Palestine, Israel

Our Hotel didn’t have…

… quite the style of the Intercontinental!

Dawn over Bethlehem

Dennis woke early and went for a walk and happened upon one of the watch towers of the Wall

Our second day in Bethlehem was just as interesting at the first.  We visited the Bethlehem Bible College and met the Principal, Pastor Jack, and one of the students.  It was surprising to see that they had recently built a large addition to the existing classrooms, etc at this campus.   It included an auditorium, a large chapel, several lecture rooms and a cafeteria.   It has largely been funded from gifts from around the world.  They also have a guest house with 30 beds which they use to subsidise the running of the College.  They were justifiably proud of their new building but this hasn’t dissuaded them from their core function, that is training people for service in God’s kingdom in Palestine.  Whether that’s training men for the ministry, others for Christian school teachers or still others who want to ground their faith through a more in-depth study of the Scriptures.  It was very encouraging to hear about the work that they do there and at the other campus in the Galilee region.  I was astonished to hear that there are 20,000 Christians within the Palestine community, so they love to train the locals to work in their own communities.

Bethlehem Bible College

The new wing at the BBC

Before hopping back on to the bus we were encouraged to walk the short distance to one corner of the Wall that divides Israel from Palestine.  It was so sobering to see this huge, ugly, concrete wall and remember the stories our brother in Christ had related to us the night before, about being trapped within one’s own country.  The graffiti on the Wall was pretty amazing, from all sorts of people from around the globe, as well as the locals.  Once back on the bus we had to pass through a border checkpoint.  Three young soldiers, looking as if they were about 18  and carrying machine guns boarded the bus and we had to show that we all had passports.  When we drove through the enclosure and barbed wire fences we were immediately back in Jerusalem’s suburbs!   As I have said before, I really don’t know much about the troubles between the Israelis and Palestinians and obviously both sides have their faults  (suicide bombers being one of them) but surely there must be a better way than leaving the Palestinians in what is effectively a prison?  

Amazing graffiti on the Wall

Even the famous Banksie came over from the UK to add his bit to the Wall

Such a terrible sight

The last thing you see as you drive through the gap in the Wall

Of course, Bethlehem is mentioned numerous times in the Bible and we read through various passages: Rachel’s death (Gen 35), the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz (Ruth), David’s anointing as king (1 Sam), prophecies from Micah, Jesus’  miraculous birth (Matt 2) and shepherds in the fields (Luke 2).
Next stop on our tour was Jericho, which is about 10 kms north of the top of the Dead Sea.  Jericho is also in the West Bank.  It sits 258m below sea level and is the lowest city in the world.     Driving towards this city is really like one would picture what an oasis would look like in a desert.  There are green trees everywhere, such a welcome relief after all the sandy coloured sand.  There is so much cropping in this area, it takes your breath away.  Olives, citrus, mangos, plums, cucumbers, melons, grape vines, sugar cane, bananas and even cotton.  Jericho was the first city to be taken by the Israelites after their 40 years wandering in the desert (Num 22, Josh 2-6).  It’s also mentioned in the New Testament, where Jesus healed the blind man (Matt 20) and the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19).   The city today is not on the same site as the city in the Bible but just 2 kms to the north-west.  The old city is up on a Tell and is very small, only covering an acre.  Once you see it you can imagine the Israelites walking around it seven times in one day!  Chris was a great guy to have along, being an avid archeologist.   We walked up to the top of the tell, and yes it was really hot again but they kindly have provided seating in a shaded area so we could sit, listen and learn before exploring the place for ourselves.   A tell is the site of numerous settlements one on top of the other, where archeologists love to fossik and find out all sorts of interesting facts about how people lived in each layer of occupation, (they have found 23 layers to date).   At the base of this tell is a spring which pumps out 4500 litres per minute all year round.  No wonder it was so green and lush around this area.

Getting ready to plant out in the desert

Jericho was so green

Looking down from the Tell on one side it’s beautiful and lush, on the other it’s back to the desert

Jericho Tell – what a lot of patient work digging up the past

Date palms

The sign tells me there are capsicum and tomatoes growing in these shade houses

We had lunch in a surprising venue, way out in the desert, again north of Jericho.  In this area there are New Settlements developed by Orthodox Jews.  Not the ones with the curly peyos (side-burns) but Jewish farmers who felt that if this land was not settled by Jews then they may lose this part of Israel as well.  Many date farms, vineyards and shade houses in this area.  They are strict about the dietary rules and so there was only kosher food on offer, that’s either dairy foods or meat but not mixed.  The cafe we pulled up alongside was a couple of very old railway wagons with a covered area between.  The most surprising thing was when you walked inside this cafe.  It was all done out like it belonged in the  American Wild West, complete with Elvis Presley on the jukebox!  The food was delicious and plenty of it.  They had the air conditioning going but unfortunately we sat at the table nearest the doors.  Every time someone walked through the doors a great blast of HOT air was blown in!  Very weird.  It was well over 45 degrees outside at this place.

