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July 2014

What Would We Seek?


This past month, on the evening of June 12th, three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frenkel (16), Gilad Shaer (16), and Eyal Yifrah (19), were kidnapped by Palestinians with links to Hamas, while hitchhiking home from the West Bank area near Bethlehem.  Over the next three weeks, Israel was gripped with nerve-racking emotion, while authorities began a massive hunt for the boys around the West Bank.  It was believed by the public that the three were being held as bargaining chips for a Palestinian prisoner exchange.  Two main responses to the kidnappings emerged within the Arab world.  The first was happiness, with the proclamation that “three Shalits” were taken this time (an allusion to Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped and held prisoner for more than five years by Hamas in the Gaza Strip).  The second was conspiratorial disbelief that the kidnappings actually happened (which, with the finding of the three bodies, morphed into the theory that it was an Israeli plot).

Eighteen days later, after hundreds of Palestinians were arrested and detained, homes and buildings invaded and searched, the boys’ bodies were found partially buried in a field between Halhul and Karmei Tzur, three miles north of Hebron, though the two Palestinian suspects were not.  Recently, it has been purported that the kidnappers always intended to killnot kidnaptheir victims, since the murderers used a gun with a silencer, shooting the youth ten times within minutes of luring them into their car.

The day after their bodies were found, a vast funeral was held for the three teenagers in Modi’in, a town half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  With tens of thousands in attendance, the three were laid to rest, as all of Israel watched on television.  At the same time in Jerusalem, several hundred right-wing Jewish extremists were demonstrating, some even seeking out Arabs to attack, with chants of “Death to Arabs!”  With the discovery of the bodies, a Facebook site had also been started, entitled “The people of Israel seek vengeance!” and had 32,000 likes before it was taken down a couple days later.

And vengeance came.  Very early the next morning, around 3:45am, while Muslims were preparing for their Ramadan prayers, a 16 year-old, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped off the street in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Shu’fat by three males.  His body was found burnt in the Jerusalem forest less than a few hours later.  A leaked autopsy report revealed that after being beaten in the head, the boy was still alive when he was burnt.  In the following days Arab riots broke out in east Jerusalem, and other violence was reported throughout the country.  The Jerusalem Light Rail which ran through those Arab neighborhoods was destroyed.  Four days later, with the help of a video camera that recorded Mohammed’s kidnappers, Israeli forces arrested six Jewish suspects, some of whom were minors.  The next day three of them confessed to the crime.

Israeli officials and citizens responded to the gruesome murder of Mohammed with shock, disbelief, and grief.  Many Israelis visited Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s family during their mourning.  Much like in the days after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, many called for a national soul-searching.  Rachelle Fraenkel, mother of murdered Naftali Fraenkel, sent her condolences to Mohammed’s family, “No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents.”  The day after Mohammed’s murder, the Fraenkel family released a statement, “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification, no pardon and no atonement for murder.”

Since then, violence, protests, attacks, and arson have filled Israeli news reports.  Some whisper of a Third Intifada, but most think it unlikely.  Since the beginning of July, Hamas has launched an onslaught of hundreds of rockets against Israel.  Even in Jerusalem, we have had three air raid warnings during the past week.  Around 20,000 Israeli reserve forces are standing at the border with Gaza for a possible invasion to eliminate the rocket threat.

In some ways, all of this is nothing new.  The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is long.  Countless attacks, reprisals, threats, and wars fill the annals.  All these years of media-saturation can be soul-numbing when complex situations on the ground are compressed into pre-digested “news bites.”  The human condition cannot be tamed by our simplistic slogans, whatever they are.

Yet, this latest episode where three Israeli teenagers are killed and then a Jerusalem Arab teenager is killed in retaliation has suddenly made this complicated conflict personal for all of us.  It makes us ask the question—what would we want?  As Christians, what would we seek?  If our son was killed, what would we do?  If a terrorist tried hacking us to death, how would we respond?  What would we seek?  Probably, justice.  Hopefully, not vengeance.  Perhaps, mercy. 


A Good Land

Israel’s Seven Species: Grape vine


Deuteronomy is a book of expectations. In this final book of the Pentateuch, God stokes the Israelites’ expectations concerning their entrance into the long-awaited “Promised Land,” while at the same time, He explains the rules that they are expected to follow.  One of these expectations is the agricultural bounty of the land of Canaan, often summed up by the so-called seven species.  During the time of Jesus, only these seven varieties[1] were presented in the Temple at Jerusalem as offerings of the first fruits festival (Ex 34:26).

“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land of brooks, springs, and fountains flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, and pomegranates, of olive oil and honey (Dt 8:7-8).”

The GRAPE VINE is a climbing woody plant which produces a highly sweet, clustering fruit.  Besides the olive tree, the grape vine was one of the most cultivated trees in Israelite culture and was predominately grown to produce wine.  While raisin cakes[2] were also made from grapes, the biblical text testifies to the supremacy of wine within the ancient culture.[3]  Wine was a symbol of joy and blessing.[4]

In the Bible, Noah was the first to cultivate a grape vine and make wine (Gen 9:20-21).  Noah did this in the region of Ararat (Gen 8:4), which is located in the same area as the earliest archaeological finds for viticulture and wine making.[5]

Grape vines were grown inside walled vineyards, where often a watchtower stood to guard the fruit, with the approach of harvest season.  Typically, July and August were the harvest months in Israel.  Due to the crawling nature of the grapevine and its highly valued fermented fruit, it was critical to diligently maintain one’s vineyard.  In order to pick the grape clusters at their optimal time, day workers could be brought in at short notice to help with the immediate harvest (Mt 20:1-16).  The grape harvest was a time of song, dance, and celebration as the fruit was treaded by bare feet in the winepress, and smashed into juice that flowed down into a collection vat.  After straining, the grape juice would ferment in basins, as the bubbling gases escaped over the next six weeks.  The finished wine would then be poured into clay jars, and often sealed by clay stoppers with leather straps.

