When I finish guiding a group in Israel, normally my habit is to spend a bit of time looking around on my own. My June trip this summer was no exception. After seeing the group off at the airport, I returned to Jerusalem and wandered down to one of the city’s most historic parts, The City of David, original Jerusalem. An appropriate spot to do some looking around, for at the foot of this hill, at its lowest level, are the Herodian banks of the Pool of Siloam. This is the place, according to John 9, where a man without vision was once sent by Jesus to wash his eyes and be healed of his blindness. I tried to imagine what first sight looked like for a man blind from birth. And then it happened to me. Sort of. In a very familiar place to me, my eyes opened. And I saw something new.
Excavations near the Pool of Siloam have recently revealed an underground sewer system from second temple times where waters flushed from the temple mount once coursed down through the Tyropoean valley to the confluence of Jerusalem’s wadis. What makes the discovery especially significant is that this tunnel was constructed for more than just drainage. It was intended to serve as an emergency escape route from the temple fortress above in case of a perilous situation on the platform. Such an emergency did in fact arise in the year, AD 70, when Rome moved to put an end to the Jewish revolt that had dragged on into its fourth year. Invited by workers to enter this underground system and move upward along its course to the mount above, I thought of the role this tunnel had played in the fall of Jerusalem and imagined the events occurring around me had I been there on those fateful days in August so long ago.
In the summer of AD 70, Roman general Flavius Titus launched a devastating assault with four legions against Jerusalem and its temple. For months, Jewish Zealots fought bravely, managing to fend off every attack thrown at them. But finally, hopelessly outnumbered, the situation grew impossible for the defenders, and on August 28 (the 9th of Av), battering rams broke into the inner wall of the temple. Roman forces poured through the breach onto the esplanade burning and looting at will. The defeated Zealots broke ranks and, with no other course left to them, fled into the emergency tunnel in a desperate attempt to escape. The attacking legionaries pursued them mercilessly and for nearly two days rooted out the fugitives from their hiding places in the sewers below. As attested by archaeology, the carnage that ensued was unimaginable.
While walking the uphill course of that tunnel, I was haunted by thoughts of those terrible days. Though dazed by their reality, however, I sensed strangely that I might be, in a way, reversing history. And I was not doing it alone. Others climbed with me. Those Jews of old were there, returning to the kingdom they had built, if ever so briefly, with their ideals and resolve. And on a climb that increasingly took on metaphorical proportions, others were there as well, climbing to the Kingdom of God above.
I thought of the group that I had just finished guiding through Israel. Most of the members were East Europeans and Eurasians serving God in the former Soviet states. For sure, theirs is an uphill climb. Enemies abound. Attrition is high. The odds are against them. Still faithfully they trudge on, day after day, year after year, believing that work for the Kingdom must survive. I thought of others in the West walking with them on this journey. And I rejoiced in a cherished ministry that God has given me to climb in the company of dedicated servants like these.
After some time underground I emerged exhilarated on the Herodian street above. I knew what I had to do then. I found my way through tears to the so-called “Wailing Wall” a short distance away to pray for fellow-climbers on our journey. Perhaps you are one for whom I prayed. If so, may God uphold you as you climb, strengthen your gait, and quicken your step. Be encouraged. You are not alone. It is indeed uphill to the Kingdom. But the company is good. And the course is certain.
Reports from Israel this week announce that the burial site of Herod the Great, infamous for the infanticide of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2:16-19), has been discovered. Is it likely—or even possible for that matter—that someone so long dead (2000 years!) would just “turn up?” Actually, yes … You see, Herod was no ordinary ruler for his time or in the region in which he lived. He is remembered for enormous political acumen as well as for monumental feats of architecture second to few in his world . And this notoriety was cemented with incredible details of his life, lore and loves in the writings of both Jewish and Roman historians. Hard for someone this conspicuous to hide forever.
The site of Herod’s burial place has actually been known since the first century CE. The Jewish historian Josephus records that for his final rest Herod had selected the site of Herodium (“Herod’s Place”—he was a humble guy), 12 miles south of Bethlehem, off the Jerusalem-Hebron ridge road. Here, miraculous events had unfolded in the thirties that saved him and his family from their enemies, the Hasmoneans and their Parthian supporters. It remained a special place for Herod to his dying day. And so Josephus writes that after Herod died in Jericho, his body was littered through the Judean desert to a processional ramp and monumental staircase at Herodium and from there to his mausoleum on the site.
Lots of detail here: the circumstances, the place and cause of death, the funeral program, and even the cemetery. So why has it taken archaeologists nearly half a century to find the tomb? Years of excavation on upper (the acropolis) and lower (the resort) Herodium turned up nothing. Some theorized that “the old fox” had plotted to conceal his grave from snoops and vandals, much like the early pharaohs in Egypt had. Perhaps he was not even buried at Herodium at all. But to most this theory never made much sense. Josephus’ account is so exact; it is unlikely that he was aware of any such controversy. So the find spot turns out to be exactly where the first century historian says it would be: not in the impressive building remains and fortifications of upper and lower Herodium, but in the middle, at the top of the staircase which ran off the processional path leading to the canyons from Jericho.
True, the bones were gone and the sarcophagus in shambles, signs of desecration and looting. But one might expect this since Jewish Zealots had occupied Herodium for five years during the first revolt against Rome (CE 66-71) and being no friends of Herod, might have sought to waste the memory of the old king. Also Herod’s opulence guaranteed an impressive stash in the tomb, which may have been attractive to the freedom-fighting Zealots. But from what we know of the Zealot behavior at similar sites like Masada and Machaerus, it was not their style to loot Herod’s treasures. They simply ignored them. And what about the skeleton? Was it ever at Herodium or did Herod outfox us all by having his corpse interred elsewhere? What do I really think?
Come to Israel with me. We’ll lay it all out and visit this site that is surely to attract renewed interest after this amazing recovery. Not only of artifacts, but also of events relating to the demise of one of the history’s great figures.