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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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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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Traveling the Holy Land: Mt. Carmel

It’s December and that means Christmas.  However, instead of focusing on the traditional birth story of Jesus, we think you’ll enjoy considering someone who was treasured by Christ Jesus in a key moment of his ministry, the Old Testament prophet, Elijah.  Why?  Because Elijah (along with Moses, representing the Law) is one of the two great figures from the Old Testament that appears in the story of the Transfiguration (see Matt. 17:2 and Mark 9:2).   This video blog from  Mt. Carmel and the monastery that commemorates the site, is where Elijah challenged the Baal prophets of Queen Jezebel, Moabitess wife of King Ahab, recording in I Kings 18.

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Location of Mt. Carmel in Northern Israel

After a three year drought, the Lord directs Elijah to Ahab to prove once and for all the supremacy of God as the only power.  With 450 prophets of Baal assembling on Mt. Carmel, along with 400 prophets of Asherah, who also ‘eat at Jezebel’s table’ (I Kings 18:19), the contest begins and Elijah’s God triumphs and the Baal prophets are destroyed.

You’ll see a beautiful 19th century Carmelite monastery built to commemorate this ancient ‘high place’ on the slopes of Mt. Carmel near Haifa, Israel, an elevated site overlooking the whole valley below.

We welcome your thoughts in the comments below and feel free to share this with friends who also love the Scriptures.

 

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Biblical Leadership Hints for US Presidential Election

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David and Goliath, by Caravaggio

Is it possible that the Biblical story of Israel’s evolution– from nomads to slaves to free people who chose their own government—can shed needed light on today’s Presidential election?

All the way back to Abraham, God told this earliest of patriarchs that kings would be included in Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:6, NRSV).

The centripetal forces or ‘glue’ that held the twelve tribes together, weren’t just political or military leaders, such as Saul and later David–both anointed as kings. Rather it was the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic Law given in their wilderness crossing and turned to again and again for direction and guidance as they forged a nation out of tribes.

One can only wonder today how much ‘glue’, in the pluralistic societies that constitute historically Judeo-Christian countries like the United States, still exists of a shared moral law with the power to bind people to both it and each other.

Like today, ancient Israel also experienced centrifugal forces pulling them apart. There was the physical challenge of the land’s geography, not conducive to a strong political unit as ridges and gorges made it difficult for separated tribes to come together.

More dangerous were the reasserting forces of Baal and polytheism that presented a constant competition between the powers of Yahweh and Baal. Recall Elijah’s battle with Jezebel’s Baal prophets as he defended Yahweh (see I Kings 18). (Just use the surrogates of today’s many ‘idols’ – whether the pursuit of a perfect body image, wealth or non-stop entertainment — as a substitute for Baal and we see how apropos Israel’s challenges are to our own.)

Yet there was a countering centripetal force that held the tribes together: the invading Philistines. Enter the young shepherd, David, into Israel’s history.   The impact he would make for generations, defeating the enemy starting with Goliath, would be unmatched until Jesus of Nazareth’s arrival a millennium later.

Unfortunately, King Saul’s jealousy would rob the monarch of the gratitude he should have had for David, who would go on to unite the twelve tribes, bring needed peace to the new nation, and write some of the world’s most powerful songs or Psalms. Saul’s jealousy prompted the pursuit of David some sixteen times to kill him, as two vivid examples relate in I Sam 24 and 26 (the former when David doesn’t kill Saul in a cave and the latter sparing of Saul’s life at an encampment near Ziph.)

In addition to the magnanimity David shows someone trying to destroy him, today’s political candidates can discover specific leadership lessons from Deut. 17:14-20. These convey God’s intended qualifications for a future leader. For the purpose of space, I’ll site two and invite you to discover the others. See if you think many, or all, of the characteristics still apply.

  • “Be sure to select as king the man the Lord your God chooses” (Deut. 17: 15). Embedded in this aspect is a democratic election process by the people, i.e. ‘select’, and the ability to discern an individual who is selected for the office and times by God.
  • “When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll…(and) always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees” (Deut. 17:18-19).

Can someone please hand our candidates a pen so they can get writing?!

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How Artistic Genius Captures History’s Greatest Betrayal

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Rembrandt’s “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver”, currently on exhibit at The J.P. Morgan Library & Museum.

If you admire others’ ability to draw, sketch, paint or sculpt, yet don’t seem to share those talents, welcome to my world of art appreciation instead.   After all, artistic brilliance needs those who can treasure and reflect on their masterpieces.

The Bible has long been the subject of some of the most monumental art through the centuries, affording art lovers plenty of opportunity for spiritual and aesthetic contemplation. Summer is a perfect time to focus on one tour de force just coming to light.

The J.P. Morgan Library in New York City has a current exhibit centered on a privately held Rembrandt often referred to as his first masterpiece, painted when just 23. Called Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, it is breathtaking how precisely the Dutch master captures the dismissive priest following Judas’ betrayal of Christ Jesus.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”  Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5, NRSV).

In a single spurning gesture of the Priest’s left hand, Rembrandt captures the emotional drama felt by a man who realizes he has made the most damning misjudgment of his life: betrayal of the Messiah he loved.

A traveling diplomat, Constantijn Huygens, experienced the painting in 1629 of the young artist soon to become a master, and penned: “The gesture of that one despairing Judas…screaming, begging for forgiveness, but devoid of all hope. His gaze wild, his hair torn out by the roots, his garments rent, his arms contorted, his hands clenched until they bleed. A blind impulse has brought him to his knees, his whole body writhing in pitiful hideousness. All this I compare with all the beauty that has been produced throughout the ages. All honor to thee, Rembrandt!” (Letter by Huygens, excerpted in Morgan catalogue on exhibit.)

Students of Matthew’s Gospel, the only one in which Judas’ payment is mentioned, have long been familiar with the thirty pieces of silver the priests paid for being led to Jesus’ location during his prayerful preparation at Gethsemane. What may not be familiar is an Ex. 21:2 law describing property payment rights, the first time the ‘thirty shekels of silver’ is mentioned in the Bible.

32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slave owner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

The only other mention of ‘thirty shekels of silver’ (prior to Judas) is in the book of Zechariah. The prophet is told by God to act as the shepherd for the sheep portrayed as the recalcitrant people of Israel. But those ‘sheep’ don’t want to repent and therefore the shepherd (Zechariah) tells the people he quits, and asks for whatever wage they feel is appropriate.

12 I then said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver (Zech. 11:12).

The fact that Zechariah is given only ‘thirty shekels of silver’ is an insult, conjuring up the meager price of a male slave, described above in Exodus.

How does all this relate to Judas and the priests? Note that it was the Temple priests who negotiated the original payment:

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14,15).

Expert in Jewish law, the Temple priests well knew of this reimbursement price of a slave from Exodus. In arrogant dismissal, they priced Jesus’ life at the same paltry rate. That Zechariah was God-directed to act as shepherd to the lost sheep of Israel, and paid the same remuneration, evokes the shepherding mantle Jesus bore as well.

The bottom line? Neither priest nor traitor could begin to grasp the Savior’s mission to redeem humanity from every ill that would beset it. That payment? Priceless.

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