Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Battle on the Mount of Olives

In war, a battle can be won or lost based on which side holds the high ground. Thus tiny differences in geography, shaped after millennia of rain, wind, and heat, come to mean life or death. This is true today of the Mount of Olives: two embittered foes vie for control over the place on which the Messiah is said to one day appear...

When I studied abroad in Jerusalem, I would often go on runs around my campus on Mount Scopus (Har Harzofim), the tallest peak of the ridge that makes up the Mount of Olives. The most beautiful part of my run was always at one particular outlook that looked eastward, towards the arid Judaean hills and Jordan River valley. I often would take a break to stop and pray, enjoying some quiet time with God among the olive trees.
The slope on the east side of Mount Scopus. Isawiyya is off-screen on the left, and Al-Tur is near the center-right of the frame (Berg, 2011). 
The dramatic landscape makes it a popular stop for tour groups (Berg, 2011).
The panorama at this point was much different from earlier on the run, which overlooks the congested, dirty Palestinian village of Isawiyya. Isawiyya, while technically in East Jerusalem, falls under strict Israeli regulations and building codes designed to keep suffocate the Palestinian population of the city. Isawiyya is cut off on one side by the 10-foot tall concrete wall Israel constructed to impede suicide bombers. One of the two checkpoints into Isawiyya was recently closed, adding 20 minutes to any Palestinian worker's commute to Jerusalem. Palestinians cannot build new houses, or build additional floors. Thus Isawiyya, like the nearby town of Al-Tur, is rampant with overcrowding, garbage, and illegal construction (together the two towns have approximately 30,000 inhabitants). 
On the left, the modern Hebrew University of Jerusalem. On the right, in the valley, the dirty Isawiyya slum (Berg 2011).  
Isawiyya as seen from Mount Scopus on Nakba Day (Berg, 2011).
Human rights organizations both in Israel and abroad protest the Israeli government's ban on Palestinian construction, while countenancing the illegal construction of Jewish settlements on private Palestinian territory. They had argued for years for the rights of Palestinians to build on land they owned on the eastern slope of Mount Scopus. However, last week, the Jerusalem city government declared all that privately owned Palestinian land to now make up a national park.
View from Isawiyya looking west up to Mount Scopus. You can clearly make out additional land Palestinians could build on, and there is much more land out of frame off the left side of this photo (Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, 2011).

A map of the proposed national park plan.
This section of land, while picturesque, is far from worthy of being a national park. It's only comprised of a small "wadi" (valley carved into the land from the winter rains) and a scattering of scraggly thorn bushes and wild olive trees. Many observers speculate that the real reason behind the park is to cut off any hope of expansion for Isawiyya and Al-Tur, thus dooming them to even more over-crowding in the future. In frustration, residents of Isawiyya (usually children) have been known throw rocks at nearby or police forces, burn tires, and even toss Molotov cocktails. Here you can see some smoke from a burning tire on Nakba day, the day the Palestinians protest their forced exodus in the 1948 war (filmed by Berg, 2011).

The war over this tiny slice of land on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives is representative of Israel as a whole: tiny pieces of land are ultimately so much more than that. They can mean peace or war, life or death. This seems to be a theme for Israel: infinite value packed into just a couple of square miles. The Temple Mount. The Valley of Meggido. And the Mount of Olives.

One day, Jews and Christians believe, the Messiah will descend upon the Mount of Olives. It shall split in two, and a river will flow between the halves eastward to the Dead Sea. Tradition says dead will be raised and follow the Messiah into Jerusalem. He Messiah will usher in a new age of justice and peace, and all the evils of humans will be reversed. I hope that those who have control over Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives will remember this, and therefore deal justly with its inhabitants. Every person's actions will be judged, and only those who have treated their neighbors with love will be able to stand. Thus, I believe the Israeli government should reverse its decision and instead allow Palestinians to build on the eastern slope of Mount Scopus. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

7 Provocative Things I Learned From NT Wright’s Book "Surprised By Hope"

A couple of months ago, while attending a debate tournament at Swarthmore College, I overheard an interesting debate topic: that Jesus’ life would make better literature if he had not been resurrected, if he had simply been crucified, buried, and rotted. I then heard some of the arguments for why this might be true. Jesus’ followers would better be able to take up the mantle of their martyred leader. He would fulfill the classic storyline of the sacrificial hero: dying for the sake of the ‘cause’. In this view, Jesus’ resurrection seems a tacked-on, Disney ending that makes an epic story into an artificial-sounding, feel-good tale with less of a lasting impact.

At first glance, this sounds like a persuasive argument. But I really wish I had been the one to debate against this topic, because I firmly believe that Jesus’ resurrection is incredibly important—more important, in fact, than his death on the cross (1 Corinthians 15:14: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’). That is the first provocative thing that I learned from reading NT Wright’s book, Surprised By Hope. I’ll quickly go through a few others.

1. The Resurrection, not the Crucifixion, should be the center of Christianity.
            As NT Wright argues “Sin is the root cause of death; so if death has not been defeated, then that means sin has still not been dealt with” (247). Thus, modern Christianity’s focus on Jesus’ death on the cross is really missing the point. His death AND resurrection were what enabled humans to be forgiven and freed from the chains of sin and death. Moreover, resurrection is a focus on the positive, victorious nature of Jesus rather than on the suffering at Golgotha. NT Wright also argues that Easter is not a big enough deal in the Church’s liturgical calendar: it should be a PARTY, complete with feasts and drinking and dancing. In the status quo, we have forty days of intense sorrow for Lent and then a single half-hearted Easter service to end it. It should be the other way around, if anything. Jesus’ resurrection is where we draw our hope; it was the totally unexpected, surprising revelation of his glory. Jews believed that everyone would be resurrected at the end of time, but Jesus foreshadowed that event with his resurrection, shattering even the disciples’ wildest hopes.
If we don’t center our theology on Jesus’ resurrection, death still has the victory: the best humans can hope for is to die quickly and join God in a spiritual heaven, leaving our bodies here. Which gets me to the second provocative point.

