Editor’s Note: Today’s post is part two of a two-part series highlighting the Israel Study Tour at GRTS, which is required in the Master of Divinity program and supported by generous donors who offset the cost for each student. Jennifer Greer is one of the trip leaders, and in part one, she gave a detailed account of what the trip itself entails. In this post, then, she shares how being in the land has not only deepened her understanding of the Bible but also enhanced her worship of God and her passion for His Kingdom.
Years ago, I took my first trip to Israel. We visited many of the biblical sites, but the tour also included traditional sites and tourist attractions and shops. Then, during my days as a seminary student, I went with a professor on a very different type of trip, studying the history, geography and archaeology of the land. I didn’t realize until that trip how much I had missed the first time. My favorite spots were Galilee (where Jesus’ early ministry began) and Tel Dan (one of the ancient Israelite temples and altars to Yahweh).
I loved the natural beauty of the Sea of Galilee surrounded by hills, plains and the Golan Heights. I also loved the times of reflection on Jesus’ life, showing that He was God through His dominion over water, waves and schools of fish as well as over diseases and even death. Tel Dan also afforded natural beauty. That site boasts one of the headwaters of the Jordan River at the base of Mt. Hermon with its lush walkways and the altar and temple where ancient Israel worshiped Yahweh.
At both of these favorite spots, God was worshiped in history, and I entered into worship as well.
Fast forward a few years and Jonathan and I lived and studied at Jerusalem University College for a semester, and my love for the land grew more and more with longer moments to enjoy and linger in these and other places. As things unfolded, Jonathan wrote his master’s thesis on an ancient religious bowl used to collect blood at the Tel Dan altar, and later, his Ph.D. focused on analyzing the animal bones from the temple sacrificial area at Tel Dan. While finishing his Ph.D., our family lived in Jerusalem for a year and we were able to travel extensively throughout the land again. Jonathan would later go on to steward these bones, serve as the primary zooarchaeologist (aka animal bone specialist) for the archaeological dig, and launch the Hesse Memorial Archaeological Laboratory at GRTS for further research and training. Tel Dan was in our lives to stay!
Now, as co-leaders for the Israel Study Tour, we are leading trips to the land that we love. Many of our students have heard Jonathan’s passion about Tel Dan, so you can imagine the jokes and anticipation for some! It is a treat for me to sit back on the temple steps each year and delight in my husband, seeing his passion for this ancient site and for the Lord burst forth, combining his research and his teaching in this incredible classroom.
A couple of years ago, a new site opened up to the public which is maintained by the Catholic Church in Mexico on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Magdala is believed to be the home town of Mary Magdalene and boasts of a first century fishing village and synagogue. We, of course, added it to our itinerary just to check it out, and I fell in love! The small synagogue provides a beautiful picture of the setting for where Jesus read from the scroll and performed many miracles on the Sabbath.
From the synagogue you walk through the remains of the fishing village known for its dried fish sauce exported throughout the Roman world to the chapel with its wall of windows overlooking the Sea of Galilee. You walk into the rotunda where 12 pillars stand, each named for a woman who was a follower of Jesus. Off the rotunda are several smaller chapels with beautiful mosaics above the altars depicting scenes from Jesus ministry around the sea—multiplying the fishes and loaves, healing Mary Magdalene, raising the centurion’s daughter to life.
But it’s the chapel down the stairs, a floor below and near the bathrooms, that has won my heart, where too I have the great pleasure of teaching. The floor is reconstructed with limestone pavers from a first century road, and the mosaic above the altar is a panorama of the hemorrhaging woman’s finger reaching out to touch Jesus’ garment as He walked along the ancient road. While this story is probably situated in Capernaum and not Magdala, the image is striking. There are no faces, just sandaled feet scattered about and a gnarled hand reaching out to touch the One who has the power to heal all things—a bleeding woman and a dead girl, or a cancer patient and broken relationship.
Jesus is God and King and demonstrates His power and authority over all creation and creatures. He is worthy of our praise. Whether in an ancient Israelite temple and altar at Tel Dan or on a first century road along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, God is worshiped.
It’s in these spaces where I’m reminded again of my love for this land and my desire for students and other participants to experience them as well. It’s here that God invaded this world in human form, longing for a relationship with His people and a life lived in worship and work for His new Kingdom!