Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Visiting Israel

For many years, I resisted the temptation to visit Israel.  I do not know why.  As a young man, I wasn’t particularly interested in travel so that was doubtless part of it, but by no means all.  I was, perhaps, also reacting to the rather romantic view of the ‘Holy Land’ that many I knew who had been there seemed to have of it, talking always about going on pilgrimage rather than on holiday.  Whatever, my first visit was in 1998, coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel.  I went only after some heavy arm twisting by two dear friends in my Church at Banchory.

Knowing Israel well themselves and having family there, they were convinced that any self-respecting Christian minister should visit there.  They were right and I was wrong.  Spectacularly wrong!  I had only been there a few days to realize what a difference being there made to everything.  Subsequently, I was to return many times and I now get withdrawal symptoms if I haven’t been for a while.

It is not that I think Jerusalem is a holy city in the way it was before the coming of Jesus - although I do think it is still a significant city.  Nor is it that Jerusalem and Israel still look as they did in Jesus’ time.  I am afraid that unless you have been there you won’t get it, but part of it is perspective: getting a feel for distance, geography, and landscape.

Galilee provides a very good example of what I mean.  I will never forget my reaction seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time.  It was one of utter amazement at how small it was.  Rather like a large Scottish loch!  I had been brought up with the word Sea of Galilee in my mind and sub-consciously imagined a much bigger lake than it is and not one that you could drive around in a few hours!  It is in fact about 13 miles long and 7.5 miles wide with a circumference of about 32 miles.

Descriptions in the Bible of places using words such as cities, towns, villages, mountains, etc also took on a new meaning.  Capernaum is so small.  Jerusalem in the time of Jesus you could walk around in an afternoon.  I did so.  Even things like population came in to focus.  A place like Capernaum would have had only a population of 2,000 or so; Nazareth probably less.

Does it matter?  Well yes, I think it does.  We need reminding that the world of Jesus was a real and not a pretend one.  I recently read one scholar who, commenting on a passage in St John’s Gospel, said these sort of things happened in ‘John’s story world’.  Now I know what he means and this is a scholar who I know believes that Jesus was very much a real person.  Nevertheless, we can let the world of Jesus become something like a Narnia or Middle-earth, that is, an imaginary kingdom rather than a historical one.  This, I think, is how some scholars really do see the world of the Bible: something created by the Biblical writers themselves and not a real place. 

The trouble is only imaginary things can happen in imaginary worlds!

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