November 17, 2019

Israel: The Jordan River Valley

Jordan River Valley Jordan River Valley © Dimasid10 | Dreamstime.com

Israel’s southern portion of the Jordan River Valley is my new destination.

The Jordan River is like most rivers. It starts in high places, carves valleys and supplies water to the land along the way. But while all other major rivers work their way to a sea level ocean, the Jordan River does not. Not even close. It quickly falls below sea level before it even reaches the Sea of Galilee at the base of the mountains. And by then it is already 670 feet below. From there, it keeps descending through a valley that is not of its own genesis; it is the northern end of the African Rift Valley system.

The Jordan River runs a mere 75 miles before it disappears into the Dead Sea. At 1,370 feet below sea level, it is the lowest place on dry earth.

The Jordan River has been filling this valley with water and silt for all of recorded history. And yet the southern valley through which the river flows is a desert and is mostly bone dry. Like everything else about this part of the world, this river, the valley through which it flows, and the people who God allowed to pass through it are unique to the world and major players in its history.

Imagine the symbolism that has been generated by authors regarding how the Jordan River is birthed from the reliable springs of the rain fed northern mountains and dies at perhaps one of the driest and deadest places on earth. This valley and its river are also solid political and theological boundaries for all to witness and respect over the centuries.

Life needs water, and the Jordan provides that to the people on both sides of this political and theological divide.  Who gets how much water, and when, is a common flash point of historical conflict.

Our bus is not very far south of the Roman ruins at Beth Shean, in the valley that is often described as ‘lush’ but looks like a complete desert to me. We pass orchards of date palms. We are told that these trees are perfect for the area because they flourish in the poor soil and require very little water.  We’ve had dates at every meal and they are consistently delicious. The shock to me is that these palm trees have all been imported from Indio, California. Perhaps, I should have not been surprised, for when I was a kid, Indio was advertised as the “Date Capitol of the World”. Sadly, thousands of those beautiful mature Indio date palms have been transplanted and repurposed as arboreal decoration around hundreds of shopping centers and condo complexes in Southern California. 

Our buses follow the two lane road that roughly parallels the Jordan River. In reality, there is no other choice. There is no other road, and there is no other place to put a road. The deep valley dictates it.  

Eventually, our buses exit to a side road that will take us to the river. We pass through rolling mounds of sand and gravel. Not one square inch of the passing terrain qualifies in my mind as ‘lush’. Occasionally we pass a small church of one denomination or another. Each looks to be well maintained and positioned at the end of a dirt parking lot with few or no cars. I understand that none of them have a regular congregation. It is not their purpose. They exist because of charitable believers from faraway places. They donate resources to build and maintain the structures for pilgrims that might desire to stop in and worship. What a different way of thinking about a church. In most of the world, a church building is generated for the purpose of serving a nearby congregation, which then supports that church by giving and serving. Here, the support is from far away and for pilgrims from far away. A local congregation is not ever expected to be a reality. Here, most of such churches are built to appeal to pilgrims who desire to be near a place that is considered holy, and/or to protect a place where something holy happened.

Our destination is the road’s end at the famous Jordan River baptism site. There is some excited anticipation as the buses park. Behind the entrance gate we find hundreds of people gathered in groups and hundreds more walking around. Some are dry, some are wet. Some are in street clothes and some are in white smocks. On either side of the large common area are buildings to accommodate their needs. White smocks are for sale and are stacked high on the store shelves. Shaded teaching areas are plentiful, and we are gathered in one of them to review the biblical history of the place. It is rich.

Dismissed, we wander to the observation area overlooking the river. Stairs facilitate the constant baptismal traffic down to the long wooden platform at the water level. More stairs accommodate those entering and exiting the brown, slow moving water. We watch as a half dozen pastors stand in belly deep water and receive one believer after another. I witness dozens of people fulfilling their dream of being baptized in the Jordan River. There is plenty of space for even twice the people and room for individuals to enter the water by themselves if they feel so inclined. Some of our group pull up their pants and dip their toes from the steps.

On this day, the Jordan River was a good hundred feet wide. We are told that the river was much smaller last year because of drought. Then in contrast, we are shown the high water marks of last winter’s flood. It was about 20 feet higher than today. That would have been a sight! Think what a physical barrier this Jordan would have been to the ancients when in flood stage. On this day, the only barrier to crossing is political and theological. It is not allowed. So it is not possible.

On the far side of the river is the Country of Jordan. I am surprised by several things. First, on their side of the river is another baptism facility. It is much more modest, but it is complete with a covered platform and stairs into the river. Its function is identical to the Israeli side, just a fraction of the size. Supposedly, Jordan superficially supports the concept of religious freedom, but the boundaries are real and solid. If a person is born Christian, their identity card will say so. If they are born a Muslim, their identity card will say that as well. Conversion is a one way street however. While a Christian is allowed, if not encouraged, to become as Muslim the reverse is not allowed. For a Christian it is not safe to evangelize a Muslim. If the person rejects your effort and reports you, the secret police will be at your door. If the person repents and puts their faith in Christ, and it is discovered, there will be trouble. They will lose their job, marriage and every friend they ever had. But worse yet, their own family may try to kill them and /or the secret police may try to get them to revert back to Islam. So the baptism platform is a surprise to me.

Second, is that in the near distance, I can see several small Christian churches with clear Christian symbols on their spires that look similar to the ones on this side of the river. I am surprised that they are allowed.

Third, on our side of the river are three armed soldiers patrolling the grounds. However, they seem to spend most of their time being photographed with the visitors.

But in spite of the calm, the danger is real. This baptism site would be a rich target for a terrorist. These soldiers are an advertisement that the price of trying will be very high.

Fourth, I find it strange that even though the two countries are only separated by a narrow shallow river, I see no Jordanian representation on the other side.

As I said, some of our group step into the water. However no baptisms are planned nor given by our pastors. Perhaps the question “why” would be appropriate for some. For is not getting baptized here the reason many travel so far from home? The answer has to do with the meaning of public baptism into water, even this water.

Baptism is one of the two commands that Jesus left for us to obediently carry out. The other is to remember Him with communion. It seems simple enough, but this is where it gets complicated.

Regarding communion, scripture does not define how often. So communion can correctly be offered in churches as often or as rarely as the church leadership decides to bring into remembrance the work of Jesus on the cross. Again, it seems simple. It is anything but. What the elements mean to one family of believers has been in huge conflict with others throughout the centuries. The Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox Churches excommunicated each other over this centuries years ago. The meaning of communion even fractured the early Protestant fathers like Luther, Calvin and others. The God-breathed words of scripture are there for all to read. Yet these sincere men of God cannot seem to agree.

Baptism’s meaning in Christianity is equally fragmented. Scripture clearly requires all believers to be baptized. Beyond that, how the command is placed into action is unrecognizable from one church to another.

Does it need to be a public expression of obedience or can it be private? Does it require a pastor/priest, or can anyone do it? Is it necessary or even beneficial to be done more than once? Is it beneficial in some way to do it near where Jesus supposedly did it? Does it wash away sin or simply wash the skin? Is there a required baptism into the Holy Spirit before there should be a baptism into water? These are enormously contentious issues.

The crux of all of this it simple. What is required of us to be saved? How you answer this will determine whether or not there is a benefit to being baptized a second time in this Jordan River.

And while any of us could be baptized in the same river as Jesus, we cannot walk on water as he did on the Sea of Galilee. We cannot experience the temptations He did as the devil sought to stumble Him in the wilderness west of Jericho. We should not, as some do, allow ourselves to be crucified to share in the pain as is a custom in the Philippines. Yet we are all drawn to it. Each of us can stand in the Jordan with a pastor if we want to and share the Jordan River experience. And we watched a steady stream of people joyfully take advantage of the moment.

