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Bethlehem and the Monument to the Olive Tree November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Travel.
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Olive Tree PreserveWe had lunch at a new kibutz after our trip to the wailing wall: the Mamat Rachel Kibutz. Good food, as always. Lots of humus, as always. Having not eaten until like 2:30PM the day before, Jace and I both snarfed a ZonePerfect meal bar at like 11AM, and then we ended up eating at like 12:15. How funny! But we were certainly glad not to have waited until so late in the afternoon to get chow.

After lunch, we visited a nature preserve for the olive tree – clearly one of Israel’s natural staples. I don’t know how many times I heard the “olive oil is great for you” speech from our tour guide.

The preserve had at its center a monument built to the olive tree. As monuments go, it’s definitely one of the coolest I’ve ever seen. The whole preserve was a testament to the number 3, being a very significant number in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Basically, they built three giant concrete pillars, at the center of convergence of three paths radiating outward into the preserve, where three different kinds of olive trees were planted. Then, on top of the three pillars, there were also three large olive trees. It was funky cool, and the picture above is really better than a bunch of words describing it.

After we got a chance to check out the monument, we walked over to the west side of the preserve. We sat down in a little mini theater, and looked out over the hill. Our tour guide pointed out that we were looking at Bethlehem, which is now Palestinian-controlled territory, so we weren’t permitted to go there. Later that night, a small group did take a taxi and go to Bethlehem. But I certainly didn’t; nor would I have recommended that they did.


From our perch up on the hill, you could clearly see a fence being built as the potential boundary line between Israel and a future Palestinian state. Our tour guide fully expects that a State of Palestine will be created soon. He didn’t express much remorse on that topic, only that it was necessary to give the Palestinians their own state, because at the rate their population is growing, they would take over Israel in a matter of 100 years.

We also saw the Mound of the Herodium, a fortress that Herod the Great built into the top of a mountain. We didn’t get to visit it in person, which was okay with me (I was interested in focusing on Biblical sites more than historic ones), but it was interesting to talk about Herod’s propensity to build pretty much everything big. This is also the site of Herod’s mausoleum, where he’s buried.

The Herodium

Lastly, one of the group suggested that we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. It was amazing to actually be where the words of songs like that are describing. It wasn’t a deeply spiritually moving experience to sing the song, though, but I think his suggesting it was strategic in that it continued to expose our secular Jewish tour guide to the things of Jesus.

Antonia’s Fortress November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Engineering, News, Politics and Culture, Travel.
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Antonia's Fortress

Antonia’s fortress was built by Herod the Great in 34 BC, as part of his fairly significant expansion of the temple and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Situated on the northwest corner of the expanded temple mount esplanade, the fortress later became the headquarters of Pontius Pilate. Pilate is of course the Roman Prefect (Governor of the Roman province of Judea) who tried Jesus and ultimately approved His crucifixion. (See Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19)

By the way, I’ve always been a little confused at who all these Roman officials were in Jesus’ day and life. Let me take a quick second to try to clear up my own confusion, and perhaps you’ll find it beneficial as well. Rome made the region we now know as the State of Israel a province in 63 BC, following the Third Mithridatic War. After the war ended General Pompeius Magnus (also known as Pompey the Great) remained to secure the area. Subsequently, Herod the Great was installed as a “client king” over the region, called the Judaea Province. A client kingdom is a “term used to describe the subordination of one state to a more powerful state in international affairs” (Wikipedia). We might also call this a satellite, puppet, or vassal state. In Jesus’ day, this was called the Herodian Kingdom.

So, Pompey conquered the region in 63 BC. Herod the Great became king of Israel under Roman rule in 37 or 36 BC (there’s some dispute), and ruled until 4 BC when he died, ostensibly of natural causes. And here’s an interesting (read: sick) tidbit…

From the Wikipedia: Josephus Flavius (a prominent secular historian) records that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place. Fortunately for them, Herod’s son Archilaus and sister Salome did not carry out this wish. Wild!

Anyway, Pompey conquers in 63 BC. Herod the Great rules from 37ish BC to 4 BC, establishing the Herodian Dynasty. When he died, the kingdom was divided among his three sons:

  • Herod Archelaus received the largest part of the kingdom of Judaea including Jerusalem and the bulk of what we currently know as the State of Israel. He also retained the title of “king”. His only real reference in scripture is in the dream Joseph had in Matthew 2, in which an angel warned him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod (the Great) was going to have all the children killed. Joseph ultimately returned to Galilee instead of Judaea to avoid Herod Archelaus, who was known to be as ruthless as his father.
  • Herod Antipas became the Tetrarch of Galilee and a small slice of the territory beyond the Jordan River. This is the “Herod” we read about throughout the gospels in connection with Jesus’ life and death.
  • Herod Philip II because the Tetrarch of much of what we now know as Jordan. This is the Philip who built Caesarea Philippi, and whose wife Salome so delighted Herod Antipas with her dancing (and whatever else) that he had John the Baptist killed in Matthew 14.

