Getting Better Acquainted with the Bible Lands
BETWEEN July 18 and September 26 this past year, some 3,500 of Jehovah’s witnesses availed themselves of special arrangements to tour the Bible lands. There were over 800 of these travelers who came from France, and a similar number from the British Isles, upward of 750 from North America, and hundreds more from other lands in northern Europe.
For years it had been the desire of many of them to see for themselves the places associated with the Hebrew prophets of God and with the ministry of God’s own Son and his apostles. During their stay in Israel they traveled from Mount Hermon on the far north down to the road leading into Beer-sheba in the Negeb, and from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea.
Many of the places pointed out to them were either mountains or the ruins of former cities. To a casual observer they might not have seemed impressive. But to students of the Bible the hill of Moreh, Mount Tabor, the sites of ancient Samaria and Bethel are filled with meaning. These are locations where Jehovah executed judgment on people who opposed his purpose. As could be plainly seen, the places are still there. The Bible accounts concerning them are not imagination.
In the hot sun the tour groups trekked to the top of the mound of Megiddo and saw evidence of the fortifications that once were there. What a view it afforded of the Plain of Esdraelon below! From its location near the entrance to the pass through the Carmel mountain range, it was evident that this city could easily control the trade routes that came through here from the south, the north and the east. As one Egyptian Pharaoh reportedly said: “The capturing of Megiddo is the capturing of a thousand towns!” Control of this city represented international political and military dominance in Bible times. It was not hard for the visitors to see why the name Har–Magedon (meaning “Mountain of Megiddo”) is associated with the coming divine victory over the political powers of the world.—Rev. 16:14. 16.
VIVID REMINDERS OF THE MINISTRY OF JESUS
In Galilee they were reminded of events that unmistakably identify Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Early one morning they set out by boat across the Sea of Galilee. A visitor from France reports: “One of the moments that particularly impressed me was when the boat on which we were traveling stopped offshore and the guide read Matthew 14:23-33.” They could visualize those times when Jesus walked on the water there and when he spoke to a storm and caused it to grow still. Could anyone do these things by mere human power?
Landing at Capernaum, on the northern shore, those on tour found little but ruins. Here were the remains of a synagogue built sometime after Jesus’ earthly ministry. In this city Jesus had expelled demons and healed every sort of sickness; the inhabitants knew that he had even raised the dead. Yet they did not believe. In a spiritual sense Capernaum had been exalted heaven high by Jesus’ presence, his teaching and his miracles, but Jesus said: “Down to Hades you will come!” (Luke 10:15) The ruins seen on this trip testified that his words had been fulfilled.
Farther to the north the travelers visited Caesarea Philippi, where the apostle Peter, thoroughly convinced by the things that he had seen, acknowledged to Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And nearby they saw Mount Hermon, evidently the “lofty mountain” where Jesus was transfigured and where a voice came from heaven itself, saying: “This is my Son . . . listen to him.” (Matt. 16:16; 17:1, 5) It was not seeing these places that convinced these visitors of the truthfulness of these things. But, as one of them said, as a result of being here “we have grown spiritually richer.”
As they moved from one location to another, the minds of the travelers frequently turned to the time when Jesus was here. In old Nazareth, built on a hillside, they got a feel of the humble surroundings in which he grew up and recalled that in a synagogue here he publicly read from the scroll of Isaiah his commission to “tell good news to the meek ones.” (Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:16-21) Though they were traveling in air-conditioned buses, they frequently remarked about the fact that Jesus had traveled through all this mountainous region on foot.
The hot, dry climate now gave added meaning in their minds to Jesus’ commendation of those who would give “only a cup of cold water” to his disciples. (Matt. 10:42) And in these surroundings one could not help but recall that ancient hospitality here involved washing the feet of one’s guests—how good it would feel! Jesus performed such a loving service for his apostles.—John 13:3-5.
In contrast, when those on tour were shown an old millstone in Capernaum, and saw how heavy it was, they felt the full force of Jesus’ warning to anyone who, lacking love, would stumble a Christian brother. As he said: “It would be of more advantage to him if a millstone were suspended from his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”—Luke 17:2.
Jerusalem was a highlight of the tour. As the buses crossed from the north onto the Mount of Olives and suddenly the walled city came into view, there was a feeling of excitement! It is true, the ancient temple of Jehovah is no longer there. The city was completely destroyed by the Roman armies in 70 C.E. Yet, as a person stands on the Mount of Olives, he can still discern the geographical features of the ancient city.
Looking westward across the Kidron Valley, one sees Mount Moriah at the northern part of the city. There is likely where Abraham came to offer up his son Isaac. It is there that Jehovah’s angel instructed David to build an altar to Jehovah, and in this place his son Solomon erected the glorious temple of Jehovah. To the left, south of the temple area, can be seen where the City of David once stood on Mount Zion, and beyond that is the Valley of Hinnom.
