In 2010, I published a biblical fiction about five young women struggling to achieve their goal as they roamed the desert bound for the Promised Land, along with their Israelite relatives and companions; the title is Milcah. For this, I had to do research and constantly consult the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and maps. After that, my son David always told me, “Mother, you have to go to Israel, because you know a lot about the history and geography there. My answer was, “I can’t afford it.” Finally, he gave me the dollars for this trip and Tom, my husband, found a company that makes these kinds of excursions. So, I went with a group of Methodists and the bishop of the region through this travel company.
I left Fort Lauderdale, arrived in Newark, and transferred to another airplane for Tel Aviv. I met a crowd of tourists taking the same excursion at the gate in Newark. In the airplane, a man asked me to exchange my seat with him; he wanted to sit with his wife. I gave him my seat and went to sit in the last row near the toilets. The plane shook so much the whole night that I thought I was going to become liquid. Once, the passenger in front of me stood up to make his prayers. He used straps on his shoulders and arms, tied a box to his forehead, and balanced backward and forward while reading and praying. He must have been an Orthodox Jew. As I am not Jewish, all of this was new to me. When it was time to serve our dinner, the attendants served kosher food to the Jews and then, regular food to the other passengers.
We arrived in Tel Aviv in the afternoon. In all three airports, they were announcing repeatedly that if any passenger had been to China, to talk to the authorities immediately. Covid 19 was on its way to us. Some people were already using masks.
Leaving the terminal in Tel Aviv, we found eight buses waiting for us. The banner in front of each one had the name of a stone; mine was Emerald and the name tag on the necks of the people on that bus was green. After an hour-long trip, we arrived in Netanya. We stayed in the Lagoon Hotel.
In the morning, when I looked out the window, the wonderful view of the Mediterranean Sea surprised me. I became emotional watching that vast blue and thinking about how blessed I was to have the privilege of visiting the Land of Jesus.
We took the bus with our suitcases because, at the end of that day, we would stay in another city. Our first place to visit: Caesarea Maritima. First stop, Aqueducts of Caesarea –
Breathtaking! It was constructed in the first century CE – the time of Jesus. Next, we saw the ruins of Herod’s Palace right at the edge of the sea. We
entered The Roman Theater, which is in restoration. We sat, and Bishop Carter spoke to us. He mentioned that Peter visited Cornelius in Caesarea.
Cornelius was a gentile. Peter had a vision where God ordered him to eat animals considered impure. (Acts:10.1). Paul also was incarcerated in Caesarea and it was there that King Agripa and Berenice heard him speak. Christianity spread among the Gentiles from Caesarea. That is where it all started.
On our way to Megido, I had some frustrations. I wanted the guide to explain to us everything we were seeing: the cities, the towns and fields with crops I did not recognize.
Megido is a ruin on top of a hill, where so many events in the history of that region happened. Megido is mentioned in the Bible. (I Kings 9:15). In these excavations, they found layers of twenty cities or civilizations on top of each other. From there, the guide showed us Mount Carmel. Do you know what it’s like to show hills in the distance? It’s that one, between that and that, etc. and stuff, and the tourists say, “Oh! Yes.” In fact, you don’t really know which hill is which.
We travelled some more and then the bus went up a hill and, at one point, stopped. We finished climbing on foot. From there we had a gorgeous view of crops and more crops, as far as you could see, a great area of green cut by highways. It is the Jezreel Valley, which is very fertile. In the Bible, it is referred to as the land that flows with milk and honey. The hill that we climbed is the Mount of the Precipice from which the authorities of Nazareth wanted to throw Jesus down. He escaped from them and ran away. (Luke 4:28-30). The city at the foot of the hill is Nazareth, where Jesus was raised and lived until he was 30. We didn’t pass through Nazareth, just on the road beside it.
We then passed through the city of Cana of Galilee, where Jesus and his mother attended a wedding feast, and Jesus performed his first miracle. He turned water into wine. (John 2). I was impressed with the many wedding dress shops and the various wine stores. We arrived that evening in Tiberias, next to the Sea of Galilee. We stayed at the Caesar Hotel.
