Whirlwind of betrayal and peacemaking

The whirlwind appeared so suddenly, and came so swiftly toward us on the dusty road at Tel Dothan, that I scarcely had time to take the lens cap off my camera. Then the little twister was upon us, blinding our view and rattling the car. Was the spirit of Elisha—who once famously lodged at Dothan—getting playful with us? After all, Elisha’s prophetic career began when a whirlwind swooped his mentor Elijah to heaven (2 Kings 2)!


Beyond the whirlwind are hills surrounding Dothan that Elisha saw filled with the army of the Lord.

Two fellow pilgrims and I had approached Dothan with an Israeli driver we hired to take us to biblical sites in the West Bank that once were part of ancient Samaria. Dothan today is a sizable tel—an archeological mound where multiple city ruins are layered on top of each other.

Betrayal happened here when the lad Joseph, sent sixty miles from Hebron by his father Jacob, found his brothers tending sheep at Dothan (Genesis 37). Jealous of Joseph’s favored spot in their parents’ hearts, the brothers contemplated killing Joseph. Instead, they sold him to slave traders bound for Egypt.

Reconciling imagination

Dothan appears again in the Bible in a peacemaking story. Israel is at war with Aram (Syria), and the Israelites repeatedly scoop Aramaean military intelligence. Assuming there is an informer in his ranks, the king of Aram angrily demands, “Who among us [is the traitor who] sides with the king of Israel?” (2 Kings 6:11).

One of his officers explains what is happening: Elisha of Israel has prophetic gifts that grant him foreknowledge of Aramaean troop movements. Determined to capture the pesky prophet, the king of Aram sends an army at night to surround the city of Dothan where Elisha is staying. In the morning Elisha’s servant sees that the city is besieged, and is terrified.

“O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see,” Elisha prays. Suddenly the servant has spiritual sight to see that surrounding hills are full of Yahweh’s horses and chariots of fire. The army of the Lord will protect Elisha and his servant!

Elisha asks God to strike the Arameans blind. When the enemy no longer can see, Elisha goes out and mischievously offers to “bring you to the man whom you seek.” The blind Arameans follow Elisha ten miles to Samaria, capital of Israel, where their eyes are opened and they see they are trapped. “Shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” gloats the king of Israel.

“No!” answers Elisha. “Set food and water before them . . . and let them go to their master.” So the king of Israel prepares a great feast for the enemy, then sends them packing—and the Aramaeans “no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.”

Justice concerns at modern Dothan

In the biblical narrative, betrayal and reconciliation swirl around Tel Dothan like a whirlwind. This storied spot could use some reconciliation today. A much-contested Jewish settlement nearby, deemed illegal by Palestinians and much of the international community, announced plans in 2016 to double in size. Houses adjacent to the historic tel now stand empty because of the continuing tension.


Tel Dothan

Our Israeli driver, fearing we could be mistaken as the other either by Palestinians or by Jewish settlers, did not want to linger at Tel Dothan. The whirlwind that engulfed us as we left Dothan seemed an apt metaphor of the continuing conflict. God grant this beautiful land something of Elisha’s reconciling imagination!

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com

A politician behaving badly


This is a view from the top of the “City of David,” a hill immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem, where King David’s palace likely stood.  From this vantage point the king looked down upon Bathsheba bathing at a nearby house.

Stories of politicians and clergy using positions of power for sexual abuse are painfully familiar, a reminder that no leader is above the need for boundaries and safeguards. I ponder this as I look down on neighboring houses from the top of the City of David, a small spur of mountain immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem. From this vantage point King David once snooped on beautiful Bathsheba bathing at a house below. David summoned the woman to his palace and took her to bed (2 Sam. 11).

Readers often assume that Bathsheba was naked when David spotted her, but the text does not say that. Over the time that this incident happened, Bathsheba was “purifying herself after her period.” This leads some interpreters to believe that David saw her performing the usual ritual cleansing a Jewish woman undertook after menstruation. Given the way women who survive abuse today sometimes are blamed, it is not surprising that some readers suggest Bathsheba was careless or immodest. But the narrative simply says she was bathing, and that might mean no more than washing hands and feet.

