Living Water

by Rev. Ed Visser

En Gedi WaterfallMy people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. – Jeremiah 2:13

“Drink lots of water,” we were told. “Sip it constantly, 3 – 5 liters a day.” It didn’t take long to discover why. Israel is a desert culture; nothing is more precious than water. Maybe that’s why Bible authors often use water imagery — even for God!

Early on our trip, we sat by one of the sources of the Jordan River at Dan. Here there are 17 spots where the water comes out from Mount Hermon in springs, joining together to form a rapidly flowing river. The Jordan flows south into the Sea of Galilee, then it continues south until it empties into the Dead Sea.

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, God uses the spring as an image for himself. And for good reason. A spring produces water year-round, while all other water supplies are temporary or seasonal. Throughout the desert one can see hundreds of wadis, large and small, which flow with water Qumran broken mikvehduring the rainy season, but are dry riverbeds the rest of the year. To keep a steady water supply when not near a spring, people constructed cisterns from rock, plastering the insides. But these held tepid, often polluted water, when they were in good repair. …

Cisterns were useless, of course, when cracked from heat or usage. Springs, on the other hand, produced “living water” — water directly from the hand of God. Regardless of the season or location, the spring brought life in a “dry and weary land.”

Similarly, God is “living water” for our lives, much more like the spring at Dan, the headwaters of the Jordan, than the end of the Jordan, the Dead Sea. The water at Dan was fresh, cool and clean; we even drank from them. But drinking any quantity of the Dead Sea waters would cause rapid illness and even death.

God is also a constant spring, not a seasonal wadi. Yet his people have not only left him, the living water, but they’ve also forsaken him to build their own cisterns. Spiritually they’ve carved out a reservoir which they can control. Sometimes we develop a “cistern relationship” with God. We try to get along without Him, do it our own way, until we get dry and need refilling. Even a short time in the land will convince you how ludicrous it is to forsake “living water” — life itself!

The Land Between

by Rev. Ed Visser

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. – Genesis 12:1

“Israel was sandwiched between the superpowers to the north and south, and very often they were lunch.” That cleverly-phrased statement by Wink Thompson, one of our teacher-guides in Israel this summer, sums up a crucial truth about the land and history of Israel. The land in which God placed his people was, and still is, a land between.


Israel is a land betwen the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Arabian Desert to the east. Both proved difficult for travel. Early ships were not made to survive the raging sea, and people were not made to bear the intense heat and dryness of the forbidding desert. Israel, then, served as a narrow land bridge between these areas.

But a land bridge for whom? Most of the dominant nations grew up around rivers. Around the Tigris and Euphrates to the north, Assyria, Babylon and Persia became powers. To the south, the Nile River became the source of life for Egyptians. North and south needed each other’s products to survive. So Israel became the land bridge for trade between the main nations of the world.

Kings soon realized that if you control world trade, you could rule the world. And to do that, you had to rule Israel. For most of its history, Israel has been a land under occupation. Today, for one of the few times in history, Israel is actually an independent nation. Yet Israel remains a land between. In the northern Golan region, we traveled right near the Syrian border (watch out for mine fields from the 1967 war!). At Dan we could look into Lebanon. From Masada the hills of Jordan were very clear across the Dead Sea. To the south, Egypt looms large.

So why did God lead Abraham and Moses to this land? Two divine reasons stand out:

  • The land between tests your faith and reliance on God.
  • The land between gives you an opportunity to influence the world by your faith as they pass by.

God still places us in a land between as we confront our culture and its influences. And he gives us the challenge of complete reliance on him, as we seek to witness to our culture about the true God who rules the world.

Altars of Sacrifice

by Lois Tverberg

You shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always…You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. -Deuteronomy 14:23, 26

This summer we visited the temple of Arad in southern Israel, which was built exactly according to the specifications of Solomon’s temple except on a smaller scale. The one feature that is full-sized is the sacrificial altar, which is made out of stones not cut by human hands, as is commanded in Deuteronomy 27:6. The stones still have a slight red tint where blood was poured on them. It is fascinating to think that this temple may have been used in worshipping the God of Israel.

