Another spectacular sunrise brought in a new day for us on the Sea of Galilee, and the weather stayed sunny, clear and mild for us all day. We loaded up the bus and headed south toward our final destination of the day, the Dead Sea.
Passing the place where the Jordan River reemerges on the south side of the Sea of Galilee, the drive across the lower parts (the eastern side) of the Jezreel Valley took us by Beth Shean. This was where king Saul’s and his son Jonathan’s bodies were hung after their defeat and death on Mt. Gilboa in the Old Testament, and it was one of the ten cites of the Decapolis in New Testament times, known then as Scythopolis. From the bus, we saw the well-preserved Roman-style arena used for gladiator games and other entertainments.
The trip then took us through the biblical land of Samaria as we traveled along the Jordan River, with the hill country visible to our west, and the river valley just to the east. Beyond the river, the high country of today’s Kingdom of Jordan was visible. This territory was known as Gilead and (farther south) Moab (where Ruth was from). Our route was through West Bank, and we could see the farmlands that serve as the agricultural “bread basket” of Palestine. The Samaritan hill country suddenly turns into the Judean Desert, a vast and stark land that made a sharp contrast to the lush Galilee that we had just left.
One left turn and short drive east brought us to the riverbank itself, a place just opposite the location known as Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan. This site is not far from where the Israelites crossed the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership as they entered the land (Joshua 3-4). It is also where Elijah passed the prophetic mantle to Elisha and was taken into heaven (2 Kings 2). But this place is known best as Jesus’ baptismal site. John baptized Jesus in this very place, so we were able to focus on baptism, on God’s grace that we celebrate in baptism, and on the meaning of baptism in our own lives. We were able to put our hands and feet in the water and linger a moment to reflect and pray and give thanks.
Jericho is very nearby, and we made a brief visit to tell es-Sultan, the ancient city of Rahab and the city whose walls famously and miraculously fell down at the trumpet blast of the Israelites (Joshua 6). This site is in poor archaeological shape, so it is difficult to get a sense for how the city was laid out, but the size of the city and its strategic location were easy to understand and appreciate once we were up on the tell. From there we could look up straight to the west and see the Mount of Temptation, traditionally identified as the mountain where Jesus was tempted (Matthew 4; Mark 1; Luke 4). We had another good view of the mountain during a brief shopping stop that we made to purchase fruit, nuts, spices, and for some, to ride a camel. Great fun!
Qumran was next, where we learned about the Essene community that retreated to the northwest corner of the Dead Sea to escape the corruption that they believed had overtaken Jerusalem and the Temple, and to prepare for the final showdown between the Messiah (with his people) and the “Sons of Darkness” whom they opposed (1st c. BC-1st c. AD). This was the community believed to be responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered hidden in caves all around that area. We toured the excavated site that housed the group, and we saw some of the caves from across the ravine. The caves are very difficult to access (you even need a special permit to get to them and go inside), so their choice as a hiding place for the scrolls from the Romans makes good sense.
After lunch and a little shopping at the Qumran kibbutz, we started the final approach to our Dead Sea destination for the evening. But wait, there’s more! Not atypically, George gave us an unscheduled treat by stopping briefly at En Gedi, the spring/oasis in the wilderness to which David retreated when he fled and was hiding from Saul. The cave is associated with the story in 1 Samuel 24 was visible, and George gave us an orientation to the place and to the spring that served to refresh David and others in that harsh desert terrain.
Our hotel on the Dead Sea is beautiful, and we arrived early enough to make our way to the beach at each one’s own leisure to enjoy a float in the famous super-salty water. The evening was likewise leisurely as we rested and relaxed and prepared for our later morning departure tomorrow. We’ll visit Masada first, then, up to Jerusalem!