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Weekly Devotional: Comforted by God

“I will give thanks to You, O Lord; for although You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me” (Isaiah 12:1 NASB).

As children, we made mistakes. Sometimes a lot of mistakes. And, yes, sometimes our mistakes roused our parents’ anger. If we had good and loving parents, nothing was more comforting than when they looked past their anger and disappointment with us, saw our sorrow and sadness, and comforted us. We still make mistakes. And we still seek comfort.

We may not have comprehended it all as children, but somehow, we understood that in those moments when our parents chose to comfort us instead of acting on their righteous anger, we gained a genuine sense of awe for our parents. We knew that they had the right to their anger; we had fallen short. But they chose to comfort us instead.

The psalmist said, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4). It’s God’s mercy, His ability to turn from His anger and comfort us, that ought to draw us closer to Him. That He desires and is willing to do so is incredible. 

Do we allow Him to comfort us? We seek His comfort when we are hurting from life’s circumstances, but do we allow Him to comfort us when we have failed Him? Do we recognize that He desires to comfort us, even when He’s been angry at us?

God often forgives us more quickly than we forgive ourselves. God’s comfort in our lives, however, brings us to a place without fear: “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation” (Isaiah 12:2). It enables us to trust Him. 

When our parents sought to comfort us, despite our mistakes, it played an important role in building our trust with them. We most likely came to see that their love for us did not depend upon circumstances but instead was rooted deeply in their relationship with us.

We can trust God because He turns aside His anger with us to comfort us. He is for us. We need to allow Him to comfort us today.

PRAYER

Father, I thank You, for though You were angry with me, Your anger turned away and You comforted me. Amen.

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Biblical Israel: Qumran

By Marc Turnage

Located on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, about seven miles south of Jericho and twenty miles north of Ein Gedi, sits the ruins of Qumran. Eleven caves around Qumran yielded, arguably, the most important archaeological discovery of the twentieth century: the Dead Sea Scrolls. The current name, Qumran, comes from the Arabic word qamar (“moon”), so it was not its ancient name, which remains unknown. Some have suggested that it may be Secacah (Joshua 15:61-62). 

In 1947, in a cave just north of the ruins of Qumran, Bedouin shepherds discovered seven leather scrolls hidden inside. This set off the frantic search by scholars and Bedouin alike to discover more caves and scrolls. Around Qumran, eleven caves were discovered between 1952-1956 that contained scrolls. The discovery of scrolls in the caves around Qumran led archaeologists to excavate the ruins of Qumran in 1951 and from 1953-1956. 

The library of scrolls discovered in the eleven caves yielded approximately 30,000 fragments of scrolls, comprising about 1,000 manuscripts written on leather, papyrus, and one on copper, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The library proves incredibly important for our understanding of the text of the Old Testament, as well as ancient Judaism, the Judaism of the first century. 

Every book of the Old Testament, except for Esther, was discovered among the Qumran library. The most copied books were Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah, which are also the three Old Testament books most frequently quoted in the New Testament. The library also contained non-biblical works written by Jews from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D., with a unique collection of writings belonging to the Jewish sect that lived at Qumran, a group most scholars identify as the Essenes, which are mentioned by several ancient writers. 

Most scholars identify the ruins of Qumran as belonging to a group of Essenes. The site consists of rooms, which have been identified as a scriptorium, where the community members copied the scrolls, a dining room, which is the longest room at the site and had a pantry filled with bowls, plates, and cups. The site also contains pottery kilns, water reservoirs, as well as several large communal Jewish ritual immersion baths. 

The site, which sits in a dry, desert climate, used a series of dams and water channels to bring water from the nearby wadi, which flooded during the winter rains. The dams and channels ensured that water flowed into the settlement and filled the water installations. 

The discovery of the scrolls significantly advanced our understanding of the text of the Old Testament, as well as the world of ancient Judaism, which is the world of the New Testament.  

