Visiting Where It Happened
ON THE morning of June 12, 1978, two young Arabs were helping a group of about 10 of us from Norway to travel to Bethlehem. As we waited at a bus stop in a Jerusalem suburb, there was a tremendous “bang!” It sounded like a bomb. The faces of the Arab youths immediately reflected alarm. But then relief, as a large truck swerved over to the side of the street—one of its big tires having blown out.
“If that had been a bomb,” one of the youths said, “we would be in trouble.” He explained that all Arabs in the vicinity of an explosion are taken into custody, and can be detained for some time. Thus was illustrated to us firsthand the tense situation that exists in Israel. Yet, contrary to the fears that some expressed earlier in the year, the consensus of recent travelers is that the country is quite safe for tourists.
We from Norway were part of a charter tour of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since early spring Witnesses had been arriving in Israel from around the world—2,400 from France, 1,500 from Germany, 1,200 from the Netherlands, 750 from the United States, and so forth. By July about 9,000 had come, and a total of some 15,000 was expected by the end of October.
Many on tour wore identification badges, and the touring buses were identified by a sign in the front window: JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES TOURING THE LAND OF THE BIBLE. In surprise, a Jewish woman from California, after returning from a visit to Israel, told a relative: “Everywhere we went we saw you Witnesses. I had no idea you would be so interested in Israel.” She wondered why we were.
PURPOSE OF VISIT
The reason is, basically, that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Bible is God’s Word and so desire to know as much about it as possible. Since Israel is where most Bible events took place, we are interested in the country. There is real value in being familiar with places about which you read. To illustrate:
Say that you read in the newspaper about a notable happening near the place where you grew up. Say that specific landmarks such as a hill, a building, a river, and so forth, are mentioned in connection with the story. Now wouldn’t you read about the happening with more interest and understanding than if you had never been to the place? Yes, for now you can visualize the setting. You can see in your mind’s eye the lay of the country—the height of the hill, the width of the river and other geographical features that make the event come to life for you.
Yes, knowing the country helps a person better to understand the people of the Bible and the events involving them.
Yet it is not only ancient servants of Jehovah in whom we are interested. At a special meeting for visiting Norwegian Witnesses at the Haifa Kingdom Hall, we were told about the five modern congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Israel and the some 260 Kingdom preachers associated with them. It was explained that there are congregations in Bethlehem and Ramallah, mostly made up of Arabic-speaking Witnesses. In the two congregations in Tel Aviv, most are Jews. But of the 75 Witnesses in Haifa, about half are Jews and the other half are Arabic speaking.
For weeks these local Witnesses were kept busy arranging special meetings, where an interchange of spiritual encouragement was enjoyed with the visitors. Also, while our bus group from Norway was on a tour of Bethlehem June 11, we met a local Witness who took us to the fine, newly constructed Kingdom Hall. There he and another Witness answered many of our questions.
They told us that in Jerusalem, about 8 kilometers* to the north, there are only four Witnesses and none in Hebron some 24 kilometers to the south. “Bethlehem’s 25 Kingdom publishers have a huge territory to cover,” they noted. The following day some from our group joined Witnesses from Bethlehem in the door-to-door preaching in Jerusalem. Others of us, with two local Witnesses as guides, boarded an Arab bus from near our hotel in Jerusalem to go back to Bethlehem.
SOUTH OF JERUSALEM
In a few minutes we were entering Bethlehem. To us, the location is rich with significance. Yes, Jesus Christ was born here, and angels appeared to shepherds in one of those nearby fields to inform them of the birth.1 The terrain is hilly, more so than we had expected, and it appears quite dry and arid. We were surprised to find the elevation of Bethlehem to be the same as that of Jerusalem. The surrounding countryside reminded us of many other Bible events.
This was the area near which Jacob was passing when his beloved Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin.2 It was the home of Boaz and Naomi. And the Moabitess Ruth came here from across the rugged barren wilderness to the east and gleaned in Boaz’ fields.3 Also, here the young shepherd David grew up and tended his father’s sheep and, evidently, this was the home of his famous nephews Joab and Abishai as well.4
Soon we hired a car and started south toward Hebron. The elevation of Hebron is some 137 meters* above that of Jerusalem and of Bethlehem, being about 914 meters above sea level. As we headed south, the land began to change. It took on a more productive look. The area around Hebron has long been famous for its crops; it is from the nearby valley of Eshcol that the Israelite spies brought back to Moses the huge cluster of grapes that it took two men to carry.5 And today, too, the fertility of the land is evident.
