I will admit it; I’m obsessed. I’ve been home from Israel for nearly three weeks now and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve wasted time in my office looking through pictures and maps, reading about Israel and planning my next couple of trips back! I continue to recommend that every pastor who has not yet done so go over for a week or ten days to walk where Jesus (and David and…well, you get it) walked.
I have a tendency to analyse things and categorize them. As you plan your trip, there are some recommendations that I would make, based on those categories. We went a lot of places and some of those sites fascinated and deeply moved me. Others were less interesting. I think there is a pattern to my reactions, and I would share that with you.
I realize that some of you will have absolutely no interest in this post. That’s okay. There are some other posts here worth discussing, so we can just make this post informational – to those few people planning trips, or people as obsessed with Israel as I have recently become. Anyway, I saw four general categories of sites during my time in Israel.
1) Biblical Sites.
By this, I mean that these are sites that are verified and historically confirmed places where biblical events took place. When we stood on the Mt of Olives and looked across Kidron to the Temple Mount, when we walked down the Mount through Gethsemane, we were tracing the steps of Jesus. Of course, no one knows exactly what the roads looked like then, nor which section of Gethsemane Jesus prayed in (if that section even exists today). But we know this is a biblically and historically accurate site. We stood at the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus would have reasoned with the elders. We rode a wooden boat on the Sea of Galilee.
2) Probable or Possible Biblical Sites.
There are a lot of sites that cannot be verified as the actual historical site, but are nonetheless interesting and powerful. The most notable example of this is Golgotha and the Garden Tomb – neither of which can be verified as the actual biblical sites, but are very possibly those sites and likely very close to them. Observing communion beside the Garden Tomb is a joy!
We went up to Mt. Precipice, the likely place where the people of Nazareth tried to throw Jesus off the cliff. There is no verification that this is the site, but it sure does seem probable.
3) Key Sites in Jewish History
Our guide was an archaeologist and a former soldier in the recent wars between Israel and its neighbors. He was passionate about sites where people died heroically in the war of independence (1948) or in the wars of 1967 or 1973. Those really got his blood going. We spent a lot of time on Masada (he insisted we pronounce it Metzada!) because he helped with the excavation of that site. We toured Qumran, Beth Shean and other sites that had more interest in Jewish history than in biblical history. As one with a great interest in those things (probably derived from my eschatology?) I found those things very interesting. Some in our group did not. I think we are all interested in the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (once called the Wailing Wall). Many of these are worth the time to stop.
These sites are worth visiting, but not as moving to a biblically-oriented group as perhaps the Galilee area or portions of Jerusalem.
4) St. Helena Sites.
This is a general category, but Helena is mostly responsible. After converting to Christianity, Constantine’s mother went to Israel to define the locations of the important sites. Everywhere you go there is a Catholic church devoted to this person or that event. By and large they have little historical value as actual biblical sites.
If it were up to me, I’d skip the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and most of the other cathedrals in Jerusalem and throughout the country. (Though there is more recent evidence that the Holy Sepulchre may have some sliver of historical validity.) Now, they are mostly sites of pilgrimage by more superstitious followers of the Catholic or Orthodox faiths who seem to think some special boon is granted by worshiping at these “holy” sites.
I’d skip most of them if I were planning a trip, but that is just me.
Of course, the most important thing is just to go!