For two-and-a-half weeks, members of the Living Church of God explored the Holy Land as part of Living Education’s foray into Israel—touring where Jesus Christ walked and participating in an archaeological dig.
Our pioneering Living Education students were Andy Casey, Nathalie McNair, Tressie McNair, Francesca Rodino, Geoffrey Ruddlesden, and Jonathan Smith. My wife, Jeanine Smith, and I—assisted by Chris Pringle and Rebekah Ross—drove the group from Charlotte to their departure point in Canada, where we were joined by Mr. Joseph Ross, his wife, Wanda, and their two young children, Elizabeth and Joseph.
Based on his earlier experience in Israel, Mr. Ross had planned a very ambitious schedule—if we were going to be in Israel, we were going to experience all we could! And that schedule began the moment our plane touched down on the tarmac in Tel Aviv.
A Very Busy Half-Week
Before we even laid eyes on our housing, the team walked the ancient site of Herod’s palace in what is now called Caesarea Maritima, took a dip in the Mediterranean Sea, and visited Muhraka, the location of Elijah’s showdown with the priests of Baal. After enjoying a gorgeous view of the Jezreel Valley, it was finally time to head to our apartments in the city of Tiberias, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The remainder of this first half-week was filled with sights and sounds around Galilee, where Jesus conducted a significant portion of His ministry. The team wandered the ruins of Hazor (a city developed by King Solomon: 1 Kings 9:15), walked through the ruins of Jeroboam’s northern, blasphemous temple sanctuary in Tel Dan (1 Kings 12:26–30), viewed a city gate dating back to the time of Abraham, and traveled to Caesarea Phillipi and Banias to see a headwater of the Jordan River.
That week’s Sabbath was a welcome break from the hectic touring pace. Services were conducted at an outdoor location previously scouted by Mr. Ross, and we enjoyed biblical messages and special music along the Sea of Galilee’s shore, near a location related to fishing work.
After the service, we enjoyed a quiet day at Capernaum—described in the Bible as a sort of “headquarters” for Jesus’ early ministry. There, we saw what is believed to be Peter’s home, an early meeting place of God’s first-century Church where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29–31). We also walked through the remains of a second-century synagogue believed to have been built atop a first-century synagogue—likely the very synagogue where Jesus Christ once preached (Mark 1:21), a portion of which was visible through a hole excavated in the floor.
The next day concluded our time in Galilee, including a visit to the site of a first-century synagogue in Magdala—very likely one of those in which Jesus taught (Matthew 4:23)—and a boat excursion on the Sea of Galilee. The captain of the small boat (modeled after first-century fishing boats) noted as we looked on Galilee’s shores that two-thirds of the gospels take place in the area we were laying eyes upon—a moving realization.
After a canoe trip on the Jordan River, a visit to Ein Harod (Judges 7:1), and a walk through the ruins of Megiddo, we arrived for dinner on Sunday night at our home for the next week: Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed-Heh.
Digging for Your Dinner
The kibbutz was the temporary home of our dig team—the collection of scholars and volunteers we would join for one week at the Tel Burna archaeological site.
Located around 20 miles southwest of Israel, the Tel Burna site is thought by some to be the location of the biblical city of Libnah, mentioned in Joshua 10 and many other places. Mr. Ross had paired our students with an archaeological team whose leadership included a researcher who believed in the authenticity of the Bible’s history—which, sadly, is not a given in modern archaeology.
Every morning that week, our group rode to the dig site with the other team members to begin digging by 6:00 a.m. On-site food was provided for breakfast and a snack—otherwise, work progressed nonstop until about 1:00 p.m. each day. And the work was hard—there is a reason archaeological digs are called “digs”! As archaeologist Chris McKinny kept telling our team, “The goodies are underneath,” and there was a lot of earth to move.
We learned a great deal during that week, and a few relics were discovered, including a partial statue of a horse and rider, the head of an Asherah or Astarte figurine, and a pottery lip that may date to near the time of Noah’s flood. Regrettably, nothing was found that week that proved the site was that of Libnah, but hopefully next year will be different! Those who would like to keep up with the dig’s progress and see some photos of our team in action can visit the project’s website, telburna.wordpress.com. We are grateful to Drs. Itzick Shai, Steven Ortiz, and Debi Cassuto for allowing us to contribute to their work.
And they were thankful to have us: Volunteers and students make up a significant part of the workforce in such digs. Not only did our group gain the opportunity to experience an authentic Israel dig, but we also enjoyed fantastic food and friendly housing at the kibbutz—all for a shockingly low price that helped us reserve our precious budget for other pursuits. What we didn’t pay in shekels, we paid in sweat!