David’s violation takes place in spring, “when kings go out to battle.” David sent an army that “ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah [modern Amman]” (2 Sam. 11:1). Warfare typically is a male activity, and with depressing frequency its predatory character releases aggression that issues in rape. King David was in a conquering mood, and the switch from military assault to sexual conquest appears to have been easy for him. Countless women carry emotional and physical scars from such collateral damage in warfare.

Sexual sin quickly becomes complicated because of the web of relationships affected—spouses of perpetrators or victims, children of participants or children conceived in the union, faith communities or institutions of persons implicated, trust in the judgment of violators who exercise civic or religious authority. The temptation of perpetrators to cover up is overwhelming.

When King David learned that Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to make it look like Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was the father. Failing at that, he arranged for Uriah to die in battle—a setup that amounted to murder. Lust, adultery, lying, murder—is this the king who wrote all those beautiful psalms?

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51). A superscript attributes these sublime words to David after he was called to account for his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12).

It is right for us to cherish this prayer of contrition. But David was on a steep learning curve if he could say to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” No. David also sinned against Bathsheba, against Uriah, against every person in the kingdom who trusted him. Like anyone, David could receive forgiveness. But even divine pardon makes no one exempt from lasting consequences that sexual violation can have on individuals and family systems. The sword “shall never depart from your house,” God told David. There would be enduring trouble in his family (2 Sam. 12:10, 11).

Such is the sadness of sexual sin, and this story is a cautionary tale for all in positions of leadership and power. Learn to recognize danger zones in relationships. Do not meet in private with someone you find attractive. Adhere to an open door policy. End relationships that become risky. Own up to misconduct. Report abuse if you suspect it. Talk immediately with a qualified counselor if any of this is a struggle.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

The two Joshuas of Jericho


Tel Jericho has a deep slash across it made by archeologists, exposing a thirty-foot wide stone tower from 8000 BC (bottom center, with a small dark grate over the opening to the internal stairway shaft). In the distance is Mount of Temptation, where by tradition Jesus withstood temptation to seize political/military power.

Anyone who grieves the loss of life through war in Syria today might also lament the slaughter that took place more than three thousand years ago at Jericho when Israelites crossed the Jordan River into Canaan. Israelites “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Josh. 6:21).

What remains of biblical Jericho today is a tel—a large sandy mound surrounded by the modern city. This tel is one of dozens of such sites in Israel/Palestine where cites were built, destroyed, and rebuilt—in some cases twenty or thirty times. Such mounds kept attracting residents because water usually was available and ready building materials were in the rubble.

Today a deep excavation ditch slashes across Tel Jericho, exposing a stone fortress tower thirty feet wide and almost as tall, with an internal staircase. Dating to 8000 BC, it is one of the oldest human-built structures on earth, symbolizing strength and culture.

The book of Joshua seems to validate Israelite conquest of Jericho and all of Canaan. God “hardened the hearts” of indigenous people in the region so they would resist conquest and “receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:20). I feel a surge of indignation when I read these words, then remember that I live in Indiana, named for peoples my European forebears slaughtered and displaced.

Uneasy as I am about these accounts of ethnic cleansing, I cannot excise Joshua from the Bible any more than I can delete the story of Indian removal from American history books. Regardless of how I interpret the Joshua story, it is an integral part of the “Shalom Arc” of salvation history that stretches from Creation to New Creation. I need to integrate the whole story of my faith and family heritage into wise and faithful living today.

So when I visit Tel Jericho, I go to a vantage point from which to see reminders of two Joshuas who visited the city. The first Joshua was Moses’ deputy, who took command of the conquest and slaughter. In a vision he personally encountered the divine military commander of the army of the Lord (Josh. 5:13-15). The mighty fortress tower now visible at Tel Jericho—a structure already millennia old when Israelites arrived—reminds me that here “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.”

