Israel as Bible Context

The Bible's historical, geographical, and political narrative, and cosmological context, swirls through and around Israel. The Bible expects the reader to know Israel like the back of one's hand. Without understanding Israel, readers miss much of the Bible's depth, breadth, and profundity. Israel is at once the God wrestler Jacob, God's chosen nation, a foil for the soft heart and open mind God wishes of his people, and a prefiguring of the Church as the bride of Jesus Christ. Israel is also the setting for the earthly ministry of Christ. Know Israel, and you'll know the Bible. Relive the Israel study trip you've taken with Pastor Marshall, sign up with him for his next trip, or just soak up a little more of the beautiful, dusty, rugged, rich, and spiritually formative land of Israel.  

Nelson Miller wrote these accounts from Pastor Marshall's notes and other sources. Comments and corrections to

Coastal Plain

Israel's Coastal Plain stretches more than a hundred miles along the Mediterranean Sea. Orient your geography of Israel from the Coastal Plain establishing Israel's eastern boundary, west across fertile plains up into a mountainous region stretching north and south, and then sharply down to the Jordan River, also with a north and south orientation. The Sea of Galilee lies at the Jordan's northern reaches, while the Dead Sea lies at the Jordan's southern end. In ancient times, the Way of the Sea, or Via Maris, was the vital land route from Egypt, which lay southwest of Israel, to Mesopotamia, which lay southeast of Israel. Rich commerce flowed along Israel's Coastal Plain, from Egypt up to Syria and around to Mesopotamia. The Coastal Plain thus served as a sort of doorstep to those Via Maris travelers who wished to pause and venture into Israel, whether to visit its holy city Jerusalem, or for commerce, or for conquest. Is your doorstep fertile, welcoming, but appropriately defined and guarded, like Israel?

Standing Stones at Gezer

The ancient city of Gezer, about 18 miles northwest of Jerusalem, lies between Israel's Mediterranean Coastal Plain to the west and Judah's wilderness to the east, descending to the Dead Sea. Gezer was at a key point along a strategic route connecting Israel's Coastal highway with Jerusalem. Joshua's conquest of the promised land Canaan included defeating the king of Gezer, although the conquest left many Canaanites in that land. Pharaoh much later defeated Gezer's Canaanites, giving the captured city to his daughter as a gift when she married Solomon. Today, one still sees Gezer's huge ancient standing stones. While Canaanites probably stood up these particular stones around 3,000 BC to honor their god Baal, the stones were probably much like those Jacob set up to remember his dream at Bethel or Moses set up as a reminder of God's providential actions. The enormous stones are as deep in the ground as they are high. And isn't that us, set deep on the rock of Christ and standing tall to honor God? Let the world see your Rock.

Gate at Gezer

This ancient city gate and way, visible today at this archaeological site, is much older than Israel's conquest of the Promised Land. The pictured gate was thus presumably there when Joshua defeated the king of Gezer. Recall when Joshua defeated the similar city of Jericho, how the resident prostitute Rahab helped the Israelite spies, later hanging a signal cord out her window to save her family from the conquering Israelites. Rahab would then enter the lineage of the coming king David, also meaning the lineage of Jesus Christ. When centuries later Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter in an unholy alliance with Egypt, Pharaoh conquered Gezer again for a wedding gift for the unholy couple. Joshua's godly conquest let Rahab enter the line of Christ. Pharaoh's ungodly conquest contributed to Israel's division and downfall. Solomon gave away his kingdom for another bride. We give away the world to be the bride of Christ. 

Gate as City Center

Here toward the edge of Gezer's large mound or tell, we see the extension of the ancient city's great wall to its farthest point, at a home site adjacent to the city gate. An ancient's city gate was the center of social, economic, and political life. Gates were not only where residents met traveling family and friends but also where shopkeepers received and bartered for their arriving goods, and where political leaders promoted their authority and settled disputes. You'll remember the Bible's stories of Boaz settling property rights at a city gate to also acquire the widow Ruth, Lot greeting the angels at Sodom's city gate, and Absalom promoting his political ambitions at a city gate. But city gates could also have religious significance, especially for those who wanted to give honor in pilgrimage but hesitated to enter a holy place. Are you greeting and welcoming the unsaved at your city's gate? Look to the boundaries, margins, and gates as Jesus did.

Cistern near Gezer

Cisterns were critical for the Israelites living in the drier parts of the Promised Land. Communities might have to dig and protect cisterns one-hundred feet down, women drawing water from that depth multiple times daily. Natural, then, that Egyptians despised a God of the desert. Yet Moses met God in the desert. Earlier, Abraham’s servant had met Isaac's future wife Rebekah as she drew well water for her family's camels, offering that same desert water to the servant. And Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that a drink from his deepest water would bring not just an hour's respite but eternal life. Are you drinking from the water of life? Are you pointing others to the Author of life? And are you helping them draw that water of life? 

Down into the Cistern

King Zedekiah's men convinced him to give them the authority to dispose of the prophet Jeremiah by lowering him into a muddy cistern where, without rescue, he would starve. After all, Jeremiah had been prophesying Israel's imminent fall. Yet a righteous royal official from Sudan went to the king where the king sat at the gate, asking that the king allow him to rescue Jeremiah. The king granted the request. The official took thirty men to lower ropes of clothing to gently lift Jeremiah from the cistern's depths. The king soon sent for Jeremiah to hear what tune Jeremiah would now sing. Yet Jeremiah stood fast in his unwavering prophecy. Have you, like Jeremiah and Joseph, had confidants or co-workers throw you into a cistern? Or have you been throwing others into cisterns? The righteous listen to prophets. They also show considerable humility and grace.


In the time of Israel's judges, before Israel had a king, Manoah and his wife lived in Zorah at the foot of these well-traveled paths. They had no children until the angel of the Lord appeared to them, saying that Manoah's wife would bear a son who would begin to save Israel from the Philistines. And indeed, she bore a son whom she named Samson. Samson would lead Israel as its judge for twenty years before dying at his own hand, while killing Philistines by the thousands. Samson's family retrieved his body to bring it back to bury near this location in Zorah. Samson means "sunshine," while the name of the paramour Delilah to whom he succumbed means "darkness." Light has nothing to do with darkness. Let the Lord shine his light wherever you see darkness in your life.

Beth Shemesh

Drive along any highway in Israel, like this one at Beth Shemesh, and you drive past ancient biblical history. Beth Shemesh was the most important and strategic city in the Sorek Valley, where Samson was born and lived, and where God's Spirit strengthened and moved him to judge Israel. Samson's Philistine wife lived a few miles west at Timnah, and his fatal last girlfriend Delilah also lived in the Sorek Valley. The five great Philistine cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, Ekron, and Gaza, where Samson pulled down the temple upon himself and thousands of Philistines, were all within a few miles of this area. Samson's fatal attraction to Philistine women symbolized the Israelites' own challenge not to succumb to the ungodly ways of the people among whom they lived. Can others tell that you are set apart for God?

Socoh and Azekah

The Philistines camped in the Valley of Elah below here, between Socoh and Azekah. Each day they sent forth the giant Goliath, clad in scales of armor, to challenge the Israelites. Bethlehem was just a three-hour walk away. Only the shepherd boy David had the courage to challenge Goliath, and not in his own power but in the Lord's power. David versus Goliath; good versus evil; God versus Satan. Their battle symbolized far more than just another chapter in a continual war between nations. And what was the armor David bore? Not the serpent-like scales that Goliath wore, so like our image of the deceiver Satan, and not the great sword wrought from man's technology, but the name of the Lord and an unworked stone, slung into the forehead of the giant. On whom do you depend in your battles?

Valley of Elah

David met, fought, and defeated Goliath in this Valley of Elah, two hills separated by a plain with a stream dividing it. Hearing Goliath's challenge, David would have descended this hill on which the Israelites camped, picking up smooth stones for his sling as he crossed the stream to accept Goliath's challenge. The flowing water would have soaked, and the stream's banks muddied, David's small feet. And yet David pressed forward, trusting in the Lord, using the skills with which the Lord had blessed him in his humble shepherd labors. God equips us where we are, with what we need, when we know that we most of all need him. David accepted Goliath's challenge. Are you accepting your challenge in the strength of the Lord?

Rise of the King

Here in the Valley of Elah, where David defeated Goliath using David's humble little sling, Israel witnessed the beginning of the rise of its great king. Israel's first king Saul had the stature of a king but not a king's heart. David was a king after God's own heart. Where Saul rushed ahead in his own strength and with his own plans, David would wait on the Lord, even if that wait meant years for God to bring about Saul's demise. Israel had wanted a king. God, too, planned a king for Israel, but God's king would be a rabbi king, a king of God's word, and the King of kings. And so when 12,000 Philistines gathered on the far hill and Israel encamped on the near hill, David, who prefigured the great King of kings to come in David's line, descended the hill to kill Goliath with a single smooth stone drawn from the brook. Who is your king? Is he the King of kings?

Cave of Adullam

David spent years of his life hiding from king Saul who out of jealousy wanted to murder him. David spent many of those years in what Israel visitors today know as the Caves of Refugee. David likely wrote some of his Psalms, perhaps like Psalm 142 in which he describes God as his refuge, from these Caves of Refuge. The Cave of Adullam was a special one of those caves. The Cave of Adullam was one of David's first hiding places from Saul, where David's family and four-hundred oppressed men first joined him. Those men would have been something like today's high school dropouts. Yet those four-hundred men soon became six hundred. David would eventually build and lead such a strong community of support that he would win the whole nation Israel to him. Do you find yourself looking for refuge in God? Are you at the same time finding a community of support?

Olive Press

Olives were an important part of the Israelite economy, providing food, oil for cooking, and fuel for the lamps that brought light. But getting that cooking oil and lamp fuel required crushing the olives. Olive presses took various forms, all involving extreme pressure. When Jesus's hour of intense pressure came, Jesus prayed to his Father in Gethsemane's garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives aside Jerusalem. A Jew would know, though, that the name Gethsemane didn't mean "garden." It instead meant "olive press," a place not of plenty but of extreme pressure. Laborers crushed olives from the Mount in the press at its foot, for the light and sustenance of the oil. Likewise, the Father let evil press his Son, so that in the Son's crushing came the light and sustenance of our redemption from iniquity. How is pressure shaping you to be the light and life of Christ to the world?

Moresheth Gath

The prophet Micah was born in the lowland town Moresheth Gath southwest of Jerusalem. Moresheth was one of the last lowland towns one would reach when traveling away from Jerusalem, before entering Israel's southwest desert region. God gave Israel the Promised Land, which in its fertile central lowlands was indeed a land of flowing milk and honey. But God was still a God of the mountain and a God of the desert, a shepherd who knew how to plant and water desert land to make a garden out of the desert. God is our shelter and refuge in the desert. His waters run deep in the desert, ready to burst forth to water a lush garden. Our world may leave us dry and dusty. Parched lips crave constant watering. And then God floods the desert, turning it into a garden. The prophet Micah, of the boundary lowland town Moresheth, gave one of the clearest prophecies of the coming Savior Jesus Christ from Bethlehem. Christ is indeed our water in the desert.

Wadi Floods

The Israelites were initially a desert people. They knew how to move about and survive in these desert wadis. Wadi simply means "sand" but not the kind of sand one sees on the seashore. Wadi sand is the kind of desert sand that turns rock hard after getting wet, until crushed again under stone or foot. Strangely, desert wadis can be dangerous places of flood. Rain far away may wash down a wadi, its flood billowing over the poor Israelite trying to make a way up or down the wadi. God makes desert living possible, but he doesn't make it easy. When David's psalms ask God to lift his miry feet from the mud and clay, don't think of a rain-soaked farm field. Think instead of a flooded desert wadi. Whether your mud and clay are financial, health, work, or relational problems, know that God often does as the repentant sinner asks. God is, after all, our great Savior.

Desert Shade

When we hear of the cool protection of the shade or shadow, we tend to think of the shade of a tree. After all, many of us live in or near woodlands. But Israel had relatively few trees and woodlands. The Israelites were much more a desert, not a woodland, people. To the Israelites, shade didn't usually connote trees. Shade or shadow instead more often meant a protecting overhang, hillside, ravine, or cave. Shade also meant the protection of God. God is shadow, the ever-present, accompanying unobserved. We rest in the shadow of the Almighty and beg that he hide us in the shadow of his wing. The desert doesn't have the everywhere shade of a forest, where sprites can tempt and revelers languish. The desert instead has just enough shade for our good, just enough shade to keep us hungry for God and moving toward him. Find your respite. Find your shade. And then move on quickly and lightly following the whispers and will of God.


Visitors to Israel can still see shepherds leading their flocks across what looks like desert wasteland. But somehow, the shepherd helps the sheep find just enough greenery sprouting through the dry sands and tucked among the rocks to keep the sheep producing their wool and reproducing their young, to feed and clothe the shepherd's family. Israel's incredibly beautiful but incredibly challenging and typically very dry scenery reminds us how God as the good shepherd provides where we see nothing. And that's faith: to trust in God's steady, saving provision when appearances deceive our eyes into seeing only the impossibility of provision. We shouldn't deny the struggle. But we shouldn't let appearances deceive us into believing that God is absent. After all, he leads us beside the still waters to lie down in green pastures. You may see few verdant pastures in Israel. But you know from the evidence of these remarkable shepherds that God is nonetheless providing.

Water in the Desert

When Abraham sent Hagar and her little boy Ishmael into the wilderness of Beersheba at Sarah's behest, everyone involved could have assumed that Abraham's harsh action was a death sentence. Mother and child stood no chance of survival without quickly finding shelter and water. And so after wandering away, Hagar set her boy under a small tree so as not to witness his death. But God heard the boy's cry. The angel of the Lord called out to Hagar to go retrieve her boy whose offspring would become a great nation. And God opened Hagar's eyes to the water beside her, from which she and her boy drank. Hagar, Elijah, and the Israelites themselves all had their wilderness wanderings. So did Jesus. But God can bring water from a desert rock. Indeed, God brings the water of life from the Rock of Ages. 

