R-D Reporter in Israel, Part 5

The following article was originally published in the Pocahontas Record-Democrat on July 13, 2011, and is reprinted here by permission.

By Kirsten Ekstrand
    The scorching Middle Eastern sun beat down on me as I stood at the edge of Masada. A hat, sunscreen, and recently replenished water bottle weren’t quite enough to beat the heat. Still, as I looked out over the desert, I was hard put to think of any sight that was more beautiful. Something about the rugged barrenness of the cliffs, the colorlessness of the landscape, or the endlessness of it all — I’m not sure where the beauty lay. All I knew was that it was, and that I could have stood there and stared at it for hours on end.
    For two weeks in May, I was privileged to travel to Israel with the Women’s Concert Choir from Moody Bible Institute, an accredited college in downtown Chicago. In a June 15 article, I wrote about our concert ministry to messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. In articles published on June 22 and 29, and July 6, I wrote about the sites we visited and my observations of the culture. Today’s article will conclude the series with an account of our visits to the Mount of Olives, the Garden Tomb, and the Judean desert.
    Second to the temple mount, the Mount of Olives is probably the best-known site in Jerusalem. Its highest point reaches an elevation of over 2,500 feet, and it is recognized in both Christian and Jewish belief as being the site where the Messiah, the chosen savior, will come to earth. In Christian belief, the Messiah is Jesus Christ, while most Jews believe that the Messiah has yet to appear.
    Old Testament prophecies say that He will split the Mount of Olives in two when He comes, and that all the dead will rise to life. As a result, this site is a sacred Jewish cemetery. The mountain is covered in tombs of people who desired to be among the first to rise from the dead as the Messiah returns. Rocks are left on their tombs as remembrances. As our tour guide explained, flowers will fade and die, but rocks will remain forever, symbolic of the human soul.

    THE MOUNT OF OLIVES provides a beautiful vantage point to see the City of Jerusalem. A sea of tombs, ancient and modern, covers the mountain, interrupted only by a highway at its base. The gates to the Old City, the Dome of the Rock, and all the houses, mosques, synagogues, and shops continue into the horizon.
    This was the place where Jesus looked out on the city and wept. Looking into the future and seeing the destruction of the temple, the hardness of peoples’ hearts, and the construction of Muslim shrines, He wept. All of that was past and present for me, and as I looked out, I felt the same sorrow, coupled with a desire to see Jerusalem once again become a city of God.
    We journeyed down the Mount of Olives, stopping briefly at the Garden of Gethsemane and the church located there. The Garden of Gethsemane is now a flower garden, with huge olive trees throughout. While it would not have been an ornamental garden when Jesus spent His last hours there before His death, I still couldn’t help but imagine the moment.
    Later that afternoon, we visited the Garden Tomb, and my imagination sent me back in time once again. While the actual site of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is unknown, Protestants and Roman Catholics have postulated two possibilities. In Roman Catholic tradition, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on top of the empty tomb. In Protestant tradition, all three events took place around the area of the Garden Tomb. (From an archeological perspective, either possibility is legitimate.)

A bus stop at the Garden Tomb is a reminder that Jesus was crucified in a public place, while the life of the masses just moved on.

    THE GARDEN TOMB SITS beside a hill shaped like a skull. As I stared through the fence at the hill, I couldn’t help but notice a bus stop next to it. Initially a little annoyed that I couldn’t sit and reflect in a quiet and still place, the guide’s words brought my reaction back to reality. Roman soldiers crucified their victims on the sides of streets. As I looked out and tried to picture the scene again, the present reality of the bus stop made it all the more poignant. My Jesus died next to a busy street, while life just went on.
    Later, we had a chance to walk into the empty tomb. Even if it wasn’t the same tomb where Jesus was buried and resurrected, its presence was a reminder of the glorious victory that captures the essence of my faith. We had just a few moments inside; like many sites in Israel, this one was crowded. We paused in the tomb and took it in, and then it was time to leave.
    The next day, we journeyed onward, to the Judean desert for an overnight excursion. As we drove out of Jerusalem, the plants grew fewer and farther between, until at last we were just looking at desert cliffs with an occasional cactus or wadi. A wadi is a riverbed that only fills when it rains. Wadis are common in a drier climate like the Middle East. They are known for being deceptive; looking across the desert, there is no way to tell if the splash of green is a wadi, or if it is a lush stream that will provide a stable water source.
    Our first stop in the desert was Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. As much as I had learned about this site in history, I was surprised to learn that much of that is pure speculation. Many scholars believe that this was the home of the Essenes, a first century sect of Judaism that practiced extreme separatism, and spent their days studying and copying the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures).

