If you’ve ever been on a trip with George, relaxed is a word you’ve probably never heard! George keeps us on a tight schedule and pushes the pace of our group often. We’ll hear him say, “Faster is better than slower!” quite frequently. But we also know that he wants us to keep moving because he has so much that he wants to share with us in a short period of time. We do the best we can to keep up with George, and for our friends, it can be exhausting.

Well, today we relaxed! And it seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for our friends. This hotel was our first without a waterfront, so at 8:00 a.m. we crossed the road together and waded into the Dead Sea (which George preferred calling the Salt Sea). We were warned that the salt would sting badly if we had even the most minor cuts and that we should avoid getting any water in our eyes and ears. This made some of our friends wary about getting in the water, but we are very proud of everyone who conquered their anxiety and floated! Shawnzy wasn’t afraid of the Dead Sea at all. She was already floating away before any of the rest of us had gotten a toe in! We turned Brady into a Brady-Go-Round, spinning him by his feet, and his contagious laugh filled the beach. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity that everyone (that was capable) took advantage of.

Now, what’s the best way to follow up a dip in the super salty Dead Sea? We thought a trip to the hotel spa sounded awfully nice! Many of us soaked in the spa’s heated pool and jacuzzi, enjoying the restful morning before going back to our rooms to shower and prepare for the day. Honestly, the morning almost felt like we were on vacation! No teaching, no hiking, no pressure. Just enjoying the waters.

George gave us a 10:00 a.m. departure. He has made it clear that he is blessed when we are prompt. However, today George was TWO MINUTES LATE! I’m sure George had a very good reason for being late, but I could not pass on the opportunity to rat him out to everyone just a bit. We said the Shema in front of hotel, loaded the bus, and were on our way!

Our first stop brought us to Masada, a very historically important mountain that is now a national park. Masada was where David fled from Saul, then where Herod the Great built one of his many palaces, and finally where the Jews took their last stand in the revolt against the Romans. To get to the site, we all crammed tightly into a gondola, squeezing close to all fit. The view from the peak was simply amazing. We were surrounded by the Dead Sea and mountains as far as our eyes could see. But we weren’t just there for the views; we put more mileage under our boots at Masada than we have at any other location so far.

Herod’s civilization spanned the entire mountaintop, which meant we walked the entire mountaintop! We visited a columbarian tower, which was an ancient pigeon coop that Herod likely used for sending messages. We descended into a large cistern that was apparently the smallest of all the cisterns on Masada. Herod the Great was such a smart engineer that these cisterns would completely fill when the rains came, which was only every 15 years or so! We walked by swimming pools and ornate bath houses with mosaic floor tiles. We passed by guard barracks, watch towers, and other fortifications. Even more impressive, Herod’s buildings were plastered on the inside and outside walls! On the inside, fresco paintings covered the walls from top to bottom; outside, his builders used a special design technique to prevent the decorative wall from feeling like it was leaning outwards and about to fall. The remains at Masada were quite impressive.

When David came to Masada running from Saul, the mountaintop was bare. It was hard to imagine the mountain without any of the architecture. After Herod died, the palace sat empty until it was used for the Jewish revolt. The palace was already a fortress (which, not coincidentally, “Masada” in Hebrew means “fortress”), and Herod’s food reserves were still full. The Romans had defeated all the other Jewish strongholds and marched on Masada. They tried many times to break through the defensives, but the Jews continually defended their base well. Eventually, however, the entire mountain was surrounded by Roman soldiers, and the slowly crumbled. So, they decided to kill themselves, removing the glory of victory from the Romans. As we strolled through Masada, we came across a one final room. In this room, the ten remaining men cast lots to see who would have to kill the others and then himself. These Jews chose to die by their own accord as free men rather than live as slaves. Though we entered Masada on gondolas, we exited by walking alongside the siege ramp the Romans used to infiltrate Masada’s walls.

Thankful for finally being able to sit again, we weren’t on the bus for long. We pulled into a space that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere (which is really saying something considering all of Judah wilderness is like a rocky desert). This middle-of-nowhere place was called Kfar Hanokdim, and in this desert establishment we encountered… camels!

The guides helped us mount our camels in pairs and took us on a long walk through the wilderness. We had such a blast! Well, most of us did! A couple of our friends were spooked by the camels, and one of us just “want[ed] to go back” as quickly as possible. Riding the camels was pretty uncomfortable; you could say all of us got a little more flexible around our pelvises during the ride. Everyone who rode the camels did an outstanding job of trading their initial anxiety for an unforgettable experience.

The sun was beginning to set as we were hitting late afternoon, and our friends were starting to fade after our busy day. Suddenly, without warning, we stopped in the middle of the highway. This time we were truly in the middle of nowhere. George and Walid (our Israeli guide that has been with us the entire trip) jumped off the bus and began walking into the wilderness and out of sight. We weren’t sure what was happening, but at least we knew we still had Elli (our bus driver) to get us back to the hotel if needed. Fortunately, our leaders eventually made their way back to the bus, and George instructed us to follow him. He truly had a surprise for us that he had not expected to find. So, like sheep following their shepherd, we crossed over the guard rail and began to walk into the wilderness.

George brought us around a hill into a small valley. Looking at it, we had no idea what was so significant about this particular portion of rock. But George was enthusiastic, so we were prepared for something good. George explained that the small valley we were in was called a “green pasture” because little tufts of grass-like plants would grow here, and sheep would eat a mouthful of the grass before moving on to the next location. Normally, when we think of green pastures in the Bible, we expect nice fields of lush vegetation, but in reality, the green pastures of the Bible were these sporadic grass bushes amidst the rocky desert. Then George pointed to small cave-like crevices that had naturally formed in the rock. In ancient times, shepherds used these caves as stable for their sheep. Stables weren’t wooden barns with many animals like we often imagine. Looking inside the caves, we could see that the cave ceilings were blackened from fires built inside their shelter, a sure sign that these caves were really used by people. And then George really drove the idea home.

In ancient times, shepherds would never care for their sheep at night. It’s too dangerous and risky. They would always have their sheep housed in a stable (a cave in the hills) by nighttime. So, in the story of Jesus’ birth, why were the “shepherds… keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8)? Because they gave up their stable! Mary and Joseph, two citizens of Bethlehem, were shunned by their own people for being pregnant out of wedlock. Shepherds allowed the couple to take shelter in their stable – a cave on the side of a hill. And here, in a smelly cave filled with sheep poop, Jesus was born. Later, an angel appeared to the shepherds, telling them the Savior was born. Interestingly, the angel does not give the shepherds directions to Jesus’ birth. Why not? Because they knew where the stable was! They were the ones who had given the stable to Mary and Joseph and had to care for their sheep at night as a result. How profoundly our understanding of the nativity scene is changed when we look at the story through culturally informed eyes.

Since the sun sets around 5:00, we end our day somewhat earlier than other groups might. As we make drive back to our fancy hotel, the nicest hotel of the journey, we recover from our taxing day. We rest our beaten feet. We replenish our empty stomachs. We rejuvenate our tired bodies with laughter, conversation, and friendship. Our day ends the same way it began – relaxed. We close our eyes tonight reflecting on all our adventures from the day. We have seen our friends do more and be capable of more than we could have ever imagined. Sadly, tomorrow we will leave the beautiful Daniel Dead Sea Hotel. It is time to make our way to Jerusalem!