Yesterday our group took an excursion to the Judean wilderness and to Jericho, two places that figure greatly in the story of Jesus. John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord in the desert. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and was tempted there. And the desert road between Jericho and Jerusalem is the setting for one of Jesus’ greatest parables – the Good Samaritan. Heading east by bus out of Jerusalem, within minutes you notice how the landscape changes. As the road heads down to the Dead Sea region, the vegetation thins out and soon the rocky hills and ravines of the desert are in view. It’s not that the desert is “deserted.” Bedouin families dwell there eking out a living by herding goats and sheep, pitching their tents near ancient springs. Time has stood still in that place where man and beast cling stubbornly to life in such a harsh landscape.
A couple of young Bedouin brothers who were peddling trinkets at our bus stop allowed me to take their picture, for a few shekels of course. A donkey posed for me at no charge and I thought about the beast that the Good Samaritan used to transport the robbers’ victim to the safety of the inn in Jesus’ story.
Half way to Jericho, we got off the road and spent some time overlooking the deep wadis and ravines of the desert. To set the mood for some quiet time of reflection, our guide for the day, Elias Ghareeb, read to us Psalm 63, David’s prayer when he was in the Judean wilderness. It begins with these words: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” After finding a rock to sit on, I listened to the dusty wind in the silence and thought about all those throughout history who went to the desert to encounter God – prophets, monks, hermits, and of course, Jesus himself. Repeatedly in the Bible, it is in the desert where God speaks directly to the heart of his people. How passionate Jesus must have been in pursuit of his heavenly Father to have gone out to such a lonely and “God forsaken” place!
The guide told us that in the 4th and 5th centuries, there were so many monks and hermits who went to live and pray in the desert that the place was called a “city.” Over 150 monasteries were established in the deserts in and around the Holy Land at just about every location there was a water source. A handful of these communities still exist or have been revived, and a there is a movement to re-establish a few more. We stopped at an overlook to St. George of the Desert Monastery and visited another monastery high about Jericho on the Mount of Temptation. Both are Greek Orthodox foundations and they have clung to sides of the cliffs for centuries. The monks who live in these places are testimony to the thirst human beings have for God as well as the stubbornness of faith.
We spent some time in Jericho where Joshua and his men brought down the city walls with trumpet blasts during the entry into the Promised Land (Joshua 6). It is also the city where Jesus encountered Zacchaeus, the tax collector, the short little man who climbed up the sycamore tree to get a glimpse of the Lord (Luke 19). It is also where Jesus cured the blind beggar, Bartimaeus (Mark 10). Jericho has the claim of being the oldest city on earth and has thrived for 10,000 years because of its tropical climate and reliable water sources that support agriculture. Modern Jericho is now situated in the Palestinian territories and is famous for its dates, bananas and fruit. We had a wonderful lunch there consisting of Mid-Eastern salads, falafel, humus, and great pita bread. I wonder what Jesus had to eat when he invited himself to dinner at the sinner Zacchaeus’ home?