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Jerusalem, the “City of Three Christmases” in Israel, the Land of Religious Freedom

By Arlene Bridges Samuels

Israel, the world’s only Jewish nation, has historically been a beacon of religious freedom for the three monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Christmas observances last for days in Israel with a vast array of decorations, festivities, and traditions—and a variety of denominations represented. Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on December 25, 2021, Orthodox Christians on January 7, 2022, and Armenian Christians on January 18, 2022. Thus, another name for Jerusalem is “the city of three Christmases.”

Within Israel’s small size, the Yuletide tapestry seems to twinkle more vividly. 

Walking down the streets of Jerusalem you may laugh with delight to see Santa Claus riding a camel on cobblestone streets. To the north, the city of Haifa lights up its 40-foot-tall Christmas tree where the “Feast of Feasts” takes place—with Christians, Jews, and Muslims enjoying foods, music, and the arts together. In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity holds a midnight mass and Christmas carols fill the streets of Manger Square. In Nazareth, which contains Israel’s largest Christian population (22,000), Pastor Saleem Salash’s Arab Christian congregation at Jesus the King Church hands out hundreds of gifts to needy children. In Tel Aviv, you might see slender Santas playing volleyball.

For decades, Israel’s Christian population has grown because religious freedom is respected and protected. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics shows Christians as a small minority of around 177,000 with a majority of them Arab Christians (77%). The most recent statistic (2019) shows that the Christian population grew by 1.5% that year.

Although the actual season and date of Jesus’ birth is an interesting topic of discussion, most traditions view it as occurring in December and call it Christmas. However, Jesus’ virgin birth to a young Jewish woman and His birthplace in Bethlehem are facts of history and lineage, as recorded in Matthew’s first chapter, through King David and Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father. 

While recalling some of the details of Israel’s Christmases, I am reminded of my own childhood. We always read the King James Version of Luke 2 on Christmas Eve. I still have our family Bible, now more than 70 years old, with ruffled pages and candle wax drippings. However, nothing could ever mar those beloved memories of reading the remarkable story of Jesus’ birth with my family. Our Christmas Eve candlelight services, celebrated by hundreds in First Baptist Church in Florence, South Carolina, still linger in my memories as moments of joy. As a teenager, we also attended the Catholic church across the street to celebrate in their lovely, more formal midnight services.

The Old Testament acts as a profound forerunner to the Incarnation when God took on the earthly flesh of redemption in Bethlehem possibly near the Tower of the Flock. Temple-destined perfect lambs were born and raised by shepherd priests for Passover. George Frederic Handel’s Messiah, composed in 1741, is unmatched in its majesty, with eloquent passages such as Isaiah 9:6—“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” On the occasions I have either attended a concert or sung in the alto section of Messiah, it gives me a glimpse of heaven through its biblical lyrics and Handel’s anointed musical genius. 

Now, looking at later years of Israel’s Christians and churches, a few among many churches immediately stand out. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the Church of the Holy Tomb) was built in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter in the fourth century. It was first called a Greek name, Church of the Anastasis (Resurrection). Most Christian tourists visit the church, which is considered the traditional site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The interior wafts with incense, shines with candles, and creates a sense of overwhelming awe. 

Centuries later, in 1849, Christ Church was completed. Located right inside the Jaffa Gate, it is a favorite for evangelicals and part of the Anglican denomination. Christ Church is considered the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East, with a décor both simple and elegant. From its founding, Christ Church has emphasized the fact that the Jewish faith is the building block for Christianity, and it celebrates both Jewish and Christian traditions and holidays. 

Another interesting site is Israel’s Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). In 1878, the first YMCA branch in Israel opened. The current beautiful building, designed by the same architectural firm that designed the Empire State Building, was dedicated in 1933. An overflow crowd listened to the dedication speech by the famous Christian general, Edmund Allenby. During World War I, his forces defeated the ruling Ottomans in Palestine, as it was called under the British Mandate. The YMCA was dedicated as an institution of peace among the monotheistic faiths, an Israeli NGO with Christian origins.

