When looking across the KidronValley from the Mount of Olives (which I wrote about last week), undoubtedly the most eye-catching sight in Jerusalem is the Dome of the Rock.  The golden dome rises up from behind the ancient eastern wall of Jerusalem and dominates the landscape.

What is this amazing structure?  It is a Muslim shrine, not a mosque.  However. nearby Al Asqa is a mosque, and the third holiest place in Islam after Mecca and Medina. 

The location of the Dome of the Rock is the place originally called Mount Moriah, where Abraham took his son Isaac, intending to sacrifice him until God told him not do so (see Genesis 22).  It also is understood to be the same location as a former threshing floor that King David bought for the Temple to be built there (see 1 Kings 24).  If that is correct, then the First Temple, completed by David’s son, Solomon, about 960 B.C., and destroyed by the invading Babylonians about 586 B.C., stood there.  The Second Temple, built by the Jewish remnant that returned from the Babylonian Exile, was completed about 516 B.C. and also stood there  It was destroyed by the invading Romans about A.D. 70.

Muslim history holds that the Dome of the Rock was originally built around A.D. 690, only a little over 50 years after the Muslim army conquered the region of Syria, and intended as a shrine for pilgrims.  Over the centuries, though, the Dome was repeatedly damaged significantly by large earthquakes.

Beginning in 1955, the government of Jordan, then in control of Jerusalem, with funding from other nearby Arab countries, undertook a huge renovation of the Dome.  It was then, as part of that project, that the golden exterior of the Dome was added.

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On a cool, windy March morning this Spring, ourIsrael tour group stood at a vantage point near the top of the Mount of Olives and looked across the KidronValley at Jerusalem.  The Mount of Olives is the middle peak of the ridge just east of Jerusalem, which rises 200 feet higher in elevation than where the Temple mount would have been in the first century A.D.

If not at the exact place, we were very close to where Jesus began his descent down the west side of the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem on the original Palm Sunday in what is traditionally known as the “Triumphal Entry.”  Since Jesus knew that He was going to Jerusalem to die on the Cross a few days later, standing at the place was an eerie experience.

As we walked down a path that approximates Jesus’ route that day, I imagined the shouts of those who accompanied him from nearby Bethpage (which was located near the Mount of Olives; Matthew 21:1) and those rushing out from Jerusalem to meet Him: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  He who comes in the name of the Lord is the Blessed One!” (i.e., the Messiah or Christ; Matthew 21:9).

Two other important things happened regarding Jesus on the Mount of Olives shortly after the Triumphal Entry: 1) Before being betrayed by Judas, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36), on the side of theMount of Olives (26:30), to pray.  Interestingly, there remain olive trees where the garden probably was that are at least 2,000 years old, meaning they could have been there when Jesus was; and 2) After the Cross and the Resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:9-12).

 Is the tradition of calling Jerusalem“the holy city?” something Jews or Christians just came up with, or is there a legitimate biblical basis?  There is indeed a strong biblical basis.  Both Matthew 27:53 and Revelation 11:2 refer to “the holy city” in contexts clearly referring toJerusalem.  Both wider passages contain references to the Jerusalem Temple and both refer to the crucifixion of Jesus, which took place nearJerusalem.

Was Jerusalem really any holier than any other city, though?  No, if the sinfulness of its inhabitants is the measure being used.  The Lord allowed the Babylonians and, six plus centuries later, the Romans to destroy Jerusalem because of its history of sin against Him and His standards.  Yes, if the reason for the wording “the holy city” was because of the presence of the Temple there.  The inner chamber of both Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple(which was in existence in Jesus’ lifetime) was called “the holy of holies” (i.e., “the holiest place”).  It was originally filled with the Skekinah glory of God (which left before the Babylonians destroyedJerusalem [see Ezekiel 10-11], and has never returned).

Actually,Jerusalem is claimed to be a holy city by three of the great historic world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Obviously,Jerusalem is the ancient capital of Israel, as well as the location of theTemple.  It’s also where Jesus was crucified, which Christians believe was the act of paying for all the sins of the world, making eternal salvation available through faith in Christ (John 3:16).  Muslims believe that two mosques in Jerusalem commemorate Mohammed landing in Jerusalem on his horse after a flight from Saudi Arabia, then being transported to heaven from a location approximately where the Jewish Temple had previously stood.

 On our recent trip to Israel, we initially drove into Jerusalem from the east.  Coming up the highway from the desert area near the Jordan River, we passed the excavated ruins of Jericho, thought by archaeologists to have been one of the oldest cities in the world.  That location is over 1,000 feet below sea level, and just a few miles from the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.

