One of our tour guides called the Holy Land “The Fifth Gospel”. What he meant is that to understand the teachings of Jesus part of the message of Good News is revealed in knowing the land, and its features.
When those of us from Europe of North America come to the Holy land we are often struck by the way in which so much of it seems rocky and not well suited for agriculture. To hear it described as a land of milk and honey doesn’t see fields borne out in reality. But to go there and discover that the fruit of the date palms is often made into “date honey” is to realize that bee honey is not the reference. To drive along and see the herds of sheep and goats that pasture on the sparse vegetation eventually brings the realization that these creatures that are all over the hillsides not only produce meat and fiber but also milk. Thus the date palms and pasturage for herds was to nomadic people a bountiful land flowing with milk and honey.
When Jesus speaks,for example. about going “up to Jerusalem” that is not directional as much as it is topographical. The road to Jerusalem from any other point in the country is a road that leads uphill. That road is even in the 21sdt century winding and the land desolate. In Jesus day there were robbers to lay waste the the heedless traveller who attempted it alone. To see the land is to better understand what each of Jesus hearers knew about the road to Jerusalem.
Seeing Judean wilderness along the old road from Jericho and Jerusalem brings new levels of meaning to the parable of the Good Samaritan. It helps explain as well the difficulty of the 40 years in the wilderness for the people of Israel and Jesus own 40 days in the Judean wilderness. This is not N American forest. It is a lot of rock, a very little water, even less shade, and a lot of dust blowing around. Their experience was not a long camping trip – it was an ordeal where mistakes threatened your very survival.
We did not visit a religious Disneyland where things are as they were at the time of Jesus. People have continued to live there, build and change things for two thousand years. But being there gives a better sense of the world, geography, the physical setting that was taken for granted by the writers of the gospels.
To see the tall hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee is to understand how a severe storm could come up suddenly and unexpectedly on this little lake, To see the stones and the occasional patches of land suitable for a bit of agriculture is to better understand the parable of the sower.
We have been enriched by our time studying the 5th Gospel and know it will help us in sharing all 5 gospels with others.