Blog

Biblical Israel: Wadi Qilt

By Marc Turnage

Roadways are one of the most significant aspects of biblical geography. Roads often gave significance to locations, villages, and cities. In fact, roadways influenced and dictated settlement patterns, the building and establishing of cities and villages. Controlling roadways meant control of travel, commerce, and communication. Many of the events described in the Bible happen due to their strategic locations along important roadways. This aspect of biblical geography is often missed by the casual reader of the Bible. 

One of the challenges faced by Jerusalem in the period of the Old Testament was that it did not sit directly on major roadways. The principal north-south road through the central hill country laid west of the city, and deep canyons to its west and east made access from these directions very difficult. Therefore, the Central Benjamin Plateau, the tribal territory of Benjamin, was so important for Jerusalem; it provided the convergence of north-south and east-west roads. It was Jerusalem’s crossroads. If a resident of Jerusalem wanted to go to the east or west, he or she first traveled north to Benjamin where they met up with the east-west roads.

This reality continued to some extent into the New Testament period. However, with Jerusalem’s increased importance and the connection between it and Jericho, which sits about twenty-three miles to the east, a roadway was established between Jerusalem and Jericho. Over the course of these twenty-three miles, the land drops off between Jerusalem to Jericho from 2700 feet above sea level to 850 feet below sea level. 

This roadway, which still lay slightly to Jerusalem’s north, followed the route of a canyon system that cuts through the hills to the east of Jerusalem heading down towards Jericho in the Jordan Valley. The main branch of this system, above Jericho, become the Wadi Qilt. At the mouth of the Qilt sat Herod the Great’s winter palace; where, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod died in 4 B.C. Herod’s palace consisted of two parts that straddled the Qilt, and he diverted water from the wadi to serve his pools, bath, and palace needs. 

Jesus passed by Herod’s palace (see Luke 19:11) on His journey to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. One route Galilean pilgrims took to Jerusalem brought them down the east bank of the Jordan River; they crossed near Jericho, and then ascended to Jerusalem via the roadway that followed the Wadi Qilt. This also served for the setting of the story Jesus told about the man “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” who fell among thieves, and eventually a kindly Samaritan helped him (Luke 10:30-37). 

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

Read more

Weekly Devotional: A Fast that Pleases God

Have you ever noticed that we can approach God with seemingly the right intentions and desires, but in His eyes, our motivations and desires matter little in light of how we treat others?

The prophet Isaiah says the people “seek [God] daily, delight to know [His] ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God” (Isaiah 58:2 NKJV). They even delight in the “nearness of God.” Sounds like they’re doing everything right. Isn’t that what we tell people to do—seek God daily and delight in His nearness? Yet God calls upon Isaiah to announce to the house of Jacob their guilt and sin (58:1).

The people ask God why their fasts are ineffective. They fasted. They starved their bodies (58:3). That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Shouldn’t God answer us then?

God responds with a jolting message: On your fast day, you do what pleases you. You exploit your workers; you cause strife and contention (58:3-4). While they may have the proper desires towards God, and even carry out their fasts properly (see 58:5), their reprehensible behavior toward others causes their voices not to be heard on high.

God doesn’t care that they starve themselves, putting on sackcloth and lying in ashes. Such a fast does not move Him.

The prophet then offers the fast that God desires, “a day pleasing to the LORD,” the kind that moves Him to act on the people’s behalf “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free” and “break every yoke” (58:6). He calls upon the people “to share your bread with the hungry,” to bring to your house the poor who are cast out, to cover the naked, and “not hide yourself from your own flesh” (58:7).

Instead of starving themselves, donning sackcloth, and lying in ashes, they should treat others with care and compassion, which will then motivate God to act on their behalf. “Then shall your light burst forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily and … the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’(58:8-9).

Isaiah’s message: God is far more concerned with how you treat those around you, especially the poor and needy, than He is with your religious piety or even your desire to seek Him.

The mark of true spirituality is not only our pursuit of God, but also our actions towards others. Our intentions and desires may seem spiritual, but if we do not treat others with care and compassion, then our desires for God matter little to Him.

What motivates God to answer our cries? How we treat those around us, especially those in need.

PRAYER

Father, forgive us for not seeing those around us as the true path to showing our desire and delight for You. May our actions be pleasing before You, O Lord. Amen.

