This is a quick draft of the sermon from Sunday, April 12th. Sorry about some of the rough spots and abbreviations (N is north, S is south, E is east, W is west). I know this is difficult to understand without the maps and photos. I hope I’ll be able to add them some time.
CREDIT: This is one of the lectures developed by Dr. Jim Fleming and the staff of Biblical Resources in Jerusalem that we would give to Christian tourists when they first arrived in Israel as a general introduction to the land. We sometimes call this the 5-4-3-2-1 lecture.
The Bible is like the script of a play or film. By reading it, you can get a good sense of the plot. You can appreciate much of the dialogue. But you have to rely on your imagination to fill in the details. That's fine if you're reading a story of events in your own country and your own generation. It’s easy to understand the customs and the setting of your own time and your own people.
But what if the story takes place far away, in a distant time and culture, with a different language and people? Your imagination will paint a picture--but that picture will be quite different than the reality. You will miss the point of strange customs and sayings. And you will misunderstand some of the actions. This is the problem we have when we read the Bible: the action is in Israel in the Middle East, thousands of years ago, in the Hebrew (or Greek) language, and among a Semitic people and society very different than our own.
Even the animals may be different than we imagine. So, for example, we read about sheep in the Bible. What’s the picture that comes into your mind? In America and Australia, we have beautiful white sheep, and so in our Christmas cards, naturally, we show white sheep. But in Israel, the sheep are actually a tan color with dark markings.
Many Christmas cards show the shepherds on the hills looking down at Bethlehem in the valley below. But actually, Bethlehem is up on a hill. In America and Australia, the sheep graze in beautiful green fields, but in Israel, sheep graze in the desert, which can be a dangerous area (Psalm 23).
You see the problem we have with the Bible. We have vivid impressions when we read it, but they’re often incorrect. How can we solve this problem? One way is to visit Israel—either in person, or by means of photos as we will do today. Here, in Israel, you’re no longer just reading the script, but you’re much closer to seeing the actual film.
1) To accurately understand the Bible, we must understand the original scenery: the land itself. It’s mostly the same as in Bible times—the same mountains, rivers, and valleys, are all pretty much in the same places as they were then. There’s the same climate. The same native plants and animals (many of them). Even many of the towns can be found in the same places with the same names. This is why we sometimes refer to the Land of Israel as the Fifth Gospel: we can learn about the Bible by studying the land.
2) We must also understand the original characters in the Bible: the people. The Jewish people are here (again), after being gone for almost 2,000 years. Hebrew is a living language again. And ancient lifeways, customs, and agricultural practices have been preserved among local Arabs and among the Bedouin people.
3) We must become familiar with the original props: the archeological discoveries: the remains of buildings, pottery, jewelry, weapons, even clothing, and writing. And the bones of the people themselves.
In a carefully made film, the setting is important to the plot: it's not accidental that the action takes place in a particular time and place. This is especially true here in Israel where the scene changes can be so dramatic: From snow-capped Mt. Hermon in the north to the barren, rocky deserts in the south; from the forested rolling hills of Galilee to the sun & fun Mediterranean coastline—and all within a few miles of each other!
The theme of God's selection, both of the land and of the Jewish people is mentioned over and over again in the Bible, beginning with Abraham in Genesis: your descendants, in this land. So a key question to keep in mind when we study the Bible is: Why? Why this land? Why this people? Why the time period in which the events take place?
Israel is a place of great geographical variety, more than any other this size in the world. So I’d like to talk about this by describing Five Varieties in the land of Israel:
1) The first is GEOLOGICAL VARIETY: This includes a huge gash in the landscape called the Rift Valley (or the Aravah in Biblical Hebrew): This is part of the longest rift system on the face of the earth. It’s known as the Syrian/African rift, and it stretches all the way from Armenia to Mozambique. 90 degrees along the circumference of the earth.
This huge rift was created by earthquakes, earthquakes that continue right up until today. There are hundreds of earthquake fault lines all over the area. The reason for this is that two crustal plates are pressing up against each other right here: the Syrian and Mediterranean plates. The plate on the W is going S, the one on the E is going N.
