Israel, Day 5: Qumran, Masada, Jericho, and the Dead Sea

February 22, 2011

This morning I had to solve a luggage problem. One of my suitcase’s two main zippers came off its track. Because my fully packed suitcase is slightly over-capacity, it would be very difficult to close it without both zippers.

A helpful person with our tour company informed me that Omar, the shoeshiner who works in the lobby of our hotel, might be able to fix it. So far, all the people I’ve met in Israel whose occupations depend in part on making tips and haggling prices have been incredibly eager to please. Omar is no exception.

After fiddling with the zipper for a few minutes by hand—and making no more progress than I had made—he gave me his grim assessment: “I cannot fix it.” He explained that it might require having a new zipper sewn into the place where the existing zipper is. It’s a tailoring problem. “But not to worry. I know a guy.” “How much will that cost?” I asked. “I cannot say until he looks at it—40, 50… 100 shekels.” (The exchange rate is about 3.5 shekels for a dollar.)

Of course, all that’s negotiable. He took my suitcase, and I’ll get it back tomorrow. Or will I ever see it again? No, no… It will be fine. My man Omar is on the job!

Our first stop on Day 5 was Qumran. This is the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves in the side of a mountain. The first stash of scrolls was accidentally found by a shepherd boy in the ’40s. According to an instructional video at the visitor’s center, the sect responsible for creating the scrolls, the Essenes, were very odd and very devoted to their apocalyptic interpretation of current events.

These are caves in the mountain from among which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

The Essenes eagerly anticipated the Messiah, but they believed that before he violently defeated the forces of evil in the world, he would be one of them. The Messiah would come from their community. They took an “if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us” attitude toward all outsiders, whom they called “children of darkness.”

The Qumran community copied and recopied books of the Hebrew Bible, and also wrote about their secret community life. The scrolls that were found contain at least small fragments of every book in our Old Testament except Esther. An entire copy of the Book of Isaiah was found.

According to the video, the news of the death of John the Baptist by Herod’s hand prompted one of their number to ask if this were the same John who had been a part of their own community some time earlier. Was John the Baptist at one time a member of the Essenes? It’s possible.

Speaking of first-century Jewish sects, the Zealots were the next topic of conversation on our journey. We know for sure that one of Jesus’ own disciples, one of the two named Simon (not Simon Peter), was originally a member of this party.

The Zealots were an important part of the history of Masada, a mountain-top fortress on the Dead See, which Herod the Great built. In A.D. 73, after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the Zealots retreated to this place. They hoped to hide there temporarily, until they could return to Jerusalem and re-build the temple.

Their plan failed. The Romans found out where the Zealots were and asked for their surrender. The Zealots refused. For a while, they thwarted the Roman army’s attempts to destroy their fortress. Finally, when all hope of victory was lost, all but three or four of the 1,000 or so Zealots, including wives and children, committed suicide. They would rather die than live as slaves to Rome.

(Well, I should say that only a designated number of them committed suicide—women and children were killed by husbands and fathers, who then fell on their own sword. Ghastly stuff, to say the least.)

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote the history of the event in rousing, inspirational tones in his history of Jewish wars. This created a problem for later Jewish rabbis, who feared that Masada glorified suicide, which is forbidden in Jewish law.

Masada has become part of the fabric of the modern Israeli army, whose rallying cry, according to the film, is “no more Masadas.” Thirty years ago, with the Jim Jones mass-suicide fresh on people’s minds, a TV miniseries was made about the events, called Masada. It was filmed on and around the actual mountain. Peter O’Toole plays the Roman commander Flavius.

I haven’t seen it, but I’m guessing it doesn’t have a happy ending.

The best part of Masada was the trip down the mountain along a steep, narrow path. We got some good pictures—as I worked once again on overcoming my slight fear of heights. Or fear of falling, to be exact.

Trying to conquer my slight fear of heights—or fear of falling!

