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ICEJ Israel Encounter Pastors Educational Tours

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19 Jan 2018

It was a cold, damp, February day in Jerusalem deep beneath the ancient City of David. After clambering through a small hidden door in the hillside, we huddled together in two separate shifts in the small, dimly lit underground chamber, dodging the drips of water running down the iron beams of the protective roof over our heads.

Our host was the famed Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukron, a man who has been at the center of some of the most sensational findings uncovered in ancient Jerusalem over the course of the past two decades. We’d first met by chance over a cup of coffee in the Golan Heights in early January and I’d told him about our efforts to bring pastors, ministry leaders and their spouses on life-changing study tours to Israel. His response was to offer to help.

The following month on the next Israel Encounter pastors’ tour, I found myself, together with a group of 45 Baptist pastors and their wives, listening intently as Eli spoke of the highlights of his career: the discovery of the ancient Jebusite water fortress that protected the Gihon Spring in the days of David and Solomon, and the accidental finding and excavation of the first-century Pool of Siloam, immortalized by Jesus in John 9 and which, for so many years, was believed to have been lost to history.

“But this …” he declared as he reached for a small key in his pocket, his voice trailing away as he unlocked the protective tin casing that shielded his latest discovery to reveal the highlight of a career filled with highlights: a small rough-shaped stone pillar set back behind the carved ancient bedrock upon which we were standing.

“You’ve heard of the First Temple?” he asked. “This is Temple Zero.” This small sacred area has been positively dated back almost 4,000 years—to the time of Genesis when the enigmatic Melchizedek was king and priest of the “Most High God” in what was known then as the small hilltop fortress of Salem. Alongside the altar, there are niches carved in the rock for the slaughter of sacrificial animals, a wine press, and an olive press.

This is the place, Eli suggests, where Melchizedek greeted Abraham after the rescue of Lot with “bread and wine” in Genesis 14, and an event to which the New Testament writer refers at length in Hebrews 7. “We’re in the beginning of monotheism,” suggested Eli. We read of Jacob worshipping God by setting up a pillar at Bethel some decades later in Genesis 28. There’s no reason not to believe that Melchizedek was worshipping God in the same way.

“How did Jacob worship God? He set up a pillar that said this was the house of God. He anointed it with olive oil, the same things that we have here. So, we have the First Temple built by King Solomon, Second Temple Nehemiah, Zerubbabel … but what was before? Melchizedek. Who was Melchizedek? High priest. So, if you have a high priest, which temple? Temple Zero. But this temple was never destroyed.”

The archeological record suggests that this ancient altar and sacrificial area was buried in the time of King Hezekiah—the righteous king who removed all alternative places of worship in and around Jerusalem. This small standing stone set up as a pillar to be "the house of God" appears never to have been broken down, just covered up and forgotten. And throughout all the destructions and conquests of Jerusalem that followed, it remained that way for thousands of years. That was until 2010. “I didn’t plan to come here to find something,” Eli admitted with a shrug. “I just did the excavation.”

As 2018 begins, we are embarking on our third year of the Israel Encounter program. In that time, nearly 400 ministry leaders, Bible school students, pastors, and their spouses have traveled with us to Israel to learn more about the land, the people, and the enduring covenantal promises God has made to this unique, peculiar nation. With your help and continued support we are actively training more leaders, planning more trips, and seeking to expand this work to reach hundreds more in the coming year.

“You are reading the Bible all your life,” Eli concluded, “but then you understand now what it means—the Bible talking and what we are finding. This is the way of God.”

And the same is true for those who take the time to travel with us to Israel. The greatest treasures of Scripture are there to be uncovered, if only we would make the effort to show up.  

- by Michael Hines, ICEJ USA Outreach Director


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