This is the second in a series of 3 posts about a trip to the Holy Land. In my first post, I wrote: “My strongest initial impressions from this trip might be summarised with the words ordinary, familiar and radical.”

I was surprised by how small the land is. Places whose names are familiar from the Bible turned out to be very close to one another. Mount Carmel, where Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, overlooks the Jezreel valley, where so many Old Testament battles were fought – under Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Saul, Josiah … In clear view on the other side of the valley is Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and “next door” to that is Mount Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured. The 20 mile route from Nazareth down to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee goes through Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle.

Following the “Via Maris” another 10 miles around the lake from Tiberias to Capernaum takes you through Magdala, the home town of Mary – Jesus’ most faithful follower and the “Apostle to the Apostles.” The land felt familiar not just because it is ordinary but also because so many of the events recorded in the Bible happened in or near the same places.

On the Via Maris, guarding the pass through the Carmel mountain ridge into the Jezreel valley, is Tel Megiddo. A “tel” is an artificial hill that was created when a succession of new civilisations built on top of old ones. Since it stood at the entrance to the battle ground where empires repeatedly clashed, Megiddo was destroyed and rebuilt at least 26 times.

The tel was finally abandoned as a place of habitation after the Babylonians wiped out the southern Kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE, but Megiddo has remained a by-word for the devastations of war – like Flanders Fields or Omaha Beach. In 1918, the decisive battle for Palestine between the British and Ottoman empires took place in Megiddo and just one week before we visited a young man was seriously injured there by a roadside bomb, believed to have been a terror attack on the current State of Israel. This surely is the ultimate example of history repeating itself as we follow the same familiar destructive patterns of the past. This is what Armageddon represents (“Armageddon” is a Greek transliteration – used once in Revelation – of the Hebrew “Har Meggido,” meaning “Meggido Hill”).

Whilst some things have simply continued through the history of the land – like the cycles in the succession of Judges and Kings – others developed. In the same area where Boaz farmed in the days of Ruth, two generations later the future king David tended his family’s flocks, and – several generations after that – other shepherds heard the angelic proclamation that the true Son of David had been born.

Jesus stepped into familiar settings and sometimes upheld, sometimes fulfilled and sometimes transformed them. After his baptism, just above the Dead Sea, Jesus crossed the Jordan river and walked towards Jericho – just as Joshua had done centuries earlier. Unlike Joshua, Jesus walked past the city into the craggy wilderness beyond. There he was tempted to follow the same familiar patterns that kings and leaders – including Joshua and David – have adopted since time immemorial.

But Jesus resisted. He did not come to simply build another layer upon what had gone before; he came to turn the world the right way up again.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:19

The familiarity of the land is a reminder that none of us starts at ground zero, and that is not where God starts with us either. In the account of creation in Genesis 2, God sinks his hands into the soil (“adamah” in Hebrew, “humus” in Latin) and formed the first human, Adam, out of the same familiar stuff as the land in which he then placed him to live. And yet God transforms that familiar substance by filling it with his breath and his life (“Chavah/Chayah” in Hebrew, Latinised as “Eva”).

“springs came up from the ground and watered all the land.  Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person … Adam named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all who live.”

Genesis 2:6-7 & 3:20

We have all inherited both that which is “natural” and that which is “nurtured” ever since. God continues to meet us where we are – in our familiar circumstances – and transform both us and them.

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