By the way, on our way to Masada, we saw many Bedouin communities on the side of the road. Bedouins are a nomadic Arab people who live throughout the Middle East.

What was amazing to me was this: We saw Bedouin shepherds leading a large flock of sheep to very sparse patches of grass on the side of a rocky mountain. Jimmy, our tour guide, said, “They always find food. There’s always enough.” From our perspective this dry, barren terrain was incredibly inhospitable for supporting life—whether sheep or human. Yet these Bedouin have been living like this for millennia.

How is that possible?

It goes to show how judgmental we Westerners can be toward other cultures. We want everyone to be like us, but why? Who says “our way” is better? These people are more than surviving, and on so little! Maybe there is always enough, if we could just see it that way.

Next, we traveled into Jericho, under Palestinian control. Jericho hails itself as the world’s oldest city at 10,000 years. Jericho is also an important biblical city—after all, “Joshua fit the battle at” this place. But in the Old Testament it’s also the place where Elisha turns the bitter water sweet by throwing salt into it (2 Kings 2:19-22).

This same spring exists today. Many of us drank from it.

Our group read aloud that scripture and the scripture just beyond this story—2 Kings 2:23-24. This was a way of offering solace to those men among our party who are bald, including our bishop, Mike Watson! We Methodist clergy are a wild and crazy bunch. See video for more on that…

A sycamore tree in Jericho

Jericho was the place in the New Testament where the wee little man Zacchaeus was called down from the tree by Jesus, in Luke 19. It’s also where Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46 and following. Surprisingly, no one has stuck a church on top of where they think these events might have occurred. I’m sure it’s better that way.

Finally, in Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the man who gets beaten and robbed is headed down the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

According to a highly disputed Byzantine tradition dated centuries after the beginning of the Christian era, Jesus was tempted on a mountain in Jericho, even though scripture doesn’t name a place. We saw that mountain, too. All I can say in its favor is that when the gospel writers told the story, they probably had a mountain like this in mind. There’s a monastery on the mountain now.

We wrapped up our day in a fun way: We, um, swam(?) in the Dead Sea. Because of all the minerals in the water, one doesn’t swim there; one only floats. I’ve heard this since I was a small child in Sunday school class. I’m glad to have experienced it.

In case you’re wondering, the Dead Sea is gorgeous… It looks like blue ocean water on a beach that could be in Florida. That surprised me, although I’m not sure why.

The Dead Sea also features the most amazing mud, which every Israeli gift shop is happy to sell you. The mud has alleged dermatological benefits. After we mudded ourselves up and rinsed off, I felt a pleasant oily-ness on my skin—like baby oil.

Some of my colleagues in the Dead Sea. A couple of them are floating. Click to enlarge.

Regardless, it was a blast. I don’t yet have many pictures of the event, but I’m sure you’ll see me tagged in photos on Facebook.

3 Responses to “Israel, Day 5: Qumran, Masada, Jericho, and the Dead Sea”

  1. Susan Taylor Says:

    Brent,

    I am enjoying your posts about your trip. This day of my trip in February 2007 was my favorite and most “spiritual” of all the days I spent in Israel. I loved Qumran, Masada, and enjoying the shore of the Dead Sea. When you get to my second favorite site of the trip, I will let you know. Can you guess which one it is? You have not been there, yet.

    Your photos are fun and I am “re-experiencing” my journey through your eyes. Continue to enjoy.

    Keeping you and your group along with C. Kay Fuino and her group from Duluth First UMC in my prayers for safe travel and memorable experiences that will preach and teach.

    Susan

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Thanks, Susan. I can already tell that I will be one of those obnoxious Methodist clergy who tell other Methodist clergy, “You _have_ to go to the Holy Land. You don’t know what you’re missing!” And they won’t believe me. But it’s true.


  3. Hi Brent,
    I’m so happy you went to Masada. I hope you found it as fascinating as I did. It is a really amazing story.

    I’m glad you’re having a good time.

    NJ


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