Friday, May 25, 2012

Holy Land Day 16, May 25: Dead Sea fun and other stuff, Ps. #130 "of Ascent"

Disclaimer: my blog contains personal observations and the typos and errors are mine alone. (The guides and tour leaders know their stuff.)

I take the elevator from the dining room up to the fourth floor rather than climbing stairs last night and this morning to avoid stressing my muscles.

On the bus we read Psalm 130. If we are in distress, we can trust God. Some of the students face significant challenges, as do we. God is able to meet our needs with his abundance.

We drive over an hour from Jerusalem to Masada. The sun's shining on Jerusalem as we head out at 7am. 10% of Israelis live in Jerusalem. The Jordanian hills are visible eastward, less than 50 miles way. The "Big ugly wall" divides the West Bank that used to be Jordanian from Jewish neighborhoods. We pass the back of the Mount of Olives, goats grazing near their shepherds beside the highway.

Arab settlements have collections of black barrels for solar heating water on the roofs of apartments, adding more as families grow. Israel pushed Jordan back in the 1967 war. Jordan made peace in 1994 but did not ask for the West Bank back. Settlements have been established to buffer a potential Palestinian state from Jordan.

Ilan gives us a brief history of the Palestinian question and the PM Rabin's 1992 peace offer, including land for Palestinians, though Jordan (80% the same people as Palestinians) gave them nothing. Newspapers do not publish good news of Israeli-Palestinian relations, such as the treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli hospitals, says Ilan. According to reporters, it is not the sensational news that readers want.

We learn about the West Bank's areas A, B, and C. In A, Palestinians control their security (police) and municipal affairs. Israelis are not welcome and it is considered a dangerous area. Tour drivers have a special permit to enter cities like Bethlehem. Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, is the biggest A city. In Area B, they control municipal affairs, but Israel maintains a security presence. In Area C, Israel has Jewish areas. Once Palestinians recognize Israel, they will likely have their Palestinian statehood. Recent leaders, President Abbas and PM Fayed have dealt with corruption to improve life for Palestinians. On the other hand, despite much international aid, the Gaza strip is badly administered by Hamas.

We drive through desert. Drip irrigation was invented here for agriculture, as were drip control valves. The annual WATECH water conference in Tel Aviv draws experts from the whole world. The water from drip irrigation leaches away the salts to permit date palms to grow on former sand and salt flats. A glass of water from the Dead Sea dries to 30% minerals, compared to 5% in the ocean.

The desert soil is full of clay. It rains for three hours a day, 3-5 days a year. Water flows on top and the approximate 150 mm. (about 6 inches) of water annually result in dangerous flash flooding. Boulders are swept down the mountainsides and creeks. 10% of evaporation from the Dead Sea is returned from the Israeli hill waters. 20% comes from Jordanian slopes. Psalm 126:4 speaks of God returning Israel as water in the Negev - those flash floods - re-water the lake.

The slow death of the Dead Sea is obvious in sinkholes where the dried out sand is collapsing downward. 60% of evaporation is lost without a good flow of water from the Jordan. Once desalinization plants are open in two years, the freshwater input from the Sea of Galilee down the Jordan is expected to rise. Hot water sulfur springs bubble near the highway, 100oF therapy pools. Cleopatra maintained her famous complexion by availing herself of Dead Sea minerals and baths.

We go through a border checkpoint on the former border between Israel and Jordan, a pre-1949 reminder of the "Green Line" drawn by the British between Israel and its neighbor Jordan. At En Gedi, an oasis 10 miles from Masada, David cuts off a piece of King Saul's robe to prove his good intentions toward the king.

At Masada, a mountain with three sheer sides and one drop-off where Romans built an enormous siege ramp to gain access, we take the cable car up the hill. First we pass "Opera City," a temporary installation at the bottom of the hill; this year's production is Aida!

Herod's Western Palace mosaic
Herod built a spectacular series of three palaces (one for his military administrator) at Masada. He married Miriam the Hasmonean, whose family discovered the plateau with 450 meter cliffs on three sides. Herod would leave his family at Masada and go alone to Rome on business. I sketch one of the Western Palace mosaics.

The walls, now bare limestone blocks, were plastered and colored, some to resemble the contemporary style of stone blocks.

After Herod falls, Romans used it as a fortress between the states of ARabia and Judea. The Sicarii, a murderous and zealous sect of Judaism, inhabited the fortress from 66 AD until three years after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 73 AD. They robbed and massacred wealthy Jews living in nearby En Gedi and robbed caravans traveling on either sides of the mountains. When Rome decided to crush the rebels, they had food stocked by Herod the Great decades earlier and plenty of water in cisterns filled by Herod's aqueduct collection system. Sicariis hung their laundry over the walls of the fortress to show Romans they had water - meanwhile the 4000 Roman troops of the Tenth Legion had to import their water from springs 10 km. away. The army camps are still visible from the top of the mountain.

When Romans built a 4-5' wall around the mountain to prevent escape, and erected an enormous siege ramp to raise their battering equipment, they succeeded in burning the Sicariis' wooden fortification of the wall they were breaching. The Sicarii, known mercenaries and hit men, decided to act. Their leader, Eleazar Ben Ya'ir, made two impassioned speeches (according to Josephus) and convinced his followers to kill their families and commit suicide. By lot, one man was chosen to kill the last nine men and then himself. Josephus reports that two women and five (or seven) children hid themselves from the slaughter and survived to report what had happened.