Arad Altar

One question that we as modern Christians have is why ancient peoples used sacrifice in worship. It has been a traditional practice for millennia, so when God gave Israel regulations about it, he was not introducing a new idea to them. In fact, animals were not eaten unless the blood was offered to a god by pouring on an altar or on the ground, so in essence, any time meat was eaten, a sacrifice was made (Deut. 12:15).

Sacrificing an animal from one’s flock was a concrete way to show loyalty or love to God. In ancient times when food was less abundant than it is now, people had a continual concern about having enough food to feed their families. To give an entire animal to God was an expensive gift, reducing what the people had for their own basic needs. It was also an acknowledgement that God was the source of the animal in the first place.

We tend to assume that sacrifices were all for atonement for personal sin, but that is not really true. Often they atoned for ceremonial impurity that comes from necessary events in life, like having a baby, or touching a dead body, etc. This type of “uncleanliness” was not equated with sin, but yet it had to be removed to enter the presence of a holy God. The point of all worship was to come near to God. By feeling close to God, the worshipper knew they could bring their needs to an attentive God.

One of the ways that an ancient person came near to the presence of God was through a fellowship offering, in which the family ate some meat of the animal after it was sacrificed, as if God had invited them to eat at his table and was sharing his dinner with them. An essential aspect of the worship was the eating of the food, not just the death of the animal. The Passover sacrifice was of this type, and the Lord’s supper, by being based on the Passover meal, is of this type too. The next time we take communion, we can think back to the long history of coming into God’s presence through sacrifice, and through Christ’s sacrifice, we can too.

A Neck Like a Tower

by Lois Tverberg

Your neck is like the tower of David, built with rows of stones on which are hung a thousand shields, all the round shields of the mighty men. – Song of Solomon 4:4

Citadel DavidWhen we were staying outside the Old City of Jerusalem, we frequently went past the Tower (or Citadel) of David, a tower (migdal) that was built by Herod and rebuilt by the Crusaders — one of the few things still in existence from the time of Jesus. It was named the Tower of David because it was thought to stand on the site where an earlier tower, built by King David, once stood.

Towers were built free-standing or along the walls of cities for defense, to allow watchmen to see hostile forces from a distance, and to shoot arrows and other weapons from a high vantage point. Often the outside of a tower would be decorated with the shields of the army so that approaching enemies could see the size of the defense while they were still far off.

A tower was important and necessary to protect a city from invaders. God himself is likened to a tower – “For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe” (Ps 61:3). Towers were also used to guard fields of crops from thieves as well.

This helps us understand several places in Song of Solomon where aspects of a woman are likened to towers. In today’s passage, her neck is like “the tower of David” and her nose is like “the tower of Damascus” in Song of Solomon 7:7. In our culture that focuses so much on physical appearance, we assume that this phrase means that having a long neck and long nose was a sign of beauty.

In fact, it has an entirely different picture behind it that doesn’t focus on physical beauty but on character and how the woman carries herself. It is a picture of a beautiful, pure young woman who is self-assured and confident enough to rebuff unseemly advances of men wanting her physically. She walks with her neck straight and head held high because she knows she is a prize. To a young man, the many gold bangles on her elaborate necklace seem like so many shields of a defending force against him. The portrait a woman as a tower is not just of longness or tallness, it is a picture of a well-defended city whose forces keep out all who try to enter without permission.

Women today want to emulate many traits from biblical women. They see the bravery of Esther, the good sense of Abigail, and the wisdom and industriousness of the Proverbs 31 woman. But modern women can also learn from this biblical model of beauty. Our fashion magazines glamorize an attitude of promiscuity, and our teenagers respond by baring as much as possible. We could learn much from the gorgeous woman of Song of Solomon, who has so much self-respect and confidence in her own worth that she can carry herself as the prize that she truly is.

My reference for this essay is Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, by Thorleif Boman, (Norton, New York, 1960) p. 77-81.

