Day 2 & 3 Dead Sea & Bethlehem
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people.” (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2,4)
Starting the Footsteps of Jesus is being immersed quickly into the places, sounds, smells of the land of the Bible. I am told it is like drinking from a fire hydrant, a lot comes at you quickly, and your little free time is sleeping. Part of the trip already has been me driving to the Dead Sea and the Bethlehem. As the last van in the line, I am affectionately called, “Bruce the Caboose.” At least it gives a pleasant ring as we use the radios to let the front van know where we are. “The caboose is connected” means that I am with the others. Around Jerusalem, it is a between driving in Seattle and Mexico City. There are rules, but the nose that gets in first has the right of way.
Each day has a rhythm, starting with watching the sunrise and doing my morning devotions, then breakfast, going and loading the vans, going and seeing sites and having discussions and worship there, returning for dinner, evening worship, teaching and reflection, followed quickly by sleep.
Two days ago, we went to Qumran, Masada and the Dead Sea. The Qumran ruins are the remains of an Essene community settled about 150 BC. Here was a group of devote Jews who wanted to escape Roman rule. To do that, they simply built their own community near the Dead Sea. Here, they practiced their faith and transcribed the Torah and other ancient Jewish writings. In 1947, a shepherd was watching his sheep and throwing rocks into the small caves around the area. He heard a clay jar break and went to investigate. He found old leather scrolls with writing upon them. He took them to Jerusalem to get sandals made. Fortunately, the cobbler realized they were ancient texts. He had found what we now know as The Dead Sea Scrolls. These were texts that dated 1,000 earlier than the earliest texts of the Old Testament known at the time. It was amazing how perfectly the scribes had copied texts for a 1,000 years, as the texts were basically the same.
From there, we drove the short distance to Masada, meaning the fortress. It is here that Herod had one of his many palaces during the time of Jesus. After Herod’s death, the Zealots, for freedom fighters of Israel lived to be safe from the Romans. The climb up Masada took 45 minutes to climb 900 feet over 1.3 miles. It was easily defensible. Yet, when Rome finally dealt with the Jewish uprisings, they built a massive siege ramp connecting the Fortress to the eastern saddle of the mountain. Instead of being taken captive, the Zealots committed mass suicide. The Bible tells us that God is our fortress. If we think something, or someone else can protect us from disaster, we will eventually be alone with little options.
From there, we went and floated in the Dead Sea. Years ago, I spent a morning floating in a pool using pool noodles for hours. I spent the time reflecting on resting in the arms of the Lord. In the Dead Sea, you can do this without using noodles. It is the lowest place on earth, and the water brings salt with it. Over the ages, the salt in concentrated enough to form rock salt on the floor of the sea. It is always good to spend some time simply resting in the Lord.
Yesterday, we went to Bethlehem. It is in the West Bank, so we had to go through the border crossing. We went to the wrong one and couldn’t get through. Some men had us park and offered John to guide us for a small fee of $60 each. For 20 people, that is a bit of money. After a while, John thanked him for his offer, and we left. Fortunately, as we were driving back to Jerusalem, we spotted the US Embassy. There, John found a taxi that would guide the entire group for about $50.
The Church of the Nativity is built over the cave where Jesus was born. They are not exactly sure which part of the cave, for the small hill has a number of cave structures remaining. The place where Jesus was born would have been a house with an inner courtyard built against a small rock outcropping as one side of the courtyard. It would give protection as long as a place to put the animals. It is here that God came to be one with us—Immanuel. This is one of the oldest churches in the world, and the oldest in the Middle East.
In the 4th Century, Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek to Latin. The rooms that he did this still exist. 1,100 years later, in Germany, Martin Luther translated that into German, the common language of the people. The place where Luther did this is the only place left standing that looks like it did at the time. It is amazing that the two places famous for translating God’s word into the common language still exists after all these years. Not only does the Word of the Lord last forever, it seems the places it is put into common language also remains as a witness to God’s faithfulness.
Today, our time with Jerusalem as a base comes to an end. We turn north and go to the Jordan River to see the area of Jesus’ baptism and the Wadi Kelt, the place of his temptation. May I continue to drink deep from the waters of God’s salvation today.