Read more

Biblical Israel: Sepphoris

By Marc Turnage

Sepphoris was the capital of the Galilee during the first part of the 1st century A.D., when Jesus was a boy. Located four miles north of Nazareth, Sepphoris sat in the Beth Netofa Valley, which provided a main east-west roadway in the Lower Galilee from the northwestern part of the Sea of Galilee to Akko-Ptolemias on the Mediterranean coast. Sepphoris consists of an upper and lower city. Within Jewish history, Sepphoris served as the location where Judah the Prince compiled the rabbinic oral teachings into the Mishnah, the earliest body of rabbinic teaching. It was written in Hebrew.

Excavations at Sepphoris uncovered evidence of settlement even as early as the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I. It seems, however, that a continuous settlement existed at the site from the Persian Period (5th century B.C.) through the Crusader Period. Excavations reveal that during the Roman Period, the western part of the upper city contained Jewish residents, as indicated by the presence of Jewish ritual immersion baths and two oil lamps decorated with menorahs. The upper city also contained a theater set into the northern scarp of the hill, overlooking the Beth Netofa Valley. It could hold about 4500 spectators. Some assign the date of the theater to the 1st century A.D., but most archaeologists date it to the early to mid-2nd century A.D. 

One of the center pieces of the site of Sepphoris is a Roman villa built in the 3rd century A.D. The villa contains a beautiful mosaic floor in its dining room, a triclinium. The center of the mosaic contains scenes depicting the life of the Greek god Dionysius (the god of wine and revelry), including a drinking contest between Dionysius and the hero Heracles. Surrounding the Dionysius scenes are scenes of hunting with wild animals and naked hunters including various flora. In this band of scenes, on the southern end of the mosaic, appears a depiction of a beautiful woman, with either a hunter or Cupid, next to her head. If it is Cupid, then the woman likely is intended to be the goddess Aphrodite. 

Excavations in the lower city have revealed a city planning typical to the Hellenistic-Roman world, a cardo (a north-south street) and a decumanus (an east-west street). Some archaeologists date this urban planning to the 1st century A.D.; others date it to the 2nd century A.D. The cardo and decumanus are flanked by colonnaded sidewalks for pedestrians, with mosaic pavements. Within the lower city, homes, public buildings, as well as a lower city market, have been uncovered. 

Excavators discovered a synagogue in Sepphoris that dates to the 5th century A.D. Its floor is a mosaic that depicts the sun god Helios with his chariot of horses surrounded by a zodiac. Biblical scenes were also depicted although this part of the mosaic was damaged, but it seems to have depicted the story of the binding of Isaac (like the synagogue in Beth Alpha). It remained in use until the 7th century A.D. 

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

Read more

Weekly Devotional: The God Who Makes the Axe Head Float

“They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. ‘Oh no, my lord!’ he cried out. ‘It was borrowed!’ The man of God asked, ‘Where did it fall?’ When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. ‘Lift it out,’ he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it” (2 Kings 6:4-7 NIV).

Do you ever imagine that God is too big and that His responsibilities are too vast to care about the daily details of our lives? After all, He has the universe to run, right?

The man lost a borrowed axe-head in the water. That was his problem, nothing that God should concern Himself with. Yet He did.

The Bible never presents God as so transcendent that the common, everyday details of our lives do not move Him. Jesus stated, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29-30 NIV).

God is not distant from us even if it may seem like that at times. He cares deeply for us, and He is near to us. He cares enough to involve Himself in the issues of our daily lives.

The man in the story did not own the iron axe-head. It was borrowed. Its loss troubled him, as anyone could imagine it would. God caused the axe-head to float, permitting easy retrieval.

Many of the stories about Elisha describe miracles he performed for the common, daily life of the people: multiplied oil in a jar (2 Kings 4:1-7); revived the Shunammite’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37); purified a pot of stew (2 Kings 4:38-41); fed 100 men (2 Kings 4:42-44). And he made an axe-head float. These stories demonstrate that the God of Israel was concerned about the daily needs and lives of the people. He is for us, too.

No issue is too small for His concern. He is a loving Father. Like any parent, He delights in taking care of His children.

