The biblical text, in essence, is a narrative – it is a story, and I am not surprised that God chose to reveal himself to humanity through this form. While there are many times that I wish, for the sake of my own understanding, that the Bible was a bit heavier on the discourse and lighter on the narrative, it makes sense, because story has a way of captivating our minds and our hearts. It gets ahold of our imaginations and sweeps us off to lands both far away and close to reality, from Tolkien’s Middle Earth to J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. Stories romance us, stealing us away from the world in which we live to the mystic lands crafted by words. The Bible has always had this mystic element to me – not mystical in a magical sense, but in an intangible sense. Intellectually, I have always known that the land of Israel was a real place, but in reality, Israel and Middle Earth never seemed all that different.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend ten days in Israel, the land of the Bible. When I was preparing for the trip, so many people expressed their excitement to me, telling me of how it changed their lives, and how they felt God’s presence more powerfully in Israel than they did anywhere else. Honestly, it scared me; I did not want to get so hyped up in anticipation just to get let down, so I tried to keep my expectations for this trip low.
The ten days I spent in Israel went by in one hummus-filled blur. As we dined in Tel Aviv, swam in the Sea of Galilee, trekked through Masada, and bused everywhere in between, the experience felt somewhat underwhelming. The rolling hills were so similar to those I called home in California. The city of Jerusalem was constructed out of regular – albeit incredibly heavy – limestone. While teeming with history and its evidences, Israel was incredibly normal. So at the end of our first full day when we arrived at Mount Precipice outside of Nazareth village, I was ready to snap a quick picture, hop on the bus, and pray that dinner would be as good as it was the night before. When we were given ten minutes to reflect on our day and admire the view, however, when my professors finished commenting on the topography and stepped aside, the land of the Bible beckoned me.
I edged myself as close to the edge of the cliff as I could.
In that moment, it slowly, coaxingly started to click. In reading the Bible, I always had an idea, an image of the individual settings of the stories I read – David fighting Goliath, and running from Saul, Elijah hiding in a cave, Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah high on a mountain, the three clothed in glory – but those places were individual; they stood alone. Yet, as I sat, riveted, on the edge of the cliff, the land began to stitch itself together before my eyes. The fragmented pieces, the settings and locations began to reveal themselves a whole. As the topography stitched together, the timeline stopped being linear, but it began to layer; to interface; from Mount Tabor to the Jezreel Valley to Mount Carmel, Jesus colliding with David colliding with Elijah – rapid-fire, like a pinball zipping back and forth, stitching the narrative of the Bible together in vibrant green and gold and blue, in light and shadow, a tapestry of textures and timelines and people – a story not strictly linear, but dynamically one.
It was not a moment of existential revelation, but rather a paradigm shift so cloaked in awe that it was rendered indiscernible. My fantasies of the biblical land were so suddenly stripped bare that I was left enamored with the naked, uncloaked land. There was nothing intrinsically special about the land of Israel. It was the most freeing realization that I was not aware that I needed.
It was the concrete, tangible realization that God works through normal people in normal places – that, as James writes, Elijah was a man, just like us, and that I have more in common with the people of the biblical text than I may ever know.