As you head towardJerusalem, though, the elevation changes rapidly.  Jerusalem itself sits at about 3,500 feet, roughly the same elevation as Atlanta, Georgia.  Thus, in the no more than 25 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, there is a difference in elevation of over 4,500 feet.  That is an ascent of almost 200 feet per mile—a rapid, dramatic climb, to say the least!

However, I should make it clear that there is not just a rugged ascent to Jerusalem from the east.  There is also much the same steep grade to climb in approaching Jerusalem from the west, north or south.  The oldest part of the city sits on a connected group of smaller mountains in the highlands of Judea.  Long before the Jews occupied it, Jerusalemwas a fortress city that was almost impregnable to attack because of the incredibly steep ascents from all sides.  In fact, the only way King David captured it was by his army sneaking in through a water shaft (2 Samuel 5:7-8).

This lofty location of Jerusalem is the reason Psalms 120-134 are called “The Psalms (i.e., Songs) of Ascent.”  They were sung by Jewish pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem for the annual feasts.  They may have been arranged for the latter ones to be sung within the walls of Jerusalem, or approaching the Temple itself.

             

Mount Hermon is located at the northeast corner ofIsrael.  It has a triple summit, the highest peak of which is over 9,100 above sea level.  That is, far and away, the highest point inIsrael.  It’s so high, in fact, that there is a snow skiing area near the top of Mount Hermon.  The only site on the mountain higher than the skiing area is an observatory which, ever since the Israelis won that mountain after being attacked in war by Syria, has been the location of an observatory which watches everything that happens in Syria—Damascus is only 30 miles away from that peak, as the crow flies—like a hawk. 

The bulk of Israelis hot and dry (the seacoast has more moisture than the rest of the country, but not what you might expect).  The hills in northeast Israel, notably the foothills leading directly up to Mount Hermon, are the exception.  When I was in Israel in 1998, we went further up into the foothills than on our trip this year.  That trip was in mid-June, when most of the country was in excess of 100 degrees in the middle of the afternoon.  When we got off our bus at the warmest time of the day, the temperature was about 60 degrees and the wind made it feel even much cooler.

Things change dramatically, though, as you drive from northeast to southeast Israel.  It’s only 120 miles—roughly the distance between south New Braunfels, TX to the north side of Temple—from Mount Hermon to the Dead Sea, but the elevation drops off amazingly quickly.  The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth: 1,292 feet below the level of the Mediterranean Sea, which is less than 55 miles away.

 

 While visiting Capernaum, I was struck by all the things in Jesus’ ministry that happened there and nearby.  Shortly after Jesus began public ministry, he moved fromNazareth about 20 miles northeast to Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:13).  It was a strategic move, since Capernaumwas a larger, well-located town in that day.  Some of the most significant things Jesus did outsideJerusalemtook place in, or around, Capernaum. 

Capernaum was near Bethsaida, the base of the fishing operations of the (future) apostles Peter and his brother Andrew, as well as Philip (John 1:44).  Matthew was there as a Roman tax collector (Matthew 9:1, 9), covering the major highway between the Tigris-EuphratesValley and the Coastal Highway northeast from Egypt.  Other apostles, like James and John, lived nearby and Jesus encountered them walking along the Sea of Galilee(Matthew 4:21).

From the positive perspective, Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) on a hill overlooking Capernaum and the traditional locations of the great miracles of the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14) and the 4,000 (Matthew 15) are nearby.  In Capernaum itself, He healed the paralyzed servant of the Roman centurion, whom he commended for having faith greater than anyone in Israel(Matthew 8:5-13).  Immediately after that miraculous healing, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (8:14-15) and cast demons out of “many who were demon-possessed” (8:16-17).

Sadly, that’s not the entire story on Jesus’ reception by the people of Capernaum.  After all His teaching in their midst, and all His miracles, most of them still refused to repent and rejected Him in unbelief (11:23-24).  The lesson here: the Lord does not look at all favorably on those who know the truth, but have hardened hearts!

           

 In my last article in this series, I described my trip toIsrael to the point of staying in a kibbutz (an Israeli collective farm) on theSea of Galilee at the end of our first full day in the country.  The scenery there, viewing that beautiful lake where Jesus sailed from time to time, was very peaceful and seemed as far away from military strife as you could get.

That’s why what we saw the second day was such a jolt.  We went almost as far north as you can go inIsrael—the snow skiing area and military observation tower onMt.Hermonjut a few miles further northward—to the Lebanese border.  From a point overlooking the border fence, we could see miles into southernLebanon, as well as watch the United Nations and Israeli forces patrolling a road along the border.

What we saw inLebanon did not look dangerous: a peacefulvillage of Druze (a hybrid Middle Eastern religion) farmers.  However, it is well known that Hammas terrorists have tunneled beneath that village to prepare for eventual attacks or an attempted invasion ofIsrael—the last significant attack from this general area was in 2006 and was repulsed at the loss of a number of Israeli soldiers.  Hammas knows thatIsraelwill not fire on the Druze, so they remain safe as they plotIsrael’s destruction.

