Today was a free day for our group so we all got to choose what we wanted to do. I decided to book a tour guide to take me around and show me some of the sites that were the most interesting. I was hoping some others in the group would join me and split the expenses but everyone else wanted to save the money for other things. I almost decided not to go but I am glad I stuck with my original plan. I have enjoyed everyday here in Israel. Each day has been full of its own surprises, frustrations, and enlightening moments. However, today was the most amazing day I have had. This was in large part due to my tour guide Esseam.

We did not get to go to Bethlehem on any of our group excursions so that was very high on my list. This was the first place we went this morning. Bethlehem is in the West Bank so we had to pass through a checkpoint but they did not even stop our car. On the way out it was the same we just drove right through as the guards waved. I was surprised because I had only heard about how hard it was to get in and out of Bethlehem. Our first stop was Boaz and Naomi’s field, or the shepherds field. According to archeological evidence and local traditions this is the place that Boaz owned. There is also a cave on the site just behind the church that marks the spot the shepherds had their encounter with the angel that was a cave that has been confirmed to have been used by shepherds during the time period. It was a quiet site, and a place I found it easy to pray and experience the power of the Holy Spirit. There are also remains of a Byzantine church that were found here showing that they too thought this was the place.

Shepherds Cave

Shepherds Cave

Shepherds Field church

Shepherds Field church

From there we drove a short distance to the church that marks the spot Christ was born. Like most of the places here there is no way to know for certain that this is the place. However there is good archeological evidence along with local traditions dating way back to point to this place as being the birth place of Jesus. There was indeed a stable here and there is still a manger down below the church that you can see that marks the place of our Savior’s birth. There was a Greek Orthodox church service going on above but I found that the singing and reading of scripture only added to the experience. It was very moving. From there we went over into the catholic chapel on the site and down below that was a cave that was the place Saint Jerome is believed to have translated the Bible. This was another very moving experience for me. Here are some quick bullet points about the significance of this city in the Bible.

  • Bethlehem appears in Judg. 17:7–13 as the home of the Levite who became priest to Micah.[1]
  • The concubine of the Levite of Ephraim was from the village of Bethlehem (Judg. 19).[2]
  • The book of Ruth takes place in the region of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1–2, 19, 22; 2:4; 4:11).[3]
  • This is where David’s father lived and where Samuel found him and anointed him King (1 Sam. 16:1–13; 17:12, 15).
  • There is the mention of a Philistine garrison being there during David’s early kingship (2 Sam. 23:14)[4]
  • Elhanan’s home (2 Sam. 23:24)
  • It was the burial-place of Asahel (2 Sam. 2:32)
  • Bethlehem is also mentioned with reference to the Babylonian exile (Jer. 41:17; Ezra 2:21).[5]
  • It is the relationship of Bethlehem to Christ that has ensured its place in Christian history. Micah 5:2 was understood to indicate that the Messiah, like David, would be born in Bethlehem not Jerusalem. Matthew (2:1–12), Luke (2:4–20), and John (7:42) report that Jesus was born in that humble village.[6]

 

This is the  place the manger was suppose to have been

This is the place the manger was supposed to have been

Stairs going down to the manger

Stairs going down to the manger

Saint Jerrome's cave

Saint Jerrome’s cave

Next we drove back to Jerusalem and went around the entire city looking at each of the gates that surround the city. The guide discussed the importance of each gate and some of the major things that happened on the walls that surround the city. He pointed out where the crusaders broke through and took control of the city for example. He said that everyone who has ever taken Jerusalem broke through the north wall because of the geography on the other three sides, this is really the only option you have if you want to take the city. There was also a huge moat on this side of the city at one time to give it extra protection.

Our next stop was the City of David. This was the original city that David captured and made the capital. We watched a fifteen minute 3D video as soon as we purchased our tickets that gave a great visual guide of this city’s history. It showed the barren hills and then followed the growth of the city with digital 3D animation to present day. Toward the end the video it became very pro-Israeli, but it was not distracting. I got to see the tunnel David and his men climbed through at night to capture the city and it was incredible. We also got to enter into  three private buildings to look at the caves and catacombs that are beneath the city. Next we went down through the tunnels that take you past the ruins of the old city and the tour guide was very good about talking about the history of each wall. Water has always been very important to humanity and it was no different for this city. There are several tunnels that were dug by the Canaanites first (now called the dry tunnel) and then Hezekiah commissioned men to dig a tunnel (now called the wet tunnel) as well to bring the water source inside the city walls so it could better withstand a siege. “Hezekiah made a 1,777-foot tunnel through the hill of Ophel to carry water from the Gihon spring to the pool of Siloam (Is 22:9–11)”[7]At the end of the tour you can exit through either tunnel. The wet tunnel is very wet with the water coming up to near waist high in places. It is also low in spots and you have to kneel down to get through the narrow passages. Bring a flashlight as well because it is very dark. You exit the wet tunnel near the pool of Siloam. This is the place Jesus sent the blind man who after he filled his eyes with mud in John 9:7-11 and told him to wash here in the pool of Siloam and the man’s sight was restored.

caves below the city of David

caves below the city of David

Entrance to Hezekiah's tunnel

Entrance to Hezekiah’s tunnel

Next we went to Mount Zion Church. Some believe this is where King David is buried but my tour guide was quick to point out that this is not even a possibility. However I did find many praying at the place where his body is supposed to be.  We talked about the history of the place and the significance of it all but then had to quickly move on.

