Day Six deserves a hundred thousand words, but because a picture is good for a thousand, we’re going to let them do most of the talking today. I am short on energy, thus short on ability to completely process the powerful events of the day.
It was a day of highs and lows. Elevations, that is.
Beginning with Masada.
When I saw Masada on the itinerary several days ago, I glazed over it. I suppose that as Neal-Centric as it sounds, it did not interest me. It wasn’t in my Bible, and it had nothing to do with me or my faith/religion. Today I am reminded that God speaks to us through our scriptures, our histories, and the land all among us; and God is still speaking.
Masada has a lot to do with me, my faith, and my God.
A Preparation from Casey Baggott:
“Atop a rugged hill stood an ancient fortification of Herod the Great. Roman soldiers took posession of the site. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Israelite Zealots took the fortification from the Romans and held it for three years against their mighty was machine. All but a handful of the 967 Zealots committed suicide just as the Romans overwhelmed the fortification. They died rather than submit to slavery and Roman rule. Centuries later, “Masada shall never fall again” was the cry of modern Israeli army recruits as they completed graduation ceremonies atop Masada. The ruins stand as a symbol for defiance against one’s foes.
PRAYER: Lord God of Ages, our hearts and wills are stirred by the courage of those who have gone before us and have blazed a trail of valor and devotion. May our own weaknesses be overcome. May we courageously seek to resist evil, pursue justice, and love mercy. As Christ’s followers in this time and place, let us find fitting ways to offer our own witness to the greatness of God, Amen.”
Masada is identified by Flavius Josephus to be where Herod the Great built a fortress in the event that he would need to escape to safety. Atop a mountain that by my estimations is a bajillion feet tall, it could be one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. It had the luxury and technology beyond what I would’ve ever imagined to be possible with spas and bath houses, and the ability to store enough water to last for incredible periods of time.
Though you could see for miles and miles in any direction what scene stuck out the most was the scene right at the bottom of the mountain. Outside a stone fence representing the siege wall put up by the Romans, were eight different squares representing the surroundings of the Roman camps. In essence, these men and women, boys and girls, lived their every day fully aware of who was just outside their “window” preparing and working to come and kill them.
Not to degrade my first-world problems, but at that point I realize that I live in a way where my conviction of faith, conviction of self, and conviction of God are subject to a matter of convenience. I was deeply moved by the memory of a group of people who lived out the convictions of all three every day of their lives.
As we looked down the mountain we saw college-aged Jews climbing up the mountain. They had been climbing for over an hour to reach the top. We learned that they were part of a program referred to as “Birth Right” where young Jews from around the world are brought to Israel (at no cost to them) to come for somewhere around two weeks to experience the holy land.
Ronen says that when we come back with college students, we’ll hike up the mountain to see the sunrise. Then, hike back down to go miles into the desert to camp out in tents for the night like they might’ve done 2000 years ago.
Ronen’s the man.
Anyway, we were all uniting atop this mountain to experience the fervor, dedication, and brilliance of the zealots reclamation of Herod’s palace. However, every time we looked over the edge, we were reminded of the looming danger they fought against for three years.
They zealots inside the fortress could never take for granted the threats they faced on a daily basis. While we were atop Masada, an Israeli Army plane thundered through the sky, reminding me that even still, the threats that these Jews face are not taken for granted.
We walked into the synagogue (though very much of a Roman in lifestyle, Herod also tried to establish his Jewish roots to demonstrate to the people) where the community would gather. It was here where the decision was made that it would better to die by their own hands then live at the hands of the Romans.
It is known that ten men were selected to kill the rest of the community (because suicide was a sin for the Jews). Then, one man would kill the other nine, set flame to Masada and throw himself off the cliff.
When the people of Israel say “Masada shall never fall again.” It is speaking of much than just the one time event. It is a call to remember those that gave their lives refusing to give up what they believed and a call to be invested in our lives so that we never let it slip away again.
I know, sometimes, I’m prone to feel like periods of my life – hours, days, weeks – have slipped away.
Masada has a lot to do with us, I think.
From there we went to the caves of Qumran. Dry, arid, and sandy, Ronen told us that because the height of the mountains, the rain clouds would hardly ever make it to where we were standing. However, during the three of four days a year it might rain, it would be enough to create flash floods rolling down the mountain in the body of what was a dry river bed just hours ago. This rainwater would be stored in cisterns and last until the next year’s rain.
To give us a bit about Qumran, as Bob would say as he introduces Ronan every morning: here she is, you know her, you love her, Casey Baggott.
“The archaeological site which preserves the remains of the village of Qumran sits where the rough and rugged terrain of the Judean wilderness overlooks the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea. Qumran appears to have been settled by a religious community of dedicated Jews called “Essenes.” The Essenes awaited the coming Messiah, while zealously devoting themselves to a lifestyle of strict religious observance which included voluntary poverty, abstinence from worldly pleasures, focus on ritual purity, study, renunciation of marriage, and daily baptisms. Some have speculated that John the Baptist was influenced by the Essenes.
The Essenes occupied this site from around 200 BC until around 68 AD when it was destroyed by the Romans. The Essenes apparently hid their treasured library of scrolls in caves in the vicinity shortly before the community was destroyed. The first scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd.
The scrolls of Qumran offer the oldest existing biblical manuscripts for some of the books of the Old Testament. The “Shine of the Book” in Jerusalem currently houses the scrolls.”
Talk about a needle in the hay stack! I had always assumed the discovery of Qumran to be some sort of accidental finding. After looking at all the caves, mountains, rocks, and sand that seem to span out endlessly in a region that is consistently well about 100 degrees with no visible sources of fresh water, here’s my conclusion: that discovery is nothing short of a miracle!
