Musings on my recent trip to Israel – by Linda Hoffman Kimball, photography by Linda Hoffman Kimball
I recently returned from a tour of biblical and ancient archeological sites in Israel. Our guide, scholar Daniel O. McClellan, PhD – the active LDS biblical scholar whose podcast “Data over Dogma” is a compelling watch/listen for those of us who like to see ancient theological myths debunked and replaced with reasoned scholarship and civilized good will. We also had a local Israeli man (a non-practicing Jewish-born guide named Nave – a hip “Indiana Jones” type) – who gave us the inside scoop on current culture and Jewish history and traditions.
One place we visited was Masada where Herod the Great built lavish pleasure palaces in 37-31 BCE. One prevailing story is that the Jewish-Roman war of 72-73 CE (later than Herod the Great’s time there) ended with a mass suicide by a Jewish sect who chose that way to die rather than the letting the advancing Romans butcher them.
I found it moving to listen to Nave read to us from Ezekiel 37 while we were still up on the Masada site. That is the chapter that tells about the triumph of Jewish martyrs when their rattling bones and tendons eventually join together into new imperishable life. I tend to read those passages as an eventual triumph over physical death for all people, but Nave’s powerful recitation of those bold scriptures gave me new insights and vital perspectives.
On Saturday – the Sabbath in Jerusalem – we attended church at the BYU Jerusalem Center with its spectacular view of the entire city. One speaker summed up what I had been feeling about this complicated holy city. He said, “All around me, the water whispers and the rocks testify.”
We saw many major religious sites including the traditional and alternative sites for both the baptism of Jesus – at different spots along the Jordan River – and the briefly occupied tomb/s of Jesus after the crucifixion. While I have no dog in the fight over which tomb was the “real” one, I loved our discussion within a literal pebble’s throw from The Garden Tomb and the tutelage from Dan that afternoon under the shade of a tree with birds singing and flowers blooming.
One delight was being served a tasty meal at “Jimmy’s Buffet” in the Palestinian city of Jericho. After the meal Jimmy and his kin invited us to his adjoining gift shop featuring jewelry, souvenirs, and all-things-olive-wood. These items ranged from simply carved hearts to nativity sets in every size imaginable. While not Latter-day Saints themselves, Jimmy and his family are savvy to LDS customs and sell olive wood vials that hold olive oil for the healing of the sick. And – oddly – they also carry olive wood busts of Joseph Smith.
One detail that caught my imagination was a small ladder high up and outside one of the domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in a section of Old Jerusalem. The first evidence of the ladder comes from a 1728 engraving by Elzearius Horn. Here’s a quote from the linked article:
Sometime in the first half of the 18th century, someone placed a ladder up against the wall of the church. No one is sure who he was, or more importantly, to which sect he belonged. The ladder remains there to this date. No one dares touch it, lest they disturb the status quo, and provoke the wrath of others.
Even since the Church’s earliest days theological variants competed for the title of “the real” Church. Today’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher continues the tradition of having a delicate shared custodianship by:
the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Church, with lesser duties shared by Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches. The whole edifice is carefully parceled into sections, some being commonly shared while others belonging strictly to a particular sect.
This made me wonder about the unacknowledged “ladders” we find in our own Latter-day Saint church communities. Are there ways we institutionally don’t move “ladders”/ tensions that seem too delicate or dangerous to bring up depending on the make-up and mood of our local ward and general leaders? Might these “ladders” include LBGTQ concerns; varied and tense political stances; the status and well-being of unmarried church members; enhanced leadership opportunities for women; etc.?
Will our inabilities to resolve some of these issues stick around for nearly three centuries like that untouchable ladder? Might we be able to find a fragile peace like all the religious variants that maintain the Church of the Holy Sepulcher do? Can we – or should we as seekers of truth – accomplish that without addressing those challenges? Can we thrive as a group while those “ladders” are still untouched, disrupting our unity as a body of believers?
And now I will return to my photo files to relive my recent weeks and contemplate and sort the images.
That way I can be my own type of archeologist continuing to explore this significant trip still so fresh in my mind. I thank God for this eye-opening and mind-widening experience. I hope I never finish my dig.