Note: As much as I wish I was, I’m not back in Israel. The blogs for the second half of the trip in May have been sitting in my drafts folder all summer, waiting for me to have a couple of free days to process through them and add the final details. With less than a week before classes start up again, I finally found those days! Enjoy my reflections on the second week of our incredible trip.
Day 8: Thursday
Thursday was a busy day, that’s for sure!
We spent the morning at Bet Shean (the largest city to be uncovered within the past 20 years)
Kursi (the location for what is known as the miracle of the swine), Tabgna (the location commemorating the feeding of the 5,000, and the instance when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection and affirmed Peter’s love for him),
and finally Capernaum (Jesus’ “hometown” during his ministry)
Each of these sites were fascinating, and there’s so much I could draw from each of them to share with you. But I actually want to focus in on the one that potentially sounds “least important”: Kursi.
“They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.
Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.
A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.
The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.”
I’ve always found this account (and the correlating ones in Matthew and Mark) to be interesting, albeit rather on the confusing side of things. However, the pieces that seemed to be missing for me fell into place with a bit more cultural context.
Why pigs? Why did they collectively stampede into a lake? Why did they drown?
Well, pigs were considered unclean animals. And as I’ve alluded to previously, large bodies of water in Jesus’ day were symbolic of chaos, and even often thought of as “the abyss” or entrance to hell.
The Legion of demons being sent out of a man and into that which was unclean, carried straight to the gaping mouth of the abyss, makes a bold, clear, and authoritative statement to the powers of darkness: “You have no place or power here. This is no longer Legion’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God has come! Leave, and wait for the appointed time of your judgement.”
They knew who Jesus was. When they saw Him, the man they were possessing fell to his knees, because they recognized Him clearly. Even a legion of demons has to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. They had to submit to the authority of the Son of God. Jesus Christ, bringing the Kingdom here, and defeating the devil in His birth, life, death, and resurrection. Every word is one of victory. This is our God.
But the story doesn’t stop there. The man, freed from demon possession and in his right mind, begs to go with Jesus and follow him closely. But instead, Jesus sends him out with the instruction to “tell how much God has done for you”. At it’s core, this story is missional. The man went and told, and many believed. Those people formed churches. The eventual bishop of that area was one of the authors of the Nicene Creed. And that creed is held to be central by many worldwide church traditions. Gospel transformation is kingdom transformation, friends! What an incredible design our God weaves.
Day 9: Friday
Friday we took a trip back to the Old Testament, to the beautiful Mt. Carmel — the vineyard of God. We climbed over large rocks and through dense shrubbery, and eventually settled in a broad semi-circle overlooking a valley of lush agriculture.
And then, in our minds eye, we went back to a time where the beauty and life around us were dried up, and the people in the surrounding towns were confused about who the true God was, and where syncretism of religions was widely practiced (1 Kings 16-17).
The two “competing” powers were Ba’al, the god of fertility and rain, and YHWH, the God of the Israelites.
So God calls Elijah to announce a drought. No rain. God is stopping the best thing that Ba’al has going for him. And after three years of intense drought and famine, God calls Elijah to make another announcement: the time has come for the people to see who really deserves their worship.
We read the narrative in 1 Kings 18, starting in verse 19, when Elijah is speaking to King Ahab:
“Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
When my professor finished reading, he looked up and asked “Can you say that? The LORD is God Alone. The LORD is my God! Is that your answer too? Do not waver between two opinions. Not here on this physical mountain, not at home in your metaphorical valleys. Be faithful. Know that The Lord — he is God.”
Amen, and amen.