. Since it was the only way to travel to and from Egypt, it had the dubious distinction of being the crossroads in the cross-hairs of every conquering general in the ancient world. It was occupied at one time or another by the Egyptians, Medes, the Persians, and Assyrians; and Babylonians, the Greeks, then the Romans; the Turks, the Muslims, and the Crusaders; then the Muslims again. Archaeology in the Holy Land displays the remnants of one culture after another, built on top of the one it just destroyed…

land destruction

Its population is a volatile mix of passionate people, most of whom feel they have been wronged or displaced not just in the recent past, but for centuries. Depending on your point of view, all of them have a case. The early Canaanites gave way to the Children of Israel who reached their zenith under David and Solomon. Israel was conquered by Assyria and Babylon and disappeared for centuries, but enjoyed a tremendous resurgence under Herod the Great, a Roman protégé who flourished for three decades under Roman protection (c. 38 to 4 BC).

Herod’s heirs were not nearly as effective, and had to contend with a Jewish revolt against oppression. That was ended by the Romans when they destroyed Jerusalem and killed as many as 1,000,000 Jews in 70 AD. Constantine emerged from Asia Minor, and the Holy Roman Empire possessed the land for a while until the Muslims came along in the Seventh century CE and conquered it. The Crusaders came and attacked the Muslims, but only held it for a while. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Ottoman Empire rose up out of Turkey and possessed it.

Dig a Little Deeper

On the surface, it is an unforgiving land filled with unforgiving people. It is full of conflicts and border disputes. There are places taken by force in the name of peace. There is a holy Mosque where they won’t let Westerners even glimpse the inside! In fact, attendants give you dirty looks if you get too close.

Traditions are built on top of traditions, reflecting a centuries-old tug of war between religious people who all claim to worship a loving God. There are armed guards at places of prayer and extremists on all sides who believe the only path to peace is to eliminate all dissention. Those radicals belie the average people there, who love and raise families, and who do compromise and live together peaceably in a powder keg of politics and emotion.

land guards

So why do people call it “the Holy Land”? That answer is found in the REST of God’s promise to Abram, and the covenant He made with him: (Genesis 12:2) “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all Peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

It is not the topography that makes the land holy; it is not the passionate, zealous inhabits; it is not even the religions. The Holy Land is holy because it is where God proclaimed His intention to bless ALL men, and to stay in relationship with us in spite of our rebellion and independence.

What’s So Holy About it?

It’s difficult to pinpoint, and it’s hard to understand
That there’s a place in Israel they call the Holy Land.
The Holy Land’s not special just because it’s in that region;
It’s not because it offers us the birthplace of religion;
It isn’t ground made sacred by where holy men have trod,
But it’s made holy by the promise of a Holy God.
He promised that through Abram, every person would be blessed;
So concentrate on that, and you can leave out all the rest.
The blessing’s not attached to a religious or political boss,
But it resides in reconciliation on a cross.

History proves that men will only lead us to our doom:
God’s promise in the Holy Land is in an empty tomb.

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The Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and the Churches in Jerusalem: What Do They Have in Common?

In Jerusalem the number one business is tourism. Hotels and buses are filled with pilgrims anxious to see and touch Holy sites like the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or the Wailing Wall. There are more buses running around Jerusalem than you will see anywhere this side of Branson, Missouri.

dome rock

It is truly impressive to see the devotion that pilgrims have to their sacred sites. Millions of people come each year to insert written prayers into the Western Wall, and to pray earnestly as close to the site of the Second Temple of Jerusalem as they can. It is thought that being closer to the Temple is being closer to the presence of God, thereby putting prayers almost directly to the ear of God, where they will surely be heard. Orthodox Jews and devoted Christians come to the wall in hopes that the Lord will surely answer prayers delivered so close to His house.

dome wall

There is an interior passage on the other side of the wall where a special group of women pray daily, bringing their petitions before God with continual supplication. Their reverent whispers echo softly in the secret passage, flying up through stone walls on butterfly wings to the heavens. The women pray fervently at the wall, perhaps with a prayer-book or Scripture to guide them, or perhaps with eyes closed as their lips move in silent supplication. Unlike the outer wall, this sacred space is reserved for women who are committed prayer warriors locked in spiritual battle with grief or longing or darkness…

dome women

Out and above the wall on Dome of the Rock, access is also limited. The Dome Mosque was built in the 700’s on TOP of the old Temple site, and is restricted these days to almost all “outsiders”. Only Muslims are allowed there, and there are guards at every entrance to keep tourists and non-Muslims from looking into the Dome. It is considered holy by the Muslim faith because it houses the rock where creation originally occurred; it is also where Mohammed allegedly rose to heaven with Gabriel, and where he went to pray (in a story very similar to the Transfiguration) with Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Westerners and Christians have been kept out of the Mosque for almost two decades, and Jews do not enter the Dome because it is a violation of Jewish law. There was an opening where a door was being repaired when we walked by the Dome, and the guard hurried out to move us away from the entrance lest we see inside.

dome guard

A group of women sat in the doorway and gave us dirty looks as we tried to catch a glimpse of what was inside, but alas! The religion of peace apparently doesn’t want outsiders. Their zealous devotion has created a shield around the Mosque…

At Churches and Christian holy sites, the devotion is also amazing. Pilgrims kiss the stones where Jesus may have been killed or prepared for burial, and the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa are venerated by the followers of Christ. People come from all over the world to lay prostrate, to reach and touch, and to experience the thrill of walking perhaps where Abraham or Jesus walked. The religious fervor and devotion of these pilgrims is touching and inspiring. (Interestingly, it was matched on our trip only by the curiosity and desire of celebrity-seekers who were trying to see Prince William up close!) But as I watched all of this devotion directed at holy sites and sacred places, I wondered if it was not perhaps the teeniest bit misdirected…

Matthew 28:5 “The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

For me the truth in the Holy Land was not about the many amazing places we visited, or in the archaeological tells, or in the Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; I appreciate the tradition behind those sites and the fervor with which people respond to them. But for me, in thinking of the Living God who said, “I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” I couldn’t find spiritual excitement in rocks, or walls, or Domes nearly as much as I found it in an empty space…

dome tomb

Reflection After the Wailing Wall Upon an Empty Space

Prayers are offered at the wall by Saints and Rabbis lifted high
In supplications large and small, regardless of the passers-by…
There a Rabbi bobs his head and there a tourist walks around,
While holy prayers are being said with passion on this holy ground.
Will Yahweh in His heaven hear as saints and Pilgrims seek this place?
And will they know that God came near, and offers peace? And love. And grace.
The Dome above the Temple rock is covered up with sheets of gold,
While guards at every entrance block all touring pilgrims, young and old…
And pilgrims come here every day to see these holy, sacred sites,
To look and see, to kneel and pray, to replicate religious rites!
When in Bethlehem we trod, in Churches, or in Galilee,
I wondered: does the living God reside in things that we can see?
We saw another wall of stone that opened to a burial room
And stood within it, all alone, Rejoicing in the empty tomb!

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To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread