The Geography of the Christmas Story

Biblical Stories

Nazareth to Bethlehem

Route from Nazareth to Bethlehem

The Bible is filled with stories. They are narratives that don’t take place in a vacuum. For each story of the Bible, there is a cultural context in which it takes place. Many Bible commentators consider the cultural contexts of these stories in order to extract an accurate meaning. There is also an historical-political context to each story. This means paying attention to what took place historically in the region surrounding the events of the story.

“Connecting the Dots”

Additionally, there is also a geographical context to each story. Understanding the geographical surroundings of the story helps the student of the Bible connect the dots between the regions or cities that are part of the narrative. “Connecting the dots” between regions and cities is an integral part of every Israel tour we lead. The Christmas story is one of those narratives where understanding the geographical context sheds light on the amazement of God’s redemptive story.

Nazareth, Israel

The city of Nazareth today

According to the Gospel text, Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth. It is located in the Lower Galilee region (today Nazareth is a city of about 80,000 consisting of primarily Arabs who are citizens of Israel). The town of Nazareth was a small city, so insignificant that it is not even mentioned in the Jewish Talmud. The village consisted of perhaps as few as a dozen families. Located just 4-5 miles away was Sepporis, the primary city in the region.  So in this geographical region of Lower Galilee, Nazareth was insignificant in light of Sepporis.  Yet this was where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary (and later an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:18f). Isn’t that just like God, to call, use, and inspire common people from common places for His redemptive purpose!

When the Time Came

When the time came, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. The direct distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is about 60 miles. However, most Jews traveling from the Galilee in the north to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the south took the Jordan River Valley route.  Intentionally avoiding the region of Samaria, this would have made the trip about 15 miles longer, for a total of about 75 miles.  This route would have taken the young couple through the eastern branch of the Jezreel Valley and past Bethshean before turing south in the Jordan River Valley. This means the journey to Bethlehem would have taken them a good 5-6 days. In regard to Mary’s condition, how about covering this distance while very pregnant? That’s quite impressive actually! Tradition places Mary riding on a donkey led by Joseph walking on foot. However, there is no reason not to believe that she would have walked most of this herself even in her pregnant condition. It was a difficult trip either way!

The Route

Ascent of Adummim

The Ascent of Adummim. This is the route taken by Jospeh and Mary from Jericho to Jerusalem & Bethlehem (credit: Bible Places)

The route would have continued from Jericho, located just north of the Dead Sea, to Jerusalem. This was the ancient “Jericho Road” that ascended about 4,000 feet in elevation up the Ascent of Adummim (the most difficult section of the route) through the Judean Desert to Judea’s capital city in the Judean Hill Country. Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph’s final destination, is located about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. While Bethlehem was probably not as small as Nazareth, it, too, was overshadowed by the awe and glory of Jerusalem. Additionally, located just about 4 miles east of Bethlehem was Herodium, one of Herod the Great’s “palace-fortresses.”  While we can’t specifically place this wicked king residing at Herodium at the precise time of the birth of Christ (he was most likely in his palace in Jerusalem though just 5 miles north), this towering fortress represented something “grand and mighty” in comparison to the humble birth of Jesus.

Now enter the “wise men or Magi. Whoever they were, they traveled from the east quite a distance, crossing the desert region. They must have traveled for months before finally first arriving in Jerusalem and staying there for some time before eventually finding the “house” of Joseph and Mary (Matthew 2:11). The geographical distance these Mede / Persian astronomers would have been at least hundreds of miles, up to 500 miles, depending on where they were from.

Real Places with a Real Reason

Jesus light of the worldWhat does knowing a little about the geography of Christmas do for us?  It helps put into context the remarkable ways that God prepared the scene for the coming of His Son. It places the narrative of Christmas in various and unique geographical regions. Some of these regions are hilly (Lower Galilee), flat (Jezreel Valley, Jordan River Valley), and mountainous (Judean Desert, Hill Country of Judah). Most of all, it places the birth narrative of Jesus in real places with a real reason!

Jesus came “just at the right time” (Gal. 4:4) to provide an answer to sin and its consequences. He came to bring light. He came to be the Light in a dark world!

