A rocky place for reconciliation

When God . . . was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles . . . I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Gal. 1:15–17) – Apostle Paul


Entrance to ruins of ancient Petra is through a half-mile-long canyon called the Siq.

Massive rock formations in southern Jordan still echo tragedy from the Old Testament era. In the eighth century BC, people of Judah captured ten thousand Edomites from this region, “took them to the top of Sela, and threw them down . . . so that all of them were dashed to pieces” (2 Chron. 5:12). Sela is Hebrew for “rock,” likely this place later called Petra (also meaning “rock” in Greek) southeast of the Dead Sea.

Visitors to ruins of Petra today enter through the half-mile-long Siq—perhaps the very canyon into which Edomites were hurled. At places two hundred and fifty feet deep, the canyon served as a secure entrance to the thriving trade city of Petra in the New Testament era.

It is possible that Paul the apostle walked through this tunnel-like corridor shortly after his conversion. Paul had to flee Damascus, and headed south to “Arabia” (Gal. 1:17). The most logical place he would have gone is Petra, capital of the Nabataeans who controlled spice trade caravan routes stretching to India.

At that time King Aretas of Petra governed territory as far as Damascus, two hundred miles to the north. When Paul returned to Damascus from Arabia, “the governor under King Aretas guarded the city . . . in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands” (2 Cor. 11:32-33).


Commonly called “the Treasury,” this giant sculpture looks like the facade of a Greek temple. Made in the New Testament era, it possibly was the tomb of King Aretas mentioned in 2 Corinthians. Sunlight reflected from nearby cliffs creates a pink and orange glow.

Why might King Aretas of Petra have wanted Paul arrested? Did Paul evangelize in Petra, a city full of pagan religion, so upsetting Aretas that the Nabataean king ordered him arrested in Damascus?

If Paul brought the good news of Jesus to Petra, he was in the heart of Edom, a region that often was hostile to Jews. Esau, who wanted to kill his twin brother Jacob, lived in Edom. Edomites denied Israelites permission to pass through this territory when they were on their way from Egypt to Canaan (Num. 20:14–21).

Petra & Damascus.bmp

After Paul’s conversion, he went from Damascus to “Arabia,” possibly Petra.

When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, Edomites gloated, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” (Ps. 137:7) Herod the Great, hated by many when he ruled Judea in the first century BC, came from an Idumaean father and Nabataean mother. Idumeans were descendants of the Edomites, and Nabataeans were Arabic people who conquered them.

Contrary to impressions given by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, spectacular buildings carved into stone at Petra really are just facades for what likely were Nabataean tombs. If Paul indeed walked by these monumental structures soon after his conversion, he was on a mission to find reconciliation with people long hated and feared by his Jewish ancestors.

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I invite you to enter your email address in the designated box at the edge of this webpage (if you have not already subscribed), and click Follow. You’ll get a notice every three weeks when I put up a new blog post.

Want to see Jordan, Israel, Palestine? Join me for a Peace-Pilgrim bible study tour this fall! See Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015. For a similar tour in 2016, see https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope

Like seeing the face of God

Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. . . Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. . . Jacob said, “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:1-11)

Jabbok River

Jacob had a mysterious nighttime wrestling match with a divine being somewhere in this valley of the Jabbok River (Gen. 32:22-32). The next day, probably on this road, he met and was reconciled to his brother Esau.

Jacob had reason to fear his brother Esau. These twins once struggled within the womb, and their mother Rebekah despaired of life itself upon learning she carried in her body “two peoples who would be divided.” Trouble started early during their youth at Beersheba (in modern Israel). Esau rightfully expected privileges of the firstborn, including a double portion of blessing/inheritance. But Jacob, literally clinging to his brother’s heel at birth, was determined to look out for himself (Gen 25:22-26).