Did you know, there’s also a rift valley in Taiwan? It was created in pretty much the same way.
In Israel, there’s a small earthquake every day or two that can be measured by instruments. That’s about 250 earthquakes a year. About six of these can be felt without instruments. On the major fault lines, there is an earthquake above 6 or 7 on the Richter scale every 100 years or so. The last major earthquake was in 1927, which means the next big one could be any day now...
For example, at Jericho, which is down in the Rift Valley, you can feel all 6 of those earthquakes every year. So they have a saying in Jericho when you build a new house: Don't paint for the first 10 years--let the house settle down a bit, and then paint over the cracks.
This is the context for Joshua's conquest of Jericho: an earthquake that caused the walls of Jericho to fall down. Or the huge earthquake in the time of King Uzziah (Amos 1:1). Zechariah mentions an earthquake that will happen at the return of the Messiah, that will split the Mt. of Olives in two (Zech. 14:4). And of course there was the earthquake at the crucifixion of Jesus, that split the veil of the Temple (Matt. 27:51); and then again after the resurrection (which was probably an aftershock after the other earthquake).
There are also volcanoes along the rift, like this one, the Horns of Hattin, which is the only volcano W. of the Sea of Galilee. And to the E of the Sea of Galilee, huge black basalt flows by the sea and up in the Golan Heights—which is why there are so few trees here. There have not been any recent eruptions, but there is lots of underground heat. This is what provides the heat for the hot springs that can be found by the Sea of Galilee, and also down by the Dead Sea.
These hot springs were popular back in Jesus’ day, too. At that time, there were fancy Roman baths here. They attracted sick people from all over the Roman world (the water is very helpful with rheumatoid and arthritic conditions). Is it just a coincidence that God put Jesus with a healing ministry right in this area where all these sick people were coming?
2) Another kind of variety found in Israel is variety in ELEVATION: from the depths of the Rift Vally/Aravah to the heights of the Hill Country on either side. This dramatic change in elevation has naturally divided this area into two different nations, as it is today, with Israel and Jordan on either side of the Rift Valley. In ancient times, it was Israel on the W with Ammon, Moab, and Edom on the E.
The lowest point in Israel is more than 400 m (1,300 ft) below sea level: that’s at the surface of the Dead Sea, the lowest point above water on earth.
The highest point is 2,800 m (9,200 ft) above sea level: that’s Mt. Hermon at the northern tip of Israel. It’s snow covered about half of the year. So between Mt. Hermon and the Dead Sea is change of more than 3,000 m (10,000 ft) in elevation over a distance of only about 240 km (150 m). That’s a big change.
The Sea of Galilee is also below sea level: about 210 m (690 ft) below sea level. It’s the only freshwater lake in the world below sea level.
The Hill Country on either side of the Rift Valley/Aravah rises up to 900 m (2,950 ft) above sea level. That’s a change of more than 1,000 m (3,000 ft) on each side of the rift valley. So Israel is really a large, flat tableland cracked by violent earthquake activity. Because of this, going from the central hill country to the east is a steeper descent than going west to the sea.
This variety in elevation creates five major regions that run up and down the country like the fingers on your hand: 1) Coastal Plain, 2) Shephelah (Low lying hills), 3) Hill Country, 4) Rift Valley (Aravah), 5) Eastern Plateau.
3) This variety of elevation in turn creates a variety of CLIMATES.
The prevailing winds are from the west 300 days out of the year. They’re most noticeable in the afternoon when a little cool air will blow in from the Mediterranean. This is what the Bible calls the “cool of the day” (or literally the “breathing” of the day in the Song of Solomon). This is the same direction that rain usually comes from, when there is any.
Most of the rain falls on the Coastal Plain just before the clouds ascend above the mountains. That makes this the best area for crops. Today, this area is planted with Jaffa oranges; it was an oak forest in antiquity (Sharon plain).
As the clouds press inland, they come to the low, rolling hills (the Shephelah). This area is also pretty well-watered, good for grain.
But by the time the clouds have risen up above the hill country itself, there is less rain. This is an area of terrace agriculture. The soil here is better for trees: like olives, almonds, figs, grapes, and pomegranates.
