Journey to the Promised Land

It was probably not the legacy he hoped to leave.

Pointing to a collapsed pillar in the ruins of the ancient city of Beit She’an in Israel, guide Hanna Kessler told the sad story of a man who long ago became a permanent addition to the archaeological site.

“When the archaeologists excavated this pillar, they found trapped under it the skeleton of a man’s arm and hand,” Kessler said. “Near his hand they found a pile of gold coins, which he was probably carrying in a bag.”

Kessler explained the man was likely trying to escape with his life savings from the earthquake that destroyed the city in the year 749.

“Probably he didn’t want to go back for the money, but his wife made him,” joked Kessler. “Then she twice remarried while he was stuck here.”

Courtesy photo

Laughing along with her was this year’s group on the 2008 UMHB Holy Land Study Tour.

Held each year from December to January, this year’s two-week visit to Israel and Jordan, from December 26 to January 11, was designed as an intensive tour of archaeological and Biblical sites in the two countries.

Students can earn credit for a variety of courses in the College of Christian Studies, and in other colleges on a case-by-case basis, by attending the tour and completing additional requirements.

Dr. Steven von Wyrick, professor of Christian studies, led the tour just as he has done each year since 1994, when he first came to the university.

An experienced traveler who has lived in Israel before, Wyrick believes seeing the Holy Land first hand is of great value for anyone wishing to better understand the Bible.

“You cannot understand the Bible apart from understanding the geography, topography, and archaeology of the region in which the Bible was produced,” Wyrick said.

The tour group of 25 included 12 current UMHB students and one alumni, but it is also open to any non-UMHB affiliated persons who wish to go.

Throughout their time in Israel, the group toured a dizzying array of sites mentioned in the Old and New Testaments.

The first few days included a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and a visit to Capernaum, an ancient fishing village that was the location of much of Jesus’s ministry.

“It was so exciting,” junior Christian ministry major David Kline said. “We stood in a synagogue built
in the 300’s, and underneath it is the place where Jesus actually taught.”

Other highlights included the ruins of Hazor, the first city destroyed by Joshua and the Israelites during their conquest of Canaan, and the imposing hill of Megiddo, surrounded by an expansive plain identified as the biblical site of Armageddon.

The tour also visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the traditional cave where Jesus was born and Nazareth, his hometown.

The most stunning Biblical sites, however, were in Jerusalem. There the tour traced the steps of Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane to the famous Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus is believed to have walked from his trial to crucifixion.

“It’s one of those things that is so incredibly surreal, to know where you’re walking, your savior walked,” senior business management major Deborah Baker said.

Another focus of the study tour was the large number of archaeological sites dating from the time of Abraham to the Crusaders.

The students visited Israelite fortresses, pagan shrines, and Roman cities all across the country. Most
notable to many was the ancient Roman city of Caesarea, with its well preserved theater, bath houses and hippodrome where chariot races were held.

The tour also visited the Dead Sea area, including Qumran, the ancient village of a Jewish sect where in 1948 the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and Masada, the mountaintop fortress where the last Jewish rebels held out during their first revolt against the Roman Empire.

Following their time in Israel, the group spent several days in Jordan, which included a visit to the ruins at Petra, a site made famous by its strikingly ornate buildings carved into the sides of cliffs.

With much of its focus on the past, the tour was nonetheless somewhat overshadowed by current
events, as it occurred in the midst of a furious Israeli military assault on the seaside Palestinian enclave of Gaza in response to rockets launched by Hamas militants into southern Israel.

The fighting went unnoticed by the group, as most of Israeli daily life was unchanged, and the students were kept far away from any fighting, a fact Wyrick is proud of.

“Their safety, their protection is number one,” Wyrick said. “We would never take them anywhere near
any violence, and we are in constant contact with security forces to stay informed of everything that is happening.”

Kessler, who was the tour’s guide in Israel, laments the fact that to many Americans, Israel is seen as a violent, unsafe place.

“What you see on television is not reality,” Kessler said. “The picture that people come with in their minds from the United States is what they see in the media: things exploding, shooting, or violence. Then they come to Israel and are shocked how peaceful it is. Life in most parts of Israel is as normal as in any other place.”

If the war bothered the students, it did not show, as they brought back memories most say will last a lifetime.

“I enjoyed it all, the hotels, the food, the constant sites, everything,” senior Christian ministry major Casey Wharton said. He enjoyed visiting the Sea of Galilee most.

“Its probably the one place that’s changed the least since Jesus’s time and doesn’t need to be restored because it’s still there,” Wharton said.

Baker feels the tour was a great opportunity.

“The trip was incredibly well put together, and you see so much in one day,” she said. “I encourage anyone, if you are thinking about it, to go. It’s definitely an experience you will cherish for the rest of your life.”

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