Evidence of the peaceful purpose of the International YMCA remains on full display in Israel as an example of the Jewish-majority nation that guarantees religious freedom. On November 28 of this year—falling on both the first day of Advent and Hanukkah—1,500 people packed the impressive grounds for the annual Christmas tree lighting. Professor Gabi Scheffler played Christmas music on the YMCA’s 36-bell carillon and Santa made a special visit. Rana Fahoum, Muslim CEO of the Jerusalem International YMCA, commented, “Jerusalemites of every faith look forward to these festivities all year. It is one of the very few occasions where you can see a microcosm of residents—Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. Jerusalem comes to the tree lighting.”

Throughout Israel and in the capital of Jerusalem (the “city of three Christmases”), be assured that Israel’s Christian minority—made up of expatriates, Christian ministry leaders and staff, Messianic believers, Arab Christians, and multiple denominations—are recognized. They are welcome to hold church services, Christian concerts, tree lightings, prayers, and carol singing to celebrate the most profound birth in world history in the land where it all happened. 

Israel, the ancestral homeland of the Jews and God’s chosen land for His people, is the place where the greatest gift the world has ever known was given, Jesus our Jewish Messiah.

Please join CBN Israel in prayer this week for Jews and Arabs living in Israel:

  • Pray for God’s perfect peace to permeate throughout the land of Israel—especially between Jews and Arabs.
  • Pray with thankfulness for Israeli cities like Haifa, which has a wonderful reputation for the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs.  
  • Pray for the decreasing number of Arab Christians who live in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem and face ongoing persecution and threats from Muslims.
  • Pray that, through CBN Israel, Christians throughout the U.S. will continue to express God’s love and goodwill toward the people of Israel, especially those in desperate need.  

May you and your family enjoy a Merry Christmas, or in Hebrew, Chag Molad Sameach!

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 now an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel and has traveled to Israel 25 times. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited by Artist Pat Mercer Hutchens and sits 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 her website at ArleneBridgesSamuels.com.

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Holocaust Survivor: Eugenia’s Story

Eugenia remembers the fear she felt when the Holocaust began in Ukraine. She experienced a similar fear as Israel went into lockdown because of COVID-19. It brought back vivid memories of life during the war. “I was very young, but I recall the loud sounds of the Nazi motorcycles and large trucks. It was all so new and scary. My mother and I ran to a nearby village, but the Nazis found us, and we were taken to the ghetto,” says Eugenia.  

After Eugenia’s father died fighting the Nazis, she and her mother had to fend for themselves in the ghetto. They ate whatever they could find, even old potato skins that had been tossed out. All they knew was hunger, cold, and fear. To this day, she doesn’t know how she survived.

Today, Eugenia lives alone in Israel. She isolated herself to avoid catching the coronavirus, but you were there for her through CBN Israel. Our staff brings her groceries and takes the time to make sure she is all right. She admits, “In the beginning I was very scared of the virus and didn’t know how I could go out to get food. But having you come to check on me and bring me these groceries helped ease my mind.”

Because of the support of CBN Israel donors, Eugenia has the food she needs and someone to look after her. That helps keep her fears at bay. “It means so much that you remember me and care about me. It’s a great feeling and has helped me through this difficult time. Thank you.”

And CBN Israel is bringing help and hope to so many lonely seniors, single moms, refugees, young families, and others struggling in the Holy Land. At a time when many Israelis are in crisis, you can offer needed aid and encouragement. Your gifts can bring food, housing, financial help, and more to those in desperate situations. 

Please join us in blessing others in need!

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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.

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

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Weekly Devotional: God Steps Into Our Turmoil

“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria” (Luke 2:1-2 NKJV). 

The census of Quirinius stirred up bitter feelings for the Jewish people. At this time, Rome officially annexed the territory of the land in which Jerusalem sat, and the people came under direct Roman rule. Some Jews responded to Roman rule by refusing to participate in the census, choosing rather to take up the sword and spill Roman blood. Unlike those who took up the sword, Jesus’ parents participated in the census.

Luke’s highlighting of the census of Quirinius contrasted the coming of Jesus and the dawning of God’s redemption with the rise of militant Jewish movements that arose to fight Rome and force the Romans from the land of Israel. Jesus’ movement was different. He would not counsel military action; rather, He called people to repentance and caring for the poor.

Luke communicated that the sabbatical year of God’s redemption had come; the time was now. Some looked to the militant Jewish rebel movements to effect God’s redemption. Luke declared that God’s redemption, His drawing near to His people, came from the baby born to these two Jewish parents who obeyed the census. This child, the one Luke will tell about—His life, His message, His death, and vindicating resurrection—offers God’s clearest revelation of Himself. 