After the clouds pass the peak of the hill country, and the land starts to drop down again, there is no rain left. This creates what we call a rain shadow in the Judean Desert and the Rift Valley/Aravah canyon. It’s an area with very little rain, and so very little vegetation.
Then, when the clouds get beyond the Rift Valley, they ascend again in Transjordan, above the Eastern Plateau. Since this means they must go up again, they release a little more rain. This creates a narrow strip of agricultural land in the Eastern Plateau about 20 miles wide. But after that, there’s no more rain, only desert going out to Saudi Arabia.
The highest amount of rain is on Mt. Hermon (the highest elevation): 2 m (60") per year, which is nothing compared to Taiwan. Upper Galilee gets about 90 cm (40”). In the low elevation areas, especially in the south, there’s as little as 1 cloudburst every 5 years. Jerusalem is about 62 cm (25") per year average: though this varies from 90 cm (40”) to 10 cm (4”) a year. An area is considered desert if it gets 28 cm (11”) or less a year.
So all this variety of geology and elevation and rainfall creates hundreds of different ‘microclimates,’ all over the country, which creates:
4) A tremendous variety of PLANTS and ANIMALS. (We’ll say more about that in just a moment.)
5) And also a tremendous variety of PEOPLE: both today and in ancient times.
In ancient times, 10 different people groups are mentioned in Canaan before the Israelites entered the land (Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and the Jebusites; Gen. 15:19-21). Even after the Conquest in the time of Joshua, there were Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Philistines, and Phoenicians.
Today there are also many different people groups: Jews, Moslems, Christians, Druze, and Samaritans, with many sub-groups, likeAshkenazi and Sephardic Jews; Palestinian Arabs of Egyptian background, or of Syrian background; there are Greek Christians and Syrian Christians, Armenian and Egyptian Christians, Ethiopians and Roman Catholics, not to mention every kind of Protestant group from many different countries.
So Israel is a land of TREMENDOUS VARIETY. Wherever you're from in the world, there’s someplace here that’s like back home—at least for part of the year. You have to travel a long way in the U.S. or Australia or other countries to see this kind of variety. But here, all that variety is in a tiny little space:
Israel is only about 2/3 the size of Taiwan (32,260 sq km to 20,330 sq km). That means you can fit 1½ Israels into Taiwan. But Taiwan has 3.5x the population (23 million to 6.5 million) of Israel. The entire population of Israel is only about the size of Greater Taipei.
Israel is only about 400 km (250 m) N-S (from Dan to Elat). That’s almost exactly the same length as Taiwan (394 km). It’s only about 240 km (150 m) from Dan to Beersheva. That’s the habitable part of the land.
While it’s only about 80 km (50 m) E-W (from the Mediterranean to the Rift Valley). You can actually see both of them from Jerusalem on a clear day. Taiwan is almost twice as wide (144 km).
Israel is tiny. Yet, most of the events in the Bible took place in this small area, which changes so much from place to place. This is what creates the dramatic scene changes of the Bible. So, 3 dots on a map can be totally different: a different view, a different sense of security, different rock for building materials, different soils, different fertility, different hopes and different fears.
It’s been very difficult to hold together a nation fragmented by all these differences. And in history, it has rarely been done. In the 1900 years from the time of Abraham to Jesus, a Jewish nation united this whole territory for only 150 years. The geology, elevation, and climate all seem to conspire together against maintaining unity in this land: right up to today's headlines. Yet this is the land of promise for God's chosen people. Why?
We’ve talked about 5 different kinds of variety in Israel. Now I want to mention its four seas.
If they were anywhere else, two of these would be called lakes. The Sea of Galilee is only 21 x 12 km (13 x 7 m), not much larger than Sun-Moon Lake. And each of them has a different level of salinity.
The Mediterranean Sea (Dà Hǎi) is called "The Great Sea" in the Bible (Yam Gadol). It’s 3.7% salt. It was the main trade route with Egypt and Lebanon, and Turkey. In New Testament times, it was the highway to the Roman world. The port here at Joppa is where Jonah got on the boat to Tarshish, trying to escape from God’s call.