He is the King of the universe, the all-powerful, the creator of everything. He is awesome and majestic. He is also the God who makes the axe-head float. Never forget that.

PRAYER

Father, show us today that even in the smallest details of our lives—those things that matter to us—You are near and they matter to You, too. Amen.

Read more

Biblical Israel: Mount Nebo

By Marc Turnage

Mount Nebo is in the Transjordan (the modern Kingdom of Jordan) in the biblical territory of Moab. From here, Moses viewed the promised land, which he was not permitted to enter due to his disobedience in the Wilderness of Zin (Numbers 20).

God also buried him on Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1-8). The two and a half tribes that remained east of the Jordan River (Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh) name Mount Nebo as part of the territory they requested from Moses. Its situation near to the southern end of Gilead (see Deuteronomy 34:1) and within Moab meant that, like other locations along this border, at times it came under the control of Israel and at others the Moabites laid claim to it.

Near to the mountain was a village also named Nebo (Numbers 32:3; 32:38; Isaiah 15:2; Jeremiah 48:1). The preservation of the name of the city aided later travelers and pilgrims in identifying Mount Nebo, which has been identified as such since the 4th century A.D. Byzantine pilgrims routinely visited Mount Nebo and left descriptions as to its location.

Mount Nebo is demarcated by two wadis on the north (Wadi Ayoun Mousa) and south (Wadi Afrit), and the Jordan Valley to the west. It’s highest peak stands at over 2500 feet above sea level, and none of its peaks are lower than 2100 feet above sea level.

The two most important peaks are Siyagha in the north (2130 feet) and Mukhayyat (2370 feet). Both yield evidence of human presence for thousands of years. From both locations, one has a dramatic view of the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley and Jericho, and the wilderness of Tekoa to Jerusalem.

Excavations on Siyagha revealed a basilica with mosaics and a monastery that developed around it. So too, excavations on Mukhayyat revealed several Byzantine churches as well.

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

Read more

Weekly Devotional: Displeased with God

God’s mercy offends us. When God forgives our sins and we do not receive the reward of our disobedience, we revel in His mercy toward us, and we may even desire such for those like us. But what about those we don’t like, or even our enemies? That is more problematic.

God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the brutal kingdom of Assyria. Jonah went the opposite way. God tracked Jonah down. As a result, Jonah found himself inside a fish. Jonah then cried out to God for mercy, and God heard him and gave him a second chance.

Jonah went to Nineveh and preached its impending doom in forty days. At least, he’d now be able to see the destruction of this wicked city of the Assyrians. But the people believed in God, and they repented.

And when they did, so did God. Then God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 HCSB).

You would think Jonah would be elated. The people listened to his message, and the city was safe. Shouldn’t Jonah, who recently tasted God’s mercy in his life, welcome God’s mercy to others? He didn’t. God’s mercy displeased him greatly.

We want God to be “merciful and compassionate … slow to become angry, rich in faithful love” (4:2) to us. But we want to keep those blessings for ourselves and those we deem worthy of receiving it. You would imagine that by this point, God would have reached the end of His patience with Jonah, but He hadn’t.

He provided shade for Jonah in the form of a plant, as the prophet awaited the destruction of the city. God still wanted to teach Jonah a lesson. He also appointed a worm that caused the plant to die. Once again, Jonah complained to God, “I’d rather be dead than alive!” (4:3 NLT). God now had Jonah where He could teach him.

“You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?” (4:10-11 HCSB).

Too often we think of ourselves as special and as more deserving of God’s mercy than others. To Him, we are special, but so is everyone else, even those we don’t like or agree with—even our enemies.

We find ourselves displeased and offended when God shows His mercy to those we deem unworthy of it.

We usually focus upon one aspect of Jonah’s story—him inside the fish. When we do, we miss the point of the book—God’s mercy comes in ways that may displease us, to those we do not like because God is gracious and merciful and cares for everyone.

PRAYER

Father, may we walk more like You showing mercy to those we may not like, those who have hurt us, but those You care about. May we be more like You in every way. Amen.

Read more

Biblical Israel: Southern Steps

By Marc Turnage

Pilgrims to Jerusalem in the first century A.D. approached the Temple Mount from the south. After ritually purifying themselves, either in the Pool of Siloam, at the southern end of the City of David, or in one of the ritual immersion baths located along the southern end of the Temple Mount, pilgrims ascended onto the Temple platform via the southern steps that led through two sets of gates referred to as the Huldah Gates. 