Besides Jesus’ baptism, this location on the Jordan has been historically active. The north-south Kings Highway from Egypt to Damascus runs parallel to the Jordan not far from us on the other side. So with a prosperous ancient city like Jericho on the west side as a gate way to Jerusalem, there would have been significant traffic across the river at or near here.

It is just across the Jordan from here where Joshua supposedly took leadership of God’s people from Moses. And if so, it would have been here that that God stopped the Jordan during flood time to let the Hebrews pass through on dry land to enter the promise land. And somewhere near where we are standing would have been the pillar of twelve stones from the middle of the river Joshua had the priests build into a memorial. 

Jericho, that is where we are off to next. It is not far, only a few miles. At 820 below sea level, it is 150 feet lower than the Sea of Galilee, but still 500 feet above the Dead Sea which is only eight miles away. Again, I report reading that it is a lush area, but parched unproductive earth is mostly what I see from the bus. We are told that people of Jerusalem have their weekend and vacation homes here. We are told that real estate is affordable here. This I can believe. All I see are disorganized ugly sets of individual constructions with broken things on every side of the road. The impression I get is that it is not a place to be after dark.

I read that Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world. And I ask why? Why would a band of people settle here? Likely it is a combination of a reliable source of water and that it is along a major trade route. However, a trade route implies other cultures that are transiting goods to and from somewhere. This makes it a result of older cities still. Jericho has experienced prosperity, decline and complete destruction many times over. The biblical city of Jericho was apparently built around what is called Elisha’s Spring. It still flows today.

We exit our buses to be greeted by a friendly camel and his handler. The camel attracts many and its handler is willing to accept a fee for pictures. Rides are offered but we are in a hurry. We enter the gate and climb up the stone strewn tel. On top of the modest tel is a good view of the area. But there is nothing much to see of what is thought to be the old city of interest. But this does make sense for the walls did all fall down.

The top of the tel looks to be just an elevated area of dirt in the center of town. Nothing more. Literally, there is nothing to see. However, there is hope for future visitors, for there is much history in the dirt below our feet and excavations do continue.

Jericho is the first city in the promised land to fall under Joshua’s army. The city and its population completely disappeared after this for a long time. And God put a curse on whoever would attempt to rebuild it.

The top of the tel does offer a good over view of the area. To the east is the Jordan River valley. Around us is an opportunity to look out over the modern city from the ancient site. Fifteen miles to the west is Jerusalem. A mile west is the steep valley wall. Looking around, I do see trees everywhere, but little or no landscaping. I see no agriculture fields in the distance. Immediately across the street to the east of the tel is Elisha’s Spring. From here I can see that it is tourist draw and still a source of water. From the area of the spring I also see the base of the tram that passes overhead and ends up on the far hill face to the east.

The attraction up on the face of the hill is a sizable monastery. Its claim to fame is that it is where Jesus went into the wilderness to fast and then experience his first temptation from Satan. Can you imagine anything crazier than a created being challenging his creator? Yet we see it around us and in us every day in our own disobedience. This is the original reason for the fall and it is what the saved struggle with, in their flesh, until we are glorified at Christ’s Second Coming.

On either side of the monastery are what we are told are numerous caves. Pilgrims have come to live in those caves for the last two thousand years. It seems to me that they do so for the same reason they want to get baptized in the Jordan, or worship an any other Holy Land site.

We walk back down to the friendly camel in the parking lot and load onto our buses. A short few blocks later we stop along the curb at a sizable restaurant. We are expected and greeted for lunch. Off to the side is a small cabana where men are cooking flat bread with oil and herbs. This could be the high point of visiting Jericho. The main course is chicken and it is every bit as delicious as the flat bread. It is a very pleasant experience.

Back on the road we continue south to Qumran. Just stop and think what an important part of God’s plan this place has been. Between the end of the Old Testament and the new, Yahweh was scripturally silent for four hundred years. Yet towards the latter half of this silence, a dedicated group of scribes took great pains to accurately copy the Old Testament and store the scrolls in jars in the various caves on the hills before us. It is a perfect place to assure the security of such sensitive material. The caves look all but inaccessible and the air is bone dry.

