Some of us were awakened around 4:30 this morning to an unfamiliar noise that sounded a little like monks chanting in a monastery. It was the Adhan (Arabic: Call to Prayer) – a Muslim tradition that signals for its believers to pray facing Mecca. It was a strong reminder that we were sleeping within Palestinian borders, although some of us would’ve appreciated the reminder a little later in the morning.
While we do not pretend to have a great understanding of Islam and their Adhan, we do find great peace in knowing that our prayers to Jesus and God are always answered (though not always in the way we ask for them to be). We know that our friends and family at home are praying every day for our safety, and we have been secure the entire trip. We have not lost one piece of luggage or had a single serious injury. People have prayed for us to have nice weather, and we have had sunny skies! We pray that God shows us something great every day and look how he has come through! We appreciate the we serve the God who answers.
We didn’t have to drive far to start our day today. The Al-Basmah Special Rehabilitation Center supports social inclusion of Bethlehem’s special needs population. They serve 33 students at the moment and train them in vocation and social skills. We met our new friends and introduced ourselves in their outdoor recreational area. Then we played games with them such as musical chairs and relay races before we had a fantastic dance party! It’s beautiful to see that fun and dancing needs no translation to understand. The center leaders then treated us to fresh bread with olive oil and mild spices – so yummy! After we partied, the Al-Basmah students got to work (literally!). They taught us how they make paper and weave rugs, and our friends were able to try it for themselves. Before we left, we just had to bless our new Palestinian Christian friends and shop in their store!
Another short distance away, we pulled in to the Bethlehem Evangelical Academy, a Palestinian Christian school. The BEA and its other schools have faced a great deal of persecution in the last decade as they’ve tried to create a Christian influence within a predominantly Muslim society. The school uses an American curriculum, and their staff teaches in English. They are always looking for new teachers from the states (if you’re interested, check them out on Facebook)! We toured most of the school, and every room brought a sense of familiarity. The classrooms were not so different from the ones we have in America. Unfortunately, school was not in session today due to a Muslim holiday (Muhammad’s birthday). We would’ve loved to see all the children! One fun fact about the school schedule: The school’s weekends must adhere to religious beliefs. Their weekends are actually on Friday and Sunday, so they have to go to school on Saturday. Weird!
Next we crossed back into Jerusalem, traveling to our first excavated site of the day. We entered the Shephelah region, which in current times is roughly 6-10 miles of farmland stretching between Judah and Dan. In Biblical times, the Shephelah divided Judah and the Philistines. Our first stop in this region was the remains of Bet Guvrin (City of Power). We walked a short way to a long set of stairs that descended into the rock. As we crept down the steps, the rock surface began to change from hard and rough to impressionable and smooth. We stepped through a dark entryway and into a dimly lit space that felt like catacombs. In reality, we were surrounded by an underground columbarium, and we were so impressed with Shawnzy for remembering the name (from Masada on day 5)! This columbarium was massive, and according to George, every home in Bet Guvrin had an underground pigeon coop. Pigeons had many uses in Biblical times. They were used for food (or their eggs were); their waste was used for growing plants; they were often used as sacrifices; and, as already mentioned in a previous post, they were used to carry messages.
The huge columbarium symbolized that Bet Guvrin, the City of Power, was indeed a wealthy and strong settlement. Here, Herod the Great was born. Bet Lechem (Bethlehem), on the other hand, stands for the City of Bread, a lowly place of bakers. It is an interesting juxtaposition that Herod the Great, the best engineer of the time and king of Israel, was born in the City of Power, and Jesus, the Bread of Life and King of the Jews, was born in a lowly City of Bread.
To give our feet a rest, we drove only a few minutes further in the Shephelah to another underground location. We had arrived at an ancient gat (press) shemanim (oil) – an ancient olive oil press. The oil press was impressively large. On one side, a long log would be weighed down with stones to press the olives and squeeze out their oil. On the other, the olives would be crushed in the mill. Shawnzy again impressed us with her memory as she knew that the top part was a mamel (millstone) and that the bottom part was a yam (sea). What a great memory! George was so impressed that he bought every friend an ice cream bar of their choice! These translations brought new meaning to Mark 9:42 which says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones… to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” Perhaps Jesus wasn’t talking about drowning someone, but rather that they would be crushed like the olives.
Another significant insight to the olive press came from the story of Samson. The operator of the millstone would often get dizzy or sick from constantly walking in circles. If a donkey was pulling the mill, it would be blindfolded. However, if a slave was forced to operate the mill, they would often remove his eyes completely. After Delilah betrayed Samson, his eyes were gouged out and he was sent to grind grain. His eyes were taken not out of spite but because it was the common practice for slaves who worked the mills.
