I’ve fallen behind by a couple days on this travel journaling exercise. In an effort towards complete records, I’ll type this one up but without any promises of quality of detail.
This was our first official experience of the security barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank. In fact, the barrier is visible right from Tantur. We are the last stop before Jerusalem hits the wall and Bethlehem begins. And this portion of the barrier is the wall in its “full glory”, a monstrous concrete divider, comparable to what used to cut through Berlin. One real blessing of this class is that Charles has a truly uncanny list of contacts. During our time here, we will interact and dialogue with Christians and Muslims and Jews, along with people living on both sides of the wall. They range from religious to secular in their mindsets and from high scholars down to “common folks” in terms of their education. The spectrum is wonderfully diverse, and I’m grateful for it.
Our first stop took us beyond Bethlehem, where the fertile land begins to turn to wilderness, to a place where Herod the Great once again exercised his architectural genius.
Herodian was one of his many palaces, constructed on a hilltop. What sets Herodian apart is that archaeologists in the last handful of years discovered here what they expect is the tomb of the infamous king. Our guide’s name was Elias, a Christian who lives in Bethlehem with his wife and baby. For all the mention of Herod in Scripture, he added some real flesh to the character. (To clarify, Herod the Great was the king in power when Jesus was born. He’s the one who gave the order to kill boys under two. Stories of Jesus’ adult years refer to the son of Herod the Great, a significantly lesser ruler than his father.) For example, Herod was notoriously paranoid of conspiracies against him. He had multiple wives, but there was one he was particularly fond of. When he grew suspicious of her involvement in a plot against him, he had her killed. At least two sons met the same end. Another story, later in his life, describes him fainting. He was so out that his servants assumed he was dead. Herod awoke to the sounds of celebration and joy at his “passing”. So bitter at this, Herod had a number of high officials within his reign captured and held. He left instructions that when he DID die, these men were to be executed, thus ensuring national mourning “for him”. Can you say, “Psychopath?!”
The key feature of Herodian centres on water. If you’re going to hide out or vacation or withstand a siege in this spot, you have to answer “the water question”. Herod’s solution? He carved out enormous cisterns beneath the palace, inside the stone of the mountain. It’s estimated that he had capacity for 2500 cubic metres of water! Climbing down, down, down, we walked our way through these tunnels and chambers. Along the way, a comment was made that for all the work put into these cisterns, one could nullify efforts quickly if the stone failed to “hold” the water. Some stones absorb a shocking amount. That quickly led Elias to quote Jeremiah 2:13: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
That’s always been a powerful passage. It went up to another level, standing IN such cisterns. Seeing their size and recognizing the immense efforts taken to construct them makes one wonder: Have I poured myself into building anything that has no life-giving power at all? Has any allegiance of mine come at the expense of forsaking the Well of Living Water? Am I, in any way, trying to drink from broken cisterns? Jeremiah’s words could have hardly seemed more alive, if he’d been there speaking them with his own tongue!
With Herodian behind us, we headed back to Bethlehem and one of its “suburbs” Beit Sahour. Beit Sahour is literally “the house of the one is who up through the night”. Beit or Beth is house. Bethlehem is literally “house of bread”. Elias told us that the Arabic is ironically “house of meat”. He just laughed and said it’s a good place for a hamburger! But back to Sahour, the one who stays up through the night—that refers to shepherds. And this small city is now built upon the land once known for the shepherds and their flocks. Tradition hold that this is likely the spot where a famous star was viewed many nights ago.
So we visited a church marking the spot, a smaller-than-usual domed building. It had FANTASTIC acoustics and pulled our group into singing a couple hymns—a beautiful moment and memory!
That led us to stops at two more churches marking two more spots: the Milk Grotto, commemorating a spot where Joseph and Mary stopped for Mary to feel baby Jesus (this spot has a heritage of connection as a spot of prayer for those desiring babies of their own), and the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem’s most famous site. All three of these churches are built over caves that are claimed to be connected with the events of our “Christmas story”. Specifics or not, Bethlehem is not that big, and the thought that the sky I’m now facing once held a miracle-marking star only gets more staggering as one sits with it.
After supper, Charles had arranged a shopping excursion in Bethlehem with Christian friends of his. Their large shop specializes in olive wood carvings, religious icons, and jewelry. We had access to a very attractive discount and much of the shop to ourselves. I could have looked at the olive wood carvings for hours—some of them were stunning! In the end, I bought a few small gifts and called it a day—a very enjoyable day at that!