No tour of the Holy Land is complete without a visit to Bethlehem, a twenty-minute bus ride from Jerusalem, during which the visitor passes through a border checkpoint as he moves from Israel Proper to the “Palestinian Territories” under the governance of the Palestinian Authority. Most tour leaders—the writer included—understand that first-time visitors to the city are expecting to visit a town that closely approximates their fanciful mental image based on years and layers of artistic nativity scenes and charming stories. And so it is necessary to prepare folks to be “underwhelmed” by what they will actually see, hear, and experience.
Though it is incontestably the olive wood carving capital of the universe, the fact is that Bethlehem is “on the map” only because it has the distinction of being the birthplace of Jesus, the Messiah promised to Israel and Savior of the World. The folks who call Bethlehem home have understandably capitalized on this distinction and the attraction it produces to masses of guests, especially around December 25.
A stroll along the street leading to the Church of the Holy Nativity, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus, presents some pretty peculiar sights. As a close examination of the accompanying picture illustrates, one might well see an interesting combination of objects like that which is on the roof of the building: a cross, at the foot of which is Frosty the Snowman, under which is the iconic Star of Bethlehem, posted just above the sign directing visitors to the Church of the Holy Nativity.
It is the mediocrity of Bethlehem which makes the prophecy of Micah 5:2 so remarkable in its indication of the birthplace of the Messiah:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days.
It was this very prophecy which enabled the chief priests and scribes to precisely answer Herod’s question to them—where the Christ (Messiah) should be born—prompted by the visit of the Magi who had come to Jerusalem seeking the birthplace of the King of the Jews so that they might worship him. And, it is this very prophecy which, combined with many other messianic prophecies, points to Jesus of Nazareth as the One whose coming was foretold in the Tanakh, the Old Testament Scriptures.
Ever since then, Bethlehem—with all of its quirkiness—has held a wondrous attraction for millions upon millions of people, not because of its greatness, but because of the greatness of the One whose birth distinguishes it from every other place upon the earth.
The Gentile guest should not be surprised, and certainly not offended, if he or she is steered away from one particular chair and place setting, though it may seem odd that the seat remains empty and the setting unused for the entire evening. Rather, this is an introduction to the universally practiced tradition of “Elijah’s Chair” which is kept open in case Elijah would happen to show up at that particular home for that particular Passover Seder.
While it is true that there is often no substantive explanation for a particular Jewish custom (only “Tradition” as Tevye explains in Fiddler on the Roof ), there is a substantive, in fact Biblical, explanation for this custom. It is based on the second to the last verse in the Tanakh (Old Testament):
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Malachi 4:5)
It is a commonly held belief within Judaism that the most likely time for the Messiah to come and establish His kingdom (“the great and awesome day of the LORD”) is Passover, the holiday commemorating God’s supernatural deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Since Malachi clearly indicates that Messiah’s coming will be preceded by Elijah’s appearance, it is logical to expect a visit by that prophet from Tishbeh sometime and somewhere during Passover, and every Jewish family keeps a very special place open for him every year in the hope that maybe this will be the year he comes, followed quickly by the Messianic Age.
In fact, this is the only explanation for the enigmatic statement of Jesus with regard to the preparatory nature of the ministry of his cousin, John the Baptist:
For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. (Matthew 11:13–14)
Jesus presented Himself to the Jewish people as their Messiah, but they were not willing to receive Him, so God, in His providence, sent John, rather than Elijah, to call Israel to repentance, a call which has lasted now for over two thousand years. Though there are various viewpoints as to exactly how it will play out, the fact remains that Yeshua, Jesus, the Messiah will come to establish His reign and, as Malachi prophesies, Elijah will precede Him.
So, a glance at the empty seat at the Seder table and the unused “Elijah’s Cup” is a powerful reminder that Jesus is coming again!
A drive through the Negev, the desert region in the southern part of Israel, takes one past some of the steepest, rockiest, craggiest terrain to be seen anywhere in the Land, including an area near the town of Mitzpe Ramon called “The Crater” because of its resemblance to the barren, rocky surface of the moon.