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

Website: WITBUniversity.com
Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Biblical Israel: Chorazin

By Marc Turnage

Located two and a half miles north of Capernaum, Chorazin sits in the hills overlooking the lake of Galilee at 45-46 meters above sea level and 267-273 meters above the lake. Although only mentioned once in the Gospels (Matthew 11:21-24; Luke 10:13-16), Jesus cursed the village for not repenting when seeing the miracles he worked in its midst. He cursed Chorazin, along with Capernaum and Bethsaida. Incidentally, the land between these three villages, on the north shore of the lake of Galilee, covers much of the territory of Jesus’ ministry recorded in the Gospels. 

The distance of Chorazin from the lake meant that it did not participate directly in the fishing industry on the lake. We learn from rabbinic literature that Chorazin produced exceptional wheat. Excavations of the site reveal that the village, which began in the first century A.D., was a Jewish village.

The majority of the ruins one sees when visiting Chorazin today date from after the first century, but they reflect Jewish village life in the Galilee. The central structure from the later village is the synagogue. Built perhaps as early as the third century A.D., the basalt structure resembles the Galilean style synagogues excavated at places like Capernaum, Bar’am, Meiron, and Arbel. 

The synagogue sits in the center of the village. Worshippers entered the hall through three entrances from a large staircase on the south, which faces towards Jerusalem. Two tiers of benches line the two long aisles and the short wall opposite the entrance in a “U” shape. Inside the synagogue, the basalt stone, which is hard to fashion, bears carvings and decorations. 

Excavators uncovered pieces of what appears to be a Torah Ark, where biblical scrolls read in the synagogue were kept. They also discovered a basalt stone seat, which was known as the Seat of Moses (see Matthew 23:1-2; Luke 4:20). The chair bears a dedicatory inscription in Aramaic, which reads, “Remember for good Yudan son of Ishmael, who made (or donated) this stoa, and its steps from his property. May he have a portion with the righteous.” Recent excavations in the floor of this synagogue indicate that it may stand on an earlier public building, perhaps the first century synagogue. 

Although the ruins of Chorazin that one sees today date to after the first century, the site contains a number of features in the homes, installations, like a covered Jewish ritual immersion bath, and details within the synagogue that help to illustrate stories from the Gospels and the life and ministry of Jesus.

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

Website: WITBUniversity.com
Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Biblical Israel: Magdala

By Marc Turnage

The site of Magdala sits a little over three miles north of Tiberias, on the southern edge of the plain of Gennesar, on the shore of the lake of Galilee.

Ancient sources seemingly refer to this site by three names; Greek and Latin sources refer to it as Taricheae; Hebrew and Aramaic sources use the names Magdala or Migdal Nunaya. Although a question remains whether all three names refer to the same site, many accept that they do. Since the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries A.D.), tradition has identified this site as the home of Mary Magdalene, mentioned in the Gospels, but Mary’s connection with this site is by no means certain. 

The ancient sources written in Greek and Latin, dating to the 1st century, refer to the site as Taricheae. Taricheae served as an important administrative center from the 1st century B.C. into the 1st century A.D. Its name in Greek refers to “factories (vats) for salting fish.” The city’s location on the shores of the lake of Galilee indicate that fishing and fish processing served as its primary industry. The administrative role of the city, as well as its size, suggest that its fishing and fish processing involved smaller villages that lay within its toparchy, like Capernaum. 

Gennesar (Gennesereth) is a large fertile plain on the northwest corner of the lake of Galilee. The name refers to the region of the fertile plain. Magdala functioned as the largest city and port serving the Gennesar Valley; thus, when Jesus arrives by boat to Gennesar (the region) in the Gospels, he likely used the port of Magdala. 

Archaeologists first excavated a small section of the site in the 1970s. Excavations since the 2000s have provided a number of significant finds that shed light on Jewish life around the lake of Galilee during the ministry of Jesus. Excavations have uncovered installations that likely served for the processing and salting of fish, indicating the identification of the site as Taricheae. They also uncovered a series of streets laid out in an urban grid pattern, and along some of these streets, houses were uncovered that speak to the wealth of the people that lived in them.