Stones of Destruction

by Lois Tverberg

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.’ – Luke 19:41-44

When we were near the Temple in Jerusalem, we saw a powerful sight – a great mound of huge blocks in a heap on the Herodian street adjacent to the Temple. This pile of stones is a “two-thousand-year-old scream frozen in stone.”1

The blocks were stones of the Temple that were heaved 50 feet over the Western support wall onto the street below, during the destruction of the Temple by the Romans on August 10, 70 AD. Roman soldiers set the fire to the Temple, and in order to recover the gold that melted between the stones, they pried every block apart and literally left not one stone on another. A person can still see how the pavement caved in from the impact of the stones that were dropped from above. It’s a breathtaking scene.


While Christians don’t have a lot of feelings about the event, the destruction of the Temple is still mourned by Jews to this day. The 9th of Av, the anniversary of its destruction, is a Jewish day of fasting. At weddings, a glass is broken in memory of the destruction of the Temple, and it is even a part of daily prayers:

Be pleased, O Lord our God, with your people Israel and with their prayers.
Restore the service to the inner sanctuary of your Temple, and receive in love and with favor both the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayers.
May the worship of your people Israel always be acceptable to you.
And let our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion.
Blessed are you, O Lord, who restores his divine presence to Zion.2

It is fascinating that Jesus shares with the Jewish people this great mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple, as he prophesies their destruction in today’s passage in Luke 19. Like Jeremiah, Jesus was sent by God to warn the people of the impending doom of the Temple if the corruption of the priesthood didn’t end. (In Jesus’ day, the Sadducean leaders were widely known to be a “mafia”-like organization, and were largely responsible for his death.).3 When Jesus says in Luke 19:46 that “you have made it a robber’s den,” he was alluding to Jeremiah’s words in Jeremiah 7 about God threatening to destroy the Temple for its corruption.

It is amazing to see the fulfillment of Jesus’ words frozen in stone yet today.

(1) This was uncovered and visible to the public for the first time in 1997. It was described in a Jerusalem Post article by Abraham Rabinovich, a copy is available at this link.

(2) From the Amidah – available on this link.
(3) See Jesus and the Sadducean Syndicate, by Robert Mason, at this link.

In the Synagogue

by Lois Tverberg

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and as was his custom, he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. – Luke 4:16

When we visited Israel we saw many churches, but what we found more interesting was the synagogues that remained from Jesus’ time, where he may have even taught. You might think that the tradition of “church” that we know would have descended from worship in the tabernacle or Temple. Actually, the church is a continuation of the weekly synagogue meetings that were in practice in Jesus’ day. Paul’s custom was also to attend synagogue on the Sabbath (Acts 17:2) and James speaks to the early believers about their synagogue meetings in James 2:2.

Capernaum Synagogue

The tradition of the synagogue began more than 500 years before Christ, during the Babylonian exile, when faithful Jews needed a way to worship God in the absence of a temple. When they returned to the land they persisted, because most people lived too far from Jerusalem to go to the Temple more than a few times a year, or even less. Through the synagogues, average laborers could study the Bible together every Sabbath. Children learned the scriptures through the local school that was also held there.

Common folk who dedicated themselves to study were encouraged by that culture to become itinerant teachers called rabbis, who traveled from synagogue to synagogue to teach. Through this practice, faithful Jews were hiding God’s word in their heart, and the scene was being set for Jesus’ ministry on earth. This is was the reason for the high level of scripture knowledge in Jesus’ time, and his ability to teach large crowds of interested, educated listeners.

We can be very thankful for this innovation of the local synagogue. The religion of the Ancient Near East, including biblical Judaism, focused on sacrificial offerings with priests at a central temple or tabernacle. Even in Acts, the early Christians worshiped at the Temple for feasts and took part in sacrifices (Acts 21:26). These practices were entirely dependent on having a temple, and ended when it was destroyed in 70 AD.

