If cemeteries disturb you, the Mount of Olives is not for you; it is today a place for the dead, containing thousands of graves. It has been so for millennia, as some of the tombs are more than 3,000 years old, dating from Canaanite times.This place marks the end of the Judean wilderness, as the Mount of Olives rises about 800 meters above sea level and more than a kilometer above the Dead Sea, standing as an eastern bulwark to keep the deadly desert from entering Jerusalem.
Mortality is everywhere, both historically and geographically on this mount and the adjoining Kidron Valley. Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, who died on the east side of this mount. Through that same valley and over the mountain, King David fled from his son Absalom, who sought his death. Instead, Absalom's monument stands at the mount's foot.
The scapegoat of Leviticus 16 was lead thorugh the Kidron Valley, soon to be tossed off a mountain in the desert, thus carrying away the sins of the people. Jesus prayed at the bottom of the mountain, asking his heavenly Father to excuse him from the ultimate sacrifice, but later that night was led through the Kidron to be the "lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world" (John 1).
And as Jesus' death resulted in life for many, death on the Mount of Olives is marked by a hope of resurrection.
Just six weeks before Jesus' final trip to Jerusalem, he went to Bethany on the backside of the Mount of Olives, just three kilometers away. Being told by Mary of Lazarus' death, Jesus replied: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he diesâ€¦"
Giving life to the four-days deceased Lazarus, Jesus would accelerate his own death and resurrection at the upcoming Passover.
Even the multitude of tombs on the mount testifies of a hope for new life.
Regarding the hillside's crypts, Shiela Gylenberg, a tour guide and instructor in Historical Geography at Israel College of the Bible, suggests that "perhaps the connection with the resurrection of the dead comes from Zechariah's prophecy [chapter 14] regarding a future day on which the Lord will fight against the nations that will gather against Jerusalem and 'His' feet will be seen on the Mount of Olives.
"Christian readers will almost automatically link this prophecy to the second coming of Messiah, although the Hebrew original has no direct reference to him. Jewish tradition, however, also links the appearance of the Messiah to the Mt. of Olives, perhaps based on the same Zechariah passage."
Adding to the mount's popularity as a final destination is a Jewish legend that devout Jews will burrow underground to get to the mount in the last days. Those already buried there are spared the journey.
Matthew 23 records that Jesus was teaching at the Temple, about 200 meters from the tomb-filled mount, when he accused his listeners: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous â€¦"
The graves, and particularly the "monumental burials of the priests and Sadducees at the foot of the mount," likely prompted Jesus to use them as a spiritual illustration, according to Gylenberg.
The Mount of Olives itself provided King David with a powerful metaphor in Psalms 125: "As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people."
"Standing on the Mt. of Olives, one can clearly visualize David, in his small capital on the ridge south of today's Old City - gazing up to the Mt. of Olives on the east, the Temple Mount on the north, the hills to the west and south, and seeing it all as a metaphor," Gylenberg explains.
In terms of terrain, the Mount of Olives is part of a 3.5 km ridge that includes Mt. Scopus to the north and the Mount of Offence to the south. Each of the three mesas is marked by a tower.
"More than 800 meters at its higher elevations, it acts as a barrier to the moist air coming in from the Mediterranean, forcing it to rise, cool and condense, showering Jerusalem and the Judean Hills with an average of 600 mm (24 inches) of annual rainfall. That is as much as London receives. But look east from the Mount of Olives and all one sees is dry wilderness - called a 'rain-shadow desert,' since the air passing over the Mount of Olives leaves all its moisture on the western side," according to Gylenberg.
This results in immediate badlands on the mount's eastern slopes, and even more barren conditions as the terrain drops below sea level so that Jericho, 20 km east (and more than a kilometer lower than the summit) receives about 20% as much rain as Jerusalem.
On the east of the mount, the soil changes from the verdant terra rosa to chalky limestone, which holds water poorly and is less likely to yield crops, especially on sloping land such as the Judean Wilderness, which plummets to the aptly named Dead Sea, the deepest spot on Earth.
Gylenberg elaborates: "Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem from Jericho [the only route the Bible records Jesus using to enter the city] would come through this wilderness and ascend the Mount of Olives. The contrast between barren wasteland and green fertility would have provided a feast to the eyes, and perhaps symbolized the spiritual refreshment that awaited them in the city where God had put His name."
But equally, this "thin green line" would emphasize to Jerusalem residents the fine line between life and death, abundance and doom, blessing and punishment, as it safeguarded Jerusalem against the Judean wilderness, called Jeshimon, meaning "devastation."
The first time the mount is mentioned in the Bible is in the story of King David, weeping as he fled from his son Absalom. David crossed the Kidron Valley, topped the Mount of Olives and plunged into the devastation. While Jeshimon meant death to most people, David, having gained wilderness skills as a shepherd and honed them while a refugee from King Saul, found sanctuary and wrote many of his most beloved Psalms there.
"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me â€¦" (Psalm 23).
"From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint â€¦" (Psalm 61).
"My soul thirsts for you, my soul longs for you, in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water â€¦" (Psalm 63).
One thousand years after David, one of his descendants entered the city during Passover.
Jesus was entering the city in triumph instead of exiting in disgrace, but like his forefather, Jesus wept on the Mount of Olives. "If you had known, even you, the things that make for peace â€¦" (Luke 19).
During that week Jesus taught about death and life. "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds â€¦" (John 12).
"Jesus often used the Mt. of Olives to teach his disciples about things that were to come," Gylenberg explains. During that Passover week, "the Mt. of Olives was where Jesus explained the signs of the end times, the tribulation to follow and his second coming in glory."
Just days after those lessons, Jesus would face death so that others "would not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3).
Jesus appeared to his followers six times during the next few weeks, each time urging them to share the life-giving gospel. The last time was on the Mount of Olives. Jesus commanded his disciples to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit, then to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1).
The disciples had a choice to make. They could return to the Sea of Galilee and live uneventful lives as generic fishermen, or they could return to the city to become fishers of men and probably die as martyrs.
Acts 1 records that they "returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives â€¦" descending the mount through the tombs, foreshadowing their future. The Scripture and early church records document most of them went on to die for their cause: Peter, crucified upside down; Andrew, stoned/crucified; James executed by Herod Agrippa; Bartholomew, beheadedâ€¦
Gylenberg concludes: "Perhaps it's significant in light of Zechariah's prophecy of the Lord's end-time victory over his enemies beginning on the Mount of Olives that Jesus chooses this location for his end-time teachings, and for his ascension. The words of the angels seem to tie the events to the prophecy: 'This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched him go'" (Acts. 1:11).
This article first appeared in the print Jerusalem Post Christian Edition