Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Galilee Field Study: Day 4: The Church and Art

Sites visited: Sephoris, Jezreel, Beth-Alfa, Beth-Shan

This morning we made a quick pit stop at Cana to pick up some pita for lunch before heading to our first site of the day: Sephoris. According to Dr. Wright, Sephoris was “a corridor of Hellenism pushing into Galilee.” Historically, the inhabitants of Sephoris were rich, glamorous, and lived the good life. We examined some beautiful mosaics that told us a lot about their culture. I really enjoyed this because I love art and I think it is fascinating how art reflects a peoples’ worldview. In the synagogue ruins, there is a huge mosaic with Biblical images around the edges, yet in the center there’s a zodiac with the Greek sun god Helios. What’s going on? One possibility is that the Jews compromised and “relaxed” some of the commandments—similar to what the church does today with Sabbath observance. Another possibility is that the zodiac and Helios were simply such accepted cultural symbols that they held no pagan religious connotations for the Jews. Christians today do this all the time; for example, why do we have Christmas trees in our churches? Why do our kids hunt for eggs on Easter? These used to be pagan symbols, but we see no problem using them because they’re part of our culture.
Another mosaic we looked at is often referred to as the “jewel of Galilee,” because it has a depiction of the homeowner’s wife in it. She reminds some of the Mona Lisa. This Byzantine-era mosaic was in a triclinium, an ancient Roman banquet hall. When dining in such a room, everyone lounges on their left side and eats out of communal bowls with their right hand. The host sat at the end of the table, with his “right-hand man” on his right and the guest of honor on his left. Knowing this cultural background gives us a better understanding of the Last Supper. Jesus was the host, sitting in the middle. John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved, was reclining at the table close to Jesus” (Jn. 13:23). The Greek here literally means “in the bosom of Jesus,” which has made many American readers (including myself) rather uncomfortable. However, in Middle-Eastern culture to this day, it is completely normal for members of the same sex to be quite physically close. In both Morocco and Israel, I have seen men walking down the street holding hands, or laying their heads on each other’s shoulders. This verse should not be taken out of cultural context, or else we may totally misunderstand it.
If John was Jesus’ “right-hand man,” which disciple was sitting on the left? In Mark’s account, Jesus tells the disciples, “One of you will betray me, one who is eating with me” (Mk. 14:18). When they begin asking him who it is, he answers, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me” (14:20). If Jesus is sitting on the end with the bowl in front of him, and John is on his right, then the one who was to betray him must have been sitting on his left in order to reach the same bowl. Judas Iscariot was the guest of honor at the Lord’s Supper. I’m not sure what that means theologically, but it certainly shocked me.
From Sephoris we headed to Jezreel. Since it was raining quite hard, we had most of our lecture on the bus and only went outside to explore the site. We talked about Joseph being sold into slavery and taking the Dothan pass, Ahab’s capital and Jezebel’s palace, Naboth’s vineyard, the importance of the Harod valley and Ramoth-gilead, and Gideon vs. the Midianites.
After that it was storming pretty badly, so we stopped at Beth-Alfa because it had several covered sites with more mosaics. They were found after a kibbutzim started building its community on top of them.
Finally, we made our last stop of the trip at Tel Beth-shan and Scythopolis (one of the Decapolis cities) surrounding it. These were the most impressive ruins we have seen yet! The Greek and Roman influences were overwhelming: multiple cardos, rows of insula, a huge theatre, a public bathhouse, and public lavatories (see picture below for a demonstration of these!)

Jews traveling from comfortably-Jewish Galilee to comfortably-Jewish Jerusalem had two options: either they could go through Samaria, or they could go through Decapolis. Most Jews chose the Decapolis route, avoiding Samaria at all costs. Jesus traveled through both.
As we made our way back “home” to Jerusalem, I reflected on all I’ve learned the past four days. I have new insights into the Bible, Jesus, the Church, culture, and discipleship as a result of our studies in Galilee. I continue to be amazed at all I’m learning and thankful for the opportunity to be here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Galilee Field Study: Day 3: The Church as the Bride of Christ

Sites visited: Sea of Galilee (boat ride), Gargesa, Qasrin, Jordan River, Capernaum, Arbel cliffs