Turmoil often makes us yearn for God’s assistance. It can also lead us to seek our own means to make it happen. God is never deaf to our cries of help, yet He often uses means that we find ourselves blind to because of the uncertainty and difficulty of our circumstances.

Jesus entered a world of turmoil. Rome had taken over. The people of Israel cried for God’s redemption; the question became, how would He achieve it? Some sought armed resistance as the path, yet God’s redemption entered the world through a baby born to a pious family. A baby who would grow up and tell people that God’s reign came through obedience and that repentance brought redemption near. A baby who ultimately died, whom God raised from the dead as evidence that His redemption had come near. 

The Christmas season can so often heighten our feelings of turmoil. Financial troubles. Being alone. And, even if it’s not true for us personally, many people around us may feel sadness and confusion during this season. The message of Christmas is that God steps into our turmoil. He is not somewhere else; He is near. He does not abandon us—even if we don’t always see Him or understand His plans and purposes.

Into the turmoil of the first century, God sent His Son, who called upon people to submit in obedience to God and His ways. And He calls us to do the same today. 

PRAYER

Father, even amid our own turmoil and frustrated hopes, may we lean into Your presence this Christmas season, realizing that You never forsake us, and You still come to us asking us to simply trust and obey You. Amen.

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The Connection Between King David, Christmas, and Palm Sunday 

By Arlene Bridges Samuels

The candles are extinguished for Hanukkah 2021, the Jewish Festival of Lights, and are now replaced in many homes with the lights of glowing Christmas trees and festive decorations. Our Christian nativity scenes are on prominent display, with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in a manger. Often lost, however, is the humble yet splendid context of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David.

Let us take a look at a significant side note of facts and details before we take an imaginative journey to the ancient town of Bethlehem where our Jewish Savior was born. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, His disciples and the Apostle Paul traveled throughout the vast Roman Empire to spread the Good News throughout the known world. Tragically, generations later, Gentile believers gradually began distancing themselves from the Jewish roots of their faith and Jesus’ Jewish ancestry. As a result, centuries of Christians found themselves vastly disconnected from the origins of their faith.

Yet, over the last few decades, Christians have made monumental strides toward rediscovering the Jewish roots of our faith. Part of the heightened awareness of Jesus’ ancient Jewish culture and setting is the fascinating connection between Migdal Eder (Tower of the Flock), the shepherds in the Bethlehem fields, and the shepherd boy who would one day be crowned King David. This glistening thread of history is as wondrous as the star that later guided the wise men to the child, Jesus, who would grow up to become the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

The Tower of the Flock no longer stands, but Scripture reinforces 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. The Bible mentions Migdal Eder (or Edar) in two specific passages, Genesis 35:21 and Micah 4:8. The Hebrew word Migdal means “tower” and Eder means “flock.” This important tower stood on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which are approximately six miles apart.

In Genesis, Jacob cast his tent at Migdal where he buried Rachel, the love of his life, who died giving birth to Benjamin. Then Micah 4:8—a prophecy written around 700 years before Jesus’ birth—reads, “And you, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.”

As we know, shepherds and sheep occupy a prominent place throughout the Bible. They are mentioned 500 times! The beloved Psalm 23, written by the shepherd king, David, enshrines our Lord as our Shepherd along with Jesus’ own words. In John 10:11 Jesus declared, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” He then says, “As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:15).

King David was born in the town of Bethlehem, which is known along with Jerusalem as the City of David. Since the mention of Migdal Eder appears in Genesis, David would have known about Migdal Eder from Scripture and from shepherding. There in Bethlehem, the prophet Samuel anointed him to be Israel’s king (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Jesus’ earthly adoptive father Joseph was of the lineage of King David, a fact that is intentionally established in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. 

Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the obligatory Roman census and pay taxes. By imperial decree, everyone was required to go to their ancestral town. Surely it was no accident or coincidence that the young Jewish couple would return to Joseph’s hometown at this specific moment in time. Rather, it was all part of God’s plan that Mary would give birth to Jesus in Bethlehem—in close proximity to The Tower of the Flock. 

