The Dead Sea and Salt Pillars – February 9

When we travel, we like to rent apartments through airbnb.  We do this because in many ways it’s less expensive than hotels, but we also enjoy being ‘in the culture’ and meeting people.  This time we decided to rent a car rather than be completely dependent on public transportation and taxis.  From our arrival in Jerusalem, we had our car parked several blocks away because there is no free parking nearby – one of the misrepresentations of this particular place.  It wouldn’t be terribly bad except that my husband followed the host to the street, parked our car, and then she brought him back to the apartment.  Having been in Jerusalem about 20 minutes, he couldn’t remember where she took him.  Walking to find a car that you drove to park in a city you don’t know, well, you get the picture.  He became quite lost and it took him a long time to find our car.  

Finally with our car again, we left Jerusalem as early.  My itinerary was a full day trip to Masada, En Gede, a Dead Sea float, and Qumran which if we were in high tourist season could not have done,

We are using WAZE to find our way to and from places in our car.  For those of you who don’t know, WAZE was created by Israelis and then sold to Google.  It works perfectly when our international data package works.  However, on our way back to our apartment, we missed a turn and found ourselves maneuvering through tiny streets filled with vehicles trying to weave in and out of each other.  At one point, we were actually in a tight predicament and a van driver looked at my husband and said, “You go, I can’t!”  It was actually kind of funny being lost and confused.

Only minutes after leaving Jerusalem, we were in the Judean wilderness.  I’m not sure what I thought before as wilderness, but wilderness is barren, barren, barren.  There were a few bedouin shacks and flocks on the hills though it didn’t appear there was much for grazing.  In the evening light, when we returned, we could see that the hillsides were dotted with small grass shoots.

The road out of Jerusalem descends toward the Dead Sea.  There were signs that marked meters above sea level, sea level and below sea level.  The Dead Sea itself is  1,401 feet below sea level giving new meaning to being ‘under the sea.’  The views of the Dead Sea were breathtaking with the layer of fog covering that would eventually burn off.

About  1 1/2 hours later, we arrived at Masada.  Metzada means ‘stronghold’ or ‘fortress’ and is located on the top of a rock plateau on the eastern side of the Judean wilderness.   King Herod the Great built palaces for himself on the mountain with patios, courtyards, bath houses, cisterns and an aquaduct system,  and massive storage rooms for food.   Masada is where, according to the Jewish historian Josephus,  Jewish rebels fled to escape the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  Roman soldiers came to the fortress and built a ramp on the western side.  Before they could breech the wall and take the Jewish families hostage, 960 people cast lots to determine who would kill whom and who would die last. David used this same stronghold as a hideout when trying to protect himself and his armies from King Saul.

1 Samuel 23:14 “David stayed in the wilderness strongholds and in the hills of the Desert of Ziph. Day after day Saul searched for him, but God did not give David into his hands.”

2 Samuel 23:14  “At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem.”

We were some of the first people to arrive at Masada and were the only ones on the cable car to make the ascent and the descent.   There is the Snake Path that may be hiked to the top, but we did not have the time.  There were quite a few people making that trek with bottles of water and protective hats from the rising sun.   After days of walking around the stony streets of Jerusalem, our sore feet probably wouldn’t have made the hike and we were thankful they installed a cable car in 1994.

Some of the remains at the top are incredibly preserved making it possible to imagine what it was like to live and work on top of this rock.  From the bath houses with their ingenious steam rooms and preserved frescos to the synagogue where there were alcoves to raise doves for food  to the gaping hole where the Romans breached the wall to find hundreds of people dead, Masada is definitely a place filled with history.  Of course, the views of the Dead Sea from the top are in themselves worth the trip.

Our next stop was En Gedi.  En Gedi is an oasis in the desert.  It was another hideout for David.  King Solomon compares his beloved to the henna blossoms from the vineyards of En Gedi.  Ezekiel speaks of En Gedi having fish like in the Mediterranean.  I read that prophecy and wonder if someday, the Dead Sea will come alive with life.  King Solomon compares his beloved to the henna blossoms from the vineyards of En Gedi.

1 Samuel 23:29 “And David went up from there and lived in the strongholds of En Gedi.”

Ezekiel 47:10 “Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea.”

Song of Solomon 1:14 “My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms from the vineyards of En Gedi.”

