Israel Israel Israel. What is there to say about you? Stream of consciousness, here we go.
Really, I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to vocalize anything about my trip to Israel. Honestly, I guess I was underwhelmed. Yeah, being where Jesus lived and walked and preached was sweet. But it wasn’t nearly as rich or rewarding as everyone hyped it up to be. I kind of just say it was amazing and edifying to my faith because that’s the easy thing to do. In reality, I don’t think it benefitted me that greatly. Maybe that’s just because I’m still too young to appreciate it. Maybe it’s the nature of my faith and my relationship with Christ. I don’t buy in to the sacredness of places like that. To me, Jesus meets me where I am. The Holy Spirit is indwelling. I heard God speak to me just outside of Blacksburg, Va, not Tiberius. Christ met me and found me where I was; I didn’t have to go to where he was two thousand years ago to connect with Him. Of course I went to all of the locations on our tour with an utmost respect for the events that happened there. I tried to honor the locations as millions of other people have done. For me, though, all of this establishment of churches over rocks that Jesus may or may not have sat on or preached from seems silly and distracting. I don’t care about where Jesus ascended into heaven nearly as much as I care about it actually happening.
I could be devaluing something that in fact has immense value to God. Israel was God’s promised land to His people. Certain places and locations were marked as holy ground by angels and God Himself. I don’t know, though. I’m far more inclined to worship God for what He’s done than pay attention to where He did it. That’s why things like the Via Dolorosa or the churches around Galilee weren’t nearly as moving as the ruins of ancient cities. It was good to go to Capernaum and remember the stories of Jesus. Tying biblical stories to real, visible, angle places was helpful but not necessary. I learned very little and got very little out of that part of our tour. What most moved me was the ruins of Beth Shean and Tel Meggido.
My reasons for choosing to come on this trip were straightforward and typical enough. Like most Christians, I desired to see the Bible come alive before me by being in the very places the stories I’ve read occurred. I also knew I could gain insight and experience that can only be attained by seeing the places I study with my own eyes. Much of the trip had great relevance to both my majors of history and pre-seminary; few people have the opportunity to visit the places they read about in their textbooks. The relevance to my studies, however, was overshadowed by my excitement to see what Jesus saw and walk where my savior walked. That’s why I am surprised at what has moved me the most in hindsight. The locations of biblical events weren’t nearly as impactful to me as walking through the ruins of ancient cities. Let me try to explain why I think I’ve reacted to our trip in such a way.
I have been born and raised in a Christian home hearing Bible stories since infancy. Cities and locations of biblical events like Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Mount Sinai were familiar and real to me long before I stepped foot in Israel. I have had such a faith as to accept the Bible at its word; I had no need of seeing the places biblical events happened for myself in order to believe. Additionally, I’ve always had access to the internet and, consequentially, thousands of pictures and articles about any and every modern location of biblical events. For all these reasons, I felt connected to all of the places we visited on our trip before even arriving. As I walked down the streets of Tiberius or through the halls of churches in Jerusalem, I felt almost no new spiritual connection. My best guess is that even though I had never physically been to Galilee or Jerusalem, I have spiritually visited, lived, and breathed in both places my whole life. My journey to biblical sights wasn’t filled with a sense of new wonder, but instead I felt as if I was returning to a favorite vacation spot from youth. It was nice to see them, but they weren’t life changing or faith enhancing like I thought they would be.
Beth Shean and Megiddo had a far deeper effect on me than I could have predicted. It is hard to articulate exactly what moved me at each place. Each place in their time represented the pinnacle of human achievement, technology, and civilization. The city to ancient man three thousand years ago must have been an awe-inspiring sight: a massive, walled fortress atop a mountain or hill, well guarded and heavily populated compared to the small villages most common to people of that time. The city was the center of culture, commerce, and religion. Tel Megiddo’s water system shows how the city was the center of technological advancement. The people of their time must have looked to Megiddo as modern people look to New York or Chicago or Washington, DC. And yet what is left? A literal mountain of rubble. Layers upon layers of civilization brought to ruin. Cities were rebuilt only to later be destroyed, only to later be rebuilt yet again. Megiddo is simply one example of nearly every ancient city following the same futile paradigm.
Beth Shean left an even stronger impression on me. It, too, served as a representation of something greater than itself. Standing at the visitor’s center overlooking the ruins before me I saw not just one Roman decapolis but the full might and grandeur of the Roman empire. Massive columns and ornate mosaics; intricate bath houses with complicated water systems; underground drains for run off water and litter; a towering temple on a hill and the impressive Roman theater built into the hillside. All of this was found buried under meters of dirt, forgotten by the world for more than a thousand years. Architecture and art that baffle modern man were and are nothing more than abandoned stone.
As I walked through these ancient cities I couldn’t help but think of civilization today. What is the difference between DC and Beth Shean? What is the difference between Rome and America? What separates modern humanity from our ancestors? Certainly nothing by nature. Technology changes, as does culture. People, though, are essentially no different today than they were four thousand or more years ago. The fears, desires, and ambitions of humans have not changed. While my fellow students were reading from the four gospels, I found myself looking back to Ecclesiastes. Truly there is nothing new under the sun and all efforts of establishing temporal kingdoms and gaining material wealth are for naught. Who rules in Megiddo now? Hundreds of black centipedes, everywhere one looks on the ground. Who is reigning in Beth Shean today? Thousands of bees, buzzing through the arches of the Roman theatre. The work and pride of kings and emperors have been given to insects. I found that to be humbling, sobering, and unsettlingly poetic.
In faith I brought these previously unarticulated reflections to God in prayer. Though I then could not express what I have now written, I would constantly ask the Lord what to make of the ruins I was looking over. God’s answer was as unspoken as my prayer, but I believe I understood His response. My focus needs and ought to be on the eternal kingdom of God. All effort put forth in establishing one’s own security or reputation or influence will ultimately be buried and left to the likes of ants. Only God’s kingdom is eternal and worth seeking. Verses passed through my head, reminding me that in a little while heaven and earth will fall away, and that only with a life centered on Christ can we hope to gain anything at death. Quietly, subtlety, God responded by telling me to simply follow Him.
What I looked forward to most affected me the least, while what I never could have anticipated left the strongest impression. That, too, is poetic. I deeply valued the authentic relationships our whole group made while journeying through Israel. Our open conversation and discussion of all matters helped connect me to my classmates and professors and added greatly to my overall experience. Above all, I am thankful that I got to see the remains of Beth Shean and Tel Meggido because of what the Lord taught me.
Tel Megiddo on the left, Beth Shean on the right