I returned to Austin late evening four days ago from a two-week tour of Israel and Jordan. My wife and I joined a Seminary-sponsored tour of the Holy Land. Named “The Friendship Tour,” it was a joint Jewish-Christian tour. The tour leaders were Rabbi Neal Blumofe, who teaches Old Testament and Judaism at my Seminary, and Dr. David Jensen, the former Seminary Dean and current Theology professor. I twice visited Israel in 1997 and 2012, but I saw this tour as an opportunity to visit Jewish sites and understand Jewish views of the Holy Lands. Fortunately, the tour fulfilled these objectives.
My wife and I flew to Tel Aviv by way of Newark. We had witnessed the holiday airport travel problems and were apprehensive about getting stranded somewhere along the journey. We were pleasantly surprised that all four of our plane flights were comfortable and on-time. The weather at all our destinations cooperated to make for safe winter travels and there were no mechanical delays. Even our luggage arrived! Our Jerusalem hotel was centrally located in a safe sector near Independence Park, which I circled during my early morning runs. After arriving and gaining access to our hotel room, we cleaned up and started to feel human again after journeying for over 24 hours. That evening, our tour group ate our first meal together before quickly heading to our rooms for much needed sleep.
The next morning, we gathered in the hotel conference room to hear from Dr. Rachel Korazim, an articulate educator and scholar of the Holocaust. Her parents were Holocaust survivors. She opened our eyes to different Jewish perspectives on the Holocaust before we toured Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust. I visited the memorial in 1997, but it has been completely rebuilt with advanced technology and better exhibits. I toured the rooms with profound sadness that eventually turned to anger at the Nazis who perpetrated these atrocities. Afterwards, we stopped at Mt. Herzl where Theodor Herzl, an early Zionist leader, is buried. We watched a group of young military women receive a history lecture besides Herzl’s grave.
The next day, we boarded a bullet-proof bus and drove 19 miles south of Jerusalem to the Old City of Hebron. When I learned that we would be going to Hebron, I immediately thought of our safety since I had watched news stories of fighting between Israeli Jews and West Bank Palestinians. We parked near the Cave of Machpelah, also called the Tomb of the Patriarchs. King Herod, between 31 and 4 BCE, built a magnificent rectangular stone building over the cave tombs which still stands today. The walls are 6 feet thick made of stones 3 feet tall and up to 24 feet long. Inside are the graves of Abraham (Genesis 49:31), his wife Sarah (Genesis 23:1–20), his son Isaac (Genesis 35:29), daughter-in-law Rebecca (Genesis 49:31), grandson Jacob, and Jacob’s wife Leah (Genesis 49:29–33;50:4–5, 12–13). Abraham cleverly purchased the land to establish legal possession because he had immigrated to Hebron from Ur. Rachel, Jacob’s other wife, died near Bethlehem while giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:19).
How do we know that the patriarchs were buried exactly where we stood during the second millennium BCE? It is certainly possible, but given the Herodium structure covers the burial caves, modern archeological proof is not possible, especially with current Jewish and Muslim tensions. Over the past 2000 years, political and religious control of Hebron has transferred from Jewish to Christian to Muslim to Christian to Muslim to Jewish control. After the Six-Day War in 1967, Hebron was controlled by the State of Israel and the Cave of Machpelah was divided in half into Jewish and Muslim sections. Sadly, numerous terrorist attacks have killed and wounded many Jews and Palestinians in this sacred place.
Before our tour of the building, we stood on the stairs where Jews were only allowed to pray as high as the 5th step, which later became the 7th step during the Mamluk period (14th–15th centuries). I watched conservative Jews praying on these steps as an act of remembrance of the time Jews were not allowed inside the building. I found it strange to feel the urge to pray touching a building.
We passed Israeli soldiers who guarded the building as we walked up the stairs into the structure. We first stopped for a lecture in a small room where Jews were studying Torah. It seemed odd to hear our tour guide speak to our large group right next to men studying Jewish texts. We walked to a small room which was next to the even smaller room containing a rectangular covering over Abraham’s grave. All around the walls were Hebrew and Arabic banners. People would enter our packed room and chant Hebrew prayers quietly as our tour guide spoke. I thought it would be difficult to pray under such tight, chaotic conditions.
We walked to a much larger room for another lecture stop. Around me were conservative Jews swaying in prayer, a person instructing Jews how to strap on their tefillin, and a custodian power washing the stone floor. Then I heard an Arabic voice chanting the noon prayer from the nearby mosque. How anyone could concentrate in this atmosphere was beyond my comprehension. Our last stop was in a similar small room that was next to Leah’s grave covering. I sat down just outside Leah’s burial room and a Jewish woman read Hebrew prayers next to me as I strained to listen to our guide. It was so surreal.
By the time our group departed the building, I could understand why this one building caused so much tension between two different religions. Each religion believed that this building was holy and belonged to their shared ancestors. 2000 years of Hebron’s complex history cannot easily get sorted into peaceful co-existence. Each religion allows the other to have access ten days a year to their side of King Herod’s building. Our Jewish guide showed us the damage done to Hebrew ornaments during the Muslim visits. Now these Hebrew religious objects are placed in safe keeping during the Muslim visits. He did not mention what happens when Jews visit the Muslim side. Why can’t Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims peacefully co-exist? This is the subject of my next blog.