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Christmas – A Bethlehem Shepherd’s View

Charlie Brown’s Christmas

shepherd in Bethlehem

A shepherd in Bethlehem

Once again this Christmas Season I watched the Charlie Brown’s Christmas. It is an oldie from 1965. Watching it again takes me back not only to my childhood days when we watched the show on an old tube TV with a rabbit ear antenna drawing in the signal (my oh my, have days changed!). But this classic Charles M. Schulz cartoon also takes me back to Israel, specifically to the fields on the outskirts of Bethlehem. This is where the story of all stories took place 2,000 years ago! And shepherds were a big part of the story!

Bethlehem Shepherds

There are many shepherds who live in and around Bethlehem. Located about five miles south of Jerusalem in the Hill Country of Judah, Bethlehem is an historic place. Mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), this was the ancient town connected with people from the Bible (e.g. Rachel, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, as well as with David). In the words of the prophet Micah, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times (Micah 5:2).” This ancient 8th century prophet continues (in 5:4) by mentioning the role of the shepherd. In fact, the one to be born in Bethlehem (Jesus) would be one who would “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”

Today, Bethlehem is inhabited by about 20,000 Arabs (not counting to two neighboring towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala). Of this population, only about 10-15% are Arab Christians. At the center of the city of Bethlehem is the Church of Nativity and Manger Square. Originally built by the order of Constantine’s mother Helena in the 4th century and later rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the 530s, the church represents of the centerpieces of the Christian faith, namely, the location of the birth of Jesus!

A Shepherd named Mansour

The region of Bethlehem

The area of Bethlehem

About a year ago I came across this video about one particular Bethlehem shepherd named Mansour. With the help of the wonderful Arab Christian community in Bethlehem (e.g. Bethlehem Bible College, Rev. Danny Awad, and others), this video was produced to bridge the ancient with the present.

In the birth narrative, it were shepherds who were the first to greet the newborn Jesus. Going no doubt to a nearby cave where Jesus as born, these shepherds saw with their own eyes the fulfillment of what Micah the prophet of old mentioned 750 years prior.

In the video you will see modern day Bethlehem. Despite being surrounded with many religious and even political challenges that face them, the Bethlehem Christians you will see and hear in the video still speak of the hope and peace that Christ brings them. Especially powerful are the words spoken by one Arab Christian who says, “I think Jesus is knocking on the doors of the hearts of people. And he ask for anyone open to him to start a new Christmas with him…”

In the words of Mansour the Bethlehem shepherd, “Isa (Jesus) is the Prince of Peace!” This is the message of Christmas!

Is Jesus knocking on the door of your heart this Christmas Season? If so, be sure to let Him in and discover the true joy of Christmas!


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The Meaning of Sukkot

Sukkot / Feast of Tabernacles

Sukkot at western wall

Sukkot celebration at the Western Wall

The week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot (or the Feast of Tabernacles) is upon us! Coming just after Yom Kippur, the most solemn time in the Jewish calendar year, Succot is a time of joy and celebration. It just started just last night in Israel.

With permission, I am sharing an excellent article written by a Messianic ministry called One For IsraelThe article is called The Meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles. What I appreciated about the article is the Christocentric connections the author makes between Succot and the life and ministry of Yeshua/Jesus.

Here is the article:

The Meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles

sukkot celebration

Sukkot celebration

The Feast of Sukkot is one of my favourites. All of God’s feasts are full of creativity and wonder; treasures and promises. But in Jewish literature, Sukkot is often simply called “THE feast”. The biggie – no other clarification needed. Three times a year, all of Israel were supposed to make the trek to Jerusalem for Passover and Shavuot in the Spring, and then Sukkot in the fall. Sukkot means “shelters”, “booths”, or “tabernacles”. This is a feast in which God instructs his people to set about making a temporary shelter or booth to camp out in for a week. As a kid I loved making dens, and Sukkot is a bit like that. But why in the world did God want us to make dens?

Why build a booth?

In his creative genius, seen not only in the natural world around us but also in the law that God himself dictated, we can see that God also knew how effective building a shelter would be to provoke thought. He knew that this activity would help remind people of the journey that they had taken with him through the wilderness. That time of desert wandering was where the nation was forged once and for all as a community of faith, following the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their tents were only temporary – they were traveling towards a more permanent home, where they could live with their God.

