Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, part 12

Continued from last week…

Let’s take a slight detour from the Jericho road as we go up to Jerusalem. I do mean up.  Jerusalem is about 15 miles from Jericho and is about 2,500 feet above sea level. Jericho is 853 feet below sea level.  This means that you climb about half a mile going to Jerusalem. It is most certainly “up.”  As the psalm says, “…we shall go up with joy to the house of the Lord.”  The road is pretty steep. 

We are going to go to Bethlehem first.  Bethlehem is about 6 miles south of Jerusalem and was just a sleepy little town until the time of the byzantine Christians in the centuries after the birth of Jesus. It was the ancestral home town of the old royal family of David and not much else till the time of Christ. It is at least 3,500 years old and probably started out as Beth Lachmi (House of the Canaanite fertility god Lachmi) but in Hebrew it became Beth Lehem or “House of Bread” — much better symbolism as far as Christians are concerned. Bethlehem is in the same range of hills as Jerusalem and being a rocky place it is full of caves.

Caves make great basements. It is common in many places as in the Holy Land to build a house above or around a cave. The cave can be used to house animals, for storage and for living quarters. Early traditions tell of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.  St. Justin Martyr, a native of the Holy Land, said around 150 AD that the Holy Family stayed in a cave on the edge of town.  Origen, who also lived in the Holy Land, wrote in 247, that the locals claimed Jesus was born in a certain cave in the town of Bethlehem. The emperor Hadrian tried to obliterate the site in 135 by converting it into a shrine to Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire. 

The first church on this site was built by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine 327. This first church was destroyed in the mid 500’s in one of the Samaritan revolts. The church was rebuilt in 565 by the Roman/Byzantine Emperor and this is the church we see in modern times. It is one of the oldest churches in the world still in use and is pretty good archaeology. There is a warren of caves under the church that lead to the Roman Catholic church next door, for the life of me I can’t figure out what the place looked like in the time of Christ, and I don’t think anyone else can either. Now on to Jerusalem.

Try to picture Jerusalem before any people lived there. There are two ridges with sharp valleys dividing them. On the far west is the valley of Ben Hinnom, now called Gehenna. Then there is the central valley, the Tyropoeon or cheese-makers’ valley, and on the east dividing Jerusalem for the Mount of Olives is the valley of the Kidron Brook. The two ridges, western Mount Sion and the City of David and the eastern ridge are the site of ancient Jerusalem.  The City of David was the first area fortified. The valleys were extremely steep and the ridges were thus very defensible, being vulnerable only on the north side. In addition, the eastern ridge has a fairly high hill topped by a flat rocky outcropping called Mount Moriah.

Tradition holds that this rocky promontory just north of the ancient town was the place where Abraham came to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord. The eastern ridge has the added advantage of a natural spring half way down the ridge called the spring of Gihon which made a great place for settlement. The ridge formed a kind of natural triangular fort with steep hills on either side. All you had to do was fortify the northern edge of the triangle. The area was settled as early as 7,000 years ago and the southeastern ridge, the City of David, the oldest part of modern Jerusalem was inhabited by 3,000 BC. It wasn’t much of a city, maybe 5,000 or 10,000 people at most, but it was very well fortified. You have to imagine the valleys on either side of the town as much steeper than they are now. 9,000 years of people throwing out garbage will certainly fill up a ravine eventually. They are pretty steep now.

Imagine what they must have been.  In 1200 BC, the little city state was an Egyptian vassal kingdom, guarded by a small Egyptian garrison. When Israel entered the land, Jerusalem was one the many Canaanite cities that they failed to conquer. So when David came to the throne about a thousand years after Abraham had first settled in the area and perhaps 400 years after the Exodus from Egypt, Jerusalem was still a tiny city state inhabited by a Canaanite people called the Jebusites. It was just a little town on a steep ridge with a threshing floor on the outcropping of rock on top of Mount Moriah just to the north of the town. This little mud hut town and its threshing floor were about to change history when David set his sights on it about 3,000 years ago...

To be continued...

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