The Red Sea (Hóng Hǎi) is called in Hebrew "Yam Suf” (the Sea of Reeds). It’s 4.2% salt. This is a tropical sea. It was the route for King Solomon's trade with Arabia and India. Moses and the children of Israel came this way on their Exodus from Egypt. It looks quite plain above the water. But under the water, there are almost as many different kinds of plants and fish as in the Great Barrier Reef (the big coral reef) in Australia.
The Dead Sea (Yán Hǎi) is called in Hebrew "Yam HaMelach" (the Salt Sea). It’s 32% salt, which is 9x the salinity of the ocean. It has no outlet, so the only way for water to leave is by evaporation. This leaves all the salts in the water behind. If you take 3 kilos of Dead Sea water, and boil off the water, you’ll have 1 kilo of salts left.
The water is supersaturated with salt, which means that salt naturally precipitates out of it: potassium, magnesium, chlorides and sulphates. This is what accounts for it's incredible buoyancy: like in this picture with the man floating with his hands and feet out of the water.
The Romans called it the “Asphalt Lake” because of the islands of tar/asphalt/bitumen that occasionally appear. One the size of this room bobbed up to surface of the lake after the 1964 earthquake. Oil slicks often appear on the water. This tar is what gives the dark color to the famous Dead Sea mud.
The Bible also mentions tar pits in the area, in the time of Abraham, although none are visible today. But there is still tar under the water of the sea. All these flammable oil products in the area may have had something to do with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which sounds like it might have been a natural gas explosion.
This tar was very valuable in ancient times. It was used to caulk boats (like the ark of Noah), for Egyptian mummification, in medicines, and even today is still used in modern health and beauty aids.
The Dead Sea Works, which removes the different kinds of salt from the sea, is the biggest business in Israel.
The Sea of Galilee (Jiā-lì-lì Hǎi) is known in Hebrew as Yam Kinnereth (Harp Sea), because it’s shaped like an ancient harp. It’s also known in the Bible as the lake of Gennesareth (Luke 5:1), and as Lake Tiberius. This is a fresh (sweet) water lake. It’s less than 1/10 of 1% salt.
There are 18 native species of fish in the lake, most of them kosher, which means they are permitted to be eaten by Jewish Law. To be kosher, they must have both scales and fins. (Almost all poisonous fish in the world don't have scales. So if you’re somewhere in the world where you don’t know the fish, it’s best to avoid non-kosher fish.)
So far we’ve talked about 5 Varieties and 4 Seas. Now I’d like to talk about 3 Continents. Israel is the only place in the world where 3 continents touch:
Africa, Europe, and Asia. This makes it the center of the world, as it
was sometimes shown on ancient maps. It
also made it a strategic land bridge—the only land route—between those 3
Because of this, there are many migratory birds that pass through Israel: 23 different kinds of birds are mentioned in the Bible, though it’s not a book about birds.
The migratory paths of many birds from Asia come down over the Dead Sea, others from Europe come down along the Mediterranean coast.
A trained observer can easily see as many as 200 species in one day. 4,000 species pass through every year: more than 500 million birds a year. In fact, there are tours to Israel just for bird watching.
But being a land bridge also means there are land animals from three continents: In the past, there were both Indian and African camels, leopards, even elephants and hippos. There used to be lots of exotic life living down in the Rift Valley by the Jordan River: David fought a lion and a bear. There were lots of large cats.
But this also brought the armies of three continents. When Africa was strong, Egyptians and Ethiopians marched up the coast from the S. When Asia strong--Assyrians, Babylonian, and Persians--marched down from the NE. When Europe was strong: Hittites, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Crusaders marched down from the NW. When the Arabs grew strong, they conquered from the deserts to the East, and ruled for more than 1,000 years.
There were two major routes through the land:
1) The Coastal Highway has that name because it runs down along the Mediterranean sea coast: In the Bible it’s called the Way of the Sea (Via Maris), or in Exodus the Way of the Philistines (Ex. 13:7). This is part of the reason Galilee is called Galilee of the Gentiles: because of all the people passing through on the trade routes.
