Wheaton in the Holy Lands: Israel

Well, one of the “pilgrimages” I wrote about in May has now come and gone. Wheaton in the Holy Lands is officially over (aside from the books I still need to read and papers I still need to write…), but I know it will be an experience which will continue impacting me in the days, weeks, months, and even years to come.

Since 6 weeks is a long time to cover in one post and I’m long-winded on a normal, mundane day, I figured I’d break up my trip into separate posts for the two different parts of the trip: Israel for the first three weeks and then Turkey, Greece, and Rome for the second three weeks.

And, since I can’t possibly sum up all that we did, I figure I’ll give a brief(ish) list of some of the things we did and then highlight one of the main lessons which has already impacted me.

Highlights from our itinerary:

  • Floating in the Dead Sea
  • Running halfway up the hill to the fortress at Masada…then walking the rest of the way
  • Seeing Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered
  • Hiking down the cliffs of Arbel
  • Taking a morning boat ride on the Sea of Galilee (aka “Lake Galilee” because it’s freshwater)
  • Reflecting along the Sea of Galilee at Capernaum, Jesus’ adopted hometown
  • Seeing a possible location of prison cells Paul may have been held in at Caesarea Maritima
  • Standing under waterfalls at Ein Gedi, where David hid from Saul in caves
  • Going onto the Temple Mount and seeing the Dome of the Rock
  • Seeing two of the possible sites for the empty tomb–in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb
  • And my favorite: sitting on the steps of the Temple Mount, hearing that both Jesus (and Paul) would have lectured there, calling out the Pharisees and hypocrites for being like the whitewashed tombs in view to the east 

Lessons Learned:

While I learned a ton and could probably talk for hours about that, there’s one lesson that really stands out. 

But first of all, I did not fall in love with Israel like many others on our trip did. I wish that I had, too. It’s something I went expecting but left regretting–though not for a lack of engaging. I told one of the professors who ran the trip how I had to do some wrestling with God on that point because I know how Israel (the land, not necessarily the modern state) is a land so close to God’s heart in many ways, and yet it’s just not as much for me. I added that when the whole “new heavens and new earth” happen–however they may happen–I hope God is okay with populating lands outside of Israel–like Hawaii, for instance, because it’s pretty life-giving, too. 

Some of that is lighthearted, but it connects with one of the major understandings I’ve come away with from Israel: the land of Israel is a tough place to be. 

We studied the geography (and even geology, my favorite pastime…) of the land and how that contributes to the story of faith and what’s found in the Bible. It was a physically challenging place in which to live, much less to actually be called to inhabit. One of my peers asked our professor at Jerusalem University College (JUC), “then why is it called the land flowing with milk and honey?” alluding to the desert-like quality of some regions, the somewhat defenselessness of the city, and the “scrappy” way in which people there had to live. I wanted to add my agreement because I sure didn’t see flowing rivers of milk or honey anywhere, and I think the church tends to teach that the “promised land” is something akin to the idea of streets of gold in heaven. 

Our JUC prof, Dr. Wright, took us to the passages where those verses are. He explained that “milk” was often understood in context as the byproduct of the animals indigenous to the land. So, promising that the land is filled with milk is like saying the people will have the products necessary for surviving and making a living there–dairy products such as milk and cheese, meat from animals that produce milk, and products from those animals for shelter and clothing. 

With honey, the Old Testament has other passages that use the same Hebrew word and specifically refer to honey from dates. In fact, in one place, the text reads, “and honey–that is dates.” While we didn’t see obvious signs of honey as we’d expected in the land, date palms and dates themselves were everywhere (except in my personal life…. Sorry for that bad “dad joke”). So rather than expecting luxurious pools of honey or beehives all around the place, the promise of a land of honey was the promise that there would be enough. 

Dr. Wright opined that instead of viewing it as “The Promised Land” with golden streets, cups overflowing with lavish honey and milk, etc., the land is better understood as “The Land That Is Promised,” or the land in which God promises to provide, protect, and guide. 

What a picture that is for our lives, so contrary to the false prosperity gospel preached in parts of the church today. Yet, it aligns with life experience. I mean, I know I’m blessed and have had so many privileges that most of the world lacks, but still, my experience has been that life in faith is a challenge. Yet, God provides faithfully every time, giving enough. Nowhere does the Bible promise that signing up to follow Christ leads to a life of pleasure. On the contrary: Jesus and the apostles promise often that there is a cost to following Christ, but He will provide according to our needs, to what He knows we need.

I think the misreading of Israel, “the promised land,” as the land of luxuriously flowing rivers of milk and honey goes along with that false prosperity gospel that says the lives of those who follow Christ will be picture perfect. That’s never promised–for Christians or for Old Testament Israel. Instead, the land of promise is a land in which God will provide enough, just as in the life of His followers, God is faithful to provide enough. 

I’m not saying my life has been fraught with unending trials, suffering, or unspeakable horrors. However, my experience with the life of faith has been that, in ways both big and small, it’s a daily challenge as I try to rely on the Lord to guide, provide for, and fill me. It’s been so good. But it’s been the life in which God has promised to provide–and He has!–rather than one of glorious promise of health, ease, and luxury. 

Seeing the land and experiencing that shift in understanding was huge. I already knew that the prosperity gospel is a sham, so that wasn’t the new understanding; the shift came in seeing how the land God promised His chosen people–Israel–was no different than the life of faith. Life in that land for His chosen people would be a life guided by Him in which He would provide any safety, security, and resources; it would be a life of enough. 

Interestingly, when we sat by the Judean wilderness, Dr. Wright pointed out that that very wilderness was part of the land parcel promised to Israel. Now, I’m not saying God forces us through suffering or causes it, but it’s interesting how the wilderness experience–often a molding and preparing time for ministry in the Old and New Testaments–is an intentional part of the land that is promised. 

Relying on Him is a very real part of the territory, in a sense. 

Maybe there’s something there contributing to the lamentable fact that I didn’t fall in love with Israel like I’d hoped to or like my peers did. Maybe I went expecting to see a beautiful place with superabundant resources as a sort of promise that my life would mirror that, but instead, I found a land of enough. And maybe that doesn’t sit as well with me as I’d like or as it should.

I’m cynical and pessimistic, and as already mentioned, I’m under no allusions about life being idyllic. I know what’s promised and I know that there’s a cost to following Christ–even if it’s not been that costly in my life compared with centuries of other believers. However, to see that the land God promised for His people was along those same narrative lines of struggle but “enough”ness (yes, I just made that up) may have disappointed the part of me that hopes it won’t really cost that much in the end. 

I’m not sure if I’m making sense, and this post is officially getting too long, so I’ll wrap things up. Basically, the very land that God promised to His people was a land in which they needed His provision and guidance, much like the life of faith. It had deserts and wilderness in it. It also had beautiful places. Most importantly, it had enough to get by on with God’s help.

My biggest takeaway from our studies in Israel is that reframing concept: the land of milk and honey, the “promised land,” is now in my understanding the land of enough, the land in which God promises to provide, mirroring life lived in faith. 

Whew. That was a lot. So much for “brief” (but who’s surprised?!? My book is 240 pages, y’all…). More to come on my Wheaton in the Holy Lands experience soon. Thanks for reading!

On Christ the solid Rock I stand, 

Hannah

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