Garden Tomb Interview


The Book and the Spade is the name of the radio program produced by Gordon Govier

Listen to a relatively recent interview that took place in the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. I was interviewed by Gordon Govier, biblical archaeology correspondent for Christianity Today magazine and editor of Artifax magazine. This interview was made into a radio program for Gordon’s “The Book & the Spade” radio ministry ( Both the radio program and the Artifax magazine are wonderful resources for the person wanting to keep up with the world of biblical archaeology. I highly recommend both!

In the interview that took place with Gordon, you will hear me share what it is like to be on an Israel tour as well as learn more about the BIMT ministry.

The best place to listen to this recent podcast is on the new Biblical Israel Ministries & Tours phone/tablet app. Just type in BIMT in the App Store search bar.  This new app provides other resources related to Israel and the Bible.

If you don’t have a smart-phone or Ipad/tablet, you can listen to this interview on the link below.


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Recent Flash Floods in Israel

Flash Flood in Judean Desert

Flash Flood in Judean Desert

Flash floods in Israel can take place without warning. They are impressive to see but they are also very dangerous and damaging if you are in the path of one coming your way. I have personally seen flash floods in the Dead Sea area that have overturned buses.  This is how powerful they can potentially be!

Just yesterday, Israel had heavy rains in the Hill Country of Judah and Samaria.  Even though it may not have rained in the Dead Sea area (18 miles east of Jerusalem), the water from the Judean hills made their way through the wadis (valleys) of the Judean Desert.  The flash floods were so horrific that according to an Israel tour bus driver I have used in the past (he texted me an update and pictures), the main (and only) road that follows the shoreline of the Dead Sea was closed for a few hours.  The wadis were overflowing with torrent levels of water flowing violently from the west.

Flash flood Israel 2Remarkably, rainfall yesterday throughout Israel was significant.  According to The Jewish Press, “Throughout the Negev, the average amount of rainfall was approximately three centimeters (1.2 inches). Tel Aviv was close – 2.7 centimeters (a bit over an inch), Haifa had nearly 2 centimeters (almost an inch) and Jerusalem saw four centimeters (about an inch and a half.) In the Golan Heights, about 45 centimeters of rain was measured in some areas (nearly 2 inches).”

But when it does rain this heavily, here is what a flash flood in the Judean Desert looks like:

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I love the Judean Desert

The Judean Desert at sunset (taken by Lu Ai Gamble, January, 2016 Israel Tour)

The Judean Desert at sunset (taken by Lu Ai Gamble, January, 2016 Biblical Israel Tour)

When most people envision what Israel looks like, they think of an extremely dry and dust land.  In part, they are right.  Back more than a century ago when he visited Israel himself, described Israel this way when he wrote about the “hot sun and dust of this land of the Bible.”  While Jerusalem receives almost as much rain as London does in one year (primarily between November and March or so), and while it actually snows in the Golan in the north at least 3-4 meters each year (on Mt. Hermon), most of the southern regions of Israel receive a very limited amount of rainfall, maybe 3-4 inches every year in the Negev.  At the most southern regions near Elat and the Red Sea, as well as the Midbar (the Wilderness of Judah), especially near the Dead Sea, it rains maybe once or twice a year.  Other than a few weeks in the winter where green patches of grass and desert flowers dot the desert landscape, the Judean Desert qualifies as a “dry and weary land.”

It is here in the context of this Judean Wilderness where David writes Psalm 63. Psalm 63:1-2 reads this way – “O God you are my God.  I earnestly search for you.  My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this ‘dry and weary land’ where there is no water.”  It’s quite a descriptive picture of the barrenness of this chalk-limestone desert! Yet it is here where David recalled God’s unfailing love and His ability to quench his spiritual thirst.

Judean Desert (in the winter)

Judean Desert (in the winter)

While a student back in the 80s (when you could do such a thing), I’ve walked the path that descends through the heart of the Wadi Qelt about a half a dozen times.  This wadi (dry river bed, essentially) follows the path of the ancient aqueduct built by Herod the Great for the purpose of bringing water to one of his winter palaces at Jericho.  Towards the end of the Qelt, there is a Greek Orthodox monastery (St. George’s).  Some of its dwellings are actually cut into the canyon walls.  It is an amazing experience to walk this route, knowing that this was the context in which David wrote such psalms as Psalm 63.

Similarly, David write in Psalm 61, “O God, listen to my cry! Hear my prayer!  From the ‘ends of the earth’ (and the Judean Wilderness really feels like it is the end of the earth, especially in the hot summer months) I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed.  Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” (Psalm 61:1-2).  Believe me, when walking through the canyon of the wadi, with looking up to the high cliffs on both sides, it’s easy to picture David dwelling here.  Depending on the time of year, this dry river bed would contain a few water holes where shepherds would bring their flocks to drink.  The image of Psalm 23 is made real in these surroundings as well.