Walking through the old narrow streets of Hebron, we felt transported back in time. Hebron is one of the world’s oldest, still inhabited cities. It was near ancient Hebron that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were buried in the cave of Machpelah.6 We visited the reputed burial place; a Moslem mosque now stands over the cave. Evidently Abraham’s principal place of residence was nearby at Mamre, where once big trees grew.7 He entertained the angels here prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.8 From a point near Hebron, he looked down some 1,220 meters and many kilometers away to see the thick smoke of that great destruction.9
As we considered the mountainous territory through which we had passed to reach Hebron, our appreciation of another Bible account grew. While dwelling at Hebron, Jacob told his 17-year-old son Joseph to go and check on the welfare of his 10 half brothers, who were pasturing the sheep at the family’s former residence of Shechem (present-day Nablus).10 That meant, not only a hike of 35 kilometers or so to near Jerusalem, but dozens of kilometers farther north through difficult terrain. Joseph finally caught up with his brothers beyond Shechem, at Dothan (just south of modern-day Jenin), some 130 kilometers or more from Hebron!
As we walked through Hebron’s ancient streets, or observed the old marketplace, we thought that life must not have been much different when David lived here. We recalled that it was at Hebron that he was anointed king, and he ruled from here for seven and a half years before moving his capital north to Jerusalem.11 But, of course, never far away are evidences of the present time—one being the Israeli soldiers with rifles ever at hand.
Hebron is an occupied city. It belongs to the area having nearly 700,000 Palestinian inhabitants and which is militarily controlled. This area, now called the “West Bank,” lies between the Dead Sea and the Jordan River on the east and the Jewish coastal plain of the Mediterranean Sea on the west. This huge, 3,700-square-kilometer area of rolling hills and valleys was taken by Israel from Jordan in 1967 during the Six-Day War.
It was nearly midafternoon before we left Hebron and headed back toward Bethlehem. However, before getting there we turned off the main road where a sign pointed to the Pools of Solomon. We could hardly believe our eyes! How massive they were—there were three, the largest one being 178 meters long, 54 meters wide and some 15 meters deep! These were apparently rebuilt in Roman times to supply water for Jerusalem, but possibly they had been used for the same purpose even as far back as Solomon’s time.
Arriving back in Bethlehem, we wanted to see one more thing—Herodium. Here on a prominent, towering hill, a few kilometers southeast of Bethlehem, Herod the Great, who had tried to kill the babe Jesus,12 built a fortress named after himself. On an earlier day we had seen Herod’s spectacular palace-fortress at Masada farther southeast near the Dead Sea. There the Jews made their last stand against the Romans in 73 C.E. But, although not as large, in some ways Herodium was even more meaningful to us.
This is because of the magnificent view of the surrounding land, which, despite its barrenness, had an enchanting golden-brown beauty in the setting sun. To the east, we could see all the way to the Dead Sea. Here before us was the Judean wilderness where David successfully eluded his pursuer, Saul.13 Seeing the ruggedness of the territory, we understood how he could do so, especially since from his youth he must have been very familiar with the territory. We thought, too, that, while pasturing his sheep, David perhaps often climbed this very hill for the magnificent view we were enjoying.
SOUTH OF TEL AVIV-YAFO
During the first week in Israel we stayed near Tel Aviv in a hotel close to the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, is of modern origin, but it adjoins the ancient city Joppa—so the cities are officially called Tel Aviv-Yafo.
It was at Joppa that the apostle Peter resurrected Dorcas,14 and it was here that he received a vision while staying at the house of Simon the tanner near the sea. Because of this vision Peter was prepared to accompany messengers from Caesarea, who were sent by the Gentile Cornelius.15 As we had occasion to travel the main highway running from Tel Aviv north to Caesarea, we would think how this trip of about an hour by car took Peter and his companions two days.
On the day that we headed south, we went into the ancient Philistine territory. Since no bus tours were arranged that first week, we rented a car for excursions to places of Biblical interest. On the route south, we came first to Ashdod, where a modern Israeli city is being built on the Mediterranean. But we recalled that nearby there once stood a prominent Philistine city, and that Jehovah’s ark of the covenant was brought there after being captured in battle. The Ashdodites were struck with painful piles, prompting them to send the Ark away.16
We continued south to Ashkelon, which is becoming a prominent tourist center, with delightful beaches. But this, too, was once a major Philistine city. Visiting the ancient ruins, we were pleased to see that a sign there incorporated the words of David’s song regarding the death of Saul and Jonathan during warfare with the Philistines: “Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.”17
Next we headed on toward Gaza and the “Gaza Strip,” the site of yet another principal Philistine city near the sea. All along we were impressed by the productivity of the land; it is a land of agriculture, which evidently contributed to the prosperity of ancient Philistia. But Gaza today bears the scars of war. Driving through its streets, we felt an atmosphere of depression and hopelessness.
