Often when I tell people they ought to go to Israel, the first question they ask is, why? It is a logical question since a trip to Israel is costly, long and involves leaving behind our comfort zone. So here are a few reasons why I believe a trip to Israel is essential for Christians who want to dig deeper into their Bibles and take their faith to the next level.
The Holy Lands as a Central Character in the Biblical Narrative
The more we study the Bible the more we realize how important the geography of the land is to the story. We sense that many of the biblical events are so closely connected to the physical layout of the land that in order to fully understand them, we need to actually see, feel and touch the land on which they took place. Thus we realize that until we actually visit the place and experience it with all our senses, our understanding of the biblical story remains fuzzy.
Encountering our God in the Desert
I received one of my most profound insights during my first trip to Israel. It occurred whilst we were hiking in the desert and I encountered the God of the desert. Living in the city gives us a sense that God is a God who fawns and dotes and fusses over us as if we were the only things on his mind. In the city if we stub our toe or cut our finger, there are a hundred different ointments and places that we can go to buy relief. If we suffered a more serious health problem, all we have to do is dial 911 and at least two different health professionals will come screaming down the road to help us. They will fuss over us, hook us up to the best machines, and transport us to the nearest hospital where a myriad of other professionals will give us their undivided attention. This leads us by analogy to think that God too is like that. He doesn’t want us to suffer the slightest pain, the smallest loss, the littlest discomfort but will move heaven and earth to rush to our side, pick us up and kiss us better.
It was this concept of the “911 God” that I found challenged in the desert. There in the heat and desolation, if you fell and hurt yourself nobody is coming to help you. There was no 911 to call. No hospital within miles to which you could be rushed. In the desert I experienced the tough side of God and I realized that God is sometimes hard. I think of how Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away because Ishmael was not the chosen seed and could not share the inheritance with Isaac. Abraham was sad, but obeyed. That was a tough thing to do. To send a mother with her adolescent child into the desert with a little water and provisions is not easy but that is what God asked of Abraham. To those like me in the city, even the thought that God would demand such a thing is unthinkable.
The God of the desert does not run to my aid every time I fall and scrape my knee. He may just tell me to suck it up and keep going. We are not familiar with a God like this. But until we learn to love and trust just such a God, we will be spiritually stunted. Is it any wonder that God required all of his leaders to spend time in the desert? It is God’s boot camp. In the desert God prepares us for warfare in the city. In the desert we learn the most important spiritual lesson needed to fight the battle of faith, viz., that God’s people do not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Learning God’s Severe Mercy through Humble Shepherds
Going to Israel taught me about God’s severe mercy in a new way. This I learned by watching the shepherds and their sheep. I observed some shepherds carrying a sheep on their shoulder and wondered what that was all about. What I learned was that the shepherd calls to his sheep via a series of whistles or songs. But there’s always that one sheep which has not learned the voice of the shepherd and so tends to wander off. I was told that the shepherd will strike that sheep on its leg so that it cannot walk for a while. During that time the shepherd treats the leg and carries the sheep on his shoulders until the leg is healed. By being carried along the errant sheep hears the voice of shepherd all day long. When the leg has healed and the sheep is let go, it has learned the shepherd’s voice and will not wander away. The paradox in this is that in order to save the sheep the shepherd has to hurt it. And further, in hurting the sheep, the shepherd inconveniences himself as he now has to carry that hobbled sheep on his shoulders until it is healed. But he is willing to do it. He is willing to disadvantage himself in order to save the sheep. I realized that is what God has sometimes done with me. There had been times when I felt God had ‘struck’ me. I now see that as God’s severe mercy. God struck me to prevent me from wandering. And yet all through that suffering he carried me on his shoulders, so that, listening and learning his voice I was better able to hear it the next time.
God as a Rock and Protector
Visiting Israel took my theology from the abstract to the concrete. This happened as I hiked in the beautiful oasis of Ein Gedi. This was one of the areas to which David fled when he fell out of favor with Saul (1 Sam. 24:1). Saul pursued him up and down this wilderness and David barely managed to stay one step ahead of his nemesis. What struck me about the area was how the rocks were dotted with caves and trails and streams. David made use of those trails and caves in the cat and mouse game he played with Saul. One slip and he would have tasted Saul’s spear. But it never happened. The rocks and caves provided him protection and he made full use of them. In fact it was while he was hiding deep in one of those caves that the tables were turned and Saul nearly tasted David’s dagger. All this to say that when David says in Ps.71:3 – “For you are my rock and my fortress”, I now understand what he means. We in the west tend to describe God using abstract concepts. For us God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, sovereign, etc. And then we comb the scriptures to find texts to back up the abstraction. But to the Hebrew mind God is much more concrete. To David God is the rock because in that rock David found protection from Saul, shade from the sun and shelter from the storm. This is not to say that David was pantheistic. But he experienced the reality of God in the literal reality of a rock that protected him from his enemy.
Christian Fellowship & Camaraderie through the Tour
And what more I could say! But time prevents me from talking about how I learned what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “You are the Rock and on this rock I will build my church.” Or of why Jesus went up the Mt. of Olives right after he disrupted the tables in the Temple. Or of why Masada, the fortress that Herod built, turned into the tombs of the last few Jewish freedom fighters. But you will have to go to Israel yourself to discover all these and more. God will meet you there and you will come back energized and empowered for his work back ‘home’ in the city.
But I can’t resist one more serendipity. And that is the group itself. Every time I’ve been to Israel this has happened. We begin as virtual strangers, but end up as a community. It is wonderful to see each person pulling their weight on the hikes and giving or receiving help to each other as each needs it. No one is left behind to feel inadequate or a drain on the rest. We all work together to encourage each other. The bus rides are filled with humor and laughter as we all joke and kid each other. They are also times for deeper communication over what we have just seen or experienced. You will find yourself part of a small group that will grow to know and understand each other in a very profound way. For the rest of your life you will treasure some of the friendships that are born on the bus.
Join Sacred Bridge Travel for an unforgettable pilgrimage and quest to understand the Biblical story by journeying through the lands of the Holy One.