Exegeting the “fifth gospel,” the Holy Land

Just over one year ago, during the second half of February 2018, I traveled to the Middle East. I had heard, and in my own ways believed, the biblical stories that are the roots of my Christian faith for 33 years. I needed to see things for myself so I could come to some of my own conclusions, and wrestle with some new questions. I set out on my journey with two major expectations. I expected to be somewhat disappointed and I expected to be quite fascinated.

It is a bit cynical but I had considered the irony of the ancient stories, the crusades, the ongoing conflicts, and the modernization and memorializing all adding up to produce a tourist trap. I had also imagined a family feud so complicated it must require an act of God to resolve it. If I am honest, I have long been afraid to learn more about the ancient and modern roots of my Christian faith because I feared what might happen if I found out there is someone behind the curtain, and it is not God. And if that curtain is torn in half, where does that leave me? Nevertheless, I set out to dig up whatever unexpected truth I might find.

The three hour drive south from Amman, Jordan to Petra treks the same wilderness the Israelites had walked. Petra, a new Wonder of the World, became the capital of the ancient Nabataean Kingdom. The wandering Israelites were destined for their Promised Land. Their journey took a lot longer than it should have. “After thirty-nine-and-a-half years of wandering in the wilderness, Mrs. Moses secretly asked for directions,” quipped theologian and historian Dr. Raymond Bakke. I can imagine many people might complain about a three hour bus ride but it sure beats forty years in the wilderness!

In the vicinity of Petra, atop Mount Hor, is where Aaron delegated the priestly office to his son, Moses’ nephew, Eleazar, and his dynasty. I was surprised to learn just how many biblical stories took place in what is now Jordan. Dr. Bakke suggested more than 60% of the the stories in the Old Testament of the Bible took place in Jordan. (60% of the New Testament as it turns out, was written from or to Asia Minor, which is now Turkey.) I will think bigger than Israel/Palestine from now on, when referring to the “Holy Land.”

Jacob became Israel in what is now modern-day Jordan (Genesis 32). Jacob and Esau were brothers. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:9). Sodom was a Moabite city (Genesis 13:10). Moab was a son of Lot who was related to Abraham, both of whom were from what is now modern-day Iraq (Genesis 19). Ruth, a woman mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, was a Moabite. Moab’s brother was Ben-Ammi whose descendants were the Ammonites (Genesis 19). The Nabataeans are descendants of Nebaioth who was a son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13).

To put this into perspective, according to the Bible, when God wanted to save the world, God started with Abraham, who would be from Iraq if the story were happening in 2019, according to Dr. Bakke. The roots of the gospel of Jesus Christ go beyond the Israelites.

“Jesus got his blood from the world and his shed blood is for all people,” said Dr. Bakke.

I had read about all of these characters in the Bible. I just did not know how to simply connect it all. As a professing Christian I must acknowledge the historical roots of my faith started with an Iraqi hearing from God. I have never heard a sermon about that before.

I saw the biblical Promised Land from the same point of view Moses had seen from. Buses drive up the mountain and drop off tourists who then still must walk to the overlook. I can imagine it would have been difficult for a man Moses’ age, at the end of his life, to go up the mountain. I looked behind me at the rolling hills of Jordan and I looked forward over Jericho and the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the planet. Mount Nebo is considered a sacred site. I can appreciate the sacramental belief that God never abandons a piece of property. There are actually more than 2000 archaeological and/or holy sites in Jordan. Many of the sites are important not only to Catholics and Christians but for Jews and Muslims also.

Many of the ancient sites throughout the region have been preserved because various religious groups have built and rebuilt places of worship on or near these important sites. Had they not done so, someone or some other group with their own interests might not have honored the historical significance of the sites. This realization was important for me because I was able to understand there was an unfolding plan, beyond the tourist-trap version I had imagined, for locating Catholic and Christian memorials throughout the Land. Over the millennia, other interest groups might have moved or even destroyed these historical sites.

