As I continue my research fellowship at Tantur, marveling at the amount of work one can do on a doctorate when one has normal access to a library and is not working four or five part time jobs, I have had some occasions to join the sabbatical program on a couple of their excursions.
For the last two days, we went into the desert: Qumran, Masada, floating the Dead Sea, overnight at Kibbutz Mash’abei Sadeh, Makhtesh HaGadol, and lunch with a family of Negev Beduin.
Qumran is the archaeological site between the Dead Sea and the caves on the eastern slopes of the Judean mountains, just over 20 km due east of Jerusalem as the Tristramit fly. Eleven of the scores of caves in the hills contained over 900 manuscripts dating about 2000 years old, most of which include what later became the canonical books of the Hebrew Bible (except Esther), leading to some connections between Qumran and the treasury of scrolls found in the caves, and this is what drives interest in Qumran, as it is, by itself, a fairly small archaeological site. The scriptural texts were a millennium older than the previous oldest surviving manuscripts, giving us a measure for the development over time, and the impressive consistency.
Masada is a desert fortress situated on a massive mesa 53km southeast of Jerusalem, towering over the Dead Sea. To say it is impressive is an understatement almost as massive. Linked with the Hasmonean Maccabee revolt in the mid-second century before Christ, it was developed on a grand scale under Herod the Great in the 30s and 20s B.C., and used again by the Sicarii, the Zealots, during the revolt against the Romans that resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D./C.E. It was during this conflict that the Romans besieged Masada, recounted to us by Flavius Josephus (who was not actually present). The remains of the roman siege can still be seen: several siege camps and a siege wall are still visible from high up in the fortress, as is a massive ramp built by the Romans to access the fortress from the desert floor without having to scramble up the narrow ‘snake path’ that lead to the front gate.
The Dead Sea probably needs little explanation, but it is hard to describe the feeling of getting in and feeling the seemingly unnatural buoyancy, owing to its 35% salinity. It is said that when Vespasian came to the Sea during the Roman-Jewish War in the late 60’s, he threw Jewish prisoners into the sea while bound to see if they really would float – and they did, despite being unable to swim. Then valuable for its salt, now the stuff piles up uselessly as the lake is process more for other minerals: bromides, potash, magnesium. More than 400 meters below sea level (at the surface) and another 300m deep, the salt lake is receding at a rate of one meter (about 3’6”) per year. This is dramatically seen when one comes across one of the spas built on the shore in the mid-1980s – now so far from the water that one has to take a shuttle to get from the spa to the lake. Surprising to me was how many tourists come to Israel simply to spend a week at the Dead Sea for its health benefits, never once spending anytime at the holy sites, exploring the cultural heritage, history, or even political situation of the land.
We then spent the night at Kibbutz Mash’abei Sadeh. The kibbutzim are pretty well known around the world, but maybe only in a general sense. Years ago I remember talking with a group of friends about how we would love to have all the benefits of religious community life without the necessary obligations of living in single-sex communities or that the only state of life option would be vowed chastity. We had images of a large plot of land with cabins for privacy and a common space for joint activities, including a library, fencing gym, dojo, and common area for games and socializing. I do not think it occurred to any of us that we had described something that already existed in practice, so different did it seem than the usual expectation in the States of buying into your own private slice of life separate from everyone around you. This kibbutz is 66 years old, with about 200 members and another couple of hundred residents. Like most, there has been some accommodation to privatization, but education, health care, and culture remain communitarian. Everyone contributes their salary to the community fund, whether physician or janitor, and is given an equal stipend on top of the common needs being met.
The morning took us to what ought to be one of the natural wonders of the world. The Makhtesh HaGadol, or the large Makhtesh, is often referred to as a crater but is something altogether different. Where a crater is the result of an extraterrestrial impact or volcanic explosion, the Makhteshim are what happen when you erode the insides of a mountain out while leaving part of the shell behind. Ten kilometers long and five wide, the slopes of the original mountain are still visible, covered in limestone, while the soft sandstone middle has long since been eroded away. It is more than half a kilometer drop from the top of the rim to the central basin below. In the quiet of the morning, under a hot sun and a cool breeze, we spent some time in quiet prayer and contemplation. Let the words of Elijah’s encounter with God shape our reflection:
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
We then went to the house of the ‘mayor’ of one of the Negev’s ‘unrecognized’ Bedouin communities, Kashem Zaneh, for discussion and lunch. The Bedouin are Arabs demarked by their nomadic desert life – the word itself (Arabic, badawi) derives from bada (desert) and simply means “those who dwell in the desert”. The people of Israel entire were badawi during the Exodus. Yet, the Bedouin of the Negev were often less nomadic than their counterparts in other deserts, the village we visited tracing its history back at least five centuries. Temporary construction marks the villages, not unlike some First Nations reservations I have seen in North America. Corrugated steel seems to be the construction material of choice, along with semi-permanent tents. It was a Bedouin goatherd who discovered the Dead Sea scrolls near Qumran.
Their political situation is tenuous – full Israeli citizens, and living outside of the Palestinian territories, but restricted to a zone around Be’er Sheva covering about 2% of their traditional range, the 100,000 or so Bedouin have to choose between living in one of about eight recognized communities, giving up their traditional life, or staying on their homeland with none of the benefits of the modern state. We were told the Israeli Education ministry spends as much on transporting the 700 Bedouin children from this village to school 15km away each year as it would cost to actually build a school on site – which is not done because it remains an unrecognized community.
Finally, we stopped at Tel Be’er Sheva, the archaeological site associated with the patriarch Abraham and his first settling in the promised land. A well remains that, though not old enough to be the original, dates back around 2,700 years. We first encounter Be’er Sheva (Beersheba) in Genesis 21, as the place of the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, giving the place its name: the well of the covenant, or the well of the seven (the ewes Abraham offered to Abimelech to prove his ownership of the well).
Just a few lines beforehand, however, the first reference is attached ot one of the most significant moments in the Bible for contemporary Israeli-Arab relations. It is from here that Abraham sends away his concubine Hagar and her son Ishmael, who is destined to become the father of the Arab peoples, and the forefather of Mohamed, while Moses and Jesus both descended from the line of his half-brother Isaac.
The archaeological evidence shows habitation back to at least 4000 years before Christ, into the bronze age, an estimated 2200 years before Abraham. According to the Hebrew Bible, this is the southernmost city settles by the Israelites.