“I was very glad when they said to me,‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’” (Ps 122:1 NIRV) I just didn’t realize how steep the climb would be.
After descending deep into the tunnels of David’s City, wading through Hezekiah’s tunnel, and resting beside the Pool of Siloam, it was time to go up through Herod’s gutter and the Siloam Road to the Western Wall. And go up we did. And up. And up. There is a reason that Psalm 122 begins with an explanation that it is a song of ascent. Because going up to the house of the Lord means going up.
The Bible uses the expression “go up to Jerusalem” dozens of times. Before my visit to Israel, I sort of knew the temple was built on the mound where tradition states that Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. But there is a big difference between a vague understanding that the temple is up on a hill to actually driving up to Jerusalem, and then walking up to the Temple Mount. Whether ascending from the Dead Sea (from over 1,000 feet below sea level to over 2,400 feet above), or from the Valley of Elah, our bus slowly made the long climb up to Jerusalem with cars piled up behind us as we labored our way up the hills.
Within the walls of the old city we were also climbing as we wound our way up the tightly packed confines of the Via Dolorosa in the crowded Muslim Quarter on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In the Muslim Quarter, we climbed up the steps of a madrassa to peek out a window at the Dome of the Rock. In the Holy Sepulcher we climbed up worn, steep steps to glimpse the white rock of Calvary.
Even outside of Jerusalem it seemed we were always going up. Our bus wove up through the streets of Nazareth and labored up the hills to the Mount of Beatitudes. It crawled up the hills past Caesarea Philippi and up onto the volcanic cones of the Golan Heights. The bus climbed only part of the way up to Masada, and we went up the rest of the way by cable car, grateful not to have to make that climb on foot and trying to imagine Roman soldiers peering up the cliffs at the Jewish rebels above. On our way to Masada, we peered up from the comfort of our air-conditioned bus at the caves of Qumran perched high above the road and felt grateful we were not the desert fathers who climbed up to those heights
We hiked up the hot and dusty trail at En Gedi, surrounded by dust and desert, feeling like a deer panting for water(Ps 42:1). On every side were dusty hills pockmarked with caves. Was this where David cut the corner of Saul’s cloak? Our hot climb up the trail was rewarded with fresh cool water which poured upon our heads as we stood under the waterfall in utter delight. It gave us a profound understanding of the sheer joy and blessings that “streams in the desert” can bring.
Visiting Masada and En Gedi in the peak of August heat gave deeper meaning to what Ezekiel meant by “a dry and thirsty land.” Visiting a country where every toilet has two buttons (do you need a little flush or a big flush?) really drove home that we were in a desert. A desert with hills ridged with trails made by flocks grazing for millennia, finding tiny stalks of nourishment in the midst of the dust. Did David’s flocks help make those trails up those hills?
Israel is a flourishing desert, a desert growing up with fields of date trees and bananas. It is also a desert where security barriers are going up and, near Gaza, a desert of wary citizens waiting for sirens that warn of rockets going up. But beyond the strife and wariness, Israel is a land of prosperity and even security in the presence of its enemies, a place where things are looking up.
I was glad when they said to me, let’s go to Israel. For going to Israel brought the Bible, and the desert, to life.“Going up to Jerusalem” has taken on a new reality, and going up to Jerusalem was a high point, literally and figuratively, of my life.