Israel is a small desert country on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the nation state of the Jewish people, with roots in ancient history, and a complicated modern story. There are many surprising things about this country, but here are my top five:
Arriving in Israel by plane is like arriving at any modern country or city. Ben Gurion Airport is state-of-the-art handling 10s of millions of travelers annually. Tel Aviv, Eastern Jerusalem, Haifa, and other cities are modern, and quite sophisticated. It is possible to travel from the airport to other areas, including Jerusalem, by train. However, we traveled by road through the coastal plains, Jerusalem, the Judean Mountains, West Bank areas, Jordan Valley, Galilee, and Golan Heights areas. The transportation system is modern mostly well maintained and traffic (aside from some modern big city traffic jams) was smooth. My mobile phone had little issue connecting to data services and worked well.
I traveled to Israel in search of ancient history, a desert experience, and new perspectives. On arrival it didn’t feel like much had changed. Smooth modern travel up from Tel Aviv into Jerusalem was like travel in any modern state. Had I even left America? Then we stop in Jerusalem and walk through the Damascus Gate and into the Old City and are instantly transported into history.
This movement from the modern to the ancient is surreal, like moving from East Jerusalem into the Old City. It was a constant theme of the whole trip. Sleeping in modern hotels, traveling with modern transportation, using modern equipment, and then stepping back into the past was a constant surreal and eye-opening experience. In Jerusalem’s City of David one is magically transported back into time as the Spring Gate is virtually resurrected from the past on top of the actual stones deep beneath the city. Or when pulling off the highway to explore Tel Megiddo and uncovering 30 layers of civilization at one archeological dig is time travel. These experiences are a constant–entering the grotto of the oldest (1,700+ years) active church in the world, Tel after Tel, and Tombs of Ancient important people telling story upon story. If you want to time travel visit Israel.
Israel is beautiful. It sits on the Mediterranean Sea; it has a desert beauty that has been made fertile by the Jewish people. From nature reserves like En Gedi to well planned archeological sites, there are options for natural and historic beauty. Of course, the Dome of the Rock is beautiful; but I found the Christian Church art to be more beautiful than I could have imagined. The examples of beauty in icon art, paintings, architecture, acoustics, statues, and gardens flourish at site after site from the Jacob’s Well Church (St. Phontina), St. Anne’s Church, Church of the Nativity, Garden of Gethsemane Church, and Church of the Holy Sepluchre. However, the Church of the Annunciation was for me the most beautiful building I have ever seen. As Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.” When I saw the beauty of the life of the mother of Jesus reflected in this building, I understood what Dostoyevsky meant. True beauty always points one to a higher reality.
People. America is known as the melting pot of the world – a place where people from all over the world come for personal freedom, safety, and economic opportunity. Israel is surprisingly similar. Jews take Aliyah from all over the world – Europe, Russia, African nations particularly Ethiopia, and other Middle Eastern countries. As the world again sees a rise in antisemitism Israel represents safety for these widely oppressed and different people groups. Within Israel there is the constant contrast between Orthodox Jews and Muslims, modern peoples, and women in traditional hijabs and burkas. Arab, Jew, Christian, and secular peoples mix and get along. Language moves between Hebrew, Arabic, and English fluidly in most places. By the end of our trip, we all knew the Arabic word for let’s go – yalla! A word widely used by all languages (Arabic, Hebrew, and English) in Israel. Not that there is no conflict and complexity in such a mix of people. Israel is not a perfect nation, but it does a surprisingly good job at handling a complex situation with the cards it has been dealt. The people reflect this in their kindness, hospitality, and ingenuity.
I have written about drawing close to God. In Israel, the Father of Faith is entombed, the great King David is laid to rest, God was incarnate and raised from death, and the church was born on the teaching steps in front of the Huldah gates. Traveling to Israel one knows they are going to walk in the footsteps of Christ, worship in holy places, but drawing closer to God is not a foregone conclusion. The modern nation of Israel remains, for now, a mostly secular state. The most holy sites for Jews remain largely inaccessible to them and Christians are a minority. Yet for those on a religious pilgrimage, particularly Christians who are called to follow after Christ there is a closeness to this command in Israel. One can touch the ground where Christ was born, walks in his footsteps, stand where he preached, see the places where his great works were performed, kneel beneath Golgotha, and views his empty tomb. God pulls back the veil of time here. For me, in the pit of Caiaphas’s house my heart was with Christ when he cried out, overwhelmed by troubles, in the pit, set apart with the dead, and in darkness (Psalm 88). At the Church of the Annunciation my spirit was lifted into the light of life. At Megiddo, my mind was turned to visions of war between good and evil and the need for all people to choose a side. At the Primacy of Peter site on the banks of the Sea of Galilee God asks, “Do you love me?”
Israel is the Holy Land. It is as physically close to God as one can get. Complexity between Jews, Muslims, and Christians runs deep, obvious from world news. What isn’t as obvious is the blindness pulled over the eyes of the secular Zionist and Arabs, Palestinian Authority’s abuse of power, and the closed off minds of the Orthodox Muslim or Jew. The contrast of the extremes in this spiritual battlefield is surprising. Forces are at play that cannot be easily seen without spiritual insight. The ingenuity and intelligence of the new Jews is a monument to mankind’s potential but what are the limits without God? The desperation, submission, and closed off nature of the Islamic tradition are apparent as the Dome of the Rock is inaccessible and we could not get into the Tombs of Abraham or Joseph during our travels. What darkness excludes people seeking wisdom? What darkness wastes such opportunities that the Holy Land affords? What darkness turns the hearts of people inward to their own making?
Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” Luke 19:41-44Luke 19:41-44