Entering through the Huldah Gates, one came into a double-vaulted entrance hall that led into an ascending tunnel that exited onto the Temple Mount platform. Upon exiting the tunnel, the pilgrim found him or herself standing on a pavement of colorful stones on the southern end of the Temple Mount platform facing the sacred precinct and the Temple itself.

Today visitors to the southern steps of the Temple Mount see remnants of the two sets of gates. The western most of the gates preserves the remains of a double gate, which served as the exit for pilgrims to the Temple. The eastern most set of gates is today a triple gate sealed, most likely, during the Crusader period. This gate was also originally a double gate, and through it, pilgrims entered the Temple. If a pilgrim was in mourning, they reversed their course, entering through the exit and exiting through the entrance, so that other pilgrims could comfort them saying, “May He that dwells in this house give you comfort!”

We hear of Jewish Sages sitting on these steps teaching their students and interacting with pilgrims entering and exiting the Temple. Today, most of the steps have been reconstructed, but a few of the original steps remain exposed. The steps leading up to the Huldah Gates follow a pattern of long, short, long, short. This arrangement makes it difficult for the pilgrim to ascend the steps either running or in great haste. Thus, one must approach the sacred Temple, the house of God, in a circumspect manner. 

South and east of the southern steps archaeologists uncovered a large and unique Jewish ritual immersion bath, a mikveh. Its proximity to the Temple, as well as its unique construction, have led some to suggest that this served the priests for their ritual purification. Other ritual immersion baths have been discovered along the southern end of the Temple Mount, which served Jewish pilgrims who immersed and purified themselves prior to entering the Temple (see Acts 21:24).

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

Read more

Weekly Devotional: The One Who Dwells with the Humble

“For the High and Exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy says this: ‘I live in a high and holy place, and with the oppressed and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the oppressed.’” (Isaiah 57:15 HCSB).

We live in a culture that frequently gravitates toward the cult of personality. Most often, we get star struck, either with our star or someone else’s. This is true even in the church.

How often are we more likely to position ourselves to be closer to the greatest among us rather than choosing to share life with the humble and lowly among us?   

The prophet described God, however, as “high and exalted,” inhabiting eternity. Yet He also dwells with the contrite and humble. God resides in both places—in the highest heaven and with the lowly and oppressed. If you’re looking for Him, that is where you’ll find Him.

The Bible describes God as the defender of the “fatherless and the widow” … and “the foreigner” (Deuteronomy 10:18). These were three classes of people that did not have an advocate within ancient Israelite society, yet God identified with them and continually came to their defense.

He dwells on high and with the contrite and humble. Amazing. He resides among the lowly and oppressed to revive them, to strengthen them, and to sustain them.

People in our world get caught up in their position, power, and press. But the God and Creator of the universe, who lives in a high and holy place, is never beyond the lowly, the humble, the widow, orphan, and foreigner.

Humility and contriteness are both characteristics that we can control. “He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble and oppressed” (Proverbs 3:34 NIV). We choose how we posture ourselves. Do we humble ourselves and make ourselves contrite? Or do we do the opposite and become arrogant and proud?

If God, who resides in the high and holy place, can stoop to dwell with the humble and lowly, then none of us has anything to be proud and haughty about.

God is our model. He not only commands us how to live; He behaves in that way, too.

We should resist the temptation of our cult-of-personality society and remember that the One who dwells in eternity resides with the lowly. And so must we.

PRAYER

Father, may we be where You are. May we always walk in humility and contriteness to experience Your presence. Amen.

Read more

Biblical Israel: Tower of David

By Marc Turnage

The only gate on the western side of the modern Old City of Jerusalem is Jaffa Gate (so named because the road leading to Jaffa goes through this gate). Inside Jaffa Gate stands the Citadel or the Tower of David. This structure has nothing to do with David, which can confuse modern visitors to Jerusalem. 

The buildings and tower that stands today are built upon the highest point of the city at the end of the Old Testament Period and in the first century. In fact, the wall of the city in these periods turned to the east at this point going towards the area of the Temple Mount. The wall followed a shallow ditch that ran west to east along Jerusalem’s northern boundary. This offered the city’s only natural protection on its northern approach. 