2. When a Christian dies, he or she will NOT be in a spiritual heaven forever.
            Wow. Incredibly provocative. Nearly everyone I hear present the Gospel message talks about how if one accepts Jesus into one’s heart, one will spend eternity in heaven with God. And that is 100% false.
            Why? Because as predicted in Zechariah, Isaiah, Revelation, and throughout the whole Bible, God’s people will one day live with him in a remade, renewed, recreated, physical, redeemed, perfect Earth. Heaven is just a temporary resting place where we wait until the resurrection. Then, at the last day (or the first day, depending on your point of view), we will be resurrected into new physical bodies and God will descend down to Earth to live with his people forever. The dead are all to be raised and judged accordingly, some to eternal life and some to death. God, for his part, experiences a permanent change of address (Revelation 21:3 “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”). The story of the New Testament is fundamentally not about people going to God. It’s about God coming to people: this was symbolized with Jesus, and ultimately to be fulfilled at the end of time. And when God comes, he will enter—as in Eden and Bethlehem—into the physical world. That will be final reality, not ‘heaven’. There will be a new heaven and a new, perfect earth, but the Bible clearly shows that our final, eternal home will be on the new, physical earth with God, forever.

3. Well, allow me to amend that previous statement: heaven and earth will, on the last day, meet and join together as one unified location.
            I suppose that’s the more accurate way to say it. Throughout the book, NT Wright critiques the Platonic idea of separating soul and body, elevating the soul and denigrating the body. In the Platonic view, Jesus’ ascension into heaven is a case where “Oh, now he’s in all of us, how nice” a la the debate case I heard at Swarthmore. A more robust view, however, says that the Bible means what it says: Jesus, in his body, actually disappeared into heaven, and there’s a physical Jesus in heaven right now waiting for the moment when he can make his royal “presence” known (parousia, the word connected with inaccurate Rapture theology). While Jesus’ Spirit is in the Church, the Church is not Jesus. Jesus is still missing, there’s a curious absence which creation “groans” to fill (Romans 8).
            Right now, the best we can do is to let God use us to bring little slices of the kingdom of heaven to earth, but realize that we can never fully establish heaven on earth until Jesus does at the end of time. But that does mean we can anticipate that event the same way Jesus’ resurrection anticipates our own. Thus Christians should be deeply involved in social justice and in restoring our world: in so doing, we are looking forward and giving witness to the last day when heaven and earth finally meet like a kiss.

4. The Rapture is not a real thing and will not happen the way Christian culture assumes it will
            Also a very provocative claim. First, let me point out that absolutely nobody had the idea of Christians souls being sucked from their bodies in a Rapture until around 1850, when an American preacher believed he had revelation from God and figured it out. According to him, God would take all his people from the Earth and then essentially nuke the earth with various judgments. But the way Paul talks about the parousia or “coming/presence” of Christ does not imply that at all. Rather, Jesus’ re-appearing occurs when he comes back to Earth to establish his eternal kingdom and triumph over evil once and for all. At the trumpet call, Christians will “leap up” to meet God in the air, but only so we can escort him down onto Earth. In ancient protocol, when the king comes, you go out to meet him so you can usher him into the city. A tiny bit like going outside to help your mom bring in the groceries. There’s absolutely nothing about having our souls sucked out to be with Jesus in the parousia/Rapture. The only time our souls are separated from our bodies is when we are dead, and that is only temporary.

5. Modern Christian Liturgy is Missing the Point 
            I mentioned earlier that NT Wright wants an Easter-centric liturgical calendar, in order to avoid modernity Christianity’s extreme focus on Christmas and Lent. The resurrection ought be the center of our faith and the foundation for our future hope. Enough said.
            NT Wright critiques another popular practice, cremation. While admitting that obviously God can resurrect any person’s body, regardless of what physical remains are still there, burying a full body is a better symbol: just as Jesus was buried and resurrected whole, we will be buried and resurrected whole. Cremation is more akin to the Platonic belief that the spirit, and not the body, is what matters. Too much of modern Christianity is more like Plato than Christ, NT Wright argues. We hate the body and long to be freed from it “in heaven”. But Jesus affirmed both the body and the soul, and we should do the same. Yes, both are currently corrupted, but both shall be one day wholly restored. The physical and spiritual healings that we may experience here on Earth are a foreshadowing of that glorious day.

6. In the same way that Jesus’ resurrection from death anticipates our own final resurrection; Jerusalem’s destruction and burning by the Romans in 70 C.E. anticipates the final judgment for those who reject God’s kingdom      
            For this point I’m going to quote from NT Wright regarding Gehenna, the smoldering pile of burning rubbish in a valley near Jerusalem that represents hell: “Jesus’ message to his contemporaries was stark and political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries… Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said, ‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,’ that is the primary meaning he had in mind.”
            Thus the destruction of Jerusalem, like the resurrection of Jesus, prefigures the future—a fact often overlooked by Christians. If people refuse to repent and instead insist on pursuing earthly kingdoms rather than the kingdom of heaven, they will find themselves destroyed by fire. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
            Note that NT Wright does believe in the final reality of hell. In the age of Rob Bell, it’s helpful to have a solid, biblical, yet compassionate analysis of the topic of hell. I’m not covering it here for sake of time, but it’s definitely worth checking out. 

7. Those who deny miracles still occur in the modern world (using 1st Corinthians 13 as their scriptural basis) better change their position.
            When one reads 1 Corinthians through the lens of the resurrection, things make a lot more sense. Particularly the section in ch. 13 that declares “prophecy, tongues, miracles etc. will be done away when the completion arrives.” Some modern Christians argue that we ought not see prophecy or miraculous healings because the completion has already come. Thus they denounce any church that has these things. But the completion to come is the resurrection. When the resurrection comes, tongues and healings will cease. This is shown in the Old Testament too: Zechariah 13, which describes the renewed, post-resurrection Earth, explains that no one will prophesy anymore.
            In fact, it’s precisely because the completion has not come that healings, tongues, and prophecies still exist (or should—if you don’t see any near you, you might want to consider finding a place where they do). There is still sin and pain, and thus we still need the Holy Spirit’s supernatural intervention. And with that intervention, we catch a glimpse, a foreshadowing, of the new heaven and the new earth, where there will be no more pain, no more death, and every tear will be wiped away. And when we have that, then there will be no need for tongues and prophecy. Because in that day, the perfection will come, and the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

#OWS: Not Tahrir, Not by a Long Shot

This is just a quick blog to get my thoughts out until I have time later (which is doubtful), so message/email/call me if you want to hear more about my thoughts on this issue.

Last night, I was walking around downtown Lancaster with my friend Mike and we decided to stop by the local “Occupy Wall Street” gathering, Occupy Lancaster. When we arrived, we were handed a couple of pamphlets urging the “99%” to rise up and protest the oppression of the “1%.” We then sat in on a meeting where the shivering, sickly protesters discussed recent crackdowns in Harrisburg and New York against other #OWS movements.