Nabataean Empire

The Wilderness of Zin lies at the Promised Land's southern border. The Moses-led Israelites fleeing Egypt first approached the Promised Land through the Wilderness of Zin, where their disobedience turned them back. The Wilderness of Zin, though, has other biblical significance. When around 586 B.C. Israel went into its Babylonian captivity, the mysterious Nabataean people partly filled the power and commerce vacuum by controlling strategic spice-trade routes through the Wilderness of Zin, centering their strangely beautiful desert empire there. That empire survived right up to the time of Jesus's birth before it mysteriously disappeared. The notorious king Herod, who sought to kill the infant Jesus, had a Nabataean father. And the magi or wise men who followed the star to bring spice gifts to the newborn King of kings may have come through the Nabataeans' desert trade routes. Did they even buy their frankincense and myrrh there? Are you approaching the King of kings through your own desert, bearing what gifts you are able to bring?

Nabataean Settlement

The nomadic, Arabic Nabataean people created rich and beautiful civilization in the harshest desert region. They knew not only how to locate and build spectacular desert settlements but also how to transport water to those settlements and how to earn fortunes from the trade routes they established, guarded, and maintained there. Yet right around the time of Jesus's birth, when Rome was wielding its greatest influence across the known world, the Nabataeans disappeared. Speculation as to possible causes include wars, conquest, and even disease. But scholars also find archaeological evidence that Nabataean culture had made a subtle shift from a rigorous desert mentality toward lives of comfort and ease. The Nabataeans may have disappeared simply because they lost their desert mentality. Jews and Christians follow a desert God into rich promised lands. But as richly as he blesses us, God may nonetheless desire that we maintain his wilderness mentality rather than pursue a lives of comfort and ease. Remember your wilderness mentality. Focus on God, not the comforts his provision can bring.

Wilderness Trade Route

When Moses led the Israelites out of their Egyptian captivity, they probably had little idea of the extraordinary extent of their coming wilderness wanderings. They complained bitterly after just a few days of travel. Little did they know that they would wander for forty years. This photo shows the location of an ancient trade route up from Egypt through the Wilderness of Zin, at the southern boundary of the Promised Land. It is very probably right around the point at which God turned the Israelites back from a relatively short and direct route into the Promised Land, to those forty years of wandering around the Sinai Peninsula, Edom, and Kadesh. Imported spices like frankincense and myrrh were so valuable only in part because of their medicinal and other properties. They were also valuable because of the arduous trek through the wilderness that importing them required. God draws us through wildernesses, carrying something far greater than gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Our wilderness treks fan the refining fire of our far-more-precious faith in the holy God of the desert.


This ancient, excavated praetorium would be like Jerusalem's infamous ancient Praetorium referenced in the account of Jesus's trial before Pontius Pilate. Pilate, of course, released Barabbas but sent Jesus away to the Praetorium, where soldiers stripped, beat, and mocked Jesus with a crown of thorns. The ancient Praetorium's site is well below the modern streets and buildings of Old Jerusalem. Its subterranean excavation gives only hints of what the actual street-level Praetorium might have felt like, pictured in film and art. This smaller photographed praetorium site gives a better feel for the kind of public courtyard where soldiers mocked and flogged the Christ. Soldiers quarters, equipment and weapons rooms would have lined the courtyard, with prisoner cells underground or nearby. Our salvation came at exquisite cost, revealed only in part in Jesus's awful trial and crucifixion. Do you appreciate that cost?

Praetorium Arch

Pontius Pilate sent Jesus away to Jerusalem's Praetorium for the soldiers to mock and flog before they led Jesus away for crucifixion. Jesus would have entered and left that awful Praetorium through a Roman arch much like this smaller, excavated praetorium's arch. Picture Jesus led into the Praetorium courtyard through such a Roman arch, condemned by Rome's representative Pilate. Picture Jesus led again out through the arch on his way to crucifixion. Everywhere it appeared throughout the Mediterranean world, the Roman arch represented Rome's glory. But everywhere Jesus appears, he turns worldly glory on its head for the glory of his Father. As you navigate your way through the world's powers and principalities, so proud of their own glory, do you instead turn your heart and mind to the glory of the Father in his condemned and crucified Son?

Judgment Seat

When Jesus stood trial before Pontius Pilate, and at the crowd's demand Pilate passed sentence on Jesus, Pilate would have sat above Jesus and the crowd on a judgment seat like the one pictured here in this excavated smaller praetorium. Judges in America today also commonly sit above their courtroom in a position intended to convey power and authority. But although the religious leaders and crowd demanding that Pilate crucify Jesus believed that Pilate was passing judgment on the stooped figure before and below him, a very different kind of judgment, God's divine judgment to which all present but Jesus were blind, was actually at work. And God's judgment gloriously displayed the extraordinary, other-worldly character of his revealed Son who, rather than lifting himself up on a judgment seat as he had every right and power to do, would instead willingly stoop so low as to suffer death to pay a penalty he did not owe. Have you accepted Jesus's unprecedented payment for your condemned soul? Eternal life is at the foot of Jesus's cross, offered for you.

Praetorium Courtyard

The courtyard in which Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus, now buried far below Old Jerusalem's modern streets, would have looked something like this open-air courtyard of a smaller, excavated Praetorium, except of course that it would have been in perfect repair. Fully armored Roman soldiers would have stood everywhere at attention, ready to guard their governor from rebels hidden among the raucous crowd. The biblical accounts make clear that a crowd packed the courtyard, yelling for the Son of God's death. Purple banners would have festooned the courtyard, emblematic of Caesar's authority that Pilate so cruelly, but in this one case strangely reluctantly, exercised. Pilate knew he was condemning an innocent man. His wife had even warned him that the figure who stood before him was something more than just another innocent man Rome was about to condemn to die. Christians don't make the error of Pilate. We acknowledge Jesus's divinity. We also know Jesus as the one perfectly innocent human, the second Adam through whom we may now live eternally. 

Early Martyr's Tomb

Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity built a church atop the ancient praetorium site pictured above, in the Byzantine period that began three hundreds years after Christ. This photograph is of a tombstone presumably over an ossuary or stone container of the bones of the person whom the tombstone memorializes. The tombstone tells us that the person is Theodosius, not the Saint Theodosius entombed at another Byzantine monastery but perhaps a local Christian martyr who took the saint's name. The menorah on the last line of the inscription, an anomaly to the tombstone's otherwise Christian text, suggests the person's Jewish rather than Gentile heritage. No matter. A young deacon in the period church, the memorialized person had clearly confessed Christ. Will our memorial reflect similar confidence to the loved ones we leave behind?

Shepherds Leading the Flock

Outside the excavation site of the ancient Byzantine church courtyard pictured above, one still today sees shepherds with their flocks of sheep and herds or droves (whichever you prefer) of goats. In that respect, millennia have changed Israel little. Shepherds in Jesus's day, though, were generally boys age twelve and under or sometimes women. Head coverings to ward off cold, heat, and dust, and loosely layered clothing, could make the shepherd's identity hard to tell. In Jesus's day, you wouldn't see many bearded shepherds. By age thirteen, young men had other, more-important things to do. Remember the story of Samuel's anointing of David as Israel's next king. David's father Jesse had first presented his seven older sons for Samuel to anoint one of them. Only after Samuel discerned that the Lord had chosen none of them, did Jesse send for his youngest son David who was out tending the sheep. God can elevate the lowest of the low to the highest position. Are you, like David before and after his anointing, serving humbly where God has placed you?

Mitzpe Ramon

Israel's grand Mitzpe Ramon in Southern Israel's Negev Desert has a crater-like appearance. But a meteor didn't form Mitzpe Ramon. Nor did volcanic activity. Instead, Mitzpe Ramon is an extraordinary example of the erosion cirques or makhtesh landforms unique to the Negev and Sinai Peninsula. These enormously challenging hot, dry, brown, uneven, and waterless lands typified the wilderness through which Moses led the Israelites in their forty years of wandering after the victorious exodus. You've doubtless won nice victories in your life. Did a wilderness experience follow? Victories aren't for the purpose of enjoying the spoils. Victories are instead to point us toward God who deserves their credit and to prepare us for the next great challenge. Where are you in your journey: oppression, fear, flight, battle, victory, respite, or wilderness?

Wadi Routes

The Israelites and other wanderers in the deserts of Sinai and southern Israel traveled along wadis, dry valleys or ravines that filled with water only after rare rains during flooding. The travel was arduous, no stroll through a verdant park. For the Israelites, their dramatic exodus from Egypt was like God's original act of creation. God drew the Israelites out of the Red Sea's chaotic waters, just as in creation God separated the chaotic waters from dry land to draw living beings out of the remaining mud. The Israelites still had to go through a process of forming as a faith community and nation, just as Adam, Eve, and their offspring had to develop humankind's consciousness and culture. Those developmental processes don't happen in paradise. They happen in the desert wadis. Paradise comes later, when the wilderness experience leads us to God.


Timna and its valley are located in southern Israel just north of the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern tip of the Red Sea, where the great Sinai Peninsula and Arabian Peninsula meet. The Israelites' first two difficult years of wandering after the exodus from Egypt took them through this region. In the Timna Valley, pictured here, a narrow wadi widens into a larger area where a lake could form in those rare seasons of rain and flood. Scholars dispute the location of Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments, but tradition and research both suggest that Mount Sinai was likely somewhere near here. The Israelites thus may have first constructed and set up the tabernacle at Timna or a place very near and like Timna, explaining in large part why Timna today offers a tabernacle replica for visitor viewing. Timna seems not a very hospitable place. Yet the Israelites weathered Timna and their other desert locations, forming the grumbling people into a wilderness-hardened people. How's your wilderness testing coming?

Solomon's Pillars

These natural sandstone formations located in the center of the Timna Valley have nothing directly to do with Solomon, although they eventually bore Solomon's name. The porch on the original temple that Solomon constructed in Jerusalem for the Lord God had two enormous copper, bronze, or brass pillars named Boaz and Jachin. These natural stone formations suggest the splendor of Solomon's temple pillars, which were themselves symbols of both the bridge and divide between heaven and earth. Ancient Egyptian copper miners built a temple to Ramses III here at these formations. Whose God do you worship? Who is your bridge from earth to heaven?

Temple of Hathor

Ancient Egyptian copper miners working in Israel's Timna Valley built this small temple to the Egyptian goddess Hathor. Excavated statues and items associate Ramses II, the pharaoh many scholars identify with Moses and the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, with Hathor, the highly sexualized mother or consort of the Egyptian sky god. Temples of Hathor like this one may have been the site of ritual orgies. The Israelites escaping from Egypt would have been familiar with these corrupt practices. After all, look what they did with Aaron's golden calf when Moses was slow in coming back down the mountain. God, though, sets his own apart from the world's excesses. Keep your eyes on Jesus.

Camels at Timna

Camels stand in the foreground of the above ancient excavated sites in Israel's central Timna Valley. The great natural sandstone formations weren't just sand and rock to the Egyptians who mined them. Pagan practice accords spiritual power to natural objects and land formations. To the Egyptian miners who worked these formations, and to other pagans who passed by them, the gods inhabited the lands and their great stones. Yet when Jesus said the stones would cry out in his praise if the religious leaders didn't let his followers do so, he was indicating his authority over everything earthly and spiritual. The Israelites' God, revealed in the person of Jesus, was different than a pagan god. God created the lands and their stones rather than merely inhabiting them. Even the stones would worship God. Are you crying out in God's praise, or are you leaving praise to the stones?

Tabernacle at Timna

The replica tabernacle at Timna gives visitors a sense of the size and design of the habitation God ordained for himself among his wandering Israelite people. The tabernacle was indeed God's home among his people. But a tabernacle is more than a traveling temple. A tabernacle is also a sanctuary for the groom and bride, a place of extraordinary intimacy. Timna is about four weeks travel on foot from the Promised Land where the Israelites would conquer the inhabitants, divide the land, and build and farm their settlements. But before the work of the marriage begins, the groom and bride deserve a honeymoon. The Israelites' wanderings in the desert weren't simply punishment for not trusting in God's prompt conquest of the Promised Land. The Israelites' desert wanderings were also a honeymoon with their intimacy-seeking God. God wants our intimacy above our provision and flourishing. He'll give us both intimacy and blessing, but we should prefer intimacy over blessing.

Inside the Tabernacle

The replica tabernacle at Timna includes representations of some of the interior furnishings, items, and appointments that the Old Testament describes. One can just see the gold-covered ark with its two winged cherubim. The ark would have held the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, a gold jar of manna, and Aaron's budding staff. The gold covering the tabernacle came from the earring and nose ring gifts the Israelites received from the Egyptians as they left in their exodus, that same plunder out of which poor Aaron had made the golden calf. The gold isn't the special thing. The special thing is instead what you do with the gold.

Copper Mines at Timna

These dry, rugged, and rocky lands around the ancient Egyptian copper mines at Timna in the deep desert south of Israel characterize the peninsula wilderness terrain that the Israelites wandered with Moses for forty years. It is thus appropriate to imagine events like Moses casting the stick into the bitter waters at Marah to make those waters sweet, and Moses striking the rock for water to gush forth, as occurring in similarly rugged settings. The Israelites' wilderness trek wasn't easy. Yet God provided. And God provided miraculously with the items at hand, like a chunk of wood and a rock. And the heavily symbolic nature of each miracle was more the message than God's power to provide. The wood of Christ's bitter cross makes the water of life flow sweet. Striking the Rock Christ brings forth gushing waters of life. Only such a dry and rugged land would adequately frame these profoundly symbolic wonders. Glory to God. Glory to Christ.

Cauldron Forms a People

Places like these rugged rock cliffs at Timna deep in Israel's southern desert prove the inhospitable quality of the wilderness through which the Israelites wandered. But the Bible's accounts of those wanderings made crystal clear that the Israelites would not have been ready for the Promised Land without the hard discipline of those wanderings. The Israelite people who emerged from Egypt were not yet a nation, not yet a community. Though slaves in Egypt, they were nonetheless soft, spoiled by Egypt's relative plenty. Unity around common beliefs, in the face of a common and formidable foe, is what forms and identifies a community. The Israelites emerged from their rugged wanderings as a disciplined and organized community, ready to prevail in fierce battle. What's the nature of your community?

