In 1996, my husband and I visited Israel for a week. It was quite memorable, because as a Christian, it was surreal to actually SEE many of the places I had heard and read about so often in the Bible.
First, some general observations: Israel is quite small. It is just 1/3 the size of Indiana. This is amazing, to think that such a small nation has been at the center of so many major world events.
Also, the terrain of Israel varies greatly. Our trip began in the northern part of the country, where the land was lush and green. As we traveled south, the land became much more barren and desert-like.
In many of the cities we visited, there was a stark contrast between Jewish and Arab areas. The Jewish areas were generally very neat and well-kept, while the Arab areas were trash-strewn and run-down. I say this not in a prejudiced way – it was just a very obvious fact.
One of the greatest pluses of the trip, for me, was being able to actually put a place with a name. So often, when I read a place name in the Bible, I just skim over it. Now, I can say, Ah ha! I remember driving by there! Visiting various sites makes them much more real and meaningful.
Here are some sites we visited while visiting Israel:
QUMRAN: This is the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found (these contain the oldest and most accurate texts of the Bible). You can actually see the caves where the scrolls were discovered in 1947 by some Bedouin boys. This is also the site of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. The Sea has an unusually high concentration of salt, and many go into it for its supposed health benefits. I can’t vouch for that, but it is really fun to swim in – the high salt content makes it impossible to sink!
SEA OF GALILEE: This ‘sea’ (actually we would call it a lake – we learned that when “sea” is used in the Bible it can refer to ANY body of water) was the scene of many incidents from the life of Jesus. You can ride across the Sea in ‘The Jesus Boat’ – yes, terribly touristy – but hey, we WERE tourists!
BETHLEHEM: A church is built over the supposed site of Jesus’ birth. I say ‘supposed’, because since 2000 years have passed, the actual site is somewhat of a guess, based on traditions. The church is Greek Orthodox, with lots of incense, tassles, gaudy baubles, etc. There is a golden star on the floor at the site where Jesus was born. You can also visit shepherds’ field, which is a peaceful area perhaps near where the shepherds might have been watching their flocks on that long-ago Christmas night.
JERUSALEM: This is the “biggie” – the must-see if you could pick just one city to visit. You can actually walk in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night before his death. You can visit the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus was tried. You can visit the Temple Mount, where the magnificent Jewish Temple formerly stood (the Dome of the Rock, a muslim shrine, is now there – which greatly irritates the Jewish people). One side of the Temple Mount is the Western Wall (or the “Wailing Wall”, as it is often called in the US). This is where many Jews come to offer prayers. The wall is divided into a men’s and a women’s area, and you will find many prayers written on small pieces of paper and pushed into cracks in the wall.
As for the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – again, these are subject to speculation. The most likely site is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is a huge, quite crowded Greek Orthodox church. Another possibility (less likely historically, but more aesthetically pleasing) is the site of the Garden Tomb. This site was first suggested in the 1800s. There is a lovely garden, and nearby is a cliff with a clear skull face in the side (Golgotha?). You can visit a tomb there (Jesus’?) and take communion in the garden. The site is owned by England, and the tour guides are retired English pastors who volunteer for 2-month stints.
I recommend that every Christian visit Israel if at all possible. It will strengthen your faith and make Bible study come alive for you.