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Gethsemane: Holy Place of Prayer

Gethsemane– a word almost universally recognized and filled with meaning like few others—is the subject of the February video and blog.

Although mentioned only once each in Mark (14:32) and Matthew (26:36), Christians know it well as the place of Jesus’ difficult prayer prior to Judas’ betrayal and the Master’s arrest.

        They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray (Mark 14:32).

Its 1st century use as an olive orchard located on the Mount of Olives gave the garden its name and meaning, gath shemane being Hebrew for ‘oil press’.  While Luke’s Gospel certainly recounts this momentous night of prayer, he refers to the larger area, the Mount of Olives.

Luke also gives us a hint of how often Jesus must have gone to this peaceful garden, so close to Jerusalem yet with the Kidron Valley between to provide some distance from the urban clamor.

        He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him (Luke 22:39).

In fact, the frequency of Jesus’ retreats there to pray are why scholars believe Judas knew where to tell the Jewish authorities to find him later that night.

One can’t help but wonder if Jesus, on this night or previous ones of prayer, thought also of David’s experience on the Mount of Olives.  Knowing the Hebrew Scriptures and identified as the prophesied Messiah and ‘Son of David’, Jesus must have been familiar with the story of David fleeing to this sacred place as he was forced to escape Jerusalem. Absalom was out to kill David and take the throne, so with family and loyal friends around him, the Bible relates David also paused here at a critical moment:

            David walked up the road to the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went. His head was covered and his feet were bare as a sign of mourning. And the people who were with him covered their heads and wept as they climbed the hill (II Sam 15:30).

The Gospels reveal Gethsemane as the lowest point of Jesus’ earthly career, evidenced by what Matthew relates he told his disciples:

            My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me (Matt 26:38).

Yet Gethsemane also represents that consummate moment of self-surrender that shines as a model for all who want to yield to God’s will for their lives:

            My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away–unless I drink it, your will be done (Matt 26:42-43).

More than any place in Israel I’ve traveled, Gethsemane is ‘holy ground’.  A wall surrounding these ancient olive trees, still bearing fruit,  helps Christian pilgrims pray quietly where the Master prayed, look across the Valley to Jerusalem, and hope that their lives provide even a fraction of the healing oil of his.

 

 

 

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Jerusalem: City of David – part 1

Jerusalem–the holy city for the world’s three monotheistic religions.  It evokes life-changing events for millions and history unparalleled for centuries with political,  religious and archaeological claims to every holy square inch.  To see it for the first time, perhaps standing on Mt. Scopus at sunset, is to have a moment forever etched in memory.

 

Byzantine mosaic map in St. George’s Church, Madaba, Jordan.

The city’s importance through the Byzantine period, in the 6th century CE, is tangibly seen in Madaba, Jordan.  Here a mosaic map, created to show not just locations of sites, but their importance by size, reveals Jerusalem as the center of the world.  As the photograph reveals, “The Holy City of Jerusalem” contained six gates and twenty one towers surrounded by city walls, all displayed in stunning mosaic that covers 15′ square feet of floor in the St. George Byzantine church.

Today, 3000 years later, the City of Jerusalem, working capital of the country of Israel since its founding, continues in daily news headlines as a center of political and religious controversy. Whether it is the potential relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, or the response of Palestinians to sharing their beloved city with others, Jerusalem seems anything but the city of peace.

Bible Roads will be sharing four brief videos from a recent trip to Jerusalem, each one explaining a different facet of the city.  This current vlog (video blog) highlights the Dome of the Rock, that iconic gold dome in virtually every city skyline photograph of this ancient capital city.  It serves as a sacred destination for Jews since it is thought to be the rock on which Abraham started to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  It also is thought to be the site where the holiest of holies was located for both the Temple Solomon built in the 9th century BCE, and the second Temple built after return from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE.

For Muslims, this site is a shrine — not a mosque–for those pilgrims who want to commemorate where Muhammad was supposed to have ascended, and was built in the 7th century CE.

The Dome of the Rock sits on what is known as The Temple Mount, which rises above the Kidron Valley and sits directly across from the Garden of Gethsemane.  Following his night in the garden praying, Jesus was taken to the Temple Mount where the palace of Annas, the High Priest, was located.  After his questioning, Jesus was transferred to the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, nearby.   As mentioned, every square inch:   holy ground.