Wild West Cafe

This poster was on the wall of the cafe, maybe it’s their justification for laying claim to this land of Israel.  “The place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet” is the quote on the aerial photo.

We carried on driving along the Rift Valley, somewhere down there the Jordan River flows but we didn’t see much of it.   I always had visions of a huge, wide river but this proved to be false, there’s too much water taken out for irrigation so the river itself is quite small.   Right in the Rift Valley it looked green but further out it was back to desert.  The international border between Jordan and Israel is right down the middle of the river, as this is  too difficult to police an electric fence runs down the length of the road for miles on the Israeli side.

The Rift Valley in the country of Jordan. There’s another Tell in the middle and somewhere the river flows

The spring of Ein es-Sultan at Jericho is used to irrigate 2,500 acres through multiple channels before feeding into the Jordan River 10 km away.

What a treat we had in store for us at our next stop.  Amazingly, there is a series of thermal springs in the Rift Valley.  New Zealanders hearing “thermally heated pools” naturally assume that they would be very hot and not at all refreshing on this particular day.  But, no, they are heated but not to the extent we have at home.  It was bliss,  I swam for 90 minutes and only got out because we were warned the bus was about to depart!   The water was cool enough to be refreshing and so clear that you could see fish swimming along with you and if you stood still for a moment or two they actually came and had a wee nibble around your feet!  The fish were about 300mm long.

Beautiful, clear and almost cool water

Not the kind of thermal pool we’re used to

For the next four nights we were to be staying along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in a kibbutz.  My vague ideas about a kibbutz are earnest Jews working the land in a subsistence way and welcoming visitors for bed and breakfast in return for a few hours gardening each day.  Wow, talk about being out-of-date!  The Ginosar Inn is a huge complex with a five-star hotel, many small chalets equipped for two people, conference rooms, a huge restaurant, cafes, swimming pool and games areas.   They also serve Kosher food, one day vegetarian and dairy foods and the next meat with no dairy on the menu.  The meals were wonderful and I had to stop myself from returning to the buffet tables too frequently, mind you we did sweat it off each day.  When we went to bed that night it must have still be 30 degrees so we were thankful for the air conditioning and kept it on all night.  

Sitting by the Sea of Galilee for our early morning prayer meetings was a treat

The people who first established the original kibbutz here were farmers and fisherman in 1937.   During a severe drought in 1986 two brothers who lived on the kibbutz went searching along the banks of the Lake for ancient coins.  They were keen on archeology and had found early Roman coins this way before.  The level of lake had dropped so much that this time they found the frame of a fishing boat that has since been carbon dated to around the time Jesus would have lived around these parts.  It is now known as the Sea of Galilee Boat and also as the Jesus Boat, though there is no proof that Jesus or His disciples ever sailed in it.  The brothers reported their discovery to the authorities who sent out a team of archaeologists to investigate.  Realising that the remains of the boat were of tremendous historical importance to Jews and Christians alike, an archaeological dig followed, undertaken by members of Kibbutz Ginosar, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and numerous volunteers.   Excavating the boat from the mud without damaging it, quickly enough to extract it before the water rose again, was a difficult process which lasted 12 days and nights.  The boat was then submerged in a chemical bath for 7 years before it could be displayed at the beautiful Yigal Allon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar.   

The preserved remains of a 2000+ year old fishing boat

The Yigal Allon Museum where the Galilee Boat is housed. This is a huge tourist attraction and is the reason why the Kibbutz is such a huge enterprise

We boarded a replica “ancient” fishing boat off the pier at the Kibbutz and motored on a sparkling calm sea around to Capernaum, probably about  6 kms up the coast.   It was surprising how wide the boat was, there was ample room for our group of 42.   The Sea of Galilee is 21 kms across and 13 kms long with tall mountains surrounding it.  (It is actually only a quarter the size of Lake Taupo in NZ)  I could imagine the weather turning quickly and blowing up a storm in the middle of the Lake as we are often told about in Scripture e.g. Jesus rebuking the wind and waves (Luke 8) and Jesus and Peter walking on the water (Matt 14).   

A replica fishing vessel today

Looking back to the jetty at Kibbutz Ginosar

With irrigation this land is very productive

We rejoined Shadi, who drove us to the ruins of Korazin, 4 kms north of Capernaum.   This time Ian did not just read Bible passages about this village but he performed a one man play, where he was the Mayor of Korazin and what it was like to have Jesus come to town and preach in their synagogue, and how Jesus healed the man who had been brought by his four friends on a stretcher and lowered through the roof.   Ian did such an excellent job, and he received an enthusiastic response from his audience.   It was amazing to walk through the ruins of this village, all the houses, streets, places of work, synagogue, etc were built out of the local basalt rock which is black.  It was so evocative knowing that Jesus had cursed this village and pronounced the famous “Woe to you, Korazin!” speech because of their rejection and unbelief despite seeing His miracles with their own eyes.

