|My bus on the Israeli-Palestinian side of the traditional baptismal site|
That is because we started our day at or near the baptismal site of Jesus. We accessed this from the side of the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, at a place called Qasr al-Yahud (Arabic, قصر اليهود; Hebrew, אל יהודקאסר ), which originally meant either "Castle" or perhaps "Crossing of the Jews." It is a place that preserved the memory of the miraculous crossing of the Children of Israel into the Promised Land under Joshua. On the Jordanian side opposite is also the traditional place from which Elijah went up into heaven in a fiery chariot. Knowing that both of these events occurred somewhere near where Jesus was baptized helps us understand this sacred ordinance better.
|The Jordanian side of the Baptismal Site.|
I began by reviewing the story in Mark 1, pointing out its differences from Matthew and Luke 3. We talked about what these secondary accounts added and also talked about John 1 and 2 Nephi 31. I then connected Jesus' baptism with Joshua's crossing and Elijah's translation, noting how entering the Promised Land or ascending in a fiery chariot are both types of how baptism opens the gates of heaven for us. Wes sang "Baptism" from the Children's Song Book, and then because we felt the spirit so strongly, I led our group in prayer. There were tears.
|With my daughter, Rachel, at the Baptismal Site.|
|With my friend Rust, whom I have known from my graduate school days in Philadelphia.|
|With our neighbors, Bill and Ruby Bereston|
The name Masada comes from an Aramaic word meaning "fortress." It is a free-standing plateau near the Dead Sea whose site is nearly impregnable. The Hasmonean Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) first fortified the plateau. Later during the civil wars that Herod the Great fought against one of the last Hasmoneans, he left his family there while he went to Rome, seeking the Senate's support for his bid for the kingship. Later after Herod was firmly established as the ruled of the Jews, he not only further fortified the site, he also built two luxurious palaces there.
|The remains of a few of the storage magazines|
|A model shows how the northern palace cascaded down from the upper plateau|
|Remains of the northern palace, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
During the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66-73, Jewish extremists, especially of the sicarii party, gained control of Masada. The fortress did not become a priority for the Romans until Jerusalem had been taken, the temple had been burned, and other, more major centers had been captured. But in the last year of the war, the Romans began a lengthy and difficult siege of the fortress, completely surrounding it with a low wall and building a massive ramp on the western side by which they eventually took the seemingly impregnable fortress.
|The remains of a Roman camp and traces of the siege wall that surrounded the entire plateau|
|A view of the northern side of the Roman siege ramp|
|Looking down on the siege ramp from the western palace|
After lunch, we visited the site of Qumran, an intriguing settlement of ascetic Jews---sometimes described as "monastic"---who lived in a communal society. Apparently they withdrew from the larger Jewish society during the Hasmonean period because they felt that the establishment and temple priesthood was corrupt. Although much is still unknown about the details of their origins and many aspects of their community, what is known is that they left caves full of scrolls containing all manner of religious texts---early versions of the Hebrew scriptures, apocryphal literature, and sectarian documents (such as the Rule of the Community).
|Steps into a miqveh, or Jewish ritual bath|
|The communal dining room of the Qumran community|
|Cave 4Q, where fragments of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found|
The Dead Sea
As is customary, while we were in this area, we took the opportunity to float in the Dead Sea, which is the lowest spot on earth and has 34% salinity, almost 9x as much as the ocean. It is fun to paddle in it and even cover ourselves with the mud, but its waters sting and smell a bit.