I was feeling rather nervous as I stood alone at the arrival's lounge of Ben Gurion Airport. It was already dark outside and I wanted to get to my final destination, Jerusalem. Not seeing any buses waiting outside, I had little option but to hail a cab. During a talk with the driver, he suggested the Ron Hotel at Jaffa Road. With no accommodation already booked, this rather naive 23-year old backpacker accepted the driver's suggestion, although still dreading how much the taxi fare from the airport was going to affect his rather limited budget.
I was dropped off at the front of the hotel, and then asked at Reception whether there was a room available. There was, and I eventually settled down on the wide double bed at a room upstairs. As I rested after such a journey from London Heathrow, suddenly from outside - BOOM! The loud sound of gunfire from a powerful weapon nearby has made me quickly realise that this was no holiday resort populated with nice young people enjoying a beach party. This was practically a war zone, with the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinians remain ongoing despite the winning of East Jerusalem, with its ancient and medieval Old City, from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day war.
The Ron Hotel is located at Jaffa Road at the junction with Ben Yehuda Street, with Zion Square at the intersection. Back in 1976, traffic flowed through Ben Yehuda Street, making it a busy highway.* A rather long walk eastwards along Jaffa Road took me close to Jaffa Gate, on the west side of the Old City. It was thanks to the June 1967 Six-Day War, that the wall partitioning the Old City from the modern West Jerusalem was torn down, no longer with the need to cross the international border into the neighbouring Arab nation of Jordan in order to enter the Old City. With Jewish Israel and Arab Jordan being enemies back then, such a border crossing would have been nigh impossible, even among tourists. Instead, back in 1976, thanks to the War victory, I was able to enter the Old City from West Jerusalem as easily as walking through a garden gate, while carrying what was then the Israeli Pound for currency, a throwback from the British Mandate which ended May 14 1948, when the sovereign state of Israel came into being for the first time since 586 BC.
|Inside Hezekiah's Tunnel beneath Jerusalem Old City, 1976|
Two more trips to Israel followed, the next was in 1993 after receiving a vision in October of the previous year. This time, after alighting from the Egged Bus from Tel Aviv, the only major change was that Ben Yehuda Street was pedestrianised, forming a pleasant traffic-free shopping mall. Also within the Old City, the central gutter which was the prominent feature of every narrow Medieval street were all paved in, leaving outlines coursing through the centre of such narrow streets. Also many of these narrow streets were roofed over. Pungent smells of spice filled the air, as just about every shop at one street sold their own version of the herb, while at another street was the meat market, including whole heads of sheep, complete with their skins, hanging at the shop front awaiting purchase. But as with 1976, in 1993 we pedestrians still had to give way to those wheeled carts carrying merchandise to the shops. These carts were each drawn by a donkey and were driven by an excited boy, constantly shouting us all out of his way. It was also here, at Souq David, a short distance within Jaffa Gate, that I came across a small Medieval hotel-turned backpackers hostel which was to become my home for the next two weeks.
Probably why my first trip to the Middle East in 1976 became the talk of the town at the engineering factory where I worked. Fellow employees gasped at my apparent "bravery" in taking such a trip on my own, and not a few asked me questions. Backpacking in the Middle East seem to have been relatively unknown. By 1993 however, we independent travellers were still a minority, and it looked as though the majority of backpackers were unbelievers and not affiliated to any church, synagogue or mosque. But since the 1970's or 80's, holiday companies catering for Christian groups began to grow and flourish, and in the nineties it wasn't unusual to see such groups at various sites of antiquity and religious alike.
For me, backpacking has its own advantages. Such as allowing the land to talk back to me and for me to listen and take note. By staying at a hostel in Jerusalem Old City, the dormitory was Medieval with a domed ceiling, and unlike the traditional HI hostel, the room accommodated both genders, with even couples sleeping on the wide window sill, and at other convenient areas when all the bunk-beds were taken. On one Friday the streets of the Old City were jam-packed with all-male Muslims, all sauntering in one direction towards the Damascus Gate. So thick was the crowd that I had to stroll along at their pace, which gave me the opportunity to "interview" one of them, and find out just where they were all heading. It turned out that they were all heading to the Temple Mount, or to them, the Al-Haram al Sharif, which boast a wide open space surrounding the Dome of the Rock, along with the large Al Aqsa Mosque, backed by the striking golden-brown ridge of the Mount of Olives when bathed in sunshine, this huge square on the eastern edge of the Old City provides much space for their weekly prayers on their Islamic Sabbath.
|Temple Mount featuring the Dome of the Rock|
What I have already observed both in 1976 and 1993 became even more clear in 1994, on my third trip. Staying at the same hostel in Souq David for a whole month, the effect of the Jewish Sabbath became fully effective. Beginning at Sundown Friday, literally everything shuts down - every shop, every office, every bus disappears, every mode of transport ceases, including private cars. Only a few taxis ply the otherwise deserted streets. West Jerusalem becomes a ghost town, along with all other settlements right across Israel. There was even one occasion, whilst the more orthodox population of Jews were celebrating the start of their Sabbath at the Western Wall, that one family kept on looking at me with a degree of hostility. Fortunately for me, there standing by was one young man whom I approached. I asked him if there was an issue with the family. After a word with them, he approached me with the explanation that by carrying my camera strapped across my shoulder, I was looked upon as working. My intercessor diffused the situation by explaining to these orthodox Jews that although I'm at a holy site, I was non-Jewish. They smiled and walked away. Phew! And so for the next twenty-four hours the whole of Israel lies still and quiet until sundown Saturday when the whole city comes alive. Shops open, people fill the sidewalks and shopping mall, cars and buses ply the roads, and life resumes to beat on.
