Israel has a calling to Jews, Christians, and anyone interested in history. For many, a Holy Land visit is a bucket list event. For most of our lives, many of us heard the biblical stories, learned the lessons of God’s relationship with the Jews, and read the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. Last month, my wife and I joined SHALOMACON, a Messianic Jewish synagogue, led by Rabbi Damian Eisner, located on New Forsyth Road in Bolingbroke, for a 10-day visit (12-days with travel) to Israel. It was my second visit to the country, my wife’s first. For several reasons, I got much more out of this visit than my visit 30 years ago. First, I went with my wife and experienced her “Awe” as she walked the same terrain that Abraham, David, and Jesus did. Second, I have a much better understanding of the Bible – both Old and New Testament than I did back then. Finally, I have a much better understanding of history than I did previously.
Caesarea was the first stop on the first day of our tour. It’s the harbor that King Herod built on the Mediterranean Sea. (Caesarea is where Paul was imprisoned (Acts 23:23-35) while waiting to be taken to Rome for trial). Next, we visited Mount Carmel – a small mountain range that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and lands to the east. It was allotted to the tribe of Asher (Joshua 19:24-31) and is where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19-42). Mount Carmel overlooks the Jezreel Valley – Jesus walked this valley (Luke 7:11-16 – in the town of Nain, He raised the widow’s son from the dead) when he traveled from Galilee to Judea/Jerusalem. Also, Mount Carmel overlooks the Plain of Megiddo where Revelation 16 says the last Great War will take place. We visited the ancient city of Megiddo which is now being excavated. After Megiddo, we went to Magdala (Mary Magdalen was from there) and visited a recently discovered Jewish synagogue (dated to the 1st century BC to 2nd century CE) located very close to the Sea of Galilee – a synagogue that Jesus certainly would have visited while he was in Galilee.
Every day was similar – visited numerous sites to which our guide explained their historical importance. For example, some sites had Jewish biblical significance; others were constructed during the Hellenistic (Greek) Period or Roman Period; still others are significant to Christianity because it was visited by Jesus; while others were built during the Byzantine Period, Muslim Period, or Crusader Period. Our tour visited the region around the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Jordan River Valley, Jerusalem, Judea, and the Dead Sea. Perhaps my single favorite location was Mount Arbel. Arbel is a beautiful national park that dramatically rises above and overlooks the entire Sea of Galilee. The view from the summit is spectacular, even more so if the weather is clear – which it was. Our tour guide pointed out Capernaum (Jesus healed the paralyzed man, Mark 2:1-12) and various other locations around the Sea where Jesus walked on the water, recruited disciples, preached the Sermon on the Mount, and so on. In the other direction was Mount Tabor – the traditional location of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mathew 17:1-9). Then, immediately below Arbel runs a valley that Jesus certainly walked in His journey from Nazareth to Galilee.
While at the Jordan River, some tour members were baptized by Rabbi Eisner. Others, who were baptized previously, did a self-immersion or re-baptism. One of the striking features of the Galilee area is how the Golan Heights (GH) dominates over the region. The Golan was controlled by and used by Syria to fire artillery rounds into Jewish communities. During the Six Day War (June 1967) Syria launched an attack from there, but was defeated by the Israelis. Israel annexed the GH and now it’s an important agricultural region. While touring the GH and the upper Jordan we saw numerous areas barb-wired off with yellow signs warning of MINES (as in landmines).
After leaving the Galilee region, we rode to Jerusalem where we stayed for a week. Jerusalem is the highlight of any trip to Israel and the main destination for most people who visit. It’s important to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We visited the Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, the Western Wall (the only part of the Temple Mount that Jews are allowed to visit), tunnels near the Western Wall, the Garden Tomb, the City of David, Yad Vashem (the world Holocaust remembrance center – very emotional), a kibbutz in the Judean countryside, winery, Masada, En Gedi (where David spared King Saul’s life - 1 Samuel 24), Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), and floated in the Dead Sea.
Other observations – Most places in Israel accept dollars and many (actually most) tourist shops and restaurants have prices in dollars. The food was good but different. We ate breakfasts and dinners at our hotels. The meals were kosher. I’m still not sure what all kosher means but no pork. Also, meat is not served with dairy products (derived from several Bible passages “don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Exodus 23:19). Breakfast included lots of fresh fruits, dairy products, and salads (no meat because of the dairy products.) Dinner was a variety of meats, potatoes, salads, breads, and desserts (no dairy products because meat was served). Not sure if Israel produces enough food to feed itself but we saw more agriculture than expected – groves of citrus fruits; large number of orchards of apples, avocados, bananas, etc.; dairy and beef cattle; and numerous wineries. Actually, Israel has turned hundreds of thousands of acres of semi-arid wasteland into some of the most productive farmland in the world.
A concern for people traveling to Israel is their safety and security. Fear not, you’re safer in Israel than in most parts of the United States. Before we left, I told my wife that there would likely be more murders in Macon than deaths from terrorist attacks during our trip. Sadly, that proved to be true. While we were gone, Macon had two murders; Israel had zero terrorist deaths. That said, Israel is at war, and has been since it declared independence in 1948. Every Israeli (male and female) serves three years in the military, and then spends 20 years in the reserves. Off duty soldiers carry their weapons with them 24/7. So, you might be in a grocery store and see an off-duty soldier with an Uzi slug across his/her body. Why? Because Israel is at war and you never know when or where a terrorist attack will occur. When it does, the attacks are often quickly stopped by an armed off-duty soldier. Another example of the threats Israel faces, in the 1990’s a law was passed that requires all new construction (homes, apartment buildings, and industrial buildings) to have a bomb shelter – a hardened room so residents can survive rocket and artillery attacks. Golda Meir, a former Israeli prime minister, said it best about the threat Israel faces, “If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence. If Israel put down its weapons today, there would be no Israel.”
Final Thought: Look for Israel Part 2.
Sloan Oliver of Bolingbroke is a retired Army officer who writes a weekly column in the Reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.