This post was contributed by Jeremy Lieuwen, Biblical Studies student at Columbia.
My years in Columbia’s Biblical Studies program have been some of the most defining and shaping of my life. One highlight was spending three weeks in Israel learning more about the Holy Land and its abilities to illuminate Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. My travels in Israel took me to the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient and modern epicentre of Jerusalem, the ruins of Biblical cities such as Jericho, Samaria, Bethlehem, and Caesarea Maritima, and many other fascinating places.
Learning about the Bible upon the same ground it was lived out was incredible. Experiences such as floating in the Dead Sea, exploring the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, walking ankle- and waist-deep in water through 4,000-year-old tunnels, and praying at the western “wailing” wall of the Temple Mount are all memories that I treasure.
Even more valuable than those interesting experiences is the biblical insight that I gained from walking the Holy Land with an experienced professor from the reputable Jerusalem University College. Every single site I visited left me with new information that changed the way I read Scripture.
I recall a lecture from one sunny and breezy afternoon overlooking the Sea of Galilee atop the Arbel Cliffs, a likely candidate for the location of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:13-14, Jesus uses two metaphors that are greatly informed by his immediate geography.
The first metaphor he invokes is that: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how should its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” Interestingly, as one’s eyes gaze down the cliffs towards the Sea of Galilee, they encounter the ruins of a small town called Magdala. In Jesus’ time, the fish caught from this region around the Sea of Galilee would be brought to Magdala to be processed. This processing consisted simply of salting the fish in order to preserve them. Salt was also used as fuel for fire, as it was mixed with dung and burned. After being burnt, the salt would lose its flavour and be good for nothing except to be thrown away.
By invoking this imagery of salt, Jesus uses the immediate geography to his advantage. Anyone who was even remotely mindful of where they were would have heard the spiritual lesson wrapped in something they already understood: just as salt had an enhancing effect on both the fish and the dung, so too believers were to have the same effect on those they interacted with.
The other metaphor Jesus uses is this: “you are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” If you once again let your eyes gaze down the cliffs and across the Sea of Galilee, your eyes meet a hill. Upon this hill lie the ruins of a Greek city called Hippos. In Jesus’ day, this city would have been well-known in the region, referred to as the Decapolis. Decapolis cities were designed to spread Greco-Roman influence in the areas they were situated. The goal of these cities was to demonstrate to the surrounding area what it meant to be Greco-Roman: how they lived, what they valued, and who they worshipped. Considering this city was built high upon a hill, it was clearly not meant to be hidden, but rather to be a focal point on the horizon.
Again, anyone listening to Jesus who was familiar with the immediate geography, would have heard the spiritual lesson wrapped in something they knew and understood so well already. Just as Hippos existed to show people what it meant to be Greco-Roman, so too Jesus’ disciples exist to show the world what it means to follow Him.
Needless to say, I was in awe that something as simple as understanding the nearby towns could bring so much clarity and depth to the biblical text. What is even more incredible is that this insight is a mere sliver of one lecture within three of the most amazing weeks of my life.
When you go to a place where God has been working for thousands of years, there is evidence of him everywhere you look. The beauty of it all was how much I grew spiritually alongside of my academic growth. Every academic insight was met with yet another spiritual encounter with God. Imagine reading Psalm 23 in the same wilderness where David likely wrote it! These experiences have led to some of my fondest memories, and the result of knowing God more fully makes it all beyond worthwhile.
For info on how you could join a Columbia Israel Study trip, check out the FAQ.