It was here on the Mount of Olives that Jesus sat as he described vividly to his apostles world events that we have seen since 1914 C.E., events that prove that Christ is invisibly present in kingly power. (Matt. 24:3-14) Just a few days after speaking about these things, in the Garden of Gethsemane, apparently on the side of this same hill, Jesus was arrested. The next morning, having been falsely condemned, he was impaled on a stake at a location named Golgotha, meaning “Skull Place.” While in Jerusalem, the visitors saw the place where this is believed to have occurred—outside the Damascus Gate to the north, where the rock formation of a cliff gives the appearance of a human skull. Nearby they also inspected an empty tomb in a cave that many believe to be the place where Jesus was buried.
Knowing the exact spot where these events occurred is not the vital thing. What is truly important is what happened there and its meaning to us. And those who made this trip found that seeing these locations helped them to visualize the events.
The memories that the travelers associate with their visit to Israel are many and varied. A mother from England will probably not forget the day that an Arab, perhaps jokingly, offered to buy her attractive seventeen-year-old daughter for five camels.
Some have had occasion to mention to acquaintances at home what they saw in museums in and around Jerusalem. There the Divine Name was clearly in evidence on the “Lachish Letters.” An inscription on display from a tomb declared: “Jehovah is the God of the whole earth.” Another one made mention of exile in Babylon. A noteworthy inscription bore the name of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who yielded to the clamor of the Jewish priests to have Jesus impaled. And there were ancient scrolls of portions of the Bible, all testifying to the accuracy with which it has been passed down to us.
Many have warm memories of their meetings with fellow Witnesses in Israel. One such occasion was in a restaurant on the slopes of Mount Carmel. It was in this area, in the days of the prophet Elijah, that the difference between true worship and the false was vividly demonstrated. Here the materialistic sort of worship associated with Baal was exposed as falsehood, but a supernatural display of fire from heaven moved observers to confess: “Jehovah is the true God!” (1 Ki. 18:19-40) While having a midday meal there on Mount Carmel, the visitors heard heartwarming experiences about the work of the modern-day witnesses of Jehovah who point people away from materialism and to the worship of the true God.
There were other opportunities to meet with the local Witnesses too. One particularly inspiring occasion was when Scandinavian travelers met with two local congregations in the old Roman theater at Caesarea. The excellent acoustics of that partially restored structure permitted all to hear with ease, and the old walls were made to resound with songs to Jehovah’s praise.
WHERE THE APOSTLE PAUL PREACHED
The apostle Paul had passed through Caesarea more than once on his missionary travels. Among other places to which he had traveled with the “good news” were Cyprus, Greece and Rome. These places were also visited by many of the travelers to the Bible lands this past year.
In Cyprus they had opportunity to see Paphos, where Paul and Barnabas had preached to the Roman proconsul. And just as those early Christians were opposed by the sorcerer Elymas, who sought to distort the righteous ways of Jehovah, so today, the visitors observed, Christendom’s clergy continue to try to stir up hatred against Jehovah’s people by misrepresenting their work. (Acts 13:6-12) Though the clergy themselves have been deeply involved in the violence that has repeatedly erupted on the island, they had a sign hung across the road near the peaceful assembly of Jehovah’s witnesses charging: “The Millennialists [as they call the Witnesses] Are the Enemies of the Nation.” But those who visited the assembly site could readily see for themselves that there was no danger from these peace-loving people.
Further accounts from the Bible book of Acts came to life as the travelers went on to Greece. In Athens they climbed onto the Areopagus, where Paul had preached in full view of the towering Acropolis with its pagan temples. (Acts 17:19, 22) In the ruins of ancient Corinth they stood before the Bema, the “judgment seat” where Jewish opposers had brought Paul for a hearing before proconsul Gallio. (Acts 18:12) And they visited Delphi, an ancient center for the worship of Apollo, where an inscription was found mentioning the proconsulship of Gallio and providing further information that has been used to ascertain the date when Paul appeared before him.
In Rome they saw the arch of Titus, testimony to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—an experience, however, from which the Christians were spared, because they heeded Jesus’ warning and got out of Jerusalem when the Roman armies lifted their siege in the year 66. Near that historic arch is the Colosseum, built by the labor of Jews who had refused to exercise faith in Jesus and so had been taken to Rome as slaves when Jerusalem was devastated.
Earlier, it was from there in Rome that Paul wrote six inspired books of the Bible. In that city there was also a Christian congregation. And those whose tours took them through Rome this past year saw that interest in true Christianity is very much alive today, over 55,000 attending the “Divine Victory” International Assembly there in August.
From start to finish, the tour of the Bible lands was an enriching experience. As a British traveler expressed it: “In a very vivid fashion, our eyes have been opened, bringing to life the place names mentioned in the Bible, and I am sure that henceforth we shall be able to read its pages with a mental picture of the topography of the country. No longer will the picture be in plain black and white, but in full color and in three dimensions.”
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Crossing the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus performed miracles
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Modern-day Jerusalem as viewed from the Mount of Olives