It’s been very hot and sunny, so we left early for the Mount of Olives, which is located on the east side of Jerusalem. This gave us a chance to take good photos with the sun to our backs, while others chose to spend some time on a camel’s back.
We made our way down “Palm Sunday Road,” thinking of how Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. No one knows exactly where the road was at that time, but the traditional road is a steep walk down into the Kidron Valley. It was not an easy walk, especially for those wearing flip-flops and for Lloyd, but we made it successfully, pestered all along the way by venders hawking everything from post cards and bags to camera film and batteries.
About halfway down we turned right for a view of a first century tomb containing ossuaries, or “bone boxes.” Typically, the dead were laid out in a tomb until their body had decayed, then the bones were collected in stone boxes, which were placed together (in older periods, the bones of past generations were mingled
together as one was “gathered to his fathers”).
Overlooking Jerusalem today, one is struck by the iconic images of the golden-domed Mosque of Omar (also called the Dome of the Rock, right), and the black-domed Al Aqsa mosque, to the left. Both sit atop Temple Mount, and remain under the jurisdiction of the Islamic waqf.
Just beyond the tomb is a church named Dominus Flevit, yet another traditional site, this one commemorating the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. It affords a beautiful view of the temple mount, which is now home to the Islamic Al Aqsa Mosque (left) and the Dome of the Rock (right).
Further down the steep path into the valley, we turned left into a small grove of olive trees that many people believe to be the original site of the Garden of Gethsemane. Though no one can be sure of the location, the garden contains several ancient olive trees that are estimated to be 2,000 or more years old. Despite their age and the weathered condition of their massive trunks, new branches still bear olives every year. The “Church of All Nations,” located next to the garden, was built in 1945 with donations from many countries, including the U.S. It bears witness to the need of all to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, which we did.
From the garden we walked beneath beautiful bouganvilla vines to meet our bus, which took us to Bethlehem. Our Jewish guide, Doron, remained in Jerusalem because Jews are not to enter Bethlehem, which is in the occupied West Bank. After a brief stop at the checkpoint, we drove through the tall wall that isolates Bethlehem, and picked up Ibrahim, an Arab Christian who was our guide for the rest of the day.
We went first to the Three Arches gift store, famous for its large selection of olive wood carvings and jewelry. There we got a short introduction to “Class A” (completely hand-carved), “Class B” (machine and hand carved), and “Class C” (completely machine cut) olive wood figures. The higher the class, as you might imagine, the more expensive – one large piece retailed for $16,000. Even with our “20% discount” cards, most of us spent more than we intended to.
Our next stop was at Bethlehem Bible College, which I had first learned about through Baptist World Alliance. We were met by Dr. Bishara Awad, the president, who founded the school and serves as its president. He told us about the school’s history and challenges. Many Baptists study there, but the student population is down because Israeli travel restrictions make it very difficult for some students to get to the school, and its branch in Gaza has had to be closed.
Bethlehem Bible College is a four-year, accredited undergraduate school. It recently celebrated its 30th anniversary as it also graduated 41 students. Through hard work, perseverance, and much prayer, the school has grown to occupy three buildings in central Bethlehem, and has begun construction on a new building that will house classrooms, a chapel, and administrative offices. A large wall in the open center of the building will be decorated with a large terra cotta relief created by Don White, a retired school-teacher/volunteer missionary from Colorado who is 75 years old, but walks the scaffolding as nimbly as someone half his age. After sculpting the reliefs, White had to cut them into sections for firing, and then bonds them together after they are attached to the wall with adhesive.
The school’s cafeteria prepared for us a delicious lunch of maqlubah – a mixture of rice, cauliflower, bits of beef and spices that is generally eaten in a pita with some chopped salad. After lunch, Dr. Bishara showed us a video about the school and talked to us about what life is like as a Palestinian living under Israeli control, something I had particularly wanted the students to hear.
Following the talk, we visited the school’s gift shop, where many of us slapped our foreheads and moaned, because the shop’s olive wood carvings were both beautiful and considerably cheaper than at the tourist-oriented store we’d shopped at earlier.
From the Bible college we traveled to the Church of the Nativity, the traditional – there’s that word again – site of Jesus’ birth. An old tradition says Jesus was born in a cave there, over which has been built a huge church that has overlaid the cave completely with marble, silver, and gold.
The biggest part of the church is controlled by the Greek Orthodox, while a small chapel to the side is controlled by the Armenian Orthodox, whose priests were praying loudly as we entered. A newer part of the structure was built by the Franciscans.
We found it interesting to observe differing customs, such as the Greek Orthodox penchant for kissing the icons (pictures of Jesus or saints), and the Greek or Roman Catholic interest in touching the oily silver star that marks the spot where Jesus was supposed to have been born, then touching it to their lips or forehead in hope of a special blessing.
Our final stop of the day was at Shepherds’ Field, one of three sites that claim to be the place where angels appeared to shepherds and announced Jesus’ birth. Shepherds’ Field is in the municipality of Beit Shahour but within the same wall/fence that encloses Bethlehem. It is operated by the Dominicans, and is the most famous of the three. There a chapel has been built over a small grotto where it is claimed the shepherds and their sheep were spending the night when the angels appeared.
For our worship service, we sat in a tin-roofed shed as Sara Kirk directed our thoughts. Our seats overlooked what was an empty hill the last time I was in Israel, but is now covered by a small complex of apartment buildings where Arabs live, and a huge Jewish settlement that has firmly planted itself between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. An electrified fence and electronic monitoring separates the two.
As we left Bethlehem, we got a very small taste of what it is like to live in the occupied territories. Although there were only about three cars and another bus in front of us, we sat at the checkpoint between for nearly 40 minutes. Then two Israeli soldiers carrying duct-taped assault weapons boarded the bus and walked down the aisle, checking everyone’s passport. It was quite a new experience for most of us, one we won’t forget soon.
Tomorrow, we go south.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.