They were built with finely cut stones having mosaic tile floors. Pottery and glass vessels discovered in these homes further speak to the wealth of the inhabitants. These homes also had private Jewish ritual immersion baths (mikva’ot). Ground water filled and refilled these pools. Their presence is rather unique since the lake itself could serve Jewish ritual purity needs. The owners of these homes apparently desired a high degree of ritual purity, which required them to include private ritual immersion baths in their homes.

Excavations uncovered the ancient Hasmonean (1st century B.C.) and early Roman (1st century A.D.) harbor of Magdala. Pottery and coins provided a clear date for the structure, which had the mooring stones still in place. This harbor served the fishing industry of Magdala, as well as provided transit for travel around the lake. Magdala sits just below Mount Arbel, which overlooked a pass through which a road led from the northwest corner of the lake west into Galilee, and which could also be used by Galilean pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. 

Excavators uncovered a modest public building, which they have identified as a synagogue. This building consists of three phases. The middle phase dates to the early-mid 1st century A.D. This structure consists of an entrance with a narrow rectangular hall from the west, possibly a room for study known as a beit midrash. One passes from the entry vestibule into the main hall, which is surrounded on all sides by benches. This placed the focal point of the hall in the center of the room (this is a common layout for first century synagogues).

The aisles had mosaic floors, and the columns of the main hall were covered with frescoed plaster. The walls also had frescoes plaster upon them. In the center of the main hall, archaeologists discovered a stone with four short legs. This decorated stone preserves a number of images, the most striking of which is the seven branched menorah that resided in the Jerusalem Temple. The iconography of this stone seems to tie to the Temple in Jerusalem indicating that those in this synagogue connected their worship with the worship in the Temple. 

In the land of Israel in the 1st century, the primary function of the synagogue was the reading and teaching of the Torah. We see this with Jesus in the Gospels. The layout and orientation of 1st century synagogues in the land of Israel, like the one in Magdala, focus on the center of the hall where the Torah would be read and expounded upon. This stone discovered in Magdala has been identified as the base for a Torah reading stand. Jews read the Torah standing; they sit to teach (just like Jesus; see Luke 4:16-20). This decorated stone likely served as a base for a stand for the Torah reading, when all eyes would be fixed on the one reading and explicating the Torah (Luke 4:16-20).

The Gospels do not mention Jesus in Magdala. Yet, he sailed to the region of Gennesar where Magdala was located. He taught in all the synagogues of the villages and cities of Galilee. The Magdala synagogue dates from the time of his ministry; he could have taught there. Excavations at Magdala reveal that the population of the Galilee in the 1st century was Jewish, and devout Jews at that. Some had wealth, but they adhered to Jewish concerns of purity and worship.

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

Website: WITBUniversity.com
Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Biblical Israel: Elah Valley

By Marc Turnage

The biblical writers often assume their readers knew the geographic and regional dynamics of the land of Israel. Sites and locations offer more than simply places on a map; they provide the living landscape that shaped and formed the biblical stories. In addition, the authors of Scripture assume we understand the geographical and regional dynamics that played important roles within their stories.

A great example of this phenomenon is the Elah Valley. This valley serves as the setting for one of the most famous stories in the Bible: the confrontation between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). If the story simply boils down to us as “man kills giant,” we miss the geographic tension created by the author and understood by his audience. Let me explain.

The biblical land of Israel, west of the Jordan River, looks like a loaf of French bread: flat on the sides and puffy in the middle. The puffy middle represents the Hill Country that runs north-south through the land, forming its spine. On the western side of the French loaf along the Mediterranean sits the Coastal Plain. The Philistines lived there. The Israelites lived in the Hill Country, and between these two geographic zones lay a buffer area known in the Bible as the Shephelah of Judah. Low rolling hills with broad valleys characterize the Shephelah.

These valleys created west-east corridors for movement between the Coastal Plain and the Hill Country. Many places mentioned in the Bible lie in and along these valleys through the Shephelah; the Bible mentions them because of their situation in connection to these valleys and routes of travel.