After breakfast, which was always very tasty, abundant and included lots of varieties of bread, fruits and so many other delicious foods, we went on a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee. This is where Jesus so often crossed from side to side. We filled two boats. It started raining, but the boats had roofs. The boatmen approached the boats and tied one to the other so we all could participate in a service.
We docked, and entered a museum where there is a boat displayed similar to the ones from the time of Jesus. At a time when the Sea of Galilee was very low, they found this boat and restored it.
We took the bus and went to a place called Tabgha, where tradition says the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves took place. There is a church on the edge of the Sea of Galilee with a stone altar. In front of it, you see a sign that reads, “Mensa Christi” The Table of Christ. People believe this stone marks the place where Jesus broke the bread and fed the crowd (Mat. 14:15-21, Mark 6:37-42, Lk 9:10-17, John 6:1-14).
Next, we went to the Mount of Beatitudes. From there you have a gorgeous view of green crops as far as your eyes can reach. While we walked to the church, we read the beatitudes on signs by the paths and in the flowerbeds.
Our next stop was in Capernaum. At the entrance there is a statue of a poor man sleeping on a bench, and a sign saying: “ The Homeless Jesus.” There are ruins of typical houses of that time. Each house connects to a common space where the community cooked and gathered due to the fact that each house was so small. We saw stone mortars, the ruins of a synagogue similar to the one that the Roman officer built for the Jews (Luke 7:1-5), and where Jesus taught many times. (Luke 4.31-34). One of these houses is believed to be Peter’s house where Jesus lived with Peter’s family (Mark 1:29-31). An organization built a modern interdenominational temple with a glass floor over the ruins so everyone can see Peter’s house below.
On that day, we also went to Yardenit, the site of Jesus’ baptism. In fact, Jesus was baptized elsewhere on the Jordan River. Since the original place belongs to the country of Jordan, they have adopted this other location. Many people in the group received reaffirmation of their baptism by immersion. I received my reaffirmation with only a small wet leafy branch.
We went to the ruins of Chorazin and Bethsaida which are the cities rebuked by Jesus because they did not believe in him (Matthew 11:20-24). In these excavations, they also found ruins of a synagogue.
Caesarea Philippi was the next visit. Its original name was Pânias in honor of the Greek god Pan. On the slopes of Mount Hermon, there is a cave and niche where the Greeks worshipped this god. In the year 20 BC, the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus donated this city to Herod the Great. Herod changed the name of the city to Caesarea in Honor of Caesar Augustus. Philip II, one of his sons, inherited this city and changed its name to Caesarea Philippi.
At the foot of Mount Hermon, we saw the bubbling springs which are the source of the River Jordan . It’s a beautiful and inspiring place. Jesus was in this place. It was there that Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter made the very important statement: “You are the Christ” (Mark: 8.27-29).
We passed the Golan Heights, a region Israel seized from Syria in the Six-Day War. This region, at the time the Israelites entered the Promised Land, was called Bashan. It is mentioned several times in the Bible (Deut.3:13 & Joshua 13:29.30). The next stop was Magdala.
Magdala is known as the city of Mary Magdalene, the person from whom Jesus expelled seven demons. The place is located on the margin of the Sea of Galilee. Through excavations, they uncovered ruins of a town, a port, a marketplace and a fish market specializing in preserving fish in salt. You can see the indentation on the stone floor where they stored fish from the Sea of Galilee. In the story of the multiplication of the loaves, they believe the fish were bought here. The original word for fish used in the text is pickled fish. A very important discovery here is a synagogue built between the years 5 to 11 CE. In the center of the Synagogue, they found a carved stone with symbols representing the Temple of Jerusalem. This stone is the only known example of its kind. You can see another carved stone in a corner with indentations. The indentations were to keep the Torah Scrolls open when they wanted to read it and discuss. This first century synagogue had no division. Men and women sat together.
Jesus definitely walked through Magdala and taught in the synagogue (Mark 1:39, Mat. 4:23, and Mat.15:39). We entered a modern church beside these excavations. It has four chapels with religious paintings on the walls and in front of this church there is a boat similar to the ones used for fishing in the first century.