Today was my favorite day so far of our Galilee field study. We started off with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. It was cloudy and rainy, which helped me appreciate the story of Jesus calming the storm.
From there we traveled to Gargesa, where Jesus sent the demons into the pigs (Mk. 5:1-20).
Here we paused to reflect on the nature of discipleship according to Mark 3:13-21: “And he called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him” (13). The first requirement for being a disciple is: Jesus wants me. “And he appointed twelve…so that they might be with him” (14). The second criteria for being a disciple is simply that you be with Jesus. It’s so simple, yet I still need to be reminded of it. I am a disciple of Jesus because he wants me to be with him. How easy it is for me to add on all kinds of other requirements and lose sight of the simplicity of grace. “…and he might send them out to preach” (14). Ministry comes after we realize first and foremost that Jesus has chosen us and that we are to be with him, in relationship.
Later as we went to Capernaum, I also reflected on who the disciples were (Mark goes on to list them in verses 16-19). Capernaum was a New Testament fishing center as well as a garrison for Roman soldiers and a border-crossing point. Many of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Fishermen were the bridge between the Gentiles in the Decapolis (on the eastern side of the lake) and the Jews in Galilee (on the western side of the lake). They were the carriers of international news and ideas, and were well-acquainted with the different cultures around the lake. It was from Capernaum—an open, international cultural center—that Jesus first launched the gospel. He recognized its open potential for ministry and its strategic importance. Furthermore, it was a place where his kosher Jewish disciples were confronted face-to-face with the world around the sea—a world that they would later meet on a much larger scale when they launch the gospel to the Gentiles from Caesarea. The Sea of Galilee was their training ground for reaching the nations.
Another site that really helped me better understand the cultural background of the Bible was Qasrin, an fully-excavated and beautifully-restored Talmudic village. As we sat inside the type of house Jesus would have lived and ministered in, I began to understand some very well-known Bible stories in a whole new way. However, the most meaningful thing I thought about was the use of wedding imagery in the Bible. In Bible times, four to five generations of a family lived together in a house. When a son got married, the father built on another 2x3 meter room for his son and his bride to live in. The wedding began with the son going through the village to get his new wife and making a joyous procession back to his father’s house. Once inside, the whole family celebrated with a big banquet in the common room, and later the couple enjoyed their honeymoon in the recently-built addition.
Knowing this, Jesus’ words in John 14:2-3 make so much sense:

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come gain and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

Immediately the disciples would have pictured a wedding celebration, where the husband goes to get his wife and brings her into his father’s house. This biblical image is found throughout the New Testament, and in Revelation, the history of redemption concludes with the same idea: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage supper of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready…” (19:7). The Church is the Bride of Christ. Jesus pursues us, brings us into His family, and is preparing a room for us in heaven. Amazing.
We ended the day with a stop at the Jordan River, and a beautiful hike down the cliffs at Arbel (some places were so steep we had to hang onto a rope to avoid falling!) As I enjoyed the view from the cliff, I felt amazed that Jesus has chosen me to be his disciple, and that I get to be in relationship with Him. I’m amazed by how he has chosen me to be part of the Church he pursues as his Bride. And I’m looking forward to heaven, where I will have a small, specially-prepared room in my Father’s house.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Galilee Field Study: Day 2: The Church as a Rock

Sites visited: Military remembrance site (Golan Heights), Hazor, Dan, Caesarea-Philippi, Druze market/Mt. Hermon lookout point, abandoned military base on a dead volcano looking into Syria

Today our day started with a drive through the Golan Heights. As I stared out the window, I saw triangular yellow signs every ten yards or so lining the highway: “Danger! Mines!” Every year people ignore these warnings and are injured or killed by one of the million mines still active in this disputed region. The Golan is important strategically because it has natural water resources (the Sea of Galilee and natural springs) and is also higher in elevation than the rest of the Galilee; therefore, it has often been at the center of the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict.
From there we headed to Hazor, a major trade center in Jesus’ day, and after that we went to Dan. We did some hiking through beautiful areas there, and I saw my first pistachio tree.
Our next stop, Caesarea-Philippi, was my favorite of the day. This is the place where Peter confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). Jesus responds by saying, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). This verse had always confused me. What is Jesus talking about? Even though “Peter” sounds like the Greek word for rock, I didn’t really know what He meant. Coming from Green Bay, WI, my idea of a rock is a large, fist-sized stone, or maybe a small boulder. However, at Caesarea-Philippi, the word “rock” took on a whole new significance as I gazed up at a giant rock cliff. This cenomanian limestone “rock” contains everything a community needs for life—water, fertile soil, and caves for shelter. This was the context when Jesus talked about the church being a rock. The church is to be big, strong, and provisional—it is to provide for the essential needs of the community.