Seven of the twelve disciples of Jesus were Galilean. The investment of Jesus in the region of Galilee is fascinating to me. He spent the majority of his life in and around Galilee. Galilee is about sixty miles from Jerusalem, which would have been a one week trek. As an adult, Jesus apparently lived in a fishing village called Capernaum or village of rest, which is about twenty miles from Nazareth. It is where Jesus is said to have given this invitation:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–29, NIV)

Capernaum is where Jesus found and called most of his disciples. Some of them had been running around with his cousin John the Baptist. Matthew was a tax collector in Capernaum when he was called by Jesus (Matthew 9). Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum (Matthew 8). He spoke a word and healed a Centurion’s servant twenty miles away, a two-day trek (Matthew 8). Jesus also healed a person on the Sabbath in Capernaum (Luke 13). Another person’s friends got him to Jesus by lowering him through a roof in Capernaum (Luke 5). This village of fisherman and professional weepers Jesus is not far from where Jesus met his disciples after the resurrection when they had returned to being fisherman, instead of fishers of men. Jesus ate breakfast on the beach with his disciples after they had caught 153 large fish, according to John 21. A fisherman in Galilee explained to me in Hebrew every letter has a numerical equivalent and 153 is equal to “I am God.” This same beach is where Jesus later asked Peter, “Do you love me?” It is a five minute walk from where Jesus fed the multitudes. Peter would have obviously remembered Jesus doing that when Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). The Mount of Beatitudes is visible from the beach. Geographically it is all the same area. The mount or hill where Jesus gave his great sermon(s) is a natural amphitheater and the backdrop is still the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is where Jesus calmed the storm (Mark 4). It is where Jesus and Peter walked on water (Mark 6). “Jesus had one thousand days to change the world,” said Dr. Bakke. Many of those days were spent in the Galilee region.

I was fascinated to learn it was primarily women who funded Jesus’ public ministry. Women like Joanna, wife of Chuza who was the manager of Herod’s household. Jesus and his disciples were indirectly funded by the very same government that tried to kill him not long after he was born. Jesus was also likely a tekton as was his stepdad Joseph, which would have been equal to being a construction worker, day laborer, or stonemason, according to my guide Rami Fellemon who owns Philemon Tours in Israel. The men of Galilee helped to build the city of Sepphoris, which was the Roman capital of Galilee until Herod moved to Tiberias. Joseph and Jesus likely made ends meet by helping to build a Roman city in their region. Whatever wealth Jesus earned or had access to came to him indirectly through the two governments that conspired to execute him.

Young men of color in both rural areas and urban centers around the world struggling to pay bills, doing honest work while working for “the man,” and at the same time, conspiring against systems of oppression have more in common with Jesus than any white suburban church lady has ever thought to consider. Even as I type this, I want to cry as I imagine a youthful, anti-establishment Jesus daydreaming about changing the world while walking home after a twelve hour shift laying bricks like a slave in Egypt. I want to meet the person who first noticed Jesus, saw his potential, and encouraged him to pursue becoming a Rabbi. I want to know who mentored Jesus when he was just a bricklayer and that is how his family, friends, and community knew and related to him.

Joseph, Jesus’ stepdad, was from Judea. He moved to Nazareth likely because he could find work there, or at least in the region. Nazareth was a few hundred people at that time. It would not have been difficult for Joseph to notice Mary as they likely lived around the corner from one another. She was significantly younger than him to say the least. I have long wondered why Jesus is thought to have lived in Nazareth until he was about thirty. Being the oldest son, he was responsible to be a surrogate father to his siblings until the youngest reached Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It is quite possible Joseph had passed away and Jesus supported his mother and siblings prior to becoming an itinerant preacher.

Nazareth is also the place Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown Synagogue. The members there became angry when he used two illustrations of Gentile people, sworn enemies, being forgiven and blessed by Israel’s God. He, like all young people, had to find his voice. I am positive there would have been more tension had he stayed in Nazareth trying to become the the man the world would get to know rather than the boy his community had known.

Jesus related to nontraditional people from nontraditional families. In the stories about him, he seems so tolerant of unusual people. He was unshockable. He was compassionate. He saw people not just as they were but who they could become. “Jesus was an Asian born baby who became an undocumented African refugee,” said Dr. Bakke. “If anyone understands the pains children deal with, not to mention the expectations, it is Jesus. Half of the children born into the world today will be born in Asia. Half the refugees on the planet today are Africans,” he concluded.

