Jesus Celebrated Hanukkah’s Momentous Victory at the Festival of Lights 

By Arlene Bridges Samuels

The festival of Hanukkah (“dedication” in Hebrew) celebrates far more than delicious latkes, candles, gifts, and jelly doughnuts. As an observant Jew, Jesus celebrated the enduring major festivals—Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. He annually walked the recently rediscovered Pilgrim Road up to the Temple in Jerusalem. 

Yet the only mention of Hanukkah in Scripture appears in John 10:22-23: “Then the Festival of Dedication[a] took place in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23 Jesus was walking in the temple complex in Solomon’s Colonnade” (HCSB). Hanukkah thus marks the joyous victory of a small band of dedicated fighters who had prevailed against the formidable army of Syrian King Antiochus IV some 400 years before Jesus’ birth.

Most Christians have heard of the Maccabees who organized themselves to oppose Antiochus IV. In 168 B.C., Antiochus’ hatred of the Jews resulted in his campaign of destruction and lawlessness to force the Jews to abandon their Judaism, substitute pagan practices for it, and assimilate into Greek culture. His soldiers vandalized and desecrated the Temple. 

In a series of miracles, the Maccabees won against all odds, cleansed, and restored the Temple, and found a small earthenware flask of Temple oil that burned not for a single night but for an astonishing eight days—until a big batch of specialized oil could be made. The eight days of oil in the Temple Menorah served as a symbol of the Maccabees’ victory, one of God’s many promises guaranteeing the survival of His people.

Today, Israelis and Jews worldwide now light their own menorahs for eight days each year. The festival is celebrated annually on Judaism’s lunar calendar on the 25th of Kislev, and generally falls in December and sometimes November on our Gregorian calendar. This year, Hanukkah candles are lit each night from sundown December 18 to sundown December 26. The dates intersect with our celebrations of Jesus as the Light of the world and the Hebrews’ Maccabean victory. 

That long-ago conflict over Jerusalem was far from unusual, given its religious and geographic strategic importance. Over the centuries Israel’s capital has been attacked 52 times, captured (then recaptured) 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice. Aggressive wars against Israel can be viewed as modern miracles—a small nation like a small band of Maccabees, defeating bigger enemies that are bent on destroying them. Among these conflicts were the 1948 War of Independence, 1967 Six-Day War, and 1973 Yom Kippur War. 

Like replicas of Antiochus IV, modern dictators issue threats against Israel—from Iran’s ayatollahs and their surrogates in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza to Putin’s Russia. Furthermore, false claims accusing Israel of apartheid persist in the United Nations. UN Watch reports that on December 1, 2022, the United Nations carried out an astonishing 15 resolutions against Israel—yet just 13 against the rest of the world combined. Take a moment to absorb these outrageous facts. 

Even though Israel provides humanitarian aid to other nations, even though its innovations offer worldwide benefits to humankind, Israel is the UN’s only scapegoat. Not Iran, whose security police have already killed more than 400 protesters and are holding thousands more. Not Syria’s President Assad, who’s guilty of promoting a civil war that has killed half a million Syrian citizens. Not Russia, senselessly murdering Ukrainians. Not Boko Haram, the terrorist Shiite Muslims who murder, kidnap, rape, and burn churches in northern Nigeria. Just Israel.

In another look at the Hanukkah calendar, Hanukkah began nearly 600 years before the first official Christmas date was decided. Still a controversial discussion among Christians today, December 25 was chosen as our Lord’s birthday by Pope Julius—350 years after Jesus’ birth—and made official in 529 A.D. by Roman Emperor Justinian, who made it a civic holiday. The pope and emperor connected Christmas to the Winter Solstice, a pagan festival, while claiming to dismiss the pagan practices. 

It is more than unfortunate that these decisions helped cement a version of Christianity that disavowed its Jewish roots, thus making way for Replacement Theology, which wrongly declares that the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan. Non-Jews who believe in our Jewish Lord Jesus are adopted into the ancient root of Judaism, but we do not replace the Jews. God’s covenants with the Jews are permanent. Through adoption, God has invited us into His family. 

Reinforcing His pledges to this very day, God has enacted the ancient Maccabee triumph of 2,200 years ago with every victory before and since, based on His covenants with the Jews. The word “covenant” is repeated 313 times in Scripture, emphasizing God’s unbreakable promises and His bond with His chosen people. From Abraham, Moses, and the prophets to Jesus, His disciples, and the Apostle Paul, God chose and prepared them as vessels in world history—to transcribe His words into our Old and New Testaments. In an astonishing act of unconditional love, He came to earth as Immanuel—God with us—through His birth into the Jewish culture. 

Imperfect vessels—just like us Christians and every human born—the Jews have since the time of Abraham transported in their culture the keys to redemption planned by God the Father from the very beginning of His creation and His decision to offer free will to all. 

Despite Antiochus IV and every hateful dictator who has attempted and is now trying to eradicate all Jews from the face of the earth, God has unconditionally maintained His covenant whether Jews followed or rejected Him at different moments in history.   

In a timely happening for the Hanukkah season, The Jerusalem Post reported on November 23, 2022, that the Israel Antiquities Authority discovered a theft that turned up a rare coin from 169-164 B.C. The ancient coin features none other than Antiochus IV. In the article, Dr. Danny Shion observed, “Antiochus, king of the Seleucid kingdom, was officially named ‘Epiphanes’—the face of God, but behind his back his subjects called him ‘Epimanes’—the crazy Antiochus.” Antiochus is among blasphemous leaders who equate themselves with God. Israel haters and those who scorn the Bible indeed reenact the evil Antiochus IV, who held Jews in contempt and sought to destroy them.

Bible scholars have varying opinions about what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the Light of the World.” But I agree with those who believe that Jesus declared Himself as the light at the Festival of Lights, the Festival of Rededication. Solomon’s Colonnade was a public location that many of us have visited in Jerusalem. The only mention of Hanukkah in John 10:22 goes on to say in verse 24, “The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’” It is easy to assume that He declared Himself as the true Light of the World among the candle-lit menorahs at the Festival of Lights.

Jesus, Immanuel, is our Light to the door of eternal life, the Victor over death and hate, who comes in the Holy Spirit to light our lives now and forever! 

The Christian community celebrates Jesus’ birth where, 2,000 years ago, serenaded by a heavenly host, Levitical shepherds rushed to Bethlehem Ephrathah (“fruitful”), its ancient name. Our Messiah, the Shepherd of our souls, was born into the ancient Jewish culture, enacted Jewish customs, read from Old Testament scrolls, and chose to sacrifice Himself as the Perfect Lamb of God. 

This Christmas let us ask Jesus to renew His light within us, to stand stronger against Israel’s oppressive enemies in their enmity toward Jesus’ earthly Jewish tribe.

Please join CBN Israel in prayer this week for the Jewish nation and people:

  • Pray for Jewish families worldwide for safety as they celebrate Hanukkah.
  • Pray that the true reasons for Hanukkah and Christmas emerge amid the commercial trappings. 
  • Pray for the restoration of Judeo-Christian values in our nation and the world.
  • Pray for believers to reach out to those who are homeless or alone. 

Arlene Bridges Samuels pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After she served nine years on AIPAC’s staff, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA engaged her as Outreach Director part-time for their project, American Christian Leaders for Israel. Arlene is an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel, a guest columnist at All Israel News, and has frequently traveled to Israel since 1990. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited and is a volunteer on the board of Violins of Hope South Carolina. Arlene has attended Israel’s Government Press Office Christian Media Summit three times and hosts her devotionals, The Eclectic Evangelical, on Facebook.

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Combatting Poverty and Food Insecurity in Israel

After the pandemic, many families have fallen into economic hardship; from illness or unemployment to any number of constraints the pandemic put on families around the world. More than two years later, many of these families are still in serious need of help.

Additionally, this year has seen many unexpected hardships, including the Ukrainian refugee crisis and rising inflation, making for a dire economic situation. Thanks to compassionate friends like you, CBN Israel has been able to pivot to address the influx of needs throughout the country, with many additional families becoming reliant on monthly assistance. Rising prices, political instability, and the cost of living changed the landscape of the community and required swift action to address the incoming need.

Because of caring donors, CBN Israel has been there for hundreds of destitute seniors and families across the nation—providing regular deliveries of food packages, food vouchers, and other essential aid. In fact, you have made it possible to distribute record amounts of groceries and basic relief to Israel’s most vulnerable people.

Daniel Carlson, the national director of CBN Israel, exclaimed, “Thank you for sharing God’s love and hope with those who are poor and deprived throughout the Holy Land! My team and I see the dire needs on a daily basis, and so I’m especially grateful to you for unwavering support. Your commitment to blessing Israel and her people in need is making a substantial difference.”

Your prayers and provisions can let so many in Israel know they are not forgotten—including lonely refugees, aging Holocaust survivors, single moms, and terror victims. Together, we can be a tremendous blessing to this special land—thank you!

The cries continue daily in the Holy Land from those who are hurting. Your generous support can provide them with groceries, housing, and financial aid—while also reporting true stories and news from Jerusalem.


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Biblical Israel: Herodium

By Marc Turnage

Three miles southeast of Bethlehem sits Herodium, the palace-fortress built by Herod the Great (Matthew 2). Overlooking the birthplace of Jesus, Herod’s fortress guarded the eastern roads through the wilderness from Bethlehem to Ein Gedi. It also served as a reminder of the difficult political situation in which the Jews found themselves within the first century. Herod represented Rome—the pagan empire that exploited the resources of the land of Israel for its benefit. 

Herod built the artificial cone shaped hill to commemorate his military victory against the last of the Hasmoneans, Mattithias Antigonus, who was aided by the Parthians. Herod won a skirmish as he fled Jerusalem, and later built Herodium, the palace-fortress he named after himself, on this site. Herodium consists of two complexes: the palace-fortress and the lower palace. The palace-fortress consists of a circular double wall, with four towers (the largest of which faces to the east). Inside the structure, Herod built a private bathhouse, a triclinium (“U” shaped) dining room, reception halls, and living quarters. 

Archaeologists have recently uncovered the large entry gate into the palace-fortress. Jewish rebels during the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-73) and the Bar Kochbah Revolt (A.D. 132-136) occupied Herodium. The Jewish rebels of the First Revolt converted the dining room into a synagogue. It was one of the last rebel strongholds to fall to the Romans in the First Revolt. Letters sent to the Jewish garrison at Herodium from the messianic leader of the Bar Kochbah Revolt, Shimon ben Kosiba, were discovered in caves along the shores of the Dead Sea. 

Josephus records that Herod the Great was buried at Herodium. After he died in Jericho in 4 B.C., his body was brought to Herodium where it was interred. Archaeologists discovered Herod’s tomb in 2006. They uncovered an ornate mausoleum on the northern side of the conical shaped hill of the palace-fortress. Pieces of Herod’s sarcophagus were also discovered. It had been smashed in antiquity. Excavations next to the tomb uncovered a stairway that led from the bottom of the hill to the entry gate of the palace-fortress, as well as a small theater. The box seating of this theater contained ornate decorations including plaster molding and beautiful frescoes. Herod constructed this theater, most likely, for the visit of Marcus Agrippa, both a close friend of his and of Caesar Augusts (Luke 2).

The lower palace consists primarily of a large bathhouse and pool complex. Roman style bathhouses consisted of four main areas: changing room, cold bath, tepid bath, and a warm/hot room that could either function as a steam room or a dry sauna. The bathhouses at Herod’s palaces had these features. The pool at Herodium was heated as well as the bathhouse. 

There is a certain irony that within the shadow of Herodium, the angels proclaimed the good news of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the field. Herod’s fortress and monument to himself overlooked the very place where it would be announced that a new king would be born and that he would be Israel’s Messiah. And, it also stood watch when Herod’s soldiers killed the young boys seeking to remove the threat of the child born to Mary and Joseph. 

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.

Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Weekly Devotional: The Magnificat

“He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever” (Luke 1:51-55 NKJV).

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) voice the Jewish redemptive hopes and aspirations of the first century. They yearned for God’s removal of Rome, freeing His people so they could worship Him. And they anticipated the reversal of the social order. These were subversive ideas; they upset those who resided in palaces and felt comfortable with the status quo. They hoped God would exalt the lowly and bring down the mighty, that the hungry would be filled and the rich would be made poor. 

God’s redemption was not merely inward and personal. God’s redemption impacted all His people and manifested itself in visible, tangible ways within the social and political order. Mary’s words are anything but safe; they are radical. Israel’s long-held hope for redemption has now come, and it will disrupt the established world.

We tend to view Christmas through our own lens—what God has done for me. In doing so, we can all too easily fail to feel the collective sense of hope and upheaval that the message of Christmas originally articulated. It’s there in Mary’s song; in the song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist; in the angelic proclamation; and even in Simeon’s utterance about the newborn Jesus in the Temple. 

God is fulfilling His promises to Israel’s fathers—to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—with the birth of Jesus. The hopes of His people, and the world, are being realized in the baby in Bethlehem. But this redemption will upset the social and political order of the day. 

It’s hard for us sometimes—wrapped in the lights, sounds, and smells of Christmas—to hear the disruptive and subversive tone of the first Christmas. But we need to. What God did in sending Jesus was more than for our personal benefit. It manifests itself in visible and tangible ways to all humanity—the mighty and the lowly. 

Jesus articulated the message of Christmas when He read from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue of His hometown Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). 


Father, manifest Your redemption this Christmas in the world among the hurting, suffering, poor, and oppressed. And help us to be present where You are. Amen.

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Bethlehem’s Christmas Amid the Palestinian Authority’s Upside-Down History

By Arlene Bridges Samuels

On Saturday December 3, lights were set ablaze on the tall Christmas tree in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. Its lighting marked the beginning of the Christmas season where Christian pilgrims by the thousands will travel to Israel for festivities—the first time since the two-year COVID-19 lockdown left Bethlehem’s streets empty. Expectations run high for the “Christmas rejoicing” in this city of 100,000. Paramount in the minds of Christians is singing beloved carols and standing in the land where Jesus was born.