Here’s a map of the region from Wikipedia:

Herod's Judaean Kingtom

Herod the Great was king. His sons became Tetrarchs, which were like joint-lesser-kings. And Pilate was a Prefect or Governor for Rome in Judaea. Governors were responsible for taxation and financial management, they were the province’s chief judge, and they commanded the military forces within the province. In the Roman world, there two primary types of provinces:

  • Imperial, over which the Emporer ruled directly
  • Senatorial, over which the Roman Senate appointed governors

There were also equestrian provinces, which were “smaller, but potentially difficult provinces” (Wikipedia) that required special attention. These were typically newly-conquered provinces or places where the natives were particularly restless. Judaea was one of these provices. According to legend, Pontius Pilate was a particularly cruel, intractible man, so it makes sense that the Emporer or the local King (Herod) would appoint him over the Jews, because they were routinely rebelling and causing all manner of trouble for Rome.

So, it’s into this environment that Jesus was brought before Pilate in the fortress we explored today. Of course, that ancient building was completely gone, replaced by busy markets in the Muslim quarter. But we were able to go down under the city into what I would call “catacombs”. These were the foundations of the original Antonio’s fortress.

The foundations were the classic Roman arch architecture, which was used throughout Herod the Great’s design of the expanded temple mount esplanade. The arch was designed according to the fundamental principle of “compressive stresses”, which made it extremely strong, even when supporting extreme weight. In fact, our tour guide went out of his way more than once to talk about how these arches got stronger the more weight you put on top of them. I’ll have to research that more; maybe my phsycist brother will shed some light for us.

Anyway, we saw the arches that formed the foundation of the fortress, and the huge storerooms and cisterns which resulted. Some was original, some wasn’t. We even saw an etching in the concrete that was an ancient Roman game, I think called “Four Kings”. This is thought to possibly the game the soldiers were playing when they “cast lots for Jesus’ clothes” in John 19, for example.

The Temple Mount November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Temple Mount

As I’ve already mentioned in another entry, Solomon built the first temple on the site where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 24 and where David built an altar to God in repentance for his sinful choice to number the fighting men of Israel in 2 Samuel 7. Therefore, thousands of years ago, this place became a place of paramount holiness to the Jews.

In the 7th century AD, after Islam had burst onto the seen and Mecca and Medina had been conquered, From TempleMount.org: Muhammad is fabled to have “mounted on the winged steed called Al Burak ‘the Lightning’ and, with the angel Gabriel for escort, was carried from Makkah (Mecca), first to Sinai, and then to Bethlehem, after which they came to Jerusalem. ‘And when we reached Bait al Makdis, the Holy City,’ so runs the tradition, ‘we came to the gate of the mosque (which is the Haram Area), and here Jibrail (Gabriel) caused me to dismount. And he tied up Al Burak to a ring, to which the prophets of old had also tied their steeds.’ (Ibn al Athir’s Chronicle, ii. 37.) Entering the Haram Area by the gateway, afterwards known as the Gate of the Prophet, Muhammad and Gabriel went up to the Sacred Rock, which of old times had stood in the centre of Solomon’s Temple; and in its neighborhood meeting the company of the prophets, Muhammad proceeded to perform his prayer-prostrations in the assembly of his predecessors in the prophetic office Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others of God’s ancient apostles. From the Sacred Rock Muhammad, accompanied by Gabriel, next ascended, by a ladder of light, up into heaven; and, in anticipation, was vouchsafed the sight of the delights of Paradise.”

So, basically, after 1,000 years of real history, Muhammad (and this isn’t even in the Koran) supposedly rides a magical horse to Jerusalem (for no apparent reason), prays there, and then is taken to heaven on a ladder of light. And with that, the Muslims have claimed for 800 years that this particular piece of mountain is sacred to them too, and therefore endless battle over it.

It was clear that our tour guide deeply resents this entire thing. The Jews discount the Muslim story as a blatant attempt to intrude upon their holy site with the goal of simply being a thorn in their collective side. In other words, the Jews believe that the Muslims created this story and the Dome on the Rock just to piss them off, not because the spot holds any actual historic and spiritual significant for them And I tend to believe the Jewish account more than the Muslim one. (I’m sure you picked that up.)

Anyway, Herod the Great, just before Jesus’ day and long before the Muslims got there, greatly expanded this area. He built a massive retaining wall, and smoothed out the top of Mount Moriah to create a 15 acre temple mount esplanade. Then he greatly enlarged the temple that Ezra and Nehemiah had built hundreds of years before.

That temple – called the Zerubbabel temple – was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans when they pretty much leveled Jerusalem in general. Interestingly, the Roman commander ordered the soldiers NOT to destroy the temple, because Romans greatly valued architectural beauty. However, because there were rumors that the Jews had hidden massive quantities of gold in the walls of the temple, the soldiers burned it anyway, and then pried the stones apart looking for gold. Hence Jesus prophecy in Mark 13 (and elsewhere) was fulfilled that “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

We had to go through long lines at a security checkpoint to gain access to the Temple Mount. Once through security, we ascended a temporary wooden scaffold that was pretty rickety and actually made me a bit nervous. It didn’t help that on the way up there were stacks of riot shields that looked pretty well used. That took us up onto the temple mount esplanade.