The occupiers seemed genuinely concerned about their rights and freedom. One man explained that in Harrisburg, the police ripped up a tent “with a knife! This big!” gesturing his hands about five inches apart, “And there were still people inside!” (Though there was no statement that any of those people were actually harmed in this action). Those gathered around the circle expressed their shock and horror, lifting their hands and wiggling fingers—the #OWS form of silently agreeing with a speaker.

But meanwhile, I had to stop myself from laughing. I’ve spent the last three months reading about female genital cutting, looking at pictures of decaying bodies, and watching videos of people getting run over by armored vehicles. The occupiers’ claims of injustice do not reach anywhere near what others worldwide have suffered.

While #OWS protesters have some serious arguments about the nature of our capitalist society, I’m dubious about how much injustice they really are suffering. Protest movements can only gain traction when there is a real sense of suffering or the government is tricked into overreacting—which explains why Egypt’s government has been overthrown, but America’s has not.

What do you think? Does economic and political inequity constitute a human rights violation, or is this just part of modern society? Are these protests in the same vein as the Arab Spring, or is this just the whining of educated white kids? Can the protesters really complain about police brutality, or are they overreacting?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Water from the Rock

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Jewish festivals, and the more I learn the more incredible the connections to Jesus seem. Please forgive the somewhat rushed nature of this blog, but to take the time necessary to fully explicate all the amazing connections would take time that I just don’t have right now.

This week, followers of Judaism celebrate the seven-day festival of Sukkot. In Sukkot, they remember God’s provision by symbolically setting up flimsy tents outside in the elements. In this they remember that God liberated them from slavery and kept them safe through the desert, despite having no material possessions. In contrast to “Gog” and “Magog”, the nations in Ezekiel 38 whose names refer in Hebrew to ‘roofs’, the Jews are a nation without roofs. The man of Gog believes in self-security, in providing for himself, in making sure he has enough money and resources and friends to be safe. The man of God, on the other hand, trusts in God, that God will provide.

There is another thing about Sukkot that I find incredibly interesting. In Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, which was practiced each of the seven nights of Sukkot, the priests would pour out water onto the altar. But the name for this does not translate to the ‘dumping of water’, but as the “joyful place for the drawing of water”. As if the water were coming from the altar, not the other way around…How can this be?
Because throughout all the prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures, there are particular ones that foretell of a day when water will flow out from Jerusalem and provide water to the whole arid landscape around it. Water that is so refreshing it turns the Dead Sea into a living sea that can support fish. Water that flows “from the Temple”. Water from a rock? Crazy symbolic...but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Thus the Ceremony at the place of the Drawing of the Water was a foreshadowing of these prophecies. Correspondingly, there was great joy attached to it. In fact, Jewish scriptures say: "He who has not seen the Simchat Beit Hashoeva has never in his life seen joy!" The greatest joy in the world, which only increases in happiness each night, culminating on the final day of the Feast.

Cut to the book of John, chapter 7: “On the last and greatest day of the festival (Sukkot!), Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” This is the day of greatest joy, of greatest happiness, the foreshadowing of the rejuvenation of the world. And Jesus makes this radical claim that the time of the water flowing from the altar was NOW. In the midst of the joyful procession, Jesus proclaims that the source of water was in fact in their midst!

Skip ahead to John Chapter 19: Jesus is dead on the cross. Then, “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.”
It seems this tiny detail, a flow of blood and water from Jesus side, is so important that John has to swear immediately afterwards that it is true. Why? Because blood is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. And water is necessary to fulfill the prophecies about reviving the world. Jesus uniquely fulfills both aspects at once.

Last week was Yom Kippur, which occurs for forgiveness. This week is Sukkot, for a flood of water to renew the lands. And Jesus combines the two. Blood and water, poured out onto the earth for its full, complete redemption, a redemption that cleanses us and gives life to our world.

[If you’re interested in learning more, check out my earlier blog, Streams in the Desert. Also check out the Wikipedia articles about Sukkot and Simchat Beit HaShoeviah, as well as Zechariah 13-14, Revelation 21-22, Ezekiel 37, and Joel 3:18.]

Face to Face

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known..." (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Today I met a Sudanese refugee and her six year old son. Smiling, she told me her story in broken English. She came to Lancaster about two years ago, and now plans to apply for citizenship in three years. She was from a city about four hours south of Khartoum. "Is that now in South Sudan?" I asked her. No no, she told me, even four hours south of Khartoum is still far from South Sudan. I had kind of guessed that, since she spoke Arabic to her son (a characteristic of the more Arabized north versus the African dialects in the south). With the language barrier and having just met her, I didn't get to ask the full details of her escape from Sudan. But somehow, finally meeting a real-life refugee made things more real to me. Refugees are actual, regular people: normal humans who laugh, cry, eat chips with homemade salsa, and forget the English word for "south". 

The quote at the top of this post is from a chapter in the Bible I read this morning. Little did I know how much it would frame my meeting with this refugee. After weeks of sitting and learning in class (Human Rights, Human Wrongs), us students do "know in part". This is like seeing something in a dirty mirror, dimly...but when we see the face of human rights face to face, we shall know fully. Something will leap out past our intellect, and lodge deep into our hearts. And that is how it should be. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Ultimate Day of Atonement

In some recent research to learn about Yom Kippur, I came across an absolutely astounding writing from the Jewish tradition that if you blink you might miss it (It might take a little bit for me to get to my main point so make sure you read to the end). Yoma is a Jewish rabbinical text from the Babylonian Talmud written around 200 AD/CE.. Read what it says in its section on Yom Kippur:

“Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan b. Zakkai rebuked them, saying: ‘Hekal, Hekal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars’ (Yoma 39b).”

OK so let’s talk about what’s happening here, in order.

So first, author states that the “lot did not come up in the right hand”; this refers to the lottery selecting which of two goats would be sacrificed ‘for the Lord’ and which one would be driven off into the wilderness ‘for Azazel’. Essentially, having the bad lot ‘for Azazel’ come up first each time for forty years straight was seen as a very bad omen by the author of Yoma (and statistically nearly impossible). It gets worse though.

           The crimson strap becoming white refers to the rope that would be tied to the scapegoat. This was the goat chosen ‘for Azazel’ and thrown off the cliff of Mount Azazel into the wilderness to take away the sins of the people. Many times, Yoma states before the passage I quoted, this scarlet cord would become white as snow once the goat was thrown off, signifying the forgiveness of sins for the people (Isaiah 1:18- “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”). But in Yoma 39b, we see that for the forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple, the scarlet cord never turned white; driving the scapegoat off into the wilderness apparently did not accomplish the forgiveness of sins.