But through the synagogues, and later churches, average people could grow in faith and knowledge of God’s word wherever they lived. When Paul went to the diaspora, he brought the gospel first to the synagogues there. When the church moved outward, it brought people a way to worship God wherever they lived, to the ends of the earth.


*The picture above is of the synagogue in Capernaum. The limestone synagogue pictured here is from the fourth century AD, but it is built on top of the basalt stone of the synagogue of Jesus’ time. In 2010, the very first synagogue dating back to the first century was unearthed in Magdala, only 6 miles (10 km) away.

Narrow Gates and Wide Roads

by Lois Tverberg

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. – Matthew 7:13-14

As we walked through Israel, the contrast was striking between the humble Jewish villages and the imposing Roman cities. The Jewish community in the village of Capernaum lived in simple basalt houses that were close together, and often were a maze of rooms that were added as the family grew. A synagogue was centrally located in the town, suggesting that faith and family were what mattered most here.

In contrast, a few miles away, the Roman city of Beth Shean had a large theater and public bath houses, and a wide central street (cardo) that was lined on both sides by ornate columns, showing visitors the glory of the Roman culture that built it. In fact, the Romans made a point of constructing enormous gates with statues to emperors and pagan gods, and widening roads for their chariots and armies. All of their construction was intended to convince the onlooker that their way of life was superior to all other ways.

Cardo Beth Shean

One scholar suggests that Jesus may have been thinking of the Roman gates and roads when he spoke about the wide roads that lead to destruction, and how alluring they are compared to the narrow old paths. He may even have been speaking of the Temple, whose gates were ornate, but narrow in comparison to the massive entrances into the pagan poleis.

As Jesus watched wealthy Gentiles arrive at the opulent city gates of Beth Shean, he knew they were literally walking into a life of futility – thinking only of wealth and politics and social standing, and worshipping lifeless gods that could not save. Jesus knew that the humble paths into the Jewish towns led to synagogues where the words of the true God could be read. And inside the narrow gates of the Temple were the courts where prayers were offered to the God who actually could answer.

Jesus, of course, was especially talking about what it is like to follow him. It is a narrow, humble path that few choose to follow, in contrast to the wide colonnades of wealth and glory that attract the rest of the world. But, surprisingly, the old, dusty road that this Rabbi trod is ultimately the path the leads to life, now and in the world to come.

Based on an article by Michael Knowles of McMaster Divinity College, in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism (2000) p 176-213

Drinking Rain From Heaven

by Lois Tverberg

“The land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.” Deuteronomy 11:11-12

During our five weeks in Israel in late June and July, not once did it rain. In fact, almost 6 months go by each year without any rain, between May and October. In all of the Middle East, water is precious, like oil is nowadays. In ancient times, countries that had water in abundance became superpowers, and the countries with little barely survived. Egypt received almost no rain at all, but had abundant water from the flooding of the Nile. That was why when regional famine came, people went there to purchase food, like Abraham and later Joseph’s family. The water available from the Nile each year was 30,000 times more plentiful than the yearly rainfall to Israel – an enormous difference indeed!

waters of Dan.

Knowing this, we should be surprised that God saw the water of Israel as superior to that of Egypt. In Deuteronomy 11:10 – 12 it says,

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.

The difference between Egypt and Canaan was that in Egypt the crops were irrigated by the labor of hand-watering, while in Canaan the land was entirely watered by rain. In the ancient Middle East, that had profound spiritual implications, because rain was understood to be a gift straight from God, whereas water drawn by hand was a seen to be human self-reliance without regard to God. Egypt and Canaan, therefore, were a contrast of security of human effort compared to dependence on God.

This was a spiritual lesson for the Israelites when they left the land of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan — that when God chose a land for his people, he didn’t choose a place where they could have security because of their own efforts, he chose a land where they would be far more dependent on him and would need his presence watching over them to send them the living water of rain.