The south end of the esplanade, which was the royal colonnade in Jesus’ day (where Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in Matthew 21), now hosts a large masque called Al-Aqsa. The Dome of the Rock itself stands in the middle of the temple mount esplanade. It was fairly unimpressive to me. Of course, I’m predisposed against its presence there, so I guess that makes sense. It was obvious that a LOT of work had gone into creating the mosaic that surrounds it, and a big gold dome is also pretty cool. But otherwise, it was very plain.

Dome of the Rock

We were not allowed inside, because we’re not Muslim, which makes sense. And I generally didn’t feel in danger or threatened in any way on the Temple Mount. I was impressed by its cleanness. There were trees planted on the mount, and I saw men sweeping up the needles that fell from the trees to keep the area as neat and clean as possible.

We also saw the eastern gate, which was sealed by the Muslims to be a thorn in the Jews’ side. More on that in my post about the Necropole, if you want to read it. I cover that ridiculousness pretty thoroughly there.

One other interesting thing was that there were natural markings in the marble from which the Dome of the Rock itself was built. One of the sections of marble looks like the following. I’m not into signs and portents, but this looks pretty creepy. What do you see when you look at this picture?

Demon Marble

Our tour guide sees a demon and pointed it out to us. I guess a bunch of others do to. You be the judge.

Caesarea Philippi November 9, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Military, News, Politics and Culture, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Caesarea Philippi

From Tel Dan, we headed east just a few miles to Caesarea Philippi – founded by Philip, one of the three sons of Herod the Great during the time Jesus walked the earth. Since then, it has been renamed Banius (after the Greek god “Pan”, but there was no “P” in the (I think it was) Arabic language, so they changed it to “B”).

Just outside Caesarea Philippi is the site of the second fountainhead of the Jordan river. A large rock face exists halfway up Mount Hermon, in the northern region of the Golan Heights. There, out of a large cave/opening in the rock face, flows a fresh water stream which feeds the Jordan. Beneath this cave is the largest underground fresh water reservoir in all of Israel. Yet again a good reason to not want to surrender this strategic territory.

Philip, being a fan of multitheism and Pan in particular (can’t remember what he’s a god of), also wanted to create a multi-cultural temple of sorts with a place for all manner of foreign gods. So, even today, if you visit the base of the rock face near Caesarea Philippi, you can see indentations in the rock wall. In Jesus’ day, each would have been home to a bust or figurine or other statue representing a false god. At one point during his ministry, Jesus took his disciples on a 30+ mile trip from Capernaum (home base to him for much of his ministry life) to Caesarea Philippi to teach them at the base of this cliff.

You can read about it in Matthew 16. Jesus walked boldly into one of the very centers of paganism at the time, and boldly asked the disciples who they thought He was. Peter answered correctly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

While we were there, James taught on this passage in a powerful way, calling us to make the decision who Jesus is in our lives and then live like it. It was his first time he was with us as a group, having arrived late the night before from speaking at a marriage conference in California. Lindsay McCaul was also there leading worship, which I greatly enjoyed. I felt like I was one of the few in the audience who was also a musical leader, so I was helping to guide the group from within the audience. Especially since Lindsay didn’t have a mic.

The experience at Caesarea Philippi really was a powerful and interesting one. In fact it was James’ description of this setting and the impact it had on him when he came to Israel the first time last year that first got me thinking about wanting to go to Israel myself. If only Faith were with me.

Holy Land Fact #1: The Two Temple Eras November 8, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Travel.
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Temple of the Second Period

In addition to a daily log of places and events on my tour of Israel, I thought I’d also include a few (maybe one per day at the end of the day) interesting facts that I’ve learned about the holy lands in Biblical times.

Today’s fact is about the two temple eras. I knew there were two temples in Jerusalem, but I didn’t know the details until today. Solomon’s temple was built in about 1600 BC. King David wanted to build a temple for God, but God instructed him in 2 Samuel 7 that Solomon his son would succeed him as King and build the temple instead of David, because David had too much blood on his hands.

In 605 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, carrying many of its men, women and children off to Babylon. Parenthetically, this is how Daniel ended up in Babylon. He also set up a Babylonian governor over the Jews, who of course rebelled. Nebuchadnezzar therefore returned for a second siege in 597 BC. Finally, after another rebellion, the Babylonians finished the job, and burned the temple to the ground in 587 BC (see 2 Kings 25). This ended the first temple period.

Seventy (70) years later, the Jews returned from captivity, and under Ezra’s direction began to rebuild a much more modest 2nd temple, called the Zerubbabel temple. Construction started in 516 BC and took 20 years to complete (see Ezra 3-6). This began the second temple period.

Right about the time Jesus was born, Herod the Great dramatically expanded the temple, making it much more impressive. But the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, including the 2nd temple in 70 AD.

Today a Muslim mosque stands where the temple was believed to be. End times prophecies purport that the Jews must rebuild the temple on that site and re-initiate ritual sacrifices before Jesus returns.


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