He swept His hand across the Land
And penciled in His touch upon the world—
Greetings, All—Those of you we met December 2-13 2017 on the Dugit Living Stones tour in the Land of Israel. I usually write an essay after taking a trip, but this has been slow to emerge. We have been home 82 days. You might be forgetting who we are!
The main impression I carried away from those excellent 10 days is of an Impression, in several senses of the word—“an affecting by stamping, bearing upon, pressing, pressing into, or otherwise exerting a physical force that marks, grooves, embosses, or prints in some way” (Unabridged Merriam-Webster).
The first impression we experienced is the Jordan Rift Valley and its Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee. It is as if God dug his fingers into the sand and gouged out great handfuls to toss right and left into the Sahara and Arabian deserts. For a more naturalistic explanation,try https://thenaturalhistorian.com/2014/09/06/origins-of-the-dead-sea-part-iii-the-levant-a-land-literally-torn-apart/ . And make a note of that description: “a land literally torn apart.”
The Jordan Rift is a segment in the Great Rift Valley, which extends from Lebanon to Mozambique in Southeast Africa. But contemporary geologists shy away from that over-reaching label; more carefully put, the Jordan Rift is the break between the African and Arabian Tectonic plates, with Arabia moving slowly north. There is also separation, which causes the land between the plates to fall. This is all very visible in the Jordan River valley, where we drove back and forth in our comfortable bus, with the mountains of Judea out one window and the Transjordan Plateau the other, the Edomites and Moabites and Ammonites glaring down, while Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt stand around. We can imagine David scurrying up the Ein Gedi gorge.
Time will fail me if I tell of our three days on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, with the wind of Jordan blasting down, and on the Golan Heights, looking into Lebanon and Syria. I was surprised to see at Tel Dan a “high place,” such as Jeroboam might have built, to spare his people traveling to Jerusalem to bow before the true God.
Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon leaning over are less a threat than the subterfuges of the human heart.
In our last day we stood on Mount Carmel, far to the north and east, looking south. With the help of our guide’s observations and explanations, we could see or visualize straight ahead the mountain chain stretching to Jerusalem and beyond, then Nazareth beyond the plain off our left shoulders, and the Jezreel Valley below to our left and behind us, reaching up from the Mediterranean Sea.
In the last Ice Age the Mediterranean intermittently poured through this valley and down to the Jordan Valley, which became one large saltwater lake. More recently, ancient armies fought their way into Israel’s coastal plain on their way to Egypt. The low hills between our place on Mt. Carmel and the mountains of Samaria are the gateway to the coastal plain, guarded by Megiddo, aka Armageddon.
Now, the greater part of Israeli civilization lies in that coastal plain, exposed to angry Palestinians looking down from the slopes of their would-be West-Bank state.
The weather was not clear, there on Mount Carmel, and no one can see much from the ground, so we hold up our paper maps and bright screens. But beyond shapes and colors we require narrative: stories of the peoples who came and went to the rhythms of the Bible, reaching back 6000 years.
For that we need another kind of impression, shrunk down from 6000 kilometers to a few millimeters, the tiny wedge-shaped impressions in soft clay, dried and fired as witnesses forever to the emergence of human intelligence.
As soon as we began to impress these bits of information into the clay, the Spirit began to bring about His Story in the people and events scattered across the times and places of these hills and valleys, their facts and artifacts, roads, structures and walls, and all the hands writing upon those walls.
Sylvia and I were able on December 28 to visit the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC., an enormous monument to the power of the Word of God, all beginning with wedge-shaped impressions in clay.
The museum was a feast to follow up the expansive buffet of testimony laid out across the land of Israel.
The early Zionists considered putting down roots in Africa, in Uganda. They could have had a huge land, an enormous fresh-water lake, all the natural resources a nation could ask. They could have spared themselves Idi Amin, Entebbe, and the loss of Yonatan Netanyahu. But you cannot put down roots when your real roots are planted in stone elsewhere. The odd geography of this little land serves the purposes of God. We have had enough of fig leaves and Cain’s fruit of the ground and towers built of man-made bricks, glued together with the earthly energy of plants. A tropical land would swarm itself with greenery and swallow up the past. Israel is perfect for monuments and messages, its dry and weary stones laden with memory. This is where the Jews are because this is where the Bible happened.
The geography of Jerusalem gave me a third kind of impression, one made by God and also the labors of men. If you go to the Promised Land to walk where Jesus walked, it is not too simple: exactly where? Land changes; the Sea of Galilee climbs up its shores and recedes; buildings crumble and are piled over with debris and later buildings. Jerusalem was redesigned by every conqueror. There is a certain clarity at the Western Wall, the level pavement and vertical wall of ancient stone. There is also a marked impression of Who’s Who: The Jews are here, praying to their God at what remains of their temple. The Muslims are up there on the plaza that Herod built, hiding the Rock in the glare of their dome.