2) The second major route was the King’s Highway, mostly in what today is the nation of Jordan.
Everyone wanted to control these routes. Why? If you controlled these routes, you could collect tax money (customs) at border crossings. This is how King Solomon got rich, and King Herod after him, along with many others.
But the problem with living on a highway, is that you're liable to get run over. And they were, over and over again, throughout history. Some cities were destroyed as many as 20 times over the course of their existence.
was destroyed 7 times. Jerusalem
When the Bible says, "The land saw peace for 40 years," that was a remarkably long time. So the Biblical story is a story of getting run over. It was not a matter of if there would be war, but when it would happen (just like today). The differences between the many varieties of land and people constantly risk boiling over into war.
In ancient times, a military campaign was the quickest way to solve a kingdom’s financial problems: you’d go out on a raid and grab everything in sight: food, animals, people (for slaves), possessions. This variety of invading armies also led to a tremendous variety of cultural influences—if you could survive to appreciate it.
So why did God choose this place? Why not someplace safe and comfortable out of harm's way? The typical picture of David peacefully tending his sheep, or Jesus with the flowers of the field doesn’t reflect reality. Rather, this has always been a place of struggle, of conflict, and of war!
So what’s left? Next I want to talk about the 2 deserts of Israel. The Arabian and Saharan deserts meet here: two of the world's driest deserts. This makes it a very dry region overall. Water has always been a problem and an issue.
To understand the influence of these 2 deserts, we can divide Israel up into four sections. (1) The first section, to the NW, is the rainiest quarter. (2) The second section, to the NE, is less rainy. (3) The third section, to the SW, has even less rain. (4) And the fourth section, to the SE, has the least rain of all.
This makes it possible to come up with some rules for rainfall: (1) As we’ve already seen, the highest elevation (like at Mt. Hermon) is the wettest, (2) The lowest elevation (like down by the Dead Sea) is the driest. (3) NW = Wetter. (4) SE = drier. If you put all the rules together, you can make a pretty good guess as to the rainfall. So for example, a high place in the S might have more rain than a low place in north.
There are also two other rules of rainfall we have to include. (5) There is more rain in the winter. This is when most of the rain, if any, will fall. (6) And there is less rain, and sometimes no rain at all, in the summer. To this day, religious Jews pray for rain in the synagogue in the winter, and for dew in the summer. Because of this, water is always an area of desperate need in Israel. And it has always been an area of temptation to seek other gods.
So Israel is not what most of us would consider a paradise, except by comparison to the even more barren deserts around it. So why then does the Bible call it a "land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex. 3:8)? The milk refers to the milk of goats and sheep. There’s just enough rain for good grazing for these animals in the central hills.
And the honey refers to the honey either from bees or from fruit trees, like date honey, which is popular in Israel. There’s just enough rain for flowers and some kinds of trees, even without irrigation. They survive on the rain from God out of heaven.
This is quite different than in Egypt, where there’s almost no rain at all. All the water in Egypt comes from the Nile, and the land requires intensive irrigation for anything to grow.
But in Israel, God provided the water himself. As it says in Deut. 8:7-9: “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valley and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything.” God provided everything they needed to have a good life.
The different amounts of rainfall in different areas lead to a different pattern of life for those more affected by the desert and those less affected by the desert. We could call these different “seats” to see the Biblical drama.
Those in the drier areas to the S+E, low in elevation, we'll call the "milk" seats, the milk areas. These are the areas of sheep and goats, of milk and cheese. The life here is the life of the shepherd. It’s an area of desert, cliffs and rocks. It’s silent and lonely: people are more isolated, they live by themselves or in small villages.
Out here, life is unpredictable. You can't always get a crop, if there’s less than 11" of rain. Abraham was forced to go to Egypt, as was Jacob after him, when there wasn’t enough rain. There’s a seven year drought cycle still today just like there was in Bible times: remember the seven good years and the seven lean years in the dream of Pharaoh that Joseph interpreted?
In the milk areas, life is exhausting. The average life expectancy of the Bedouin is 40. Bedouin families only have 1-2 children. Why? Because of dehydration and malnourishment.