            The “westernmost light” also stopped shining. This refers to the lamp that supernaturally, continuously burned to signify God’s presence and blessing. Now, for some reason the supernatural ceased to burn of its own accord.

            Finally, the passage states the doors of the Hekal would open on their own. The Jewish H]historian Josephus from the first century tells something similar: "At the same festival (Passover)... the Eastern gate of the inner court of the Temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a base armered with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of it's own accord about the sixth our of the night" (The Wars of the Jews, 6.5.3). Thus what we see in both these passages is that the doors to the Temple would open on their own for the forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple.

Why were all these things occurring at the same time? What can possibly explain all these coincidences as reported by the Jewish Talmud? Well, the destruction of the Temple occurred in 70 AD/CE. Forty years prior to that, 30 AD/CE, happens to be exactly when historians believe the rabbi Yeshua (Jesus) was crucified by the Romans.

So in conclusion, after Yeshua was crucified, the lot started coming up in the wrong hand. The scapegoat no longer signified the forgiveness of sins. God’s presence was no longer symbolized by the ever-shining light in the Temple. And the doors blocking access to the Temple would swing open of their own accord, as if now God was henceforth permanently open to all.

Maybe after 30 AD Jesus’ death forever replaced animal sacrifice as the means to forgiveness. Maybe it also signified that’s God’s presence no longer resided in just a building. Maybe the doors to the Temple would swing open to show that God had burst out of his enclosure; a building could no longer contain his glory. Maybe He was now unleashed into the world.

Maybe the Day of Atonement was accomplished once and for all, one dark and glorious day in 30 AD. At least, that’s what Yoma 39b seems say. I’ll let you make your own opinion.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Sixty-Three Years and Counting: Palestinian Refugees

This month, Palestinian diplomats hope to submit a bid to the UN Security Council that would have their territories formally recognized as a Palestinian state. The US promises a veto, but the Palestinians hope that a favorable vote in the General Assembly could still increase the diplomatic pressure on Israel.

Students of refugee law will find a highly complex and controversial case in this situation.  Due to a strange definition by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) tasked to the situation, not only the Palestinians who fled in the 1948 war are classified as refugees, but also their descendents. This means that the half a million refugees from 1948 have ballooned to a current total of nearly five million. Israel, fearful of losing its Jewish demography through a wave of immigrants, refuses to contemplate offering any “Right of Return” to these refugees. Meanwhile, more and more Palestinians are born stateless, having neither Israeli citizenship nor citizenship in the nonexistent Palestinian state. Instead, they merely get refugee status cards from UNRWA (and none are automatically eligible for asylum in the US because they do not have a “well-founded fear of persecution”; a life of poverty does not qualify).

These refugees do not live in the worst of conditions: the refugee slums I saw in the West Bank city of Nablus did have concrete buildings and narrow roads. These are not the tattered tents one would see in Darfur, for example. But existing without rights, having only a hostile Israeli government and a nascent Palestinian one, these people see little hope of ever gaining justice. Accordingly, many turn to violence. I saw many posters idolizing armed teenage boys, “martyrs” against the occupation. (“Idiots,” commented one Palestinian, "This kid was throwing rocks at a tank.”)
Palestinian Refugee Camp in Nablus, West Bank. Note the banner honoring "martyrs" who had died fighting the Israeli occupation. 
What is the answer to the Palestinian refugee problem? I believe that it is impossible to return these refugees to their family hometowns in Israel. It’s been over sixty years and the landscape has been completely changed. Moreover, I know Israel will not grant citizenship status to Palestinians for fear that they would become an electoral majority and take over the “Jewish” state. Thus, I think the only fair thing to do would be to permit the Palestinians to form a state, placing the responsibilities of rectifying the refugees’ social justice claims in the hands of their own people.

Thus, I believe the US should not veto the Palestinian’s bid for statehood. Instead, it should vote in favor of it and immediately begin working with Israel to craft safe, secure borders between the two states. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

6 Ways Jesus Breaks Down the evil, despicable SELF/OTHER DICHOTEMY! (buwahahahaaa)

In case you were wondering, I can summarize postmodern philosophy in a few sentences: “Beware of constructed identities! Don’t create an us/them duality! Don’t create strict categories of understanding!”
             Basically, this framework for viewing the world came of age during Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. Its proponents justifiably took umbrage at the categorization of blacks or Communists as “those people” instead of just “people”. They argued that the evil policies in Nazi Germany began when certain groups of people were labeled as the Other. The ‘good decent normal’ people had to watch out for those ‘bad, weird Other’ people (and ultimately boycott, quarantine, and exterminate ‘Them’). Postmodern theorists than apply this calculus to every other aspect of life. Virtually every paper I write in college can make some reference to the danger that the Self/Other dichotomy poses in one aspect or another. Gender (male/female). Citizenship (citizen/noncitizen). Species (human/nonhuman). Race (one of us/one of them).
Thus, we see in postmodernism attempts to deconstruct these divisive constructs. Now, I don’t agree with all of postmodernism’s tenets, but I think this one has value. And so I think it’s very interesting that God, as seen in the Bible and in Jesus, breaks down nearly every self/other dichotomy I can think of. I’ll make a list, feel free to add to it :)

1. Male/Female. This is a huge, seemingly insurmountable divide. Yet God handles it with tact and aplomb. One particularly epic verse, Galatians 3:28, states that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Wow. That’s so much oneness in one sentence. I doubt if even a cross between Yoda and the Dalai Lama could have thought of that. But apparently God did, and that’s the way he intends Christians to see the world. Obviously we’re not perfect, but that’s our fault, not Christianity’s.
            Jesus as a person, moreover, took incredible steps to empower women in the patriarchal society of his day. He defended prostitutes from persecution, and spoke with women as equals. These are 21st century values found in a first century man. Extraordinary.
Powerfully, God frequently even portrays himself in feminine terms. Isaiah 42:14, Isaiah 66:13, Luke 13:34, Proverbs 4, and Jeremiah 31:22 each have God portraying himself as an over-pregnant woman, a mother hen, or some other feminine image. While the majority of the Bible’s allusions to God are masculine, it is interesting that God does not necessarily see himself as “male” in the way we humans think of it. I think God is beyond gender.