I really wanted to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again with a guide who could explain things to me better. My first experience here was not a pleasant one so I was praying today would be different and it was. We started by standing outside for about thirty minutes as the guide explained the history of this place. This is most likely the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead. The evidence for this being the spot is overwhelming. However there is much more history to this place. Jerusalem has been captured and defeated many times during its history and with each new ruler, new rules and in some cases new religions have been put in place. This holy site is no exception. The fighting continues to this day. There are five different denominations that govern this holy site and they can’t agree on anything. Imagine the worst church business meeting ever happening everyday for hundreds of years. All five denominations have holy men who live on the site in separate quarters. Each denomination has rights to certain areas inside the buildings. After a major earthquake the building was badly damaged and they could never agree on how to fix the church. So they finally made an agreement to fix it but that nothing could ever be moved or changed from its original form or function. And they have taken this to the extreme. For example when you walk up you will notice a small wooden ladder on the ledge high above the door leading into a window. One denomination use to have to use this ladder to enter the site and bring their lunch in each day, because another denomination would not allow them to walk on their part of the church. This  argument was finally settled after several hundred years, however the ladder remains.  Why? Well because in the agreement nothing can be changed or moved. The other four denominations wanted the ladder removed because it looks bad on the front of the church. The denomination to which the ladder belongs wanted a guarantee that should they not be able to walk on the floor again they could replace the ladder in the future if they needed to. However the other four denominations were unwilling to make that guarantee so the ladder remains. Another example is that there is a set of large stones awkwardly placed in a corner not far from the place marking Christ’s tomb. Why are they there? They serve no purpose at all they are left over from a renovation over 400 years ago but they can not be moved under the agreement to keep everything the same. It would be funny if it was not so sad.

the ladder they won't move

the ladder they won’t move

the stones they won't move

the stones they won’t move

I also learned that when the Muslims occupied the site and controlled Jerusalem the keys to the building were given to a local Muslim family. They were put in charge of the place. They found it burdensome to open the doors for the occasional pilgrims passing through so they gave the keys to another family. These two families are still in charge of the keys today primarily because the five denominations that occupy the space inside can’t decide who should have the keys. So each morning a member of the family comes to open the doors. Then again each evening a member of the family comes to lock the priests inside for the night. You can’t make this stuff up, and it would make for a great reality TV show I think.

This is Pastor Pete with Peter he is the head of one of the families in charge of the keys to the church

This is Pastor Pete with Peter he is the head of one of the families in charge of the keys to the church

We ended the day by going around the corner to a nearby Greek Orthodox church where you can see the original entrance into the Holy Sepulcher. Here you find some stairs that are placed over the spot where Jesus would have likely climbed up to the Hill on Calvary. There is also a “narrow gate” cut into the wall that the guide spent sometime explaining and talking about while we were here.

Understanding  more of the history of this place gave me a real sense of the struggle that has been going on here since the day Jesus died. The original struggle and the most important one was for the souls of humanity. Later came the struggle of possession, and today the struggle is over square footage, ladders, keys, and stones. There is a real sense of heaviness in this place, a sense of struggle, pain, and sorrow that exists here. On Tuesday I found myself longing for it to be a place of light, hope, joy, and excitement. However today I embraced the struggle and decided that perhaps it is better this way so we can all be reminded of the struggle, pain, and sorrow that this place represents. I was moved here, and I believed shaped in some strange way by my experience in this most holy place today.

Tomorrow we shop, dine, and then start the journey home. As I look back on the trip I can make a few observations none of which I anticipated at the start of the adventure. First this is a land of great division. From men and women being forced to pray and worship on opposite sides of a wall at many Holy sites, to the walls that divide the Israelis and Palestinians. This is a land of discrimination and division. It has been this way for a really long time, and without forgiveness and love will likely remain this way far into the future.

Second, this was not the super spiritual experience I thought it would be. I don’t worship dead stones, but instead a living savior. Therefore seeing people kissing rocks, kneeling at statues, licking alters, or placing their ear to a cold slab of marble to “hear the voice of God” really bothers me. I did not encounter God any differently here than I do in my office, or home back in Texas. God did not speak to me any differently here than He has when I have been in Africa, Europe, or South America. I am thankful for this and feel closer to God not because “He met me here” as I have heard others say. Instead I am thankful because God meets me wherever I am on a daily basis, in real tangible, meaningful, and powerful ways. God is here but not in these dead stones, He is here inside of me. When I go home tomorrow He will be there as well and I think that is amazing.

Finally, I could never have imagined how much seeing these places and experiencing them would shape the way I view the Bible. I feel that I have a much better understanding of the Geography of this place now. Understanding where things are and their distance for example is more important than I ever imagined. This has been very valuable and was something I really did not think would matter much when the trip started.

I hope to come back again someday and build on the things I have learned. I know this land has so much more to teach me. I have tried to soak everything up and experience this Holy place to its fullest. I can’t wait to get home, but I am looking forward to coming back as well.



[1] George W. Knight, “Bethlehem,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 194.

[2] George W. Knight, “Bethlehem,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 194.

[3] George W. Knight, “Bethlehem,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 194.

[4] George W. Knight, “Bethlehem,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 194.

[5] George W. Knight, “Bethlehem,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 194–195.

[6] George W. Knight, “Bethlehem,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 195.

[7] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 143.