I am grateful that Christians celebrating Jesus’ birth in Israel are familiar with biblical truths. However, the light of truth has dimmed amid the Muslim Palestinian leaders’ versions of Christmas, which are sacrilegious in the extreme. Here’s when that sacrilege began:

In 1995, an extraordinary announcement was made on the roof of the Church of the Nativity, when now-deceased Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat declared, “Welcome to Bethlehem, birthplace of the first Palestinian Christian—Jesus Christ.” We know that Jesus was neither a Christian nor a Palestinian. Yet current Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has kept up the Arafat lies, falsely asserting that Jesus was “a Palestinian messenger who would become a guiding light for millions around the world.”

Unfortunately, many have swallowed the “Palestinian messengers”  propaganda—among them Palestinians, world media, far too many United Nations member nations, and yes, Christians who do not follow scriptural truths.

It gets worse. The Palestinian Authority Daily published an imam’s 2020 comment about Jesus, calling Him “the first Palestinian fida’i (self-sacrificing fighter).” That term reveals the true nature of the PLO and PA’s Fatah leaders who in essence seek to coopt Jesus and portray Him as the first Palestinian terrorist. Palestinian Media Watch reports that in political cartoons, they depict Palestinians on a crucifix. It seems that the Palestinian leadership and media are willing to stoop so low as to substitute the words “Jesus” and “Israel” for “Palestinian” and “Palestine” without any hesitation or remorse.

Tragically, the hopes for peace never materialized from the 1993 Oslo Accords signing that granted governance through Yasser Arafat’s PLO to the Palestinian Authority. Instead, Bethlehem’s Arab Christians have suffered intimidation for decades—ever since the Muslim Palestinian rule began.

For readers who have traveled to Bethlehem in earlier years and better times, you blessed the Arab Christian businesspeople in their shops filled with beautiful mementos. Since the Muslim Palestinian Arabs have taken over, however, the Arab Christian population has dwindled as persecution escalated. For example, before the Oslo Accords, Christian Arabs lived as the majority in Bethlehem. As the Muslim population has increased for the last 50 years, the Arab Christian majority has fallen from 80 percent to 15 percent. Unlike in Israel—a country that protects religious freedom—no such Palestinian law exists. Although Palestinian leaders insist they protect every religion, the reality is far different. Christians are now treated as second-class citizens. They can no longer travel freely, or shop wherever they want. Small wonder that Christians choose to leave Bethlehem.

Nevertheless, another reality shines far brighter: dispelling darkness in Bible-believing hearts. What I am sharing about Bethlehem isn’t the usual Christmas story outlined in our beloved Christmas carol’s reference to the sleepy, humble “little town.” Rather, we go back further in history to Genesis 35:19-21, which describes the location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Ephrath) as being situated on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. 

In Genesis 35:19-21, Jacob cast his tent at Migdal where he buried Rachel, the love of his life. “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb. Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder.” Micah 4:8—a prophecy written around 700 years before Jesus’ birth—expands the details: “As for you, watchtower of the flock, stronghold of Daughter Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.”

The Hebrew words migdal (tower) and eder (flock) help Christians make superb strides toward rediscovering the Jewish roots of our faith and Jesus’ Jewish ancestry. Jewish sages, writings, and prophetic Bible passages are essential for that purpose.

For centuries, shepherds were familiar with the Tower of the Flock, which could be considered an ancient animal hospital. The tower and the Bethlehem fields were their workplace. The stone structure was two stories, allowing the chief shepherd to look out over the flock for predators. Shepherds also led the ewes from the fields into the tower to give birth.

The religious leaders of that day appointed the Bethlehem shepherds—since they were experts in animal husbandry—as shepherd or Levitical priests. The thousands of lambs they tended on the birthing floor of Migdal Eder each year were special, too. At birth, the shepherds wrapped them in swaddling cloths and put them in mangers so the lambs would not harm their limbs. Otherwise, they would be disqualified as a Temple sacrifice, for perfection was the rule. When the lambs reached a year old, the shepherds herded thousands of them into Jerusalem on what the ancient Jews called the Day of Lambs to present them to the Temple priests. They were the Chosen Passover sacrificial lambs without spot or blemish—a description of our Savior also sacrificed at His last Passover for us.

The Tower of the Flock no longer stands, but various writings reinforce the shepherds retelling their stories for hundreds of years—until a Byzantine monastery was built over the site of Migdal Eder in the fourth century.

King David, who was born in Bethlehem, would have known about Migdal Eder from Jewish scrolls and from shepherding. Joseph, Mary, and everyone else in the Roman world were required to go to their ancestral town by Caesar Augustus’ imperial decree for a census. Surely it was no coincidence that the young Jewish couple would go to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown. Rather, it was all part of God’s plan that Mary would give birth to Jesus in Bethlehem—in or close proximity to the Tower of the Flock. 

