Every storyteller, every reader, indeed every listener knows that a great narrative needs likable characters and a compelling plot. But it also needs a terrific setting. Imagine The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe without Narnia. Or Dorothy without Oz.
When people think about where God has set His redemption story, they usually think first of Israel—as they should. After all, that’s where Jesus was born, buried, and rose from the dead. Yet God also revealed Himself with relative frequency in a less-explored part of the Holy Land—Jordan.
Picture a desert in the Middle East. Like most of that part of the world, it’s not green; it has no enormous waterfalls; and farmers struggle to grow crops. The country is vast and desolate, and it requires dependence to live. Yet that’s part of its magic. A cloud by day in the desert kept people from frying; a fire by night in the desert kept them warm. A place without water required a leader to seek God and then speak to a rock for provision. Or manna to come from on high. Or quail to fall from the sky. Sometimes a place—like America’s Old West—so influences the narrative that the land itself becomes a character in the story. And Jordan is just such a place.
In the ancient church, servant-leaders often encouraged Christ-followers to visit the places where redemption’s drama unfolded at least once in their lives. Such locations, it was believed, added to the eyes of faith the physical I-can-literally-see-it places where God told His stories in flesh and blood.
Ideally every Christian has a chance in his or her lifetime to walk—at least once—where Jesus walked. Yet if you can’t travel to Jordan anytime soon, perhaps a thousand words can paint a picture.
Jordan’s capital city, Amman, serves as a great home base from which to visit a number of biblical locations. The Bible refers to Amman and its surrounding areas as “Ammon” or “Rabbah of the Ammonites.” Here the guilty King David had Uriah the Hittite sent to his death (2 Sam. 11), and today people can still stand on the citadel—the fortification where that happened.
“I love the citadel as a reminder of our need for uncompromising integrity,” Dr. Reg Grant said. “Uriah went to his grave as an innocent victim of a scheming adulterer, but he died a valiant warrior, while David lived the rest of his days in dishonor. Better to die in integrity than live as a traitor.” Two of Dr. Grant’s educational programs have won Emmys, and he directs DTS’s media arts program. He sometimes performs a dramatic presentation about Uriah’s life when he accompanies groups to Amman.
Nearby lies the simple archaeological museum where visitors can see one of the finest collections of ancient artifacts in the Middle East, including some of the copper Dead Sea scrolls.
Leaving Amman and travelling along the 5,000-year-old King’s Highway, visitors see the route Abraham probably took as he passed through Jordan on his journey from Ur. Centuries later Moses asked the King of Edom (request denied) for passage along this flat plain, which serves as the world’s oldest continuously used communication route (see Num. 20).
After the Exodus Moses stood on Mount Nebo and caught his first glimpse of the promised land. It must have taken his breath away. From the summit of this promontory pilgrims can gaze as he did across the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, Jericho, and the rooftops of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Jordan is rich in New Testament history too. Modern-day Um Qais (ancient Gadara), with its Greco-Roman black basalt remains, is where the Lord performed the miracle of the Gadarene demon-possessed man (Matt. 8:28–32). On good-weather days visitors can see into Syria, Israel, and the Sea of Galilee—also referred to as Tiberias or the Sea of Tiberias (John 6 and 21). Ana Silva (ThM, 1998), who taught in Jordan for several years, recalls how a visit to Um Qais brought home to her the reality of Jesus’ incarnation and His power over the material world.
Travelers find the best-preserved remains from Roman times in the Decapolis city of Jerash. Nicknamed the “Asian Pompeii,” Jerash contains striking monuments, evidence of a once-powerful Roman Empire.
About thirty minutes outside of Amman lies what is sometimes called the birthplace of Christianity—Bethany beyond the Jordan. Here, according to tradition, Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2), and centuries later—following in Elijah’s footsteps—John the Baptist preached and baptized (John 1:28). Most significantly, John baptized Jesus, marking the first recorded manifestation of the Trinity (Mark 1:9–12). Jesus later taught at Bethany beyond the Jordan as well (John 10:40).
No trip to Jordan is complete without an excursion to the Dead Sea (the “Salt Sea” in the Bible), which consists of one-third salt. One wonders why local vendors sell flotation devices, as a dip in the Dead Sea is a little like being dunked in a vat of hair gel. Even the largest human won’t sink.