2. Poor/Rich. This one’s a bit more obvious. Jesus’ ministry focused especially on helping the poor and on encouraging the rich to give their goods to the poor. There’s too many verses to count on this one. But basically the overall message is that poor people are closer to the kingdom of God—maybe because there’s less stuff distracting them from it. Anyway, in Acts 2 and 4 we see the early Christians shared all their possessions and held everything in common. The original Communists! Thus the first thing we see when people take Jesus’ message seriously is an immediate destruction of class and economic lines. Everyone’s needs are taken care of, and there is no more room for greed.

3. God/Man. In the greatest paradox of all time, God came to Earth disguised as a human. As one both fully God and fully human, Jesus was the culmination of God’s plan to reconcile humanity and rescue it from itself. Not only that, but humans are offered the chance to become Jesus’ brothers and therefore also to be sons of God like Jesus is. Since children have the authority of the father, what we see is a blurring of the strict distinction between God and Man.
            Moreover, in the thrilling conclusion to the New Testament, the apocalyptic book of Revelation, we see the marriage of Jesus and the Church (representing Christians). Since in marriage two become one, we can see that this wedding feast is symbolic of the eternal union of God and Humanity that will eventually occur. God is not separate from his creation; in fact he loves it so much he chooses to make himself one with it.

4. Heaven/Earth. Earth is evil, trapping our souls in awful physical pain and suffering. Heaven is wonderful; where our spirits are finally free to float around in bliss. Right? WRONGG. This view of heaven and earth is more Plato than Paul. Unfortunately, as NT Wright writes in his book, Surprised by Hope, this view has taken over much of Christian thought. What is the truth?
            Often, Evangelicals portray the Bible’s message as an evacuation: one way or another, Christians will get off this wretched planet and escape into heaven. They see the Earth as good for nothing but destruction. However, the Earth as portrayed by the Bible (Romans 8) is a conflicted space–with much beauty yet waiting for the day when it is finally freed of its decay and bondage to entropy. Ultimately, in Revelation 22, God comes down from heaven to live on earth-forever! Heaven is not God’s final home! It’s the (very nice) motel he’s been staying at until he can finally move in with the people he really wants to spend eternity with—us humans.
            Obviously, God has not yet remade the earth. God still has to renovate. But Jesus’ told his followers to pray and act that God’s will would be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Thus taking care of the earth and others is a foreshadowing of the final reality, the marriage of heaven and earth, the merging of two separate realities into one incredible paradise.

5. Jew/Non-Jew (i.e. racial boundaries). Jesus’ opening of the closed Jewish religion to non-Jews was heretical in his day. But in the same spirit of the verse mentioned above, he taught that there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white, French nor EYEtalian, Hispanic nor Asian. In God’s eyes, all are the same. That’s powerful, and that’s an innovation Jesus brought.

6. Ally/Enemy. I wrote about this one a bit in my blog about the Fourth of July. Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, and I think that is the most radical command in the history of the world. It’s easy to love friends, or neutral things like nature, but to love people who hate your guts? That’s revolutionary. Moreover, once you start loving them as if they were your friend, your perspective changes. Psychologically, something happens and it’s impossible, once you start showing love to a someone, to continue treating them as the Other.

So those are just some of the ways I think that Christianity punches some serious holes in some Self/Other dichotomies…I don’t know, I think it’s kind of cool.

But of course, when talking to Liz about this concept the other day, she threw a wrench into the whole theory with two sentences… “But aren’t some differences good, and created by God? Like don’t the differences between males and females or between different cultures enrich the world?” She’s right.

I guess the point is that when these differences get blown out of proportion, they become evil. Jesus’ message deconstructs these concepts so that they can be restored to their rightful positions. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Two Visits to a Mosque

Ah-Salaam-Malaiku. My mispronunciation of the standard Muslim greeting probably went unnoticed as I mumbled it under my breath to the man who held the door open for me. At least I knew I was getting the “Salaam” part right, having said it many times to Arabs I had met in Israel. Peace be with you.
Last Thursday night I attended a Ramadan gathering at a mosque. I had visited this same mosque three years ago and started the beginning of a blog post, left incomplete. Here’s the full result of what I had written then:

An evangelical Christian walks into a mosque…
Not a typical Friday.
My heartbeat quickened as I approached the door of the mosque. A seventeen-year old boy who had come of age in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I could not help but be nervous. I resolved to leave my prejudices -with my shoes- at the entrance.
            The whir of fans and the lush carpet beneath my feet
The imam’s message, while of course devoid of the “salvation by grace” theology characteristic of my church, had many points I found myself agreeing with. His criticism of American materialism and overconsumption came off not as that of a militant cleric but as a frustrated, chiding leader. More like Barack Obama than Pastor Ray, I decided, especially as the word “hope” peppered his sermon.” [End of Transcript]

My visit on Thursday was tempered by nearly five months in the Middle East and a greater exposure to Islam and Middle Eastern culture. Yet unlike the Palestinians I had met, the Muslims at this mosque were of either Southeast Asian or African-American background. It struck me that Islam, like Christianity, is a ‘universalist’ religion that does put a priority on proselytizing: the religion is not for a chosen few, but intended for everyone.

In this way, I almost connected more with the service at this mosque than I had at Jewish synagogues. My last name notwithstanding, I am not Jewish and thus cannot become a part of that community unless I choose to undertake a lengthy conversion process. Islam, on the other hand, would take me as quickly as you can say the “Sinner’s Prayer”. ­

Also I have to say that Ramadan, a month of fasting, seems like a really cool practice. The whole community comes together for dinners for a whole month, praying each day together instead of just once a week. The rhythm of fasting, while strenuous, certainly provides spiritual and mental discipline. Modern Christians who have lost the art of fasting have much to learn from our cousins (first cousins, once removed). Fasting deprives the suicide machine of modern life its fuel, necessitating a pause for reflection and meditation.

Breaking the fast, though, is of course probably the more fun aspect of Ramadan. I welcomed the eclectic mix of Kennedy Fried Chicken, Pasta, and these tasty fried dough patty spicy-Arab food cakes and downed them heartily.
“Brother!” an older African-American gentleman called down the table. “Have some more chicken!” I declined, stuffed already. Looking around, there seemed to be little integration between the African and Asian populations. Each group kind of sat on its own. I could pick up the words of dads speaking in Indian dialects to their children, but other than that conversation in the room was muted. At least there was a mixture of races there, I must admit. That’s something to be said for the mosque.