Bethlehem – we left the bus in a parking lot and walked through the streets of a city similar to some of the neighborhoods of São Paulo. There was commerce on the sidewalks and people urging you to buy. We arrived at the immense Church of the Nativity. We joined a huge slowly moving line that led to the cave beneath the church, which is believed to be the stable where Jesus was born. It was finally my turn. I ducked to enter through the low, narrow door, which only one person at a time can pass through. I went down a few steps and there I joined other people in this little room half dark and all decorated in traditional Catholic Church style. There is a place like a fireplace and below that is a star with a hole in the middle.I t is believed to be the manger where baby Jesus was laid. I stooped down to take a picture of that star like everyone else. I quickly walked out through another door because there were hundreds of people waiting to enter. The original Church of the Nativity was built in the third century CE. The current one was constructed in the sixth century CE.
Next, we went to the Shepherds’ Field where the angels announced to the shepherds the birth of Jesus. Well, after about two thousand and twenty years, what we saw were churches. One in particular has a beautiful dome.
Next, we went to visit the Garden Tomb. The Garden Tomb and its surrounding gardens have been maintained as a place for Protestant worship and reflection. It is what you could call a rival to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Tomb was discovered in 1867. We had a service and communion there in the open air. I almost froze to death.
Masada is a fort on top of a high hill in the desert area of Israel near the Dead Sea. This site was originally where Herod the Great built his winter palace. At the beginning of the first revolt of the Jews against Rome, in the year 66 CE, Masada came under the control of the Zealots. They were the most fanatical sect of the Jews and commanded this revolt. The leader of this revolt was assassinated and his relative Eleazar ben Jair escaped Jerusalem with other Zealots and took refuge in Masada. From there, he continued leading the revolt.
The Romans reacted, and destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. In the year 73 CE, the Roman legion, with eight thousand troops commanded by Flavio Silva, besieged Masada. It was impossible for the army to climb the fortress with their war equipment to attack the walls. But, the resourceful Romans found a weakness on the side where the mountain was less steep. They built a ramp with wood, stones and earth there. They climbed the ramp and broke down the wall with battering rams. When Eleazar ben Jair saw that there was no way out, he made an inflammatory speech causing the 960 members of that community to choose death. “Slavery never again,” he cried. The parents beheaded their families and ten men chosen by lot killed the parents. One of the ten, also chosen by lot, killed the nine and committed suicide. Pieces of clay were found with the names of these ten men. When the Roman soldiers entered, they found only dead bodies.
How do we know what happened there if they were all dead? There were two women and five children, who hid themselves in a cistern. Their stories were the source of what we know about the events that took place. As you walk through the ruins of this place, you see bathing rooms, for purificatiom, rooms and more rooms for storage of food supplies, wells and cisterns to collect rainwater, a synagogue and even towers of dovecot where they raised doves for food. The dove manure provided fertilizer for the fortress gardens. From there, you can also see a cave where fragments of the sacred scriptures were found. Besides being a beautiful place, it has an impressive history. The Jews preferred to die than to be enslaved.
From this place we went to the Dead Sea, a short trip. The Dead Sea is 396 meters below sea level. The water comes mainly from the Jordan River and the outlet is only by evaporation, so it is 30 percent saltier than the sea. They told us you don’t sink into it. It’s true, I tried it.
As we traveled from Masada to the Dead Sea, a short journey, I fought a battle within myself.
“It’s too cold, I shouldn’t go in the water.”
“No, I am going to enter, this is my only chance.”
“It’s very cold, I might get sick.”
“No way am I going to let this opportunity pass by. I am going to enter the Dead Sea, because I will never come back here again.”
“It is freezing cold, I shouldn’t.”
“I have to. I will never have this chance again; it’s now or never. Besides, I am strong, I won’t die of cold. It’s my only chance in my whole life.
Then, the guide announced, “The temperature is 38 degrees, I imagine that no one will venture into the water. Is anyone going in?” A young lady named Cindy and I raised our hands.