Desert Wilderness Settlements

As one moves north from the Negev wilderness where the Israelites wandered so long and with such difficulty, one enters Israel's southern desert wilderness. The Israelites didn't wander these lands, which are instead the location of some of the earliest patriarchal accounts. Abraham, for one, lived at Beersheba in this southern wilderness, around which he sent his mistress Hagar and child Ishmael to wander. Israel much later built and occupied significant cities in its southern desert wilderness, one settlement and wall on top of another, until the cities were atop great settlement mounds. Under the particular wall pictured here, one would find earlier walls built in the reigns, going backward in time, of Josiah, Hezekiah, Ahaz, Aseph, and Solomon. The Bible's many accounts together represent an extraordinarily long and rich history, sunk extraordinarily deep into Israel's extraordinarily beautiful lands. Soak in that history. If you follow Christ, that history is yours.

Desert Wilderness Temples

Archaeologists digging in the city mounds of the desert wilderness in Israel's south find evidence of temples. These temples were not in scale like the great temple at Jerusalem. But they had similar layouts and functions. They had a sanctuary, holy of holies, courtyard, and sheep's gate and altar for sacrifices. God's design for the tabernacle and, later, temple, differed from tabernacle and temple designs of surrounding peoples. God was setting his people apart. Each particular of his design had its function and symbolism. But the fact that the overall design was so distinct was also important. The Israelites needed to identify as belonging to God alone. They were not to mix their faith with the religions and religious practices of other people. Archaeologists found not a single pagan artifact at this wilderness temple site, when such artifacts littered other grounds. Are you set apart for God?

Holy of Holies

See pictured here the holy of holies, the innermost sanctuary, in this small temple excavated in Israel's southern desert wilderness. Priests regularly occupied the innermost sanctuaries of pagan temples and religious sites. Not in an Israelite temple. God alone occupied the holy of holies in an Israelite temple. Priests might enter once a year or on a similarly rare occasion, and then only at their peril. An unclean person entering or even peeking into the holy of holies could mean an instant death sentence, the offender struck down by the hand of God. Archaeological excavations are great teachers. And God no longer occupies a constructed temple, having moved the intersection of heaven and earth to the body temple of the Christ believer. But should we nonetheless shudder at least a little to look upon a former holy of holies? 

Camels near Beersheba

Settlements with their goats, sheep, and camel still dot the barren landscape of Israel's southern desert near Beersheba. Bedouins worshipping another god inhabit these southern desert settlements today. Those Bedouins show great hospitality to visitors, just as long ago, Israel's patriarch Abraham showed great hospitality to three visiting angels in the plains of Mamre north of Beersheba. Would you show hospitality to three strangers passing through your community? If you did, you might serve angels unaware. You might also, like Abraham, receive a blessing on your family.


Masada lies at the southern end of the Dead Sea near Israel's southwestern border with Jordan. Masada has two great significances. First, Masada was one of a half dozen great fortresses Herod built in the last few decades leading up to Christ's advent. In that sense, Masada symbolizes the defiance, even arrogance, of a tyrant whose hand-wrought works would seek to dominate and dwarf nature. But Masada had a second chapter. After Herod died, Jewish rebels eventually took over the abandoned Masada. Forty years after Jesus's death and resurrection, Rome destroyed the second great temple at Jerusalem. All that was left was to retake Masada, which the Romans did about three years after Jerusalem's fall. Sadly, Rome used Jewish slaves to build siege works to retake Masada. Tradition holds that Masada's Jews committed mass suicide rather than die at the hands of Roman soldiers. Fanaticism over earthly kingdoms is no solution. Keep your eyes on Jesus's kingdom of heaven.

Fortress Network

Masada was part of a strategic network of fortresses that Herod built to ensure his ability to escape any enemy, internal or external. Herod had a Nabatean father, from that strange desert canyon people who controlled the spice routes, reaping fabulous wealth. Herod knew how to wring wealth from others including the rebellious Jews he governed. But Herod was also infamously insecure about his power. Hence, his order to kill all the children when the Magi snuck away and Herod's soldiers could not find and kill the infant Messiah Jesus. Herod was brutally evil and utterly consumed with his own protection and promotion. By contrast, the Messiah he sought to extinguish was perfectly good and devoted to give everything he had to rescue others. One lived only for himself. The other lived, died, and rose for others. Little wonder that God would choose such contrasts to reveal the divine nature of his Son. 

Synagogue atop Masada

Atop Masada lies an ancient synagogue, one of the three oldest excavated synagogues in the world. You can see the gallery benches on the right, which would fill for the ceremonial reading of scripture and for community meetings. Though ostensibly a Jew, king Herod built no such synagogue atop his fortress Masada. Instead, the Jewish rebels who took the abandoned fortress around the year 50 A.D. and held it for more than two decades before their destruction, turned what might have been a large stable into their synagogue. Archaeologists found scripture fragments under the floor of a small room the Jews closed off in an adjacent hallway, including from the scroll of Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones. One finds the word of God at work in mysterious ways in strange places.

Masada's Comforts

Herod wasn't roughing it when staying at his Masada fortress well south of his Jerusalem home. The fortress included health-club-like amenities for the king who kept himself in shape like an Olympic athlete. Slaves trekked wood up the mountain so that Herod could enjoy cold, warm, and hot baths. Masada's walls were whitewashed so that they gleamed in the sun. Its floors were richly patterned mosaics. Masada also had an incredibly elaborate system to get large quantities of food and water to the fortress. Masada had storerooms for enough food to keep 10,000 soldiers alive for a decade. Yet despite the wealth, security, and comfort, what line and legacy did Herod leave? Nothing. Nothing but to serve as the most evil and tyrannical contrast to the servant King of kings Jesus. 

En Gedi Oasis

As a deer pants for water, so our souls pant for God. David used such desert images when he wrote psalms of his desire for God. Desert images came naturally to David and the Israelites who heard, read, and preserved the Psalms. David spent years hiding in Israel's southern desert wilderness. He must often have thirsted for water, although somehow he exhibited an even greater thirst for God. In the desert, the slightest bit of greenery, like a spare palm or two along with some bushes or shrubs, meant water. And so, the Christian looks for God among the slight signs of hope, possibility, comfort, and recovery. Seeing God may take a figurative eagle eye, desert guide's sense of scent, or some equally finely tuned spiritual discernment. Yet that's the nature of our God, desiring that we turn toward him and pursue him with a thirst that only he can satisfy.

En Gedi Canyons

The caves and canyons in which David hid as he fled king Saul and awaited his eventual ascension to Israel's throne, were incredibly difficult to navigate. Their inaccessibility is what made them such good hiding places. These canyon caves at En Gedi well south of Jerusalem, near Masada west of the Dead Sea, are good examples. David may have hid in these very caves but surely hid in caves much like them. In one of his psalms, David wrote that God made his feet like the feet of a deer to set secure on the heights. Indeed. It would take a fully grown and strong male deer, a hart, to reach some of these secure hiding places. In the same psalm, David called God his refuge. We may at times flee and hide from enemies, whether adversaries or temptations. But even when doing so, God, not the car, closet, bottle, or drug, is our refuge. 

En Gedi Wildlife

Bible writers filled the scriptures with animals, drawing on their physical characteristics and practical habits to illustrate stories and principles, as David did in his psalm of the cliff-dwelling deer. As harsh as Israel's southern desert wilderness was and is, some wildlife thrives there. The pictured rock rabbit, hare, coney, badger, or hyrax is one of those animals. Proverbs admits that the rock rabbit isn't mighty yet makes itself a good home in En Gedi's harsh environment and steep cliffs. Proverbs point surely has to do with adaptation over might, subtle adjustment over dominating power. The victory doesn't necessarily go to the strongest or even the swiftest, nor to the ones born into paradise. Thriving where God puts you brings victory, even if you are weak, and even if you find yourself in a seemingly inhospitable environment. You could be happily at home with the right adaptation.

En Gedi Springs

Hundreds of springs contribute to the exquisite waterfall, known as the David waterfall, at En Gedi, which means spring or fountain of the goat kid. David must indeed have often slaked his thirst and the thirst of his men at these waters of En Gedi. En Gedi's waters are not seasonal but continuous. Rains falling many miles away run deep into the region's limestone, emerging at En Gedi as finely filtered water. Amazing that God can nourish in the desert wilderness. Indeed, the wilderness is where God reaches us with his nourishment, the sustenance of his presence. David must have grown so much closer to God in his years of wilderness hiding, until all the riches of the world couldn't keep David's heart from its pursuit of his Lord. If you are in the wilderness, don't be too quick to beg your way out of it. God may want you for himself for a time.

En Gedi Waterfall

Jesus brought living water wherever he ministered, as Jesus gives us living water today. Imagine how David and his men must have longed to return to En Gedi's waters, whenever they were fleeing from Saul and his overwhelming forces. Imagine how replenishing a few days back at En Gedi must have been for David and his men. But En Gedi needn't be a few minutes or days of respite at your favorite hideaway. Jesus meant for us to immerse ourselves daily, continually, in the living water he offers. Small En Gedis are fine, quite welcome. But we seek a continual outpouring of Christ's power and love through his continual presence. We want to stand under the waterfall of En Gedi no matter our circumstance. And that's the promise we receive as Jesus pours out his Spirit.

Mount Nebo

Mount Nebo, an impressive 11,000-foot mountain due west of where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, carries a great deal of biblical significance. Moses saw a small part of the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo just before his death. What an incredibly poignant moment that must have been, after Moses had led the Israelites' desert wandering for forty years. The Apocrypha records that Jeremiah hid the tabernacle and ark of the covenant at Mount Nebo. Mount Nebo may also have been where Jesus faced his wilderness temptation immediately after his baptism. A Christian church from the Byzantine era now sits atop Mount Nebo. But caves excavated there revealed Jewish writings from near the time of Jesus, thousands of bronze artifacts, and Canaanite ruins dating to more than a thousand years before Christ. Can you see the Promised Land from the mountaintop of your wanderings?

Canaanite Temple

Thirty-five hundred years ago, or fifteen-hundred years before Christ, Mount Nebo was home to this Canaanite temple. The temple's ruins include a gate, two chambers, and this broad room. Mount Nebo overlooks five ancient city sites including Sodom and Gomorrah. Although a distance from those two infamous ancient cities, Mount Nebo's ancient Canaanite temple could have been where the devilishly corrupt people of Sodom and Gomorrah worshiped. Archaeologists excavating the temple grounds concluded that the last occupants disappeared in a rush, food still in bowls. Could they have seen the fire and brimstone falling on their Sodom and Gomorrah homes? The evil of Sodom and Gomorrah was more than their sexual perversions. The Canaanites were also not caring for the poor or hospitable to the stranger. All was power, abuse, oppression, and injustice, for their own pleasure. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in righteous judgment. Do our cities today need to turn again toward God's righteousness?

Sodom's Waters

Abraham's nephew Lot had a choice to make, like we have a choice to make. Where would Lot pitch his tent? Where would Lot make his home? Lot chose the well-watered plain near the notoriously corrupt Sodom. Abraham went the other way, to the hills. Although Lot was not corrupt after the manner of the Sodomites, Lot nonetheless followed what his eye could see and, in a sense, what his flesh desired. He went after the visible water and its lush gardens. Lot didn't mind living surrounded by deadly corruption, at least not enough to find a more-secure home. If Abraham hadn't interceded with God for Lot and Lot's family, they would likely have been part of Sodom and Gomorrah's terrible destruction. Do you, like Abraham, have a heart for the rescue of those surrounded and entrapped by corruption? Abraham had Jesus's heart. Jesus came to die for the sinner and lost, those who have pitched their tent too close to Sodom.

Ancient Synagogue

Famous late 20th-century Jewish archaeologist Yitzhak Hirschfeld excavated this ancient synagogue located in the Judaean desert region between Jerusalem to the west and the Dead Sea to the east. This synagogue was in use right around Jesus's earthly ministry and perhaps a little earlier. Synagogues also had a Moses seat and chief seats, visible in the background, plus a scripture-reading place, ceremonial bath, ark, and school. Notice the exquisite mosaic floors, which in this case included an oath not to reveal secrets of producing the spice balsam. Herod had made a fortune out of balsam production and trade, selling it deceptively for aphrodisiac properties it did not in fact have. Jews sometimes shared in that wealth and trade, perhaps even the women who supported Jesus out of their means. God can turn anything, even ill-gotten wealth, for good.

Hidden Waterfall

The Judaean desert has its secrets. This refreshing waterfall and pool hides deep in an otherwise obscure-looking canyon. Desert guides would have brought wandering Israelites to these life-giving places. Jewish rabbis would have invited their students, and, much later, Christian converts would have invited their disciples, to these life-giving places. Would you follow your spiritual guide across  challenging terrain and into a barren-looking canyon? If you are not willing to follow a guide and face the challenges, then you won't reach the life-giving waters hidden in the difficult to find and difficult to reach places. Life-giving water may not come from the tap. Life-giving water may only flow from a mountainside or deepest canyon. Remember Jesus asking his closest disciples whether they, too, wanted to leave him because following him could be hard? 

Rocky Path

Many of the Bible's accounts involve travel, movement, usually on foot and often across difficult terrain. Abraham traversed the entire region at God's call. Moses fled to the desert for decades before leading the Jews in exodus for decades more. Elijah ran down the mountain and into the wilderness, ending up in a mountainside cave. Jesus and his disciples were constantly on the move across plains, up and down mountains, and across bodies of water. Even the road to Emmaus, where two disciples walked with the resurrected Christ, was no smooth asphalt path. God's path for each of us isn't the broad and smooth highway down which so many others travel. God's path for many of us is a rocky path in part because, the apostle Paul tells us, God weighs glory not in ease but in affliction. Sometimes, for some of us, the harder the path, the greater the glory. Are you following God down the path he has for you?

