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The Land

May 10, 2009

Kathy, Sarah, and Daniel at Makhtesh Ramon

Sunday, 11:45 pm local time


“The flora and fauna talks to you,” Samir says in his thick accent, “the land will teach you if even you don’t want it.” We are debriefing the day, and our Israeli guide is explaining to us how he thinks the rest of the trip will affect us. It’s reminiscent of the verse from Luke, that even the rocks will cry out the glory of the Lord. It feels like it’s been a long day, but Gordon says that tomorrow – and the next few days – will be much more packed. I don’t mind, because tomorrow we get to see Masada.

We began today at the ancient city of Mamshit (pronounced mahm-SHEET), a trade stop on the ancient Spice Route. It’s the most extensive archaeological site we’ve visited so far, and the most reconstructed. We spent a while exploring the many rooms of the mansion, the stables, and the two churches. That the city had not just one, but two churches, with columns and mosaics and separate rooms for the atrium and the baptistry, was phenomenal. The baptistry of the western church was a short pit in the shape of a cross, just big enough for two people to stand in – the imagery of dying in the water and rising again in the cross was powerful, especially with the barren desert in the background. The floor of the sanctuary of the eastern church had an exquisite mosaic, including an invocation to God with thanksgiving for the man who built the church. Ancient sacred spaces, alive in the modern world.

I asked Gordon during the debriefing session if we’d have more contact with people than we’ve gotten so far. It occurred to me on the ride from Mamshit to our next stop, Makhtesh Ramon, how few people we’ve seen around. Arad was nearly deserted yesterday, on the sabbath; the highways between our site visits are as empty as the backwoods of Tennessee. We’ve seen cars, of course, and Bedouins on the side of the road with their flocks, but I’ve had more encounters with stones than I have with people. Samir responds that, in order to prepare for the increasing mass of people we’ll find as we continue on to Jericho, the Galilee, and Jerusalem, we’re starting light down here in the desert.

Makhtesh Ramon is certainly light on people, if not on wide open spaces. “Makhtesh” means crater in Hebrew; this one is a huge bowl-shaped valley carved out in the middle of the desert by the winds and the rains eroding the sandstone of the Negev. It’s a 300 meter drop from the observation centre; it’s at least twice that from side to side, and eight times that end to end. I pointed out a long, winding line through the middle that I thought was a road; Gordon pointed out that the first humans most likely traveled through here on their way up to Europe from Ethiopia.

The informational video in the observation centre wasn’t nearly as majestic as the sights; my favourite line was, “If the hike doesn’t leave you breathless, the view from the top will take your breath away.” I’m reminded of the command from the info-video at Arches National Monument in Utah: “Sniff the silence.” It seems that bad/awesome video scripts are cross-cultural. Still, though, the panorama of the makhtesh was breathtaking; I’m not usually afraid of heights, nor is vertigo a big deal, but watching Daniel, Miriam, Semaj, and Ronell stand on the very edge of the cliff made me nervous enough to make my feet tense up. The children’s pastor in me flaring up, I guess.

Samir says that Christianity is built on three things: faith, acceptance, and continuity. I can certainly feel the continuity of the ages here. We visited the site of the well that Abraham dug in honor of Abimelech at Be’er Sheva, and whether or not you believe that it’s the actual well or not, the weight of history is palpable. The feeling at Tel Be’er Sheva, only a few kilometers away, is similar. We could see the small creek that was the tel’s water source just a few yards from the city wall, a creek fed by run-off from Mount Hermon near Hebron. Connections between the West Bank and Israel, even here. The tunnel underneath the tel to the cisterns is cool, and short – I am thankful for the hardhats – and the workmanship is amazing. This place existed before the founding of America, before the founding of England, even.

I wonder if Samir’s right, though. Is Christianity built on faith, acceptance, and continuity? Faith I can get behind, but there’s a sense in which being a Protestant is to reject some manner of continuity – the Pope sleeps only a short drive away from us, reminding me of the divide between us even as we are in dialogue – and acceptance? Try telling that to any of the hundereds of communities we’ve marginalized and continue to marginalize. I want very badly to believe Samir, but the facts on the ground seem to refute him.

But then, the facts on the ground refute the story of Isaac and Ishmael at Abraham’s grave, that reconciliation can physically happen. The facts on the ground refute the historicity behind the well that Abraham did or not build. The facts on the ground refute the notion that rocks have a voice, that trees can talk, that ancient buildings have something to say to us today.

And still, we believe.

So, is Samir right? Is the core of Christianity faith, acceptance, and continuity? What among those should we reject? What should we be looking to add to the list? If nothing else, I hope that the remainder of our journey is marked by those virtues.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kris Timpte permalink
    May 10, 2009 10:08 pm

    You made all of us smile with the ‘sniff the silence’ reference… Grandma Kay read your blog today while she was here celebrating Mother’s Day and that was the exact comment she made – ha! Glad to know that she made an eternal difference to you!!
    We LOVE reading and seeing your adventures…I am concerned that you are wearing flip flops and walking through the desert. Did you and Kathy bring your sneakers?!
    Be Safe and keep posting!!

  2. Carly Harrison permalink
    May 13, 2009 11:06 am

    (Sorry I’m just now getting to this post) Sniff the silence! Ha! The difference between that video and the one in Israel is that you have chosen to go and watch it! ;P

    And as to your question on continuity, I would agree with Samir. Another word for continuity is connection. As Christians, we are drawn towards connections to Christ and to one another. At the core of every person there is a desire to find someone else just like themselves. Is that not the core Samir was talking about? On the surface, we do tend to marginalize everything around us, but when push comes to shove, we tend to find connections.

    Just a thought.

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