With the daily work ending at lunch, the second half of each day that week was free. Afternoon excursions included trips to Bet Shemesh, to the Sorek Valley (Judges 16:4), and through the Aruna Pass (2 Kings 23:29; 2 Chronicles 35:22). Every location brought home the reality of the Bible. Particularly special moments included a trip to Tel Azekah (1 Samuel 17:1), where Dr. McKinny talked of David and Goliath while we looked upon the very location of their battle, a tour of the Israelite city of Gezer—guided by the archaeologist who had directed much of its recovery, Dr. Ortiz—and an opportunity to crawl into what was possibly the very Cave of Adullam where David hid from Saul (1 Samuel 22:1).
After dinner each day, some archaeologists working at the Tel Burna site gave lectures to the many volunteering students, including a fascinating discussion of the technology the team was pioneering to create three-dimensional models of ancient sites for later analysis. One evening that week, four adventurous students traveled with Mr. Ross to the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem for a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco, including the famous “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.”
Visiting the Future Capital of the World
Though we were sad to leave our new friends at the end of the week, our muscles were happy! It was time for the final phase of our adventure: a week in the future capital of the world.
We checked out of our kibbutz on Friday and headed to our housing for the remainder of the journey: two apartments—one for the girls and one for the boys—in Jerusalem. We began the Sabbath with a meal in one of the apartments and a good night’s rest. After a tasty brunch the next day, we enjoyed Sabbath services and an afternoon stroll on a promenade overlooking the City of David and the Temple Mount. We then ventured to Ben Yehuda Street after sundown for some brief shopping, then back home to rest and prepare for a very busy week.
That week included many adventures in Jerusalem. Early in the week, we visited the famous Western Wall and were led on a fascinating underground tour, where we saw stones that had been thrown down by Jerusalem’s Roman conquerors in 70 AD, the original street stones—still in place—of the marketplace that existed in Jesus’ day, and a room where scholars theorize the Sanhedrin met. Shopping in the Old City was quite different for many of us. The marketplace’s character and personality in each of its quarters—Jewish, Arab, Christian, and Armenian—was noticeably distinct. We returned frequently over the week for the goods, the food, and the experience.
Exploring the ancient portions of the city was fascinating, including a journey through Hezekiah’s tunnel (2 Kings 20:20) and visits to the Gihon Spring (1 Kings 1; 2 Chronicles 32:30) and the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7).
Later in the week, we enjoyed excursions to sites related to the life of Jesus Christ, including possible locations of the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ tomb, and Golgotha, as well as the Mount of Olives. Standing on the very mountain that will receive the returning King of kings was a special moment for us all. We expressed similar sentiments as we walked the Temple Mount and the steps outside its Southern Wall, knowing that the southern gates were common entrances and that Jesus Himself likely walked those very steps.
We also visited the Israel Museum. Among the artifacts there, we saw the ossuaries (“bone boxes”) of Caiaphas (Matthew 26:3) and possibly Jesus’ brother James (Galatians 1:19) and seals of biblical kings. The Museum is home to the Shrine of the Book, dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a scale reproduction of first-century Jerusalem. Several of us remarked that the museum seemed to give no special attention to the famous biblical people whose lives were proven by these items—as if the museum’s administrators wanted to distance themselves from the Bible or protect themselves from being accused of giving it any special attention.
The week’s adventures were not limited to Jerusalem. A midweek trip to the desolate Judean wilderness involved a climb to the spring and waterfall at En Gedi (1 Samuel 24:1), a tour of the famous mountaintop fortress of Masada, and a salty swim in the Dead Sea. Even after hearing how buoyant the waters of the Dead Sea can be, everyone was still caught off guard!
One More Sabbath, Then Home
Our final Sabbath in Jerusalem was understandably bittersweet. Friday night, I led the students in a discussion of their experiences over the previous two-and-a-half weeks. They shared how the trip had impacted both their relationship to the God who loves the land of Israel and their understanding of His word. They also shared what they had learned about each other—after trekking together for 18 days, it’s hard to keep many secrets! All agreed that it had been the trip of a lifetime.
After a relaxing Sabbath service the next day, our last evening in Jerusalem concluded with a light show in the City of David, celebrating the king whose name the city bears. The next morning, we were winging our way back home from our adventures.
By all accounts, the trip was a tremendous success, and there are many people to thank! A huge “thank you” is due to Mr. Joe Ross for the massive amount of work he performed and research he gathered to make the trip not only possible but also thoroughly educational. Mrs. Colleen Frank, wife of Living Education’s Mr. Ken Frank, also provided valuable assistance with additional research and materials. Living Education’s staff, supported by numerous additional members in Charlotte, worked passionately to help all the details fall into place. Staff at our Canadian office kindly helped with taking care of our cars and taking us to and from the airport in Toronto. Special thanks go out to Mrs. Wanda Ross and Mrs. Jeanine Smith for helping to keep everyone well-fed and healthy in a land where all the food labels were in a language they couldn’t read! And I want to publicly thank my incredible wife for doing so much driving. I hereby repent of forgetting how to drive a stick shift.
All who participated in Living Education’s adventure in Israel have been changed by the experience.