Then I lift up my eyes to hills overlooking Jericho, to what long tradition calls Mount of Temptation. There a second Joshua (spelled “Jesus” in the New Testament) resisted the temptation to use political and military power (Luke 4:5-8). The first Joshua came to Jericho with a sword, the second came to heal (Mark 10:46-52) and forgive (Luke 19:1-10).

The first Joshua consulted with a divine military commander before undertaking conquest, the second refused the armies of heaven by telling Peter, “Put your sword back in its place . . . Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:52, 53).

At Jericho two Joshuas wrestle in my imagination. In a world where Syrian armies and many others follow the military and spiritual triumphalism of the first Joshua, am I willing to follow the second into what may be costly love, peacemaking, and forgiveness?

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with www.TourMagination.com

True worship includes justice

Encased behind heavy glass, a five-foot menorah lampstand made of 24 karat gold stands in a courtyard overlooking the Western Wall and the site of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The lampstand is ready for use in a theoretical Third Temple on a part of the Temple Mount (or “Noble Sanctuary”) where Dome of the Rock shrine now stands.

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A five-foot golden lampstand in a Jerusalem courtyard, built to Torah specifications.

The First Temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed by Babylonian armies in 586BC. Ezra and other returned exiles built the Second Temple a few generations later, and Herod the Great fabulously enhanced the structure at the time of Jesus. That magnificent temple lay in ruins after the fall of Jerusalem to Roman legions at the end of the Jewish Revolt (AD 66–70).

Both temples had a seven-branch lampstand crafted from pure gold: “The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work . . . and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it” (Exod. 25:31-32).

Armies of Babylon carried First Temple lampstands into captivity (Jer. 52:19), but those possibly came back to Jerusalem when Jewish exiles returned (Ezra 1:7–11). Roman soldiers took the Second Temple menorah to Italy. The ancient Arch of Titus in Rome today still depicts that lampstand being displayed in triumphal procession.

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A first-century sculpture of the recently captured Jewish temple menorah  being carried in triumphal procession is still visible today on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum.

The modern menorah at Jerusalem is beautiful—and troubling. Muslims treasure Dome of the Rock shrine on the Temple Mount (or “Noble Sanctuary”) because it covers exposed bedrock from which Muhammed ascended to heaven. That same rock probably was within the temples of Solomon and Ezra. Building a Third Temple likely would involve destroying Dome of the Rock shrine, one of the holiest sites of Islam.

I am fascinated by utensils for the temple that modern craftsmen build to Torah specifications. But as a follower of the light of the world, I cannot support any project that would destroy the holy site of another faith. Nor do I accept the belief of some Christians that the Jerusalem temple must be rebuilt before Christ can return.

When Jesus was at Jacob’s well and discussed the importance of worship location, he said, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23, 24). Light that Jesus brings includes respect for people of other cultures and religions. True worship includes justice.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425


Like the first syllable of shiitake

What would it take to make Saint Paul cussing mad? Fellow Jews or Christians maintaining barriers that kept others from full acceptance in the faith community, that would do it. Harsh language about such exclusion in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi makes me consider how easy it is to raise the bar in the church today for people whose background, culture, or life experience are different from mine.

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A Roman era public toilet at ancient Philippi still has two stone seats mounted above skubalon pits, and a trough for fresh water at the feet of users.

Recently I asked a Mennonite genealogist to enter my name into his database and see what emerged. A few days later he delivered an eighty-page notebook with charts and names of hundreds of my Mennonite Swiss and German ancestors. My biological forebears were among early European Anabaptists. It was my ancestor, Hans Reist, who had the dispute with Jakob Ammann in 1693 that led to formation of the Amish church. I am a descendant of Hans Herr, Mennonite patriarch of Pennsylvania whose 1719 house still stands as the oldest in Lancaster County.

Add to this Anabaptist family heritage the fact that I went to a Mennonite college, studied at three seminaries, hail from a long line of church leaders, and am ordained.