Grape vine cultivation and wine production is embedded within the biblical text metaphorically as well.  Some examples are the depictions of Israel or as a grape vine (Ezk 19:10-14), a vineyard (Isa 5:1-7), and harvested fruit (Jer 6:9).  Jesus portrayed himself as a grape vine and his disciples as its branches (John 15:5).  The blood red color of grape juice being smashed out in the winepress also became a foreboding image of God’s coming wrath upon the wicked.[6]  While the dangers and consequences of wine’s abuse by drunkards have always been proclaimed,[7] wine’s divine blessing should not be forgotten.

[The Lord] makes grass grow for the cattle,

and plants for people to cultivate—

bringing forth food from the earth:

wine that gladdens human hearts,

oil to make their faces shine,

and bread that sustains their hearts.

Ps 104:14-15

[1] Mishna Bikkurim 1,3

[2] 1 Sam 25:18; 1 Sam 30:12; 2 Sam 16:1; 1 Chr 12:40

[3] There are 185 references in the Old Testament to wine.  The most common Hebrew word for wine is “yayin”.

[4] Some examples are seen in its harvest (Isa 16:10), at weddings (John 2:1-2), in tithing to the Lord (Dt 14:22-27), and part of intimacy (Song 5:1).

[5] This region stretches down from modern-day Georgia, through Armenia, and into northern Iran.  Earliest evidence for the cultivated grapevine is from the 6th millennium BC.  Findings for viticulture in Israel date back to the 4th millennium BC.

[6] Isa 63:1-6; Rev 14:17-20

[7] Gen 19:32-35; Pr 20:1; 23:30-31; Eph 5:18; I Cor 6:10


News in Israel and the Middle East

  • The Annual Israeli Wine Festival will be celebrated in Jerusalem next month (Aug 11-14) at the Israel Museum.  There are 30 commercial wineries and more than 150 boutique wineries in Israel. For more history on Israeli winemaking, here and here.  
  • Syria, has been convulsing in a civil war for the past 3 years, and now Iraq, without the aid of foreign forces, is quickly falling apart as well.  With the invasion of Sunni Islamic extremists from Syria in the past few months, the group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has led a bloody rampage into the center of Iraq.  They are known for massacring Shiites and Christians and are preparing to destroy biblical history as well.  Canon Andrew White, known as "Vicar of Baghdad" for the Anglican Church just posted this on his Facebook page: 

"Things continue to get more desperate by the hour. We have plans in place as what to do with the church and ministry if Baghdad is attacked. The church is at risk because as it is known as the English Church. It is known as that as it has an English priest. I must get out of here quickly as I am putting our people at greater risk. We need money on stand by just in case we need to get people out quickly to Erbil. We are in crisis mode but all is now in hand and organised and, with your help, and that of the Almighty, we know we will cope and we thank our dear Lord for this."


Why Join a JCF Israel Study Tour?

"After leading a group to Israel in 2012, my wife and I wondered if we should do it again—surely nothing could top that experience. But this second tour has!  Instead of visiting all of the pilgrimage sites, this time, we wanted to make the Scriptures come alive by visiting places in the biblical narratives. Thanks to the blessing of Yeshua and the work of Yoni Gerrish from Jerusalem Cornerstone Foundation (JCF), we had a spectacular study tour.

Working with Yoni was an unqualified joy! In fact, although we had never met in person before, the people on the tour could not believe that we had not done this together many times. Not only was the chemistry between us remarkable, but everyone noted how we complemented each other with our perspectives on the Scriptures, our humor, and our areas of interest and expertise. Speaking as a biblical theologian, for me, his conversations about the geography of Israel and the customs and culture of ancient and modern occupants of this land opened the windows to a host of fresh interpretations. There is no substitute for reading and discussing specific biblical texts at the very places that the events happened.

When we got on the plane to return home, we were exhausted physically, but our minds were spinning. We had seen and learned so much. We will never read the Scriptures the same again.  Perhaps one day the Lord will smile on us and allow us to make this journey together again with Yoni and JCF."

Daniel I. Block, D.Phil. Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College

Join a JCF Israel Study Tour this Fall 2014

  • Nov 29–Dec 10 - Wilderness with Petra

For more information, here.

Prayer Requests and Praise Reports

  • Israel and the current rocket crisis with Gaza.
  • Finding the murderers of the three Israeli teenagers (see above What Would We Seek?)
  • Calm and level-headedness in the aftermath of the kidnappings and killings in Israel.
  • Canon Andrew White and his church in Baghdad (see above in News)
  • Randall and Margret Buth will return from North Carolina next week after helping lead the Biblical Language Center's biblical language courses at Mid-Atlantic University.
  • Yoni Gerrish and family will be in the U.S. from June 26-Aug 30.

Ps 104:14-15