Those living in the areas of more rain to the N+W, and higher in elevation, we’ll call the “honey” seats, the honey areas. The life here is the life of the farmer. It’s an area of fields, plains, and trees. It’s noisy and busy. There are big cities, with trade routes and the sea. Today half of Israel's population lives along the coast in area of about 20 x 10 miles.
Here life is predictable. There’s always enough rain for at least one crop, even in a dry year (20-40"). The only question is how big your harvest will be. There are some places in the north where they can get 15 cuttings of grain in a single year. Fig trees bear 5x a year.
Life is easy: you produce more than you need—which is enough to hire others (or buy others) to do your work for you. This created different levels in society (not like the more egalitarian lifestyle in the desert, where everyone has more or less the same).
So which of these two regions, of milk or of honey, do you think has better seats for the Biblical drama? Of the 353 cities mentioned by name in the Bible, 300 are on the edge of the desert, in the milk areas. Almost 50% of the Bible occurred within a few miles of
at the edge of the desert. Jerusalem
Only 50 are in the honey areas, and these usually belong to "others": Phoenicians, Philistines, Canaanites, Greeks, Romans. The Canaanite gods identified with the "honey" side of life, the areas of the farmer: areas of power, fertility, and wealth. There was a very strong temptation for those in the desert to call on these gods.
Yet the God of the Bible chose to identify himself with Abraham the herdsman, who lived in the desert, in lonely, unsophisticated areas. The God of the Bible chose to identify himself with a disorganized group of slaves escaping through the desert from Egypt. And later with a conquered nation taken into exile through the desert to Babylon. Elijah, under pressure, sought God in the desert. John the Baptist and Jesus were drawn to the desert.
It's interesting that the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) did not come from the great river cultures of
or India, but from the desert, the area of the shepherd. Mesopotamia, Egypt Mesopotamia's
350 gods have been forgotten. 's 720
gods have been forgotten. But the God of
the desert gains more and more followers every year. Egypt
The God of the desert always had a harder time with the Israelites when they were living on the "easy" side, the honey side of the farmers. Here it was too easy for them to pursue prosperity and ease. Too easy to rely on powerful cities and wealth, rather than to rely upon God. Most people see wealth and power as the blessing of God. They’re the things we all want, and for which we are most quick to thank God: things that make our lives more predictable and easy.
But what if we receive the unpredictable, the lonely, the exhausting from God? These are the things we usually want to stay away from. But are we right to immediately assume that these are always bad? Might this instead sometimes be the path of promise?
What did Jesus say? To paraphrase the beatitudes: "You think that happiness is found on the easy side of life, the honey side, but I say, blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness."
Or to adapt another of his sayings, "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to succeed in a God-kind of life on the easy side."
The false prophets taught:
1) God loves your people more than others.
2) There won't be an enemy.
3) There won't be a famine.
But the true prophets, like Jeremiah, taught against the false prophets:
1) God loves your country--but not more or less than others.
2) There will be an enemy: your country is a land bridge connecting three continents. It's not if but when there will be war.
3) There will be a famine: you live on the edge of the Sahara and the Arabian desert, two of the driest deserts in the world.
4) But God knows about the enemy, God knows about the famine, and he'll be with you through those things and restore you when they're over. He's a God that will weep with you in your greatest sorrow; he’ll preserve you in your greatest time of need.
What strength did Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah find in the desert? What drew Jesus, Paul, and many generations of monks and holy men to the desert? Why was its time in the desert considered
's honeymoon with God? Israel
As Jesus said, the broad road may be easier, but the winding, narrow, difficult road is the one that leads to life. This goes completely against our natural way of thinking.
This doesn’t mean that God has rejected the "easy" side of life, the honey side. The book of Acts is the story of God reaching out to the big cities on the Mediterranean, to the cosmopolitan Roman world.
But maybe we can allow what we learn about the land of Israel to challenge our understanding of what the path of promise is all about. Maybe we can let the promised land, with all its exhausting unpredictabilities, teach us what it is to be a chosen people.