A "dry and weary land where there is no water..."

A “dry and weary land where there is no water…”

The best time to be overlooking the Wadi Qelt is at sunset. With the sun’s final  casting of light, the white chalk-limestone remarkably is transformed with a golden color. It’s always a perfect time to read Isaiah 40, when the prophet says, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness – ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight a highway for your God.  Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low, the rugged places a plain…” (Isaiah 40:3-4). John the Baptist would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy 700 years later right here in this area!

Truth is, each of us goes through a dry and weary season of life where we find ourselves spiritually thirsty, maybe even alone. Like David who no doubt hiked within these wadis and canyons himself, he was one who discovered the fortress of God’s presence, even though left alone in this physically dry and weary land. But even in David’s lamenting words, he found refreshment in God.  So can we!

The Judean Desert is one of my favorite places to visit.  Come join us on one of my Israel tours and see and experience this remarkable place yourself!

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Isaiah 43:19 and Geography

Judean Desert (in the winter)

Judean Desert (in the winter)

I was reading in my You-Version of the Bible (a digital form of God’s Word made for mobile phones and tablets) last week on January 1st, and the “verse of the day” was a wonderful one.  It was Isaiah 43:19.  It reads,

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”  

The verse contains what I call “geographical markers.”  This means that understanding the full meaning of the verse is really contingent upon understanding these markers.  The verse is only one example of how important it is to read the Bible in the context of the physical settings of the Bible.

From an lack of understand of the geography of Israel, readers unfortunately miss so much of the intended meaning of the text.  For example, when the psalmist mentions “as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people both now and forevermore (Psalm 125:2),” he assumed his readers knew the geography of Jerusalem.  His point was not to give a geography lesson of the city, but rather he used the geography of the city to make his main point – God’s protective care for His people.  He uses the geography of Jerusalem to make a profound promise!

The Elah Valley, the place where David fought Goliath (1 Samuel 17)

The Elah Valley, the place where David fought Goliath (1 Samuel 17)

Or take as another example the story of David and Goliath.  The story takes place in 1 Samuel 17.  But most don’t realize that what took place in 1 Samuel 13-14 serves is the reason for the David and Goliath battle. In the story of 1 Samuel 13-14, the Philistines lost a battle (the battle of Michmash) guarding the main travel route north of Jerusalem.  So, the “sore losers” took on Saul and the Israelites in the Elah Valley located in the Shephelah or lowlands of Judah southwest of Jerusalem.  The battle involving David and Goliath was a battle for control of this buffer region between the Hill Country of Judah and the Philistine Plain. Depending on God alone, David won the battle!

So when one hears these words of Isaiah, rich with the geographical markers of that of the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, the prophet is exclaiming the promise of spiritual vitality.  The Hebrew word for “wilderness” is actually midbar.  A better translation should be desert.  It is a place that receives only a few rain events each year.  It is a “dry and eary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1).” But when it does rain, these dry river beds (called wadis in Arabic today) fill up and flow with water.

God is the One who overflows us with His grace and love. It is God who brings spiritual refreshment to our dry and weary (and sometimes disobedient) souls.  It is God who makes a way for us to to replenished in our dry season of life.

The streams of the desert

The streams of the desert

One more “link” to the phrase “I am making a way in the wilderness” needs to be mentioned. It takes us back a few chapters to Isaiah 40.  It is Isaiah who prophecied, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lordmake straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  The passage again alludes to this “wilderness,” the Judean desert.  700 years later, ultimately “making a way in the desert” was John the Baptist’s role in preparation for Jesus, the Messiah.  The text of Matthew 3 even quotes directly form Isaiah 40.  Again, the spiritual application is taken from the geography of the verse.  

The way for our spiritual hope and renewal is found in Jesus and His redeeming grace. 

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Israel & My Parents

IMG_0015Let me share something personal in this blog.  Just this past weekend I drove to Sellersville, PA to visit my mom.  My sister and older brother also were there. It is always a visit down memory lane each time I visit, especially when I step into mom’s “office” room of her retirement apartment. Hanging on the office walls are old framed pictures, most of which have something to do with Israel.  All of these represent mom’s love for the land of the Bible.  Additionally, mom still has books on biblical history and archaeology on her bookshelves.  Even at the age of 87, she tries to keep up with the latest “finds” the best she can.  She calls or email me once in a while with a “John, did you see what they just found in Israel?” Sometimes she finds out the latest news before I do! 🙂

I mention about my mom because when people ask me, “what led me to love Israel so much?,” my response is quick and clear – “my parents!”   When I was a kid growing up in Perkasie, PA, my parents traveled to Israel numerous times. I suppose this was in the 70s and 80s. Both mom and dad (who was a dentist by profession) not only toured the land, but also participated in a few archaeological excavations (NT Jericho, Herodium with the late Dr. Ehud Netzer). Being devote believers with a strong desire to learn about the Bible in its context, my mom and dad would come back home and share their “slide shows” (remember them?) either in the living room of our house or at church.  What they shared left an undeniable impression on me.

