Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thursday, March 11

Thursday, March 11; Boat,Kursi,Jezreel,Jericho

I've been very disappointed at the Internet service.  It takes an extremely long time to download a picture to the blog, and it seems like I can only download one.  So I'll offer today a picture of a first century fishing boat recovered from the Sea of Galilee.  The fishermen apostles and Jesus might have sailed on a ship like this.

I  intend to post my pictures when I get home, maybe on Picasa.  Sorry not to be able to send thing to you now.

As we leave Tiberius, a note about the city.  Tiberius was built by Herod the Great as a recreation place for Herod to get away from Jews (although he himself was Jewish).  The city was built over a cemetery, which makes it unclean, so Jews would not go there.  Tiberius is located on the Sea of Galilee, on a major geological fault over 600 feet below sea level.  Some years after its founding, rabbis said that all of the gravesites were resurrected and the location became clean for Jewish settlement.

We took a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, pausing to imagine being there on the lake with Jesus and the fishermen, or sailing in the storm that Jesus stilled.  We arrived at a museum that houses a boat from the first century.  We saw a film about the dramatic process for preserving the boat from decay when it was discovered during a period of drought.  The small craft was amazingly created from 28 different scraps of wood in this land without trees (except olive).  Mostly cypress and some oak.  It seemed a small boat, appropriate for only four to six people.  It was easy to imagine the fear of being in such a craft in a high sea storm and awaking Jesus asleep in the stern.

We then crossed over to the Other Side, the Decapolis, Gentile country.  Good observant Jews would never come intentionally to this region because it was unclean.  Even the shadow of a Gentile crossing one's path would make an observant Jew ritually unclean.  Jesus comes here on purpose, probably with some grumbling from his disciples. 

Travel north and south in Israel was difficult because the east side of the Jordan was Gentile country, the west side had a city built over a cemetery.  Jews would walk a two or three day detour when going north-south through the country between Galilee and Judea to avoid defilement.  Going through Samaria was also tricky because of the hatred between Jews and Samaritans and their mutual inhospitality. 

It is particularly remarkable that Jesus goes to the Other Side, into Gentile country, where he encounters a naked man (unclean), who lives in the tombs (major unclean) and is possessed by demons (even more unclean).  When Jesus sends the demons into the swine (unclean), the demons think they have escaped, but – they are driven into the water to drown.  According to local tradition, there are three entrances to the underworld – below the Temple, at the entrance to a cave in Ceasera Phillipi, and any body of water.  When Jesus sent the demons into the swine herd which drowned in the sea, he tricked them.

We visited a Byzantine monastery dedicated to the story of the demoniac of Gergasa (the most likely of the three locations mentioned in the Gospels).  That location, Kursi, is also a church that remembers the feeding of the multitudes on the Other Side.  Note the numbers in Mark's account.  In Israel, Jesus fed 5000 Jews and had 12 baskets left over.  (the 12 tribes of Israel) In the Decapolis, Jesus fed 4000 Gentiles and had 7 baskets left over.  (the 7 nations that were here before Israel arrived).  The pair of feeding stories tell of Jesus' inclusiveness – he offered the same food to Jew and Gentile alike. 

Kursi was the largest monastery ever established in the Holy Land.  In 614 CE a Persian army, seeking to destroy Christianity by eliminating it from its source in Israel, invaded with the purpose of wreaking genocide.  Their religious intent was to eliminate Christianity and to spread the cult of Mithras.  Centuries later, when this location was discovered, they found mass graves for at least 58 people, mostly women and children.  Their treasures and belongings were buried with them, but their skulls were not – probably taken as souvenirs.  In that purge of 614, a mass grave in Jerusalem held bodies that could cover 2 1/2 city blocks.  Only Bethlehem was spared, because the invaders saw art work in the church in Bethlehem depicting Persian noblemen, the three Magi who visited the child Jesus. 

The earthquake of 749 destroyed Kursi.  It was hidden until discovered in 1969 when a highway was being built.  A small, young man on the highway crew who happened to be an archeologist recognized cut stones being moved by the bulldozer and ran in front of the machine to stop it.  They highway was moved in order to allow preservation of what we now know was this major monastery of Kursi. 

In the early 1980's workers uncovered wonderful mosaics from the floor of the church.  The baskets pictured in the mosaics are small baskets with handles.  That's interesting when you know that the word for basket used in the story of the feeding of the 4000 Gentiles is the word for a small basket with handles.  The word used in the feeding of the 5000 Jews means a tall basket without a handle. 

In 2001 a team found a nearby bath house.  Our tour guide's wife was the person who identified the markers that let them know it was a bath house – the system for heating the steam rooms.  Our friends showed the parts of the bath house that they had helped uncover, including a marble floor and cold bath. 

The Kursi church was remodeled in 585-90 according to an inscription on the baptistry.  By the way, on this trip we have seen several ancient baptistries.  All of them are shallow, maybe a foot deep or so.  Our Baptist neighbors would be disappointed. 