The rabbinic prescription for these dens has become quite intricate, but in essence, there must be at least three walls (made of wood or material, usually) and the roof must be made from natural materials like palm fronds, so that you can see the night sky through the gaps. These shelters are to remind the people of Israel about the time they journeyed through the wilderness in temporary shelters, picking up and moving on as necessary. For the week, people are supposed to eat in their sukka, and even sleep in them, if they’re feeling crazy! They are usually decorated with seasonal fruits and produce, and it’s a fun family activity to build a sukka and decorate it together. Nowadays, of course, you can buy ready-to-build sukkot, like tents or portable cabins, and decorations are in the shops all ready made to add the finishing touches.

A time for sharing and fellowship

It is traditional to invite guests each night of the week long feast, to share and enjoy the sukka together – to extend hospitality, friendship and stories. It is a time to celebrate the fruits of the harvest, and to rejoice, giving thanks for all God has given us, and give back to God in return. Deuteronomy 16:13-17 says:

succa or booth

The Succa or “booth”


“You shall keep the Feast of Booths for seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your wine press. You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.

 “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose:
at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths.
They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.

Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.

The Lord outlines his instructions about this feast three times, in Leviticus 23, Numbers 29 and Deuteronomy 16. It is a time that he wants his people to recognise what they have by offering food from their harvest, and it is a time when he has commanded his people to REJOICE! God wants us to go through this process of remembering, gathering, thanking, giving, and rejoicing.

Can we be joyful on command?

Perhaps it seems strange to you to be commanded to rejoice, but the Bible does indeed command it many times. Can we just “switch on” this emotion? First of all, rejoicing is an act, rather than an emotion, but secondly, there are certainly things that we can do in order to position ourselves to be filled with joy.


As we reflect upon all the good things in our lives, and count our blessings, we inevitably find we have much to rejoice about. I have a habit of writing a list of thanks every morning in a lined notepad, and make sure that I get to the bottom of the page before I stop! The notepads vary in size, but the discipline is a good one to get into. I have heard it said that recalling just 5 things that you’re grateful for each morning will have a signficant affect on your outlook. Another exercise is to go through the alphabet, one letter at a time, thinking of something to be grateful for beginning with each letter. You get the idea. Being thankful takes a bit of concerted effort at the beginning, but becomes more and more natural, the more we do it. And the more we maintain an attitude of gratitude, the more joyful we will inevitably become.

Be full of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit naturally produces the fruit of joy in our lives, and all the more so, when we are willing to let him fill us completely. God loves to give us his Spirit, and the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). In fact, we are commanded in Ephesians 5:18 to be full of the Holy Spirit. How do we do that? Yeshua’s answer in Luke 11 is simple: Ask! Yeshua assures us that the Father is eager and ready to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. However, when we are “full of ourselves”, we cannot be full of the Spirit. We must be willing to give the Spirit more space, control and authority in our lives. When we are full of sin, pride, fear and so on, our ego gets in the way, but we can come before God, confess our sins, receive his forgiveness, and invite him to take first place again by faith. Our prayer can be, “Less of me and more of you, Lord!”

Joy comes from obedience

It is said that if you are feeling grumpy, just the act of similing repeatedly can improve your mood. In a similar way, a rabbi’s advice to a man who was struggling to love his wife was to do the acts that he would do as if he did love her, and that in time, the feelings would inevitably follow. The famous Jewish sage, Rambam, said that if he had 1000 coins to give, he would rather give 1000 men one coin rather than 1000 coins to one man, because the repeated act of giving 1000 times would make him into a more generous man. Our actions can become habits, which can then influence our heart. In this same way, we can rejoice before God; thanking him, worshiping him and rejoicing even when we don’t feel like it, but if we continue to obey his command to rejoice, eventually our hearts will truly become filled with joy.

Fellowshipping with God

We have each come a long way, and been on an adventurous journey, like the Israelites. It’s a good time to reflect on God’s goodness and provision along the way, and to remember how he brought us through the difficult times, the deserts, in our lives. And the glorious thing about Sukkot is that it also points towards God’s desire to dwell with his people. His provision is not merely physical (although we have much to be grateful for on that account) but he has also not held back his only Son, just so that we can live together with him for eternity.

