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.

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