This was the day our little group of six ventured into Bethlehem, while the rest of our group was catching planes to go home. Bethlehem is less than 6 miles south of Jerusalem. However, Bethlehem is under Palestinian control so that means a boarder-crossing to enter the city. On any given day, this crossing can take hours. But because it was a holiday for both the Muslims and the Jews, we literally drove straight up to the gates and passed right on through. It was a Christmas miracle! …or something like that.
On our drive through Bethlehem, we passed signs for Boaz’s Field Restaurant, Ruth’s Restaurant, and a green and white “Star and Bucks” cafe.
Our first stop in Bethlehem was at the Church of the Nativity – the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. We visited the different sections of the church, designated for different denominations. We even got to go a back way down into the cave where the traditional site where Jesus was born.
We traveled a short distance to the Shepherd’s Field. We found a lovely shady spot under a beautiful tree just outside the church on site. There we read from Luke 2 and sang O Come Let Us Adore Him. When we finished singing, we realized that the air around us was filled with Christmas Carols in many other languages. It was a beautiful sound. We visited the little chapels on sites where we saw many caves with mangers (all with nativity figures set up in them). A typical manger is not actually a wooden trough like many nativity sets depict. It is a shelf hewn into a cave wall where a passover lamb was put to protect it from being kicked by the other animals – to keep it perfect for sacrifice. To give you an idea of the scale, here is Grace posing near a manger.
Unfortunately it was at the Sheep Fountain just outside the cave where my camera almost met with disaster. While passing it off to get a picture with the fountain, I dropped it (for about the 8th time during the trip), and though it would turn on, it refused to take a picture. After praying about it all day, when we got back to the hotel room that night, it worked again! God’s pretty cool that way. But I had to rely on my group to take pictures for me the remainder of the day. The Sheep Fountain was really quite woolly-looking in a stone sort of way, and was only completed about two months before we visited.
We headed to the edge of town next to visit the Herodium – another of Herod the Great’s palaces. Unfortunately, we did not have a guide for this site, so we were kind of left to reading the brochure and signs. But it was still fun none-the-less. We saw where the palace had sat, then later where during the Jewish revolt a synagogue was added (which also happened to be the only place we could find shade up there as well). We traveled deep in to the cistern under the mountain, only to realize we had to climb all the way back up to exit the way we came.
We had pizza with a view for lunch at a restaurant on a hillside over-looking the city. The owners also had a shop next door and gave us really good prices that day since it was a holiday and they weren’t open to the public.
We were taken to another store afterward, but because of the amazing deals we had just gotten it was hard to shop at normal prices again. But as we were leaving, I noticed a huge pile of olive wood down a driveway under the store. Everyone started snapping pictures of it, and we got invited to go down into the factory. Yay for impromptu field trips! The man who was running the shop showed us how he makes all of the figurines. He demonstrated some of his machines that do the preliminary carving before he hand-finishes them. He even cut us all little cross-sections of olive wood to take home in honor of our visit.
When we got back to the hotel that night, I reluctantly began the task of safely packing everything into my suitcase. It was our last night in the hotel – we would be flying out the next evening. I was definitely not ready to head home yet – I feel like I had only scratched the surface of things to do and see and experience in Israel. And I had fallen in love with the country and its people. And I suppose that is natural since being in Christ we are grafted in with His chosen people.
Stay tuned for one last installment of my journey through Israel.