“Jesus had a teenage mother and he had two dads,” said Rami. Jesus’ family tree consisted of two incestuous relationships: a Canaanite named Tamar was impregnated by her father-in-law, Judah (Genesis 38); Lot impregnated his daughter, and the two produced Moab who was an ancestor of Ruth (Genesis 19). Jesus was also a descendant of a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab (Matthew 1:5), and of Uriah’s wife, a Hittite, who had an adulterous relationship with King David (Matthew 1:6). Jesus was so human it almost feels heretical to restate the facts.

Jesus must have been unusual, even a bit eccentric. As his God-consciousness grew, he came to believe the prophecies of his religious community were about himself. People who become famous and draw crowds are on a different level of weird (here is a recent example). Them being weird or different is part of why we are fascinated by them. Jesus and his contemporaries were the rock/pop stars of their culture. He had an internal motivation to change his world but he also had roles and responsibilities. For the majority of his adult life, he held down a normal job to support his mother and siblings. He was also fascinating because he just got people. Jesus knew what people were going through because he had been through it himself or at least seen people he loved go through all the same things he encountered in others.

I visited Bethlehem, a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem, and I was shocked to see the large wall surrounding Bethlehem. The wall is there to keep people contained, yes, like a zoo. Banksy artwork surrounds the city, on the interior of its walls. There is a boutique hotel called The Walled Off Hotel for which Banksy contributed most of the artwork. A local artist had also contributed artwork depicting a wild ass, which is an icon of Palestinian pride, painted to look like a Zebra. There are limited security checkpoints for coming and going. The people who live there, mostly Arab Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, cannot travel outside the walls without permission from Israeli authorities. To put this into perspective, a Palestinian man shared with me: “We are the Indians of the United States.”

Palestinians are the end result of thousands of years of integration, descendants of mixed ethnic groups who conquered the land throughout the millennia. Palestinians are the indigenous people who have been connected to the land through shepherding and farming for thousands of years. Many were Christians long before the Europeans colonized the land and people. Jenkins (2008) wrote:

Christianity, too, has on several occasions been destroyed in regions where it once flourished. In most cases, the elimination has been so thorough as to obliterate any memory that Christians were ever there, so that today any Christian presence whatsoever in these parts is regarded as a kind of invasive species derived from the West. (p. 2)

Dr. Bakke introduced me to Dr. Salim Munayer of Musalaha, who said, “Many Christians from the U.S. ask me, ‘When did you convert to Christianity?’ and I say, ‘2,000 years ago.’” I can imagine a similar question or complaint might be expressed by indigenous persons who think Christianity does not belong in Jewish or Muslim-majority contexts, not realizing it was all but completely driven from the region long before the West’s attempts to reintroduce it.

“Ninety percent of Christian pilgrims do not go to Bethlehem so they do not see the atrocities,” said Dr. Munayer. He then shared about the inequity of wealth and power, which is a real obstacle that perpetuates violence, passivity, and resentment. He stated:

“The average annual income for an Israeli is $40,000. The average annual income for a Palestinian is $3,000. How we respond to our enemies tells us about who we are. Our future is bound to our enemies, yet not everyone wants peace. Those in power make money when there is conflict.”

Dr. Munayer concluded, “Exclusivism always results in conflict.”

Dr. Bakke also introduced me to a Palestinian business woman, who said, “There is no peace without love and justice,” and, “If Israelis and Palestinians can work together, we can have heaven.” She emphasized the power of people rather than politics. As I have processed the ongoing conflicts in the Holy Land, it has become clearer to me people groups living in the land must choose to reconcile at the local levels if they truly desire to live at peace. That decision is within their power. From my perspective, the globalists will never lead people en mass to peace because it does not benefit them to do so.

I was inspired by the many Israelis and Palestinians I met along the way who are not overcome with hate despite living in a hate-filled matrix. They chose to preemptively seek peace through nonviolence, through creative acts of love, blessing their neighbors, while at the same time resisting oppressive regimens.