So these scrolls became safely deposited proofs that the Old Testament prophecy about Christ was written and hid well before Christ’s birth. They survived the Roman Empire’s occupation from 60 BC onward. They survived Israel’s destruction in 70 AD by Titus. They survived continued Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader and Ottoman Empire occupation until after World War I. They even lay safely hidden through the anti-Christian Humanist movement of the late 1800’s with Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. These men denied the presence of God. And if there is no God then there cannot be any such foreknowledge as prophecy. Therefore the supposed prophecy of the Old Testament had to have been written after the fact and is nothing but complete deception. God let this simmer until the area of Qumran was safely in the hands of God’s original law receivers, the Jewish nation of Israel. In 1948, the repository of God’s Old Testament was discovered in the safe keeping of these caves. Thus completely dismantling the fake prophecy argument.

While visiting the site, we were able to watch a few Nubian Ibexes navigate the steep hills right in front of us.

South of that is the spring-created canyon of Ein Gedi. It is water sources such as this that allow for survival in this otherwise dry area. We are told that this is one of the valleys in which David and his men hid from King Saul. We are also told that a cave in this area is thought to be where David cut off the corner of King Saul’s robe.

We are given the opportunity to explore the canyon. It is a relatively narrow canyon with two waterfalls. In a hot country, such a shady canyon with refreshing falls of water would have been a rare pleasure. However, it is difficult to see how hundreds of men, their families and animals could have easily been accommodated in this canyon. Or that there could have been caves deep enough to hide everyone. But with scripture being inerrant, we know that it was as written.

On another day, we visit nearby Masada. Masada has always been a bucket list item for me. How could it be otherwise?

 

King Herod was obsessed with building. Masada is but one of his prolific visions. I have heard it speculated that he may have been inspired by the city of Petra where he grew up. But whatever his motivation, he was a builder’s builder. He build roads, bridges, a large sea port at Caesarea Philippi, as well as a number of palaces. However, King Herod was nothing if he was not paranoid about his power. To this end, he build a series of fortresses outside of Jerusalem that he could escape to in times of trouble. The most awe inspiring in my opinion is Masada.

For its location he picked a tall isolated hill about 1,300 feet above the nearby Dead Sea. With its nearly vertical sides and a large flat area on the top, it would be supremely easy to defend. And as if the sides of the hill were not enough, he had a defensive wall built to encircle it. Inside the wall he had large cisterns cut into the rock to hold sufficient water and food for everyone involved to survive for years. His arrangements included two palaces complete with a heated water spa. There were also living quarters for several hundred people. With it being about 1,000 feet by 1,900 feet there was even enough room to grow some crops.

Perhaps King Herod had reason to be paranoid. He lived and prospered at the whim of the Emperor in Rome. During his early reign over the area he lost favor and was forced to sequester his family in the safety of Masada until he could repair his reputation with Rome. He did, and he returned to gather his family to him in Jerusalem. But his paranoia regarding threats to his power as a regional king poisoned his mind. It is recorded that he had the wife he cared for and a son executed as a form of insurance. As you can imagine, his life was not peaceful and it did not end well.

Sixty some years following the ghastly death of King Herod, the Jewish people ignited another rebellion against the harsh rule of Rome. It did not go well for the people of Israel. As General Titus dismantled the Temple and city of Jerusalem, the survivors of the rebellion retreated to three outlying fortresses built by Herod.

The Jewish nationalists hoped to keep the fight and themselves alive. Titus’ 10th Legion crushed two of them rapidly. The 10th Legion then surrounded the mount of Masada to prevent further escape. The steep walls of the mount would delay the inevitable for three more years. But the end of the rebellion was in sight.  

The Roman engineers were accomplished builders, and they devised a ramp as the final solution. Three years later, it was up to the gate of Masada’s defense. A fire was started to destroy the Roman siege machine that had been laboriously pulled up the ramp to the gate. However, God had other plans. A wind came up and the fire turned back onto Masada’s wooden defensive structures. It so weakened them that everyone knew that the fight was over. The Romans were so confident of successfully breaching the Masada wall that they retired for the night.

