Leveling Temples and Tels in Gaza

In 2004, five volunteers from the Ashkelon dig rented a car to go tour some archaeological sites in the Negev. We were barely outside Ashkelon’s city limits when we made a wrong turn and found ourselves approaching a heavily militarized crossing between Israel and the Palestinian territory called the Gaza Strip. Needless to say, we turned around and got out of the area as quickly as possible.

Today Gaza is frequently in our news feeds because of its clashes with the modern state of Israel, but it also appears in the Bible several times. It was a Canaanite stronghold before it became one of the Philistines’ five capital cities, but it is probably most famous as the site of Samson’s demise.

During the Late Bronze Age, Israel had been under Philistine oppression for a generation when their newest judge, Samson, arose. He was supposed to be a Nazirite, meaning he should never drink wine, cut his hair, or touch anything unclean (such as foreign women and dead things). But Samson married a Philistine, abandoned her, got mad when she remarried, and then killed 1,000 Philistines with nothing but a dead donkey’s jawbone (Judges 14-15).

At some point and for some unknown reason, Samson was in Gaza one day and decided to visit a brothel. The Philistine men plotted to murder him, but Samson slipped out of the brothel at midnight, picked up their city gate, and moved it from the edge of the city where it had been of use to the very center of the city. The Philistines knew he was a tough guy, but now they had witnessed his superhuman strength (Judges 16:1-3).

One last time, Samson “touched” a foreign woman. This time it was Delilah from the Valley of Sorek (the border between Israel’s tribe of Dan and Philistia). Philistines bribed her to find out the source of Samson’s strength–which was his uncut hair that resulted from his Nazirite vows–so they could capture him, torture him, and take him down to Gaza. The Philistines celebrated his capture at the temple of their god, Dagon, where Samson then killed them all (Judges 16:6-30).

No tumbled columns, collapsed Bronze-Age temples, or ill-placed gates have been found in Gaza yet. There are no well-funded, university-led archaeological expeditions to the area, as you will find in the other 4 cities of the ancient Philistine Pentapolis. Any artifacts that have been uncovered (too often by bulldozers) find their way onto the black market or are stored by history-loving Gazans who hope for a day when they can be properly studied and displayed. Archaeologists can’t even get the excavating tools they need through Israeli security and into Gaza for fear that militants would turn them into weapons.

The lack of archaeological excavation in Gaza is a result of complex and emotionally-charged political conflicts that have persisted for centuries. In brief, the 1994 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority, which was intended to govern both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one Palestinian nation. But the territories are physically separated by Israeli land, and the PA did not exercise its political power or serve its citizens in remote Gaza as it did in the West Bank where it is headquartered. A power vacuum developed in Gaza, where over 1.8 million people live in an area that is only 130 square miles. (That’s like taking the entire population of Phoenix and cramming everyone into one-quarter of the city limits.) As Gazans struggled with failing or absent infrastructure that the PA was not addressing, Hamas seized political power by doing the civic projects the PA had ignored. In 2007, Hamas was officially elected to power in the Gaza Strip. Today there is concern that they might win wider elections in the West Bank and gain control of the entire PA.

In addition to being cramped and poverty-ridden, the Gaza Strip is physically and militarily blocked off from the rest of the world. Situated only 13 kilometers south of Ashkelon, Hamas’s rockets can (and frequently do) hit the Israeli city, but Gaza’s citizens cannot so easily go to Ashkelon themselves to shop, work, vacation, or worship.

Today Gaza is rich in archaeological artifacts but poor in livable space, so the city leaders and developers continue to level tels in favor of new construction. Preserving and improving the lives of the living takes precedence (as it should), but valuable information and historical context about the Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, and later inhabitants are being permanently lost so long as Gaza is isolated.

Wildfires and Politics

My world is on fire. Literally. Every ridge surrounding our city has a wildfire burning on top of it, and the smoke is settling on the streets of Chattanooga. It’s suffocating and headache-inducing. As I write (and as I dread going back to editing that Greek exegesis waiting on my desk) the pain in and behind my eyes is intense.

Our figurative world is burning these days too. If you found this post because of a social media link, then you’ve also read posts and articles all about how America is going down in flames if Candidate X is elected. Maybe you’ve even shared a few stories, commented on a few others.

My Granny would have been right there with you. Back when there was an alarmingly high number of cable channels–50, as I remember–she watched just CNN. It was on 24 hours a day. She listened to talk radio and wrote letters to our congressmen. She spent hours in AOL politics-themed chat rooms every night. She was the most informed woman I’ve ever known, and some of her passion “caught fire” in me.

So people who have known me longest may be surprised that I’ve stayed out of all the political squabbling. In fact, I’ve been avoiding Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else for the last six months. (Though to be honest, I started to pull away well over a year ago. Social media blurs the lines between opinion and truth, and the older I get the less willing I am to put up with that.)

The election has only fired up the animosity that pervades our society, so once we’ve all cast our votes tomorrow, the arguing won’t end. Why? Because we’re all so selfish.  We vote for who we think will improve our own lives, regardless of how others may be impacted.

If we are all going to live with each other after tomorrow, then we need to stop trying to change others’ opinions and start changing our own actions toward others.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Luke lately (thanks to that exegesis weighing down my desk right now). In chapter 10, a scholar tries to trick Jesus into contradicting the Hebrew scriptures when he asks how one can attain eternal life. He answers his own question:

You shall love—“love the Eternal One your God with everything you have: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind”—and “love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27, The Voice).

And who is that “neighbor”? Jesus answers with a story:

This fellow was traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho when some robbers mugged him. They took his clothes, beat him to a pulp, and left him naked and bleeding and in critical condition. By chance, a priest was going down that same road, and when he saw the wounded man, he crossed over to the other side and passed by. Then a Levite who was on his way to assist in the temple also came and saw the victim lying there, and he too kept his distance. Then a despised Samaritan journeyed by. When he saw the fellow, he felt compassion for him. The Samaritan went over to him, stopped the bleeding, applied some first aid, and put the poor fellow on his donkey. He brought the man to an inn and cared for him through the night.

The next day, the Samaritan took out some money—two days’ wages to be exact—and paid the innkeeper, saying, “Please take care of this fellow, and if this isn’t enough, I’ll repay you next time I pass through.” (Luke 10:30-35, The Voice)

The neighbor is “the one who showed mercy” (v. 37). Not the priest and Levite who were literal neighbors–presumably sharing the victim’s Jewish faith and living in his community–but the Samaritan. He would have believed and worshiped and lived differently than the victim. Regardless of all his social differences, his actions made him the true neighbor. The one we are commanded to love as ourselves.

On Wednesday morning, I hope the election won’t have left you feeling as if you’ve been “mugged” and left “in critical condition”; but it looks like about half the country will feel that way.

It is time for us to start loving each other, regardless of our social differences. It is time for us to stop thinking so highly of ourselves and our own opinions that we can justify our disregard of others, or worse, we can justify attacking and hating others. Not just during election season–when America is on fire–but every day of our lives.

No matter what happens in the next 48 hours, let’s go out into our smoke-filled streets and AOL chat rooms and show some mercy.

Truth Will Set You Free

I first studied philosophy in high school English. We read L’Etranger and No Exit, and we memorized the principles of relativism and existentialism and other long-forgotten-by-me -isms. I remember one thing well: I don’t enjoy philosophy.

Twenty years later, philosophy penetrates my life and yours. Take a look at your social media feeds. What are most people posting about? Their perceptions of politics. And many are ready to have knock-down drag-out fights to prove to everyone else that their perceptions are right. And factual. And true.

Every knock-down drag-out my husband, David, and I have ever had resulted from differing perspectives of truth.

My best friend, Melinda, likes to say that David and I are a psychology experiment–the one where two people watch a video of the same car crash but have completely different recollections of what happened: “The car was blue.” “No, the car was green.” That’s us, and those different perceptions of truth make for heated but pointless arguments. How relieved we both are when we can find the truth by rewatching the car crash: The car was actually red. We can stop arguing now.

Rarely our arguments result from actual untruth…meaning one of us has lied. Those are the conversations that both begin and end with pain, because a lie is a betrayal. You can’t rewatch a video or Google the truth to settle a lie-spawned argument once and for all. Feelings have been hurt, and the relationship needs time to mend.

I think we as a society have largely lost the ability to distinguish between perception and truth, and that is one of the reasons politics are so ugly–particularly in 2016. My opinion about a candidate or a policy is not truth, so people who disagree with me aren’t technically wrong (even though I think they are!) or lying.

Many philosophies, and most of this postmodern secular society, state that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Christianity disagrees. In the gospel of John, Jesus talks a lot about truth, and it pretty much boils down to this:

I tell you the truth, anyone who hears My voice and keeps My word will never experience death. (John 8:51, The Voice)

If you are a Christian, then you believe one absolute truth: Jesus is the Savior of humanity. It is rare (though not unattested) that I see knock-down drag-out fights over that statement.

If you follow a philosophy that declares there is no absolute truth, then your perception becomes your truth. So when someone else disagrees with that perception, then you feel personally affronted. A “car-crash argument” becomes a “lie-spawned argument,” a betrayal.

We should follow Jesus’ example in John. When He declared truth and others disagreed, He countered by speaking the same truth in different ways. In that conversation, He did not back down. But when He encountered people who behaved or believed differently or even incorrectly (as in, Romans and Samaritans), He always responded the same way: by revealing the truth in love. He didn’t argue over the semantics of where the temple should be (John 4) or even about the punishment for adultery (John 8:1-11).

We would rather argue over the semantics. In a climate where opinions and perceptions are elevated and advertised on social media, Christians need to remember that there is only one absolute truth–that Jesus is the Savior of humanity–and that all Christians, by definition, agree on it.

Then we need to respond to disagreements as Jesus did: in love and with the one absolute truth. For if we show love, the world will see the absolute truth.