ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Can a land be born in one day? Can a nation be brought forth all at once? As soon as Zion travailed, she also brought forth her sons,” Isaiah wrote. There are many -– Jews and non-Jews alike — who believe the prophet’s words were fulfilled on May 14, 1948, when Israel became an independent state.
It has been 60 years since Israel was established as an independent state. In the six decades since the historic pronouncement, Israel has experienced constant tension and periodic conflict with its neighbors — some of whom have expressed a desire to see Israel annihilated.
In spite of hostility and war, Israel has not only survived as a nation for six decades, but it has managed to thrive. The population of Israel in 1948 was estimated at around 800,000. Today it is more than 7 million and growing.
As a Christian, I have always been interested in the land of Israel. It is where the most significant events of my faith occurred. As a result, I have studied the history and geography of Israel for years.
I never possessed a burning desire to visit Israel. I have met people who have toured the Holy Land and declared it to be a life-changing experience. Such statements never resonated with me. My faith, after all, is in the person of Jesus Christ and not in the place where He walked. That said, when I was recently given the opportunity to visit Israel, I accepted. I was privileged to be among nine Southern Baptist newspaper editors who were invited to tour Israel as guests of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. And tour we did. Our guide quipped that we were going to run where Jesus walked. And “run” we did.
Our whirlwind trip included visits to Joppa, where Jonah fled hoping to escape God’s call to Nineveh; Mt. Carmel, where Elijah faced off with the prophets of Baal; Nazareth, where Jesus grew up; the region of the Sea of Galilee, where most of Jesus’ ministry occurred; the Dead Sea area; Jerusalem, site of the Temple Mount and the last episodes of Jesus’ life on earth.
Though my time in Israel was brief, a few things really made an impression — one of which was the ingenuity of the Israelis. The land of Israel was once mostly barren. Now it is lush with produce of every kind. Famed author Mark Twain visited the Holy Land in 1867. He published his experience in a work titled “The Innocents Abroad.” In it he made the following observation of Israel:
“A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds … a silent mournful expanse … desolation … [W]e never saw a human being on the whole route … hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
If Mr. Twain could tour Israel today, he would find orchards and fields bursting with produce that is exported around the world. “In the days to come Jacob will take root,” Isaiah wrote. “Israel will blossom and sprout, and they will fill the whole world with fruit.” By effort and ingenuity, modern Israel seems to be fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.
I also was struck by the sense of destiny that many, perhaps most, Israelis possess. In spite of the tension with neighboring countries, several people I interacted with spoke with confidence about their decision to immigrate to Israel.
I asked one man, who had uprooted his family from a comfortable life in New York, why he made the move. I indicated that he could be an observant Jew in America. He replied, “Because God gave us this land.”
This sense of destiny causes Israel to take security issues very seriously. The ubiquitous presence of the Israeli military and state police made me feel safer roaming Israel than I do many places in the United States.
For me, traveling to Israel produced a sense of clarity. Before my trip, I had to imagine the Sea of Galilee or Mt. Carmel. Now when I read Bible texts, I can see the contours and colors. I believe I have a better grasp of life as it is described in the Bible.
While I do not hold any ground in Israel as sacred, I have to admit to experiencing certain awe in a historical sense. While you cannot know if you are standing at an exact spot a biblical event took place, you know you are very near.
One sobering stop for me was the Garden of Gethsemane. Though it is much smaller now than in the time of Jesus, it is where He agonized over His date with the cross. It was there He accepted his Father’s will to become the sacrifice for my sin. I might not consider it a sacred spot, but I do maintain that is a very special place.
On May 14, Israel will celebrate 60 years as an independent state –- a significant date in the annals of history. Israel’s history, however, extends back thousands of years. Having experienced that history up close and personal, I highly recommend walking -– or even running –- where Jesus walked.
Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each week in Baptist Press, is editor of the Baptist Message, the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, which is online at baptistmessage.com.