After putting on my swimming suit, I gingerly stepped slowly down to the edge of the Dead Sea. I was very emotional and apprehensive, but I endured the cold well. What was more difficult was walking without shoes on the gravel to get into the water. I had previously asked another woman, Mary, to take pictures of me with my cell phone and so it happened. She photographed me going in and floating in the Dead Sea. I didn’t feel cold in the water, but I stayed only a few minutes and left. In the locker room, I took a cold shower, just to rinse the salt. When I picked up my clothes that I had left hanging there, I could not find my bra. I think it must have fallen down and been thrown in the trash by someone. I got dressed without that piece and left in a hurry. There was a beautiful double rainbow behind the palm trees with the Dead Sea in the background. A beautiful sight. I have good pictures of those precious moments. Next, Jericho.
The city of Jericho is at the foot of the hill where Jesus was tempted by the devil. When we stopped to look at the hill, I noticed a Palestinian boy with a camel there. He was offering tourists a ride for a few coins. I filmed the camel up close. I had never met a camel before. They made excavations where the old city was and never found traces of the walls of Jericho that fell at the sound of the trumpets.
It was interesting to see stores with well-known names such as KFC. It is a Palestinian city and, because I am a Brazilian, I felt at home with vegetable and fruit stalls on the sidewalks.
We stopped at a Palestinian Christian store for tourists . Our guide only took us to Christian Palestinian shops. I think he earned commissions on our purchases because we spent a lot of time shopping, and in the historic andinteresting places, we had to hurry. I complained to him about it and he got mad at me. “Are you accusing me?” he asked.
The Mount of Olives. Jesus often entered this place with his disciples (John 18:1-2). It is there that Judas betrayed him. Jesus Prayed for all humankind there. Some botanists claim that the olive trees there are about 3,000 years old. They say it is hard to destroy an olive tree. New trees sprout from the roots. We saw signs all over that said, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
The Temple Mount. The Temple Mount is also called Mount Moriah in the Bible (II Chron: 3:1). It was the site where Abraham was going to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:1-14). The Arc of the Covenant was placed there. Solomon built the first Temple in the same place.
The Babylonians conquered Israel, destroyed the Temple of Solomon and took the Israelites into captivity. Later, they were allowed to come back and Zerubbabel built the second Temple. In the first century BC, Herod constructed the third Temple, which was burnt down and destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE. It is also a holy place for the Moslems, who believe that Mohammed went to heaven from this spot. The Dome of the Rock is what is there today. It was built between 687and 691 CE. It is decorated with beautiful Persian tiles. The Dome of the Rock is worth seeing.
The Upper Room is a room in the David’s Tomb Compound and is traditionally held to be the site of the Last Supper.
The House of Caiaphas is where Jesus was interrogated, spat on, slapped and beaten. It is also where Peter denied Jesus three times.
We saw so many places in such a short time that some of them became cloudy in my mind, like a dream. Caiaphas’ House and the Upper room were two of those places.
Our guide did not speak English well and spent a lot of time explaining things that, in my point of view, were unimportant and he did not explain what I wanted to know. While we were in that Compound, I left the group and walked into a room to see King David’s Tomb. When I left the tomb, I couldn’t find my group. I ran everywhere looking for them. Finally, I asked a guard where the exit was and he took me there. I ran as fast as I could to the bus. My fellow tourists had already entered; I was the last one in. No one learned that I had gotten lost. I always sat alone on the bus. Everyone had a companion to sit with.
We also went to Saint Anne’s Church. There was a group of Asian tourists singing there; the acoustics of this church are ideal. Next door are the excavations of the Bethesda Pool. This is the site where Jesus healed the paralytic who was waiting for someone to put him in the water (John 5:1-9). From there, we began the walk on the Via Dolorosa. The streets are very narrow and some cars and motorcycles were passing. We had to lean against the walls so they wouldn’t run us over. Further on there was no vehicular traffic. We could see the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Tomb. Upon entering this church, built between the years 1012 to 1170 CE, the Stone of the Anointing is in front of you. It is a commemoration of the preparation of the body of Christ for burial. Many people, mainly Eastern Orthodox Christians kneel there, kiss the stone, anoint themselves and even put their babies on it. This church is the holiest place in the Christian world. There is also what is left of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus. This site was built, destroyed and rebuilt many times in these two thousand years after Christ. There was a crowd there. To see some of these places we had to face an endless queue, and we didn’t have enough time. Many tourists get lost from their group in that location.