We didn’t see any vineyards at En Gedi, but we did see a lot of trees, dwarfed shrubs and lots of flowing waterfalls.   We also hiked with hundreds of school children on a field trip.  The first group we passed, a group of teenage boys,  began yelling at us to take their photo.  We stopped and took several and they they said, ‘We want money’ in their broken English.  We laughed and told them they needed to pay us for taking their photo.  They were just excited to use their English skills.   At times it was quite congested on the short path to David’s Waterfall.  Girls, young girls, and lots of young girls, were singing loudly as they hiked along the narrow trail.  At the pools of water, they jumped in with their long black skirts and blue T-shirts and snapped hundreds of photos of each other.    They had wet shoes, wet hair, wet clothes and just kept on singing.  I overheard one of the teachers say that she was ready to be back on the bus!  I could imagine since we expected En Gedi to be a QUIET oasis.  When we finally made it to David’s Waterfall, there was a group of older students climbing on rocks and taking selfies.   It was very loud there because when you are in a cave-like setting, the sound echoes from everywhere.

As we were hiking out, there was a man sitting on a rock and he looked at me with an exasperated look.  I said laughingly, “Shechet” meaning “Quiet please” or a little more boldy “Shut up.”   He responded, “Yes, and I’m the teacher!”  We offered our condolences.  He laughed and stood to talk with us.  He introduced us to a young boy who is the youngest soccer referee in Israel and one of the smartest students in the school.  A few other students stopped to talk with us because they wanted to practice their several years of English study.  The teacher invited us to come visit him in the south near Gaza in Ashkelon if we head south.   He explained that there are bombs that go off, but they aren’t smart and generally miss everything.  On this particular trip, we aren’t heading south, but perhaps one day we will.

We began our hike out ahead of every student group which allowed us to enjoy En Gedi with a little more silence.  We could actually hear the waterfalls and trickles of streams as we walked.  In a few places there was so much shade that we would stop and drink in the coolness of the air.  We talked about how nice it was they had rock steps up and down and how in the days of David, there weren’t such luxuries.  My husband commented, “Yes, but David was a man of great strength, a warrior.  He was probably very adept at climbing these rocks quickly.”  True. True.

The hike down took about 15 minutes without all the ‘traffic.’  We were blessed to see two Ibex.

Our Dead Sea Experience

This section has its own title because our experience in the Dead Sea was not the normal one or the one you see on travel brochures.   I spent months preparing our itinerary.  I searched and searched for the best place to float in the Dead Sea.  I decided on a place call Mineral Springs.   We weren’t really interested in a spa or even a mud bath, but just floating in the salt water.

When we passed the sign for Mineral Springs on our way to Masada, it didn’t look like anything existed there and I became a little concerned.  At Masada, we asked the cable car control girl where she thought the best place was to go into the Dead Sea.  She said, “En Gedi”.  I had read that it was expensive which was one reason I decided on Mineral Springs, but we took her advice.  We crossed the road from the oasis, paid the parking fee and went into En Gedi’s Dead Sea public swimming area.

It was kind of run down and we even had to pay a few shekels to use the bathroom and changing facilities.  Then, we put on our havianas (Brasilian flip flops) and headed down to … well, not really a beach, but a steep rocky hill.  A few people were floating in the water, but only a few.  The sea appeared quite rough and there were a lot of waves crashing into the edge of the hillside.  It didn’t look inviting to swim, but hey, we wanted to float on the Dead Sea.

My husband and daughter headed down from the hillside into the water first.  Okay, here’s the reality of where we were.  As the water crashed like a sea and oozed back, there were these little salt reefs that needed to be crossed.  These salt reefs are the hardened minerals and are sharp as razor blades.  Yes, sharp as razor blades.  So, we are in bare feet (no brochure even suggested flip flops or sandals) with waves crashing against us while trying to steady ourselves on razor blades.

The sign at the top of the hill said to wade into the water to your knees and then float.  It also said that if you swallow any water at all, seek medical help from a life guard immediately.  So, high waves, walking on razor blades, and if you blow it, you will swallow water and die?

Well, we went into the Dead Sea, tried to float with the turbulent waves and then allowed the current to roll us back into the shore cutting our hands, feet, legs, you name it on the razor sharp salt reefs.  It was NOT fun.  We tried to seek some medical help for our cuts, but they only gave us water and paper towels.  I wondered what they would actually do if you swallowed a gallon of water!  We wanted and needed showers (paid money again), but the water was freezing cold and the salt burnt the bloody body parts.  We rinsed as much as  we could and left the scene.  Believe it or not, we were laughing at the experience because it was our personal adventure at the Dead Sea.