The Elah Valley provides one of these corridors between the Coastal Plain (and the Philistines) and the Hill Country (and the Israelites). Located at the western mouth of the Elah Valley as it opens into the Coastal Plain sits Gath, Goliath’s hometown. At the eastern end of this valley—in the Hill Country—lies Bethlehem, David’s hometown. Is it any wonder that Goliath of Gath and David of Bethlehem met in the Elah Valley? But there’s more. 

The author of Samuel described the Philistines’ movement into the Elah Valley from the west: “Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah” (1 Samuel 17:1 NIV). Their movement into the Elah Valley—as well as its regional dynamics, with Bethlehem situated at its eastern end—indicate that the end goal for the Philistines was Bethlehem.

Acquiring Bethlehem provided entry into Judah, and it put them along the main north-south artery in the Central Hill Country. Their actions were not haphazard; they were strategic. And in the midst of these regional dynamics and the struggles between Israel and the Philistines, the author tells of the confrontation between David and Goliath. 

He assumed his audience understood the tension created by the geography of the story. The Philistines’ target: Bethlehem. Jessie and David from Bethlehem were concerned with how the battle fared. Where would David from Bethlehem and Goliath from Gath eventually meet? The author provides such a clear description of the valley, its villages, and even the brook that runs through it that one can stand in the Elah Valley identifying the lines of battle, the location of Saul’s forces and the Philistines, and the flight of the Philistines after David’s triumph.

When we understand the physical settings of the land of the Bible, a depth of understanding and insight into the stories of the Bible opens before us, and we begin to read the Bible as its first readers did and its authors intended. 

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

Website: WITBUniversity.com
Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Biblical Israel: Caesarea

By Marc Turnage

The book of Acts mentions Caesarea a number of times. In Caesarea, the Gospel came to the Gentiles for the first time as Peter proclaimed Jesus to the God-fearing Roman Centurion Cornelius and his family, who subsequently received the Holy Spirit as the Jews had (Acts 10). 

The grandson of Herod the Great, Agrippa I, died in Caesarea, an event related in Acts and by the first century Jewish historian Josephus (Acts 12:19-23; Josephus, Antiquities 19.343-350). Paul sailed to and from Caesarea on multiple occasions (Acts 9:26-30; 18:22; 27:2). Paul also remained in Caesarea under house arrest, where he faced the Roman Procurators Felix and Festus, as well as the great-grandson of Herod the Great, Agrippa II, and his sister Bernice, before he sailed to Rome appealing to Caesar (Acts 23:23-27:2).

While Paul found himself under house arrest in Caesarea, Luke—the author of Luke and Acts— was part of Paul’s company, yet he could move freely throughout the land of Israel. It seems reasonable that while he resided in the land of Israel, he came in contact with the material he used to write his life of Jesus and the first part of the book of Acts, before he joined the story in Acts 16 (see Luke 1:1-4).

Herod the Great built up a small Phoenician port named “Strato’s Tower” into the second-largest harbor in the Mediterranean, which he named after his friend and benefactor Caesar Augustus. Around the harbor, which he called Sebastos, Augustus’s Greek name, he built a city with a palace, stadium, theater, and a temple to Augustus. The city continued to grow and expand, reaching its height in the late Roman and Byzantine eras (third through seventh centuries). 

After the death of Herod in 4 B.C., the territory of Caesarea fell to his son Archelaus (Matthew 2:22). Rome, however, removed Archelaus from power in A.D. 6 at the request of his Jewish subjects. Rome annexed his territory and brought it under direct Roman rule, which took the form of Roman prefects. These provincial governors, like Pontius Pilate, resided in Caesarea as it became the headquarters and administrative center for the Roman governors. 

Archaeologists uncovered a dedicatory inscription of a small temple to the Roman Emperor Tiberias by the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate. This inscription actually provides an important window into the psychology of Pilate, who went to excessive lengths to put himself in good favor with the emperor.  

The First Jewish Revolt against Rome (A.D. 66-73) broke out in Caesarea as tensions between the local Jews and Gentiles boiled over. At the conclusion of the revolt, the Roman general Titus forced 2,500 Jewish prisoners of war to fight to the death in the stadium of Caesarea as part of his victory games.

