Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Visiting the Land of the Bible

I am sitting under a fig tree enjoying an afternoon breeze off of the Mediterranean and listening to Les Miserables. Apart from the music, this is a typical afternoon in the holy land. The day starts off somewhat cool, heats up consistently and then, just when it seems unbearable, the winds shift and it begins to cool again. It is easy to live here without air-conditioning if one must.

I have been coming in and out of the holy land for 16 years, including a year that Lori and I lived here. One thing that has struck me as odd is when some who study the Bible express no desire to come to the land of the Bible. I realize that I have been fortunate to come and go as often as I have and I don't mean to suggest everyone can follow my lead. I also realize that not everyone has the opportunity, finances or life circumstances that makes it possible to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories. But I have met people who study the Bible and can't see any reason to visit. Let me list a few reasons why I think you should visit if you can.

Although this land is very different than it was in the days of Jesus, there is also much that has remained the same. The same afternoon breeze I am enjoying would have been enjoyed by Jesus and his disciples in Galilee and Jerusalem. Experiencing the heat, the dust, the thirst, and the relief of water and a breeze or even the comforts of a small slice of shade help you to appreciate what it must have been like for the those living in those days. You can experience the climate of the Bible.

One thing that is also substantially the same is the geography. Travel to Jerusalem up the steep mountain roads and you understand what it means to "go up to Jerusalem" or "down to Jericho." Although the holy land has modern highways, these roads pass along many of the same routes that were used by the ancients. The Jezreel valley is as beautiful and fertile as ever. The Galilee still yields fish and the Negev is still harsh and beautiful at the same time.

When you go to a location you can read from the Bible and quite often see the exact place in which an event took place. Last week I took our group to the valley of Elah to read the story about David and Goliath. Even if you think the story is more myth than history, it is hard to deny that the author was very aware of the geography of the story. Such encounters help to bring the story to life. In fact, it is hard to go anywhere in this land without a connection to a biblical story. I took someone to a medical center in Bet-Shemesh the other night and could not help but think how this was the place where Israel regained the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines.

Archaeological sites are a huge bonus for understanding the Bible. Seeing a first century city like Sepphoris, located only about four miles from Nazareth, gives you a glimpse into the surroundings of Jesus. Walk the ancient streets, roam the remains of a market and you can almost hear the crowds and feel the press of bodies around you. You begin to understand what it must have been like for an itinerant preacher and his disciples to enter such a place just to look for food or lodging for a night. Imagine what it must have been like if someone recognized him as that new/controversial teacher.

Enter one of the synagogues in the region and see what it looked like to worship in such a building. Visit the one in Capernaum and then go over to the place with a strong tradition identifying it as Peter's house. Suddenly you understand how small a Galilean village was. You can also understand how word about Jesus could spread so quickly so that by night fall, when the Sabbath had ended, people were lining up at the door to Peter's house to see Jesus. Or take a ride on the sea of Galilee and then visit the remains of a first-century boat to see the size and type of boats used like those reported in the gospels.

There is also culture. The language here is mainly Hebrew and Arabic. Hearing people in Jerusalem at the Western Wall praying in Hebrew gives you a glimpse of what it must have sounded like in the synagogues and temple of Jesus' day. The food is modern, but echos the past. Olives, fish, cucumbers and pita bread were the staple of life in the days of the Bible and still are today.

In short, being here adds to your understanding. Whatever the degree of your faith, or lack thereof, if you are interested in the Bible a visit to the Holy Land will only make you a better student. If you a pastor or a professor of the Bible you should make the effort to visit and learn. There are many fine opportunities from a standard tour to an educational course. Whatever you choose I promise it will be worth the money and your knowledge of the world of the Bible will be greatly enhanced.


  1. Well said, John Byron. As I sit under the same fig tree as you were earlier, but without the music, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I will never read the Bible the same way as I did before coming to Israel. This is a life-changing experience.

  2. Excellent post. I have not been as many times as you, but each time has enriched my understanding of Scripture.