Sunday, June 26, 2011

I Didn't Know That--Barry

We have now completed four days touring the Holy Land with our guides at St George's College.  Another week and a half to go.

The birthplace of Jesus at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
When our small group of 10 met with our course leaders for the first time on Tuesday night, we all introduced ourselves and gave our personal objectives for the course.   In my case I wanted the structure imposed by a two week curriculum and learning the Holy Land geography to elevate my understanding of the Bible.   I hoped that I would learn a lot because I was starting from a low base, meaning I was familiar with various stories from the Bible but I couldn't connect the dots very well.   Now was the time to do that.

The last four days of touring holy sites have prompted numerous silent recitals of "I didn't know that" that are helping me to grow my knowledge of the Bible.

Camel rides at our desert camp in the Negev near Arad-- a "once in a lifetime" experience because I learned that camel-riding is not particularly comfortable!
For instance, yesterday we went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which sits atop a cave reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus.   (Caves figure prominently in the siting of churches and mosques here.)   I thought, according to the old childhood story, that Jesus was born in a manger.   Yesterday I learned that according to historical sources the manger was probably located in a cave used by shepherds--such caves are commonplace in the Bethlehem area.  Yesterday we--along with many other pilgrims--were in that cave.   Then we heard a remarkable reflection from our course leader tying Jesus's cave-birth to the "theology of descent" that's an important part of our Christian faith.

Part of the underground water cisterns at Herodion
Everyone knows how important water is, but you have to be here to appreciate truly its life-and-death importance for everyday life in such a hot and dry place (this time of year) and how prominently it figures in biblical history.   So far we have seen ingenious ancient systems for delivering and storing water at Tel Be'er Sheva and Masada in the desert regions to the south of Jerusalem and also at the Herodion fortress built by that famous taxer-and-spender King Herod.  (Onerous taxes imposed by Herod to build fortresses everywhere--the guy was paranoid--were forcing people to sell their land in order to pay.   So Jesus's alternative message of a different kind of Kingdom was finding a receptive audience among a tax-weary populace.  I didn't know that either.)

We stopped the other day at the Greek Orthodox church sitting on top of Jacob's Well in Nablus (formerly Shechem).   We were able to drink the cool water from this deep (40 meters) well and to pour it back into the well and wait a few seconds for it to splash far below.   I really didn't know about Jacob's Well before but now I learned that Jesus was here (as recounted by the New Testament story where he met the Samaritan woman at the well), and I experienced the remarkable feeling that comes from being in the same place as He was.

A large and expanding Israeli settlement near Bethlehem on the West Bank (seen from our tour bus)

Last night, on a more contemporary note, we listened as an invited  Palestinian professor and artist described the conflict with Israel from his perspective.   It was a bleak view of unremitting efforts by the Israeli government to build more and more settlements and through various other means to drive native Palestinians off their land, producing a "greater Israel" from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River as a fait accompli.  The professor also had a conspiratorial view of the Palestinian Authority, whom he viewed as corrupt collaborationists with the Israeli government.   Certain things I have observed here--such as lengthy daily checkpoints for Palestinians who come to work in Israel and the economically-depressed looking Palestinian cities that are losing the more educated to emigration--may be consistent  with such a bleak view, but maybe  I'm too (naively?) optimistic and inclined to the belief that good will can be found on all sides to accept it totally.   But it's still early in our time here.

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