Caesarea played an important role in the history of the Church Fathers. Origen (A.D. 185-254) taught 23 years in Caesarea, where he established a library. Eusebius used the library of Caesarea to write his Ecclesiastical History. 

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

Website: WITBUniversity.com
Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Weekly Devotional: Waiting for Redemption

“And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God” (Luke 2:25-28 NKJV).

Simeon waited all his life yearning and longing to see God’s redemption. He hoped and prayed for it. He may not have lived long enough to see the consolation of Israel, but he did see the way God would bring it about. He saw the Lord’s anointed. 

We live in a world of instant gratification, fast food, instant messaging, and video-on-demand. Perhaps nothing displays this more than the commercialism of the Christmas holiday season. However, the story of Christmas is about patience, not immediacy. It’s about God fulfilling His long-awaited promise to Israel’s fathers, answering the hope of redemption. It’s about the patience to wait.

Simeon waited (Luke 2:25-35). He hoped. He trusted. He waited for the salvation of Israel and his people (2:25). And, as an old man, he knew that when he held the baby Jesus that he would not be there to see the completion of the child’s mission (2:29-32), yet he trusted that God would fulfill His promises through this child. He only caught a glimpse of what He waited for, and he was content because He knew that God was faithful and would do what He promised.

We so often make our faith about us. We do this with Christmas—what Christmas means to me, what God has done for me. Simeon never saw the end of God’s promised redemption. Yet, when he held the baby Jesus, he understood that God’s redemption did not place him, Simeon, at the center; it was not about what God would do personally for him. Rather, God’s redemption would come to all. The collective redemption meant more than his own personal comfort.

We often treat our faith as instant gratification. Instant. Immediate. And when it doesn’t happen as we want, we become frustrated with God. We make excuses why it hasn’t happened. Our faith sometimes proves rather weak and impatient when compared to that of Simeon’s, who had the patience to wait and never lose sight of the God who promised.

Are we content to play a part in God’s overall plan? Christmas poses that question to each of us. The figures of the Christmas story all played roles in God’s redemptive plan. None of them saw the entire fulfillment of God’s promises, and neither have we.

Yet are we willing to play our part in His plan? Or do we place ourselves at the center of the Christmas story? Simeon waited. He trusted. And he rejoiced to see part of God’s promise fulfilled knowing that the God who promised would ultimately bring His promises to fulfillment.

PRAYER

Father, waiting is difficult. Being patient challenges us, but we know that You fulfill Your plans and promises. So, we choose to trust and submit to You obediently to play whatever role You have for us for Your glory. Amen. 

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Biblical Israel: Bethlehem

By Marc Turnage

Bethlehem gains its notoriety as the birthplace of Jesus (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:1-7); however, by the time of Jesus’ birth, the village already had quite a history. Bethlehem first appears in the Amarna Letters (14th century B.C.) as a Canaanite town. Its name comes from this period and means “house” or temple (“beth”) of Lahmu, a Canaanite deity; it did not, as is commonly assumed, mean “house of bread.” Bethlehem played an important role in the Old Testament, as it was the home of David (1 Samuel 16). 

Bethlehem’s location along the central watershed route that ran north-south through the Hill Country accounts for much of its importance. Located five-and-a-half miles south of Jerusalem and thirteen-and-a-half miles north of Hebron, it served as a major juncture of roads coming from east and west that connected to the watershed route. Its strategic position and close proximity to Jerusalem led Rehoboam, king of Judah, to fortify it as part of his defenses of Judah. So, too, Herod the Great built his palace fortress Herodium to the east of Bethlehem, guarding a road that ascended to the Hill Country from En Gedi in the first century B.C. 

Bethlehem sat at the eastern end of the Elah Valley (1 Samuel 17), whose western end opened onto the Coastal Plain, the land of the Philistines. Thus, when the Philistines moved into the Elah Valley (1 Samuel 17), Bethlehem was their goal, which explains the interest of Jessie and his son David in the conflict taking place in the valley. During the wars between David and the Philistines, the Philistines eventually set up a garrison at Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:14-16; 1 Chronicles 11:16), indicating David’s struggles to control the major roadways of his kingdom. 

