Ancient biblical and historical texts come alive through hiking

We wish you exciting explorations and discoveries on your journeys in the land of Israel with your Tanach and ancient history books in hand.

 THE WRITERS visit the Hasmonean Palace excavations in Jericho (photo credit: Rookie Billet)
THE WRITERS visit the Hasmonean Palace excavations in Jericho
(photo credit: Rookie Billet)

One of our favorite long-time joys and current pleasures is to walk the land of Israel and experience precious ancient works like the Bible and the Talmud come alive before us. This holds true of ancient historical works, as well.

One of the books in our library called Lachpor et HaTanach by Yitzchak Meitles, explores the relationship of archaeology to the Jewish Bible.

Articles on the subject include “Making the Bible Come to Life: Biblical Archaeology and the Teaching of Tanach in Jewish Schools” by Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, Tradition Winter 2003 Issue 37.4; and “Tanach and Archaeology,” a series of essays written by Rabbi Amnon Bazak published on the Yeshivat Har Etzion website.

The following quote is from the first piece in Rav Bazak’s series:

“The relations between Tanach and archaeology have undergone many changes since the study of the antiquities of Eretz Yisrael began in the 19th century. The earliest studies were conducted by American and British scholars, such as Edward Robinson (1794-1863) and Charles Warren (1840-1927), who had been dispatched in order to gain a deeper familiarity with the world of the Bible and to find actual traces of the biblical narratives.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, religious scholars such as William Albright (1891-1971) and G. Ernest Wright (1909-1974) introduced what became a central endeavor in the field: they sought, by means of archaeological findings, to demonstrate the authenticity of biblical narratives and thereby to disprove the documentary hypothesis...[A] similar school of scholarship arose in Israel, too, headed by Yigael Yadin (1917-1984)...Yadin viewed the strengthening of the bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel through archaeology as an important Zionist endeavor."

“The efforts included, inter alia, the search for testimonies concerning important historical events and the activities of the various kings of Israel and Judea. The assumption guiding these scholars was that the Tanach should be treated as a historical source that can serve to explain archaeological findings and whose own authenticity may in turn be demonstrated by the fieldwork.”

Rookie reminisces

Many years ago, as a young Judaic Studies teacher, I was conducting a class on Isaiah for my tenth-grade yeshiva day school students. The fifth chapter is the famous parable of the vineyard when Isaiah tells the sad story of the grape grower who lovingly tended his field, removed the stones, built a fence around the field to protect it, stayed out in the field at night to make sure no harm would come to the grapes and so many more loving agricultural actions with the goal of nurturing and protecting the grapes.

In the end, sadly, despite all this tender loving care and attention, the hoped-for sweet, juicy, beautiful grapes do not materialize. Instead, the yield is disappointing. Small, few and sour grapes are the yield of these vines that were so lovingly cared for.

THE COMMENTARIES explain that the God of Israel is the grape-grower, the vineyard is the land of Israel and the poor, sad and unfulfilling yield represents the Jewish people, who failed to follow the word of God, respond to His loving care, and meet His lofty and hopeful expectations for His chosen people.

Having prepared carefully, created a chart on which the students could record the meanings of the words of the parable and what the phrases represented in the message of the prophecy by following along in the text and commentaries and working with a study partner, I had high expectations for the time we would spend on this beautifully crafted and meaningful prophecy.

My students, however, were somewhat listless and not very motivated. Even my passion for the text and excitement about teaching did not move them.

Fast forward a year later, I was privileged to be accepted as a fellow in the Melton Center at Hebrew University’s Senior Educators’ Program, where Jewish educators from various denominations and many countries the world over gathered together to study, explore and dialog about Jewish content and goals and means of Jewish Education.

On one of our tiyulei Tanach, (hikes with a Bible in hand) we found ourselves with families like ours in the Gush Etzion area. The guide took us to a vineyard in the area where we sat under hanging vines with huge clusters of ripening grapes overhead. We sat on the ground as he read us the parable of the vineyard from Isaiah.

He explained why the prophet chose this image through which to convey the message of God. These vines were their livelihood and lifeblood. All their hopes and dreams revolved around planting, cultivation and the anticipated harvest.

