Thursday, June 25, 2015


For most Christians, the draw of Israel is the New Testaments sites, but there are many wonderful Old Testament sites as well that are worth visiting. The bonus is that some of them have not been over-decorated with shrines and chapels and hanging crystal lanterns and crosses. They just are.

One of our excursions was to the Valley of Elah about 45 miles southwest of Jerusalem. It was the site of one of the most famous battles in history, the confrontation between the young Israelite shepherd David and the Philistine behemoth Goliath in about 1010 BC. 

 We prepared for the experience with special ceremonial foods, and we did indeed watch for (and see) many cyclists:

We saw interesting ruins along the way that date way, way back--at least to 2005.
The approach to the valley is covered with vineyards, and apparently this area has become an important piece in Israel's wine-making business:
 We got off the bus and walked across what looked like fertile farmland . . .

. . . that served a much different purpose 3,000 years ago: "Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched by the valley of Elah, and set battle in array against the Philistines. And the Philistines stood on a mountain on one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side: and there was a valley between them. And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span" (I Samuel 17:2-4).

If you are a farmer and need the small rocks cleared from your fields, just deem the fields the site of the battle between David and Goliath and tourists will flock there to pick up your rocks. I know because my mother-in-law brought a stone home from her visit to this valley about 25 years ago and gave it to our children. I'm not sure where it is today--maybe in my own garden. Anyway, so many people have done that that there are no small, smooth stones to be had. I know because I looked for one.

Michael Wilcox had some interesting insights about the story of David and Goliath that he shared with us in this former combat zone. The obvious moral that everyone always gets from the story is that the weak and small can conquer the big and strong with God's help. However, when David tried to convince King Saul to let him face Goliath, he recounted an earlier experience he had when he killed a lion and a bear that had attacked his flock. Michael said that sometimes we have to kill lions and bears before we kill a Goliath--or small things (if you can call a lion and a bear small) prepare us for big things. Michael also pointed out that for forty days, none of the Israelites would come down from the mountain to face the daily challenges shouted by Goliath. Only David was willing. Sometimes you have to be willing to come down off the mountain alone to stand up to a Goliath, said Michael, but then others might join in to support you. Are you a "top of the mountain" person or a "come down from the mountain" person?

On our drive from Jerusalem to Tiberius, we drove to the 1640-foot-high summit of Mount Carmel. Along the way we saw many olive trees in well-tended groves:
Our destination was a monastery at the summit run by--who else?--Carmelite monks.
Muhraqa, the Arabic name for the mountain, means "the place of burning," but just don't burn your cigarettes there:
It was on this site that the grand showdown between Elijah and Jezebel's priests of Baal occurred. Basically, Elijah challenged 450 priests to a fire duel. Whoever could call down fire from heaven to consume a sacrificial bull would win. The priests got to go first. They slaughtered their bull, placed it on the altar, and danced around it, calling on Baal "from morning until noon." Around noon, Elijah began to mock them, saying, "Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked." That didn't go over very well, but the priests kept on dancing and calling on Baal until the evening.
Michael Wilcox teaches us about Elijah
By the evening, Elijah was ready for his turn. He built an altar out of twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes, then he had a deep trench dug around it. He put wood on the stones and the sacrificial bull on top of the wood, and then had buckets of water poured over the whole thing three times until everything was thoroughly drenched and the trench was filled with water. Only then did he call upon God to send down fire from heaven. 

"Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God. And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there" (I Kings 18). 

I quite like Elijah. He's got a streak of sarcasm and he doesn't do things halfway. 

The centerpiece of the monastery courtyard is a statue of Elijah making his point with one of the priests of Baal:

It's not a particularly cheerful sight:
It bothered some of us more than others:
If Elijah couldn't get those priests with his sword, he could have used one of these terrifying cacti to stick it to them.
I'm not sure what these rather bizarre stone structures are supposed to represent, but they make a wonderful frame around the face of my sweet friend Julia.

We were allowed to go up to the roof of the monastery, where there is an observation platform and this interesting diagram that points the way and gives the distances to various cities and landmarks:

From the roof we had a 360° view of the Jezreel Valley, also known as Armageddon, the prophesied site of the penultimate battle between good and evil.
Maybe that's why a fighter jet was speeding overhead? Just checking?
It's hard to imagine a bloodbath on this patchwork of green and brown:
. . . but it's happened before; in fact, at least thirty-four battles have already been fought in the Jezreel Valley and the adjacent site of of Megiddo over the last 4,000 years. I recognize a lot of the names of the leaders: Thutmose III, Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Saul and Jonathan, Jezebel, Ptolemy, Saladin, and Napoleon.
I'm glad we got to visit during one of the peaceful years. 

I'm also glad we got to stop here to eat on our way back down to the valley:


  1. Nice. I'm glad it was peaceful in both places as well.

  2. The valley of Elah (and Michael's talk there) have really stood out in my mind--maybe because it was early on, maybe because the scenery was incredible.

  3. That story of Baal and Elijah is one of the more confounding--after calling down the Lord's majesty, Elijah killed them all. I guess that's just the way it was done in those days. But it still is a great story--glad to se the place where it happened.