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The Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran: Why they’re important

Most Bible students are familiar with the archaeological discovery in 1947* of the Dead Sea Scrolls but may not be clear as to why this was such an important find.   It’s because this discovery – called the greatest manuscript uncovering of all time — provides a priceless look into the history of Judaism, how the Hebrew Bible developed and the beginnings of Christianity.

After Bedouin shepherds happened upon some of the jars containing the papyrus and leather scrolls (primarily written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic and Greek), the manuscripts went through a process of being authenticated.  Now most scholars tend to agree that they date from about 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. , and their thousands of fragments are still being poured over with the latest scientific techniques, to learn their content.

This cache of scrolls, now referred to as “The Dead Sea Scrolls”, has come from a number of caves in the area and simultaneously gone through a circuitous journey of ownership.  A number of them are now safely ensconced in museums such as Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, and the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman.

The over 900 manuscripts are divided into three major categories:  those that are part of the Hebrew canon (or Old Testament to Christians);  the sectarian, applying to those peculiar to the residents of Qumran in terms of their doctrine; and other texts that range from legal documents to prayers to comments on Biblical books.

Entrance to Cave 11, Qumran. Photo courtesy of The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

Who were the people of this Qumran area?  Many scholars believe they are the Jewish religious group, the Essenes, such as those two Biblical Jewish groups: the Pharisees and Sadducees.   The Jewish historian Josephus wrote of them in the 2nd century A.D., explaining they were a celibate people but that is still debated.  The longer both the Essenes and these manuscripts are studied the more questions arise, such as were the Essenes’ beliefs similar to those of early Christian groups?  Or were they more devoted to legal rules focused on cultic purity?

One of the outcomes of all this scholarly debate is a new field called ‘social archaeology’ which, according to the Bible History Daily, is ‘an established field of research which uses archaeological records to reconstruct the belief system and social organization of past societies.’

Some of the scrolls’ titles include:   the Rule of the Community, the War Scroll, a copy of the book of Isaiah, Thanksgiving Hymns, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Copper Scroll and a number of the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophetic books such as Nahum and Habakkuk, and more.  And a majority of scholars believe the scrolls to have been written by those living at Qumran who placed them in local caves, vs. being brought from Jerusalem, for example.

An international team of Biblical scholars and linguists have worked decades to make them available now in various published editions.  The main ones have been brought together in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book but are also occasionally part of traveling exhibits.  I recall the moment I stood in front of my first glimpse of a scroll at the San Diego Natural History Museum and read the translation of a line from that fragment that exactly matched a Bible verse I had read that morning.  Wow!

The Scrolls reveal how much humanity longs to understand God, writes about God and our experience with the Almighty, encouraging us to acknowledge an unseen Creator who men and women have long recognized and yearned to know, for centuries.

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Masada: Herod, Heroes and Sacrifice


Masada, the Hebrew word for “fortress,” is a perfect description of the Biblical site where Herod the Great had one of his summer palaces. If you’ve traveled to Israel to stand on this dusty summit and know what’s behind the historical mountaintop, the site grips your imagination like few others.

Located in the East Judean desert close to the Dead Sea, Masada served Herod’s concerns for protection during his 33-year reign (36 BCE -4 CE). The Jews would rather have killed him than be ruled by him so building a desert fortress high on a rocky mountain made sense for a king consumed by fears of angry subjects.

But Masada’s roots began a century earlier (c. 100 BCE) when Jews newly liberated from the Greek Seleucids, began building its initial structures. Herod knew from his experience as a general sent to recapture the site from rebels, just how impregnable this mountain could be.

When Herod took Masada for his own, he focused first on ensuring a water supply by building twelve huge cisterns carved into cliffs. Designed to capture potential floodwaters that flowed through nearby wadis, the cisterns made Masada possible. What a sight to glimpse this Northern Palace constructed on three natural terraces that included storehouses, a bathhouse, shaded courtyards, staircases and colonnades –all revealing Herod’s almost obsessive concern for security.