Here, like nowhere else, God has signed His Name in history and stone, not to show what used to be, but what is plaguing the world right now. Yet these are not exactly the stones of Jesus’ time. For these we enter the tunnel extending northward from the Western Wall.
When the Jews regained control of the Old City they unleashed their archeological and curatorial instincts and dug through the debris of centuries to ground level of the 2nd Temple era—His footprints.
The tunnel extends to the northwest corner where the mountain itself rises to the level of the plaza—or shall we say, from this high point the rest of the plaza was made level.
(picture from Dugit Facebook page, the author front right, our guide front center)
Two things impressed me about this place. There, the last few stones of the Western Wall, the largest cut stones in the whole land, give way to the mountain God provided, but the mountain is carved to resemble the man-made stones. The word-picture is both great and terrible: Did God reach down to meet us and draw us into His power? Or did we by Herculean effort reach the mount of God and carve our name into it?
Notice also that this high corner is not the highest part of the mountain, because level pavement from there leaves visible the obtruding Rock itself, the center of the universe, the place where salvation history begins . . . that inconvenient Rock that the human spirit must hide. I have to say it again: nowhere has God more plainly written His story for the world to see . . .
Unless this story has two sides and has been told wrongly by the Jews, and in fact it was Ishmael who was offered up there. Then Islam is honoring him with its golden dome, not hiding anything, but reinstating. Here is a truth claim that has the world fighting almost forever. When you have seen the tunnel and all it tells you about the past, you can normally exit into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, but we did not, and tourists now are turned around and brought back to the entrance of the tunnel at the Western Wall. That is because “Three Days of Rage” were rising up in response to President Trump’s scheduled announcement that the United States recognizes the fact that Jerusalem is and has been the capital of Israel, and that the embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. People can fight over which facts are true, but this fight is over the fact itself, over whether or not it should be true, as if God should not have chosen Isaac over Ishmael, nor Jacob over Esau.
So this is the rift again, the split, division, and partitioning of points of view. On a better day we could have enjoyed the Arab shops and walked the Via Dolorosa, as our group had planned to do. Or one could thread a path north to exit the Damascus gate, then turn left and stroll along the grassy borders of the city wall, where the now invisible (but oft-mentioned) Green Line once kept the Jews from the city of their dreams. We could follow the city wall around to the southern exposure (where our group did go next on that rainy day) to see in bright daylight the excavated steps and mikvahs and pavement that show us again where Messiah walked.
Roughly speaking, that walk from Damascus gate would be following the Hinnom valley (once the burning trash heap of Gehenna) to where it joins the Kidron valley. The Wailing Wall and tunnel follow Jerusalem’s Central valley, which once separated Mount Moriah and Mount Zion but is mostly filled in, except where the Jewish quarter rises up and stands opposite Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) and the Dome. In my mind this rift and the infamous Green Line along the Hinnom valley, and the Kidron valley into which the others empty—all of these come together mentally as another great gouge in the earth, wrapping itself like the curved wing of the hen around God’s most precious real estate, but “You would not.” We see both the outer and the inner dimension of what stands between God’s people and the full enjoyment of their inheritance.
Continuing east along the south wall we would enter the Kidron valley, which climbs to the north along the east wall of the city. It is not as deep as it once was, filled with the debris of history and dead men’s bones, all gathered to wait Messiah’s return. On its right flank is the Mount of Olives, where Messiah is expected to plant his feet. It has its own tectonic rift, east-west across its center, as suggested by Zechariah 14. In the end-times fantasy novel that I tinker with, after the Lord returns a great river flows from here down the Kidron valley to the no-longer-dead Sea, the new Sea of Judah. But that is fantasy. There is enough to see here of what God has already said and done, what He has written in stone.
Jerry L. Sherman
It was an excellent tour electronically, for those of you who like that kind of stuff. The wifi on the bus let me post to Facebook for friends and family at home, and I downloaded the Google Maps data for Israel so without using any data I could find us on the map as we travelled. (I’m peculiar, because I like to find myself on the map when I should be looking out the window.)
I also let my tablet record a GPS track almost the whole trip. This is a screen shot of our track, but if anyone wants to email me about it I will send two KML files that can be loaded into Earth or another map program. You can then zoom in for details and even determine the date and time of any segment of the track.
(The second KML file accidentally goes all the way back to Albuquerque and resumes live coverage there . . . maybe I will learn how to edit it)