Many of us have seen God do the same thing in our own lives, when we step out to follow him and he takes us from security in our own efforts and brings us to a point of dependence on him, which doesn’t always include prosperity as the world sees it. God often desires dependence for his people rather than abundance, contrary to what “prosperity gospel” teachers may tell us. While we may not have the material wealth as if we lived in “Egypt,” we know that God’s eyes are on us from the beginning of the year to the end.

The Mountain of the Lord

by Lois Tverberg

Now it will come about that in the last days, the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations (or, Gentiles) will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths.’ For the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. – Isaiah 2:2-3

The words above are from a prophecy of what would happen in the last days, in the Messianic age. Because the Messiah has come, we are in that age, and it is fascinating to see how these words are finally coming true right before our eyes.

Specifically, it says that the nations (goyim, also Gentiles) will come to the land God has given his people, in order to study, to learn more about the Lord and how to follow him. In the past 50 years since the nation of Israel has been established, an enormous wealth of information has been uncovered to enrich our study of the Bible. Most of us are hardly aware of how important that has been for Christianity.


This welcoming sign greets everyone arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered the year Israel was established, have been some of the most important finds. They have shown the reliability and antiquity of the Scriptures, because they are over 1000 years older than other manuscripts. They date from Jesus’ time and give us much insight into the Essenes, an important part of the culture that Jesus was addressing. Every new discovery in archaeology gives another piece of the puzzle, making the text a little clearer. Some of the most important finds in Israel have been made in just the past 10 years! We can be optimistic about what is just around the corner.

Few may also know of a remarkable wave of scholarship that is developing as Christians and Jews are studying Jesus together in Israel. In former times, Christians have tended to miss the importance of Jesus’ Jewish context for understanding his message. But as they have traveled to Israel to study the land and manuscripts, the Jews there have worked together with them to yield great insights on Jesus’ life in its context. A pioneering group of scholars called the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research is part of this development, and has had fascinating insights on Jesus’ words in the light of his Jewish culture (1).

While Christians may not know of some of the amazing things that are going on in the land of Israel, they are starting to discover how powerful it is to personally experience the Promised Land. Many find that the text takes on brilliant color and new depth once they’ve walked the land.

It has taken thousands of years for a window to open, to enable the Gentiles to come from the ends of the earth to the mountain of the Lord. And only now have we had the tools to uncover evidence that God preserved below the surface of the land. How amazing of God, that he allows even us to be a part of the Scriptures, because we now are the fulfillment of his words in Isaiah 2 long ago.

En-Gedi Hiking

The God of the City

by Lois Tverberg

“Then they will rebuild the ancient ruins, they will raise up the former devastations;
and they will repair the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations.”
Isaiah 61:4

The first impression that I had after arriving in Israel, when we were traveling from the Tel Aviv airport toward Jerusalem, was the enormous amount of development that has occured in the three years since we last visited. Hills that were bare before are now full of houses. We saw it even in the West Bank, around Bethlehem, where many more villages and farms had established by the Palestinians. Considering how difficult the economy has been with the lack of tourism, it is surprising that people have been able to expand and develop as much they have.

I have to admit that my initial reaction to the new apartments and houses outside of Jerusalem was a sense of disappointment that the land is being covered in bricks and mortar.

jerusalem construction

But as I thought about it, I wondered if God might have a different reaction. The city of Jerusalem is where God’s temple once stood, and Jesus mourned the fact that God would let the city be destroyed. In the Messianic era, when God would restore things to the way they should be, God promised that the ancient ruins would be rebuilt, as it says in today’s verse. We should take joy in God’s faithfulness that he is fulfilling his promise and rebuilding his land, as he said he would long ago.

jerusalem construction

As much as I like grass and trees, and fancy that the Holy Land should be an unspoiled garden, I think that God may not share that sentiment. We can see God’s intentions by comparing the beginning of the Bible with its end. Originally, Eden is a paradise that had only two human beings in it. But in Revelation, when we again read about paradise, it has one big difference – it is a great city, thronging with people, where God dwells among them. It reminds us that God’s greatest glory will be when his children from every tribe and nation all come to live with him forever.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

… Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. (Revelation 21:3-5, 9-10)