Of course, the people would look up from their work and listen when the message was about the grapes. So real, so relevant! I finally understood why my carefully prepared lesson did not ignite the students’ passions.

Here in the actual vineyard was where the message was clear and timely, not in a classroom in Cedarhurst, Long Island.

Back to the two of us

This idea of the Tanach and Jewish history being so meaningful here in Israel is illustrated by several other examples we recently experienced. Last year, we took a challenging and meaningful hike in the Judean desert in the hills near Jerusalem. Our guide was excellent.

He took us to a place where we climbed to an area that he identified as the likely cliff where the he-goat of the Yom Kippur service was sent to Azazel, carrying all the sins and iniquities of the Jewish people. From this high place, one could see Jerusalem in the distance and the number of kilometers we had traversed indicated that this might be the right location.

The Mishna in Yoma describes how there were red banner signposts along the route that allowed the Kohanim in the Temple to know that the messenger and the goat had arrived at the designated place, and that the red string at the temple miraculously turned white at the moment the ritual of the Azazel goat was complete. Following the Torah reading and studying the Mishna informs us.

But, while carrying water and energy bars in our backpacks, wearing strong, supportive leather hiking shoes, and using walking sticks for support on the rocks and sand, experientially, we could only imagine the designated person walking all those miles from Jerusalem in the sun, hungry and thirsty, with none of the helpful supplies we were armed with, and coaxing a reluctant he-goat to complete the ritual. Indeed, in Israel, the Biblical passages and the Mishnaic texts come alive like nowhere else in the world.

This past summer, we walked through a water tunnel in the City of David. This tunnel was dug by King Hezekiah just under 3,000 years ago at the time of the Assyrian siege on Jerusalem.

The Bible refers to this in two places. In Chronicles II (32:30) “and it was Hezekiah who stopped up the spring of water of Upper Gihon, leading it downward west of the City of David...” and in Kings II (20:20) “Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah and all his might, and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah.”

Navigating the water tunnel with some of our children and grandchildren of all ages in tow will be a lasting memory that will enhance their biblical study throughout their lives.

THE QUOTE below from Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews book 6, chapter 8 (translation by William Whiston) serves as another example of witnessing an ancient chronicle come alive. (Josephus was a Jewish general who fought the Romans and then defected to them. He became a friend of Titus and witnessed the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE)."

“Now, when Caesar perceived that the upper city was so steep that it could not be possibly taken without raising banks against it” he then proceeded to take the necessary steps to breach the city.

This steepness of the upper city described by Josephus has been identified in the archaeological excavations of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and is called “the tsuk.” On one of our visits to the Western Wall site, we saw the tsuk and traveled back in time almost 2,000 years.

Most recently, on the Intermediate Days of Sukkot, we had a similar moment of enlightenment. With army security and being led by the Field School of Gush Etzion, we gathered in Mitzpei Yericho in our own cars to visit the excavations of the palaces of the Hasmonean kings on the outskirts of Jericho.

We both remembered how in our seventh-grade Jewish history classes in the day schools of New York we learned about the reigns of the Hasmonean kings and the in-fighting and rivalry over power and glory of Jews, or so-called Jews, with confusing Hellenistic names like Horkenus, Aristobulus and Herod. We learned how they vied for power, built palaces and edifices and sometimes killed one another in the process.

But there on location in the Jordan Valley, through the printed sources and lineage charts distributed, the archaeological outlines of the palatial homes and the lively explanations provided by the guide, all of a sudden, those ancient characters who were so hard to follow so many years ago were clarified in our mind's eyes like never before.

Other examples abound, whether one visits settings like Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, where the Jewish people gathered and announced the ancient blessings and curses listed in the Bible, one follows the tracks to discover the location of the awful story of the idol of Micha from the end of the book of Judges or visits the site of the Tabernacle in Shiloh or walks on the recently excavated street in the City of David where the Jewish pilgrims of old ascended to the Temple Mount for the water libations, there is no doubt that the historical records of the Jewish people attain a realism and vitality here like nowhere else in the world.

We wish you exciting explorations and discoveries on your journeys in the land of Israel with your Tanach and ancient history books in hand.

A recent oleh, Heshie Billet served as a pulpit rabbi for 44 years in the United States and is a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

A recent olah, Rookie Billet retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin and yoetzet halacha in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.