Perhaps I was only witnessing a quiet night, but maybe mosques are less conducive to the forging of community than the way I picture an ideal religious community. Another example is that during prayer and the meal men and women were separated entirely. I imagine in Mohammed’s day the mosque was simply an extension of the surrounding community. But here in America, mosques (like churches), face the difficult task of trying to bring together people who may have no contact with each other except on days of worship.

I think that is partly why I’ve connected a lot recently with the theology of modern Christian Anabaptists and the Emerging Church conversation. Among other things, these movements focus on creating space for community to grow. In post-modern America, life is fractured. I think that churches have a unique place and opportunity in society to provide a way to bridge gaps and reconcile people. I don’t think Islam has yet dealt with this problem yet: Islam in America predominantly remains a religion of the immigrant populations. If it hopes to grow, it will have to engage in the difficult, messy task of learning how to create mixed communities. The mosque I visited had some of the pieces in place: it was relatively welcoming to outsiders, people were friendly, and food was provided. But it will take more than that to bridge the economic and social divides of our local area. It will be interesting to see how Islam in America evolves over the coming decades, and what the reaction from their conservative leaders in the Middle East will be.
Mosque in Hebron, Palestine called the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Where Abraham, Sarah, and others are said to be buried.

Monday, July 4, 2011

God Bless Our Enemies

Today is the Fourth of July, a day in which many Americans celebrate the rebellion against the constitutionally limited monarchy of Britain. Most Christians join in with the nationalism of today, singing refrains of “God Bless America” in churches all around the land.

However, rather than demanding God bless us, maybe Christians should check the Bible to see how they are supposed to pray. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus tells true Christians to “love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them”. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen Christians actually try this out, so in this blog I’m going try to be praying for my enemies, and the enemies of America in general. I’d encourage you to pray with me, add other ideas to pray for, or (if you’re not a fan), add your own name to the list of ‘enemies’! haha ;)

God, thank you for the many blessings you’ve showered on America. I ask that you would shower them on our enemies as well.

Bless North Korea, especially as the new leader begins to take over for Kim Jong Il. Please guide him in decision-making in a very hostile world; give him wisdom to produce more food for his people.
I pray for the members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Please work in their hearts to reveal the truth of your love. Reconcile them to their estranged neighbors and family members; enable them to go back and leave lives of violence.
Bless China economically; enable it to grow sustainably. Please protect the health of Chinese citizens against pollution and smog. Protect the Chinese from being affected by any US default on debt.
God, I ask you bless the abortion doctors. Protect them from any violent attacks by Christians or anything like that. Grant them favor financially. But I do ask that you would lead them away from the abortion industry.
God, please be with the drivers who are jerks on the road. Protect them from ever getting into car accidents. Enable them to reach their destinations quickly and efficiently. Grant them good driving weather whenever they get in the car. May the radio always play their favorite songs.
God, bless the capitalists who only care for money. Show them true happiness and bless them with great families, health, and joy.
 Please bless the atheists— especially the angry ones who love to mock those who believe in God. Give them long and happy lives here on Earth, and enable them to see the beauty of your creation, and to grasp that there is a Maker behind it all. Be merciful to them: they know not what they are doing.
Show kindness to the gang members and drug dealers of Newburgh, Lancaster, and other areas. Help them to avoid being sent to prison for long amounts of time; allow them to develop marketable, legal skills so that they can have productive careers when they are ready to get out of this lifestyle.

And God, I forgive my enemies all the wrongs that they have done me. Please forgive them as you have forgiven me, they know not what they are doing. Please show me and other Christians how exactly to love these people and be a blessing to them. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Huh. As I finish up this blog, I’m realizing that was actually a really neat experience. It forces one to empathize with them and think about their situation. And in the act of actively praying for good to come to our enemies, something amazing happens: they’re no longer enemies. The Self/Other barrier gets cracked, and for a short while the ‘enemy’ joins the long list of friends, family, and loved ones who we are always praying for.

This, I am convinced, is perhaps the single biggest difference that marks Christianity from all other religions. Every other one has some system of morality, but they break down when it encounters the enemy, the Other: you have to either ignore them, avoid them, convert them, or kill them. Only Jesus says, “Love them, forgive them, and pray for them.” There are no outsiders. Everyone belongs.

So I think I’m going to keep praying for my enemies. God knows they need it. 

May God even bless little wannabe terrorists like this kid. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Garden of Naming

Perhaps the most powerful thing in the world that anyone can ever do is to name something. To choose a word to sum up. With a few syllables, names can stick, they can both describe and determine identities.
Think how powerful these words can be: Beautiful. Hero. Messiah.
Ugly. Failure. Disappointment.

In the Old Testament, names were incredibly important, and a change of name marked a change of identity. Abram became Abraham. Jacob became Israel. God, while having many names and characteristics in the Bible, is usually referred to by modern Jews as “Ha-shem”, The Name. God’s name is considered by them as too holy to say. Maybe they grasp a truth that Christians don’t…

In the Garden of Eden, the first man Adam was given the job of naming the all animals. Whatever he called them, that was its name. Its identity. As God had created Adam and had named him, now Adam was doing the same. This is a powerful image, Adam fulfilling his destiny as a lord over the earth and co-creator with God. (Check out my previous blog "Red" for more analysis on the meaning behind Adam's name).

Maybe it has something to do with gardening. Recently, I think I’ve finally begun to understand its allure. I had never cared much about tending to plants before, and tasks like weeding and watering seemed dull and pointless. Why grow plants for beauty? Or even food (which I’ve yet to attempt)? It always seemed too much effort, for little gain.

But I’ve revised my opinion lately. I have had more free time this summer, and I’ve surprised myself by willingly going out to clear weeds, trim back plants, mow grass, etc. I’ve found I enjoy seeing the results of my work, being outside, and being in touch with nature. I don’t understand exactly why this joy exists. But it fits in with what it seems human existence is about: it’s part of that co-creating for which the original humans were created.

Now, if the connection I made between naming and gardening were an isolated connection, you could write me off (you always can, actually). But I see at least two other examples in the Bible where these two meet. At the end of the book of John, we find Mary Magdalene weeping in front of Jesus’ empty tomb, wondering where his body is. Once again, we’re in a garden. Jesus comes behind her and asks her what’s wrong. She thinks he is the gardener. Jesus calls her by name, saying, “Mary.” And that’s all that’s required for her to realize that he’s Jesus. In shock and in joy, Mary replies in her own language of Aramaic, “My teacher!”

