In Israel, I learned more about having a relationship with the land—the Holy Land around me, the land I live on, land in general. I’ve always loved the earth, and nature, rain and soil, but my time in Israel deepened my experience. Mostly I love the earth for its beauty—and the way that beauty reflects God— but the physicality of that land had been meaningful to hundreds and thousands before me, not to mention the Lord of the universe, for more than just beauty. It was a means of survival in food production, a strategic “playing board” when things got tough with enemies, and something bound up with blessings and curses in the covenant that God had made with Israel. As I studied biblical events in the geographic regions where they actually took place, the land became an instructor, a constant companion, and even a friend to me, strange as that may sound. It was just like any relationship: in the beginning it was new, and slowly I got to know it better and better, and came to love it and understand it more deeply.
Here’s an example: the picture of the rolling waves of chalky desert up there? That’s the Judean wilderness, between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. I took the photograph from a path between Jerusalem and Jericho that hundreds, including Jesus, must have walked along, or close to, at some point. That day was special to me for a lot of reasons—one was the simple breathtaking beauty of the land, and another was that God gave us a rainbow that morning right over this vast expanse of wilderness. It was gorgeous. But another reason was that our class’s lesson and discussion that morning highlighted the relationship between our settings in life and our faith in God. When the Israelites came into the “promised land,” remember they actually entered from the east, meaning they had to cross the Jordan River from the continental side of things and were headed toward the Mediterranean Sea—and this, the Judean wilderness, is what was right on the other side of the valley from them before they crossed! Not much of a promised land, huh? I imagine they were pretty nervous, maybe a little disappointed. Maybe a little enraged. I bet they were SO tired of desert. What they didn’t see is what lies beyond it—incredibly fertile areas like the other photo up there, the Jezreel Valley. The point is, the Israelites had to put a lot of trust in their God and their leaders to enter into a land like that. But in the end, seems like it was worth it to take God at His word . . . .
Something else I loved about my experience with the land in Israel is that it’s so crazily diverse!— We all have those questions that we most commonly received, maybe still receive, from people when we got back to the States—things like, I don’t know, did it rain all the time in London? Did you see the Colosseum in Rome? The typical stuff. For me, a question that popped up pretty frequently was, isn’t the whole country, like, desert? And THAT is a fun question to answer. So here we go: it’s a tiny country, right? About the size of New Jersey—slightly smaller, in fact. Yet in one semester, I saw desert, ocean, flat fertile valleys, rugged hills, streams, lakes, rivers, a deathly salty sea, tall mountains from a distance, limestone, sandstone, chalk, volcanic basalt . . . . You get the picture. The land is incredibly diverse! So what does it matter? I think it really testifies to how brilliantly God put it together. I mean, maybe it’s just coincidence, but think about it: when he thought about how to give us the Bible (he must have thought about that at some point), he had a TON of geographical “languages” to speak through with this land—ocean, mountain, desert, river, anything it took to put the right picture into our heads. To me, it makes the Bible more relatable to people from all sorts of different backgrounds. If I’m from Arizona, I might really “get” the desert passages in the prophets. If I’ve lived on farmland all my life, I’m really going to connect with some of that “green pasture” imagery in the Psalms. If I grew up around still water where mosquitoes lay eggs and all sorts of algae and fungus grow, I’m going to love the idea of a river symbolizing living water, pure and clean. And if YOU lived on that farm, and I came from the desert in Arizona, you’d probably be able to help me out in understanding those “green pasture” parts of the Psalms pretty well. You get it. I think it’s pretty cool . . . .
While I was in Israel, I spent some time working in the campus garden—Jerusalem University College had a beautiful garden, full of roses, kumquat trees, an almond tree, a pomegranate tree (which, sadly, wasn’t in bloom!), trellises for flowers and grapevines, and lots of weeds. The weeds were enough to keep quite a few of us busy for a while. A couple times I went out to the garden with gloves and a bucket, started pulling weeds, and wondered if I should be out exploring the city or checking off some landmark that was on my list. Sometimes I felt this kind of pressure when it came to my free time, because I knew I’d get a LOT of questions when I came back home. Did you see this? Did you go here? You didn’t make it THERE? But I found that I was really content devoting some of my time to the garden. Not only do I enjoy the outdoors, but in a small – and, admittedly, pretty insignificant – way, I was working the land of Israel, like so many others had before me. Abraham and Lot with their flocks, Solomon with his vineyards, Amos with his sycamore trees, Ruth and Boaz with their grain fields . . . . I mean, it was a cool experience. I don’t regret any of the time I spent in the garden, enjoying whatever blue sky and sunshine and breeze God had whipped up that day.
When I got back to the States, I missed the land. I felt like I’d been torn from a close friend, a companion I’d consistently had for the last 3 ½ months. It had been replaced with this land, which is great, and which I love deeply, but it did take some getting used to again. I felt like I was seeing an old friend again, but one that I’d been away from for so long that it felt a little like a stranger. I’d never felt that way about Massachusetts before. I had to learn to make this my environment again. I still miss the land in Israel—I don’t think that will really change—but I am so happy to be back here for my final year at Gordon.
And besides, the lessons that I learned from the land in Israel can really be applied to any land. It brings me closer to God’s creation wherever I am to care about what kind of rock is under my feet, how the ground has been of use to people before me, where my water is coming from, how the sun tells me which way is east. One could argue that it’s inconsequential, but I think it must please God when we care to explore and wonder about his creation, and that is something that matters.