I went to the Western Wall, which historically was a retaining wall. A portion still remains from the time of Herod the Great. Being at the base of the retaining wall would have been the closest one could get to the inner sanctuary, or the Holy of Holies. In a sense, this wall helped to lock people out. I was fascinated that a wall can be considered a holy site, yet not too far away a different wall is used to divide people, locking some people in. There are so many walls in Jerusalem; walls from the B.C. era; walls from Jesus’ time; walls built by Crusaders; walls built during the Ottoman Empire period of history; modern walls that are still being built; walls upon walls. All of these walls seemed to me like metaphors or parables, rocks crying out. Many Catholics, Christians, Muslims, and Jews cannot see beyond the walls, prejudices and assumptions, dividing good people on both sides of the actual walls that physically keep people from dialogue. Consequently, many are unable to view the bigger picture of God’s dreams unfolding on earth as in heaven.

The prophet Isaiah dreamed about a future Zion that would be inclusive: expand your tents, open your doors wide, do not think so small, make the tent large and strong (Isaiah 54:2, my paraphrase). I can imagine enlarging tents has something to do with letting more people inside, being more inclusive rather than exclusive. More rooms means more people and more people means more blessings. There is always room for more with God. If heaven, or heaven on earth, is truly going to become that special place where God is exalted and where every people group and every neighborhood and every language and every dialect is there and represented, cooperating together, humanity has a long ways to go!

Many pilgrims have witnessed the Holy Land is the “fifth gospel” of Christianity. When I traveled to the Holy Land at the beginning of 2018, I discovered the predominate North American Catholic and Christian understanding of religion and politics in the Holy Land is largely based on generational white, middle-class assumptions and prejudices, and since 1948, is a modern construct of excellent public relations and marketing strategies for the state of Israel. I know that statement might seem harsh but it is reflective of what I found to be true. Religion and politics are people telling stories.

When North American Catholics and Christians speak of the Holy Land they must realize they are talking about several nations and people groups. Catholics and Christians were taught to pray for the faithful living in Israel and Palestine, but were they encouraged to picture Arabs? I bet not. Eight out of ten Christians whose home is in Israel or Palestine identify as Arab. Yet how many Catholics and Christians know this or would believe it if they heard it? Bailey (2008) wrote, “Middle Eastern Christians have been called the forgotten faithful,” (p. 11) and “Middle Eastern Christians evaporated from Western consciousness after the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451” (p. 11).

Prior to traveling to the Holy Land, I had already been more than a decade into my own deconstruction of the North American Protestant Christian worldview I had received in my first twenty years. While in the Holy Land, the dismantling of some remaining misguided beliefs was accelerated. The ongoing conflicts in the Holy Land are not simple to understand. In fact, they are extremely complex. “Who is wrong and who is right?” and “How should believers respond to or not respond to escalating conflict and violence in their communities?,” questions like these do not have easy answers. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a full-scale apartheid situation that could result in an ethnic cleansing within this century. Pappe (2006) described:

“The ideology that enabled the depopulation of half of Palestine’s native people in 1948 is still alive and continues to drive the inexorable, sometimes indiscernible, cleansing of those Palestinians who live there today” (p. 259).

Cole (2009) wrote:

“Given the rate of Israeli colonization of Palestinian land, in a few years no viable Palestinian state will be possible” (p. 245).

There seems to be no obvious solutions. From my limited perspective, a Palestinian state is possible at this point only if citizen led movements committed to finding win-win scenarios unify around solutions they are willing to live with.

I participated in several conversations with other North American Protestant Christians while in the Holy Land and I identified at least three main factors that cause many Christians in North America to sympathize with the oppressive paradigm of Zionism (my opinion), and unable to see its impact on their Arab and Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ.

First, North American Protestant Christians still experience deep regret for what Jews experienced during the Holocaust, when their security was stripped from them. This remorse or guilt fuels unquestioned support for the state of Israel. What North American Protestant Christians have not learned about the state of Israel, which represents a once oppressed people, since 1948, it has acted as an oppressor of Arabs and Palestinians in the Promised Land by breaking agreements, confiscating land, and limiting opportunities of human beings on the other side of the wall.