Father Isaac was fond of Esau; mom preferred Jacob. Sensing opportunity once when Esau came home from hunting famished, Jacob persuaded Esau to trade his birthright for a pot of lentil stew. When old Isaac sent Esau to hunt wild game for a feast at which Esau would formally receive the blessing/inheritance, Jacob made his move. Mother Rebekah prepared a dish of goat meat, and Jacob—disguised as Esau—served it to his nearly blind dad. The ruse worked, and Jacob received the irrevocable blessing that belonged to his brother.

Fearing Esau would kill, Jacob fled fifty miles north to Bethel (in modern West Bank). There, in a dream, he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven. God promised Jacob and his descendants possession of the land around him, with this high standard: “All families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring” (Gen. 28:14). All families!

From Bethel Jacob continued another four hundred miles to relatives at Haran (in modern Syria). There he spent twenty years, married, and established a family. He learned what it is to be hoodwinked: uncle Laban switched brides on Jacob at his wedding, and took advantage of him in business dealings. Eventually Jacob decided to move with his wives and children back to the land of his birth.

Jacob meets Esau

Jacob was born in Beersheba. When conflict with Esau became too hot, he fled to Bethel, where he dreamed of angels. From there he continued northeast another four hundred miles, probably along the purple line. For the reconciliation, it is likely that Esau traveled up the Jordan valley (red line) then turned eastward into the Jabbok valley to meet Jacob at Peniel.

Having alerted Esau in Seir (southern modern Jordan) that he was returning, Jacob wrestled with God and his own conscience as he anticipated rendezvous with his alienated twin. In what seemed like a show of force, Esau approached with four hundred men. Jacob dispersed his family and possessions to minimize losses in case of attack. Then he gave lavish gifts of animals to Esau, and the encounter was redemptive. So powerful was reconciliation for Jacob that seeing Esau’s face was “like seeing the face of God.”

Jacob and Esau both had real grievances and legitimate self-interests. They never became pals, and lived far apart after the reconciliation. But they reached a stage in life when nursing a grudge was more costly than reconciliation. They stopped hating, something which we humans apparently need to learn anew every generation.

When reconciliation happens between individuals or between nations divided, it is like seeing the very face of God.

Join me in 2015 for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land! See: Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015

I invite you to enter your email address in the designated box at the edge of this webpage (if you have not already subscribed), and click Follow. You’ll get a notice every three weeks when I put up a new blog post.

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Elijah, PTSD, and food for the journey

[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life.’” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 1 Kings 19:4-5


At “a day’s journey into the wilderness” south of Beersheba, a lone broom tree stands in the area where an angel awakened Elijah.

Exhausted and depressed, Elijah showed all the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). “After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected,” a PTSD website says. There may be a “constant sense of danger” and “loss of interest in activities and life in general.”

What drama and trauma occur on Mt Carmel! Elijah takes on the combined spiritual forces of four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah (1 Kings 18). The object? Call down fire from heaven on competing altars to demonstrate who is God.

“How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” Elijah demands of Israelite spectators. “If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Canaanite prophets call to their god in vain, and Elijah ridicules: “Maybe your god is meditating . . . or on a journey, or asleep!” Perhaps Baal has “wandered away,” a  Hebrew euphemism for relieving himself!

The contest is deadly serious. Queen Jezebel has slaughtered prophets of Yahweh, and Elijah will be next if he fails to deliver. But fire descends when Elijah prays. It consumes not only the sacrifice, but even stones underneath.

In the bloody theater of ancient Canaanite culture, what follows is not surprising. “Seize the prophets of Baal,” Elijah cries. “Do not let one of them escape.” The losers face summary execution at a gully (wadi) in Jezreel Valley below Mt Carmel.


At Muhraka on Mt Carmel this statue of a vengeful prophet Elijah stands at a possible site of his confrontation with prophets of Baal.

Queen Jezebel vows to kill Elijah, and he flees a hundred miles south to the desert. There, under a solitary broom tree, PTSD closes in. A tableau of extraordinary beauty follows: an angel awakens Elijah from sleep to offer a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. Elijah eats and lies down again. The angel awakens him a second time, saying, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

The story of Elijah’s angel in the desert comforts me when the journey seems too much. I know what it is to be exhausted and depressed; angels of God have sustained me. I too want bread of heaven to feed me for a long journey to the “mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8).

