Summary: Today we left the Galilee in the North and headed South thru the Jordan Rift Valley. We went to a traditional baptism spot on the Jordan along the way, stopped at qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, and then went to Ein Gedi before arriving at our hotel on the Dead Sea.
The drive South: We drove South from Galilee paralleling the Jordan river. The country of Jordan was to our left and the “hill country” of Israel was to our right. We drove through the West Bank, an area under the authority of Israel which is called either disputed or occupied territory depending on where you get your news. This is an area where annexation is being discussed in the 2020 Israeli political cycle.
The Jordan Rift Valley is below sea level, with the Jordan river terminating at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth’s surface. You could say this is the low point of our trip! Near the beginning of our drive, we passed Mt Gilboa on our right (easy to spot because it has windmills on it) where Saul lost to the Philistines. His body was hung on the walls of the nearby city of Beth Shan which guards the connecting pass (called the harrod pass) between the Jordan valley and the the Jezreel valley. Visible out the other side of the bus was Jabesh, the city where people came from to retrieve Saul’s dead body. Gideon also fought in this region.
“(The Philistines) put his (Sauls) armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. But when the inhabitants of Jabesh–gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there.” – 1 Samuel 31:10-12 ESV
The further south we drove, the drier it became. We drove on the West side of the Jordan because that is where Israel’s sovereignty is, but in Jesus’ day, at least in the Northern area of the valley, travel would have been on the other side of the Jordan because the clouds from the Mediterranean do not drop rain on this side of the mountains (called a rain shadow). This results in a very arrid region. Instead the clouds keep blowing until they hit the Jordanian mountains which triggers rain on the East side of the Jordan. This is where historical towns like Penuel are located (where Jacob wrestled with God before returning to the Promised land). This is also where the city of Adam was located where the Jordan River stopped flowing to let the Israelites into the land to attack Jericho. Adam is also where Jacob crossed to get to Shechem via Wadi Farrah (this is assumed because it is literally the only place that is passable between Penuel and Shechem).
Jericho and the ascent of adumim: A ways further we drove by Jericho. Jericho guarded the mountain pass going up to Jerusalem from the East. The road between Jericho and Jerusalem is called the “ascent of adumim” literally the “ascent of red” in Hebrew. The rocks along that road are red, especially during sundown. You see this popular naming in the strategic area continuing throughout the years. For example, the crusaders built the “red castle” along the road to protect the route. When Joshua destroyed Jericho, God forbid them to rebuild it. Why would He forbid them from defending one of the major access roads into their future capitol? The same reason he forbid them from trading horses… so they would trust him for their defense. They of course did not trust God and eventually rebuilt it, fulfilling a prophecy in scripture in the process.
The baptism site: There are two places in Israel providing easy access to the Jordan River for baptizing. One is near the Sea of Galilee in the North, and another in the South closer to the Dead Sea. There is also a place with river access in the country of Jordan opposite the Israeli location in the South. We came to the Southern one. The parking lot here is 1,259 feet below sea level. The story I heard is that Israel established the baptism sites (first the one in the north) because a person named Chuck Smith associated with a group of church’s called Calvary chapel was bringing so many groups in the 60s and 70s and they were wading through thick brush to find a way to the water for baptisms. I have no idea as to the veracity of the story. The southern location was opened around 2013 and required clearing some mines. It is the most likely location for where John the Baptist would have baptized Jesus. Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-12 and Luke 3:21-22 give the accounts of Jesus’ baptism. We know Jesus left Galilee and headed down to John to be baptized. We know Judeans were present. We also know that immediately after the baptism the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness which surrounds the Southern location. Finally, during the temptation, Jesus is taken to the pinnacle of the temple which implies a nearness to this southern region.
The baptismal site includes a rich history of other biblical events. It is in the vicinity of where Israel crossed the Jordan to take Jericho and begin their conquest under Joshua. It is where Elijah crossed before being carried to heaven in chariots of fire. It is where Elisha crosses back. David fled from Absalom down the pass and crossed the Jordan here. He later ascended back through the ascent of Adumim when he returns to Jerusalem. When Mary and Joseph realize their son is missing, they had to go back up the ascent of adumim to get to Jerusalem where they find him in the temple. The parable of the Good Samaritan is set here on the road to Jericho. It is an area rich in biblical history.