Living Waters

The waters of the Jordan River and other streams and creeks east of Jerusalem in the Judaean desert flow down into the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is dead, so salty that fish cannot survive in it, not because it lacks fresh waters but because it lacks an outlet. The Dead Sea's symbolism is rich: water must flow to carry life. When Jesus spoke of his living water, the people he addressed understood. Water must move, or drinking it could bring death rather than life. The Jordan River where John baptized Jesus was flowing, living water. But Jesus would be the one to give all the living, flowing water of eternal life. The Jews of the Old Testament used water from a bath to symbolize ritual cleansing. The Christians of the New Testament would use flowing water to symbolize the eternal life one lives, having received Christ's living and active Holy Spirit. Are you flowing with the living water of Jesus Christ?

Qumran Scriptorium

Qumran is the famous archaeological site northwest of the Dead Sea shore, for the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. The scrolls dated from the third century before Christ to around thirty years after Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. The scrolls and fragments represent every one of the Hebrew Bible's thirty-nine books except for Esther. They also include apocryphal and sectarian material, totaling around one-thousand different compositions. This scribes' room, or scriptorium, included a large table and two ink wells, one bronze and the other clay, suggesting the local production of at least some of those many scroll compositions. The mystic Jewish Essenes occupying these sites were highly literary in their interests. Are you, too, a student of the Bible and your era's other literature?

Qumran Refectory

This Qumran refectory, or communal eating room, is the largest room at the excavated site. One of the community rules recovered from the site said that they must eat, bless, and deliberate in common. Hence the large dining hall, also the site of earnest discussions. Jesus would have had the Last Supper in a communal dining room perhaps somewhat like this one. Indeed, a hint in the text suggests that an Essene owned the room the disciples borrowed. Unusual for the time, Essene men carried water in Jerusalem's Essene quarter because of the absence in that quarter of women. Jesus reclined on his elbow on the floor at the Last Supper, as Essene men here at Qumran would have reclined in this room. Eat, talk, and deliberate to agreement. Break bread together.

Qumran Caves

Many know the story of Bedouin shepherds' mid-twentieth century discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in Qumran's cliffside caves. Essenes preparing against the attack of Roman soldiers in 68 A.D. hid their precious scrolls in clay jars in these cliffs, where they remained for more than two millennia. Predating Christ's advent by up to a couple hundred years, the scrolls are among the oldest Hebrew Bible partial manuscripts. But only about forty percent of the scrolls are Hebrew Bible text. Another thirty percent is Jewish Second Temple period literature, what the New Testament authors would also have known and read. The New Testament writers even referenced Second Temple literature on a couple of occasions. The Dead Sea scrolls thus have enormous value for the study of both the Old and New Testaments. We owe much to Bible scholars.

Qumran Reliquary

Notice the broken clay jars in this Qumran exhibit cave. Ancient Jews treated their Hebrew Bible scrolls with extraordinary veneration, both in their ceremonial reading and in the storage care. The practice of storing scrolls and worn-out scroll fragments in clay jars or stone containers, and hiding or burying them where others would not discover them, wasn't just a peculiar Essene practice anticipating the oncoming Roman soldiers. Jews might have done so throughout the region, with any old or worn-out scroll, even when they weren't anticipating their conquering. For Jews, scrolls of scripture were akin to the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, ensconced in the ark of the covenant. The Torah scrolls were a central, if not the central, symbol or icon of worship. How do you venerate God's word?

Qumran Cliffs

Qumran's barely accessible cliffs made a good hideaway for the Essenes' clay jars filled with scrolls. The invading Roman soldiers didn't discover them there. Nor did other conquerors, treasure hunters, or desert shepherds and guides, for nearly two-thousand years. Reaching any of the caves is difficult. Some are barely accessible at all. And who would even want to go there, unless one knew of the religious treasure deep inside? In a city synagogue, Jews might keep their Hebrew Bible scrolls in beautiful gold and silver containers inside a secure reliquary cabinet from which the priest could remove the scroll for ceremonial reading. But even in the most humble environment of an ancient mystic sect, the keepers of the scriptures found a way to preserve them for transmission to distant generations. Veneration, indeed. The scriptures are worth far more than gold.

The Whole of Qumran

Despite the mythic proportions the story of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran have duly reached, the whole of Qumran isn't all that much. This picture depicts the full extent of it. Who would have thought much, if anything, of a few barren cliffs along a dusty wash on the way to the inglorious Dead Sea. The region is one of the lowest, hottest, driest, and most formidable in the world. Yet the Essene sect that kept the scrolls voluntarily made this site their home. They need not have done so. The Essenes were the upper crust of Jerusalem society, the figurative one percent of their day. They settled here not out of poverty or persecution but instead to keep to themselves, so that they could draw closer to God through the scriptures. They may have been erring in their insights and practices, as most of us are. But no one could doubt their passion. Do you share their passion?

Qumran Cave

Archaeologists and scholars number each Qumran cave from which archaeologists recovered each Dead Sea scroll or fragment of scroll. One cannot underestimate the significance to scholars of the period the Dead Sea scrolls covered, the last couple of centuries leading to Christ's advent, Christ's earthly ministry, and the next few decades afterward. To understand more of who was reading, copying, and preserving the Hebrew Bible and associated apocryphal texts in this period is to know more of how the New Testament authors and figures heard and understood Jesus Christ. The discovery of desert wilderness community scriptures, rules, and secular documents goes even further in expanding our understanding of the historical, cultural, literary, and cosmological context into which he sent his long-awaited Son. Thank God for the Dead Sea scrolls, and thank God for his Son.

Mount of Olives

When reading of Christ's travails in the storied Garden of Gethsemane atop the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, some may think of the Mount of Olives as a quaint little grove on a hill. To the contrary, the Mount of Olives is a landmark ridge travelers could see from afar as they approached Jerusalem from the Jordan River valley, Judaean desert, and Dead Sea region. To Jews heading for Jerusalem festivals, including those traveling down from Galilee like Mary and Joseph with the boy Jesus, the Mount of Olives meant the first welcome sight of Jerusalem's environs. Many would travel days through dry hills and around mountain canyons, to finally reach the city home of their glorious temple. Jesus expressed a very different emotion, weeping in grief over the city, when approaching Jerusalem for the last time. We, too, are travelers along dusty roads, drawing ever nearer to heaven.


Bethany, the home of Jesus's friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and the setting for Jesus's raising of Lazarus, lies on the long southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, at the beginning of the road northeast to Jericho. Bethany's location alone makes it a natural stopover for travelers out of Jerusalem headed east toward the Dead Sea and northeast to the Jordan River valley. It nonetheless lies close enough to Jerusalem, just over the Mount of Olives, to be a good sort of retreat and staging grounds for those with serious Jerusalem business. Perhaps that's why in part Jesus found such respite at the Bethany home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Bethany, though, is no resort town or paradise garden. Its name, Bethany, belies its humble nature. Bethany bears the translation of town of affliction, town of poverty, or more charitably town of dates, the perfect place to find the humble Lord Jesus.

Fields of Benjamin

The lands of Israel's Benjamin tribe stretch from the Jordan River west through Jericho and Jerusalem and beyond. Benjamin was a small tribe with a relatively small allotment of land, except that land included key areas around Jerusalem. Naomi and her husband would have traveled from their Bethlehem home in Judah, through Benjamin's lands to Moab, just as Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth would have traveled back through Benjamin to Bethlehem, where Ruth met and married the Judahite Boaz. Boaz's men may have farmed Benjamin's hardscrabble fields, pictured here, laying so near Bethlehem. Picture Ruth gleaning behind Boaz's men as they harvested. Farming in that day wasn't for money as much as for food. Naomi and Ruth needed to eat, and Boaz knew it. Families used other means, like pottery and leatherworks, carpentry, masonry, and tentmaking, for an income. And so, Jesus is our bread of life, our necessary provision. 

Bedouin Shepherds

Much of Benjamin's lands east of and around Jerusalem are indeed meager lands for farming, even for raising livestock like cattle. The dry season is too long, rainy season too short, and soil too hilly and rocky. Those lands aren't quite a desert wilderness like Israel's south and east, but they also aren't the lush farmlands of Israel's west and north. Today, the sheep and goats of Bedouin herders, whose tents we see pictured here, descend from the highlands to eat whatever remains of the lowland harvests. The advent account of the shepherds watching flocks at night would have made perfect sense to the Jews of Jesus's day, as it might still resonate with residents of the area around Jerusalem today. The angels whom God sent to announce the birth of his Son chose the most humble servants to receive those incredibly glad tidings. The good news of Jesus reaches the humble heart.

Hill Country Around Bethel

Not far north of Jerusalem lies the hill country of Samaria, between the fertile coastland of the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the fertile Jordan River valley to the east. The ancient Bible location of Bethel, where Jacob dreamed of the ladder with angels going up and down, is in that Samarian hill country. The Israelites kept the tabernacle with the ark of the covenant in this hill country until Solomon built Jerusalem's great temple. And Jesus encountered the woman at the well in this Samaritan hill country, where devout Jews would have avoided all contact with the purportedly ungodly residents. In a sense, the Samaritan hill country was a sort of transitional area for the Jews, one through which they might pass going back and forth from Galilee to Jerusalem or other destinations. Transitions, though, can be important, as the experience of Jacob, the presence of the tabernacle, and the actions of Jesus in the Samaritan hill country proved. 

Mount Arbel

Mount Arbel is the most distinct land feature around the Sea of Galilee. It lies due west right along the shoreline at the widest point of the Sea of Galilee. Mount Arbel is high enough to see Mount Hermon well to the north, across the Golan Heights. The cliffs of Mount Arbel are also steep and inaccessible enough that rebels seeking to resist or overthrow Greek forces, and later Roman forces, would hide in caves cut in the cliffs. In the second decade after Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, Roman forces let soldiers down the cliffs to set fires at the mouths of the caves to smoke out Jewish rebels and their hidden families. Those Jews died a horrible death, indicative of the violent times in which Jesus taught, preached, and healed. Today, as then, Mount Arbel is a spectacular place from which to survey the Sea of Galilee and its biblical sites and cities.

Galilee Region

The north end of the Sea of Galilee, here viewed from atop Mount Arbel, is a beautiful farming region. But the Galilee region to which Mary and Joseph returned with Jesus after their sojourn in Egypt wasn't the largely peaceful land it is today. Political violence and sectarian divide haunted the ancient northern Galilee towns of Nazareth, Cana, Magdala, Capernaum, Magadan, and Gennesaret, where Jesus grew up and shared so much of his teaching and ministry. The Jews returning from their Babylonian exile had intended to make the region their special home. But strict Pharisees promptly divided from rebellious Zealots in how to get along with their oppressive Greek overlords. Horrible violence and torture against the Zealots and their families, who used the northern Galilee region as their home hideaway, continued under the Greeks' Roman successors. Jesus thus taught and ministered in a region fraught with political and religious tensions. Christian witnesses today , also facing political and religious divisions, take heart from Jesus's boldness.

Tiberias Plain

Herod Antipas built a palace and grounds on this site along the Sea of Galilee's western shore, right around the time of the beginning of Jesus's public ministry. Herod named the city Tiberias to gain his emperor's favor. A modern city at the north end of the plain still bears that name. To some, especially Romans, the Sea of Galilee bore the name the Sea of Tiberias. John's gospel mentions that fact and that Jesus once departed in boats across the Sea from this city plain. Herod offered the Jews land for housing around his new palace, but the Jews were reluctant to accept the offer, in part because the plain may have been the site of an ancient Israelite burial ground. Only poorer Jews, foreigners, and recent slaves accepted his offer, giving the city an unfavorable reputation. Jesus's disciples, at least, might have preferred not to have anything to do with the place, another indication of the challenges Jesus's extraordinary ministry faced.


Ancient Capernaum was near the Sea of Galilee's northwest shore, likely where you can just see the small white church at the picture's top center. Capernaum, of course, was Jesus's second home, after the religious officials chased him out of his hometown Nazareth. In a sense, Jesus chose Capernaum as the seat for his public ministry, giving Capernaum a special place in the heart of Christ followers, even though his ministry moved all over the region. Capernaum wasn't just a sleepy small town. It was instead a customs center, soldiers' garrison, and regional administrative center. It would have had a bustling life with people regularly moving through the town. Perhaps those characteristics are why Jesus chose to make it his adopted home for the brief three years of Jesus's public ministry. Does your heart have a special place as Jesus's home?

Climbing Mount Arbel

Jesus prayed for his disciples atop Mount Arbel, spending the night there in prayer. To a Jewish rabbi, prayer didn't simply mean an appeal to God. Prayer also meant worship. For Jesus to spend the night in prayer for his disciples atop Mount Arbel meant he worshiped all night after climbing the mountain. The symbolism of climbing a mountain to meet God goes back to Moses at Mount Sinai. Indeed, Adam and Eve communed with God in the mountaintop paradise garden Eden. Climbing a mountain takes effort, worthwhile when the object is to isolate oneself to pray and worship God. Jesus could have spoken to his Father from anywhere and at anytime. But he chose to climb Mount Arbel to spend the night in prayer for his disciples, worshiping his Father at the same time. Make the effort. Set yourself apart for prayer and worship. And pray for those who will carry God's word into the next generations.

Chorazin Synagogue

The ancient city of Chorazin was at the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This photo is of the excavated remains of a synagogue located there. These remains show the necessary elements of an ancient synagogue including the basilica meeting hall, ceremonial mikvah bath, synagogue leader's Moses seat, chief seats, and Torah closet. The natural black basalt of the area, out of which workers carved the stones for the construction, gives the ruins a striking appearance. Jesus would not have worshiped at this particular synagogue, which Jews rebuilt in the third and fourth centuries, well after his resurrection. But Jesus certainly ministered in Chorazin, which along with Capernaum and Bethsaida, formed the special triangle of cities within which Jesus performed many of his miracles and held much of his teaching. Yet Chorazin was also among the cities Jesus condemned for their lack of faith in his teachings and their unwillingness to repent. Romans expelled Jews from the area a century later. Earthquake or other cataclysm later destroyed Chorazin. Accept the teachings of Jesus and repent. Don't lead a life that ends in ruins.

