A Detailed Account of the Israel Study TourBy Jennifer Greer on May 1, 2017
Editor's Note: Today's post is part one 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 she describes in detail what the experience involves. In her second post, she will share what her many years in the land have meant for her journey as both a follower of Christ and as a Bible teacher.
A Fitbit or iWatch registers 5,000-7,000 steps a day walking the land of the Bible on our annual Israel Study Tour. For eight days, we literally step into the world of the Bible and immerse ourselves in the geography, history, culture and archaeology of the Old Testament, New Testament and "Intertestamental" period. We then step back into our modern-day context, bridging this ancient biblical redemptive story with the power of the Gospel in this millennium.
This past January marked GRTS' fifth tour with 31 participants, including students, spouses and friends of the seminary. President Stowell and his wife Martie accompanied us again this year and enriched the trip through interaction with participants and teaching. The feedback we get continues to affirm the transformative result of this experience, reinforcing our commitment to keep it as a core element of the Master of Divinity program.
While it would be ideal to begin the trip traveling chronologically through the biblical story, logistics and time don't afford that luxury. Our trip begins by exploring a garden in a valley of the Shephelah and the rolling hills from Jerusalem's heights, then descending west to the Philistine coastal plain on the Mediterranean Sea. In these valleys, the stories of Samson and David come to life, and we conclude the day by the shores of the Dead Sea, the lowest land on planet earth.
With the Judean mountains behind, the Jordanian mountains ahead, and the Dead Sea between, we wake up to face the dusty ascending steps—or for some the cable car—to the top of Masada. For many participants, Masada is a highlight of the trip not only for its natural and rugged beauty (and the "I hiked Masada" claim), but also for our first glimpse into the character of King Herod the Great. His grasp for grandeur, power and riches as well as his paranoia are evident. His fingerprints are literally all over the land. We visit Arad and Be'er Sheva, entering the world of the patriarchs and their wandering in the desert. Although it's not the same wilderness that ancient Israel wandered when they came out of Egypt, we get a "feel" for what that geography would mean for the forefathers and their longings for the Promised Land. By the end of the day, we are floating either in the Dead Sea or in the hotel pool.
We continue north along the Dead Sea to the tranquil spot of Ein Gedi and hike to waterfalls, an oasis in the Judean wilderness, and the area where David and his men hid from Saul in the caves. After being in the desert day before, this site provides us with another glimpse into an ancient life built around the need for water in a dry and thirsty land and the life-giving water that God provides for his people in Jesus. At the next stop, Qumran, we are intrigued by the Essene community that lived there and their connection to the Dead Sea Scrolls found in these caves. As the day ends we find ourselves by the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
The next morning, we start early and set sail on the waters of the Sea of Galilee, hearing stories of Jesus' miracles and feeling the wind and waves at our backs. This day enlightens our understanding of both testaments as we visit the site of Tel Dan, one of the northern kingdom's temples to Yahweh, and Hazor, an ancient Israelite fortified city, then to the "Jesus sites." We visit Caesarea Philippi, the region of Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Capernaum, Jesus' ministry base and Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. We focus on the person of King Jesus and His new Kingdom that brings healing, redemption and transformation to all things.
Leaving Galilee, we begin our journey to Jerusalem. We stand on the precipice in Nazareth overlooking the lush, green Jezreel Valley, where many biblical stories took place from Gideon and Saul to Ahab and Jezebel. Megiddo, Mount Carmel and Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea all provide their own glimpses into the biblical story. At Caesarea Maritima, we see where Paul was imprisoned before being taken to Rome and bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and we remember the martyrs who stood firm in their faith to their tragic end in the theatre there. We end the day by climbing to Jerusalem.
The next morning, then, begins in the fields of Bethlehem near Herodian, where we juxtapose the kingdom of this world (Herod the Great) and the Kingdom of our God, who came in the form of a baby boy to redeem us. We visit the Church of the Nativity and spend the afternoon at the Israel Museum (where we actually get to see some of the archaeological finds we've been talking about all week—the Dead Sea Scrolls as one highlight).
On the second to last day, we walk the streets of Jerusalem's Old City, visit the Dome of the Rock, pray at the Western Wall, wade through the waters of Hezekiah's Tunnel and crawl through the drainage ditch to ascend to the southern steps of the Temple Mount. Here we are challenged as future pastors and Christian leaders to consider the responsibility of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and to live lives that model this new Kingdom and boldly proclaim that He is King.
On our final day, we descend the Mount of Olives, visiting the churches that honor where Jesus wept for Jerusalem and prayed in His final hours in the Garden of Gethsemane. We stop at a little-known spot near the churches to reflect and pray individually on the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for forgiveness of our sins. He has made the way for us to be reconciled to God—Praise be! Our final steps, then, take us to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where His life was sacrificed and His body was laid smothered in spices, wrapped in linens and placed in a tomb carved from the rock. Behind the traditional burial spot in the church, there is a small chapel where tombs can be found from the first century and may be part of the very burial complex where our Lord rose from the dead, conquering death and giving life eternal with Him!
As we step back into our worlds with this good news and our experiences in the land, we hopefully have a deeper understanding of this ancient context and a richness which will inform our reading and teaching of the Bible. I am looking forward to our 2018 trip. We anticipate another meaningful time as we hit our stride in maximizing the experience for all involved.