Saturday, March 13, 2010

Holy Land, Saturday, March 13


There was an incident yesterday, Friday, the day of prayer for Moslems.

Last week the Israeli government announced there would be a new illegal settlement expansion of 1600 homes.  (Settlements are illegal according to international law.)  The announcement was seen as an insult to Vice President Biden as he was visiting in Israel at the time, and one his purposes was to discourage settlements.

Because there is always a reaction among Palestinians when Israel expands the settlements, there was tension.  In anticipation of potential reactions, Israel shut down the West Bank (we are staying in the West Bank).  And Israel announced that no one under 50 could go to prayers at the Mosques on Friday, the Muslim holy day.  There were some protests and reactions yesterday in some of the areas where we will visit today.  That kind of tension is usually expressed on Friday, the day of prayer.

Because of the shutdown of the West Bank yesterday, we expected a long delay at the checkpoint, and that's what happened.  We waited about 40 minutes.  Then two soldiers with automatic weapons entered the bus, looking slowly and threateningly around.  When they got toward the back of the bus (where the Episcopalians were sitting) they asked us to get our passports out.  They didn't look at them.  It seemed only an act of intimidation.  The kind of thing that might discourage tour companies who choose to have their guests stay in West Bank Bethlehem rather than in the Jewish section of Israel.  It seems to be a form of economic terrorism.

Some discussion about Purity: What is appropriate?  What is inappropriate?  Biblical holiness laws are based on God's holiness, separateness, and otherness.  Creation is God's act of giving order.  Whatever God has done in Creation, God's people should do in their own lives.  The Rabbis codified a set of purity codes over a period of 1000 years. 

A rising scale of holiness of space:  The Land of Israel is the holiest land.  Walled cities are more holy.  Jerusalem is more holy.  The Temple Mount, the Rampart, the Court of Women, Court of Israelites, Court of Priests, the Holy of Holies each is a rising order of holiness.

People in descending order: Priests, Levites, Israelites, Converts, Freed Slaves, Disqualified Priests, Temple Slaves, Illegitimate Children, Those with damaged testicles, those without a penis. 
The Impure, by contact, in a rising level of impurity: dead creeping thing, carrion, person who has contact with a woman in her cycle, the issue of him who has a flux (spit, excrement, urine, etc.), ride on something where previous rider had a flux, the seat, the man with the flux.

Never invite a tax collector into your home; they touch everything to assess value and make everything impure. 

Jesus was affected by the purity laws.  Because he ate with tax collectors, etc., he couldn't legally testify.  He was disqualified because of his impurity.  In the gospel accounts, Jesus did not speak until ordered by the High Priest in the formula: in the Name of the Most High God.  Then he spoke, and claimed his authority.

A word about hospitality in the Middle East.  Offering a person a drink of water is an expectation for Middle Eastern hospitality.  Ask for water, you will get water.  If they pour the water for you, it is an offer of friendship for a period of time (a year, maybe).  If you eat with someone in their home, you are friends for life.

Story about a young person who was working a dig.  Went to catch the 2:00 bus.  Not there.  Met a local boy who told him the 2:00 bus will be there at 4:00.  Always is.  "Would you like something to eat?"  "Sure," said the American.  The young man brought him bread, olives, something to drink.  "Do you know what this means?" the young man asked the traveler.  "From now on, if ever you find yourself hungry, lonely, sad or scared, my home and my friendship is always open to you."  The two have remained life long friends, even at a distance. 

Living in a Muslim community, we have heard the call to prayer from the mosque.  Five times a day.  First is before dawn.  Around 5:00 a.m.  It awakens us in our hotel every morning.  It is beautiful, but it is early.

Mohammad when alive often had a man who was a black man do the call of prayer for him.  Arabic was not his first language, though, and some of Mohammad's followers would complain that the disciple did the call poorly. Mohammad replied, "He has a pure heart.  The pure heart is more important than the pure tongue."  To this day, when Muslims sing the call to prayer it is done in the "incorrect" style and tradition of the singer of Mohammad.

Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem is nearby, but we can't visit.  It was fenced off some years ago by Israel so that Muslims couldn't visit.  Now only Orthodox Jews may visit Rachel's tomb.  We can't either.  It is said to be the most armed tomb in the world.  It is sacred to Muslims and Christians as well as Jews.  Only Orthodox Jews can visit.  It is a site of much resentment.

Last week Prime Minister Netanyahu did a dumb thing.  In Israel there is a register of historic places.  Last week he added Rachael's Tomb to the registry of historic Jewish places.  Time Magazine said that the only possibly reason he might do such a thing would be to provoke a reaction.

We heard an interpretation of the story of the Prodigal Son, informed by Middle Eastern culture.  The ancient Middle East (and in many areas today) is an Honor/Shame based culture.  The values here are very different from the Catholic-Evangelical influenced Guilt-based culture that dominates much of the Western world.