Interestingly, in Jesus’ time, this city (like Caesarea) was also at the core of Hellenism and the Roman worldview, yet it is where Jesus chose to introduce the concept of the ekklesia, the church. This is a detail rarely mentioned by Bible commentators, but it is another important piece of evidence that tells us that Jesus intended for his church to include Gentiles. We, as the Church, are to be on a mission to the world.
Next we made a quick stop at a Druze market (the Druze are a sect of Islam that looks for a future messiah). From there I caught my first glimpse of Mount Hermon, the highest place in all Israel.
We ended the day at an abandoned military base looking into Syria. We looked over the road to Damascus, where Saul had his first encounter with Jesus. I walked through the underground bunkers with my flashlight as night fell. There were a few bunks still set up and even a plate and cup on a shelf. The walls were covered with graffiti, evidence of long months spent in cramped quarters.

I both started and ended the day thinking about the continual conflict in the Middle East. In between I continued my thoughts from yesterday about what Jesus intended the Church to be. What a contrast—and yet they are connected. God has chosen to use his church to bring his message of shalom to a broken, conflicted world.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Galilee Field Study: Day 1: The Church and Culture

Sites visited: Caesarea, Mount Carmel, Megiddo, Nazareth ridge

We started out the day at Caesarea, a beautiful site on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea where Herod had another of his palaces. I stood in one of the rooms where John the Baptist may have been imprisoned, and climbed the steps of a giant Roman-style theatre. I love being on the sea, but for the ancient Israelites, the sea represented evil and everything that was wrong with the world (Is. 57:19-21; Ps. 107:23-30; Rev. 13:1, 21:1). However, for the rest of the world, the sea represented the potential for wealth and success. Caesarea was like Hollywood or Manhattan—a place where worldviews were exchanged along with goods from across the sea, and culture was shaped and changed as a result. For orthodox Jews, this pagan, non-kosher city was not a comfortable place; they avoided it as much as possible. In the same way, for fundamentalist Christians, Hollywood is not a comfortable place, so they avoid it as much as possible. But is this the correct response? Does Hollywood actually shape a culture’s values, or does it simply express the values of a culture? Should Christians avoid or ignore the evil aspects of culture surrounding them in an effort to remain pure and righteous? Or should they actively seek to influence and redeem their culture for the glory of Jesus? How should the church engage culture today?

I am far from having conclusive answers to these questions, but I think about them often, and my experience at Caesarea shed some light on Scripture that points us to the answers.
In Acts 9-10, we read about Peter traveling from Lydda to Joppa as he ministered. Both cities are west of Jerusalem, and traveling there would have required Peter to leave his comfortably-Jewish environment and come face-to-face with Hellenistic culture. Fortunately, he found Simon, a fellow Jew, to stay with in Joppa. Peter probably thought he was really pushing the limit by staying in a pagan city, but at least he could keep kosher and observe Shabbat within his safe circle of Jewish friends.
However, Peter’s world was soon rocked to the core. First, he received a vision from the Lord in which God commanded him to eat non-kosher food! Three times Peter refused—it was inconceivable to him that God would ask such a thing; it must be a test. As he’s still scratching his head wondering what that was all about, some men show up at the door and tell him that Cornelius (clearly a Greek name) wants Peter to come to his house in Caesarea (one of the most pagan cities in the region). Not only is Cornelius a Greek, he is a centurion of the Italian cohort. He not only stands in opposition to everything Peter stands for, but has devoted his whole life to protecting and promoting his pagan worldview. On the scale that measures “Gentile-ness,” Cornelius is at the very top. Normally, Peter would have refused his invitation immediately, so the Holy Spirit has to clearly tell him to “go down and accompany them without hesitation” (10:20). Peter must have been petrified, but he obeys.
The rest of the story is well-known. Peter goes to Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, and tells them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (10:28). He share the gospel with them, many of the Gentiles are saved, receive the Holy Spirit, and are baptized. God chose Caesarea—a totally pagan culture-making center—to be the launch pad of the gospel to the Gentiles.

What implications does this have for the church today? I would like to suggest two:

1. Like Peter, the church must get out of its comfortable Christian sub-culture and take risks to engage the world around them. The church should not be afraid to penetrate the spheres of Hollywood, public universities, the music industry, theater, sports, business, and government. Instead, the church should be encouraging its members to get involved and live as followers of Jesus in each of these areas. We should actively work to influence and redeem our culture for God’s glory.

2. Like Peter, the church must not compromise righteousness in order to share the gospel, but we must make the gospel relevant to culture by living within it. We must not relax the requirements of Scripture or our personal convictions, but we must be willing to share life with people who do not share our values. We never hear about Peter eating non-kosher food, yet he agreed to stay in the home of Cornelius and his family. We must live differently as followers of Jesus in the very midst of our culture.