The leaders of the rebellion also accurately understood the finality of the situation. They had four options. One was to try to escape in the night. But this was insanity and they knew it. The Romans tightly encircled the entire mount. And even if some of them managed to escape, the Romans would certainly be in pursuit. Two: fight hard to deny them entry through the narrow gap until it could be repaired. But looking into the valley below they could have seen the Romans' overwhelming number advantage. And from experience, they understood that they were not leaving until they were all dead or captured to be tortured and enslaved. Three was to surrender. But this also was an empty solution that only promised hideous torture for all of them. Titus would make them a clear example to the world of the consequences of defying Rome. Four: They could and would commit suicide.

When the Roman soldiers entered the defensive walls, they were surprised to discover no one to fight them.

This is the tragic drama of Masada. The men met and decided that they would each return to their families and kill everyone. Then they would by lot kill each other in turn until they were all gone. In the museum at the bottom of the hill is a picture of pieces of pottery with the names of the last few men. It is understood that they drew lots to see who would kill whom to the end. It was a grisly business to be sure.

With the Masada campaign successfully completed, General Titus returned home to a hero’s welcome. And he succeeded his father as Caesar over the whole empire.

Today, the stout of heart can brave a steep, hot walk up a trail to Masad. But most of us take the quick comfortable tram. Our guide takes us through some of the more important remains of structures. On a clear day, the view of the Jordan Valley is spectacular. It is a place that feels heavy, and requires some contemplation.

Under the shadow of Masada is the Dead Sea. It is a salt sea formed by a fresh water river. The Jordan’s fresh water accumulates dissolved minerals during its run to the Dead Sea. It’s not much at any one time to be sure. However, after thousands of years of depositing those little bits of minerals and leaving them behind as the water evaporates has created a lake so concentrated in salt that nothing can live in it. This lake has enjoyed several names. But around the year 100 it became known as the Dead Sea.

Our buses park outside of a Dead Sea resort of sorts. All who plan to swim change into bathing suits and water shoes for the walk to the edge of the water. The wide sandy beach is testimony to the shrinkage of the Sea. And without an intervention, it is expected to nearly vanish over the next ten years.

On the way we pass several venues for entertainment and food. The beach is amply supplied with chairs and fresh water showers. To our left is a two story enclosed lifeguard tower. They mostly yell warnings to people to not put their faces into the water.

The ground instantly changes at the water line. Above it is sand. Below it is a bedrock of sharply inclined boulders. The water is a pleasant temperature and takes no courage to dip into. But the rocks make any kind of graceful entry impossible if not treacherous.

Standing in waist deep water is interesting. Perhaps it is how it feels to stand on the moon or some other low gravity sphere. My feet would be on the ground, but there would always be the apprehension of losing contact with the ground. And that is exactly what would happen. My feet would start ascending to the surface. The only counter measure possible is to furiously skull my hands back and forth. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not. For most of the visitors, any loss of traction would soon have them looking at their knees. While it is fun to experience, it is very entertaining to watch.

I have swim goggles on with a rebellious intent. I take off swimming in the Dead Sea just to say I did. And I got yelled at by the lifeguard for my effort.

The mud is famous, so we have to avail ourselves of it. We cover as much of ourselves as possible and retire to a row of chairs to let the mud dry. The mud of southern California is a gritty red clay birthed from iron involved volcanic activity. And it is easy to apply thickly. This mud is a dark slimy substance that goes on thinly. Once dry, we wash off and discover our hair and skin feeling wonderful. We are told that we can use as much mud as we wish on the beach. However, that every ounce of it is owned by somebody making cosmetics somewhere and it is against the law to remove any of it. We are of course invited to pay lots of money for blocks of it in the nearby stores.

My next report will be from the highway that ascends from Jericho to Jerusalem.

End.

 

 

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