David’s connection to Bethlehem derived, in part, from its location within the tribal territory of Judah, in which it was the northernmost settlement of Judah (Judges 19:11-12). In the fields around Bethlehem, David’s ancestors Boaz and Ruth met, and the prophet Samuel anointed David in Bethlehem, at the home of his father Jessie (1 Samuel 16). 

In the first century, Bethlehem remained a small town on the southern edge of Jerusalem. The proximity of these two locations is seen in the stories of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2 and Luke 2:1-38). Early Christian traditions, as well as the earliest Christian artwork, depict the birth of Jesus within a cave in Bethlehem. Homes in the Hill Country often incorporated natural caves into the structure. Animals could be kept within the cave, having the main living space of the family separated from the animals by a row of mangers. 

Following the Bar Kochba Revolt (A.D. 132-136), the Romans expelled Jews from Bethlehem and its vicinity as part of their expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, which was renamed Aelia Capitolina. The Emperor Hadrian built a pagan sanctuary to Adonis above the cave identified as the birthplace of Jesus. The church father Tertullian confirmed that at the end of the second century A.D. no Jews remained in Bethlehem. 

In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine—as part of his move toward Christianity—built three churches in Palestine (which is the name the Romans called the land at this time). One, the Church of Nativity, he built in Bethlehem over the traditional site of Jesus’ birthplace. Begun in A.D. 326, the church incorporated the traditional cave identified as Jesus’ birthplace into the building. St. Jerome came to Bethlehem and lived in caves around the church at the end of the fourth century to learn Hebrew from the local Jewish population, so he could translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin (the Vulgate). A Samaritan revolt in 529 partially destroyed the Constantinian church. The Emperor Justinian ordered its rebuilding, which the modern Church of Nativity reflects with minor modifications.

Very little archaeological work has been done in Bethlehem. Most comes from around the Church of Nativity, but no systematic excavations have been carried out. The modern city of Bethlehem impedes the ability of much archaeological activity; thus, very little is known about Bethlehem’s archaeological past. 

Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.

Website: WITBUniversity.com
Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Weekly Devotional: Glory to God in the Highest

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:10-14 NKJV)

We often sing, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains” at Christmas. The season would not be complete without “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”—Glory to God in the highest. Yet how often do we reflect upon the meaning of the words the angels declared? 

The praise of the angels to the shepherds recorded in Luke’s Gospel (2:13-14) underscored the reality of God’s nearness in the birth of Jesus, as well as embodying Jewish redemptive hopes of the first century. 

It also gives voice to the hope for redemption shared by Jews and Christians through the centuries. With the advent of Jesus, God draws near to His people—His goodwill is for everyone. His reign dawns through those who obey His will. He demonstrates that He is Immanuel—God with us. 

The angels told the shepherds that their good news “will be to all people” (Luke 2:10). God’s goodwill is not simply for a select or chosen group of people; it extends to everyone, for “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45 NASB). 

His merciful will reaches out to all mankind to bring peace, healing, and wholeness. And, in the birth of Jesus, God has drawn near to demonstrate within the bounds of history what His will is, to give voice and example to His will (see Hebrews 1:1-2). 

God’s will is for all humankind. In the birth of Jesus, His glory, peace, and favor have drawn near to everyone. This is the good news the angels proclaimed: God is for us! 

The message of the angels was an announcement of God’s nearness. God is for us, and He has drawn near to us. God is a part of human history; therefore, there is hope. 

God has not turned a blind eye to the suffering of the righteous or a deaf ear to the cry of the afflicted. His love and mercy extends to all mankind: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” 

PRAYER

Father, in this Christmas, as we reflect on Your nearness and goodwill toward us, may we extend Your mercy and goodwill to everyone around us, even those who are away from you. And, in so doing, may we truly proclaim with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Amen. 

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Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights

By Julie Stahl

“It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication. He was in the Temple, walking through the section known as Solomon’s Colonnade” (John 10:22-23).

For eight days Jewish people around the world celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday marking a great victory over 2,000 years ago.