Synagogue Basilica

Every synagogue needs a basilica, a covered space for the congregants to gather, read the Torah, and worship. Covering the basilica of a larger synagogue required vertical posts or columns and  horizontal lintels like the ones pictured here, although these columns and lintels carved from the local black basalt with ornate decoration are more elaborate than the simpler structures smaller communities would support. This synagogue in Chorazin, with its large and beautiful basilica, stood elevated in the city's center, appropriate to the priority given the faith. A broad staircase invited worshipers under the synagogue's elaborate facade and into the basilica. Imagine gathering here, or in the still-more-ancient synagogue underneath these ruins, in the time of Jesus's earthly ministry, to hear God's word.

Moses Seat

The Moses seat within the basilica is a necessary element of a synagogue. The judges, scribes, and priests who exercised authority within a Jewish community must have a place of authority from which to speak. Jesus himself referred to the scribes, or teachers of the law, and Pharisees, or priests, who sit in the Moses seat, warning against their hypocrisy, to do what they say, not what they do. The Moses seat at Chorazin's ancient synagogue was unusual in that builders had carved it from a single piece of black basalt. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem has the original Moses seat excavated at Chorazin, leaving the site with the pictured replica. Who sits in your Moses seat? And are you doing as they say or as they do? Christ, the apostle Paul, and others in scripture warn often against false teachers and teaching. Make sure of your own integrity and adherence to God's word, while watching out that you follow others who share that integrity.

Synagogue Bimah

Jews in Jesus's time read scripture publicly in the basilica of the synagogue. Silent reading of scripture there or at home, or silent reading of other texts, would have been an anomaly. Ancient people read out loud much more so than silently. Notice the raised stone platform in the middle of Chorazin's ancient basilica. The priest would remove the Torah from its closet and bring it to the synagogue member standing on this raised platform, or bimah, for scrupulous public reading, without error. The Galilean Jews of Jesus's day venerated the Torah in a way that we can hardly imagine. Do you value scripture as the Galilean Jews did? Moreover, do you treasure Jesus as God's Word become flesh? 

Capernaum Harbor

This ancient harbor at Capernaum is one of several that dot the Sea of Galilee's northwest shoreline. Jesus fed the five thousand and performed other miracles at or near this spot. Capernaum's harbor may have been the largest on Galilee's shores. That doesn't mean it was large by today's standards. The Sea of Galilee may have employed as few as forty fishermen. And the Jews, including Galilean Jews, were not sea people. Jews were a desert people who welcomed a little sustenance from this unusual inland sea. To the Jew, the sea meant invading Roman soldiers, storms, and chaos, not pleasure or recreation. Yet Jesus chose five fishermen among his twelve disciples. And Jesus calmed the storm and walked on this Sea of Galilee, showing his mastery over nature's chaos. Are you willing to walk with Jesus across chaos waters?

Capernaum Shore

This field just above the harbor along Capernaum's Sea of Galilee shore may be where Jesus fed the five thousand men and many more women and children. This field may also have been the spot where Jesus healed the woman of her bleeding and healed a leper. The field likely looked then much as it does now. It shows no particular sign of hospitality, and yet Jesus drew enough from a couple fish and few loaves to feed the entire crowd, in orderly groups of fifty. Jesus was teaching his disciples how to group, organize, and serve, even as he brought forth this extraordinary miracle. Jesus then sent the disciples out on the Sea while he walked up the mount to pray, before returning to his disciples by walking across the turbulent waters. Now, that's a lesson in leadership. Teach, feed, organize, serve, pray, trust, and walk out on those waters.


The region around this camel-shaped hill on the Golan Heights bears the name Gamla, which is camel in Aramaic. Jews settled Gamla in the first century before Christ. Gamla was an important city in the times around Christ's advent, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Jews who settled Gamla, on a key route north and east of the Sea of Galilee, joined the revolt against Rome in the decades immediately after Christ. The Roman historian Josephus, a Jew but also Rome's commander in Galilee, records that Roman general Vespasian led the siege against Gamla, finally successful in 67 A.D. in a second attempt. Roman soldiers brutally slaughtered the thousands of Jews inside fortified Gamla, all those who didn't jump to their own deaths off Gamla's cliffs. No one has rebuilt Gamla since then. Gamla was then, and remains today, a prime route north and east away from the Sea of Galilee and its evangelical triangle of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin. Can you distinguish kingdoms of earth from the kingdom of God, to pick the right battles?

Gamla's Walls

The walls of Gamla, pictured here, form the backdrop for an interesting account involving the Roman historian Josephus. Josephus was a brilliant Jewish commander in the rebellious Galilee region. He led the Jewish rout of Roman forces led by the general Vespasian. Vespasian, though, turned the tables on Josephus in a subsequent battle, capturing Josephus and killing his Jewish forces. Josephus talked his way out of his death by complimenting Vespasian, whose name Josephus took as an adopted son. In his prior service as Jewish commander, Josephus had helped to fund the building of Gamla's walls. Now in the attacking Vespasian's devoted service, the traitor Josephus may have helped Vespasian's troops break through those walls. Josephus's famous secular histories mentioned the Messiah Jesus twice and the Baptist John once, making them remarkable confirmations of the historicity of the gospel events. But we know the gospel to be true.

Gamla Synagogue

Gamla's synagogue, excavated remains pictured here, is the second oldest known synagogue site in the world. A slightly older site in Jericho dates to around 100 B.C. A slightly newer site, the third oldest known site built not long after this site at Gamla, is at Masada. The synagogue proper is a relatively newer phenomenon in ancient Israelite history. The synagogue first came into clear usage during the Israelite's Babylonian captivity as a place of common study. When returning exiles settled the northern Galilee region, they brought the synagogue custom with them. Remember from the New Testament scriptures that Jesus taught in all the synagogues throughout this region. Although Gamla lies northeast of Jesus's Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin evangelical triangle, he may yet have taught here at Gamla in this synagogue. Just imagine.

Gamla Mikvah

A young pastor Marshall stands at the bottom of this ceremonial bath, or mikvah, at the excavated ruins of Gamla's ancient synagogue. You can just see the steps down into the mikvah at the photograph's bottom, up which the hatted woman walks. The mikvah only came into use around the beginning of the first century before Christ, making this mikvah at Gamla among the first. A mikvah immersion wasn't a baptism related to conversion. Jewish men would instead seek the mikvah's immersion as a ritual cleansing after becoming impure by, for instance, handling the dead. Similarly, Jewish women would ritually immerse after a menstrual cycle, marking the passing of potential life. But ritual mikvah cleansing, or sprinkling, of the hands, heart, head, and feet would be common at a synagogue's entrance and in other locations, signaling pure thoughts, desires, actions, and paths. How are your hands, heart, head, and feet doing?

Gamla Torah Closet

Gamla's ancient excavated synagogue includes a distinct Torah closet built into the hillside wall of the synagogue's basilica. The Torah closet would have had doors to conceal the scroll containers inside. Synagogue layouts typically had the Torah closet face Jerusalem. This Torah closet at Gamla did not face Jerusalem perhaps because of its unusual location cut into a relatively steep hillside or perhaps because at its very early date, the tradition had not yet gained its full influence. The Torah closet relates to the ark of the covenant, a sacred place to keep God's word. Today, with Jesus's sacrifice having torn the veil between us and the holy of holies, God's word now resides in our heart. Have you hidden God's word in your heart?

Caesarea Philippi

The shrine or temple to the Greek god Pan, at Caesarea Philippi in the Golan well north of the Sea of Galilee, is among the most notorious of ancient pagan religious sites. Ritual orgies and other sexual perversions honored the site's fertility god. The site is in the foothills of Mount Hermon, meaning sacred mountain, among the world's oldest of pagan mountaintop worship sites. Caesarea Philippi was more than just another pagan worship site. Many thousands of pagan worshipers traveled far in pilgrimage to see the many sacrifices and animal sexual rites, and participate accordingly. Caesarea Philippi lies at the northern end of the Israelites' conquests. That Jesus brought his disciples to Caesarea Philippi must have shocked them, like taking Bible students to the red light district. But Jesus had a lesson to teach the disciples. 

Confession above Caesarea Philippi

This photograph of the temple of Pan and its large cave opening is from an overlooking hill where Jesus and his disciples might have stood, while Jesus taught them why he brought them here. Standing near the temple if not exactly here, Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Peter boldly acknowledged Jesus there as the Son of the living God. Jesus made just as bold of a response, proclaiming that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church. Pagans knew the site's large cave opening and the dark waters inside as the gates to the underworld where their fertility gods lurked. Jesus was proclaiming his power over that underworld and all perverse spiritual entities. Jesus was also investing his church with his own unparalleled power. Do you recognize the power of Christ's church?

Temple of Augustus

Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus's responsive proclamation of his church's power, came not just in sight of the sordid temple of Pan but also one of three great temples Herod built for Augustus Caesar. Augustus had given Herod the territory north of the Sea of Galilee right up through Caesarea Philippi. Not wanting to lose his Roman benefactor's favor, Herod built Augustus great temples here and two other locations. The huge size of the column bases, pictured here, suggested the magnificence of Herod's constructions. This great temple, built at enormous human cost, also evidences Herod's brutality toward any person or people who might challenge Caesar's rule or Herod's authority. Jesus, though, came as a very different kind of ruler, one immeasurably greater but also immeasurably more humble.

Jordan River Headwaters

The Jordan River, in the lower part of which John baptized Jesus, has its headwaters in various regions, one of which is down from Mount Hermon well north of the Sea of Galilee. Those headwaters gradually expand in width and water volume, until they begin to become a barrier of sorts. Crossing rivers could be hazardous to livestock, children, and even adults. It still is. The Bible has several water-crossing stories, the Red Sea, Sea of Galilee, and Jordan River among them. The Bible also has accounts of river baptisms. One of the lessons those accounts urge is that at times, one must trust God, and walk in, jump in, or dive in. This photograph pictures pastor Marshall and his wife Tammy, both of whom have gladly walked right in. Get your feet wet. Jesus is waiting.

Mustard Tree

One sees a lot of mustard trees in Israel, like this one in the Golan north of the Sea of Galilee. Mustard trees are ubiquitous not because people plant and tend them but because they grow like weeds. Cut one down, and nine more grow back. Once you plant a mustard tree in your garden, which no sensible farmer would do, you'll never get rid of it. Yet the mustard tree's tenacious tendency, and its nearly microscopically small seed, is why Jesus analogized it to the kingdom of heaven. Just a little faith, both persistence in action and agreement in principle, goes a very long way. It turned a movement begun by one murdered Nazarene and a few poor men and women into the world's rescue. Don't just watch the kingdom of heaven grow. Instead, have faith, and participate.

Capernaum Life

Franciscan friars guard excavations within a church grounds at Jesus's adopted home Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee's northern shore. Capernaum was not the backwater some assume it to have been, at least as a religious community. To the contrary, when Jews settled the northern Galilee region after returning from Babylonian exile, they intended a rebirth of religious community. And to a remarkable degree, they succeeded. Many leading rabbis came from around Capernaum. A rabbi recruiting the traditional twelve students could do little better than to come to Capernaum for recruits steeped in Jewish religious life. But when he came to Capernaum recruiting disciples, Jesus didn't go to the synagogues or their schools. He went to the seashore for fishermen and down the highway for a tax collector. And millennia later, he came for us.

Peter's Capernaum House

The gospel accounts indicate that Peter's hometown was Bethsaida but that he lived in Capernaum when meeting Jesus. Proprietors thus claim Peter's residence at two sites along the Sea of Galilee shore. The photograph shows the Capernaum site, atop which sits a modern church viewing room to protect the site from deterioration. You can just see the bottom of the modern church at the photograph's top, hovering over Peter's home. Peter's small stone home lies at the center of an octagonal church built around it in the fifth century, to protect and venerate the site. The walls of that church appear in the photograph's foreground and background, with an entry door to Peter's small circular home in the mid ground. Jesus would have lodged in Peter's pictured small stone home. Yes, Jesus, the Son of God, walked the Galilee shore, staying in Peter's humble home.

Bet Shan

The excavated ancient ruins at Beit She'an lie along the modern highway from the Sea of Galilee about one third of the way south to Jerusalem. Beit She'an is one of the oldest cities in the region, likely because of its location at the intersection of the Jordan River valley and the Jezreel valley. Beit She'an exhibits evidence of Canaanite, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman rule, covering more than five-thousand years. Excavations have uncovered Canaanite grave sites from as early as 2,000 B.C. and Early Bronze Age artifacts from a thousand years earlier. Beit She'an has a biblical history, too. The Philistines hung the bodies of king Saul and his sons here. Beit She'an was more Roman than Jewish. It was the only Decapolis city west of the Jordan River and sided with the Romans during the Jewish revolts in the decades after Christ's resurrection. History goes way back. So does our Christian faith.


The Decapolis, translated as "ten cities," lies immediately southeast of the Sea of Galilee. The Decapolis's ten ancient cities were all east of the Jordan River except Beit She'an just to the west. While Jesus's ministry home was the northwest Galilee region, he ministered frequently in the Decapolis. His disciples might have been surprised. Northwest Galilee was a deeply Jewish area. The Decapolis's ten cities, each of which Rome treated as an independent city state, naturally favored Roman emperor worship. But the Decapolis region has an even more ancient biblical history. It was here in this region that Jacob met Esau on Jacob's return and where Jacob wrestled with God. Jesus came to the Decapolis so that its citizens could also meet and wrestle with God. Are you?

Roman Water Pipe

The Romans were brutally oppressive toward the people they conquered and ruled. Their brutality helped them accomplish the extraordinary engineering feats that they did. Local rulers like Herod could build yet another huge temple to the Caesar whose favor fueled their profitable rule without extracting every ounce from their people. This photograph is of a Roman water pipe, part of an eleven-mile-long system that pumped water to a dry but inhabited city. That one water project took 23,000 stones cut from the quarry and transported to the installation site. Imagine the back-breaking labor of the thousands of enslaved workers. No wonder the Jews resisted Roman rule. How does a follower of Christ properly address, reform, and resist oppressive governance and help others who need even more to do so?