The church at Kursi has a classic apse, a half-circle with stone benches against the wall for the ministers.  The altar would have been free standing in front of the benches. 

Shea and Suzanne ran up the hill to a cave that has a chapel over an ancient cemetery, the traditional location of the tombs from which the demonic came to encounter Jesus.

We headed southeast through the Jezreel Valley.  Along the way we passed Hippos, a city very high on a hill – a city "which could not be hid." 

We've seen a lot of mustard plant in bloom.  Our guide spoke of the parable of the mustard seed which becomes a great shrub in which the birds of the air can make their homes.  What we don't realize is that in the Middle East, they hate birds as a dirty nuisance, like rats with wings.  Our guide said that in the American South, we might read Jesus' words: "the Kingdom of Heaven is like kudzu, which when it has grown shelters the rats and the roaches who make their home in it."  Now that will change a few sermons.

As we drove down one of the main north-south ancient routes through this land, our guide remarked that Israel is about the size of Connecticut, yet it has nearly all of the weather and landscape of the United States, from tropical to desert to snow covered mountains.

Along the way we stopped at a beautiful hillside overlooking a verdant valley.  We hiked through weeds and flowers to the edge of the hill.  The place is the location of Ahab's palace.  We retold the stories of Ahab and Jezebel.  Just below us was a clump of trees surrounding a water spring, which might have watered Naboth's vineyard.  We could imagine Ahab looking from his palace window, coveting Naboth's beautiful lands. 

Across the valley is the village of the Shunammite woman with whom Elisha lived.  The prophet announced her child's coming birth, raised him from the dead, and kept the family fed with the oil and grain that never ran out during the famine.

We retold the story of Ahab's death in battle and of Jehu's coup.  And of Jezebel's grizly death, somewhere just below where we were standing in the midst of beautiful wildflowers, while gentle cows watched us and white birds soared overhead.

Our next stop was Bet Shea'an, the only city of the Decapolis west of the Jordan.  It is said to be the second most ancient city in the world, next only to Jericho.  Bet Shea'an was continually occupied for almost 6000 years, a tell of 22 or 23 cities.  It was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 and remained unoccupied until the 1800's.  The city is located on an important trade route in the Huror Valley, with abundant rainfall and a dependable river nearby.  In the 15th century BCE Pharoah Tutmosh III (sp?) made this city an Egyptian administrative center.  Joshua did not conquer this city in the initial invasion.  The bodies of Jonathan and Saul were displayed on the walls of the city.  It only became Jewish in the David-Solomon period.  In 107 BCE the city was destroyed by the Hasmoneans and later rebuilt.  On the top of the tell, a dead tree was used in the film "Jesus Christ Superstar" as the tree on which Pilate hanged himself.  The tree has been preserved since the movie.

The ruins that we visited were largely on the plain beneath the tell, an enormous Byzantine city of the 4th-7th centuries.  Incredible.  We visited an enormous bath house.  The main commercial street has columns that have been re-raised in a long procession.  The public toilet looked like it could accommodate 50 people, sitting strattling the rocks, with water flowing below.  There would be some advantage being upstream.  Before toilet paper, people used a stick with a sponge or leaves, and then would toss the remains off of the stick into the stream.  Our leader said that it was probably one of these sticks with a sponge which was offered to Jesus as he hung on the cross.  Public humiliation was one of the purposes of the degradation of death on a cross.

Just a bit off of the main street was a house of prostitution, complete with a floor mosaic from a particularly wealthy client expressing appreciation for the good time. 

After lunch we headed south to go to Jericho, the world's first city.  As we drove though the the Jordan Valley the terrain became increasingly rocky and dry.  We saw sheep and shepherds, with huts, lean-to's, and caves as well as circular pens for protecting the sheep.  The scenery became pretty dramatic, invoking the stories of the wilderness.  Fertile valley on one side; rocky, intimidating heights on the other.

As we progressed further south, the landscape became more and more arid.  Sand, rock, and more sand.  We passed Bedouin shepherds and their tent camps.  We are just ending the rainy season.  We can see tracks of green and spots of grass here and there.  All along the hills, some of them very steep and rugged, there are tracks and pathways.  These are the sheep paths which follow the grass.  These paths may be centuries old.  We could hear echoes of the 23rd psalm about the shepherd who leads the sheep to green pastures and to cool waters.  Such leading would be life and death work in this environment. 

Jericho claims to be the world's oldest city, housing communities continually for 10,000 years.  We looked upon a Neolithic stone age tower dating to 8000 BCE.  There are mud brick walls from 3150-2200 BCE.  The city was abandoned in the Exile and rebuilt in the return.  Marc Antony gave Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra, displeasing Antony's friend Herod the Great.  Herod had a palace here with a swimming pool which he used to drown several enemies or rivals, including his own brother-in-law.  Jericho was a popular resort home for Jewish priests who would go up to Jerusalem to do their service in the Temple and then return to Jericho as their everyday home.