Sukkot celebrationWe can have fellowship with God because he came down to earth as a man, and tabernacled among us. He became flesh and blood, visible and touchable, God incarnate, living among his people on earth, and though his Spirit now lives, or tablernacles, in our lives if we will invite him in. Yeshua says; “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”  (Revelation 3:20) Here’s how Yeshua’s best friend put it:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” (1 John 1:1-4)

And hundreds of years beforehand, Zechariah prophesied this very event:

“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell [tabernacle] in your midst, declares the Lord. And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people.
And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.” (Zech 2:10-11)

Sukkot also points prophetically towards Yeshua’s second coming, and the ultimate end of all things, when God will dwell among us, and we will live with him forever. What a reason to rejoice!

(Share with permission – October 4, 2017)

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Has Ancient Bethsaida Been Found?


El Araj

The recent excavation at El Araj – possible “Bethsaida” of the Bible.

Biblical archaeologists continue to excavate ancient sites in Israel. The discovery of the ancient city of Bethsaida is another one of these sites being uncovered that connects us directly to the Bible.

The Site of El Araj

On the last Israel trip I led (September 4-17 2017), we visited the site of El Araj. Finding the location of this new excavation through the guidance of a few friends, we diverted from the main asphalt road on the NE corner of the Sea of Galilee to a small unmarked dirt lane that took us to the site. Let’s just say that going to “off-the-beaten-track” sites like this is something I like to do with groups and something that every “touristy” Israel tours do not do. For me, visiting this possible site for Bethsaida was the highlight of the trip!

El Araj team

The el Araj team, summer of 2017

About a month ago, the results of the 2nd year of excavation at El Araj were published. I must say that what was discovered at this point is quite exciting. Indeed, the search for the true site of Bethsaida has been ongoing since the 1800s. But it was not until the 1980s when Father Pixner, a Benedictine monk, excavated a site about 1.5 miles north of the water’s edge today (more recently, the University of Nebraska has been digging here). The site called et-Tell reveals an impressive 1st Temple four-chambered gate (9th century BC) and two large Hellenistic houses (2nd century BC). But that is about it. No 1st century ruins contemporary with the time of Jesus or the New Testament have been found. While what Dr. Bryant Wood (of Associates for Biblical Research) has said is important (e.g. “The lack of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence.”), the main leading issue is not just the archaeology but primarily the location of et-Tell. For it to be a fishing village (Bethsaida literally means “house of fishing”), you would expect it to be on the water’s edge. It is not even close. However, this new site, El Araj, precisely is!

silver coins - Nero found at El Araj

The two coins found in the summer of 2017. The left one depicts Nero – 66-67 AD (credit: National Geographic).

We know the El Araj (later re-named Julius by Herod Phillip in 30 AD when he “upgraded” the small Bethsaida to a polis or city) actually was on the water’s edge because of the 1st century Roman bathhouse and mosaic found this year. This one lone discovery tells us that the water of the Sea of Galilee did not come further north (as those who hold to the view that et Tell is Bethsaida contend) or else these uncovered structures would have been underwater. Topographically, el Araj’s location fits much better with the historical (and Gospel) records.

So what has been discovered so far?

map of el Araj

(credit: Biblical Resources)

While I will direct you to a few more detailed articles already highlighting this summer’s most recent finds (e.g. CBN, National Geographic, and Ha-Aretz), the discoveries include Roman structures, mosaics, two coins (one of them a silver coin of Nero – 66-67 AD), a Byzantine Church, and the ruins of a Crusader building. About the significance of the Byzantine Church, co-director Dr. Steve Notley said, “Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, visited the Holy Land in 725 C.E., and in his itinerary, he describes his visit to a church at Bethsaida that was built over the house of Peter and Andrew. It may well be that the current excavations have unearthed evidence for that church.”  Only time will tell if this was that church!
About the findings this year, archaeologist Dr. Mordechai Avram stated, “[The discovery of] a bathhouse is something that leads us to understand that we are within some kind of a city, some kind of a sphere of people who are building communal structures, public structures and although the dig here is very small, it immediately hinted us that we are in a very good place to suggest that we discovered the city of Julias.” 

Mosaic floor at el Araj

Mosaic Roman floor (credit: Zachary Wong, 2017)

So visiting this new site was very exciting especially in light of the Gospels telling us this was the home of Peter, Andrew, and Phillip (John 1). It was also the home of the blind man healed by Jesus (Mark 8). Additionally, the Feeding of the 5,000 took place here too (Luke 9). Lastly, this may have been a small fishing village visited by Jesus Himself!

