When you read the Bible, as when you read any book, you construct a mental picture of what the place you’re reading about looks like. If you’re lucky enough to have seen a drawing or picture of the place, you might develop a more accurate picture, but that picture usually has no depth—it’s flat and missing that spark of realism. Or, if you haven’t seen a picture of say, the Sea of Galilee, you might picture any other large body of water you’ve seen with some vaguely ancient-looking fishing boats (whatever that might look like). But, actually seeing Israel in person changes everything.
Now that I’ve taken a cruise across the Sea of Galilee, I can see the smooth blue water stretching out to the other side of the rocky shore bordered by rocky hills (the “sea” is more the size of a lake). I can see the hills of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. I can see the houses on those hills overlooking the same land where people lived millennia before. I can feel that this area could be home.
After visiting Magdala and seeing the 1st century synagogue there where Jesus surely taught, I can see the layout of a synagogue building, what remains of the beautiful mosaic pattern on the floor, the dip worn into the stone entryway where countless feet crossed to hear and study Scripture.
From the Mt. of Olives you can look right across to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, and in fact we made the short walk across downhill and uphill through streets crowded with cars and people. At the Temple Mount, we saw the ritual baths, the entry gates, the pool of Siloam, the walls with the stones still standing from the time of Herod. And, of course, we saw the Western Wall crowded with celebrations and prayers on Shabbat.
All of these places are real and alive. Now that I’ve been to Israel, I can better understand where many places mentioned in the Bible stand in relation to one another. I can feel the air and the sun and the ground. I can feel the old, sometimes see the old, mixed in with the new across the land of Israel.
I have heard my grandparents and little sisters tell me that when they first started hearing Bible stories, they thought that the places either weren’t real or were too old to exist anymore. I myself remember thinking when I was a child that the temple couldn’t still be there, or the Jezreel Valley where you can see Mt. Gilboa, where Saul died, and Mt. Tabor, where Deborah and Barak camped in the OT. But, these places are real and alive, just like God’s word. People live in the land and have built their lives over and around and in the rich history of the place.
It is important to read the Bible as a living story about real people with hopes and futures living in real places where people still live today. The people whose stories we read in the Bible aren’t much different from the people living there today—people don’t change much, we all have the same basic emotions and needs. These people had life and breath in a place with a history and a story that continues to live on echoing their presence. These traditions and places aren’t the dust of the past but an enduring foundation of our faith today. Seeing Israel in person heightened my experience of knowing the reality and living spirit of the people and places in Scripture.