Orientating my map at on Mount Carmel

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Domari Center Update

Every Tuesday and Friday I go to the Domari Center for the Advancement of Gypsies in Israel. On Tuesdays I teach English to Marwa, a 17-year-old girl who has dropped out of school. On Fridays, I usually do arts & crafts with the kids and help some of the older girls with their English homework. Yesterday I also helped out with some yard work around the center-- we filled almost 25 bags full of litter and brush! We had a fun time working alongside each other. I am really enjoying getting to know these people and hearing their stories.

The gypsies are originally a nomadic people from India, but many of them migrated to the Middle East and Eastern Europe and settled down. Traditionally their culture centered around music, dancing, and art. Today they are a persecuted minority, and struggle to maintain their culture as they assimilate into different societies. Although in Israel and the West Bank they have become Arabic-speaking Muslims, they are not accepted by either Arabs nor Jews. Many still live without electricity, and few gypsy children graduate from high school. The Domari Center exists to provide educational and economic opportunities for the gypsies while maintaining their culture and language.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Masada, Dead Sea, En-gedi, and Qumran

Today was one of my favorite days of this weekend...we had much less "lecture time" and lots of "play time!" We started out the day with a hike up to Masada, and had plenty of time to explore the site on top.

Up to Masada!

I did a cartwheel in one of the open spaces, saw a million-gallon cistern, and shouted from a lookout point and heard it echo at least four times afterwards! We took the cable car down to the bottom and the view was breathtaking.

From there we headed to the Dead Sea and went for a swim. Not only was it easy to float, but I had trouble getting my legs underneath me! We had fun floating around with no effort at all, though the salt stung some of the cuts on my arms and legs from hiking. I made the mistake of licking my lips and was shocked by how much salt was on them. When we got out and dried off a bit, I rubbed my arm and could feel the graininess of the salt. Thankfully, we got to rinse off in the public showers before heading back on the bus.

After that, we went to En-gedi. Wow! What a beautiful oasis in the middle of the wilderness! As we hiked in we laughed at the ibex scaling the rocky slopes and the little rat-like conies scurrying along in the dust. Soon we came to several gorgeous waterfalls, and I jumped in each one and was completely refreshed.

Naomi and I enjoying En-gedi falls:

We also read Psalm 42 and reflected on David’s use of water and wilderness imagery. He was in the wilderness around En-gedi as he was being pursued by Saul, and writes about how the desolate landscape mirrors the inner turmoil he is experiencing (verses 1-5). Suddenly, he changes to the imagery of the En-gedi springs: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”

We ended the day at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Though we were tired, we made one final hike off the beaten path to reach a cave. As we sat inside, we reflected on different passages in Ezekiel, especially Ezekiel 47. It was a great way to end the weekend.

A cave at Qumran:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Grace: an eye for an eye?

In the ruins of the temple at Beersheva...this room was the Holy of Holies:

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I used to cringe when I heard these bloody words. Doesn’t exactly sound like grace, does it?

As we stood around a sacrificial altar at Tel Beer-sheva, those were my initial thoughts as Dr. Wright talked about the law of Moses. However, in light of Middle-Eastern culture, I’m starting to recognize the incredible grace of the Torah.

In the Middle East, there is a ruthless cycle of revenge—counter revenge that exists to this day. It increases exponentially. Before Moses’ words, if I poked someone’s eye out, they would respond with poking both of mine out. This sort of escalating retaliation still exists today. For instance, one of our bus drivers recently ran over 36 sheep in the wilderness, killing them all. He was ready and willing to replace each one of those 36 sheep, but the Bedouin owner was not satisfied with that. He wanted to kill our bus driver as revenge for his sheep. Now the case is going to court.

So while “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” sounds primitive and harsh to our American ears, to a Middle-Easterner’s ears it sounds full of grace and mercy…a radical concept! Even in the Torah, our God is a God of grace.

Another example of grace in the Torah are the “cities of refuge” that were set up. According to the Law of Moses, if someone accidentally killed someone, they could flee to one of these cities and put their arms around the horn of the altar. This symbolized that they were willingly exiling themselves as punishment for what they had done, but would not be killed in revenge. The people of the city were to “adopt” this person as one of their own. Again, such grace and mercy is radical in the Middle East.

Instead of reading the Torah as bloody and restrictive and boring, I’m learning to read it as an expression of God’s eternal grace and mercy.

Today was the second day of our field study, and we explored the Negev. One of my favorite things we did today was hiking the Nahal Zin--part of the wilderness where the Israelites wandered for 40 years. The hike was quite intense, and for many parts the incline was so steep we had to use ladders to scale the rock.