By the time Herod completed his building project, Masada was fortified with a wall almost a mile long and 30’ wide, 70 rooms embedded within the wall, 30 towers and two gates. A defensive infrastructure indeed!

But the history that has filtered into the collective memory happened 75 years after Herod’s death when the first Jewish revolt against the Romans began for the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Jewish Zealots fled to Masada with their families and held out three long years as Rome’s Tenth Legion found increasingly clever ways to penetrate the fortress.

Using thousands of Jewish prisoners of war, Roman General Silva constructed a rampart and finally a battering ramp that breached the walls, only to find the rebels had just died. Jewish leader, Elazar ben Yair, convinced the men to kill their wives and children, then commit mass suicide themselves, related by two surviving women. As ben Yair told them:

Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom (Jewish Virtual Library).

Mini-series starring Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss.

A 1981 television mini-series, “Masada”, captures the conflict movingly. But best of all is a bonus feature at the film’s beginning of an officer’s swearing-in ceremony for those serving in today’s Israeli military.

Masada continues to symbolize the ultimate Jewish resistance.

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Mt. Nebo and Moses’ Lessons in Obedience

If you’ve ever looked forward to something, really wanted it, strove for it but in the end didn’t realize it, you can identify with Moses as he gazed across at the Promised Land from today’s Jordan, realizing he would not enter.

This month’s video blog takes place at this special site, Mt. Nebo, the place in ancient Moab where Moses got only to preview Canaan from a distance before he died and was buried.

Did you wonder why such a faithful follower of God didn’t get to realize his dream? I did. The book of Numbers has answers, but first some context.

In that first month of the Exodus, the people had started murmuring about why Moses brought them up from Egypt only to die of thirst in the desert, their initial provisions having run out.

Anyone who has served in a position of leadership can identify with the frustration and end-of-his-rope feeling Moses must have experienced. Doing what he had always done when in trouble, the great leader turned to God for answers, retreating into the ‘tent of meeting’ constructed for the worship of God. There, Moses and Aaron experienced a theophany, a divine appearing, as recorded in Numbers 20:6, 8 –“They fell on their faces and the glory of the Lord appeared to them” (Common English Bible).    The continued instructions are clear: “You and Aaron your brother, take the staff and assemble the community. In their presence, tell the rock to provide water (vs. 8, emphasis added).”

Instead of following divine instructions, however, we learn: “Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice Numbers 20:11, emphasis added).“

It’s a subtle difference and the end result seemed not to matter: the people got their water.

But that moment of disobedience revealed far more than how water was extracted. It was about Moses either trusting God fully to obey His commands, or determining he had a better way. And in this case, that ‘better way’ appeared to be filled with anger (Moses striking the rocks), something that was completely contrary to the loving provisions that God was supplying.

Once again the Bible illustrates that the best leaders are those who follow the leadership of God.  It’s somehow a bit reassuring to realize that even history’s greatest leaders, like Moses, have their moments of doubt or ego.  Yet Moses seems to have learned a significant lesson at this early stage of the Exodus:  we don’t find another example of him choosing a way other than how God has directed him.  That is a leadership example we can all follow.

Sitting on an ancient wall at Mt. Nebo overlooking Roman milestones and the valley below where Moses is thought to have been buried. The view is tremendous!

The video blog from Mt. Nebo is an example of where the Bible’s physical geography teaches us spiritual lessons. Israel is so close, the promised land right there to enter.  Yet it wouldn’t be for Moses.   Mt. Nebo’s high ground overlooks nearby Israel, just West of the Transjordanian River Valley which serves as the border between Israel and today’s Jordan. Much of Israel spreads out before you like a vast desert carpet. Here Joshua would, as Moses’ first lieutenant, take the leadership command and begin his mission of conquering Canaan, but only after burying the great leader that had given Israel so much.

Deuteronomy sums it up: The Lord spoke to Moses that very same day:  “Hike up the Abarim mountains, to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab opposite Jericho. Take a good look at the land of Canaan, which I’m giving to the Israelites as their property.  You will die on the mountain you have hiked up, and you will be gathered to your people….You can look at the land from the other side of the river, but you won’t enter there” (Deut. 32:48-50, Common English Bible).

Another Biblical lesson in obedience.

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