I found it especially fascinating that though these scripts are 2000 years ago, they are still easy to read much like the Hebrew Biblical writing of today.
Not only is God still speaking, but when God speaks, it is ofter as clear as the sky above the beautiful Dead Sea.
The Samaritan’s Walk
After lunch, we went into the gift shop and I finally did it. I broke down and started shopping for my soon-arriving baby girl – God help me, it’s a lifetime of spending ahead!
The surprise of the day came when our driver Saher, was willing to drive us down the mountainous, thin, curvy, steep road between Jericho and Jerusalem.
(For those of you following at home, every time we see the word Jericho, Bob makes Saher play us “Joshua Fought the Battle Of Jericho” on his (Saher’s) ipod through the bus speakers. I always see God in the way Saher, a Christian, smiles proudly and sings along to his Christian Playlist.)
(And yes, I mean EVERY time, we saw the work Jericho, I can sing that song in three languages in my sleep at this point!)
You see, with any precipitation, the road down to the Wadi Quelt becomes slippery and very dangerous. I am not exaggerating when I say that several of us on the bus felt like the bus was going to roll off the cliff from these narrow, windy roads.
But we’re all glad we took this spontaneous excursion, here’s why:
The St George Orthodox Monastery in Wadi Qelt was founded in the late 5th century by John of Thebes, a hermit from Egypt.The Monastery was destroyed by Persians in 614 when they swept through the valley. The bones and skulls of the martyred monks killed by the Persians can still be seen today in the monastery chapel. In 1878, a Greek monk, Kalinkos settled here and restored the monastery in 1901.
The Monastery is currently inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks. It is reached by a pedestrian bridge across the Wadi Qelt, which many imagine to be Psalm 23’s “valley of death.” The Wadi Qelt valley parallels the old Roman road to Jericho, the backdrop for the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-38)
PRAYER: Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, O God, we fear no evil, for you are with us. No terrain is too rugged and no circumstance is too dire to keep us from your care. We are grateful for humble, committed, faithful people who have, by their lives, shown us reliance upon you in all times and places is possible. Amen. – Casey Baggott (WHO ELSE?!)
We parked the bus when it was no longer possible for a bus to continue the path, and were greeted by Bedouins who physically did everything they could to first buy fruit and other things from them, and then as I struggled past them to continue down the path, they begged me to make the trip easier and use their donkey (for a fee).
I would’ve used the donkey too! That walk was so hard, even on the way down my legs shook with every step as I tried to stabilize myself. The only thing keeping me from riding the donkey wasn’t that I couldn’t afford it financially. Rather, my 84 year-old friend Lincoln, was huffing and puffing ahead of me and there’s no way I could’ve afford to let him see me ride past him; oh the (donkey) crap I would’ve gotten from him!
Eventually we arrived at the monastery. Hours earlier we began our day in a place of violence, invasion, and destruction. A fortress for battle.
And now we stood at a palace of peace, serenity, and solitude. A fortress for faith.
We soaked in the rich symbolism all around us. The calm still walls, and the clarity in the art and icons on every wall in every room.
Some of us even lit candles as we said a prayer for those we love.
With all the beauty and tranquility, it was a hard place to leave.
Plus, it was one really, really, long hike back to the bus.
Lincoln is an animal!
Change Gonna Come
And then it was onward to Jerusalem.
Now, speaking of Jerusalem, there’s a song “Holy City”, though you probably know it better by the chorus where the singer leads “JERUSALEM, JJJJEEERRUUUSALEM!”. Sound familiar.
It happens to be a song that my wife finds very moving. She talks about it from time to time and claims that just thinking about her gives her goose bumps. I had no feeling about the song, personally, but I would always say I wasn’t impressed, just to get a rise out of my wife. (The truth comes out in the holy city…)
Though we hadn’t arrived yet, we had already begun to notice a shift. The people were a little less friendly, it was much more crowded, almost in a way that seemed to rush, and the topography seemed to be much more dry and sandy.
Well, as we finally began to head towards the city, the shift was clear. We went from 1200 feet below sea level, to 2400 feet above sea level. The weather had shifted 20 degrees cooler. But in other ways than just the temperature, the air seemed different.
As we cleared a security check point, Saher reached down at his ipod. We headed through a tunnel. I recognized the song to be “Holy City.” I realized the flutters in my stomach as I anxiously waited the city that for so many thousands of years was thought to be the center of the world.
I had goosebumps.
After a minute we exited the tunnel heading on an incline and to our left was the holy city. At that exact moment, I kid you not, the soloists exclaimed “Jerusalem, JERUSALEM!”
And it’s a good thing, because I had almost made it through the day without a tear in my eye. Not anymore though.
What a beautiful song. The sun had all but set as we pulled the bus over, allowed the song to finish, and stepped out for a brief, unphotographed moment to see the city and breath the air.
There were horns honking constantly, traffic backed up for blocks. There were the rumbles of a city, the hustle and bustle of unfamiliar crowds.
From the land of Galilee to the holy city of Jerusalem; it was a little bit exciting, and a little bit scary.
In that moment, I felt very connected to Jesus of Nazareth.
More to Come
It is sure to be a few very emotional days ahead.
Tomorrow we go to Bethlehem, and possibly even the Garden of Gethsemane.
It is a lot to process today, and a lot to adjust to as we go from where Jesus lived as a boy and grew as a man, to where Jesus rode like a prince, and died as a savior.
Until Tomorrow, Shalom.