All opinions expressed are those of the writer.
What words would I have used to describe Israel before I traveled to the country? I would have said that it was a holy place, a promised land, a homeland for God’s people, something wild and natural and pure. When I envisioned the place, I imagined it in shades of greens and browns—deserts and pasturelands, stone cities and villages.
When I traveled to Israel with Passages in 2017, these pictures began to unravel. While there are serene deserts and fields, as well as buildings and synagogues that are standing from before the time that Jesus walked on the earth, these pockets of biblical scenes do not describe the whole of Israel.
In 2019, I lived in Nazareth for several months while serving as a Galilea Fellow, and these are the words that I chose to describe the scenery that surrounded me in my daily life:
Alleyways— cut haphazardly through main streets. Narrow roads that wind uphill into darkness. Overflowing trash cans and motorcycles tucked between tall houses.
Graffiti on a majestic stone wall, illuminated by paper lanterns that hang above the street, swaying in the dark.
Thick black spray paint spells in swirling letters, L-O-R-D.
Is it an excited exclamation? Is it a cry for help, for mercy, for justice? Is this the product of somebody who was moved by the Spirit? Or the artwork of a secular person taking God’s name in vain?
Church bells sound throughout the city, echoing grandly from the Orthodox Church. A man shouts in a deep sing-song voice from the top of a mosque, calling the Muslims to the fifth and final prayer of the day. Car horns honk and angry drivers curse at one another. An Orthodox Jewish man straps a tefillah to his forehead. One shopkeeper stocks his shelves with books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and says a silent prayer for peace. An IDF soldier stands at the bus stop with an ominous looking gun hanging casually at his hip. Nuns shuffle through the streets, stirring up the pigeons who are picking at crumbs. The booming of fireworks shakes the earth like a pulse, informing the city that yet another wedding is taking place. Babies cry, and stray cats scream from the rooftops as they wrestle each other for scraps of stolen meat. Old friends sit outside smoking hookah, blowing circles of smoke into the sky and laughing too loudly. A priest kneels before a cross, and in the distant somewhere a pot of Arabic coffee boils over.
In the midst of all of this, all the anonymous author could think to write was L-O-R-D, and he was right.
This excerpt from a journal entry that I wrote in Nazareth was my best attempt to capture the diversity, color, and even chaos that I observed in Israel. Israel is not all pastures and prayers; it is graffiti on the walls of boarded up buildings and thousands of houses filled with thousands of different religious and political opinions.
In 2017, when I first travelled to Israel with Passages, a tour guide led my group around the Temple Mount. He showed us a millenniums-old piece of stone with Hebrew characters written on it, and he told us that one of the things that constantly amazed him about living in Israel was the continuity of Jewish culture; he said that it was amazing to him that he could see an ancient inscription and easily read it in his own language. He read the words on the stone to us, and explained that they were unimportant. “They’re just ancient graffiti,” he said.
When I wrote the above journal entry and as I write this article, the words of that guide come back to me. Like that guide at the Temple Mount, I too am amazed by continuity: the continuity of human nature. Even though I sometimes imagined Israel as a simple sacred oasis, the truth is that from thousands of years ago to the present day, Israel has been as complex as the people that fill it. It is made of colors, smells, sounds, dreams, and imperfections that clash together into a society and a story.
In this way, Israel is like any other country; yet it is also unique. It collects litter, but it also collects pilgrims from all over the world.
Why? Why is it worth traveling to? Why is it worth writing about?
Because God said it was good. Not by its own virtue but by virtue ascribed by Him, a country filled with tension and graffiti and Kosher Mcdonalds continues to stand as a beacon among her neighbors.