Part of the synagogue at Korazin

Dennis trying to get in the action of Ian’s one man play

It was common for us to see Churches dotted here and there as we were being driven around this general area.  It turns out that most of them were on sites of special significance such as the one in a field beside a gently slopping hill.   This is where it is believed the Sermon on the Mount was given.  It is certainly a natural amphitheatre and one could imagine a large crowd sitting listening to a preacher.  We didn’t visit any of the Churches as we didn’t want to treat them as if they were shrines.  We sat in the lovely cool bus near this hillside and listened to Ian read through the Sermon (Matt 5-7) and felt privileged to be there.  
There was another Church down on the water’s edge at a place called Tabgha, not too far away.   This time we walked down past the Church and sat in the shade of tall trees on the shoreline and listened to the Biblical accounts of Jesus telling His disciples that He will rise again and meet them in Galilee (Matt 26 &28) and when He reinstated Peter after his denial (John 21).   When we booked our Israeli tour many months ago we had no idea that it would be so steeped in Biblical study and it has been such a bonus.  Not only seeing the places with the familiar names but to connect them so thoroughly to the Biblical accounts is fantastic.

The photo doesn’t do it justice – there is a lovely gentle sloop to this supposed site of the Sermon on the Mount

A little way inland we stopped at the ruins of Bethsaida, another village that Jesus had cursed.   In Biblical times this was a fishing village but now this area of the lake is silted up somewhat and the Lake is about 2 kms away.  It was in this region that Jesus fed the 5000 with the loaves and fishes (John 6), Bethsaida was the home town of Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 12) and in Matthew 11 Jesus pronounces another “Woe to you”  curse for the citizens of Bethsaida.  We enjoyed a short break in the National Park here and ate our lunch after which Chris became quite excited.  He took us up onto the Tell which is 25 acres, where he has worked three times as a volunteer on the archeological digs here.  Over the years they have found heaps of evidence of the populations living here and he was eager to share this with us.  I found it really interesting but with very little shade up there it was too hot for me to concentrate.

Chris’ T-shirt proudly displays the stela found beside the north gate at the et-Tell at Bethsaida, proof that he worked here! The inscription on the carved basalt stela (one of 16) is thought to be that of Hada, a Storm God.

Back into the bus and we’re travelling along nicely, when we stopped at this unlikely site.   We all trooped off the cool bus and walked the narrow path between the busy roadway and a cliff down to the Lake, wondering what it is we are supposed to be looking at, other than the beautiful view?  It turns out this is the only cliff down to the Lake anywhere around the circumference, so it must be where the pigs were sent when Jesus healed the demon possessed man (Mark 5).
Last stop for the day was back at Capernaum again but to get there we had to cross the Jordan River.  What a disappointment, such an ordinary looking river. 

The Jordan River

It was quite a long drive back along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee and I fell asleep.  Dennis thought he was smart and took the most awful photo (which I won’t show you) of me fast asleep in my seat, it’s really very unflattering.  But when we got to the remains of the Capernaum Synagogue, where Jesus started His ministry, and we all sat down to listen to Ian read about it,  Dennis promptly lay down and fell fast asleep and proceeded to snore loudly!  So I had the last laugh after all.  The rest of us heard about Jesus living in Capernaum (Matt 4), teaching His disciples in a house (Matt 9), the royal official’s son being healed (John 4), etc, etc.  Also, virtually next door to the Synagogue is the house belonging to Peter’s mother-in-law who was healed of a fever by Jesus (Mark 1).  The Roman Catholic’s have a Church on this site but they built it in an interesting way.  They raised the Church a couple of metres above the old house, so you still have a clear view of ruins, and inside the Church they have left a glass floor above the ancient house.  They had really thought hard about how to combine a working Church and a “holy” site.  Capernaum was the third village which Jesus cursed for their rejection of Him and it is noteworthy to see that all three of these villages are now in ruins.

Nice welcome to Capernaum

The Capernaum Synagogue

The Church built over top so that Peter’s Mother-in-law’s house can still be viewed by everyone

By the time we got back to our kibbutz my feet and ankles were swollen.  I’m sure it was the effects of the heat and was thankful to have a delicious cold shower in our chalet.  I was too tired to even walk to the swimming pool and join the younger ones on the tour.  The Jewish Sabbath began at sunset that day and we noticed that the Hotel only had the restaurant open, all the other bars, cafes, etc were closed for 24 hours.  All the cleaning of the vacated rooms and chalets were not started until after sunset the following day.  The Hotel even provided a special door for those who were observing the Sabbath, it was one that required you to push it open rather than use the automatic electric doors ( I am not quite sure of the  principle here!).

Stop signs in Israel