For centuries, shepherds were completely familiar with The Tower of the Flock. The tower and the Bethlehem fields were their workplace. The stone structure was two floors high, allowing the Chief Shepherd to look out over the flock for predators from the second floor. The shepherds also led the ewes from the fields into the tower to give birth.

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 back and get some swaddling and snugly wrapped the lamb because if it harmed its limbs in any way, it would be disqualified as a [Temple] sacrifice. Once the lamb was wrapped, they would 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.”

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 to them 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 to say the least. 

The Jewish leaders in charge of Temple sacrifices chose the shepherds since they were experts in animal husbandry. They appointed them as Levitical priests. The lambs they tended on the birthing floor of Migdal Eder each year were special. When the lambs reached a year old, the shepherds herded thousands of them to Jerusalem for Passover—what ancient Jews called the Day of Lambs—to present them to the Temple priests. The priests inspected them, then chose the ones without spot or blemish as the sacrificial Passover lambs. It is a description of our Savior, Jesus, the Perfect Lamb of God, also sacrificed at Passover for us.

Allow this realization to sink deeply into your heart. These particular events—Jesus’ birth, life, and death—intricately link with the ancient Levitical shepherds and the Temple-destined lambs. When Jesus identified Himself as the Lamb of God, He chose a metaphor and image that only His Jewish audience could fully appreciate. Then, a few days later, the dramatic events of Jesus’ final Passover, subsequent arrest, trial, and conviction eventually culminated in the Perfect Lamb of God being nailed to a tree with His blood splattered outside the walls of Jerusalem. Simultaneously, the priests in the Temple were slaughtering the Passover lambs.

Throughout the Christmas season, our decorated trees and homes are a wonderful source of joy, tradition, and family memories. Yet may we never forget to reflect upon that first Christmas when Jesus, the Perfect Lamb of God, was born in Bethlehem not too far from where the unblemished sacrificial Temple lambs would have also been born. May we remember the true meaning of Christmas, when Jesus entered time and space to be Immanuel, “God with us.” This Christmas let us also reflect upon these life-changing words about Jesus’ profound and permanent sacrifice for all of us: 

“And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God. … For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:11-12, 14).

Please join CBN Israel in prayer this week as we prepare to celebrate Christmas:

  • Pray that the Christian community in Israel and throughout the Middle East would be encouraged in their faith this Advent season. 
  • Pray that Christians will focus first and foremost on the core message and hope of Christmas—that Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” 
  • Pray that our Christmas celebrations will include blessing others who are in need. 
  • Pray for CBN Israel as generous partners make it possible to share God’s love and goodwill with impoverished families, elderly widows, lonely refugees, and more.


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 now an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel and has traveled to Israel 25 times. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited by Artist Pat Mercer Hutchens and sits 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 her website at ArleneBridgesSamuels.com.

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Single Mother: Yafit’s Story

Yafit was young, Ethiopian, and Jewish—and she fulfilled a major dream when she immigrated to Israel in 1991. Surviving the transition of leaving her little farming village for a new country, she eventually got a great job, married, and had four children. Life was good. And then suddenly, four years ago, her husband abandoned her and the children, and fled the country. 

At age 47, Yafit went overnight from years of being a caregiver for her children, to being the sole breadwinner of her family. Her youngest child was five years old with Down syndrome.

Added to that, her apartment was old, and desperately needed repairs. The contractor she paid only made matters worse—and then he abruptly stopped work, without giving her any compensation. Yafit’s bills were piling up… and when COVID-19 hit, food was scarce. 

Thankfully, CBN Israel arrived with help. We provided groceries for her family, and financial aid to catch up on her bills. We also repaired her apartment, making it safe—and with a local partner, delivered brand new sofas, plus a dining table and chairs. Best of all, friends like you gave Yafit hope. She exclaimed, “Thank you so much… I am so touched by your generosity!” 

And your gift can give hope to many single mothers, as well as elderly Holocaust survivors, immigrant families, terror victims and others. You can be there with food, housing, job training, financial help—and encouragement! 

At a time when so many are in need, you can offer humanitarian aid to those who are suffering—while also delivering vital reports through CBN News and sharing Israel’s story through documentary films. 

Please help us make a difference!