The location made us remember the Israelite judge Samson, who knew Gaza well. One night he pulled out the doors of the city gate, “put them upon his shoulders and went carrying them up to the top of the mountain that is in front of Hebron.”18 Now, after having been to these places, we appreciate more fully the miraculous strength involved in climbing up nearly 914 meters with such a load to a mountain over 50 kilometers away! And here in Gaza, too, Samson killed thousands of Philistines, as well as himself, when he pulled down the roof-supporting pillars of the building in which the Philistines were feasting.19
From Gaza we turned southeast, heading for Beer-sheba, some 50 kilometers away. The fine road carried us across wide open spaces, where we saw camels, sheep and goats, along with their Arab caretakers. As we saw their tents in the distance, we thought that life must not be much different from when Abraham and Isaac used to live in the area. In Beer-sheba, which, for the most part, is quite a modern city, we visited the Bedouin market (open on Thursdays) and marveled at the fine produce—and how inexpensive! We bought two kilos of oranges (about a dozen of them) for the equivalent of 30 cents (U.S.).
Our main interest, however, was the tell, or ancient mound, outside of town, generally accepted as the Biblical Beer-sheba. This high mound dominates the surrounding area. We climbed it and were afforded a grand view of the vast low-lying countryside, beautifully painted in shadows and light by the disappearing sun. As we examined the excavations of the ancient ruins, we thought: ‘What a fine place in which to live!’ Abraham must have thought so too. He was staying here when God instructed him to take Isaac up to Mount Moriah (within Jerusalem’s walls today) to offer him as a sacrifice. Abraham afterward returned to Beer-sheba.20
As we headed back to the hotel that night, we felt exhilarated. Seeing these places—many even bearing the same Bible names—confirmed and provided depth of meaning to the Bible accounts that we had read from our youth.
On another day we drove north along the Mediterranean, turning east at Netanya. This took us across the fertile Plain of Sharon, and, after just a few kilometers, we were in the mountains of Samaria. Suddenly, right beside us was the hill on which once stood Samaria, the ancient capital of the northern 10-tribe kingdom of Israel. Driving up to it, we enjoyed a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains and fertile valleys. At the top we saw the remains of what has been identified as Israelite King Ahab’s palace. Pieces of ivory found here, dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries B.C.E., testify to the original luxury of the palace.21
Returning to the main road, we headed north to Dothan Valley, where young Joseph found his brothers and their flocks. Farmers in the fields harvesting grain, as well as flocks of sheep and goats, created pleasant pastoral scenes out of the past. Near Jenin (the ancient Levite city of En-gannim) we turned around and retraced our route, eventually coming to Nablus. Here, at the site of ancient Shechem, Mt. Ebal was above us to the north and Mt. Gerizim above to the south.22 At the foot of Gerizim stands Jacob’s well, probably the very well at which Jesus met the Samaritan woman on his return from Jerusalem. Her words to Jesus, “Our forefathers worshiped in this mountain,” evidently referred to Mt. Gerizim.23
After descending from the top of historic Mt. Gerizim, we turned south again, traveling perhaps the same route Jesus followed on his way to and from Jerusalem. Suddenly we spotted the road sign “Shiloh.” With excitement we turned east along a very narrow road, heading for the place where Jehovah’s ark of the covenant was kept during the time of the judges.24 A young Israeli soldier checked us, seemingly surprised at our coming to this remote place where not another person was in sight. Yet, for us, it was a memorable experience to contemplate that here, in this quiet hilly setting, Jephthah’s daughter and later little Samuel once served at Jehovah’s tabernacle.25
By now it was midafternoon and there was much more we wanted to see. Continuing south for several kilometers through mountainous territory, we turned east a short distance to the Arab villages of Beitin and Deir Dibwan. Nearby the Bible cities of Bethel and Ai were once located. But having difficulty in finding them, we inquired of two men on the road. They spoke English, and for the next hour or two kindly conducted us on a tour of the ancient excavated ruins.
