Leaving Jerusalem by way of Mount Scopus we pass the Biblical Bethany to our right, now the growing Arab town of El-Azariya, named after Lazarus (“El-Azar” in Arabic) with a mosque built over his tomb. Soon we enter desert and the hill region known as Mount Azazel where the scapegoat was led to perish in the wilderness on the day of atonement according to Leviticus 16: 8-10. Either side of the road we may see Bedouin tents and shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats.
The modern highway winds down through the stony Judaean desert and below sea-level to the lowest valley on earth, the Jordan Valley which forms part of the great Syrio-African Rift Valley. This desert was where our Lord spent 40 days and nights, alone among the wild beasts, hungry and thirsty, enduring great heat by day and cold nights, in obedience to the Holy Spirit who drove Him into the wilderness to do His Father’s will and be tempted by the Devil. There He experienced Satan’s most cunning temptations – each time using the word of God He heard from His Father as a sword which Satan could not resist.
The descent is steep because the Dead Sea lies 400 metres below sea level, compared with Jerusalem which is 800 metres above sea level. Literally, as well as physically, Jesus descended to the lowest parts of the earth, to meet our enemies in the depths of human nature. In the final temptations, Jesus overcame the lust to please Himself, the lust to be something great in the eyes of man, and the lust to rule the world. His only desire was to do His Father’s will.
North-west of Jericho is a prominent hill, known to the Arabs as Qarantal, which is the traditional site of the Mount of Temptation (Matthew 4: 8, Luke 4: 5). The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation nestling on the rock face is reached by cable-car from Jericho.
We pass to the south of Jericho, which lies within the West Bank Territory. Described as the City of Palms in Deuteronomy 34: 3, it is reputed to be the oldest city in the world. Archaeologists have unearthed human artifacts from earliest times, including a massive stone wall, which was built upon until the town was totally destroyed by Joshua when the children of Israel started to possess the Promised Land. The artificial hill, Tell es-Sultan, the site of many successive civilizations, still has secrets to reveal to the archaeologist. Nearby is the spring of Elisha, the waters of which were made healthy with a bowl of salt cast in by the prophet, and have remained good to this day (2 Kings 2: 19-22). Jesus also passed through Jericho on His way up to Jerusalem for the last time, giving sight to blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52) and a new life for the tax-collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1-9).
Just before we join the main north-south road (Highway 90) along the Jordan Valley east of Jericho, we pass the Beit HaArava kibbutz, which was established in 1939 by European members of Zionist youth movement. They had fled Nazi Germany during the British Mandate of Palestine via Youth Aliyah, the Jewish organization that rescued 22,000 Jewish children from the Nazis during the Third Reich, arranging their resettlement in Palestine in kibbutzim and youth villages. These young pioneers wanted to make the desert flourish, which they did by first mixing soil and sand, and then washing it to remove the salt. Then they planted it and made the land fertile. In 1948 they had to abandon it to the Jordanians, but in 1967 the children of the first kibbutzniks returned and rebuilt the kibbutz.
In the autumn the region looks dry, but every spring it gets covered with flowers, springing up from seeds that have been washed down from higher ground. The Jordan valley landscape here is very reminiscent of the Badlands of Dakota with rills and gullies associated with flash flooding.
Turning northwards, we head for Qasr-el-Yahud, which was only opened to the public in 2009, having been in the no-mans-land between Israel and Jordon. This is the site traditionally associated with the baptismal ministry of John the Baptist before he was imprisoned by Herod Antipas in his palace fortress at Macherus, the other side of the Jordan. The muddy water also helps us to see why Naaman the Syrian preferred to wash seven times in his own rivers than the Jordon. This underlines a point. We all want to be saved and we all agree that to be saved means humbling ourselves to the point of death (seven times). But when the time comes, and the situation is not what we would have chosen, we need to be reconciled to the “muddy Jordan.”
