I’m just back from my seventh trip to the Holy Land, where it’s said “the Bible comes alive.” Indeed, it does, but in a mixed way, for there were, as always, both edifying and dispiriting aspects of the tour—for the Bible is not just a “happy talk” book, but also one of stern declaration.
1. The Land Itself. From the Sea of Galilee to the Kidron Valley to the Judean Wilderness, the topography and scale bring color to Scripture. Modern development doesn’t change the bracing effect of a first look at Jaffa and Maritime Caesarea, the expanse of Jezreel, the rushing streams of Dan, the waterfalls of En Gedi, alongside the Dead Sea desolation, viewed from Masada.
2. Judeo-Christian Culture. You’d have to be literally or willfully blind to miss the differences between a culture oriented on the Bible and one oriented on the Koran. In Israel, much of the desert Arava blooms; not so in Jordan. From my earlier visit to the region in 1966, I’ve felt like I was traveling from ancient Decapolis to Southern California when crossing from Jordan to Israel.
3. Pharisees and Sadducees. Hasidic Jews (modern Pharisees if you will) are photogenic, with their earlocks, shtreimels, tzitzit, and fedoras, but they’re an unsmiling bunch, quick to raise a ruckus if you transgress their sensitivities. (Just ask our ladies who got too close to the Wailing Wall). The Sadducees were the secularists, and they abound in Israel today.
4. “Christian” Turfism. It is a disgrace to the cross that two of the most visited sites in Judea (the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) are showcases of “Christian” pettiness, where various sects guard their floor space with a vengeance.
5. Fellowship of Travelers. Holy Land tours are as much a matter of conversation as sightseeing, over meals, waiting in line, on the bus, etc. And when one’s fellow visitors are Christian, the fellowship can be sweet, full of testimony, exhortation, encouragement, and insight—from, in our case, cancer survivors, late converts, veteran ministers, seasoned parents, and internationals.
6. Hocus Pocus and Simony. There’s a lot of magical thinking over there, with pilgrims kissing stones, scooping up dirt, and such. It makes you hunger for deeper transactions of the soul before God. And there no site too remote or implausible that someone is not willing to gin up a yarn and charge you entry, not only to the attraction, but also to the restroom.
7. Artistry and Craftsmanship (and Kitsch). From the Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives to the Elijah statue on the heights of Carmel, the Holy Land is a grand art gallery, the sort of place Bezalel could appreciate.1 Alas, some gift shops and churches are laden with tackiness, clutter, pointless flash, and ostentatious overkill—barriers rather than aids to devotion.
8. Textual Overlays. One of my favorite things is to be with a group reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) on the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking Gennesaret, or recalling the critical role of seats at the city gate2 as we come upon the one still in place at Tel Dan.
9. The Testimony of Ruins. Ruins evoke both humility and encouragement, for they testify both to the vanity of trust in human institutions and to the hope that enemies of the cross will fail.
10. The Remnant. The evangelical community is small, but alive and growing.
So yes, in the Levant, the Bible comes alive in all its teaching. Of course, “holy land” is found wherever the people of God stand and serve, on any continent. And the Christian’s physical body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” But it is exhilarating to walk where Jesus walked, and see what He saw, both the good and the bad, for it is all spiritually instructive.
1 In Exodus 31:1-5, we read, “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”
2 For instance, we read of David in 2 Samuel 19:8: “Then the king arose and took his seat in the gate. And the people were all told, ‘Behold, the king is sitting in the gate.’ And all the people came before the king.”