How impressive it was to stand at this elevated place, some 914 meters above sea level, and, as the cool evening wind whipped at our hair and clothes, to view the surrounding countryside! Apparently it was here that Abraham invited Lot to choose the direction that he would go when separating from Abraham because of the quarrels between the caretakers of their animals. And, as the Bible says, “Lot raised his eyes and saw the whole District of the Jordan, that all of it was a well-watered region.”26
We were ready to leave, but one of the men insisted that we visit his home for tea and meet his family. What a pleasant time we enjoyed there! As darkness descended, we pulled ourselves away, delighted at experiencing this unexpected expression of hospitality from total strangers.
Galilee to us was a highlight. Its physical features alone are inviting—the coastal Carmel mountain range, the rugged northern terrain, the blue, jewellike Sea of Galilee, and the beautifully green Jezreel Valley (also called Plain of Esdraelon) that separates Samaria to the south and the Galilean mountains to the north. But, of course, what made Galilee especially appealing to us is the fact that here Jesus spent most of his earthly life, and many important Bible events occurred here.
As our tour bus left Haifa and followed the Jezreel Valley, the Carmel range was to our right and the Kishon River, lined with purple flowers, was to our left. Looking up at the mountain range, we thought about Jehovah’s miracle there, consuming Elijah’s sacrifice in that famous fire test. Then Elijah had the 450 prophets of Baal brought down here to the Kishon, just a few meters to our left, and had them slaughtered.27 Seeing the place where it happened added meaning to and appreciation for the event.
A few kilometers farther and we were at the ruins of ancient Megiddo, a city located at a truly strategic spot. What a marvelous view of the beautiful Jezreel Valley from here! Whoever held this well-fortified place could control the pass through the Carmel mountain range; indeed, decisive battles were fought here. How appropriate that the name Har–Magedon (meaning “Mountain of Megiddo”) is associated in the Bible with God’s victorious war over all political opposers!28
From Megiddo we picked out features of this famous valley, or plain. There, near the center of the valley, is the hill of Moreh. On or near its slopes once lay such towns as Nain, Shunem and En-dor. Beyond this hill, a few kilometers to the northeast, stands the prominent Mt. Tabor, with its rounded top. From there Judge Barak, with Deborah, descended and defeated the surprised Canaanites.29 (A magnificent view of the area is also afforded from Tabor’s top, which we earlier had ascended by car.) Hidden from our sight in the Galilean mountains, but very close to the valley, is Nazareth, the early home of Jesus. Jesus was likely familiar with the area before our eyes, since Nazareth is a relatively short walking distance from all these places.
We looked to the other side of the valley, far to the southeast, toward Mt. Gilboa. Near its foot is the well, or spring, of Harod. There Gideon faced 135,000 Midianites who were camped across at the hill of Moreh. We recalled how Jehovah directed Gideon to reduce his forces to a mere 300, and yet, with only these, gave Gideon the victory.30 Later, in a similar battle confrontation, the Philistines were apparently near the hill of Moreh and the Israelites again at the well of Harod. At this time the Philistines routed the Israelites, and Saul and Jonathan were killed.31 Seeing these locations helped us to visualize so much better such Bible events.
But perhaps the most beautiful sight of all was our first view of the Sea of Galilee. At the time, we were descending from the mountains to the north of the sea. There below us, set like a jewel in a deep basin, was the 21-kilometer-long, 12-kilometer-wide body of blue water. But it seemed much smaller, because from our elevation we had a bird’s-eye view. Surprisingly, the lake is nearly 213 meters below sea level, with hills and mountains practically surrounding it.