Hippos Fountain

This photograph is of an ancient fountain near the Decapolis city of Hippos located along the Sea of Galilee's southeastern shore. Hippos, a Greek-founded and Rome-centered city, lay roughly opposite across the Sea from Jesus's Capernaum home. The pictured large and elaborate hilltop fountain was only for the city's society members to drink, not slaves or outsiders. The fountain was thus a symbol of exclusive membership, like so many other Roman forms and practices. But that's not the message that Jesus brought to the Decapolis region. Jesus invited everyone, from slave to citizen to ruler, to drink and not just of a man-made fountain's waters but his own waters of eternal life. Are you drinking Jesus's waters? Are you bringing the message of Jesus's waters of eternal life to your region's Decapolis cities?

Hippos Slopes to the Sea

Bible readers know the remarkable gospel account of Jesus casting the legions out of the demon-possessed man and into the herd of pigs that ran down the slopes to drown in the Sea of Galilee. That event took place in the Decapolis region southeast across the Sea from Jesus's Capernaum home. These slopes around the ancient Decapolis city Hippos may have been the location of that remarkable event. The Greek name Hippos, like the Aramaic name Sussita by which the city later came to be known, means "horse." Hippos was the high horse of the Decapolis, its main hill standing above the lower hills of the region. One of the gospel accounts of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man says that once healed, he then went throughout the Decapolis, meaning the region's ten Rome-centered cities, telling the good news of Jesus. Are you taking the good news to your region's pagan and secular cities?

Lower Galilee Fields

The lower Galilee region southwest of the hilly Sea of Galilee region gives way to fertile farm fields. Jesus's Nazareth boyhood home lies in this southwest Galilee farming region. As a boy, Jesus would have  helped his parents Mary and Joseph work farm fields like the pictured fields, perhaps even this very field. To this day, Jews erect tents in those fields, reminiscent of their long desert sojourn but also carrying other meaning. The Jewish holiday sukkot, meaning booths or tabernacles, is a celebration not only of the Israelites' desert sojourn but also of harvest and its associated feast. Sukkot was also one of three annual times of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when pilgrims might have stayed in tents. These customs immersed the young Jesus in his distinct Jewish culture and history, preparing him for the most extraordinary ministry as the long-awaited Messiah to come for both Jew and Gentile rescue. You know Jesus as the Messiah. Are you rooting your faith in the fields that bring a harvest?

Lower Galilee Fig Tree

Fig trees were fixtures in the more-fertile regions of Israel in Jesus's day, as one also sees them there today. The prophets Jeremiah and Hosea represented the Israelites as figs on a tree, good and bad figs in baskets, and fig trees bearing fruit or not bearing fruit. Jesus later famously cursed a fruitless fig tree as he and the disciples were leaving Bethany just outside Jerusalem. Jesus wasn't just angry because hungry. Jesus cursed the fig tree in connection with his clearing the great temple's courtyard of its money-changing den of robbers. In cursing the fruitless fig tree, Jesus was declaring the fruitlessness of the temple's sacrificial practices, where unrepentant sinners went to  buy forgiveness for their continuing corrupt actions. The great temple was about to fall. With Jesus's imminent crucifixion and resurrection, God would soon dwell in the human temple. Are you repentant? Have you both confessed Christ as Lord and turned from your sin? If so, the Holy Spirit dwells in you as God's temple.


Mary bore Jesus in Bethlehem, as scripture foretold. Yet we also know from the gospel accounts that Mary and Joseph had traveled to their ancestral Bethlehem to account for the census. Their home was instead in Nazareth, in the fertile lands southwest of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus would move to his Galilee shore home Capernaum only after Nazareth rejected him at the start of his public ministry. Hometowns do not honor their own prophets. The boy and young man Jesus thus may have helped his parents and extended family tend orchards and farm fields on the pictured agricultural lands outside the modern Nazareth. The agricultural images and parables Jesus told would have been so familiar to him, with his boyhood rooted in these Nazareth orchards and fields. We still understand those images today, as people around the globe have understood them down through the ages to today. No matter how technologically advanced we may become, our roots will forever remain in the soil from which we come.

Prayer Shawl

Noted Bible teacher and author Ray Vander Laan, who has taken over 10,000 people on Israel tours spanning thirty-five years of ministry, models a traditional Jewish prayer shawl including the long tassels on the corners. Pastor Vander Laan is a friend and mentor of Pastor Marshall and contributed to much of the research and teaching behind these posts. God told Moses that the Israelites should sow tassels on their robes or shawls. The tassels weren't for show. They were instead to remind the Israelites of their love for and obedience to God, like a wedding ring worn to remind one of the beauty of and duty to the spouse. So now, remember David regretting having secretly cut the corner of king Saul's robe? That one small gesture, proving that David could have harmed or killed Saul, carried other significance, symbolically reminding Saul that he was cut off from God. How are your tassels? Does your obedience reflect deep love for God?

Nazareth Fields

The fields around Nazareth, though fertile for the region, are nonetheless stony. Jews of the Nazareth region, and much of the rest of Israel, would have instantly understood when Proverbs said to prepare your fields or Jesus taught the parable of the sower on rocky soil. Picking and pulling stones from the fields and piling them up in walls, rows, and piles was a big part of fruitful farming. So, too, was choosing the right ground with deep rather than shallow and rocky soil. The fields around Nazareth were so rocky that one hill, much of it long gone, was the site of a major quarry. Jews plowed and sowed their fields for food. They quarried, worked leather, and engaged in other trades for income. Common translations call Jesus a carpenter. But a more fitting translation would be to call him a builder. And the common building material was stone, not timber. Jesus quarries, chips, and uses you like stone, knowing your faults. 

Cana Winepress

The rocky but fertile fields west and southwest of the Sea of Galilee were also good for growing grapevines. Jesus could readily have drawn his parable of the vines that remain in him and bear much fruit from the vineyards around his boyhood home of Nazareth and its neighboring Cana just a couple miles north. Cana, of course, was where Jesus performed his first miracle, at his mother Mary's behest, of turning water into the very best wine. And not just a little wine. Each of the six large jars of water Jesus turned to wine held between twenty and thirty gallons. This photograph shows an ancient winepress cut a couple feet down into the rock, where joyful workers would have gladly stomped the grapes in celebration of another rich harvest, after the manner shown here. Let this joyful dancing be the way that Jesus sees you and your local church as his bride. We have many reasons for gladness.

Zippori Road

Zippori, an ancient city just about three miles from Jesus's boyhood home Nazareth, was then the capitol city of that region. Zippori, the Hebrew name substituted for the Greek name Sepphoris, was so old as to lay in ruins until Herod Antipas rebuilt it. Joseph and Mary may have settled at Nazareth so that Joseph could work on that rebuilding just a fifty-minute walk from Nazareth. Under Herod's rule, Zippori was a major Jewish city but of mostly non-religious Jews. Devout Jews would live elsewhere in the region, perhaps at Capernaum, Chorazin, or Bethsaida to the northwest along the Sea of Galilee's coast. The New Testament doesn't mention Zippori, but Jesus certainly knew it. He may have drawn his lessons about worldliness from the conduct of the Jews he would have known in and from Zippori, who would have walked Zippori's grand collonade, pictured here, and enjoyed its grand theater. In an irony of ironies, the Jewish Sanhedrin moved to Zippori after Jerusalem's great temple fell in 70 A.D. Jesus indeed knew the Sanhedrin's heart.

Synagogue Zodiacs

What, pray tell, are Zodiac signs doing in some of Israel's ancient synagogues? If Christians think at all of the Zodiac and its twelve signs Aquarius, Pisces, Sagittarius, Scorpio, and the rest, we probably think of them as Greek or Mesopotamian superstition, not Jewish signs at all. The pictured zodiac, beautifully illustrated on a Jewish synagogue's floor, is admittedly from a fifth-century synagogue constructed southwest of the Sea of Galilee hundreds of years after Jesus's earthly ministry. But the ancient and more-recent Jews who painted, tiled, and inscribed zodiacs into synagogue walls and floors weren't thinking of them as anything other than God's claim to the celestial beings the stars represent. Even if the zodiac's imitation of the sky's actual constellations is only today a sort of pseudo science, rather than what the ancients regarded it as a helpful representation of the fascinating night skies, God owns and controls it all.

Farewell to Galilee

Routes southwest from the beautiful northern end of the Sea of Galilee and then south toward Jerusalem take one through beautiful fertile lands and pleasant towns. Any farewell to beautiful and faithful Galilee is at least a little poignant. To Jesus on his final trip toward Jerusalem, the Galilee farewell must have been far more emotional. To his disciples who had even an inkling of what Jerusalem was to bring their Lord and them, the Galilee farewell might well have been terrifying. Fortunately, followers of Christ today need feel neither poignancy nor pain when leaving Galilee or any other holy lands because they carry the holiest land within them. As much as Galilee must have meant to sweet Jesus, Jerusalem surely meant far more to Judah's Lion. Jesus knew that his willingness to leave his Galilee hills for Golgotha, ancient Jerusalem's skull-shaped hill of crucifixion, was his Father's will. We, too, follow the will of God.


Visitors to Israel may be tempted to rush from the holy lands around the Sea of Galilee to their visit's grand finish in Jerusalem. But linger along the way for a moment, and you'll catch sight of other significant biblical sites informing one's appreciation for the revelation of God's word. Succoth, about thirty miles north of the Dead Sea on the east side of the Jordan River, is one of those sites. When Jacob returned from exile with his wives, children, and herds, he settled in Succoth. From the gorgeous green-and-brown hills in the photograph, topped by settlements below higher green hills, one can easily imagine why Jacob chose Succoth. Gideon's experience at Succoth wasn't so pleasant. Succoth's ungenerous residents refused bread to Gideon and his famished men, chasing the vanquished Median army. They later paid for their inhospitality with their lives. King Solomon had the temple's bronze vessels cast at Succoth, which other scriptures including two Psalms further enshrine. Pause to see your faith's history.

Mount Carmel

Due west of the Sea of Galilee, nearly all the way to the Mediterranean Sea's coastline, lies Mount Carmel. With Mount Carmel so near the Great Sea, one can imagine Elijah atop Carmel telling his servant to watch out across the Sea for the smallest cloud, after Elijah prayed for rain. And indeed, rain poured down on the evil king Ahab atop Mount Carmel. Elijah also confronted the false prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel, long regarded, even then, as a pagan holy site. Elijah then all the way to Jezreel, twenty miles east. God in these miracle historical events was conquering not just earth but also the rebellious heavens. With Nazareth a bare twenty miles east of Mount Carmel, Jesus grew up in sight of these pagan-worshiped mountaintops. Do you realize that Jesus conquered not just death on earth but also all rebel spirits in heaven?

Crown of Thorns

Awful, grasping briar patches, known for their ferocity as the "crown of thorns," flank the paths up and down Mount Carmel and other out-of-the-way places throughout this Great Sea coastline region all the way to Galilee. In wet seasons, the plants are relatively soft if not entirely harmless. But in dry seasons, their spikes poke, scrape, penetrate, and wound. Forcing one's way through them on foot is not just foolhardy but practically impossible. Wearing a crown of thorns jammed over one's head? Unimaginable. But that ignominy is, of course, what Pilate's soldiers inflicted on the condemned Jesus. The soldiers likely knew exactly what they were doing, mocking the condemned man with the only crown, these horrible thorns, found in his home Galilee region. Father, forgive them and us for not knowing what we're doing.

Mount Carmel Olive Trees

Depending on the context, the Carmel of the pictured Mount means orchard, vineyard, or garden. Some of the oldest working olive trees lie at the foot of Mount Carmel. You can just see the huge circumference of the ancient trunks in the photograph's lower left, out of which a spare few branches may shoot, laden with olives fed from the great trunk's deep roots. Olive trees here and on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives could be one thousand or even two thousand years old, perhaps small trees when Jesus walked these lands. One sees in these remarkable trees and their careful human cultivation across centuries the power of the analogy scriptures use when referring to the Israelite stump and Gentile-believer branches, Christ's church, grafted in. Think, too, of the figurative root of Jesse, Jesus Messiah, to whom the nation's will rally. We follow an ancient faith, indeed the Ancient of Days.

Atop Mount Carmel

Atop Mount Carmel, where Elijah mocked the priests of Baal before invoking his true God to light the doused offering afire, one can just see an Israeli airbase through the photograph's fog. Elijah fought king Ahab and hundreds of priests of Baal atop Mount Carmel. Israelis at Carmel's foot today fight different enemies, although often with an equal ferocity. God then sent Elijah on an extraordinary forty-day journey hundreds of miles away to the Sinai's mountain of God. Elijah listened to God, accepting God's challenges while relying fully on God's nourishment, directions, and actions. In reward, Elijah stood with Moses aside the transfigured Jesus. Elijah's protege Elisha asked Elijah for a double portion of Elijah's fierce spirit. What is your request?

Caesarea by the Sea

The ancient Roman port city Caesarea by the Sea lies on Israel's Mediterranean coastline about halfway between the modern cities of Haifa in the north and Tel Aviv in the south. Herod founded Caesarea a few years before Christ's birth. When Jesus was still a youth, Rome declared the new port city to be the Roman governor's seat and capitol of all Judea. Caesarea grew to be the largest urban center in the area, supported by fabulous engineering works including miles-long aqueducts bringing abundant fresh water to the city, an enormous artificial protected harbor, and an extraordinary outdoor arena for horse racing and other public events. Peter met and converted Cornelius and his family in this famous coastline city, which was also the site of Paul's house arrest and trial before the governor Felix. Caesarea's biblical history swirls around the mind as one views its the ruins of its incredible public works. No human work approaches the work of Jesus.