Stay tuned for further updates upon next year’s excavation! If I can work it in my touring and teaching schedule, I would love to dig here in 2018!
It goes without saying that el Araj will be a site we will visit on each and every upcoming trip I lead!
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Israel & The Dead Sea Area

Israel is an amazing country!

Dead Sea

Reflections upon the Dead Sea

Each region of the country is unique. Some areas are flat plains, while others are mountain ranges. The Dead Sea region is especially unique. At close to 1,400 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point on earth. The Dead Sea itself, about 35 miles long, is about 33% salt and minerals. This area receives only a few rain events all year, making it a very dry arid area.

Below is an amazing aerial video of the region of the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea-Israel by Amir Aloni from Amir Aloni on Vimeo.

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Give Thanks to the Lord – “Hodu l’ Adonai”

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His mercy endures forever (Psalm 106:1).”

Give thanks to the LordThis is a very common phrase that appears often in the Hebrew Scriptures.  According to our friends at Hebrew for Christiansthe phrase, “give thanks of the Lord” (in Hebrew – “Hodu l’-Adonai”) may be better translated “give praise to the Lord” or “acknowledge the Lord.” It is also about acknowledging God and His goodness.  It is about praising God, even in advance (see 2 Chronicles 20) for who He is and how He intervenes in our circumstances of life. God never fails!

Another reason to “give thanks to / praise / acknowledge” God is because of His everlasting love. In Hebrew the word is chesed. It means loyal devotion and faithful love or mercy. It is a picture of God’s character on displaying unconditional love for us.

Enjoy this video of the Hebrew song – “Hodu l’-Adonai” 

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Jerusalem – The City of Gold

Jerusalem is Israel’s eternal capital. Since the days of David 3,000 years ago it has been Israel’s capital. 1000 years before David a man named Abraham took his son Isaac here (specifically to Mt. Moriah). It is a special city like none other. Because of the city’s uniqueness and rich history, there are no words that can describe Jerusalem. However, one particular song comes close!

Jerusalem city of gold

Jerusalem – the City of Gold

Jerusalem of Gold is a classic song that portrays in every way the specialness of Jerusalem. A rendition of this song was just performed and shown on the Israel Video Network. Performed by the Portnoy brothers, the song was written by Naomi Shemer in May of 1967. Raphael Israeli states, “At that time, the Old City was still controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and under its sovereignty rule. Jews had been banned from the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem east of it, losing their homes and possessions and becoming refugees. All Jews were barred from either returning or entering the areas under Jordanian control, and many holy sites were desecrated and damaged during that period” (Introduction: Everyday Life in Divided Jerusalem”. Jerusalem Divided: The Armistice Regime, 1947–1967, 2002). Thus original song described the Jewish people’s 2,000-year longing to return to Jerusalem. A final verse was added after the Six-Day War to celebrate Jerusalem’s re-unification.

South wall excavations in JerusalemThe song is really a love song about Jerusalem. The song actually captures the essence of Psalm 137 when the Judeans in Exile in Babylon yearned for the day to return to Jerusalem – “If I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do  not consider Jerusalem my highest joy (Psalm 137:5-6).”

The video itself features a number of various places in and throughout Jerusalem.Here is the video. Below are also the English words of this moving song!


Translation of Jerusalem of Gold:

Verse 1
The mountain air is clear as water
The scent of pines around
Is carried on the breeze of twilight,
And tinkling bells resound.

The trees and stones there softly slumber,
A dream enfolds them all.
So solitary lies the city,
And at its heart — a wall.

Oh, Jerusalem of gold,
and of light and of bronze,
I am the lute for all your songs.

Verse 2
The wells are filled again with water,
The square with joyous crowd,
On the Temple Mount within the City,
The shofar rings out loud.

Within the caverns in the mountains
A thousand suns will glow,
We’ll take the Dead Sea road together,
That runs through Jericho.

Oh, Jerusalem of gold,
and of light and of bronze,
I am the lute for all your songs.

Verse 3
But as I sing to you, my city,
And you with crowns adorn,
I am the least of all your children,
Of all the poets born.

Your name will scorch my lips for ever,
Like a seraph’s kiss, I’m told,
If I forget thee, golden city,
Jerusalem of gold.