We went down other narrow streets bordered by shops. Finally, we got out of this maze that is old Jerusalem. The next location was the Western Wall or Lamentation Wall.
The Romans destroyed the Temple from the time of Jesus (Mat 24:2). The western bottom of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple esplanade survived and is the holiest place in Judaism. It is a tradition to write a prayer on a small piece of paper and place it into a crack in the wall. The place is divided into the Women’s section and the men’s section. There is a fence for that separation. I approached the wall. There were so many pieces of papers stuffed in the cracks of the stone wall that there was no more room for me to put my own prayer. Yet, I squeezed it in with thousands of others which were falling and spreading across the ground. In my prayer, there was only one request. The other items were thanks.
The next place was the “Teaching Steps”, a staircase from Jesus’ days. He certainly walked up these steps with his parents for the festival of the Passover (Luke 2:41-51); and here, as a rabbi, he entered to teach (John 10:22-39). All eight groups on this tour, more than 300 people, sat on these steps and the bishop delivered a sermon.
That day I walked with Cindy, the same person who accompanied me in my dip in the Dead Sea. We saw the scale model of the City of Jerusalem, with the Temple built by Herod, the Antonia Fortress, and even the Bethesda Pool near the gate. Next we saw the Museum, Yad Vashem. We saw films, pictures and heard testimonials about the holocaust and the atrocities of Hitler against the Jewish people. Horrifying!
We entered the Shrine of the Book, where they keep the book of Isaiah formed from the fragments of sacred scrolls found by a sheepherder in a clay pot in a cave. Pictures are prohibited there. All the scrolls of the books of the Old Testament except Esther and Nehemiah were also discovered in clay pots in the caves of a place called Qumran. These scrolls were restored and are shown in the museum as well. Qumran was on our list of places to visit. But the guide did not take us there.
Another location we entered consisted of a dark room with a winding pathway. It was so dark that we couldn’t see where we were stepping. We had to orient ourselves holding on to the handrail. We walked fearfully on as names of children who died in concentration camps appeared on the rotunda ceiling like stars poping up in the dark sky.
The last day was more interesting because I had a companion to share what I saw. We had lunch at the museum cafeteria. I saved part of my lunch (fried chicken breast strips) to eat on the plane during my trip back home.
For lunch, we usually ate falafel with salad in roadside restaurants. It was nice, but not as good as the breakfast and dinner at the three hotels where we stayed. The food was delicious and I could eat everything because it was kosher. Nothing contained milk or milk products. I could eat bread and delicious desserts. I ate like never before. I don’t think my blood sugar went up because we walked so much and went up and down steps all day long every day. I also ate various delicious varieties of hummus. I went crazy with the ripe, fresh, soft and sweet persimmons; not like the ones we find in the USA. I also indulged myself with fresh plums, and always took some in my purse for snacks during the day. I really loved the food in Israel.
After this visit, some of the Biblical texts have more meaning to me, they became alive. They are clearer and more familiar. The Reading of the Bible became more enjoyable. When I read and a certain place is mentioned, I think, “I know where it is, I went there, or I passed by it or I saw it at a distance.” I went by bus to places where Jesus walked. I also saw, in the distance on the other side of the Jordan River, the meadows and the mountains of Moab where the Israelites pitched their tents before entering the Promised Land. From afar, I saw Mount Nebo at the top of Pisgah where Moses climbed up to see the Promised Land and where he died. These places have a lot of meaning to me because of Milcah, the book I wrote.
I am grateful to God for this unique opportunity, and thank you, son David, and daughter-in-law Amy, for this marvelous gift. And thank you Tom Brown, my husband, for finding and arranging the trip for me.