The apostle Paul would not be impressed. In his letter to Philippi, Paul rehearses his own religious credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” All this status, of which Paul once was so proud, he now counts as “rubbish” (skubalon, Phil. 3:8).

Actually, Paul’s language is stronger than most modern translations allow. We should render skubalon in English like the first syllable of shiitake mushroom. Paul is frustrated enough to slip in a rude word that appears nowhere else in the Bible and only rarely in ancient literature. He is angry at himself and others whose legalistic or genealogical boundaries exclude Gentiles or make them feel like second-class members of the body of Christ.

Skubalon comes to mind when I find a Roman era public toilet among ruins at ancient Philippi. Relieving oneself apparently was a social occasion in the Roman world: eight or ten stone toilet seats, placed close to one another above skubalon pits, once lined walls of the small room. To clean themselves, users dipped a stick with sponge attached into a little trough flowing with fresh water at their feet.

Skubalon also comes to mind when I find monuments to spiritual pride or legalistic boundaries in my heart or in my church.  Let it be said that I do not look or act like the average Mennonite or average Christian on this planet. Today the median Mennonite in the world is a black African woman, and that is representative of the global Christian church. That reminds me to receive and welcome people into my local congregation who come from the global south or from cultural, educational, or linguistic background different from my own. What binds us together is sins forgiven through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and lives transformed by the power of the Spirit.

As a historian, I find family history fascinating and instructive. I am grateful for education I received. But if I ever start to confuse all of this with status in the church, it is time to review Paul’s words about all the entries in his religous résumé: “I regard them as skubala, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).


© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine on 8-19 September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope

Subversive women in the Judean hills

Fleeing violence in her native Honduras, Maria made her way through Guatemala and Mexico to Indiana and our congregation in Elkhart. Now she daily awaits word that a nephew has safely completed the same perilous journey. A cousin died in the desert attempting that crossing, and his body lay undiscovered for a year.

Mary of Nazareth also made a fraught summertime journey, in her case from Galilee to the home of her relative Elizabeth in the Judean hills. Both women were surprised to be pregnant—Elizabeth because of mature age, Mary because she was unmarried. But though Mary was socially vulnerable as an unwed mother, she displayed the same radical dependence on God that modern Maria shows today.

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A footpath leads to Ein Kerem, a village west of Jerusalem that since the sixth century has been honored as the home of Elizabeth, Zechariah and their son John (the Baptist).

Intrepid women, these! Young Mary soon would flee with Joseph to Egypt to spare baby Jesus from state-sponsored infanticide. Roman rulers someday would crucify Jesus alongside political rebels. Elizabeth’s son John would grow up to challenge abuses of ruling elites so directly that King Herod would behead him.

Neither woman sought to be subversive, but their rendezvous in the Judean hills sounds like a revolutionary enclave. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting at the door, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy.” Mary burst out in a kingdom-of-God manifesto: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-55).

Elizabeth was well-connected in Jewish society: her husband Zechariah was a priest at the temple. Since at least the sixth century, Christians have identified Ein Kerem, a village five miles west of Old Jerusalem, as the place where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. In 2015 a Jewish family renovating their house at Ein Kerem found a 2000 year-old mikveh (Jewish ritual bath), confirming that, in the New Testament era, Jews committed to ritual purity lived in the village. Sadly, the house once belonged to an Arab family dispossessed in the war of 1948. What would Mary, with her passion for justice, think of that travesty?

I make my way to Ein Kerem to contemplate the encounter of Elizabeth and Mary. What did these expectant mothers discuss during their three months together? God was up to something—sending Gabriel with pregnancy notices both to Zechariah and to Mary! Did they try to unpack Zechariah’s inspired prophecy about a dawn coming when God would raise up a mighty deliverer who would rescue God’s people from enemies and “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:68-79)?

I explore footpaths in hills surrounding Ein Kerem, trying to imagine Mary’s approach. Words of Elizabeth about Mary resound in my ears: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Mary believed. She faithfully nurtured and followed Jesus though his ministry and crucifixion to the post-resurrection huddle of his disciples in an upper room (Acts 1:12-14).

