Yesterday, we left the serene shores of the Sea of Galilee and headed south. (Actually, those shores were not all that serene; there was a wicked wind storm going on, despite the clear skies, and had we had our boat ride on the lake that day, it would have been cancelled.) The night before had not been kind to me; multiple power outages left me awake at 3:00 a.m., unable to return to sleep.
Our journey south led us to Judea, via territory that is owned by Israel but largely occupied by Palestinian people. We passed through a ‘check point’, and while it looked like a border crossing in some respects, all we had to do was slow down; people coming out, on the other hand, were being interrogated. This is a very complicated land, politically.
We stopped first at the site where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. At this point in the river, flowing south from the Sea of Galilee, it is actually quite deep. I don’t think that’s always the case, but it really depends on the rainfall. There was a marker on the wall above the water where, in January of this year, the water crested – and it was probably fifteen feet higher than it was as we witnessed it.
The Orthodox, especially, consider this a holy site and have church buildings erected nearby – both in Israel and in Jordan, which is directly on the other side of the river. On both sides, structures have been erected to allow for pilgrims to be baptized (or, often, baptized again) in the very place where John baptized Jesus. Our leader pointed out a set of stone stairs on the Jordanian side which were put in place as early as the 300s, marking this spot as a pilgrimage site from the very early years of the church.
It was interesting that at this Christian religious site, both Israeli and Jordanian soldiers were present, with the Jordanian soldier being more obvious, right down near the water, automatic rifle in hand. These two nations seem to get along well right now, but this unique place along the border is perhaps the weakest spot in terms of the simple ability to gain entrance from one direction or the other. One could walk through the water from one side to the other without being carted off by the current without great difficulty – as long as one wasn’t afraid to face the barrel of a gun upon ascent.
From there we continued south through more Palestinian settlements – a lot of vegetable growing happens in this area, thanks to irrigation – and stopped at the caves of Qumran. When that Bedouin shepherd threw a rock into a cave back in 1947, he expected to hear a bleat, not a crack. What he discovered were clay jars filled with scrolls and fragments which contained almost the entire Old Testament, along with a number of other significant historical writings. These were stored there for safe-keeping by the Essene community, a sect of zealous Jews that died out in the early years of the last millennium. What those scrolls did for biblical scholarship was nothing short of amazing, proving that the faithfulness of scribes and God in the maintenance of the integrity of biblical documents was greater than any had imagined.
Following this historically and religiously significant stop, we visited that most unique of tourist sites, the Dead Sea. The mineral content of the Dead Sea is such that it can house no life, and the water’s ‘heaviness’ enables anyone – even me! – to float effortlessly. The shore has such a coating of salt on it that it looks like a thin, sugary icing. But just being near the water and licking your lips assures you that it is decidedly not sugary. The mineral content of this water is such that if you don’t shower off when you get out, you’ll regret it until you do! Folks with a variety of skin ailments find the waters of the Dead Sea quite soothing. While there’s nothing especially faith-filled about a trip to the Dead Sea, it is one of those unique opportunities that ought not to be missed if one is travelling in Israel.
Continuing south, through the Judean desert, we came upon a large rock overlooking the Dead Sea: Masada. It was here that Herod had a great palace. Jewish zealots overtook the community, and when the Romans went to retake it – building a ramp that was a feat of engineering for its day – the occupiers decided to kill their own rather than be taken back into slavery. A few women and children survived to tell the story, recorded in the writings of Josephus. Masada remains today as a symbol of Jewish nationhood and pride, despite its history. Our tour guide gave a very impassioned testimony of how he sees Masada as an Israeli.
Tired from a long day, we made our way up to Jerusalem, through a traffic jam – in the middle of the Judean desert! – and arrived at our hotel for the night. I remarked to myself that hearing the whine of the bus engine as we climbed our way into the Holy City gave me a fresh appreciation for the Psalms of Ascent. People really did have to climb a long way to get to Jerusalem!