Caesarea's Hippodrome

Although Caesarea's man-made harbor must have been spectacular in its day, today, the most distinct aspect of Caesarea's ruins is the long, narrow hippodrome, or amphitheater, along the shore, built right around the time of Christ's advent. Chariot races and other outdoor spectacles took place at the hippodrome. A portion of the stage on which Roman dignitaries sat at the hippodrome's southeast corner, and the grandstands beside the stage, survive, although grandstands originally lined the hippodrome's full length. Caesarea also had an enclosed theater south of the hippodrome. Both the Bible's book of Acts and the Roman historian Josephus record Herod Agrippa's death at Caesarea. Acts records the death as the result of Herod's failure to turn the glory to God when the crowd called Herod a god. Josephus says Herod died before a crowd at the hippodrome, whereas scholars find the event more likely to have occurred in the adjacent enclosed theater. Give all glory to God.

Caesarea's Harbor

Little remains to see of Caesarea's spectacular man-made harbor. In its ancient Roman heyday, Caesarea's harbor was the major port for all Israel. The port's destruction wasn't due to poor engineering. Workers sank great stones quarried miles away to depths as deep as ninety feet to secure the harbor. It took a tsunami more than one hundred years later, likely the one that also destroyed ancient Antioch far to the north, to undermine Caesarea's great harbor. The harbor nonetheless continued to serve the region for one thousand years before its demise. The busy harbor's ships arriving from Rome, Greece, Asia Minor, and other far-away ports must have been quite a sight for the up to 350,000 spectators who could fit in the hippodrome's fifty gallery rows facing the harbor. Herod built himself and his heirs a spectacular place from which to rule Judea, at spectacular cost. Yet Jesus had the boldness to call the brutal tyrant Herod a lowly fox. 

Jerusalem Skyline

The Jerusalem skyline is impressive, day or night. One instantly sees the great city's density, packed behind the city's enormous protecting walls. The sight must have impressed travelers approaching the ancient city. The sight may also have discouraged generals leading armies in siege against Jerusalem. The Bible tells such stories of marauders failing in their onslaughts. But Jerusalem's hilltop layout, densely packed buildings, thick and high walls, sacred site, and other features also had an impact on its ancient residents, not just its ancient visitors or attackers. Jerusalem's impressive presence could generate pride, even arrogance, among its chief priests, Sanhedrin members, governors, soldiers, merchants, tax collectors, money changers, and ordinary citizens. Perhaps that's in large part why Jerusalem killed its prophets including the one great prophet priest king Son of God Jesus. Our worldly ways always kick against God's goads. What impresses you, property or prophets?

Wailing Wall

Jerusalem's famous Wailing Wall impresses, day or night. As the last remaining outer wall of Jerusalem's great Second Temple, the western wall, as Jews more commonly call it, remains the Jews' most holy site in Jerusalem or elsewhere. Herod built this expanded outer wall section just a couple of decades before Christ's advent. When Roman troops destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. less than a century later, they left only this outer portion of the temple walls. Both for security and veneration, Israel carefully controls access to the wall today, even dividing those who wish to approach and touch the wall into men's and women's sections. Custom includes fervent prayer at the wall, which one hears throughout the courtyard approach. Visitors, Jewish, Christian, and otherwise, also tuck tiny prayers in the wall's great cracks. The Israelis cleared the pictured plaza in 1967 after the Six Day War, when they also dug down two more levels below the wall. Israel welcomes wall visitors year 'round, twenty-four hours a day, but requires modest dress including that women cover their legs and shoulders and men cover their heads. What is your approach and posture to prayer?

Prayer at the Western Wall

Prayer at what the Jews know as the Western Wall and Western Christians more commonly call the Wailing Wall need not be a wail, although many prayers are. Notice in the picture the paper yarmulkes or kippahs, freely available to Gentiles approaching the Western Wall, on the tour group of Western Christians. In the picture's foreground, a man approaches with a cloth yarmulke, suggesting that he is an observant Jew. One also sees pictured orthodox Jews wearing their brimmed black hats. Jews accept Gentiles wearing a yarmulke at the Wall out of respect, although Gentiles wearing a yarmulke elsewhere in Jerusalem or Israel might not be the best idea, instead leading to potential misunderstandings, religious offense, and even security risks. Good, though, that the pictured Gentile visitor doffed his Western style cowboy hat in favor of the paper yarmulke. Remember that as Christians, we give no offense and take no offense. Put no stumbling block in front of a brother or sister, Christian or Jew.

Jerusalem Tombs

With its ancient, royal, and sacred history, Jerusalem, the City of David, is a city of tombs, not just in barren stretches outside the city walls but also in locations inside the city. One local tradition is to visit the grave of a deceased relative on the first anniversary of the relative's demise and every subsequent anniversary, leaving a small stone there as a sign that the visitor continues to build on the deceased relative's legacy. Gravesite visits are to reflect, not just on the deceased person's life and legacy but also on the visitor's life. Visiting the gravesite of a godly ancestor can be a humbling, guiding, and inspiring moment. Taking a child of appropriate age to visit such a gravesite can help the child take a long view of the child's immediate actions. Perspective is hard to find in a fast-paced, distracted age. When the crippling grief eases, the gravesite of a righteous family member can prompt that perspective. Those who look most deeply, sensibly, and faithfully at their inevitable demise tend very much to make better use of their time.

Abbey of the Dormition

This Catholic abbey just outside Jerusalem's Old City walls near the Zion Gate is said to be the site of Mary's death and very near the location of the Last Supper's upper room, where an ancient round Essene study center lurks beneath the modern street level. The abbey is itself atop a Byzantine-era basilica built in the early fifth century after Christ, one which received relics said to be from the martyr Stephen. Christian persecutors destroyed churches at this site in successive waves stretching from the seventh to the twelfth century and beyond. Today, the church suffers vandalism and desecration from various groups. Jerusalem supports an incredibly complex mix of religious, political, and cultural interests, over historically sacred grounds that stir and sometimes upset that complex mix. Sensitivity to the interests of the varying factions and the risks and opportunities those interests present is a necessary ingredient for a safe and successful visit to Jerusalem. Struggle and danger mark the path of Christ.

Church of Mary Magdalene

The Church of Mary Magdalene's seven bright domes with Eastern Orthodox crosses rising high above them are a Jerusalem landmark. The church hosts about thirty nuns from around the world, who live, sing, paint, embroider, and worship there. More significantly to many visiting Christians, the church lies just uphill of the historic location of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed to his Father on the night of his betrayal and suffered arrest. The Garden of Gethsemane lies at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The Church of Mary Magdalene's brilliance lends a counterweight to the area's dark trees and tangled groves, and to the weight of those long-ago but intimately familiar events. What can we feel today when seeing the very garden in which Jesus suffered his agony, other than the most humbling appreciation and profound awe? When we carry the hope of Jesus's paradise garden inside us, we also carry his garden of suffering.

Dome of the Rock

Among the most visible of Jerusalem's landmarks and most significant of its holy sites is the Dome of the Rock atop the ancient Temple Mount. A Muslim caliph built the structure atop the ruins of the Jews' holy of holies in the late seventh century, both to commemorate Muhammad's claimed ascent from the spot and to mark the claimed Muslim rule over Jew and Christian. No matter those claims, the Dome of the Rock marks not only the site of the Jews' great temples but also where Abraham offered Isaac in near sacrifice and the Lord relented after David's ill-taken census, the Lord stopping the angel's destruction of Jerusalem at the threshing floor. David would purchase the threshing floor's mount from its owner on which to prepare for his son Solomon to build the temple. The Talmud also marks the Temple Mount under the Dome of the Rock as the spot where God created the world. To appreciate the sacred nature of Jerusalem, one must grasp what occurred under the Dome of the Rock.

Up to the Temple Mount

With each of his many visits to Jerusalem's great temple atop the Temple Mount, Jesus would likely have walked down from the Mount of Olives, across the bottom of the Kidron Valley, and up the steps to the Temple Mount. The photograph shows the end of that ancient route at the wide steps leading up to the wall of the Temple Mount. The great temple atop the Temple Mount in Jesus's day was known as Herod's Temple. Herod began rebuilding the great temple as much as a couple of decades before Jesus's birth, but the construction carried into Jesus's youth. Although Herod's Temple did not hold the ark of the covenant or other sacred items, long lost to the exile, it nonetheless remained a holy place. Zacharias learned of his wife Elizabeth's conception of John the Baptists there. Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to Herod's Temple for the ceremonial redemption of the firstborn, where they met and received the prophecies of Simeon and Anna. So many more events in Jesus's life and ministry happened at the Temple Mount up the pictured steps. Just imagine their reality. And know their import.

Jerusalem's East Gate

The Bible records that Nehemiah directed the reconstruction of eleven gates through Jerusalem's old city wall. Jerusalem's pictured East Gate, also called the Golden Gate, was likely the one through which Jesus entered. The Jews would release the ceremonial scapegoat out the East Gate each year, carrying the sins of the people. The Jews also believed that the Messiah would enter through that same East Gate, to free the Jewish people. The East Gate is the most direct route from the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount. Indeed, when Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives, on a clear day he could see into the temple. The pictured East Gate is a reconstruction atop the original structure Rome destroyed along with the temple forty years after Jesus's death and resurrection. Notice that the gate is sealed, just three years after its reconstruction a half millennia ago. The Muslim ruler had the gate sealed so that Jesus could not enter again through it. Ezekiel foretells the Lord's glory returning through a gate facing east.

Garden of Gethsemane

The photograph captures the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives across the bottom of the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem's East Gate. Gethsemane wasn't a traditional garden. It was instead the site of an olive press, a sensible fixture for the bottom of a mount of olive trees. Jesus and his disciples had the habit of using the Mount of Olives as a nearby place of overnight rest after visiting the temple or other sites inside Jerusalem. They went to Gethsemane at the Mount's base after the Last Supper inside Jerusalem. Gethsemane was, of course, where Jesus prayed to his Father while the disciples slept, where Judas Iscariot led the soldiers to arrest Jesus, and where Judas healed the servant's ear after Peter cut it off. Having sweat blood as he prayed in the Garden, Jesus surely felt the wine's hard press. 

Tomb Cut in the Rock

The Sanhedrin member Joseph of Arimathea gave Jesus's family and followers a great gift when burying Jesus's body in his own newly cut tomb. Though a respected member of the Jerusalem council, Joseph had not consented to the council's decision to seek Jesus's death. Joseph, the gospel accounts tell us, was instead seeking God's kingdom. Joseph thus had the same intuition and inclination that Nicodemus had. Nicodemus, who helped Joseph bury Jesus's body, was also being a council member, the one who had sought Jesus at night. Nicodemus had heard the gospel from Jesus himself. He must have shared with his council friend Joseph that good news that those who accepted Jesus's sacrifice would receive new birth into eternal life. Hold onto that good news. Jesus is our only salvation.

Mount of Olives

Olive trees covered the Mount of Olives in Jesus's day. Today, only a few ancient olive trees survive at the Mount's bottom. While olive trees can survive for over a thousand years, we cannot know whether the surviving trees around the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount's bottom were there when Jesus prayed in the Garden. The Mount of Olives is a true mount, its three crests a half a mile above sea level. And the Mount wasn't just a convenient waystation for the troubled Jesus. King David ascended the Mount of Olives, weeping as he fled his own son Absalom's rebellion. And Zechariah prophesied that the Lord would return astride the Mount of Olives to vanquish all nations. Jesus suffered betrayal and arrest at the Mount's base, but he will return to the Mount's top triumphant. Are you anticipating his return?

East Gate Cemetery

Not only did the Muslim ruler who rebuilt Jerusalem's East Gate aside the Temple Mount permanently seal the gate to prevent Jesus's reentry in his Second Coming. Muslims also placed the pictured cemetery outside the East Gate. Directly in front of the Temple Mount's most-immediate gate is a very poor place for a cemetery, unless you don't want the structure to serve as a sacred gate at all. The Muslims who placed the cemetery there believed that if Jesus were to try to reenter the East Gate as prophecy foretold, then he would enter unclean because of his passage through the cemetery. Ah, but so many things are wrong with these suppositions that suffice it to say simply that Jesus is and will always be Lord of all. Nothing can prevent Jesus from redeeming you other than your own obstinate heart. Give your heart to Jesus.

Pool of Bethesda

The pictured pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed the paralytic is just north of the Temple Mount. Of course, the pool was not as deep as the photograph suggests. Archaeologists excavated many feet down to reach these ancient structures. The pool of Bethesda was very likely a ritual bath or mikveh where ceremonially unclean Jews could immerse themselves for ritual purification. Archaeologists uncovered the pool of Bethesda more than a century ago, but scholars took a long time to confirm the pool's identity with any confidence. By contrast, archaeologists uncovered the Siloam pool, another mikveh where Jesus healed the blind man, less than two decades ago and quickly identified it as the ancient biblical miracle site. Jesus is still healing the blind and paralyzed. 

Church of Saint Anne

Jerusalem's Church of Saint Anne lies adjacent to the pool of Bethsaida. Many Jerusalem holy sites are under synagogues, churches, or mosques, reflecting the city's long religious history and complex religious and political claims to the sites. The Church of Saint Anne was a crusader construction in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, meant to recover a holy site for Christ. The Church of Saint Anne, though, has a distinction from other religious structures guarding Jerusalem's holy sites. The Church of Saint Anne is one of the world's best acoustical structures. Visitors uniformly enjoy the treat, whenever available, of hearing the gospel sung in the Church of Saint Anne. And angels will sing when we join Christ.

Temple Colonnade

The Pharisees controlled Jerusalem's temple and so had abundant funds to build impressive temple structures like these colonnade columns. Jerusalem architecture can present a dizzying array of periods and styles. The Jews, Greeks, and Romans all built ancient Jerusalem structures. Later but still a millennium ago, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Muslims, built around and atop those ancient structures. Early and late Byzantine era structures, and crusader structures, build around and atop those early buildings, while Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims continue to build aside modern structures having no apparent connection with any faith. Learning about Jerusalem's buildings, colonnades, fountains, furnishings, and facades entertains and informs. But remember Jesus's rebuke to the disciples marveling at the buildings. The temple that counts is the human heart the Spirit adorns.