George had one final image he wanted to share with our group. Whenever the Jews pressed oil, they would always give the first pressing to God. They would deliver the first pressing to the synagogue where the oil would be used for lamps, lubrication, and other practical purposes. The second pressing was for themselves. In the second pressing, they would squeeze every drop they could; sometimes they would re-crush the olives in the mill just to get a few more ounces.
Now, recall that oil press in Hebrew is gat shemanim. Said a little faster with an “e” at the end, and we get… “Gethsemane”! The original text makes no mention of Gethsemane ever being a garden; that was a later addition. The name Gethsemane does tell us that Jesus was near an oil press. The actual location of Gethsemane is unknown, yet scholars have made educated guesses. Perhaps the importance of Gethsemane is not in the location, but in the imagery.
When Jesus prays at Gethsemane, He begs God to lift the burden of dying off His shoulders. He prays so hard that He begins to sweat drops of blood. But God says, “No.” God does not remove the burden. And Jesus is crushed by the response – crushed so hard that He sweats blood for God.
The first pressing goes to God.
Then Jesus is betrayed by Judas, and the rejections from the people begin. He is put before Pontius Pilate, and the crowds have a chance to completely free the King of the Jews. They say, “No.” Peter denies Him three times. The whip His body and bleed His head with a crown of thorns. They make Him carry His own cross and nail His hands and feet to the wood. They stab Him in the side. He hangs on the cross for hours as blood drips from His wounds. Eventually He dies. He dies after every last drop of blood was pressed out of His body.
The second pressing goes to us.
Maybe Gethsemane wasn’t named to be a place, but to foreshadow the immense crushing that would take place. Scholars say that a more accurate understanding of salvation is that Jesus does not save us from our sins; rather, He saves us from God’s wrath. George explained it like this:
We will stand before God one day, and He will look at us and ask why we should be let into Heaven. And we do not deserve it. In every case, we do not deserve it. God will see our moments of jealously, of pride, and of selfishness, and we will not be deserving of His presence. But then Jesus will step in front of us and ask, “What do you see now, father?”
Then God will answer, “Why, I see you, Jesus.”
“I gave my blood for them, father.”
And from this, we will be shown into Heaven. Because of Jesus’ blood that was pressed out for us.
Whew. What a powerful image. It was a perfect moment to really emphasize the most important aspect of our faith – Jesus brings us back to God. We were alone in a solitary underground location without distractions. All our friends were intensely focused on George, and they really soaked in all he was saying. Of course, we’ll see and experience Jesus’ death on the cross again in Jerusalem tomorrow, but today in the oil press was phenomenal. And we haven’t even finished our day!
As the sun was setting, we made one last stop in the Shephelah. We strolled off the bus and through a park. We stopped on the park’s edge, looking out across the road, then a field, and to a small mountain range. George indicated that the mountainous land not far in the distance was the Philistine city of Gath, Goliath’s birthplace. The story of David and Goliath had great historical implications as well as Biblical ones. When the Israelites were battling the Philistines, the Philistines were unmatched, and it was not just because of Goliath, but because of technology. The Philistines were in the iron age fighting the Israelites who were still in the bronze, meaning the Philistines had superior weapons and armor. When David defeated Goliath and the Israelites drove back the Philistines, David was responsible for bringing Israel into the iron age.
Driving back to our hotel was a nightmare of big city traffic. The streets were packed, and drivers in Israel didn’t follow the same customs that we do in the states. Horns honked frequently, and there were very few traffic lights (if any!). It’s amazing we didn’t get into and accident! We were very blessed with excellent drivers in Elle and Walid.
Our friends are weary, and we can see it in their faces. After dinner, they were a little cranky and just ready to go to bed. And that’s very understandable! For some of them, this has been the hardest challenge of their lifetimes. For others, the intellectual overload may be reaching its tipping point. In either case, we are continually proud of all they accomplish! After the sun sets, we hear the chanting of Adhan again, and later we reflect on our prayers during the trip. We prayed for rejuvenation for Haley as she was experiencing some pains. She has been awesome the last couple days! We prayed for Ben, and today he had his best day of the whole trip!
Now, we pray for sleep. We pray for endurance tomorrow. And we pray that God will reveal Himself to us in new, impactful ways. We anxiously anticipate that tomorrow will be the climactic end to a wonderful journey because we pray to the God who answers.