As we spent time on the lake’s shores, traversing it by boat or viewing it from elevated vantage points, we thought of many events that occurred here. Jesus walked on these waters,32 calmed them during a storm,33 had a post-resurrection breakfast with his disciples on Galilee’s shores,34 gave the best-known speech ever recorded on a nearby mountainside,35 fed thousands here with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fishes,36 and made his home in Capernaum, a city on its northern shore.37
On the day our bus tour left Galilee for Jerusalem, we came to the city of Beth-shean, situated strategically between the Jezreel and Jordan valleys. The tell, or ruins of the ancient city, is on a mound that rises to a height of some 80 meters. What an excellent view is afforded from the top looking up the Jezreel Valley toward Mt. Gilboa and Megiddo, and down the Jordan Valley toward Jericho! Here at Beth-shean the Philistines fastened Saul’s corpse on the city wall after his death in battle at Mt. Gilboa.38
JERICHO AND JERUSALEM
We followed the Jordan Valley down about 80 kilometers to Jericho. The area was hot and arid, but we realized that in the spring of the year it would be cooler. So we wondered if Jesus and his family might not have taken this easier-to-travel, but longer, route on their annual trips to Jerusalem for the Passover, rather than going through mountainous Samaria.39
How impressive it was to come upon Jericho with its many palm trees!40 Getting out of the air-conditioned bus, we felt the sun’s intense heat. It helped us to appreciate more fully Jesus’ commendation of those who would give “only a cup of cold water” to his disciples.41 We climbed the mound where the ruins of ancient Jericho have been excavated. The area is relatively small, helping us to appreciate how it was possible for Joshua and his army to march around the city seven times in one day.42
Our last four days in Israel were spent in Jerusalem, the principal city of the Bible. It was indeed meaningful to get a firsthand view of the places about which we had read so much. Standing on the Mount of Olives, we recalled that Judas betrayed Jesus to his enemies in the Garden of Gethsemane somewhere in this vicinity.43 Looking across the Kidron Valley, we saw the Moslem Dome of the Rock, but realized that in Jesus’ day he saw the temple standing there. With the temple in view, he gave his famous prophecy about the “conclusion of the system of things.”44
From our position on the Mount of Olives, we could see the actual location of the “city of David,” and its relation to the enlarged Jerusalem of later years, which lay toward the north and west. The original “city of David,” or “Mount Zion,” was captured from the Jebusites.45 It is outside the present-day walls of Jerusalem, being located south of the Dome of the Rock. On another day we saw more clearly why the actual location of the original city is so certain.
We walked down into the Kidron Valley to the spring of Gihon, just below the hill on which the “city of David” was built. This spring, hidden in a cave, is vital to the location of the city, since a protected water supply was necessary in ancient times. It was apparently through a shaft, which the Jebusites had made down to this spring outside the city’s walls, that Joab and his men ascended to reach the inside of the city high above. Thus from inside, they led the attack that won the city for David and the Israelites.46 Years later King Hezekiah had a 533-meter-long tunnel built from Gihon to the pool of Siloam, which in Hezekiah’s time was inside the city—truly an engineering masterpiece.47 This ensured Jerusalem a water supply during any possible siege.
Water still flows through Hezekiah’s tunnel. It was about knee-deep when we walked through it. After coming out at the pool of Siloam, we walked farther down the valley to the spring of En-rogel. We recalled that it was here at En-rogel that David’s rebellious son Adonijah held a feast to enlist support for his usurpation of the throne.48 When dying King David was told of this, he had his son Solomon anointed as king at the spring of Gihon, just a few hundred meters up the valley.49
What effect did visiting these places have on us? Well, we did not need to see them to believe that they existed. Yet, visiting them was a confirmation that they really do exist. But, in particular, actually being there and becoming familiar with the physical setting of Bible events has added a depth of meaning to and appreciation for these happenings.
One kilometer equals about .6 mile.
One meter equals about 3.3 feet.
[Box on page 11]
1 Luke 2:4-16.
10 Genesis 37:12-14.
11 2 Samuel 5:1-5.
12 Matthew 2:7-18.
13 1 Samuel 24:1-3.
14 Acts 9:36-43.
15 Acts 10:1-25.
16 1 Samuel 5:1-9.
17 2 Samuel 1:20, AV.
18 Judges 16:3.
24 Joshua 18:1.
26 Genesis 13:1-11.
27 1 Kings 18:18-40.
29 Judges 4:4-16.
32 Matthew 14:23-32.
33 Mark 4:35-41.
34 John 21:9-14.
35 Matthew 5:1, 2.
36 Matthew 14:14-22.
37 Mark 2:1.
38 1 Samuel 31:10.
39 Luke 2:41, 42.
40 Deuteronomy 34:3.
41 Matthew 10:42.
42 Joshua 6:15.
48 1 Kings 1:9, 10.
49 1 Kings 1:33-41.
[Map on page 4]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
SEA of GALILEE
Hill of Moreh
Plain of Sharon
Joppa (Tel Aviv)
Pools of Solomon
Valley of Eshcol
Sodom and Gomorrah?
[Picture on page 7]
We saw this young shepherdess taking care of sheep and goats near Tell Beer-sheba
[Picture on page 9]
The beautiful Sea of Galilee as it appears today