In the first century, Herod the Great chose this strategic location to build his palace in Jerusalem. Its elevated position enabled him to look down over the Temple Mount. Because of the city’s vulnerability to the north, he built three large towers on the northern end of his palace. He named them Phasael (after his brother), Mariamme (after his beloved Hasmonean bride), and Hippicus. The base of one of these three towers forms the base of the Tower of David. 

Herod had palaces throughout his kingdom—Jericho, Caesarea, his palace-fortresses at Masada, and Herodium—but his Jerusalem palace was his largest and most splendid. He decorated it with all kinds of colorful, inlaid stones. Remains of two large pools have been excavated. He built two large building complexes within the palace, one he named Caesareum (after Caesar Augustus, his friend and benefactor) and the other Agrippeum (after Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ number two man). Herod’s palace had its own aqueduct that provided for its water needs. The aqueduct originated south of Bethlehem. In this palace, Herod would have questioned the wise men seeking the baby Jesus (Matthew 2).

After the death of Herod in 4 B.C., his son Archelaus controlled the lands that included Jerusalem, but when Archelaus was removed by Rome at the request of the Jewish people in A.D. 6, his territory came under the direct rule of the Roman governors. The Roman governors lived in Herod’s palace in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. Paul was brought into Herod’s palace in Caesarea, into the Roman governor’s residence (Acts 23:35), which Luke refers to as “the praetorium of Herod.” 

The Roman governors resided in Jerusalem during the Jewish festivals to keep civic order, and they stayed at Herod’s palace. Jesus was brought before Pilate in Jerusalem to the praetorium, which Mark’s Gospel refers to as “the palace” (Mark 15:15). The most likely location in Jerusalem for this encounter was in the palace of Herod the Great. The mention in John’s Gospel of the lithostratos, which is a Greek term meaning “an inlaid stone floor,” further suggests Pilate’s location within Herod’s palace, which Herod had decorated with colorful stones. 

The earliest Christian traditions that follow Jesus’ journey from being beaten to his point of execution follow a route that begins in the area of Herod’s palace to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as attested by the Bordeaux Pilgrim. In this way, Herod’s palace serves as a key location at Jesus’ birth and his death.

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

Read more

Weekly Devotional: The Cares of Life

We refer to the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 8 as “The Parable of the Sower.” The problem, however, is that the sower is not the point of the parable, neither is the seed. The parable is about the soil and the question: What kind of soil are you?

The point of the parable is to be the good soil, to have a “good heart” (8:15), which means to be receptive to God and to live out His will. However, we need to pay attention to the third type of bad soil—the thorns. They choked the seed as it tried to grow.

Jesus likened the thorns choking the seed trying to grow to people who are choked by the worries, riches, and pleasures of life; therefore, they cannot bear fruit to maturity.

Our lives are often filled with stuff or the pursuit of stuff. Stuff isn’t necessarily bad. However, it has the possibility of taking our eyes and focus off the things that truly matter.

Jesus saw life as having the potential to create worry and anxiety in us. We find ourselves concerned about what we will eat, drink, and wear (Matthew 6:25-34). And those cares can choke us from producing fruit or bringing it to maturity.

Cares, riches, and pleasures. When you take them out of the critical context of Jesus’ words, they form the core of what many in our world pursue. They are the secret to a happy and fulfilled life. How many of us want to be carefree? How many of us want the “good life”?

Jesus noted a connection between these forces and anxiety, which He connected with paganism (Matthew 6:32). Even more, they have the power to severely hinder the growth and development of the fruit God wants to produce in our lives.

The foundation of Jesus’ instruction not to worry and not to allow the thorns to choke our growing seed, is based on the vital realization that God cares for us. He takes care of us and has a responsibility to us. For that reason, and that reason alone, we should not worry.

Thorns can take over a field very quickly if we are not careful. So, too, can the cares of life invade and affect the growth of the fruit God wants in our lives. The question, then, is what kind of soil are we going to be?

Will our hearts and lives be receptive to what God is wanting to accomplish in and through us?

PRAYER

Father, help us not to lose sight of You or bearing the fruit You desire. May we never cease to realize that You take care of us. Amen.

Read more