In the midst of this starkly beautiful landscape, one is likely to see numbers of a sure-footed deer-like animal called the ibex frolicking over the rocks without the slightest slip or slide— which calls to mind the words of two different Biblical characters who found their relationship with God and dependence on Him to be a source of emotional, psychological, and spiritual sure-footedness akin to the physical sure-footedness of the ibex.
David often found himself traversing the rough terrain of very difficult circumstances, including his flight to escape the murderous wrath of King Saul and his numerous encounters with hostile armies like the Philistines. In both Psalm 18:33 and 2 Samuel 22:34 he testifies of God’s stabilizing and solidifying force in his life in those situations:
He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.
In nearly identical words, but 500 years later, the prophet Habakkuk, after a strenuous struggle with questions and doubts about God’s ways, concludes that “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4), and after resolving to walk by faith along the slippery slopes of life, he too declares:
God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:19)
Even the clumsiest and most acrophobic of us can experience that same rock-solid footing of heart and soul as we place our lives in God’s hands, follow the direction of His Word, and claim the strength and stability available through His Spirit. Follow that ibex!
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. It is also one of the driest places on earth where the lack of water, combined with daytime temperatures that regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, produces a parched desert region which is both beautiful in its exotic starkness and fearsome in the dangers it presents to the hapless traveler who is unprepared to face its challenges.
One wonders how any plant or animal life, let alone human life, can survive in such a harsh and desolate environment, but in the desert on the western shore of the Dead Sea is a place where flora and fauna not only survive, but in fact thrive. In that place there is a natural underground spring which bursts forth and produces an oasis of beauty and verdant life. The wild goats love it there, which is why it is called En-Gedi, Hebrew for “spring of the wild-goat.”
The En-Gedi oasis in the Dead Sea desert region figures prominently in the dramatic account of David’s merciful sparing of King Saul’s life when the jealousy-crazed king had launched a full-scale mission to capture and kill him. The hilly terrain of En-Gedi is peppered with caves where the wild goats would often find shelter. It was in one of those caves where David hid as Saul and his soldiers searched for him. As recorded in 1 Samuel 24, it was also in one of those caves where Saul retreated to relieve himself, providing a perfect opportunity for David to kill him in self-defense, but which opportunity he declined because he said, “I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the LORD’s anointed.” (1 Samuel 24:10) Today, a hike through the lush oasis of En-Gedi brings one to a spectacular 100-foot waterfall, named David’s Fall because of its proximity to what is widely believed to be the cave in which David hid from Saul.
Both Matthew and Mark record in their gospels one of the many times when the religious aristocracy of Yeshua’s (Jesus’) day pounced on an opportunity to criticize Him for not being sufficiently spiritual according to their legalistic standards. On this particular occasion it might appear, at first blush, that they had a legitimate complaint.
At issue was their observation that “[your disciples] do not wash their hands when they eat.” (Matthew 15:2) Could it be that the disciples were neglecting the most basic rule of hygiene in not washing their hands before a meal? This would be especially repulsive when considering that several of them were fishermen and would have been handling smelly fish before picking up their PB & J sandwich!
A regular practice of modern religious Jews sheds considerable light on what was really going on as recorded in this narrative. Before taking the first bite of any meal containing bread, observant Jews participate in the ceremony of netilat yadayim, which is Hebrew for “lifting up of the hands.” Using a two-handled washing-cup, they recite a special bracha (blessing, prayer) while pouring water three times over each hand.
Clearly, this is not an issue of hygiene. In fact, after a thorough scrubbing of the hands before a meal, but without the ritual hand-washing, our Jewish friend would still be labeled as having unclean hands. So it was that Yeshua’s disciples, who probably did what their mothers taught them and always washed up before a meal, were criticized by the scribes and Pharisees for not also going through the ritual hand-washing and thus “break[ing] the tradition of the elders.” (Matthew 15:2) What follows in both gospel accounts is the record of Jesus’ powerful teaching on the need for a “squeaky-clean” heart which results only from a spiritual transformation from within that accompanies faith in the Messiah whom God has sent.