Is the Holy Land Really Holy?

Sarah, Kezzie (on my back out of view), myself, and some random guy behind us :). We’re standing in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem (the most likely historical location of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ).

This is a question I have pondered for some time now, especially since recently visiting Israel. You would think that all the fighting over the Levant throughout history would make this land pretty unholy. Another way of looking at it is to say the land is fought over so often because too many mutually exclusive groups render the land so holy.

“Holy” means “sacred” or “set apart”, most often referring to the divine. My dilemma as a Christian visiting the “Holy” Land and calling it such is that I wonder if we “over-holy” these geographical locations.

Let me say up front that I do believe that the land we currently call Israel and Palestine will play some sort of special role in the unfolding of last things (eschatology). Just read the beautiful prophecy about the river of life flowing from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea in Ezekiel 47 to see what I mean.

But that does not mean I think the land should be militarily taken in order to help hasten the end times (the Crusaders tried that centuries ago and their campaigns were NOT the Church’s brightest moments in history). On the contrary, I believe that according to Jesus, we live in a time where the locality of God’s divine presence is juxtapositioned differently than the times of the Old Testament.

Here are the words of Jesus himself to the Samaritan woman in John 4:

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24 NIV).

Christians flock to the Holy Land, and have done so for centuries. I believe it is a trip well worth the time and resources. But what I get out of it is not feeling closer to God because I feel like the land gets me closer to Him. God is omnipresent, and His “temple” is no longer a bricks and mortar place on some mountain, but rather the hearts of people around the world – from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

So I do not think the land of Israel/Palestine is any more holy than Fargo, North Dakota. God is holy, and we can worship God and connect with Him anywhere and everywhere, including Israel.

What I do get out of visiting Israel as a Christian is a deeper appreciation for the historical settings of the Bible and Middle Eastern history. That in turn helps me to read the Bible in color rather than just black and white, which in turn does help me connect with God in devotion and relationship. It helps me understand the culture/faith of Judaism, which is the root of Christianity (by the way, Christianity can also be called the Jewish Messianic Movement). And it helps me better understand the various people groups who currently live in the Middle East and how they interrelate with one another.

So I would recommend visiting the land of the Bible. But don’t expect God to pop out of the earth while you’re over there. You don’t have to travel that far to find God in your life. He’s at work in your own city. Visit the land of the Bible and let it deepen your understanding of history and today, thus drawing you closer to God in that particular way.

Israel: The Land of the Bible

Standing on the roof of the Ecce Homo Convent in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The tower behind us is the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.

Just last week, we returned from our 10-year wedding anniversary trip to Israel and the West Bank. Most of our time was spent in Israel proper, but we did get a chance to see Bethlehem and Herodian, which are in the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank. I was here 13 years ago for school and since that time, they have built an enormous barrier wall (and are still building) between Israel and Palestine. The political and social ramifications of “The Wall” are enormous and can be positive or negative depending on who you talk to, but that’s a bit much to get into right now…

“The Wall” that separates Israel from the West Bank (Palestinian Territory).

Sarah, Kezzie, and I explored the country on foot and with a rental car, a Bible, a guidebook, and LOTS of water. It was a vacation/pilgrimmage for us. And it was a thrill to show my family around to the places I once lived and studied in years ago. We also did some new things that I never did when I was here before, including learning about new archaeological finds over the past decade – namely the tomb of King Herod the Great (now on display at The Israel Museum) and the foundations of King David’s Palace at the City of David.

I will publish more posts about our trip as the days and weeks go by, but I will mention one thing to start in this post. And that is the difference between historical sites and traditional sites in Israel/Palestine. This is an important distinction to know for anyone visiting the Middle East (or any other part of the world that displays history, for that matter).

A historical site is a geographical location that verifiably marks an actual point/place where something once happened in history. A traditional site is a geographical location that marks a historical event, but it may or may not be the actual place where it happened (often the location is just a guess or a site that has traditionally marked an event).

For example, there are two main sites that remember the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and The Garden Tomb. These two sites are less than a kilometer apart, but they cannot both be the location of the resurrection. Historically and archaeologically speaking, the actual site is probably the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But the Garden Tomb traditionally marks the event, even though historical research has shown that it it highly unlikely to be the right location. In my opinion, The Garden Tomb is a more peaceful, tranquil garden-like atmosphere that gives you a better feel for the setting of the resurrection narrative. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been built over with centuries of layers of buildings, not to mention the volatile power-struggles among custodial church groups.

The "Tomb of Christ" in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The “Tomb of Christ” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Garden Tomb in East Jerusalem, just north of Damascus Gate.

And there are plenty of examples of this all over Israel. It is good to know if you are at an actual historical spot or just at a place where people remember a particular event. There is the Inn of the Good Samaritan on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Tour busses flock to it. The only problem? The only place we learn about this inn in the Bible is in a parable, which is an metaphorical story – not a real actual event. So that would be another type of traditional spot as opposed to historical.