“This is a holiday about spirituality; this is a holiday about values, this is a holiday about connecting to God,” says Rebecca Spiro, a Jerusalem Old City resident.

Also known as the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah is a not mentioned in the Old Testament, but it is in the New Testament.  

“It’s a holiday that celebrates religious freedom and our victory against oppression and our ability to rededicate the Temple,” says Spiro.

In the second century B.C., the Jewish people in Judea revolted against the Syrian-Greek (Seleucid) conquerors. 

The Syrian-Greek King Antiochus IV ruled over Israel in 174 B.C. He began to unify his kingdom by imposing pagan religion and culture on the Jews—forcing them to eat pork and forbidding Sabbath observance, Bible (Torah) study, and circumcision. Worse still, the Seleucids defiled the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicated it to the Greek God Zeus.

Mattathias, a sage from the village of Modiin, and his five sons took a stand against the prohibitions and idolatry and fled to the hills of Judea. There they raised a small army and engaged in guerilla warfare against the Seleucid Empire. 

Before his death, Mattathias appointed his son Judah the Strong as their leader. Judah was called “Maccabee,” a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words, Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Adonai, which means, “Who is like You, O God.”

King Antiochus sent his General Apollonius to wipe out Judah and his followers, but he was defeated. So, he sent tens of thousands of more soldiers to fight. The Maccabees responded by declaring, “Let us fight unto death in defense of our souls and our Temple!” They assembled in Mitzpah, where Samuel, the prophet, had prayed to God. 

Although they were greatly outnumbered, the Maccabees won and returned to Jerusalem to liberate and cleanse the Holy Temple from the idols that Antiochus had placed inside. 

On the 25th day of the month of Kislev, in the year 139 B.C., the Maccabees rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem. The legend says that there was only enough sacred oil for the menorah (“candelabrum” with seven branches used in the Temple in Jerusalem) to burn for one day but when they lit it, it miraculously burned for eight days—enough time to purify more oil. That’s why Hanukkah lasts for eight days.  

The Maccabees were also important in early Christianity. Recently, archaeologists uncovered tombs believed to be those of the Hasmoneans about a mile from the modern Israeli city of Modiin and about 20 miles from Jerusalem in the area where the Maccabees would have lived.  

At the site, there was a mosaic floor with a cross on it. Archaeologists suggest that Byzantine Christians found the original tomb and decorated it with the mosaic.

“The Maccabees were Jewish leaders, Jewish rebels. They removed the Greek empire and Greek presence from what is now modern Israel and they established an independent Jewish state, which makes it significant to both Judaism and Christianity,” says archaeologist Dan Shachar.

Another indication of their importance to early Christians is that the books of the Maccabees are part of the Apocryphal books, canonized as part of the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Bibles, but they are not part of the Jewish or other Christian Bibles.   

Today, Jewish people light a special Hanukkah menorah, called a Hanukkiah with nine branches—one for each of the eight days and an additional one called the shamash or “servant candle” used to light the others. Each day an additional candle is lit so that by the eighth day they are all ablaze.

Because of the oil, eating delicious fried foods like latkes (“potato pancakes”) and soufganiot (“jelly donuts”) is another Hanukkah tradition. 

Hanukkah falls around and sometimes coincides with Christmas time. Children are often given presents each day of the holiday.

Spiro says there’s a message in the holiday for today.

“The world’s coming up against Israel. The wolves are circling the sheep. This is nothing new, and the message for Hanukkah is no matter what happens our candles burn bright,” she says. “Civilizations have come and gone, but the Jewish people are still here.”

Julie Stahl is a correspondent for CBN News in the Middle East. A Hebrew speaker, she has been covering news in Israel full-time for more than 20 years. Julie’s life as a journalist has been intertwined with CBN—first as a graduate student in Journalism at Regent University; then as a journalist with Middle East Television (METV) when it was owned by CBN from 1989-91; and now with the Middle East Bureau of CBN News in Jerusalem since 2009. She is also an integral part of CBN News’ award-winning show, Jerusalem Dateline, a weekly news program providing a biblical and prophetic perspective to what is happening in Israel and the Middle East. 

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