Ein Gedi is an oasis in the middle of the desert.

in the middle of the desert, was our next stop. We had to hike through the hills to reach Ein Gedi, but every step was well worth it. When we arrived at the top, the site was breathtaking. A waterfall, coming from the top of a cliff, fell down into a pool of fresh water. This is the water source for a nearby kibbutz, or communal farm, and in ancient times, it was an oasis where David escaped from Saul.
    Seeing Ein Gedi has long been a dream of mine, and I had to take a plunge in the water. Fortunately, one of my friends wanted to do it with me. After a hike in the Israeli sun, nothing could have felt as refreshing as the waterfall, pouring its stores on top of us.
    All too soon, it was time to leave. We journeyed on through the desert, ready to visit our hottest stop of the entire two weeks: the ancient fortress of Masada. A high cliff of 1,300 feet, Masada stands as a formidable mountain. The only way up by foot is a serpentine path, known to locals as the Snake Path. This winding trail takes 45 minutes to hike and is closed to hikers after mid-morning, due to the fierce heat.
    King Herod built a fortress on this location, and after the fall of the temple in the first century, Jewish zealots found their way to the fortress and took it over, using it as a way to escape Roman attack. It worked well for some time, but the Romans finally were able to build a ramp up to the cliff. When the Jews saw that there was no hope of victory, they killed themselves and their families and burned the fortress, rather than face life as slaves to the Romans.

The  beauty of the desert caught Kirsten completely off guard.
    THE STORY OF MASADA has inspired the Jewish people for generations. Rather than attempt to answer the question of whether their suicide was right, the Israeli Defense Forces simply swear, “Masada will not fall again.” Historically, the swearing-in ceremonies were held at Masada, but they have since been moved to the Western Wall. Still, the promise to protect Masada concludes the ceremony, and compels each soldier to fight for its freedom.
    Masada provides a beautiful outlook on the Judean desert. The hills and cliffs continue on as far as the eye can see, and from the other side, the Dead Sea and the country of Jordan lie in the distance. Out of all the sites in Israel, none caught me off guard the way that Masada did. Something about the desert captured me, displaying an untouched beauty that makes the Mona Lisa look drab.
    We descended from Masada in the cable cars they provide for tourists, and continued on our journey through the desert. Our next stop was a dip in the Dead Sea. Perhaps our professor described the water adequately: three parts salt, one part baby oil, and one part rubbing alcohol.
    The water burned as I first stepped in, making any open sore sting. “Think healing,” I reminded myself with a smile. I leaned back, and, sure enough, was floating. It’s the oddest feeling to float with no effort, and to try to stand up again was difficult. While we didn’t stay long, my skin felt soft and smooth that night.

me to tell about the visits to a Bedouin tent, to the Roman cities of Caesarea Philippi and Beit She’an, or the Church of the Holy Nativity. While two weeks are not enough to see the whole country, five articles are hardly enough to describe half of it. You’ll have to go to the land of Israel yourself to see what I have missed.
    As I flew back on a plane to the U.S., looking back on the two weeks, they seemed on the one hand an eternity, and on the other a few short hours. In that time, I saw the sites of the origins of my faith, I came to understand just a few of the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics, I encountered the forgotten Palestinian Christians, and I helped to encourage a nation of beautiful Israelis who are waiting for their Messiah and the peace that He will bring.
    Now, I am back in Pocahontas, back to normal life. I sit in the newspaper office, trying to make sense of everything I saw and learned on the trip. Unfortunately, sometimes two weeks aren’t enough to answer every question. Sometimes, it’s just enough time to bring to the light a hundred more that need to be considered. These are the questions that go beyond the surface, and the solutions are not easy.
    So that’s where you’ll find me — pondering, trying to answer the questions created by the trip of a lifetime. Perhaps to find the answers, I’ll have to return to their origin, a 5,000-mile trek I would gladly make again.

A sunset in the desert is breathtaking.

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