Todah rabah (Thank you very much) for another beautiful day in Israel, Lord! God continues to show us His favor with gentle weather and comforting safety. Today, Mount Arbel was hidden from us by a fog that yesterday was only partially there. Had we climbed Mount Arbel today, we would not have seen any of the awe-inspiring views the mountain had to offer. It also seems that every time we arrive at popular tourist attractions or restaurants, we always finish just as a large number of other groups come. And in the face of all the unfamiliar (the culture, the food, the people, and the schedule), we have not been anxious. Todah rabah for all your blessings, God.
Today we said goodbye to Galilee. We recited the Shema on the receded shoreline and began the next leg of our journey south. We were expecting to be on the road for quite some time, but George had other plans! We made a “spontaneous” stop only five minutes down the road and got off the bus to see what we thought was a quick surprise. As George led us towards the water, we soon discovered we were heading towards the docks, and George was leading us towards a boat.
As soon as we were all on board, the taxi boat began churning out to sea. The boat itself was fairly modern, but they used distressed wood on the outside to replicate the feeling of an older fishing boat. The Sea of Galilee is also rather small; the whole body of water could easily fit within Lake Michigan. However, to those in the Middle East, where this was the only body of fresh water anywhere nearby, the Sea of Galilee was wondrously large (thus they called it a sea instead of a lake). For those of us who had been out on larger bodies of water in the past, the boat ride was peaceful and finally gave us some time to take some posed photos. For others, the small cruise brought great anxiety.
We came to a rest in the middle of the water, and George began a very appropriate teaching for our anxious friends – Jesus calms the storm (Mark 4). When Jesus foes to sleep on the bus, he falls asleep in the stern. That’s where the steering occurs! You could even say that Jesus was asleep at the wheel. So of course the disciples were scared by the storm; their driver wasn’t steering the ship! They awoke Jesus pleading, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” And Jesus, using His authority over the storm He named and through the power of His words (see the previous blogs), calmed the storm with three words. “The disciples knew more about the storm than they did about Jesus,” George said. They focused more on their troubles and their fear than they did on their trust in Jesus. And they did this immediately after Jesus had just preached the longest passage of His teaching that we have in the Bible! The question to us all was this, “Are you going to focus on the fear or on the faith?”
We continued the rest of the way across the Sea of Galilee, keeping our focus on our faith. Once we arrived on the other side, we arrived at a relatively new museum. Inside was an ancient 1st century fishing boat that had been discovered in the Sea of Galilee. The boat was discovered in 1986, but had to go through an extensive process to excavate and restore it. Though we have no idea whether Jesus rode in that particular boat, it was amazing to see what kind of boat He would have used. The boat was not smooth or balanced like ours are today, and they weren’t very large, certainly not big enough to hold Jesus and all twelve disciples! Seeing the remnants of this boat really provided some perspective of what Jesus’ life (and the disciples) was like.
From here, we had a very short drive to the Capernaum. The ancient city is owned by the Catholic Church, so we all had to wear our modest clothing (at least pants and t-shirts). Within the excavated site, we saw where many homes used to be, and George pointed out some very interesting facts about the ancient cultures. For instance, in Israel, they carved basalt rock for their millstones (which we saw many examples of), whereas the Egyptians didn’t have this solid rock for theirs. The result is that the Egyptians would grind sand into their flour as their millstones degraded, and they would eat the sand in their bread. It wore their teeth down, and it was common to find Egyptian remains with very worn down teeth. We also saw an ancient mile marker, which is how the Jews would know how far to carry a Roman soldier’s pack.
One of the most impressive sites in Capernaum was the large synagogue that once stood. Made of two different types of stones from being rebuilt once, the synagogue was likely one of the largest in Israel. And as George taught us the processes and qualities of a synagogue, the coolest part of all was that Jesus actually stood in the same synagogue at one point. Matthew tells us that Jesus went to all the towns and villages and preached in their synagogues, which means that He would’ve spoken in the same one we walked through today! It was quite surreal, and our friends were very excited by it.
