Hiking up Tel Azekak

Hiking up Tel Azekah

I wrote recently about going to Israel with a tour group. The tour was intended as a pilgrimage; as I said in my earlier post, it was difficult to put aside my touristy ways and become more of a pilgrim, but it did eventually happen. I want to write more about some of what I learned during this Holy Land pilgrimage.

Our tour was led by Tim Keiper,a  former professor of Education at Western Washington University who became interested in Biblical history and archeology and went to Israel to study at Jerusalem University College.  One basic message Tim repeated over and over again in varying ways is that context matters. That certainly isn’t a new idea for me; for a long time my faith and understanding has been enriched by learning more and more about the cultural, historical, geographic, and literary contexts of the Biblical text. It is one thing to think of context while sitting at home reading the Bible or a commentary, though, and another thing to think that way while in the actual locale where Biblical events occurred. I think that’s true whatever sort of Holy Land tour you take, but it’s even more true when, as with Tim’s tour, the group both walked some portion of the land every day and  listened to a detailed explanation of Biblical references pertaining to that portion of the land.

I want to write about the two elements of the tour mentioned in the previous sentence. This post will be about  walking the land; a subsequent post will be about Tim’s teaching. In my earlier post, I wrote about walking the land as follows:

“We hiked a lot, climbing up and down hills and over rock-strewn paths, sometimes over paths that we had to take more by faith than by sight. During one grueling four-hour hike, some of the group ran out of water and others were near collapse, having to be helped to a nearby stream in which they could sit to cool down.”

It was hot every day except the last two, when we were in Jerusalem. It seemed to me at first that Tim was making things unnecessarily difficult for us by having us hike so much. In particular, I thought this the second day, when our bus let us off about a half-mile from the archeological dig at Bet Shemesh. We dutifully trudged down a dusty road, along a rock-strewn path, and up the tel, only to see another tour group exiting their bus in a parking lot a couple hundred feet from the site. I’ll admit it: I envied them!

To Bet Shemesh

To Bet Shemesh

Over the course of the tour, though, I came to appreciate our hikes. I was even disappointed when at places like Capernaum and Chorazin we had only a short distance to walk! What did I appreciate? As I alluded to above, I appreciated the deeper, more encompassing sense of context it gave me. Over and over again I marveled at the people who walked this land thousands of years ago without sunscreen, electrolyte replacement tablets, bottled water, or an air-conditioned hotel waiting at the end of the day. I imagined that living in these conditions either drew them closer to God or prompted them to reject him and look for an easier religious path. As I walked in the arid wilderness, along flowing streams, and up large hills, I gained more appreciation of the historical events that occurred in and the Biblical passages that referred to each kind of setting.

All that hiking was a gift in another way, in that gave me time for reflection (though I had to work to get rid of my self-generated distractions before I could make productive use of that time). I found myself singing hymns and praying. I reflected on the parts of the Bible that the Israelites may have been thinking about when they were walking through this landscape. For example, I thought of the Songs of Ascent, psalms that were sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for religious festivals. I must have recited Psalm 121, the only one of these psalms I know by heart, at least a couple dozen times. I also recited the Beatitudes and other passages from the Sermon on the Mount while hiking in areas where Jesus taught.

I was one of the older people on the trip, and all that hiking left me sore at the end of the day. Soreness was part of the experience, though. I was gaining not just a cognitive understanding of the Biblical context but a kinesthetic one as well. Sitting at home now, my body still remembers well what it experienced!

All that hiking also helped prepare me for the second aspect of context I mentioned above, the teaching that Tim gave regarding Biblical references to the places we went and things we saw. I’ll talk about that in a subsequent post.

Yikes! Coming down Mt. Arbel. Photo: Hannah Cranny

Yikes! Coming down Mt. Arbel. Photo: Hannah Cranny