When people called Jesus "Son of David" it was a profoundly honorific title because David is remembered as the great King of Israel.  In the Mediterranean, your honor is based on your family's honor, and the elder is according highest honor in a family.  A son is obligated to give the same kind of obedience to a father when they are both elders as when the son was a child.  A son offers a child-like allegiance until the day his father dies.  An offspring is expected to believe what the father believes.

So the story of the Prodigal Son would have been heard in a very different way than we hear it.  It is a story that is foreign to every local cultural norm.  The younger Son's request to divide the property and give him his inheritance was a way of telling his father "I wish you were dead."  From a Middle Eastern point of view, the father should have punished the son severely.  Instead, the father did something unthinkable, an affront to the whole community.  He sold the family homestead. 

When the son went "to a far country," he wouldn't have had to go far.  A town like we visited the other day, with bath houses and homes of prostitution would have been nearby.  His wanton life went as low as possible in Jewish terms – he fed the unclean pigs.  The scripture says that "he came to himself."  The sense is that he remembered who he was, remembered his identity as a member of his father's family.  He determined to return.

Luke's story says that the father saw him from a distance and ran to meet him.  Middle Eastern men do not run.  They stroll in a dignified way.  In fact, their clothing would make running difficult and awkward. 

When the father threw a party, it was an invitation to the community to reconcile with him after his act of selling the family property.  When the neighbors accepted and attended the party, the father's relationship with his community would have been healed.

Note that the elder Son did not know about the party.  That is impossible.  Unless...  the Elder Son and the father were entirely estranged. 

From a Middle Eastern perspective, this father is not the example of a good father.  He is weak.  He is a father who has not lived with the expected level of honor and authority, but who has surrendered his rightful place of respect, and acted under a different set of values.  The story has something radical to say about the nature of God.

We visited in the morning at Beth-phage, the House of New Figs.  There is a story that tells about Jesus as he neared Jerusalem, walking from Bethany.  They pass a fig tree that has no figs.  Jesus curses the fig tree.  Ten years ago there was a botanist on one of these tours.  He told how the figs in this land have what is called "false figs" in the spring.  They fall off, but in the autumn the plant produces fruit.  If a tree has no "false figs" in the spring, it will be barren in the fall.  This tree that Jesus cursed had lost its potential.

Coming to Jerusalem, Jesus walked all the way from Jericho to Beth-phage, nearly the top of the mountain directly across from the city.  As he neared the top, he made arrangements for a donkey.  A donkey was the ride for the ancient kings of Israel.  Prophecy expects the Messiah to enter Jerusalem riding a donkey.  As Jesus rode the last part of the journey into Jerusalem, he rode a king's donkey and people waved 10-12 foot palm branches before him.  This was a planned demonstration.  Palms don't grow in Jerusalem.  They must have been brought from Jericho.  Waving palm branches is a revolutionary act.  The palm is a symbol for a free Israel.  When Titus destroyed the city in 70 CE, he minted a coin with a weeping woman below a Palm tree.  The people following Jesus cried, "Hosanna," which is a desperate cry, meaning, "Help!!  Save us please!"  "Yasha - Save us" and "Na - Please!"  This procession is a revolutionary, Messianic demonstration, completely visible from the Roman Antonia Fortress.  This action put Jesus on the Roman radar as a possible problem.

Near the church at Beth-phage there are some first century tombs.  The outer opening of the tomb caves is a small, passage, easily closed to protect it from animals.  Inside is a shelf for the care of the body before laying it to rest.  After the body has been anointed, it is placed into a niche which can also be covered by a stone.  One year after the death, when the flesh has decayed, the bones will be collected and placed in an ossuary box, where the deceased bones will literally lay with their fathers.  The type of tombs that we looked at were used only during a period from around 150 BCE to 70 CE when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. 

Still on the Mount of Olives we visited a church that commemorates Jesus' tears over Jerusalem.  "Jerusalem, if only you knew the things that make for peace," Jesus cried.

The word Gethsemane means "(Olive) Oil Press."  Near an ancient garden of olive trees is a cave that has been venerated from early centuries as the place where Jesus was arrested.  In the cave is a stone that is a fulcrum for an olive oil press. 

From that place it is a short walk across the valley to enter Old Jerusalem by the Lion's Gate (also called St. Stephen's Gate).  Very shortly we were on the Via Dolorosa, tracing a traditional path for devotees who wish to walk the way of the cross.

I'm going to stop here because I have written a lot, and I am tired.  We will return to Jerusalem tomorrow, to the Temple Mount.  I'll tell more about today's remarkable visit, including an unforgettable experience in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.



At 10:23 PM, Anonymous janetlgraige said...


Pretty amazing about the prayer thing. It seemed illegal to me - so I looked up Article 18 in the International Declaration of Human Rights. It is a violation of international law. I'll have many questions for you when you return.

Peace, Janet

I'll be praying tomorrow at my holy place of worship.


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