As we came upon the entrance, we decided to stop at Mineral Springs to see how different it was from En Gedi.  It was definitely different with a long walkway to the beach and smaller waves.  When we showed some of the workers our wounds, they immediately sent us to a paramedic who wrapped my husband’s foot and ankle.  My daughter’s wounds were not in places she wanted a young Israeli man to see so she just took a few band aids.   I just wanted to go back to our apartment as the whole event became embarrassing.  As he cleaned our wounds, he asked how we got them.  We described our experience at En Gedi.  His response:  “En Gedi is a very dangerous place.  You should have come here.”

Moral of the story.  1.  Stick to the plan.  2. For those who go to the Dead Sea NOT on a tour, go to a resort and pay the money for mud and a spa at Mineral Springs.  They were such kind people and I know they felt sorry for us as we looked like victims of a serious crime.  I’m laughing as I write this, just so you know.

Zechariah 14:1-10  “On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.”

From Mineral Springs we continued north along the Dead Sea to Qumran.  In 1947-48, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in clay jars in a Qumran cave by a bedouin shepherd.  The scrolls included extra-biblical texts as well as parts of every book of the Bible except Nehemiah and Esther.  Nearly the entire scroll of Isaiah was found as we know it today. It is interesting that Isaiah’s scroll contains a lot of end times prophecies and was found in the ‘end times.’

There are many archaeological ruins at Qumran from a sect of Jewish who men lived there.  They were known as the Essenes and lived a pure life away from the evils of the world.  They kept a separate calendar than the priests in Jerusalem because they felt they understood the days and times better than the priests.  Most importantly, they put so much value on the Scriptures that when they knew the Romans were going to destroy everything, they hid their scrolls in the clay jars for protection.  The jars remained hidden for nearly 2000 years.  The hidden scrolls are nearly identical to the modern scrolls.  This makes the Hebrew Scriptures the oldest known Scriptures.  It also means that those who say ‘there have been many changes over the centuries’ are wrong.  Though there may be some different nuances, the Scriptures match.

Our little visit to Qumran would not be complete if I didn’t tell you about the Israeli Defense Soldiers we followed around.  There were about 75 of them taking a tour of Qumran, and since there were only three of us, we followed their tour.   When the tour was over, we were all in the food court buying drinks.  My daughter and I saw a type of drink we had in Brasil and I was trying to remember how to say the word.  Even in Brasil, I confused the word for ‘passion fruit’  with a city in the Bahia.  So, I’m trying to say ‘maracuja’ and am mixing with it with ‘Aracaju’ when this IDF soldier says, “You’re right.  It’s maracuja.”  I look at him and ask, “You speak Portuguese?”  He says, “I’m Brasilian.  So, once again, I’m speaking Portuguese with a Brasilian in Israel.  He was from Rio de Janeiro and his family made aliyah.  This means they moved from Brasil to become Israeli citizens.  My daughter had her photo taken with him and then with three other soldiers.  How fun is that?

As the sun began to set, we drove back to Jerusalem to our apartment.  We needed to eat so we had dinner at a small cafe called CafeCafe in the mall near the Jaffa Gate.  I had a very delicious and healthy cous cous salad with nuts and dried fruits along with hot water and peppermint leaves.

On our walk through the mall, a Jewish woman approached us and asked us if we could give tzedakah for the poor and homeless.  This was the second time someone asked us for tzedakah which is a term with its roots in ‘righteousness and justice’, but has come to mean ‘charity through a spontaneous act of good will’.  Of course, there are many things that go through our minds in the moment.  One is that we probably look like ‘rich Americans’ and are a first rate target.  The second is wondering if the money will really go to the poor and homeless or is the person just pan handling.  The third comes in that still small voice when you choose NOT to give tzedakah because you’re just not sure.  We told the woman very kindly that no, we could not give anything at that time.  She politely and cheerfully said, ‘todah rabbah’, and we went on our way.  Within less than a millisecond, that still small voice said, “This is why you came to Israel, to bless the poor and needy.  Trust Me.”  I told my husband about the voice and he said he heard a similar voice.  We pulled out a ‘not so spontaneous act of good will’, but one of obedience to the voice, and returned to the woman with our tzedakah from Yeshua.

We walked for our final time to the Western Wall.  This night I was going to pray for my friend and her son who was clinging for his life after an attempted suicide.  God’s will needed to be accomplished in both of their lives as well as the lives of everyone being touched by the tragedy.    I placed my paper prayer in the wall and took a photo of it to send to her.  I want thank everyone who has prayed for her as I’m sure the days ahead are going to be difficult if he lives; and if he dies ….   It was after I prayed at the Wall that I met Daniel, the Levite.

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