This was while Yitzak Rabin, the Labour Prime Minister of Israel, was holding his Cabinet meeting at the Ron Hotel which caused a significant set of events in 1994. Throughout the day, countless Jews, every one of them wearing a white shirt, black trousers and a black yarmulke, headed for the Western Wall. Since I was fascinating to watch such crowds of Jewish men march fearlessly through an Arab city, I took the opportunity to follow these Jews to see for myself what they were up to. I took a position at the opposite side of the plaza for a grand view of the procession. A huge crowd of Jews were praying at the Western Wall, the numbers so great that the crowd formed a sea of black and white. Behind me a TV cameraman was on duty, and being a Sabbath, this did not strike well with the Orthodox Jews near him. He had to stop filming when one or two of the Jews actually picked up stones to use as fuselage!
That evening at sundown, after enquiring on what was going on, I made my way to Zion Square, which was at the intersection of Jaffa Road with Ben Yehuda Street. The mass of people were concentrated at the Ron Hotel, where the Prime Minister was having his Cabinet meeting. How strange, coming to think of it, that only eighteen years earlier I actually slept at that same hotel. TV cameras were everywhere, and large posters were seen here and there. Right behind me and directly opposite the hotel was one rather large banner. It featured a crude but fully recognisable outline of Yitzak Rabin in the process of being sodomised by PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Presently the banner was set alight admit cheers from the watching crowd. I couldn't help feeling rather claustrophobic as I felt squeezed within the crowd as the flames reached upward. A while later I decided to gently elbow my way through the mass of people until I was free to make my way back to the hostel through the empty and deserted street of the Old City.
Listen, and the land will speak to you. Both the mass prayer at the Western Wall and the public demonstration at Zion Square were about the Government's proposal for the Palestinians to set up their own headquarters in East Jerusalem - practically the undoing of the Six-Day War victory in 1967. Little wonder that there was high resentment among the Israelis over such a proposal.
The Jews, God's holy nation with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their founding fathers, whose tombs are marked by their cenotaphs located at Hebron. They are the people who were, and are, custodians of the Law of Moses. It is to them the true meaning of holiness and the reality of sin were delivered. And it was to them, and them only, that various ceremonials were delivered, including the Sabbath, Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, and the Jubilee year. Some excellent laws that would benefit both for health and prosperity were also delivered to the Hebrews only, although we as non-Jews can benefit from them as well. But we as Christian believers, there is a problem. According to Paul's letter to the Galatians, in 3:10 and 5:3, there is the emphasis that whoever wants to hold on to the Law must keep the whole Law, or else he is cursed! James has also written that whoever keeps the whole Law but stumbles at just one point has broken the whole Law (James 2:10).
So was did I feel somewhat aghast when a testimony was circulated in connection with Leviticus 19:23. According to this particular verse in the Old Testament, the first three years of a newly-planted fruit tree is considered "uncircumcised". That is, the fruit must not be eaten at all. Gardeners are not unfamiliar with this issue. According to them, for these first three years, all the flowers must be plucked off the tree with the fingers during full bloom and before the flower wilts. This will add strength and vitality to the tree for future fruition. But to allow the tree to fruit but refrain from eating is not keeping the Law at all, even if all the fruit is collected into a bowl and given out to other people. The same can be said, for example, the annual Passover meal. If a non-Jew eats the Passover without circumcision for all male members of the family, then he is committing a serious sin, because according to Exodus 12:48, this meal is forbidden to all non-Jews, unless he is first circumcised.
The same can be said about the beard. According to Leviticus 19:27, even the beard must not be trimmed or its edges cut. This looks so insignificant to modern day thinking, and I wonder whether anyone who is clean-shaven will go to Hell after death for breaking this particular law! To be honest, I have pondered why this rule mattered, for in 1979 I grew a beard for several months, and I found out through experience that I didn't like it, especially with the occasional itching. Then a few years ago I grew a moustache, which not only did I find somewhat uncomfortable but my wife didn't like it either. I can only speculate that the reason why God commanded Hebrew men to grow and cultivate a beard was to identify them as Israelites. A kind of a natural uniform to separate them and distinguish them from the heathen, especially the Canaanites, whose idolatry and superstitions would have been a snare.
I think that this is a plausible theory. While I was in Israel, especially in 1993 and 1994, I saw that every orthodox Jewish male wore white shirt, black trousers, a yarmulke, and sported a beard. If I was to see a person looking like that anywhere around the world, I would immediately identify him as an orthodox Jew. Even as far away as the USA, Australia, New Zealand, as well as here in the UK, it is very easy to identify a Jewish man. Even a boy can be easily distinguished by his skullcap.
|Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall, taken 1994.|
However, the Law is the Law. James has written that if one kept the whole Law but stumbles at just one point, he has broken all of it. He becomes a lawbreaker, he has broken the law. And the consequence of this is to face judgement, just as in our Courts at present. In his opening verse of his letter, James makes clear that he was addressing Hebrew readers: To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, (James 1:1), that is the Diaspora. These Jewish readers were fully familiar with their Hebrew Scriptures, including those issues concerning Passover, the Feast of Weeks, Succoth, fruit trees, what to wear and not to wear, the beard, how not to grow crops, along with favouritism forbidden (James' favourite topic) along with moral laws dealing with theft, adultery, murder, biased scales and other issues.
I think that is to boast that one has kept one item of the Law, when actually, that particular issue was not carried out according to the Scripture, is dangerous, fails to edify his hearers, and prone to make the testifier self-righteous, judgemental toward others, and what I have seen, deep into classism and favouritism. As Paul had written, the Law kills, but faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and walking in the Spirit of Christ brings life and spiritual refreshment to all around him.
*According to Google Maps, the names of these locations looks to have changed since our last visit in the year 2000, with the Ron Hotel looking like if no longer in existence, together with further main roads since developed.