Beginning our hike:

We made it to the top!

Another favorite was watching the sunset over the Makhtesh Ramon as we meditated on Psalm 90, perhaps written by Moses as he wandered this same area. God is so BIG and I am so small! He is eternal like this huge rock crater; my life is short like the grass that’s green in the morning but fries to nothing in the blazing afternoon sun. With this perspective, we can pray “God, establish the work of our hands!” What a privilege that what we do in this short life can last for eternity—bringing people into His kingdom.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Judah, Philistia, and the Shephelah

This past weekend we had our first three-day field study. The first day was spent exploring Judah, Philistia, and the Shephelah. Highlight sights included Beit Shemesh (overlooking the Shephelah valleys where Samson was born, married, and in trouble); Tel Azekah where we overlooked the plain of David’s fight with Goliath; and Lachish, where Sennacherib attacked and built a huge siege ramp. We ended the day at Ashkelon, where we saw a rare Canaanite arch and swam in the Mediterranean while enjoying a beautiful sunset.

One of my favorite parts of the day was our early morning hike down into the Sorek system. We stopped at a cenomanian limestone cave that was once a house, and discussed the Bible’s description of the ideal life: “Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy…And Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beesheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:20, 25). After experiencing the climate, geography, and resources that these people lived with, I have a new perspective on this verse. Sometime soon I hope to write more about this...it has to do with "pursuing shalom."

Here are Naomi and I, just a bit wet, after crawling through an ancient water system.

Overlooking the Elah Valley, Matt and I re-enacted David's fight with Goliath (can you see my "slingshot"?)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Shevet Achim

Today is Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) so I don't have any classes. It is a major holiday here, and the theme is repentance. The city it eerily quiet-- no one is allowed to drive, and most Jews spend the day at the synagogue.

Yesterday afternoon I went to Shevet Achim to play with some Kurdish children who are waiting for heart surgeries here in Israel. We rolled a basketball around, played "Uno" and "Connect Four," and had lots of piggyback rides. I was so blessed by their smiles and hugs! I also attempted conversations with their parents in Arabic. Please pray for these children and their families!

Shevet Achim is a ministry that brings children from the West Bank, Iraq, and other places into Israel to get heart surgeries that are not available to them in their home countries. Without Shevet Achim, many of these children would not live long. You can check out their website at: http://www.shevet.org/

Monday, October 6, 2008

Eilat of Adventure

Last night I returned from a weekend of fun and relaxation in Eilat, a town on the border of Israel and Egypt. It was a great time to get away and enjoy God's creation and spend time with my friends here.

Our adventure started early Friday morning, when Ashleigh, Naomi, and I caught an early morning bus to Eilat. Our hiking packs were stuffed with camping gear, beach clothes, and a "survival kit" from the kitchen (bread--well, in my case, rice cakes--peanut butter, fruit, and vegetables).

Once in Eilat we met up with other JUCers on one of the beaches. We rented snorkeling gear and explored some of the reefs right off the shore. Never before have I seen such beautiful fish and coral! I felt like I was on the Discovery Channel, or in the movie "Finding Nemo." Bright blue angelfish, silver barracudas, orange and green coral, clownfish...it was a whole other world.

That night we set up camp right on the beach. I fell asleep to sound of the Red Sea waves, and woke up to the sun rising over the Jordanian mountains. Before it got too hot, we went hiking through the wilderness right behind the beach. From the top of one of the peaks we could see Israel, Jordan, and Egypt spread out before us, with Saudi Arabia somewhere in the distance.

Yesterday afternoon, as we hiked to the bus station, we commented on how relaxing and uneventful the weekend had been. That changed once we got to the bus station! It's a long story, but as we were boarding our bus, a group of IDF soldiers came and grabbed us, shouting in Hebrew. The bus pulled away without us, the driver screaming at us. We were herded out of the bus station and stood in the sweltering heat, waiting. Finally, someone who spoke English explained that they suspected a bomb had been placed in a bag next to our bus. Shortly after, we heard a loud explosion, and after some more waiting, we were allowed back in the bus station. In a daze, we boarded our bus and safely arrived back in Jerusalem five hours later. There is never a dull moment around here!

Bus station craziness aside, this weekend was really refreshing for me. On the way to Eilat, I thought a lot about the importance of taking our Sabbath rest, and how often I fail to rest until I feel totally burned-out. God intended for us to rest one day a week so that we can serve Him with energy the other six days. And sometimes, we need an "extended Sabbath" to get ready for the work God has for us ahead (like Nehemiah did before he rebuilt Jerusalem's walls). I want to grow in my obedience of observing Sabbath.