Oh, Jerusalem of gold,
and of light and of bronze,
I am the lute for all your songs.

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The Gabriel Stone & the Prediction of the “Messiah” Rising Again

The Gabriel Stone

I never get tired of being able to “connect the dots” between what we can read in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (e.g. the Old and New Testaments) with what is discovered in the archaeological world of the Bible. This especially is true when it comes to the life and ministry of Jesus, not only in what He did to secure a bridge between us and God the Father but also who He was as the predicted Messiah. This recent Passover/Easter Season is a special time to make these connections.

Gabriel Stone

The so-called “Gabriel Stone”

Our good Messianic friends (Jewish believers in Yeshua / Jesus) who lead a wonderful ministry called One For Israel just shared an excellent article entitled Ancient Jewish Belief the Messiah Would Rise on the Third Day. The article states that not only was there a belief based on the Hebrew Scriptures about a prediction of the Messiah rising from the dead, but that some within the 1st century Jewish community also shared this belief. The “evidence” for this is based upon an archaeological find discovered somewhere in the Dead Sea area (probably on the easter side in Transjordan) around 2000. It has been called the Gabriel Stone. 

This stone tablet is about three foot tall tablet features 87 lines (only 40% of the lines are legible) of an unknown prophetic text dated as early as the first century BC, at the time of the Second Jewish Temple. The interest in this stone peaked because of what was written on line 80 of the tablet. As originally interpreted, line 80 read, “by three days–live, I Gabriel command you, prince of princes, the dung of rocky crevices.”  To some scholars, this was of direct prediction that the Messiah would “rise from the dead in three day.”

According to a Fox News Science report (April 30, 2013), “the Gabriel Stone made a splash in 2008 when Israeli Bible scholar Israel Knohl offered a daring theory that the stone’s faded writing would revolutionize the understanding of early Christianity, claiming it included a concept of messianic resurrection that predated Jesus. He based his theory on one hazy line, translating it as “in three days you shall live.”

Gabriel StoneIn a recent Biblical Archaeology Review on-line article (by Dr. James Tabor, May 13-2013), this Gabriel Stone was discussed. The article states the following, “What is not so well known is that Professor Knohl has changed his mind about the transliteration, and thus the translation, of the key line 80 in the text that he had previously argued talked about resurrection of the dead after three days…”

Dr. Tabor explained, “In a paper given at a 2009 conference at Rice University on the Gabriel Stone, now published in the conference volume as, ‘The Apocalyptic Dimensions of the Gabriel Revelation in Their Historical Context,’ Knohl says he was mistaken in his original reading. Knohl still maintains that the text was “composed shortly after 4 B.C.E.” by ‘followers of the messianic leader Simon, who was killed in Transjordan in 4 B.C.E.’  What he now doubts is that the text speaks of ‘making the dead live after three days.’”

Knohl translates line 80 as “In three days the sign will be (given). I am Gabriel” The critical word that Knohl once read as a verb, “to make live” (חאיה) now is read as the noun “sign” (האות). On the whole, however, his overall interpretation is the same and if he is correct the text continues to have great significance for our understanding of “messianism” among late 2nd Temple Jewish groups.

Tabor continued, “Though I greatly respect Knohl’s integrity in so freely changing his mind I am not convinced that this alternative reading is necessarily correct. Unfortunately the text is faded at this point, and even after subjecting it to a battery of scientific tests designed to enhance its clarity, it may be that we will never know with certainty how it should be read.”

Line 80 of the Gabriel Stone

Line 80 of the Gabriel Stone

Hebrew scholar Ada Yardeni (an Israeli expert on ancient Semetic languages) offers a more definitive word, “After reviewing the document, I came to the conclusion that the reading suggested by Professor Knohl for the third word of line 80—HAYE “live”—seems to be the only plausible reading of that word. Thus, the first five words of this line should be translated as: “In three days live.” 

However one interprets line 80, it would be prudent for us to remember what the prophet Hosea specifically said about the Messiah and resurrection on the third day, “Come, let us return to AdonaiFor He has torn, but He will heal us. He has smitten, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us. On the third day He will raise us up, and we will live in His presence (Hosea 6:1-2).”

