Some borders are easier to cross than others, but the Israeli border is not among them. Participants in the “Bible Lands Study Tour” sponsored by Campbell University Divinity School learned that the hard way May 25 as we made our way from Jordan back into Israel.
The day (which happened to be Jordan’s Independence Day) began with a visit to the baptism site at “Bethany Beyond the Jordan,” where many believe Jesus was baptized. John 1:28, which follows the story of Jesus’ baptism, says “This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.” The site bears the remains of several ancient churches built there as pilgrim sites where people could come to be baptized.
The churches were built, not on the banks of the Jordan, but by a pool formed in a tributary not many yards from the main channel of the Jordan, a place where the water would be more still and less muddy. Broken steps in the center of the photo show where fifth or sixth century believers would enter the water to be baptized. The site has recently been developed on the Israeli side, too. With soldiers looking on, a group of Greek Orthodox pilgrims visited the site as we stood on the opposite side of the river.
The site is also home to a cave traditionally associated with both Elijah and John the Baptist. A church was once built over the cave, and a monastery and baptismal pools were built adjoining it. Unfortunately, our Jordanian guide knew very little about the site, so we saw that part only from the bus.
That tweak of frustration was amplified as we drove the few miles to the border crossing, a bridge that the Israelis call the Allenby Bridge and the Jordanians call the King Hussein Bridge. Security departing Jordan was quite lax, but it still took more than half an hour to leave the country.
Security on the Israeli side was another story (and one not allowed to be captured on film). Officials pulled several of our bags aside and searched them thoroughly, taking far more time than was necessary, and leaving us to sit and wait. Three of us had bought souvenir bedouin knives in Petra, and the agents acted as if they’d never seen such a thing, though I’m sure tourists must bring them through every day. Another bag containing bed sheets bound for Bethlehem Bible College was searched, and yet another that held a bag of suspicious objects that were nothing more than metal crosses. After much frustration, we were allowed to proceed.
Our day improved dramatically when we rolled into Jericho about 3:00 p.m., more than ready for lunch at the Temptation Restaurant, so named because it faces a mountain traditionally associated with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The food there was marvelous, and needless to say, we yielded.
The restaurant is adjacent to Tel el Sultan, where the remains of ancient Jericho have been partially excavated. A large tower discovered there by Kathleen Kenyon dates back more than 10,000 years, earning Jericho the title of “Oldest City in the World.” A view from the tel, looking over modern Jericho, shows why it has been settled for so long. A strong spring located beneath the red roof in the lower part of the picture provides enough water to make the surrounding area an oasis and giving it the additional title “City of Palms.”
After a brief look at an old sycamore tree named for Zacchaeus, whose story took place in Jericho (Luke 19), we stopped at a popular shop that sells ceramics and Hebron glass.
Parts of the old Jericho road have been repaired and reopened recently, so we were able to drive a few miles out the old road and look down at St. George’s Monastery, built into a cliff face near the bottom of the Wadi Qelt, so deep and dark that some locals call it “the valley of the shadow of death.” Hebrew lore contends that David visited the area with his flocks and must have been inspired to write the 23rd Psalm there.
Although there’s nothing more than tradition to support the story, we thought it would be meaningful to recite Psalm 23 as we stood and looked down into the dark cleft, nestled beneath the barren Judean hills, a place where one can easily turn to God for help because there’s nothing else around.
We had no sooner gotten out “The Lord is my shepherd,” however, than a formation of Israeli fighter jets screamed overhead on a training mission, completely drowning out our recitation. The irony of trusting military might rather than God was not lost on any of us.
The day ended with our first brief glimpse of the Old City of Jerusalem as we emerged from the tunnel at the top of the new Jericho road and circled the city as the bus’ CD player blared the strains of “Jerusalem,” and we were encouraged to join in singing the chorus.
Tomorrow: the Palm Sunday Road, Dominus Flevit, and the Garden of Gethsemane in the morning, then Bethlehem and a visit to our friends at Bethlehem Bible College in the afternoon. We are tired, but ready.