Like modern Maria, Mary of Nazareth had a heart pierced with grief. Both women raised children under economic stress and political violence. Both became matriarchs in their faith communities, both expressed jubilant trust in God: “The mighty one has done great things for me!” Blessed are these women who believed, who challenge me to live in thankful obedience to the God who cares about the lowly and delivers justice.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine on 8-19 September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope  For a 15-minute webinar with me about this trip on June 15 from 3:30 to 3:345pm EST, click here: REGISTER NOW

Friends have inquired how I am faring after heart surgery in January. I am flourishing. Four times this week I went for a bicycle ride of twenty miles or more—and each time came home feeling terrific. My heart is vigorous and healthy. The problem was blockage of arteries into my heart. That blockage now is gone, my body has healed, and I’m stronger than ever. I never had a heart attack, and there is no damage to my heart. I now am on a life-long regimen (Ornish Reversal Program) of very low fat diet, vigorous exercise, and yoga-meditation. I have every reason to anticipate a normal life span. God is good! Thanks for your love and prayers.


We live in an age of martyrdom

Thousands of Christians have been slaughtered by Boko Haram in Nigeria in recent years, and most of the Western church barely seems to notice. Lord, when did we see you homeless, or hungry, or kneeling in the killing fields?

Lion Gate or Stephern's Gate

Seen here from inside the Old City of Jerusalem, St. Stephen’s Gate (also called Lion’s Gate) is where Christians remember the stoning of Stephen.

When in Jerusalem, I pause at St. Stephen’s Gate to remember martyrs of the ancient and modern church. We sometimes think of martyrdom as an early church phenomenon, or an unfortunate byproduct of the Reformation. But multiple researchers conclude that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th and 21st centuries than in all previous centuries combined. We live in an age of martyrdom.

Would I be as courageous as Stephen was when they led him out through a gate of Jerusalem to die (Acts 6–7)? This man was fearless, “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” a Greek who accepted the Jewish messiah.  Chosen by Jerusalem Christians to administer the church’s food program, Stephen was “full of grace” and “did great wonders and signs.” Falsely accused of blasphemy, he stood trial for his life before the Sanhedrin, religious council of the Jewish nation.

No defense attorney would recommend what Stephen did: he delivered a scathing sermon (Acts 7:2-53) charging the Sanhedrin and the Jewish nation with rebellion against God like the worst of their Old Testament ancestors.  While the Sanhedrin “ground their teeth” with rage, the Holy Spirit filled Stephen, and he was fortified with a vision of Jesus.

I feel a twinge of conscience with what happened next. A young man named Saul stood outside the gate of Jerusalem and watched as they stoned Stephen to death. I am biblically-trained like the Pharisee Saul, also desire to do what is right—and I watch as martyrs die. Saul was not throwing stones—at least not yet. He simply guarded coats of the executioners and did nothing.

But Saul, quietly complicit in Stephen’s killing, would become the greatest ambassador for the gospel in the Roman world. Was he impressed by the grace of Stephen, who—despite his hell fire sermon before the Sanhedrin—faced his killers and said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)? Stephen modeled forgiveness and love of enemies.

Christians in Nigeria have done the same.  The Speaker of the House of Representatives is a Christian named Hon Yakubu Dogara who is from the region of Nigeria suffering the worst violence. He recently said that for the nation to heal, Christians would need to forgive those who carried out the “massive destruction that the Church and others suffered at the hands of Boko Haram.” Then he added, “Where else lies the footstep of the savior except in forgiving?”

Saul—who vigorously persecuted the church for a season—met his Lord on the road to Damascus. The Christian community graciously received and forgave the former persecutor.  Given a new name, Paul eventually faced his own martyrdom for Christ in Rome. The transformation of Saul to Paul reminds me never to write off anybody as beyond redemption, no matter how reprehensible their deeds or beliefs. God’s power to redeem is beyond measure.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine in September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope