Third Letter from Nazareth and Jerusalem

Sunday June 11 Through Sunday June 18, 2017

As I begin, it’s Sunday evening and tomorrow we start our last week in the field.  I’m sitting near the top of a hill called Jebel Qat, just east of our site and a little over a mile north of Sepphoris.  I’ve driven students to their field exam among the ruins on this hill, and I am listening to the wind rattle the loose cover of the porch roof that shades my head.  The porch belongs to a hut that houses young men who guard the surrounding fields from produce and livestock poachers.  The western breeze cools me.

This is the week I most wish to be back home but have the most to do.  Closing down a dig season may require more work than starting one.  Crew members will be at their busiest too, as they finish digging, trim and draw balks, sweep for final photos, and help other squares to do the same.  Many will spend both mornings and afternoons at the site, so we will be on the lookout for exhaustion.  The evening work, however, feels more relaxed and peaceful than the morning bustle.  The lite shines from the west, transforming the site into a place a little less familiar, and as we work the temperature drops.  It has always been one of my favorite times to be in the field.

This evening marks the end of the free weekend, which isn’t completely free for the students who have their exam.  The highlight of the two days was a special meal that the hotel hosted on Saturday night for the extended family of Mustafa, who died this past year.  He was one of the brothers who owns the hotel, and his four sons now run it.  I was told that the food is traditionally served at weddings.  It was the idea of Atef, one of the sons.  They invited our entire group of 45 to join the family, who numbered around 100.  More than one brother told me, “You are family.”  They meant the group.  Naturally, we were honored.  The food was delicious.

In many ways, it looked like any family reunion, with octogenarians to infants filling the space.  People tended to sort themselves according to their generations.  Older women sat at one table.  Couples my age and younger, and those with small children, sat together.  I noticed that most women 60 and older wore their hijabs (head coverings), whereas only one in her 30s did. 

I don’t know if you caught that.  A Muslim family regards our group—which includes Christians, Jews, and agnostics, but no Muslims—family.  Also, I should point out, most of us are Americans.  So of course “family” expresses the warmth of their feelings.  It does not erase the fact that we are guests in this country and at this hotel, that they are paid to care for our needs but we have no obligation to care for theirs, and that most of us do not speak Hebrew or Arabic and will visit them only once.  They are saying something about their generosity of heart.  The hotel staff call me Abu-Sarah (“Father of Sarah”).  That reveals another act of generosity, a sort of adoption into an Arab custom of naming parents after their oldest children.

I told the group on Friday that I am constantly learning the lesson of generosity here. 

Skip to Saturday June 17, the day before Father’s Day in the US.  I of course am thinking of my Dad recovering in Tampa and preparing for more rounds of chemo therapy, and I’m thinking of my mother, who must assume the role of caregiver.  They confess that prayers sustain them.

We have closed down the dig and retired to Jerusalem, where I have resumed writing from a lovely garden courtyard at the St. George’s Cathedral Pilgrim Guesthouse.  The bulk of the group is visiting wonders on the shore of the Dead Sea while others wander the Old City, shop, and sightsee.  We visited the Western Wall last night, as we usually do our first night in Jerusalem. 

While we were at the wall, observing the architecture, people watching, and praying, we learned that two attacks on police had occurred at the Damascus Gate, through which we had passed earlier.  A young officer was killed and others were wounded, and police killed the three attackers. 

How utterly dismaying. 

I do not know what convinces people to overturn their God-given moral knowledge and commit murder as a political act.  But I do know that the act is no respecter of human distinctions, except perhaps gender.  Men seem to do it more readily than women. 

I contacted the appropriate folks at Samford and asked members of our team to let their folks at home know they were okay.  And of course I got in contact with Laura.  Thankfully she had not yet heard any news and wasn’t worried.  I will be very glad to see her a week from today.

The letter should not end in despair, so let me return to the lesson of generosity.  We experience it in Jerusalem as well.  In the face of sorrow and anger, years ago I chose an optimistic view, but I heard it well articulated by Church Historian Martin Marty: whereas some choose to see what looks like unbridled violence in the world as evidence that there is no God, Marty sees evidence of God at work.  How else, he asks, can we explain that humans have failed to eradicate one another?  Here are some of my thoughts added to Marty’s: it is not because we love one another.  Sometimes we grind our teeth and seethe.  It is because we love and obey God, or because, if we don’t believe—or don’t know what to believe—we hold fast to what we know is right.  But I think God gives that too.  It’s one of God’s acts of lovingkindness, to teach us even when we don’t want to learn.  I know this is a world view, not a conclusion drawn from analysis of data.  That’s okay by me.

More on archaeology next time.

It is clear that we need peace, so pray for it.

From Jerusalem,


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