These glistening threads of history are wondrous. When angels appeared to the shepherds in the Bethlehem fields with their glorious birth announcement, the shepherds appeared to know where to go based on the directions provided in Luke 2:11-12: “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.” The connection between the birthplace of Jesus and the location of the Tower of the Flock, where the Temple lambs were born, is fascinating.

The late Dr. Jimmy DeYoung Sr., in his Day of Discovery program, described his research on the shepherds’ skill: “They would reach into the mother’s womb and pull out this newborn lamb. Then they would reach for some swaddling and snugly wrap the lamb and lay it in a manger until it calmed down. Then they would unwrap the swaddling and let it run off to its mother for some food.”

Allow this realization to sink deeply into your heart: Jesus’ birthplace was intricately linked with the ancient Levitical shepherds and the Temple-destined Passover lambs. While Roman soldiers nailed the Perfect Lamb of God to the cross—His blood shed outside the walls of Jerusalem—the Temple priests were slaughtering the perfect Passover lambs born in the Tower of the Flock.

Throughout the Christmas season, our decorated trees and homes glow… a wonderful source of joy, tradition, and family memories. May we reflect upon that first Christmas when Jesus, the Perfect Lamb of God, entered time and space as Immanuel, “God with us.” Let us not miss the humble yet splendid context of ancient Migdal Eder in or near where the perfect Lamb of God was born.

Please join CBN Israel this week in praying for Jewish and Arab believers in the region as they celebrate the birth of the Savior:

  • Pray for the safety of Arab Christians still living in Bethlehem.
  • Pray that Christian pilgrims visiting Bethlehem will increase profits of Christian Arab businesses with their purchases.
  • Pray for all believers living in Israel that violence will not mar Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations. 
  • Pray for Christians to delve into the rich Jewish roots of our faith.

Arlene Bridges Samuels pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After she served nine years on AIPAC’s staff, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA engaged her as Outreach Director part-time for their project, American Christian Leaders for Israel. Arlene is an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel, a guest columnist at All Israel News, and has frequently traveled to Israel since 1990. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited and is a volunteer on the board of Violins of Hope South Carolina. Arlene has attended Israel’s Government Press Office Christian Media Summit three times and hosts her devotionals, The Eclectic Evangelical, on Facebook.

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New Immigrants: Anna and Oleg’s Story

Anna and Oleg enjoyed their life in Ukraine. Then suddenly, the Russians invaded their country, and everything changed. The young couple had a five-year-old little girl, and they feared for her future. Seeing the growing danger, they quickly fled to Israel. 

Immigrating to Israel was a leap of faith. Yet as they settled in Haifa, they saw doors open. They expected the citizenship process to be more complicated—especially with the exodus of Ukrainians from the war. To their surprise, the Jewish Agency expedited their applications. 

Still, they face challenges. Anna is taking an intensive Hebrew course, while her daughter is in kindergarten. Oleg, who was a mechanic in Ukraine, now works installing kitchens. And though they have already endured a wave of terror attacks, Oleg says they feel much safer than in Ukraine. Anna adds, “Here we feel like there’s life, and not just survival.” However, they worry about loved ones left behind, enduring terrible losses, and send what little money they can spare.

But they had their own financial stress of starting over in a new country and needing the basics. Thankfully, friends like you were there, through CBN Israel. Caring donors provided them with a refrigerator and blender—plus vouchers to buy nutritious food, medicine, and essentials. Anna exclaimed, “Thank you… It means so much to our family during this challenging transition!” 

As more immigrants arrive, your gift to CBN Israel can offer critical aid to them—as well as to Holocaust survivors, single moms, and terror victims. With the needs in the Holy Land increasing, your support can bring groceries, housing, financial aid, and more to those in crisis. 

Please consider a gift to help others today!


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Biblical Artifact: Theodotus Synagogue Inscription

By Marc Turnage

In the centuries between the Old and New Testaments, an important institution developed within Judaism, the synagogue. The Gospels and Acts mention synagogues frequently; they played an important role in the lives of Jesus, His followers, and the growth of His movement. The origins of the synagogue, though, are shrouded in the mists of time. The earliest witness to them come from inscriptions outside of the land of Israel. 

One such inscription from Egypt, dating to the 3rd century B.C., refers to a “place of prayer.” Within the Jewish Diaspora (the Jewish community outside the land of Israel), ancient sources (both literary and archaeological) refer to synagogues in various ways: synagogues, which means a gathering or meeting place, prayer houses, and sabbateions (Sabbath places). We should not assume that they all functioned exactly the same, but the ancient sources do indicate a degree of similarity. Synagogues today, both within Israel and outside of it, serve as places of communal prayer. Scripture is read, but the synagogue service centers around prayer, an act reminiscent to the earliest practice attributed in Diaspora synagogues as attested by the ancient sources.