It is interesting to remember that John was only a few months older than Jesus, and felt himself unworthy even to undo Jesus’ sandal straps (Luke 3: 16, Matthew 3: 14-15). He pointed out “the Lamb of God” to two of his own disciples, who subsequently became Jesus’ disciples (John 1: 25-37). But it is written that when Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned by Herod (Luke 3: 19-20, Matthew 4: 12), He left Judea and departed toGalilee. While John was in prison, Herod was double-minded; he knew that John was a just and holy man, and “heard him gladly” but at the same time resented the rebuke of John over his evil ways and adultery with his brother Philip’s wife. In Matthew 11: 2-19 we learn that John sent two of his disciples to ask whether Jesus really was the Messiah? What had caused him to doubt? Jesus answered “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: the blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And……blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” It is possible that John was tempted to be offended when it seemed that he was completely ignored by his cousin while in prison. We can be similarly tempted if our friends and brothers do not treat us as we might expect, or the brothers make decisions which we cannot understand. But Jesus wasn’t at all offended that John should feel this way about Him. On the contrary He honoured John publicly as the greatest man born of woman. But the least in the kingdom of heaven – everyone who puts to death all judging thoughts and offendness – is greater than John. They are not just living souls, but through death to self-life they have become spiritually new people, life-giving spirits, who have taken the kingdom of heaven with violence.
Returning to Highway 90 and heading southwards we pass Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which we will explore in detail another day. But now we pass close to the Dead Sea, 73 km by 25 km, 400 metres below sea-level and the lowest place on earth.
The lake was not known as the Dead Sea until the 2nd century AD. The Old Testament refers to it as the Salt Sea (Genesis 14:3; Joshua 3:16), the Sea of Arabah (Deut 3:17), and the Sea or Eastern Sea (Ezek 47: 1-11,18; Joel 2:20). In Arabic its name is Bahr Lut, meaning “Sea of Lot.”
The prophet Ezekiel recorded his vision of a river flowing out from the temple and “into the sea” (the Salt Sea), making the water fresh so that fish and plants could thrive there (Ezek 47:1-12).
A prominent peninsula, el-Lisan (“the tongue”), is located on the south-eastern side of the sea and projects to within two miles of the western shore. A Roman road has been found traversing el-Lisan, indicating that a route crossed the shallow ford to the western side of the lake. The fortress of Masada guarded this entrance into Israel. The Moabites, Ammonites and Meunites may have used this route to invade Judah under Jehoshaphat (2 Chr 20:1-2).
Nothing can live in the water because of the high salt content, 285 g/L, giving it a specific gravity of 1.66. It is gradually drying up as 6 million tons of water evaporate annually with very little fresh water being added. The desert area around the lake was the home for Bedouin herdsmen, for hermits and monks, like the Essene community at Qumran, for outlaws like David and his men, and kibbutzniks. The streams that flow into the Dead Sea are for most of the year dried-up wadis, but when it rains they become flash floods which can be very dangerous. The sudden filling of water is what the Psalmist referred to in Psalm 126: 4, when the Lord suddenly brings back the captives of Zion. In places you can smell the strong odour of sulphur in the air from underground volcanic springs.
9 miles further south we come to the Ahava factory at Mitzpe Shalem. This cooperative community was formerly a kibbutz, founded in 1976 on West Bank territory that had been occupied by Israel following the Six-Day War. Its legality has therefore been disputed by the international community, with the Palestinian people protesting against the Israelis deriving economic benefit from what they themselves had previously ignored. The small community has made use of what was previously desert, growing dates and raising turkeys, but most of all through the Ahava Factory making skin care products from the minerals of the Dead Sea. Ahava is Hebrew for love, and the company was formed in 1988, making use of the black mud and minerals from the Dead Sea to make cosmetics and skin applications for various dermatological conditions.
The garden around the factory contained many beautiful flowering bushes. Look out for the Sodom Apple Tree. The fruit is very poisonous, but the bedouins use it to make a portable fire-lighter. They make a cotton wick from the inside of the fruit which easily catches fire, which they keep it in a bag with stones which they strike together to ignite the wick.
Mitzpe Shalem, meaning the Shalem Lookout, which was on a cliff overlooking the sea has been converted into a field school, Metsukei Dragot. Close by is the Murabbat Canyon containing caves where other 1st and 2nd century scrolls were found, including a letter written by Simon Bar Kochba to one of his commanders during the revolt that he led against Rome in AD 132-135.
Driving 8 miles further south we come to Ein Gedi, one of the most beautiful parts of Israel and the source of much of the imagery in the Song of Solomon. Ein Gedi is the largest oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea, situated about 35 miles south-east of Jerusalem on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert. This is a place well worth exploring further.