The archeological site is very underwhelming.  Apparently the original archeological dig was done very poorly.  But the excavators learned from their errors, making every mistake in the archeological book according to our guide, and when the same teams worked in Jerusalem, they did excellent work. 

I enjoyed looking at a strata of rock that cuts through many centuries of settlements.  When I was in seminary over thirty years ago, I remember being taught that there is a charcoal line which is visible at Jericho, which dates to 1200 BCE, corresponding to the invasion by Joshua.  Later archeological research debunked that finding, arguing that the burned out level was from 2200 or so.  Yet last month a new paper was published reasserting the 1200 date.  It was fun for me to see that charcoal line, regardless of which century it represents.  One of the frustrations about Jericho is that much of the digging was done so badly that it is impossible to be conclusive about very much.  Hopefully one day someone will resume the project of working here.  Right now, it is not a very compelling location.

There is a mountain overlooking Jericho which is called the Mount of Temptation, remembering the story of Jesus' sojourn into the Judean wilderness following his baptism.  One delightful detail about imagining this as the locale for the temptation is that it would have overlooked Herod's palace.  One can imagine Satan's suggestion that "all of this can be yours" as Jesus contemplated whether his or not his ministry would be political, and if so, how.  The "Wilderness" is the area of Arabah (sp?), south of Jericho to the Mount of Olives.

Jericho is the lowest city on earth, 1200 feet below sea level.  We left Jericho to travel through Jerusalem, only 9 to 10 miles as the crow flies, but 4800 feet above sea level.  (When we got to our hotel and I opened my bottle of Irish Whiskey, it popped from the change of altitude.)  Today Jerusalem is a sprawling city of over one million.  In the first century, it covered six acres and had 20-25,000 inhabitants.  (Compare with Hazor which we visited earlier – a 200 acre city during its prime.)  We drove past some of the Western Wall and went through the Western Gate near Herod's palace.  We think we saw St. George's Anglican School as we traveled down the western side of the city. 

Our stay tonight is in Bethlehem.  As we got within a mile of the city of the Nativity, traffic stopped.  We were coming to a checkpoint.  Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory.  There is a gate inspecting traffic leaving Jerusalem for Bethlehem.  A sign announces that Israelis are prohibited from entering Palestinian territory.  That is a policy enacted after the 2000 conflicts.  We noticed that the wall that separates the two territories has fencing with the barbed wire angled not to keep Palestinians from entering Jewish territory, but to keep people from going from Israel into Palestine. 

It appears that Israel is trying to choke economic activity in the Palestinian territories, discouraging tourism into Bethlehem and other areas on the "other side" by making it increasingly inconvenient.  Making it difficult or impossible for Israelis to conduct business in Palestinian areas tends to isolate the territories.  Israel is creating very intimidating conditions for Palestinians who may work in Israel and must cross checkpoints.  It took us nearly a half hour to get through the logjam at this checkpoint, and we were waved through as foreigners, whom the Israelis tend not to hassle. 

That led to several conversations about the intimidating tactics that the Israeli government imposes upon their Palestinian neighbors.  Many of those who have been visiting here for years had stories about the policies that have systematically driven Palestinians from their lands and livelihoods and policies that subsidize various schemes for Jewish land grabs.  Some examples – if a Palestinian family wishes to add on to a home on property that may have been in their family for generations, it will take five years of applications and $50,000 in fees, if approved.  Many Palestinians live in the ancient tradition of staying in one homestead and adding rooms for the families of their adult men as they marry and begin families.  Israeli policies make that very expensive and complicated.

However, if a Jewish family wishes to move into a settlement, expanding residences into new locations, the state will subsidize their rent to a level far below what it might cost them to buy an apartment in more established Jewish communities. 

Travel across Israel is very difficult for Palestinians.  Even ambulances are delayed at checkpoints, sometimes leading to tragic consequences.  We are told that whether a checkpoint moves quickly or slowly, whether people are allowed to move through or detained, can depend entirely on the mood of the Israeli soldiers staffing the checkpoint that day.  We heard stories of humiliation and intimidation for Palestinian residents and workers. 

According to our guides who have been coming to this area for more than a decade, Jews and Arabs get along well for the most part.  They say 95% of the residents live in a cooperative manner, but that they are manipulated by the small percentage of extremists on both sides who wish to keep conflict high.  A two-state solution has been possible for many years, they tell me.  One friend recommended former President Jimmy Carter's book tracing the history of Jewish/Palestinian negotiations.  According to my friend, Israel does not have a good track record of keeping the promises made in these negotiations.

I'm not well enough informed to be a good judge of these various interpretations, but I am struck by the fact that so many of the Americans I know who have traveled and visited extensively in the Middle East tend to support the security and sovereignly of Israel while also being repulsed by Israel's oppressive tactics toward Palestinians and Israel's continued aggressive policy of expansion.

As we go back and forth from Bethlehem to Jerusalem I'll see what I can see to try to become a better judge of what is happening here.



At 10:41 AM, Blogger Ajax said...

I never knew the true significance of Jesus being offered vinegar on a sponge...


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