Right after breakfast this morning, our group of 25 (plus 1) met in a room at our hotel to worship God and remember Jesus. It was moving as one brother reminded us of the significance of Jesus being sacrifced at Golgotha, the place of the skull. Two brothers took turns leading us in song. Another reminded us of how important it to allow Jesus to be what people see in us, like the early disciples in Acts. It was moving to consider the places we had recently visited and the impact it had our understanding of Jesus' ministry; it was equally moving to consider the sites we would be visting in the coming days here in Jerusalem.
After worship, we gathered our bags and headed out to the bus to begin the drive to the southern end of the Dead Sea.
As we approached Masada, Gus told us again that we really needed a week to tour just Masada in order to do it justice. Even though we could only spend about an hour, Barry asked, "How could we be in Israel and not see Masada?" He was right!
Masada is located between the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, and the western coast of the Dead Sea. This incredible wilderness fortress rises nearly 1,500 feet above the level of the sea! Originally only accessible by a winding trail called the Snake Path approx. 1.25 miles long and with 700 stairs. Imagine ascending 1,500 feet in that short distance with the heat of the sun overhead!
Herod the Great definitely made his mark at Masada by building his winter palace here. His feats of engineering and design abound in the country. However, what we typically think of when we hear the name "Masada" is when the Romans, led by Flavius Silva, besieged the fortress in 73 or 74 A.D. in order to defeat the last bastion of Jewish rebellion. You can still see the outline of the Roman camps, their siege ramp leading up to the mountain on the western side, as well as a large collection of stones which were hurled into the fortress by the Roman war engines. Infamously, when Flavius and his men finally entered the fortress it was eerily quiet, because the leader of the rebels, Eleazar Ben Yair, convinced the 960 people in his care that it would be better for them to take their own lives rather than be killed and enslaved by the enemy. According to Josephus, a couple of women and a handful of children had hidden in the cisterns and survived the mass suicide, and were able to recount what had happened.
When we were done at Masada we started back north. If you stand on the western shore of the Dead Sea, then put your back to it and face west, you stare straight up into the Judean wilderness. It doesn't look very inviting. However, it was the Judean wilderness to which David took refuge from Saul in 1 Sam. 24. Specifically it was the area of En Gedi. It was while he was in a cave in those hills that he silently stole a piece of Saul's garment when David found him in a compromising position. As Saul left the cave, David felt remorse over what he had done to the Lord's anointed and confessed to Saul.
As entertaining and instructive as that event is, why would David chose such a desolate place to hide? The Dead Sea would not provide he and his men with the water needed to sustain themselves. At En Gedi, there is a fresh water spring! "Ah," you might object, "but surely it wouldn't provide water year round!" As Barry pointed out, when we visited the spring today it is the end of the dry season and there hasn't been any rain for 6 months (and this dry season has been the hottest on record since 1943). Despite all of that, as we stood and watched, there was a beautiful waterfall tumbling over the rocks and flowing downstream toward the sea! That's one of the reasons why David would have chosen such a place to hide from Saul!
As we continued driving north we stopped at Qumran. The ruins we viewed were left by a Jewish sect of ascetics known as the Essenes when they were conquered and dispersed by the Romans in 68 A.D. Prior to being overtaken, the Essenes were a religious group that believed in ritual purity, cleanliness and they had a great respect for the written word of God. Their community built an intricate water system or trenches and cisterns for providing water to numerous rituals baths. They also had a special room that has come to be known as a Scriptorium, where they would make hand written copies of ancient Jewish religious texts and store them in ceramic jars.
The story of how Bedouin shepherds, in 1947 (nearly 2,000 years after the Romans defeated the Essenes at Qumran), found seven ancient scrolls stored in clay pots in the caves around Qumran is amazing! I would encourage you to read more about it. Needless to say, the discovery of these manuscripts was monumental. They came to discover more than 10 caves around Qumran that held manuscript portions. Gus told us that every book in the OT is represented in the Qumran scrolls except for two. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is testament to God providentially preserving his word.
After a hot, hot day, Barry took us to a spot at the Dead Sea where we could get in the water. He had prepared us ahead of time to bring clothing that could be thrown away afterward, because we likely would not want to try and save clothes that had been immersed in water with salt content of aprrox. 29%! So we made our way to the lowest place on earth's surface, almost 1,400 feet below sea level, to float in the densest water on the planet.
It was so much fun to sit down in the water, and simply float away! You absolutely could not sink. We were even able to convince a hesitant few in our group to join us and enjoy the fun. There were some around us covering themselves with mud from the sea, and allowing it to dry on their skin as a mask, then they would wash it off in the water. As we waded out of the sea, we rubbed our fingers together, feeling the slippery, salty residue on our skin. It was clear to us why nothing lives in this sea.
Before arriving at the sea Gus shared some interesting facts with us. The Dead Sea is actually dropping by over 3 feet a year. The Israelis are trying to find a way to solve this problem. Gus told us that there were two primary proposals that were under serious consideration. One was to find a way to route water to the Dead Sea from the Mediterranean, but pumping water up and over the mountains would be too cost prohibitive. The second proposal was to route water from the Red Sea in Egypt. Despite the price tag of $40 Million, this is the proposal that the Israelis believe they are close to securing. Hopefully they will find a way to preserve this incredible place.
We pray all of you had a great Lord's day! We love you and will see you at the end of the week. Until then, we will keep touring and will write as we're able. The
Jeremy & Anna