It's not known why suicide became an option, being strictly forbidden by the Law. Only three reasons are permissible for giving up of life: if one is 1) forced to commit adultery with one's mother or sister; 2) being forced to kill another person; or 3) being forced to worship an idol. None of these reasons applied at Masada.

However, the heart of Judaism had been ripped out by the destruction of the temple and the Sicarii may have felt their life purpose was ending. They burned the entire fortress, but left the storerooms stocked with oil, wine, and dates intact to show Rome that they had decided their fate and had not been starved out by the Roman army.

A tomb was found in a cave nearby, containing a young man and woman who might have been married, and a young boy too old to be their son. Considering that they might have been Jews from Masada, they received a full Israeli honor guard funeral as part of the building of Israeli moral and heroic myths that encouraged fighters of the C20.

Fragments of Ezekiel 37 and other scrolls were found near the synagogue. The former Israeli chief of staff, Yigael Yadin became an archaeologist after he left the army. He found the scrolls in 1964-5. Ilan says the scripture represented the Jewish return to Israel, a valley of dry bones coming to life. Twenty years after the end of the Holocaust and WWII, the scroll was taken as a symbol of God's intervention. His chosen people continue to live in prophetic fulfillment. "The treasure of Masada is not the horrible deaths but the scrolls," including the Apocrypha and Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice. (There was even a snippet from the Iliad, perhaps brought by Roman soldiers.)

Josephus describes two groups of Jews in the first century, those who thought they could move God's hand by rebellion and force, and the Peace Party who believed they served God best by loving and serving others and studying Torah. Jesus would have aligned with the latter.

Jeff talks about rabbinic and other literature of Christ's day that said someone's death could atone for their sins. The absolute most heinous sin was handing per a Jew to a foreigner for death. Judas, perhaps realizing that Jesus was going to be executed by Rome, repented and attempted to return the money. Failing that, he hanged himself, perhaps to atone for his sins.

The sandy salt flats lie below as the bus snakes through the hills toward the next stop. Ilan points out Wadi Darga, near where the Bar Kochba scrolls were found (at Wadi Muraba'at). We pass through the checkpoint again. The air is fresh, clean, an dry. A haze of evaporation hangs over the Dead Sea on the other side of the bus.

We get out at Ein Feshkha, a spring that formed part of a C1 agricultural farm. The farm had a connoting wall with Qumran. Jews could travel any distance in a walled city, so the farmers could have come and gone freely on the Sabbath. The tanning facility may have been used to make parchment like that used for the Dead Sea Scrolls found nearby. The Qumran community probably consisted of Essenes, perhaps an extreme version of the sect.

Rain on the west slopes has eroded the slopes down to the second layer, Synonian chalk. On the drier east side, water runs down between the upper layer of limestone and the chalk, creating "springs in the desert" on the east side. It takes three years for rain that falls in Jerusalem to reach the springs through the rock.

Pool of reeds and fish near the
Dead Sea
We settle down near a small pool, formed by the 100 springs that run through the area and wash away salt deposits in the soil so plants grow wildly. Fish have never been stocked in the pond, but scientists speculate that birds have brought fry on beak or claw - every native fish is present. Reeds and shrubs grow around the bank.

Ezekiel 47 talks about water flowing East (Kidron Valley). Isaiah 35 says the arid desert will blossom. Marc reminds us that for Israel, water is a powerful metaphor. The flowing (living) water from Jerusalem represents God, who gives life. For example, the Jericho rose looks gnarled and dead. The seed pods are released when it blossoms in the rain. It can wait for years. Our spiritual challenge is to look at the life that erupts when living water comes. Marc challenges us: 1. Wherever God puts you, be the vehicle of living water in dry places. 2. When you're in the desert, be willing to wait for the rain. Sit like the Jericho rose, knowing it is God's nature to send rain on his people.

We find private places nearby to pray and meditate. One of the lovely things planned on the tour is an almost-daily mediation time in the sites we visit. I've grown to look forward to them.

It's 37o as we walk through the nature reserve. We don't read about the hyenas and leopards inside until we're walking back to the bus. Israel is restoring animals and habitats we now associate with Africa that were cut off from migration by the building of the Suez Canal.

It's a five-minute bus ride to Kalia Beach. We mud each other, snap pictures of our pasty, alien black (and not brown!) selves, and float in the Dead sea. I'm normally buoyant but it feels different when feet, hands, and head are out of the water at the same time. When I turn on my stomach, my feet stick up from the knees. We rinse many times after we come out of the water, but my face and skin are parched. It takes three applications of skin cream on my neck and face and two on my arms and legs to take away the turkey wrinkles.

There's an accident in a Jerusalem highway tunnel, which means taking a detour. Shimon drops us back at the hotel after leaving Ilan at his bus stop to head home for Shabbat. Apparently most of Jerusalem will be closed tomorrow when we have our day off.

Supper is delicious. Again. Israelis know how to cook. We pass Jewish families entering the hotel synagogue, adorable girls is floating dresses and little boys in suits and kippahs (head coverings). Candles flicker in the hall outside the gathering place and a young woman chants prayers quietly in the soft light. I'm too tired for Vespers and read scripture as the start of my own Sabbath rest.

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