Bailey (1973) wrote:

A man’s security in the village is his family. This is as precious to him as life itself. His family is his social security, his insurance, his old-age pension, his assurance of marriage, his physical and emotional well-being. In short, it is everything. The tie to the land and to the “house of so-and-so” is a profound tie. “Where are you from?” asks one city dweller of another. The answer is not his address. Rather he replies, “I am from such-and-such a village.” He may never have been there, but his “roots’ are there. His family clan is there. The “house” of which he is a part is established there. He belongs there. There he will be accepted totally, regardless. If he is out of work or in need of friends, he will be welcomed, even if they have never seen him. When he says, “I am so-and-so, son of so-and-so, and I am of the house of so-and-so,” they will open their doors to him. All of this the younger son throws away. (p. 33)

This insight from Bailey became important to me because it is effectively what has been done to the Palestinian people of the land since at least the middle of the 20th century. The Palestinian people have not thrown away their real inheritance, instead it has been taken from them. No reparations or amount of money can replace the security and continuity of being rooted.

While traveling in Israel/Palestine, I remember Rami pointing out a particular home in a neighborhood. He mentioned a Palestinian homeowner had sold the home to an Israeli settler. It was the first transaction of its kind in that area. The new homeowner placed an Israeli flag outside the home as if to claim a victory and the territory for the state of Israel. This is an example of what is meant by concerned accusations of “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” by the state of Israel.

Second, North American Protestant Christians share a great concern with the state of Israel regarding radical Islam as well as the concern to defend themselves against Muslim extremists. What North American Protestant Christians have not learned about Arab Christians and Muslims living in the Promised Land, particularly in Gaza, is that they are effectively unable to defend themselves against air strikes and ground attacks often initiated by Israeli Armed Forces, nor can people struggling to gather necessities for themselves and their families spend what few resources they do have countering much of the propaganda surrounding the ongoing conflicts. All of this begs the question, when Israeli tanks rolled into villages where Christian brothers and sisters have lived for generations, should they not have been concerned, and even justified if and when they defended themselves against religious extremists? “What should we do when our land is still being confiscated?,” and “What about when people use the same Bible I read against me?,” asked Dr. Munayer.

Third, there is this notion that when North American Protestant Christians pray for and ask God to bless the state of Israel, no matter what is said or done, they are honoring God or obeying God’s wishes. North American Protestant Christians are motivated by the assumption that “God blesses those who bless Israel,” no matter what Israel says or does. Some North American Protestant Christians support the state of Israel, because they believe they will gain something from it. For some, the blessing of Israel amounts to a transactional theology that in essence is a form of witchcraft — do this, or say that, and get this or get that. It is important to understand the original promise of blessing, which can be read about in Genesis 12, was given to Abram/Abraham and his descendants, which includes both Jews and Muslims alike, not specifically the state of Israel, which is a modern construct. God’s promise, according to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, was given to a living, breathing people, not a government. This whole blessing and curse thing has always been dependent upon God’s people first becoming and being a blessing. Blessing other nations has always been the key that unlocks the promises of God and consequent favor of God.

I can now better visualize the geography of the Holy Land as well as the brutal legacies of repeated wars, occupations and oppression of the people of the land. I also became motivated to seek ways to use my platform for influence to inspire others to show practical solidarity with brothers and sisters striving to be faithful in their witness in the region. It came as a surprise, I realized that Muslims and Christians in the region have more in common than I would have expected, especially as it relates to how the two religious communities are treated by the state of Israel.

I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to travel throughout the Holy Land alongside Dr. Bakke. I absorbed some of his knowledge and memories along the way, and have tried to communicate many highlights in this essay. My trek in the Holy Land was a invaluable experience that will certainly continue to shape me for good.

Linthicum (2003) quoted Israel’s prophet Ezekiel to explain the economics of exploitation:

By likening the lion to the political system and the wolf to the economic system, Ezekiel (was) making a profound analogy about the capacity of both systems to dominate and control their societies. The political system is a discernibly dominating power. It “kills” its intended victims directly and efficiently, using the law, police or military as its instrument of elimination. (p. 47)

Linthicum also wrote, “The economic system, which is not given the powers of the law, police or military, must ‘kill’ in a different way” (p. 47).

Ezekiel raged against the machine thousands of years ago, and history spins like a bad record on repeat. From what I have seen, heard, and read there is a desperate need for modern-day Ezekiel’s to find their voice in regard to systematic attempts at riding the Promised Land of the people of the land.