What a sobering sight!  Even moreso was our next stop: the battlefield where 1,200 Syrian tanks tried to overrun a force of 182 Israeli tanks at the beginning of the 1973 conflict.  Only three of the Israeli tanks and crews survived, but they prevailed.  Our guide was among those few who survived that amazing battle on the Israeli side.

Last time, I got the description of my recent trip toIsraelas far as the ancient tell (i.e., manmade hill resulting from civilizations building upon the ruins of others) of Megiddo.  Standing on top of the hill, you see Nazareth on the hillside of the opposite side of theValleyof Jezreel.  That broad, fertile valley, the site of some of the greatest military battles in human history, is also known as the Valley of Megiddo, the likely center point of the final earthly uprising against the Lord which culminates as Armageddon (Revelation 16:16). 

Nazareth is a town where Jews and Arabs live alongside each other as peacefully as just about anywhere in all of Israel.  Jesus grew up there, of course, but there is no known remaining direct evidence of him or his family.  However, there is a church there built over a well that may date back to the first century A.D.  It is thought that Mary, Jesus’ mother, may have gone to that well daily to draw water for her family’s use.

The situation in nearbyCana is slightly different.  The site of the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry also has a church, but this one may be located where the wedding at which Jesus turned the water into wine actually took place.  If nothing else, there’s a large stone jar on display that probably is virtually identical in appearance to the jar filled with water which Jesus instantaneously turned into wine.

From Cana, our tour bus drove southeast to a kibbutz on theSea of Galilee, where we spent the next two nights.  The view there of that beautiful body of fresh water and the surrounding hills was particularly awe-inspiring, especially at night.

Haifa is the third largest city inIsrael, with a population of around 400,000.  It also hasIsrael’s only natural harbor on the Mediterranean.  From our vantage point up on the side of Mount Carmel, we had a wonderful view of that beautiful harbor, where there were a number of vessels, including a couple of cruise ships.

From up that high we could also see quite a ways up the coast, all the way across the border withLebanon.  After I asked our guide the question about where the Lebanese border was, he proceeded to tell us that Haifa, the northern-most major city inIsrael, had missiles fired into it from southernLebanonby Hezbollah in what Israelis call the Second Lebanon War in 2006.  One of the largest synagogues in Haifa located near the harbor was destroyed by such a missile, but it has since been completely rebuilt.

Up on the top of Mount Carmel, but quite a ways down the long ridge, we came to the traditional location of where the prophet Elijah took on the 450 prophets of the false god, Baal, in 1 Kings 18.  The site is today memorialized by a Carmelite monastery.

That afternoon, we made stops atMegiddo,Nazarethand Cana, before arriving at the kibbutz (collective farm) on theSea of Galilee, where we spent the next two nights.  Each was interesting in its own way, but I only have the space to talk about Megiddo in this article.

Megiddo is a huge manmade mound (called a “tell”) which resulted from civilization after civilization destroying the last city, then building upon its rubble.  Archaeologists believe there were as many as 20 civilizations there over the millennia, including extensive fortifications built by King Solomon (1 Kings 9:15).

 After our first night in a hotel in Tel Aviv, we left Saturday morning, March 5, heading north, along the coast.  Before leaving the Tel Aviv area, though, we went to ancient Joppa, now a suburb.  That’s where Jonah, running from the Lord, boarded the ship for Tarshish.  It also was where Peter raised Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9) and had the vision that told him to eat previously un-kosher food (Acts 10).

As we drove up the coast, our guide said that, of the 5.5 million Jewish people inIsrael, 3.5 million of them live along or near the coast, from Tel Aviv north toHaifa.  That was a real surprise, since the population of Tel Aviv is only 450,000 andHaifais only 400,000.  That means there are a lot of people in between!

The great archaeological site we saw along the coast was Caesarea Maratima.  When I was there in 1974, I had seen the excavated theater, where you hear the waves of the Mediterranean crashing on the beach, yet the acoustics are so good that sometime can stand on the stage, speak in a normal voice and still be heard almost at the top of the rows of outdoor stone seats.  It was probably in that theater that King Herod Agrippa I was stricken and died in A.D. 44 (Acts 12).

But, what had not yet been dug up in 1974 is the rest of Caesarea that was on the seashore in the first century A.D.: the hippodrome (like a NACAR track for chariots); Herod the Great’s palace extending out over the sea; and numerous other buildings (including bathhouses with incredible mosaic tile floors), in one of which the Apostle Paul almost certainly was held (Acts 23-26).