So can we “connect the dots” between this important archaeological discovery with what we read about resurrection of Messiah Jesus? We cannot be certain. Yet while it is an interesting connection that is contingent upon how one interprets it, one thing can be sure – our Easter hope is grounded in Christ’s resurrection on the third day.

Praise be to God for our risen Savior!

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How Deep the Father’s Love


The crosses of the Holy Sepulcher

Good Friday and Easter is what the Christian faith is all about. These days are both solemn as well as joyous.

Good Friday is a day of reflection. The “good” that came out of this horrific event of Christ’s crucifixion was our forgiveness of sins. Jesus, out Pesach Lamb died for our sins.

The joy of Easter of course is a result of the resurrection. It is where hope is found. As Paul says it best, if the resurrection did not take place, our hope would be in vain (1 Corinthians 15). We are invited to live in the power of the resurrection (Philippians 3).


Marbel cross in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem

In Israel it is always moving to see various groups carry a wooden cross on the Via Dolorosa. Each station of the cross is visited. Songs are reflectively sung, Scripture is read. The last five stations are within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional place of both crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.

Both Good Friday and Easter convey the depth of God’s love for us.

Video: How Deep the Father’s Love for Us (warning: the video contains a graphic display of Christ’s crucifixion. It may not be appropriate for children).


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Gethsemane – A Challenge of the Will

Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane on the Mt. of Olive

The Garden of Gethsemane was located on the western slope of the Mt. of Olives. This mountain range rises east of Jerusalem and the Temple. On the “back side” (eastern) of the Mt. of Olives are the biblical towns of Bethany (where Jesus stayed during His Passion Week) and Bethpage. It was just a few days prior to Jesus’ Gethsemane experience that a donkey was secured from this town. Jesus was placed on this donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 and was heralded as King while he rode down the Mt. of Olives.

But it was immediately following the Last Supper (probably observing the Passover meal with His disciples in the upper part of the city of Jerusalem) that Jesus and His disciples walked across the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane. What a stark contrast to the Palm Sunday event. The word is actually a transliteration of Gat-Shemanim, an Aramaic term which means “oil press.” It was here where Jesus’ spirit is crushed beneath the weight of being betrayed by one of His disciples. Furthermore, Jesus knew what the next day would bring him… ridicule, torture, crucifixion, and ultimately death on a cross.

Olive press

Olive oil press at Shiloh

In ancient times, September through November was the time for harvesting olives. Near any ancient olive orchard was an olive press. The oil was extracted in several basic steps. This is how it has been described:

  • The farmer would grab the branches of the olive tree, and tap the branches with a stick. They would then pick up the fallen olives. Each olive is filled with oil.
  • Next, the pits are removed and the olives are gently placed in a large basin, and the pressing begins by rolling the large millstone. A large wooden stick is placed through the center of the stone to help roll over the olives. The oil would flow into a container and the crushed pulp int a basket. The first pressing was the purest oil and was used mainly for lamps, cosmetics, and holy anointing.
  • A second pressing was for the crushed pulp. The baskets themselves would be rolled (see Bible History On-line).
Olive press

Olive oil press at Shiloh

Let us take this image of the crushing of the olives and apply it to Jesus. It is within this context that we hear a remarkable statement by Jesus in the narrative of the Gethsemane event. It was here where, even in the midst of being betrayed and knowing that His death was nearing, Jesus says – “Not my will but Yours be done…!”  Gethsemane was all about the challenge of the will. And Jesus displayed a will that was both obedient and committed to the will of His Father. Jesus, the pure Son of God, was willing to pour out His life and die for the sins of the world!

Like an olive, Jesus was crushed for our iniquity. He was pierced for our transgressions (see Isaiah 53). He was betrayed, stricken, and afflicted. Yet from the Garden of Gethsemane to the hill called Calvary, Jesus exhibited a will committed to the very purpose of His coming. He came to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…(John 1:29).”

At Gethsemane, Jesus was faced with a challenge of the will. While crushed in anguish and sorrow, His will was to do the will of His Father, even if that meant death on a cross.

garden of gethsemaneThe words of the hymn, Hallelujah, What a Savior, capture the essence of Gethsemane and the Passion of Christ and the committed will of our Savior!

“Man of Sorrows!” what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Lifted up was He to die;
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in Heav’n exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

When He comes, our glorious King,
All His ransomed home to bring,
Then anew His song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!   (Philip Bliss, 1875)

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