Another short way away, we stopped randomly on the side of the road, crossed the street, and climbed a small mountain, not knowing where or what was at the end. George called the hill Eremos Topos – Greek for “a deserted place”. This was the hill where the Church of the Beattitudes used to stand and where Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount. The location was “moved” to a more accessible spot because it couldn’t handle the tourism, but we were standing on the authentic ground. There was a large stone marking the location, and from it, we could see clear across the Sea of Galilee. George read to us the Beattitudes as we imagined Jesus preaching them in His own time.
On the bus once more, we officially left Galilee and the precious sweet water. We drove a decent chunk of time before stopping for lunch in a nice park. After our sandwich lunch, we took a stroll through the park, only to find that George had another surprise in store for us! We were not eating in just some ordinary park.
We had been eating at Ein Harrod – the “Spring of Trembling”. From this very spring, God instructed Gideon to thin his army down to a measly 300 before defeating the Midianites (Judges 7). As if that weren’t enough, we then climbed another mountain (If you don’t know by now, Israel is full of mountains!), which was the water source for Ein Harrod.
This mountain’s name was Mount Gilboa, and it was here that Saul (Old Testament Saul) fought his final battle. Before his death, Saul sought the council of a witch because He did not trust in God’s providence. To reach the witch, however, he had to cross through the enemy Philistine camp on another mountain, for the witch’s village was on the opposite side. But as we saw the distance Saul would have to travel, it was clear that Saul would barely have had time to go through enemy lines and still return before the battle, much less go around. His venture just to seek a witch’s advise looked incredibly real and daunting as we saw with our own eyes the path he would’ve had to travel.
But George didn’t have us climb Mount Gilboa just to tell us about Saul’s last battle. He had us climb for the aliyah – Hebrew for “go up”. In the Bible, aliyah is used whenever a person moves closer to God, and we should pay close attention to the directional referenced used in the Scriptures. For instance, everyone is always said to be going “up to Jerusalem” regardless of cardinal direction because going towards Jerusalem was thought to mean moving closer to God. However, aliyah always means to “go up” never down. Why? Why is it that going up brings us closer to God? Because going up is hard. Because living Christ-like lives is never easy. Because our greatest trials are also our greatest triumphs. At the bottom of the mountain, everyone says, “Oh…” in reluctance at what’s to come. At the top of the mountain, everyone says, “Wow…” as they look back at what they’ve just accomplished and at what they get to experience from the top that they would never see from the bottom.
Treading carefully down the mountain, to the bus, and riding for two hours to the Dead Sea, our group is growing weary. We have friends who are tired, and friends who are reaching overload. We can’t all make the climbs, and we are getting worse for wear. But we are also growing closer; we are also getting stronger. We saw group members holding hands and assisting each other on the climbs. We heard encouragement for those who needed one last effort to reach the top. Stephanie sat with Shawnzy on the bus to look through a neat book Shawnzy bought today. Brady asked if Linda wanted to sit with him at dinner. Richard and Ben talked one-on-one during our debriefing session. Megan even told Emily, “I think I’d be lost if I wasn’t your friend.” And every one of our friends who was anxious or tired from one of our adventures today all said they were happy they did it and loved the experience on the other side.
Israel literally means “Struggles with God”. This doesn’t mean we struggle against God; it means that as we go through our struggles, no matter how trivial these struggles might be, God is with us. And as we work through, as we aliyah, through our life mess, God is with us. On the top of the mountain, on the other side of our troubles, we are strengthened and changed. We grow. Our group is facing some struggles as the physical nature of the trip takes its toll, but as a result, we are seeing incredible moments of love, which, because God is love, means we are really seeing incredible moments of God. So, todah rabah for another beautiful day in Israel, Lord! Todah rabah for all your blessings, God. But, todah rabah for the trials, too.