In the early 20th century, a Greek inscription was discovered in a cistern at the City of David in Jerusalem. This inscription dates to the first century A.D., and it dedicates a synagogue in Jerusalem. To date, the synagogue has not been found, but its dedicatory inscription has. In this inscription, Theodotus, a ruler of the synagogue, and the son and grandson of synagogue rulers, built the synagogue for three things: 1) the reading of the Torah, 2) the teaching of the commandments, and 3) as a guest house for travelers. This inscription proves significant because it provides a description of the synagogue practices within the land of Israel during the first century A.D. 

Our ancient sources do not indicate that prayer took place regularly within the synagogues of the land of Israel. Rather, we find these sources, like Luke 4, consistently depicting the reading of the Scriptures and their explication as central to Sabbath worship in the synagogue. Moreover, the first century synagogues that have been discovered, like at Gamla and Magdala, have a main hall with benches around the sides making the center of the hall the focal point. Jews pray facing towards Jerusalem. 

Later synagogues in the land of Israel, after the destruction of the Temple, orient their halls towards Jerusalem. This indicates that in later periods prayer became an essential part of the synagogue service, but not in the first century in the land of Israel. Instead, as indicated by the Theodotus inscription, the primary role of the synagogue was the reading of the Torah and its teaching. The orientation of first century synagogues, focused on the center of the hall, reflects such a reality. It should also be noted that this is what the Gospels depict Jesus doing in the synagogue on the Sabbath, reading the Scripture and teaching. 

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.

Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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Weekly Devotional: The Annunciation

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” 

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” 

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:34-38 NKJV). 

Mary lived in a land under foreign Roman rule. If the God of Israel alone was God, how could this be? The Jewish people yearned for God’s redemption. But, against the might of Rome—how would that happen?

Then the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. He announced a message to her that had been anticipated and hoped for by many. So, on the one hand, she was prepared to hear it and receive it—she would be the vessel of God’s redemption by giving birth to His Son. However, there was one problem: She was a virgin. “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

Gabriel then proceeded to relay how this would be accomplished, concluding with the reminder, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” The Jews found themselves in a difficult and dark period looking for God’s redemption—how will this be? Mary, a virgin, asked the same question—how will this be? The answer is: With God nothing will be impossible.

Mary’s story and Israel’s in a way are intertwined. How can this be? A virgin and an enslaved people—with God nothing is impossible. He always provides a way. He entered the story. Mary responded to Gabriel’s message by saying: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” She didn’t understand how it would happen, but she trusted in God. She submitted to His will. 

Throughout the Bible, God showed up to deliver His people. He sent messages of hope in the darkest circumstances. When things seemed impossible, He sent deliverance. The annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary proclaims that He is with us. 

This holiday season some of us find ourselves in impossible and hopeless situations. If not us, we know someone who is struggling. And while we may not have the solutions ourselves, we can trust that “with God nothing will be impossible.” Will we choose to trust and submit to God, even when we don’t know how it will happen? Will we serve Him even when the situation seems impossible?

Redemption comes through obedience. Mary trusted God and submitted to His will. Her choice led to the redemption of the world. Do we trust God regardless of the appearance of our external circumstances? Will we obediently submit to His will for Him to bring hope and deliverance in our lives and those around us?


Father, thank You for sending Your Son. Despite how difficult the circumstances appeared, You made a way. Lord, may we submit to You and help bring Your light, hope, and redemption to our world. Amen.

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FIFA World Cup: Anti-Israel Drama Plus Iran’s Brutality Exposed

By Arlene Bridges Samuels

Every four years, the FIFA World Cup grabs international attention as the biggest sporting event on the planet. FIFA stands, of course, for the International Federation of Association Football, which governs the event. And while Americans call the sport soccer, it is the word football that sends fans worldwide into a competition frenzy. This year’s soccer extravaganza—held between November 20 and December 18—may be viewed by upwards of 5 billion people.

However, an unwelcome kind of sport is infringing on the event’s enjoyment for 10,000-plus Israeli fans: the hateful pastime of anti-Semitism.

This year, the nation of Qatar is hosting the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East. To comply with hosting requirements, Qatar agreed to allow in Israeli fans. Yet at the games, Israeli journalists are facing hostility on numerous fronts. Two journalists for Israel’s Ynet News—Raz Shechnik and Oz Mualem—say that whenever they report, they are followed by Palestinians, Iranians, Qataris, Moroccans, Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians, and Lebanese—all giving them “looks full of hate.” And, although FIFA requested there be no political messages at the World Cup, Tunisian fans prominently displayed a “Free Palestine” flag at a game between Tunisia and Australia.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry advised its citizens to keep a low profile while in the small, authoritarian Muslim nation. They provided careful instructions about Qatar’s laws, which outlaw alcohol and drugs of any kind, and a list of other policies that carry heavy penalties or imprisonment.

