I am back from Israel-Palestine, but the effects of this trip are still lingering with me, both emotionally and spiritually (and physically). I still want to share this trip with all of you. My time in this land will be popping up in many thoughts, reflections (and pictures) from here on out on this blog, but first, I want to keep documenting the basic schedule and images of what we did during the trip.
One key thing to remember about this trip was that it was not a vacation or tourist time. It was part of an “Intercultural Immersion” seminary course. Throughout our weeks here, our guides and professors repeatedly brought us to these moments of dwelling with the “Living Stones” of Israel-Palestine, and not just being enamored with the Dead Stones of ruins and biblical history.
This means that, in the days to come, you will see me write about our times hearing speakers and learning lessons about the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as time we spent at sites that have little to nothing to do with “Bible stuff”, but have a deep and visceral place in the minds and culture of contemporary Jewish and Arab peoples.
Much of our day was spent in the Golan Heights, a disputed tract of land which Israel annexed from Syria in 1967. According to international law, it still belongs to Syria, but due it has been so inhabited by Israeli settlements and symbolic importance, it is unlikely to ever be returned to them. Also, just outside of our hiking in the Golan Heights, we spent time at an overlook from which you could see the United Nations demilitarized border between Syria and Israel. So…a big chunk of our day was spent (technically) in and around Syria! (Don’t tell my worried parents!)
Gamla: The Modern Jewish Consciousness
For most of Israel’s history, the primary event that defined them was the Exodus. Modern Israel, however, takes the Holocaust and some key events in their later existence as their key events around which they form their identity. One of those other events was in this place, Gamla, nestled on the side of a mountain in the Golan Heights. We did some crazy hiking to get to this place. It is tough to get to.
This seclusion is one of the reasons why some of the most radical Jewish elements in the first century were born here. It is also why, during the Second Jewish Revolt (the one where the Temple was destroyed), this became a symbol for Rome: crush Gamla, and you crush the Jewish spirit. And thus began a long siege of this town. They beat back the Romans once, but the Romans got brutal and eventually found a weakness in their walls and broke through, slaughtering all 5,000 men, women, and children. Many of them climbed up to the top of the cliff and threw themselves off.
This event became one of a few moments that are still seared in the modern Jewish consciousness. They tell their children this story, and the modern lesson is this: Never again. By any means necessary, we will never again be killed be foreign oppressors. (Side note: there is one of the best preserved and oldest ruins of a 1st-century BCE Jewish synagogue here–see above.)
Tel Dan: The Rebel King of the North
This site was so fascinating. It was surreal to be in a place where Old Testament history went down, and we could actually see it! For the most part, Old Testament archaeology is scattered, fragmentary, and up to lots of interpretation. Not so here in Tel Dan. The Israelite tribe of Dan was supposed to settle by the sea, but they couldn’t because of the Philistines, and so they settled in this spot inland. They prospered greatly because of the greenery and water here.
Much later in Israel’s story, there is a rebellion after Solomon dies, and splits into a Divided Monarchy–Israel in the North, and Judah in the South. Judah is where Jerusalem, David’s established national capitol, is. Jeroboam, the man that leads the Northern Kingdom in rebellion against Solomon’s son Rehoboam, is scared that these northerners will want to move South to worship at the “proper” temple. And so he builds two temples with golden calves: one in Bethel, and one in (you guessed) Dan. He builds other cultic sites at Dan as well. This becomes the ultimate sin of Jeroboam for which the Northern Kingdom will face generations of judgment.
Here at Dan, you can see this altar where the calf was (they built a frame to show its size). You can see the city gate. You can see the cultic “high places”. And, they only recently discovered a 3,800 year-old Canaanite city gate (see above) before the settlement of the tribe of Dan. If the narrative in Genesis 14 is correct in its specifics, then this is the very gate Abraham would have walked through during his visit.
Caesarea Philippi: The Messiah & the Gates of Hell
I admit, this spot wasn’t especially moving to me. The Gospel of Matthew says that this area was where Peter made his famous confession that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and Jesus in turn changed Peter’s name and said the gates of Hell could not prevail against his church. Here at Caesarea Philippi, there is a large grotto at the end of a long flat vertical section of the mountain. This grotto and mountainside were used as the back walls of a few temples to Pan, Zeus, Augustus, and others. The temples have since been destroyed, but you can see their remnants strewn across the area, and you can see what was carved into the cliff face (which would have been inside the temples.
Why was this not moving to me? Well, many of the temples around here pre- or post-dated Jesus. Also, the text is clear that Jesus didn’t enter the city. The region of Caesarea Philippi was quite large and it is unlikely this particular site formed the backdrop of Jesus’ ministry. Also, sometimes you’ll hear sermons which say that the big cave was called the “gate of hell” and that’s what Jesus was talking about. That’s not true. But either way, after this spot, we called it a day and went back to our hotel in Galilee.