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Biblical Israel: Beersheva 

By Marc Turnage

The site of Beersheva figures prominently within the Patriarchal stories of the Old Testament, particularly with Abraham. It also became the defining limit of the southern extent of the kingdom of Israel, from Dan to Beersheva (1 Samuel 3:20; 17:11; 24:2; 1 Kings 4:25). According to Genesis (21:31), the name of the place derived from an oath between Abraham and Abimelech; the name Beersheva means “the well of the oath.” 

The ancient tel (mound) of Beersheva sits in the Beersheva Valley, east of the modern city of Beersheva in the western part of the biblical Negev. When the Bible refers to the Negev, it means the valley that runs east-west across the southern Hill Country. This valley is known as the Arad-Beersheva valley. The lands south of this valley, the wilderness of Zin (Numbers 20) and the wilderness of Paran (Numbers 10:12; 12:16; 13:3, 26), lay outside of biblical Israel. This can confuse modern travelers to Israel because the land from the Beersheva Valley south to the Gulf of Elat is identified as the Negev today, and it resides within the modern State of Israel, yet the land south of the Beersheva Valley, the biblical Negev, lay outside the biblical land of Israel. 

Beersheva functioned as an important hub between Egypt and the Judean Hill Country. It also served as a juncture for east-west trade routes. Its important location, along major roadways, underscores its importance within the biblical stories, especially the Patriarchal stories, since, as nomadic herdsmen, the Patriarchs moved between the Judean Hill Country, the Negev, and Egypt.

From Beersheva, Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness of Beersheva, after the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:8-20). God revealed himself to the Patriarchs at Beersheva (Genesis 26:24-25; 46:1-2); it continued to function as a place of religious activity, even into the periods of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The prophet Amos condemned the pagan rites held at Beersheva, along with those at Dan, Bethel, and Gilgal (Amos 5:5; 8:14). Archaeological excavations uncovered a four-horn altar at Beersheva made of hewn stone, which God forbade in the Torah. This altar had been dismantled in antiquity, most likely due to the religious-political reforms of King Hezekiah. 

Abraham and Isaac both struggled with Abimelech, king of Gerar, over water rights in the region (Genesis 21:22-34; 26:15-33). Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abijah, judged Israel from Beersheva (1 Samuel 8:1-2). The city belonged in the tribal territory of Judah and Simeon (Joshua 15:28; 19:2; 1 Chronicles 4:28). The prophet Elijah passed through Beersheva on his journey to Mount Horeb when he fled from Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 19:3). Upon the return of the Judean exiles from Babylonian captivity, Beersheva served as the southernmost point of settlement by the Judeans who returned to the land, “from Beersheva to the valley of Hinnom [which is in Jerusalem]” (Nehemiah 11:30). 

The current ancient site of Beersheva preserves a city from the mid-twelfth century to the end of the eighth century B.C. This time period coincides with the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Nothing at the site dates to the period of the Patriarchs. The city served as an administrative center; the houses of the city, built one next to the other, formed the city wall by the back wall of the houses. Large storehouses, for the storing of grain, were uncovered attesting to the region’s agricultural potential, as well as a land for grazing flocks of sheep and goats. The water-system proves rather ingenious as rain was captured and funneled into the large water cistern, which provided water for the city year-round. Outside the ancient gate complex sits a well, which remembers the name of the site and the story of Abraham and Abimelech’s oath.

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: The Nature of Redemption

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, just as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets in ancient times; salvation from our enemies and from the clutches of those who hate us. He has dealt mercifully with our fathers and remembered His holy covenant—the oath that He swore to our father Abraham. He has given us the privilege, since we have been rescued from our enemies’ clutches, to serve Him without fear” (Luke 1:67-75 HCSB).

The Jewish people living in the land of Israel during the first century found themselves under the authority of the polytheistic Roman Empire. How could the One true God allow His chosen people to be enslaved to a polytheistic, brutal, and immoral kingdom? 

Judaism responded to this question in different ways. Some claimed submission to Rome was a sin; therefore, Jews should take up the sword and fight. Others blamed Israel’s sin as responsible for this situation. They called upon the people to repent; then, God would bring redemption. They believed that repentance and obedience would bring redemption. This reality forms the backdrop to the world of the New Testament. The Jewish people yearned for redemption; they hoped for redemption. 

Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, longed for the redemption of Israel. This redemption embodied political freedom so that the people could truly worship God as He desired for them. Freedom enabled them to serve Him. Zechariah envisioned Israel’s redemption as fulfilling God’s promises to His people and the visions spoken of by the prophets. Freed from her enemies, Israel could now serve and worship God without fear. 

Like God’s first redemption of Israel from Egypt, Moses and Aaron told Pharaoh to let the people go, so that they could go and worship their God. They were freed from Egyptian bondage, but for what purpose? In Leviticus, God says, “For the children of Israel are servants to Me” (25:55). God freed Israel to serve Him. Jewish hopes of redemption in the first century expressed that same longing: to be free so they could serve God.

In the New Testament, the teachings of Jesus and Paul announce that God’s redemptive promises have come to Israel and to the world. Jesus, like His contemporaries, articulated this hope in the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven” (God), which means submitting to God’s rule and reign. 

We often celebrate our personal freedom; in fact, we tend to describe redemption in those terms. That’s not incorrect, but we can never lose sight of the fact that God brings freedom, so that we may serve Him. The Bible never saw redemption as simply for our own freedom; rather, God freed us so that we can submit to His rule and reign and serve Him. 

It’s in our submission to Him that we glorify and honor Him in our world. We are not free to do as we please. We either serve God, or something else. And He never shares His throne. 

Neither exercising our personal freedoms nor taking up the sword effects God’s redemption. Rather, submitted obedience to Him unleashes His redemptive power into the world. This is what happens when we serve Him and seek His kingdom first. 

PRAYER

Father, You free us to serve You. May we submit our will humbly to Your service and may Your redemptive power flow in our world. Amen.

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Hanukkah in Ancient and Modern Israel: “A Great Miracle Happened There” 

By Arlene Bridges Samuels 

On Sunday, November 28, Jewish families worldwide began celebrating Hanukkah—lighting up their homes each day with candles in their Hanukkiahs, their menorah candelabras. By December 6, when the festival ends, all the candles will be glowing. Children are enjoying eight days of gifts and playing dreidel games, and families are feasting on jelly doughnuts and tasty latkes, the traditional potato pancakes fried in oil. 

In recent years, Christians have grown increasingly familiar with the rich Jewish history of festivals and customs. We have joined in the celebration, too, as it also has a special meaning for us. The contemporary Hanukkah (dedication in Hebrew) menorah usually has nine candles, with the center called the servant or helper candle. The servant candle is used each night to light another candle until all are ablaze on the eighth day. In the Christian faith, the servant candle represents our Lord Jesus. 

Our Jewish Jesus celebrated the Festival of Lights, as mentioned in John 10:22-23. It is the only passage in the Bible that refers to Hanukkah, then called the Feast of Dedication. It is not considered a major festival like Passover, Shavuot, or Feast of Tabernacles, yet it signifies the victory of the Maccabees as another eventful part of survival in Jewish history. 

The apocryphal books, Maccabees I and II, contain the stories of their victory, and for us, the New Testament verifies the fact that Jesus joined in the festivities. The Maccabees rose up in 167 BCE to overthrow their enemy Antiochus IV, the Syrian-Greek (Seleucid) ruler. In addition to outlawing important Judaic practice and laws, Antiochus ordered the desecration of the Second Temple—building an altar to the pagan god, Zeus, and sacrificing  pigs. The ancient battle and the Maccabees’ victory in 164 BCE signified once again God’s intervention to save the Jewish people and their faith from extinction.

The Maccabees (also known as the Hasmoneans) then began the process of cleansing the Temple and searching for the pure oil to relight the candles. In doing so, they discovered the seven-branched golden lampstand as described in Exodus 25:31-40, when God gave Moses a detailed design at Mount Sinai to fashion the exquisite menorah. The most skilled craftsman was chosen to make it, hammering it out of a single piece of gold. It weighed perhaps a hundred pounds. 

Although the Maccabees found the lampstand, they discovered only a small cruse of purified oil, enough for just one day. Nevertheless, a miracle happened there” (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham in Hebrew), as Jews for centuries have repeatedly declared. The Maccabees decided to use the small cruse of oil. However, they must have been astonished that it lasted eight days! 

According to biblical laws, the oil used in the Temple took a week to make. It involved beating (not the customary pressing) of the olives, then letting them sit so the pure oil would naturally drain. The Jews regarded the Temple menorah candlelight as the presence of God, just as during the days of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Thus, the eight-day Festival of Lights was born. 

