How lovely is your dwelling place (Psalm 84)

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One of my most vivid memories of the time I lived in Jerusalem is the sight of pilgrims. People from every corner of the globe converged into Jerusalem for a pilgrimage, whether they used the term or not. There were processions, on Palm Sunday, from Bethphage to the Church of St. Anne. Crowds walked along Via Dolorosa to the Holy Sepulchre and there were crowds who came for the Festival of Tabernacles.

You could see the anticipation on everyone’s face and I still get that feeling of anticipation in my heart when I recall those experiences.

Psalm 84 is a pilgrim song, sang by pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem, to Zion, to worship in the Tabernacle. The anticipation was being in the presence of the Lord.

Verse 4 reads: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you”. It is joyful to be on the pilgrimage, but it is pure bliss to stay in the tabernacle on a daily basis, to be in the presence of the Lord all the time. Verse 5 goes on to say: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage”

And why is that?

Verses 6 and say have the answer: “As they pass through the Valley of Bacca, they make it a place of springs…they go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion”. God provides and strengthens the pilgrims.

That is the metaphor for the life of believers. Life is a pilgrimage. There are valleys and hills, even mountains along the way. God provides and strengthens and together we share in the anticipation of the presence of God, along the way and when we arrive at his dwelling place.

Finding healing in the hot springs of Israel

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The First Reading for the Twenty first Sunday after Pentecost (2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c) reminds me of the hot springs of Israel whose combination of chemical properties  and heat heal various skin diseases. Most people have heard of the Dead Sea – in the Jordan Valley – as a tourist attraction where each year, thousands travel in search of healing.

Hamat Gader on the Southern Golan Heights is probably the most famous hot spring in Israel and it is only a short distance from Damascus. The Gospels mention the Decapolis (Matthew 4:25; Mark 5:20) or the ten Greek cities, one of which was Gadara. The Tenth Legion of the Roman Empire built the bathhouse there and ruins from the second century are still there today.

On the western shores of the Sea of Galilee are Tiberias Hot Springs which have been known from Talmudic times to have healing properties. Then there is Ein Gedi, just a short distance west of the Dead Sea.

In 2 Kings 2:19-22, Elisha purified the salt water of Jericho which also lies in the Jordan Valley, and we are told, “the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke”.Drinking from that spring was one of the memorable experiences in Jericho.

Biblical stories like these take on a live and vivid meaning when one experiences life in the land of the hot springs – the Land of the Bible.

I was glad when they said to me: Let us go to the house of the Lord

Breslov kids prepare for Shabbat, Mea Shearim,...

Breslov kids prepare for Shabbat, Mea Shearim, Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”: Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.

These are the words of Psalm 122:1-2; words that have been imprinted in my mind. They were also at the head of the letter inviting me to Jerusalem, to the Swedish Theological Institute. Although I had read Psalm 122 several times before, now it was vivid, not conceptual.

Jerusalem – the Old City – is walled. Today, there are 9 gates that lead into the city: Damascus, New, Jaffa, Zion, Tanners, Dung, Herod’s (also known as Flowers or Perachim in Hebrew), Lions (also known as St. Stephen’s), and the Eastern (or Golden) which is sealed. As the name indicates, it is believed that Stephen, the first Christian martyr was dragged outside Lions Gate and stoned to death. The Golden Gate is very special too, because, according to Ezekiel 44:3 “the Prince (the messiah) will enter through this gate and he will eat bread before the Lord”.

There we were, 12 of us from different countries, standing “within your gates, O Jerusalem”. It could not be more surreal, yet it was all true.

That was our group, but the multitude that was in Jerusalem seemed to have come from every corner of the globe. Even though the majority of these were tourists – well, even pilgrims are tourists in many ways – the words of Isaiah 2:3 were live in my mind: “Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths”; For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.

Yes, it was surreal that this reality was right there before my eyes. The prophet Micah had the exact words in 4:2. There was some controversy too, with some Christians with their application of Zechariah 14:16  which says: “Then all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths”.

At that moment, what mattered to me, was that I was in Jerusalem. It was like something that dropped from heaven since I had nothing to do with its reality in my life.

Add to that my – and my eleven colleagues – new address: 58 Rehov Ha-Nevi’im – Street of the Prophets – and the ensuing experience could not be more exceptional. Behind us was the historic neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

Hebrew has to be God’s language

English: A stamp depicting Eliezer Ben-Yehuda,...

English: A stamp depicting Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, reviver of the Hebrew language. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was never inclined to see the King James Version of the bible as infallible nor as St. Paul’s bible, as some are inclined to believe. But, if God spoke to Moses all those words, the conversation would have been in Hebrew.

Anyway, I have always found Hebrew to be most fascinating. I learned biblical Hebrew in seminary but had no idea what modern Hebrew was like. By the way, modern Hebrew speakers make fun of our seminary Hebrew cursive form of writing.

Hearing Hebrew spoken was magical. The first modern Hebrew expression or words I heard and learned was that barukh habah and it instantly became my favorite expression. Not long after, another expression – ani lo yodea became the most useful, as it still is, for many new language learners. (Actually, the first magical word was shalom, but more on that later).

“How do you say, ‘I don’t know?’ in Hebrew?” one ulpan student asked. It is one of those questions everyone wants to ask.

“Ani lo yodea

or simply lo yodea if masculine and ani lo yoda’at or lo yoda’at if feminine”, the teacher answered without enthusiasm. “You must not use the expression in my class”. It is every teacher’s wish, of course.

This masculine and feminine thing in linguistics gets to be a challenge for a Swahili or English speaker. I had dealt with it in my New Testament Greek and in biblical Hebrew studies. It is troublesome mainly because no one has been able to explain the rationale for it, or any governing principles.

How does one determine whether a door, a window, a snake, a rat, a violin or a car is masculine or feminine? “You just have to learn them as you learn your vocabulary. And you should learn the noun with the article”.

Biblical Hebrew is a tough language, bearing in mind that it is dead. Furthermore, the text  is a copy of earlier copies which were, in turn, copies of earlier copies. Meticulous as copying was – and still is if you have noticed the laborious endeavor in Mea Shearim (about that later) – it is still a copy.

It is hard to say what the original was like. Furthermore, it was a language of religion – who knows what the common people spoke? To make matters worse, the vocabulary was in consonants only, there were no vowels. When you think about it, how do you write a sentence with consonants only?

With biblical Hebrew it is possible, the same way that everything is possible, with God.

Biblical scholars have therefore provided vowels for the text, depending on how they wanted to read a specific word or what meaning they thought the context conveyed. We should note that one vowel could render the meaning of a word one way, while a different vowel would render it another way.

I still remember when a Danish exchange student at the seminary wanted to say “God bless you” in Swahili during her farewell speech and intead of “Mungu awabariki” she said, “Mungu awabikiri”. First, the word should not have been uttered in the chapel – if anywhere at all. Secondly, hysterical laughter was uncommon in the chapel, but on that day, even the most solemn burst out in laughter.

Today there is modern Hebrew, thanks to the Zionist Movement of the nineteenth century, and especially to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived the language – or perhaps created it. He is, by right, the father of modern Hebrew.