Jesus's birthplace Bethlehem is about six miles south of Jerusalem, with a mostly Palestinian population of about 25,000. Many Christians from among the oldest Christian communities in the world abandoned Bethlehem after a 1995 accord ceding control to the Palestinian Authority. Bethlehem's sixth-century Church of the Nativity sits atop a grotto marked with a silver star to commemorate Christ's presumed birthplace within the city. The Church of the Nativity sits aside Manger Square along with a fifteenth-century church and nineteenth century mosque. While Christians generally have only one person in mind when thinking of Bethlehem, Jesus the Son of God and child of Mary and Joseph, Jews venerate Bethlehem as the burial site of Jacob's favorite wife Rachel, marriage site of Ruth and Boaz, and birthplace of king David. Much earlier, Bethlehem was the site of a Canaanite pagan temple on the mount where Jesus was born. The King of kings came to rule all.

Bethlehem's Terraced Fields

Dry and rocky hills surround much of Bethlehem. But terraced fields and orchards also dot the hills around Bethlehem, indicating relatively fertile soil nourished with just enough water to sustain some farming and gardening. One can thus more easily imagine shepherds tending flocks around Bethlehem than some of Israel's harsher desert regions further to the south of Jerusalem. And the sight of shepherded flocks makes it easier to recall with exquisite relish the gospel's account of angels visiting Bethlehem's shepherds the night of Christ's birth. To Bethlehem to see the Christ child!


The ruthless ruler Herod, who reigned from 47 B.C. to 4 B.C., was the tyrant king whom the gospel records tried to kill the infant Jesus at Bethlehem. Jesus's Bethlehem birth occurred within site of the Herodium, about five miles southeast of Jerusalem and just a few short miles east of Bethlehem. Herod built the Herodium as his palace and final resting place, among his other remarkable building works including the rebuild of Jerusalem's Second Temple, the fabulous port city Caesarea by the Sea, and the fortress Masada. Though brutal beyond belief, Herod was not simply a petty tyrant. He was a visionary and exquisitely strategic ruler but with the spectacularly wrong vision. God drew his Son Jesus right from under the view and out of the mouth of a horrible fox, befitting the true King of kings.

Herodium Interior

The Herodium was an extraordinary palace fortress where Herod spent most of his time. Laborers carried dirt and quarried stone to raise by several stories the natural hill, a fact to which Jesus may have alluded when saying that faithful prayer moves mountains. The double-cylinder fortress walls stood an amazing ninety feet high, with apartments, storerooms, garrisons, and defensive structures built seven stories high between the two cylinder walls. Inside the cylinder wall was this great courtyard that had gardens, columned colonnades, hundreds of broad steps, a large reception hall, a bath complex with hot, warm, and cold baths, and many mosaic floors. Long tunnels and stairwells led up, down, and around the structure. The Herodium's opulence, cost, and arrogance stands in the starkest contrast to the Lord Jesus's humble Bethlehem birthplace so near as to be palpable. We follow a divine ruler of a very different kind.

Herodium Defenses

The Herodium near Bethlehem wasn't just a palace. It was also a defensive fortress. One of its defenses involved strategically placed huge round stones that Herod's troops could tumble from the high walls down the Herodium's long slopes, decimating any siege works or attacking forces. Defenses or not, the Herodium fell into disuse and decline after Herod's death. By 64 A.D., a couple of decades after Jesus's death and resurrection, Jewish rebels took defensive residence in the Herodium. Those rebels dug additional tunnels and hideaways below the Herodium during the Jewish revolts. For a brief time, those rebels turned Herod's great reception hall into a synagogue. Now there's a worthy turn of events. Yet the Jewish revolts ended shortly later in national disaster. Forty years after Jesus's resurrection, the church, not a chosen nation, was God's bride. 

Herod the Desert Fox

Jesus famously called a cunning fox Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great who built the Herodium. The father Herod the Great was every bit as cunning and conniving as his son Herod Antipas. Indeed, the Herodium was just one of several networked fortresses to which Herod the Great could flee. Given his Nabataean heritage, Herod the Great had an affinity for the desert. He built the Herodium alongside the pictured wadi, or dry desert canyon, that stretched all twenty-six miles to his next fortress, the hilltop Masada. Jesus knew the cunning of both Herod the Great, who had tried to kill Jesus as an infant, and his son Herod Antipas. But Jesus also knew that cunning meant weak, corrupt, fearful, and insecure. Calling someone a fox was no compliment in that day. Jesus, by contrast, was the Lion of Judah. No fox, all Lion.

Bethlehem from Herodium

Just visible atop the Herodium, in the distance of the photograph's middle left, are the small white structures of Bethlehem. Jewish travelers to Bethlehem and other points south of Jerusalem in Jesus's day, and the residents of that same area, may well have steered a wide berth around the formidable Herodium. But those same travelers and residents couldn't miss the Herodium. An imposing structure was Herod's point, representative of his power. But notice how insignificant things seem from atop the Herodium, when to the contrary Jesus's humble birth in nearby Bethlehem was about to rock the world. Fortress palaces may be comfortable and somewhat secure places. But they don't provide a healthy vision. Look to the humble Savior rather than build a hilltop fortress.

Herod's Jerusalem Praetorium

The gospel accounts tell us that Jesus stood trial before the Roman governor Pilate. At that time, Roman governors in Jerusalem stayed at what was previously Herod the Great's praetorium. A praetorium can be many things but includes a government seat. Judaea had two such seats or praetoria, one at the official capitol Caesarea by the Sea and the other at Jerusalem because of Jerusalem's significance to the rebellious Jews. Herod the Great built both praetoria but then died shortly after Jesus's birth, leaving the Jerusalem praetorium for Roman governors to occupy. The photograph is of the Tower of David, believed to be the site of Herod's Jerusalem praetorium. Excavations around and below these structures have exposed a portion of what may have been the praetorium's pavement, bema or judgment seat, and gate. We shudder thinking of Pilate's awful judgment of our beloved Lord.

Via Dolorosa

The probable route Jesus walked from his praetorium courtyard flogging to the site of his crucifixion outside Jerusalem's wall, many know as the Via Dolorosa or sorrowful road. The photograph is of a portion of that route. The photograph shows the main gate into the business district down which the sorrowful path leads, past small shops typical of much of the sorrowful route. One usually sees Christian visitors to Jerusalem streaming down these paths, surely a poignant pilgrimage for every one of them. We walk daily knowing the awful burden Jesus bore for us. We should have been the ones walking that sorrowful path so long ago, but he walked it for us.

Crucifixion Site

The photograph's two gray domes, identifying the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, mark the site of Jesus's burial while also drawing us near the site of Jesus's crucifixion atop Golgotha or the place of the Skull. Jesus's death and nearby burial both took place outside Jerusalem's walls at or very near this traditional site. Jesus's crucifixion marked the end of a very long, indeed literally tortuous, four-mile walk that included arrest, religious trial, trial before Pilate, visit to Herod, return for condemnation and flogging, and march carrying the cross, with merciful assistance, to Golgotha. All the key religious and government officials were in Jerusalem because of the Passover. But they each had their own residence or courts. And executions took place alongside a public way outside the city. The swirl of events leading to Jesus's death and burial were too much for his disciples to bear. We barely comprehend them today. But Jesus is risen. Thank God, Jesus is risen.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, marking the traditional site of Jesus's crucifixion and nearby burial, is the oldest working church in the world, by tradition dating to as early as 335 A.D. Persons and entities responsible for the church have rebuilt it multiple times since then, although it has continued to serve as a pilgrimage site. Each rebuild incorporated key artifacts from the original or prior builds. The crucifixion and empty tomb sites lie deep below this main floor entry point off of a courtyard. Multiple organizations, mainly Catholic and Orthodox but also Apostolic and secular, have controlled the church for nearly two hundred years under complex rights and arrangements. The structure and its cavernous construction impress upon the visitor the enormous weight, indeed the infinite significance, of the memorialized events.

Crucifixion Rock

A staircase takes visitors up one flight to a chapel inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where this glass covers the traditional site of Christ's crucifixion rock. An altar sits above the glass-covered crucifixion rock. If one kneels on the marble slab in front of the rock, a small opening permits one to reach a hand in and down to touch the rock. Limestone outcroppings left and right of the crucifixion rock, also covered in glass, mark the two thieves' crucifixion spots. Roman crucifixions were public, near the city gates, and at the eye level of passersby, all to impress upon the public the awful deterrent effect. One doesn't trifle with Rome, the message would have been. And yet somehow, the awfulness of Rome's punishment merely magnified the exquisitely loving nature of Christ's willing sacrifice. We hold fast to that sacrifice for our own redemption.

Temple Courtyards

The photograph shows only a small portion of the broad courtyards surrounding the Dome of the Rock, where the great temple's courtyards would have stood. To the temple's east would have been Solomon's porch, a colonnade of columns standing far higher than the column ruins seen in the photograph's far left. Of course, the Bible's Old and New Testaments set so many scenes in the temple courtyards, where Jesus stayed behind his family as a boy, sitting among the temple's teachers. Here, too, Jesus turned over money changer tables, healed, preached, taught, and slipped through the temple courtyard crowds to keep from being stoned. The broad courtyards surrounding the present-day Dome of the Rock, over the ancient temple's site, remind one that as much as eighty percent of the final great temple grounds was for the outsider. Are your courts open to receive those who need to know the Lord?

Temple Mount Retaining Wall

One cannot underestimate the cost and labor necessary for Herod the Great to rebuild the Temple Mount in the years leading up to Jesus's advent. Herod didn't just rebuild the great temple. He rebuilt the entire Temple Mount, bottom up. The photograph shows the exposed southern part of the Temple Mount's forty-foot-thick retaining wall, its huge stones cut so precisely that one cannot squeeze a credit card anywhere between them. Parts of the enormous wall stood many stories high, highlighting the seeming absurdity of Jesus's prophesy about the temple's imminent destruction. The wall's huge cornerstones call to mind Jesus's analogy of the great corner stone the builders rejected. Those who heard Jesus's caution about builders constructing towers first needing to count the cost would surely have thought of Herod's fabulous construction. Yet built for eternity, it didn't even last one hundred years. Jesus, not a pile of stones, is the eternal temple.

The Temple's Destruction

One cannot see the chaos of huge stones outside the Temple Mount's retaining wall without recalling the gospel account of the disciples admiring Herod's fabulous new construction only for Jesus to rebut that not one stone would be left standing on another. Of all the extraordinary things Jesus said, that one statement must have seemed among the least probable, the least predictable, the least true. Yet in 70 A.D., a bare forty years later, Roman soldiers were casting these stones down, one by one, from their great heights, nearly twenty stories high. The Temple Mount was enormous, with dimensions of five football fields by three football fields, covering about fifteen football fields in all. If any human construction would have withstood time, this construction would have been it. Yet there stood Jesus saying his temple, his body, was the greater and that Herod's temple would soon no longer stand. The Son of God was every bit the world's true ruler.

Trumpeter's Stand

Among the piles of great stones scattered around the Temple Mount ruins, archaeologists found this piece (replica pictured on site, original in museum) bearing a Hebrew inscription. The inscription marked the cut parapet corner piece as the spot where the trumpeter stood on the southwest corner of the temple's roof, to mark the start and end of every Sabbath. This cut stone top corner piece stood one hundred and fifty feet above where it lay in the piled rubble. Yet it still evokes the trumpet's lonesome cry that the day of rest had begun or ended, a cry one still hears every week in Jerusalem. God is indeed our only rest, to whom the trumpet calls us.

Temple Mount Stairway

This broad stairway to the Temple Mount accommodated hundreds of thousands of ancient Jews visiting the temple for three pilgrimage festivals every year, in their English translations Passover, Weeks or Pentecost, and Tabernacles, Tents, or Booths. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year meant worship rituals at the great temple but also three grand festival occasions. Pilgrimages were enormous social and cultural events, reconnecting with family and friends while reuniting around national religious identity. But pilgrimages were also teaching and learning opportunities. The pictured steps were a favorite spot for teachers to capture the time and attention of passing pilgrims. Where are you hearing and sharing God's word? Are you reaching those who would otherwise simply pass by?

The Temple's Ritual Baths

To accommodate thousands of visiting Jewish worshipers on pilgrimage to multiple festivals every year, Herod's Temple Mount needed more than one mikveh or ritual bath. Excavations like the one pictured have uncovered as many as forty-eight such ritual baths. Scholars suggest that many Jews visiting the great temple insisted on an extra purification in one of the great temple's many ritual baths, even if the visitor was already ritually clean. As the mikveh in the picture's foreground suggests, the baths were full immersion size with steps down into them, a ritual practice that persists among Jews today. The mikveh at a modern synagogue can look a bit like a hot tub, safe and sanitary in form and style. But the mikveh isn't to actually clean. Its purpose has always been for ceremonial cleansing. Are you cleansed by the blood of the Lamb?

The Garden Tomb

Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher covers and closely guards the primary traditional site for the burial place of Jesus Christ in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. But the so-called Garden Tomb, pictured here, is another popular visitor site, this one with a pleasant outdoor courtyard and tomb into which one can look and even step. The Garden Tomb is just outside the city wall near the Damascus Gate. While the Garden Tomb may not carry equal authority to the Holy Sepulcher site, the foundation supporting the Garden Tomb has designed an attractive and conducive site for fruitful reflection on the history-changing event of Jesus's resurrection. After all, the tomb is empty. The tomb is not the point. Hold fast to the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.


Roman soldiers crucified Christ at Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. This rocky hillock outside old Jerusalem's north wall near the Damascus Gate might look like Jesus's crucifixion place. The rocky face of the little hill today has a feature looking somewhat like a face, making it a popular visitor spot. While the site's authority might not be like the authority of the crucifixion rock site beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, popular sites like these may help visitors gain an impression of what a public crucifixion could have looked like. This site is by a busy road today, as the ancient site would have been. Crucifixion was unbelievably cruel in its details, as any passerby would instantly have seen. Thank God that Jesus bore our penalty, one that none of us could possibly tolerate.

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