To say that travel arrangements between Israel and Qatar were complicated would be an understatement. Sunday’s direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Doha was a first. However, Israel’s El Al airline was not allowed to land in the Shiite Muslim country, which has no diplomatic relationship with the Jewish state. Undeterred, Israel chartered flights through Cypriot Tus Airways, which departed from Tel Aviv.

But not all the drama at the games is about Israel’s reception—or the events happening on the playing field. What some might find surprising is that Iran’s leaders are threatening their own team (affectionately called Team Melli), so that Iran’s menace against its own citizens is on full display. And media around the world are reporting these transgressions.

Here’s what made headlines. In its first game on November 21, Team Melli bravely refused to sing the Iranian national anthem. Their message on the world stage was to support the courageous female-led freedom protests against regime leaders. The following day, at its second game, Team Melli sang their anthem—but did so quietly. Half-heartedly.

We now understand why. CNN and numerous other news outlets reported that Iran’s terrorist leaders, ahead of the match with the U.S. team on Tuesday, had threatened their team with imprisonment and torture if the players did not “behave.” Threats of violence were extended to the players’ families, as well.

In an opposite and welcomed way, the U.S. State Department issued support for Team Melli, declaring, “Iran’s leadership should be heeding their athletes’ calls for change, rather than stifling them through intimidation and threats. The people of Iran and the nations of the world will be watching the athletes’ treatment upon their return to Iran.”

Bolstering their own threats, Iran deployed its elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to monitor Team Melli, which is not allowed to associate with anyone but their teammates. Spectators have booed Iran’s national anthem—likely including Israeli and Arab fans also threatened by Iran. Iranian team supporters waved a huge flag emblazoned with, “Woman, life, freedom,” a refrain supporting the ongoing protests inside Iran. IRGC escorted them out of the stadium. Pro-Ayatollah-government Iranians and the IRGC have intimidated anti-government Iranian fans wearing protest gear outside the stadiums.

While Iranian threats are playing out on the world stage, Israelis are enjoying the World Cup experience, despite being fully aware of the security threats and complications. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian team made it into this year’s competition. However, eager Israeli football fans have traveled to Qatar to view the 32 teams playing. Israel notes that number could reach 20,000.

The U.S. Soccer Federation, in a visual statement with strong humanitarian overtones, changed the Iranian flag in a photo by omitting its icon and leaving only its stripes. The U.S. Federation explained they did this as a show of solidarity—an indication of “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” The U.S. Federation said it changed the flag for only 24 hours. An angered Iran asked FIFA to kick the U.S. out of the World Cup, thankfully to no avail. Protests continue in Iran, where with Human Rights activists report that 451 protesters are dead and 18,000 people have been arrested.

Amid the convergence of athletics and human rights taking center stage, when fans enter the 45,857-seat Khalifa International Stadium, they step into a world of athletic opulence and excitement on steroids. With an estimated 2.89 million tickets sold as of November 14, fans will be rubbing shoulders with countless thousands from nations around the globe.

I find it interesting that, in contrast to the hustle and excitement of the games, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas chose a quieter entry to the World Cup—perhaps to avoid flaunting the opulence he enjoys while his countrymen have so little. Few Palestinians will ever experience the luxury Abbas enjoys not only at the World Cup but in his mansion in Ramallah; his government’s corruption keeps most of the population in poor circumstances. Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, is covering the World Cup but did not mention Abbas’s delegation even though Abbas attended the dazzling opening ceremony.

In a leaked document, Palestinian Media Watch provided an inside look at Abbas and his 16-member World Cup entourage. The documents contained correspondence between Abbas’s office, the Palestinian Embassy in Qatar, and the Qatari Foreign Office. One document shows Abbas’s State of Palestine Delegation invoice from the Ritz Carlton Hotel for November 16–26. The amount: a staggering $79,478.02. The Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization’s glamorous trip comes amid their claims of a “severe financial crisis”—one that clearly does not affect the Palestinian leaders.

Hamas leaders are likely attending the World Cup and are doubtless ensconced in luxury boxes at Khalifa International Stadium, since Hamas and Qatar are good friends. Qatar funds the Gazan terror that has plagued Israel since Hamas took over in 2007. Key Hamas terrorist leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khalil al-Hayya now live in Qatar instead of the poor conditions they left behind in Gaza among 2 million Gazan Palestinians. As reported in January 2022 by the Arabic news source Al-Awsat, eight Hamas leaders have exited Gaza to live in Qatar and Turkey.

A financial dark side lurks within Qatar’s World Cup fame. In a recent Jewish Chronicle article, Israeli civil rights attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner commented on the wealth that stuffs the pockets of terrorists so they can continue their hatred toward the world’s only Jewish state. Darshan-Leitner successfully prosecutes terrorists on behalf of Jewish victims. She points out that Qatar has already financed billions of dollars for Hamas to reinforce its terror activities against Israel.