Are you getting this symbolism? It blew me away when I saw it. Jesus is the “new Adam” the firstborn of a new race of humans: those who are perfect, forgiven, and who have eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). So where do we see this new Adam? In a garden, of course! And what is the first thing this new Adam does? He calls Mary by name, and she responds. I can imagine him saying it full of love, and Mary rushing to embrace him. Thus God’s new order begins, as the first one did, in a Garden of Naming.
Jesus' empty tomb, which was in the midst of a garden owned by Joseph of Arimethea
But this is just the beginning. The garden motif is consummated in the prophetic book of Revelation, which describes the final destruction of evil and the marriage of heaven and earth. In the last chapter the author of Revelation describes the ultimate city of God, where He lives with all of his people on Earth. This eternal paradise has a river, fruit trees, and a tree of life. Sound familiar? That’s because this is the same description as for the Garden of Eden. Eden has finally returned, it’s back, and it’s been completely redeemed from sin. And guess what? Every single person in this city of New Jerusalem has the name of God on his or her forehead (22:4). Their identity can only be described by using the name of God. They are now considered full children of God, bearing his name.

So there’s something special in the Bible about gardening and names and identity. The connections are tough to unravel, but they’re lively, interesting, and beautiful.  

Monday, June 13, 2011

Babel, Pentecost, and the Beginning of the Redemption of the World

20th century philosophers like Derrida, Foucault, and others all teach an essential truth: language matters. The words and discourse used to describe reality in turn actually create and construct that very reality. Those who control the words and terms control how reality is perceived. I won’t explain the whole theory in what I hope is a short essay, but some examples commonly used are rights discourse (used to justify violence against those with no rights), nation-state discourse (used to unify the nation against the outsiders), and discourse on sexuality (used to define and exclude those who are deemed sexually deviant).

Thus, these philosophers argue, language not only fails to describe the world as it truly is, but it also inevitably inscribes the values and taboos of the ruling class. Institutions of oppression are inevitably established, masked by a linguistic system that justifies it.

Interestingly enough, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel also addresses this truth. In the story, the whole world has one common language. One group of people decides to create a city (Babel) with a tower that reaches to the heavens so that “we may make a name for ourselves, and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). We can see their fear of being conquered and divided. Their response is to group together, unified by a single language, build a fortress city, and defend against those who wish to scatter them.
The Tower of Babel: Symbol of Empire

God, however, does not seem to like this. This is the establishment of the first empire, and while it is not a threat to God, he knows that such a dominant power would wreak immeasurable havoc on earth. God says, “Let us go down and confuse their language so that they will not understand each other”. They do so, and the empire is halted in its tracks. The very thing Babel was created to defend against—its people being scattered—is in fact what happens to them.

God’s intervention at Babel creates other languages, and thus more opportunities for different states to rise up with their own language of oppression. But God is more willing to have that than a singular language that could dominate everybody.

Now, I recently noticed that in the Bible, the Hebrew word for Babylon is not just similar, it’s exactly the same as the word for Babel. Thus every time we see Babylon come up, the poetic-spiritual connection must be made to the Tower of Babel and to language. The destruction of the Temple and the burning of Jerusalem: Babel. The beginning of the Israelite captivity: Babel. Babel sees [herself] as God: “I will continue forever—the eternal queen!” Babel shrieks in Isaiah 47,“I am, and there is none besides me.”

Babel is again portrayed as the Great Queen/Prostitute in the apocalyptic visions of John’s Revelation. How can Babel come up again, having been conquered by the Persians nearly five hundred years prior? Because Babel is an archetype, a symbol for empire, domination, greed, and spiritual adultery.

In Revelation 17, Babel is a woman in a desert sitting on a scarlet beast. The beast is covered with blasphemous names: words so evil that merely writing them down was blasphemy—again highlighting the connection between wrongful language and evil. Later in Revelation, we learn that the woman Babel “is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth”, that the merchants all trade their goods with her, and that she is the murderer God’s people. Babel is the locus of all power, wealth, and violence against God.

It therefore makes sense that in John’s vision Babel’s violent destruction is met with wild celebration in heaven. At last!— the great city that is the spiritual signifier for every emperor, greedy merchant, and persecutor of innocents has been thrown down. With the final destruction of Babel, God’s holy city (New Jerusalem) can descend from heaven. In New Jerusalem are people from every nation and language; gone is the false unity that Babel attempted to impose. God brings peaceful diversity.

But is there hope in the here and now? What can God’s people do to battle the Babels around us? Hatred, greed, otherization, bifurcation—they surround us all, and many of God’s people prostitute themselves to these things. Whether it is out of fear of “being scattered”, or ignorance, or perhaps because they have bought into the myths of Empire, too many Christians see serving the nation-state above God and engaging in imperialism or domination as acceptable and even admirable practices.

But God gives us a linguistic turn to escape the language of Babel. And that is through Jesus, the Word. John 1 is perhaps the most incredible chapter in the Bible from a philological perspective. God seems to know that He cannot be completely translated into human language, so he must become human. Jesus is God’s translation: all of God’s words, logic, and law revealed in one single being. To speak God’s language, his Words, we follow Jesus’ example.

And Jesus behaves in a pretty anti-Babel manner. He wants his followers scattered, that doesn’t bother him in the least. He eschews violence. He opposes all Empire, Roman and Jewish alike. He cares little for nationalism, instead seeking out the “Others” around him: women, Samaritans/Palestinians, Romans, slaves, the poor… Jesus shows us how to break the curse of Babel. And that’s through unconditional love and forgiveness. “Stop trying to make a name for yourselves—I’ll give you a new name”.

As yesterday was Pentecost, I’d like to close with one final bit of hope related to that. Yes, Jesus is currently gone. All we have of his life are a few dozen pages written about him. Is that enough to escape the Babelonian discourse that we’re immersed in? But there is more. In Pentecost, we see another linguistic turn. The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and they speak to a crowd—but each listener hears words in their own language. The curse of Babel, where language was confused, is finally reversed. It is a foretaste of Heaven, where every single nation will praise God together, unified.

The Holy Spirit is God living inside of humans, enabling us to speak and live out God’s language as Jesus did. That may mean physical miracles, or speaking in tongues, or prophecy. And it may mean living in an anti-Babel manner, by loving our enemies, aiding the oppressed, and reaching out to the Other. We escape the lure of Babel; we “come out” of the great Prostitute (Revelation 18:4). Let us stop whoring around. Let us reject Babel everywhere we find her. Yes, she rules the world, and must still for a time yet, but let us not speak her language. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Dance With Me

“Dance With Me” by The Morning Of

I love this song. But:

“I’ll let you go to my head cuz my heart can’t handle, my heart can’t handle it.”

