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At the Intercontinental

May 11, 2009


Monday, 11:45 PM local time


It’s the end of the third day, and it feels like it’s been months since we boarded the plane in Newark. Not because it’s been boring – quite the opposite; we saw enough today to last most people entire trips. Once we left the Dead Sea and En Gedi, we crossed the border into the West Bank to get to Jericho.

The difference once you cross the border into the West Bank is striking. I noticed this the first day when we briefly visited Hebron, but spending the last few hours in Jericho has helped me articulate it. It’s more crowded here, less polished, like inner-city Bangkok, or New York – not that there are skyscrapers, or even anything ‘impressive,’ it’s just more…domestic, strangely. Granted the majority of the time we’ve spent here has been in the Negev, but I have to say: Jericho is not Arad.

Hisham’s Palace is an eighth century Muslim structure built by the Caliph Hisham; it was destroyed about a century later by an earthquake. And that was about as much time as we spent at Hisham’s Palace.

Tel Jericho was far more fascinating, but not for what we saw. The tel itself is not nearly as well-excavated as, say, Tel Be’er Sheva or Mamshit; we saw more complete structures even at Tel Lakhish. The more interesting part was the discussion that spontaneously sparked, and showed us why Chip and Gordon really should be professors.

It starts with an 8000 year old tower. 8000 years – try and comprehend the amount of time that is. You can’t; or at least, I couldn’t conceive of something that old. It’s one of the few things they’ve been able to excavate from Tel Jericho, and it’s not much to look at, but what it stands for is amazing. We speculated on who might have lived there, and I jokingly turned to Daniel and said, “I wonder if it’s the Tower of Babel?” Daniel immediately turned around and said, “Hey, could this be the Tower of Babel?” to which Gordon and Chip immediately scoffed, “No.” That started a five minute round of riffing on why it couldn’t be Babel (not the least of which is the fact that Babel is in modern day Iraq), and Daniel graciously took the brunt of the ribbing without telling on me.

This innocent comment, though, sparked a half-hour discussion on hermeneutics and archeology. Non-seminarians would find it rather…dry, I suspect, but to some of us, it was fascinating. To watch Gordon and Chip in action, though, was the highlight of the day. It’s not often a professor gets to use their knowledge outside of a classroom setting, but the passion with which Chip spoke about interpreting Old Testament texts through the lens of archaeology and the fire with which Gordon spoke about learning to ask the right questions of both the text and the world was awesome, in every sense of the word. It’s good to have professors who are passionate. This, I’m sure, will be a running theme.

Tonight, we stay in the Intercontinental Hotel Jericho, the most stylish place I think I’ve ever stayed. Never ever seen a bidet before. It reminds me of a comment Gordon make at Tel Jericho, though. I asked why excavations of the tel hadn’t been more complete, and he said simply, “This is behind the wall.” Because Jericho isn’t in official Israeli territory, no one has put up the money to dig. We talked a bit about the wisdom of spending money digging up the past when there are people here in the present who are starving, people within sight of the tel, and wondered about the relationship between social justice and the arts.

And so I put the question to you: what does it mean to have a hotel like the Intercontinental in a place like Jericho? Is there a place for art and aesthetics in the midst of real need? Can the arts and humanities meet a real need, too, even if it’s not physical? I leave you with that tonight.

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