Winding through Wadi Araba to ancient Zoar, where Lot and his daughters fled during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Dead Sea Highway takes visitors past the Pillar of Salt that towers over a cliff adjacent to the water. While it aids the imagination, no one seriously claims it was once Lot’s wife.
A shift of home base from Amman to Aqaba is essential for exploring some of Jordan’s most well-known sites, and it begins with a two-hundred-fifty-mile drive. Along the way lies Mukawir (Machaerus), Herod’s hilltop fortress, where Salome performed her fateful dance and where John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded.
In Aqaba, a modern resort town, visitors can dip their toes (and go snorkeling) in the Red Sea, from the shores of which they can see Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
A jewel in Jordan’s crown and its most-visited site is the rose-red city of Petra, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that requires a full day to explore. While Jordan abounds in archaeological treasures, few places can beat a city carved completely from rock. Petra is now one of the Seven Wonders of the World that many recognize from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” As Dr. Grant describes it, “The stone canyons still echo with the voice of the prophet Obadiah condemning the Edomites for their arrogance. Having mistreated Israel, they themselves were later threatened. They thought the rock fortress would protect them from their enemies. But their confidence crumbled under the hammer of God’s judgment, and there’s no trace of the Edomites left today. There is only the desert wind to remind us of their empty boasts.”
Moses and the children of Israel are said to have passed through Petra in ancient Edom. And according to a local tradition Moses struck the rock and brought forth water at nearby Wadi Musa (Num. 20:10–11). DTS’s head of the Christian Education department, Dr. Michael Lawson, along with a number of other DTS professors, has made repeat visits to Jordan to teach at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS). And while there, he has visited the holy places including Petra. “I think Petra is underrated,” he said. “Normal pictures show less than one percent of the site.”
Dr. Scott Horrell, another DTS professor who teaches at JETS, agrees. “When we entered Petra at the end of a DTS Holy Land study tour two years ago, we arrived at the hotel in Petra, and two of our members asked to be baptized. The pool is alongside a restaurant, fully visible with all glass walls. I approached the manager of the restaurant and asked if we could baptize a couple of our students.
“He brightened and said, ‘Of course, I am a Christian.’ Then he looked puzzled and said, ‘But where would you baptize?’
“I said ‘In the pool,’ which was only a few feet from where we were standing.
“Trying to be gracious, he said, ‘Don’t you baptize in a church? I was seven months old when I was baptized in the church.’
“I said that sometimes in the New Testament, adults were baptized in a river or pool. That cleared the way. He and his wife joined the thirty-five of us, genuinely interested. We prayed, and those being baptized gave their testimonies. The manager and his wife lingered and they seemed encouraged in their faith. This was our last night in Jordan, and for me it was one of the most meaningful parts of our trip.”
The burial place of Aaron, Moses and Miriam’s brother, is in Petra on the summit of Mount Hor (Arabic: Jabal Harun), a site that attracts pilgrims from all over the world.
Once you’ve stood where Moses viewed the promised land, you’ll read the narrative about him with a clearer picture. Once you’ve viewed the landscape Ruth saw as she journeyed from Moab to Bethlehem, you’ll appreciate how far she walked for food. Once you’ve seen the Dead Sea, you’ll read with new appreciation Jesus’ words about flavorless salt.
And there’s more. Once you’ve looked across that same sea at Bethlehem’s twinkling lights, you will marvel anew at how God chose to reveal Himself in that little town through a Child in a manger. And once you’ve seen Jesus’ baptismal site and the wilderness where He fasted for forty days you can more fully appreciate that He left heaven’s glory to walk on earth.
Beyond the Bible
Rent “Jordan: The Royal Tour,” a documentary in which the U.S.-educated His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein introduces visitors to highlights of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Check out Going Places with God and Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus, both by Dr. Wayne Stiles (ThM, 1997; DMin, 2004). These books take travelers on a devotional walk through biblical sites.
Order a copy of The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land, written by Dr. Charles Dyer (ThM, 1979; PhD, 1986), who is licensed to guide tours in Israel, and Greg Hatteberg (ThM, 1992), who is a graduate of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. Their book provides biblical and historical background for the most-visited sites along with facts about some of the lesser-known locations.
Approximately every other year Dallas Seminary leads a trip to the Holy Land that includes an extension to Jordan. Maybe you should start praying and planning now to join us in 2011?