How many times do I do that to God? I make him a head thing instead of a heart thing. I can’t bear the implications that He presents to me. He, God, Always-loving, Always-forgiving, the All-Powerful, the Commander of Angels, Glorious, Encompassing, Artistic, Panoptic, Imperial, Unpronounceable. YHWH.

I can’t accept it. The fact that HE loves me. Me? More than anything? And forgives me? Truly forgives me? I belong on some barren city streets. I don’t know why you waste your time on me…

[But,] God whispers, [let me just have one dance. Just one. And you won’t feel anything that pulls you down. Gravity will release you.]

No! My heart can’t handle that. It would tear apart, be overwhelmed. So instead, I let God go to my head. I fit him into another compartment in my mind. I make my knowledge of him purely intellectual.
God’s just another philosopher, not my lover.

I’ll let you go to my head cuz my heart can’t handle, my heart can’t handle it.

[Andrew, you know I’m a hopeless romantic. My first miracle was at a wedding. The end of history will arrive with a wedding- between the Lamb and the Church. I’m head over heals in love with you and I refuse to give up.]

I know that. Really, I do. But if I felt that, really felt it…life would be so different. I would be so different.

So I’ll let you go to my head cuz my heart can’t handle, my heart can’t handle it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What Makes the Holy Land...Holy?

“Type”, n.: A person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something; a representation of something not present.

               I believe I have touched upon this in other blogs, but I’m going to really focus on it here. And that is the symbolic, conflicted geography of Israel. The deserts are here, but so are the streams. The freshwater Jordan River produces a fertile valley, but this is also the river that feeds into the Dead Sea, where nothing can remain alive. Mountains, valleys, and seas all make many appearances in Jewish history and prophecy. The Holy Land is deeply symbolic of God’s relationship to humanity.
               In Deuteronomy 11:10-12, God explains why the land of Israel is different from the land in Egypt. In Egypt, crops were maintained by human effort, by irrigation from the river Nile. But Israel “is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for.” Here, the Jews would have to trust in God to provide. They were leaving a place of security to go to a place of risk. But while the risk is greater, so is the potential reward: a land flowing with milk and honey. I haven’t always been the hugest fan of honey, to say the least…regardless, the idea of a land with such fertility is incredible. But note that the reward was not certain—the Jews would have to trust and submit to God to provide. There was no Nile as a backup plan.
             Now, much of the land of Israel is an arid, dry desert. But here even more symbolism comes in…”Behold, I am doing a new thing!...I provide water in the desert, and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). I blogged earlier in “Streams in the Desert” about Ein Gedi, where a single spring transforms the whole landscape. Besides this, much of Israel relies solely on the rare winter rains. Ancient cities had to dig huge cisterns to collect rainwater in order to survive. Again, rather than surviving by their own effort and irrigating via the Nile, the Israelites would have to wait and trust that God would send rains. And if they were being rebellious, God would often withhold them to shake them up.
               Speaking of Ein Gedi, barely a kilometer away from there is the Dead Sea. Now, my girlfriend Liz would be better able to explain the ecology of it all, but what defines the Dead Sea and gives it its saltiness is that fact that is has no outflow. It is always taking, never giving. As such, the sediments pile up until there is so much minerals and junk in it that nothing living can survive. Each year it only becomes more and more salty; nothing can change that. However, there is a prophecy that says it will indeed change. In Ezekiel 47, God promises that a river of freshwater shall flow from the altar in the Temple and down to the Jordan Valley, ultimately turning the Dead Sea into a Living Sea, one with fish and trees. Perhaps this is merely a symbolic prophecy of Him giving new spiritual life to humans that are dead in sin, and not a literal prediction. But even so, the symbolism draws on a unique environmental phenomenon that can only be found in Israel.
                A few words now about Mount Zion, which is the mountain where God dwells and is synonymous with Jerusalem. Zion literally means, in Hebrew, “place of dryness.” So God chooses to come down to the place of dryness. Why? Why wouldn’t he choose a more fitting place, like an ecological paradise? I think it is to show us that, spiritually, this is what God is doing here on Earth—meeting us in the place of dryness so that we can live with him. Geographically, Jerusalem is part of the hill country of Jerusalem. Immediately to the east, desert. Immediately to the west, a fertile plain stretching to Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is on the fulcrum, balanced between east and west, always in tension. And that’s where God chooses to make his home.
               In addition, something I’ve noticed is the unimpressiveness of Mount Moriah, where Abraham supposedly was sent to sacrifice Isaac and where the Jewish Temple was built. It’s basically a hill. There are higher mountains only a few kilometers away—my university in fact is built on the highest. And certainly these mountains are nothing compared to the Alps, Andes, even Mount Beacon in my hometown! But I think it is fitting of God: he chose a mountain for the Temple to be built that is not necessarily the highest—for that would equate physical dominance with God. But God is beyond mere size. That this humble little hill in a huge mountain range should become the center of the world is just the sort of upside-down thinking that God has shown throughout the Bible. The infertile couple becomes the start of a new race. The suffering servant becomes the king. The enslaved people become the rulers of a new land.

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridge beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.’” Revelation 21:2-3
Dome of the Rock, built atop Mount Moriah, where Abraham sacrificed Isaac and the Jewish Temple used to stand
                  One final aspect of Jerusalem’s geography that is notable is something I see nearly every day: the mountains of Jordan. Otherwise known as the land of Moab or Ammon. These mountains are much taller than the hills of Jerusalem and are dark and imposing when seen from Israel. I can imagine that at all times in Israel’s past (and present), the fear of invasion existed. This is not something we know in America, as we have two oceans separating us from our enemies. So it is interesting that this would be the homeland of the Jews—always within view of dangerous foreigners. This can lead to fear, and a desire to gain security through military power and the god of fortresses. Or it can lead to faith, faith that God will protect his people.
              So that’s it. I just wanted to show that God used and still uses many of the environmental features of Israel to teach spiritual concepts to us. The refreshment of the rains and springs is a beautiful sight in a dry land, and to those who have eyes to see it symbolizes God’s mercy to us in the spiritual realm as well. It’s not the same, but it is a hint; it is “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Hebrews 8:5). And I think that’s cool.