“If Qatar profits with billions of dollars from the World Cup, a percentage of that will be given to Hamas for rockets, guns, tunnels, and training to kill Jews,” she says. “Qatar and Iran are the main Hamas funders. Every T-shirt and every scarf sold in Doha pays for another bullet and another knife aimed at innocent Jews.” Darshan-Leitner calls Qatar “the ATM of terror organizations, mainly Hamas.”

Americans will definitely enjoy the entertaining games, interviews, and media via TV and live streaming that NBC Sports predicts will pull in 5 billion viewers. If any of you are among the fans, take a moment to pray for Israeli fans, Team Melli, and enthusiasts courageously and peacefully protesting during the remaining eighteen days of the World Cup.

These two verses fit both the FIFA World Cup and our own walk with the Lord:

“Athletes cannot win the prize unless they follow the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5 NLT).

“All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize” (1 Corinthians 9:25 NLT).

Please join CBN Israel this week in prayer for Israel and the Middle East:

  • Pray for Team Melli and their families that they will not face torture or prison when they return to Tehran.
  • Pray for all athletes at the World Cup for good sportsmanship and no injuries.
  • Pray for fans and athletes who are expressing their support for protestors in Iran.
  • Pray that social gatherings and meetings at the World Cup will contribute to cooperation on many levels beyond athletics.
  • Pray that love and peace would prevail in the Middle East over the hatred and hostility often shown to Israel and the Jewish people.
  • Pray for CBN Israel and CBN News to continue shining the light of truth about the Jewish nation and people.

Arlene Bridges Samuels pioneered Christian outreach for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After she served nine years on AIPAC’s staff, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA engaged her as Outreach Director part-time for their project, American Christian Leaders for Israel. Arlene is an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel, a guest columnist at All Israel News, and has frequently traveled to Israel since 1990. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited and is a volunteer on the board of Violins of Hope South Carolina. Arlene has attended Israel’s Government Press Office Christian Media Summit three times and hosts her devotionals, The Eclectic Evangelical, on Facebook.

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Biblical Israel: Nazareth

By Marc Turnage

Nazareth—the boyhood home of Jesus—sits on a limestone ridge (the Nazareth Ridge) in the Lower Galilee that separates the Jezreel Valley to the south from the Beit Netofa Valley to the north. Nazareth first appears in ancient literary sources in the New Testament (Matthew 2:23; Luke 1:26; Luke 2:4, 39, and 51). According to Luke, Jesus’ mother, Mary, came from Nazareth (1:26). Matthew relates how the Holy Family, after returning from Egypt, relocated to Nazareth (2:19–23). Jesus taught in Nazareth’s synagogue (Luke 4:16-30), and as His popularity grew, He became known as “Jesus from Nazareth” (Matthew 21:11).

Although Nazareth is not mentioned in ancient sources prior to the New Testament, archaeologists have uncovered remains from the Middle Bronze Age (time of the Patriarchs), Iron Age II (time of kingdoms of Israel and Judah), and the late Hellenistic eras. The discovery of tombs from the early Roman period (first century B.C. to second century A.D.) indicates the limit of the village, as Jews do not bury their dead inside of cities or villages. The site in the first century covered an area of about sixty 60 acres, with a population of maybe perhaps 500 people. 

Ancient Nazareth sits 3.8 miles (about an hour-and-fifteen-minute walk) to the south of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee when Jesus was a boy. Its proximity indicates its dependency upon Sepphoris; moreover, its location between the Jezreel and Beit Netofa Valleys, both of which contained international travel routes, suggests that Jesus was anything but “a hick from the sticks.”

Archaeologists uncovered what they tentatively identify as a Jewish ritual immersion bath from the early Roman period. If they are correct, it may point to the location of the synagogue of Nazareth (see Luke 4:16-30). This, as well as early Christian structures, are now enclosed inside the modern compound of the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, built in the 1960s. 

Later Jewish tradition identifies Nazareth as the location where the priestly course of Hapizez settled after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70; an inscription discovered in the coastal city of Caesarea, from the Byzantine period, repeats this. The church fathers Eusebius and Epiphanius indicate that the population of Nazareth was Jewish into the sixth century A.D. 

By the fourth century A.D., Christian pilgrims began to journey to Nazareth and were shown a cave identified as the home of Mary. It remains a place for pilgrims to this day. It has housed churches since the Byzantine period. Today, Nazareth contains two main pilgrim churches: the Catholic Church of the Annunciation and the Orthodox church built over the spring of Nazareth. 

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.

Facebook: @witbuniversity
Podcast: Windows into the Bible Podcast

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