Fast forward from the Maccabees to approximately 100 years later. Our Lord Jesus walked the Temple courts along Solomon’s Colonnade to join in the Feast of Dedication, the Jewish military victory over their enemies. This was the same Temple the Maccabees cleansed and purified. The same Temple where the lights still gleamed. The same Temple where Jewish leaders stopped Jesus to ask Him to declare Himself.   

In John 8:12 Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 

It is not clear to me, but I like to think Jesus proclaimed Himself as the Light of the world during the Festival itself. However, what He revealed in John 10:22-23 stunned His questioners. Christians today believe the assurances He made then: that He is our Shepherd Who protects us, walks with us, and gives us eternal life. 

“Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 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.’ Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one’” (John 10:22-30).

Jesus’ bold statements offered hope to many Jews in the Temple on that day. Like the disciples, thousands of Jews believed in Jesus as their hoped-for Messiah. Yet the Romans now acted as their oppressors following in the footsteps of Antiochus IV a hundred years earlier. Nonetheless, the Jewish political and religious leaders in power took His words as blasphemy, adding more reasons to silence Him, especially when Jesus proclaimed, “I and the Father are one.” 

The Festival of Lights is an opportune time to reflect on the Jewish community worldwide, from ancient to modern times—people who have experienced their share of the darkest of days. That’s because we know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has provided the promised light to maintain His covenants with His Jewish people, their survival, and now the modern Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. 

The menorah has long been an iconic symbol that abounds all over Israel, appearing in ancient mosaics and on contemporary coins. It was no mistake that Israel’s Provisional Council of State on February 10, 1949 (11 Shevat 5709), adopted the menorah as its national emblem. They held a contest in 1948 won by brothers Gabriel and Maxim Shamir. The Shamirs’ seven-branched candelabrum is depicted on a deep blue shield, with two olive branches appearing on each side in white and the country name Israel written in Hebrew (יִשְׂרָאֵל) below the menorah. The Knesset Menorah, a bold bronze sculpture created in 1956 by Benno Elkan, stands next to Israel’s parliament building at 14 feet high and weighing four tons! 

Since Israel became a modern state on May 14, 1948, Israelis proclaim Happy Hanukkah with the Hebrew greeting, “nes gadol haya po,” which means “a great miracle happened here.” We agree—and wish all our Jewish friends everlasting light, today and forever. 

Please join CBN Israel in prayer for Israel and the Jewish people during this Hanukkah:

  • Pray for the Israel Defense Forces who are modern-day Maccabees protecting their land from terror.
  • Pray for Israel, especially now during Hanukkah until December 6, in their latest lockdown due to another COVID-19 variant. 
  • Pray with praise to our Lord Jesus, who is the Light of the world! 

May we reflect upon these words about Jesus: “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16). 

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 now an author at The Blogs-Times of Israel and has traveled to Israel 25 times. She co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited by Artist Pat Mercer Hutchens and sits 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 her website at ArleneBridgesSamuels.com.

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Victim of Terrorism: Rivka’s Story

Rivka and her husband immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1973, and they have established deep roots over the past decades. Living in the coastal city of Ashdod, they both worked from home. Because they lived in an old building without a bomb shelter, they had to use the stairwell for protection in the event of an attack.

One night, during a barrage of attacks, a rocket detonated right next to their building. The explosion blasted out all the windows. Nearly everything was destroyed in an instant. The couple was hit by shrapnel, and Rivka needed stitches. But they were glad they survived with no serious injuries. 

However, the severe damage to their home and the loss of their personal belongings were devastating. The couple is now renting an apartment while figuring out how to repair their home and move forward. Thankfully, CBN Israel reached out to them. 

We provided the couple with access to trauma counseling through our local partners as well as emergency relief, including financial aid to cover immediate essentials. Rivka says, “Thank you… We are so overwhelmed by your kindness!” 

And your gift to CBN Israel can offer hope and help to other terror victims—as well as Holocaust survivors, single mothers, aging veterans, and refugees. As cries for help continue, your support can deliver assistance to those struggling to live in the Holy Land—by bringing them nutritious meals, safe shelter, financial aid, and more. 

Please join us in blessing Israel and her people in need!

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