IMG_0018While my dad died in 1986, my mom continued to travel to Israel.  In fact, she actually joined me in the early 2000s for a Holyland Tour.  That trip was her last one given her walking challenges.

So let this brief blog simply be an expression of gratitude to my folks.  Thanks mom and dad for your impact!

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The “Geography” of Christmas

Samaria - Judea in the 1st century

Samaria – Judea in the 1st century

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.

Additionally, there is also a geographical context to each story.  This context, however, is often overlooked by commentators and, regrettably, deemed unimportant. Yet, 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 tour I lead. The Christmas story is one of those narratives where understanding the geographical context shed light on the amazement of the story.

According to the Gospel text, Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth located in the Lower Galilee region (today Nazareth is a city of about 100,000 consisting of both Israelis and Arabs who are citizens of Israel).  The town of Nazareth was a small city not even mentioned in the 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!

Lower GalileeWhen 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.

The route would have continued from Jericho, located just north of the Dead Sea, to Jerusalem.  This was the ancient “Jericho Road” that ascended 4,000 feet in elevation 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 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem was Herodium, one of Herod the Great’s place-fortresses.  While we can’t specifically place this wicked king residing at Herodium at the precise time of the birth of Christ (he was certainly in Jerusalem though just 5 miles north), this towering fortress represented something “grand and mighty” in comparison to the humble birth of Jesus.

Manger Square in Bethlehem

Manger Square in Bethlehem

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 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.

What 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 in real places with a real reason!


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Israel’s “Wadis”

Israel’s geography is incredibly unique.  In this relatively small country (about the size of New Jersey), Israel has about a dozen different regions, all of which are different from the other.  These regions are characterized by either mountains, hills, passes, and valley.  Yet some of these regions (e.g. the Negev and the Judean Wilderness) have river beds called wadis.  Wadi is an Arabic word that describes, generally speaking, a dry river bed.  The Hebrew word for the same phenomena is nahal.  The word occurs in the Bible 11 times (according to the translation. See Numbers 21:12, Numbers 34:5, Joshua 15:4, Joshua 15:47, 1 Kings 8:65, 2 Kings 24:7, 2 Chronicles 7:8, Job 6:15, Isaiah 27:12, Ezekiel 47:19, and Ezekiel 48:28)  While other neighboring Middle Eastern countries also have wadis, these river beds can occasionally be … Continue reading

Drone Views of Israel

Israel is a beautiful country.  It’s beauty is seen in the unique of its regions.  Being only about the size of New Jersey, the State of Israel is not just “rocks and sand” but rather a wonderful landscape. Amir Aloni offers a spectacular view of a few of these regions through aerial video taken from a drone.   Amir is an Israeli photographer who is becoming known for these wonderful drone videos primarily of the desert areas of Israel.  As you will see, even these regions burst with life and beauty! Below are a few of these videos. The Green Judean Desert:  Click HERE Dead Sea Desert Floods:    Click HERE Shokeda Forest:  Click HERE Masada, Gemorrah, and Sodom:  Click … Continue reading

Gideon and the “Drinking Test”

Water is a precious commodity in Israel. Today, as in ancient days, Israel considers rain a pouring down of God’s blessing. There are not enough natural springs and rivers in the land of the Bible, however, to serve cities and towns with sufficient amounts of water. The Hebrew word for spring is ein, and the springs still flowing today in Israel today offer only a limited amount of water. One of these springs can be found along the slopes of Mt. Gilboa on the southeastern edge of the Jezreel Valley. In the days of the Judges, the people of this region had already witnessed the hand of God upon them in the battle against Sisera and the Canaanites. The victory … Continue reading

The Edge of the Precipice

Anyone scared of heights?  Technically, a person who is afraid of standing on a high cliff with nothing but a few hundred feet dramatically dropping below him suffers from acrophobia. Being “scared of heights” can be very traumatizing.  Leading previous trips to Israel, I have seen people struggle with the fear of falling at places like Masada (snake path) and Arbel (the hiking trail up to the top).  Another place that has produced a little anxiety has been at the place called the precipice of Nazareth. Visiting the precipice of Nazareth is always a good alternative to simply going to one of the churches within the city of Nazareth itself.  Although some 1st century ruins have been found very close to the Church of Annunciation, going into a church … Continue reading