The river access was closed today because the water was overflowing it’s banks and moving swiftly. That did not stop the various Christian expressions visiting the site from baptizing. There were pumps pulling water from the Jordan into a shower. Crowds of pilgrims surrounded those showers, filling buckets with the water and then dumping them on each other. It resembled an ice bucket challenge. As we walked out, white doves flew overhead!
Qumran: In Qumran, we first watched a video and walked through a tiny museum before heading out to the sites. Qumran is a city near caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were found which was inhabited by an religious group called the Essenes (sons of the light). They lived around the time of Jesus and wanted to be separate from the things going on in Jerusalem which was considered by them not holy enough. There was an emphasis on purity and holiness among the community, which in this location was made up only of men (200-500). There were other Essene communities that were mixed gender. They focused on ritual purification using baths for immersion multiple times a day. They had very strict rules (no talking while eating, no using the restroom during Shabbat, etc.). What makes them of interest to scholars is that they spent their days copying scrolls, mostly scripture, which they hid when the Romans invaded. In 68 AD, when the Romans were coming to destroy Jerusalem, they hid the scrolls in caves all through the mountains shortly before they were destroyed. The area is very dry which helped preserve the scrolls, but made it difficult for human life in the area, especially since there were no springs, and the community needed much water for all of the baths that they used multiple times a day. They had a couple large cisterns with an aqueduct bringing rainwater from the winter rains which had to last them all year. To prevent water loss, they filled the top with olive oil to prevent the water from evaporating out. In November 29th, 1947 there was a vote in the UN that established Israel. On the same day, a shepherd boy chased a goat that ran off, threw a stone into a cave to try to get his goat out, heard a pot break and discovered the first of over 900 scrolls. The scroll eventually made it to a professor who realized what it was, the oldest Isaiah scroll in existence, triggering a hint for more scrolls. The scrolls basically confirmed that the Old Testament was unchanged from the time of Christ. The copies of scripture have been found in multiple languages, including at least fragments from all books but the book of Esther.
After exploring the ruins we scurried up to one of the caves. The highlight for us though was running into some old acquaintances of Sherpa’s who were leading a study trip in Israel! Here is a photo of Tom Short and Matt Sherman. For more about Tom Short, check out his website we http://www.Tomthepreacher.com.
Ein Gedi: Our last stop of the day was a place called Ein Gedi. The Jordan river flows into the Dead Sea, but evaporation prevents water from leaving which results in between 32 and 38 percent salinity and extremely high mineral content. It is receding about a meter a year as agriculture upstream has robbed it of water flow. Overlooking the Dead Sea is an oasis called Ein Gedi. Ezekiel 47 says that one day in the future water will flow from the temple in Jerusalem down the Kidron valley into the Dead Sea bringing life, with fishermen spreading out their fishing nets in Ein Gedi. Ein Gedi has springs and a waterfall capable of supporting a small amounts of life, but not enough for a major population. Also, while the main path to Jerusalem was the ascent of adumim, there was a smaller, difficult to maneuver backdoor route via Ein Gedi. The route is mentioned once in scripture. 2 Chronicles 20 gives an account of the moabites, ammonites, and Edomites preparing to attack King Jehoshaphat in Jerusalem, gathering at Ein Gedi for the water and heading up the ascent of ziz for a surprise attack. The coalition ends up falling apart and Jehoshaphat ends up collecting loot instead of fighting a battle.
“Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel.” – 2 Chronicles 20:16 ESV
Another time Ein Gedi is found in scripture, David flees from Saul and stays in the strongholds of Ein Gedi (1 Samuel 23:24-29). One of the caves here was used by Saul for a bathroom break and David was in the cave unknown to him. David refuses to kill Saul because his conscience (“heart” in Hebrew) prevented him from taking out the Lord’s anointed king.
There have been some interesting archeological finds here as well, including some metal vessels believed to be 5000 year that baffle scientists because the technology to make them did not exist at that time. Ancient harbors have also been found along the sea, not for fishing but for traversing the sea, like a water taxi.
Hike the Good Hike!
Sherpa and Porter (and Cheerio)
David cut off a piece of Sauls robe in the darkness of the cave and felt so guilty afterwards that he sought Gods forgiveness .