I admire Elijah’s courage at Mt Carmel, but am unsettled by his slaughter of adversaries. Elijah later appears with Moses on the mountain of Transfiguration, talking with Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8). What did Jesus, who rejected violence, say to the fiery prophet?

When Jesus said “love your enemies,” I believe he meant to include even persons of other religions who might seek to do us harm.

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I invite you to enter your email address in the designated box at the edge of this webpage (if you have not already subscribed), and click Follow. You’ll get a notice every three weeks when I put up a new blog post.
Join me on a visit to the Holy Land! See: Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015

I’m right! You’re wrong!

Debates in church and politics can get painfully polarized, especially when participants hear only from like-minded people. Within our respective echo chambers, voices on both sides of an issue become shrill. We are tempted to demonize others who disagree.

Buildings that house the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem have architecture symbolizing such binary thinking. Underneath a white dome in the foreground are precious scrolls discovered in the desert at Qumran in the mid-twentieth century. The dome is shaped like the lid of one of the jars that stored the famous scrolls for two thousand years. Below the black wall in the background is the entrance to the underground museum.

Israel, Jerusalem, Shrine of the Book

The Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem features architecture illustrating dualistic, black-and-white theology.

This black and white architecture represents the ideology of self-described “Sons of Light” who collected the scrolls. In the late second century BC, sectarian Jews called Essenes opposed what they saw as corruption among Jewish leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. Some withdrew to monastic-like living at Qumran by the Dead Sea to await the Messiah. They expected a lengthy military confrontation between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness.”

Israel, Qumran, caves where scrolls were found-1

In these and other caves near to the Qumran community by the Dead Sea, Essenes hid hundreds of scrolls before the Roman army destroyed Qumran in about AD 68.

In a scriptorium at Qumran, Essenes copied books of the Bible and other literature specific to their movement. After Jews revolted against Rome in AD 66, a Roman army swept through the Jordan valley. Qumran residents apparently hid manuscripts in nearby caves for protection. Hundreds of manuscripts remained undiscovered  until 1946 and following.

Suddenly in the modern era scholars had manuscripts of the bible nearly a thousand years older than anything previously available. The scrolls revealed that the Old Testament text we have today is close to what Jews knew in Jesus’ day. Scribes over a millennium had done their copy work well.

Some writing specific to the Qumran community is polarizing and dualistic. The famous War Scroll  begins, “The first attack of the Sons of Light shall be undertaken against the forces of the Sons of Darkness, the army of Belial. . .” Forty years of warfare will follow, and the Sons of Light will win. A charter for the Qumran community declares that “all who are not reckoned as belonging to [God’s] covenant must be separated out, along with everything they possess.”

Qumran 3

This map shows how close Qumran was to “Bethany beyond the Jordan” where John baptized Jesus (John 1:28). It is possible that Qumran somehow influenced the thinking of John.

John the Baptist probably baptized Jesus at Bethany beyond the Jordan—within sight of Qumran on a clear day. He, too, had withdrawn from Jerusalem and had an adversarial attitude toward much that happened there. His theology sounds polarizing (“You brood of vipers!”).

Jesus called himself the “light of the world.” But he fraternized with fisher folk, Pharisees, lepers, snobs, poor people, and Roman soldiers. He taught followers to be light in the world, not light withdrawn into an enclave of like-minded people.

It is possible to have strong convictions about what it means to walk in the light and still relate in loving and respectful ways with others who see things differently.

© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************    IMG_0417

Join me on a journey to the Holy Land! See: From Nazareth to Rome: Holy Land, Empire and Global Mission, with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 3-15, 2014

See also: Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015

I invite you to enter your email address in the designated box at the edge of this webpage (if you have not already subscribed), and click Follow. You’ll get a notice every three weeks when I put up a new blog post.