The Gift of the Promised Land
by Jessica Orso

In the months leading up to our 10-day Spring Break trip, Mena and I made all of the preparations with passports and COVID cards. We acquired power converters and Googled “Israel weather in the springtime” as one does. We even tried to prepare for all the things that were possible, but there's just no way that we could have ever been fully “prepared” for our experience.

The population of our tour boasted 650 people who represented all 50 states. We met so many people so fast that we were initially just calling people by their locations, with Mr. Tennessee and his sister, Boston, being among our early favorites. But those relationships that formed quickly, especially on our specific bus, stayed together throughout the entire tour.

The Israeli tour guide for our bus, Ronny, was pretty proud of himself when he used the Americanism, “drinking from a firehose” as he started to introduce our tour. Ronny implored us to not take notes. We could never take it all down, and then we’d miss the next thing. He suggested that we try and take something from every day. So we took his advice and tried to soak in as much as we could.

While our first hotel was in Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, our tour started further north at the beginning of the Jordan River at the foot of Mount Hermon. Next we went to the ancient ruins at Dan, where we could see the signs of entry gates that were the center of commerce in the area. This was the first place we learned about most structures in Israel. A structure is built, war or conflict destroys it, and then rather than repairing it, they would build anew, covering the ruins with dirt and rebuilding on top.

New gates lined up on top of old gates so that the road and the water sources that sustained the people were easily accessed. Layers and layers. Everything in Israel is layers. What you see looks old and it’s real. But there’s more. There’s older underneath.

This would also be the point when I would begin to tell you that "topography" was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I wasn’t prepared for the topography. My imagination, even with the assistance of curriculum videos, and Bible studies, was not prepared for the topography. The acres and acres of farm land where people grew bananas, avocados, apricots, and dates would be on the side of the highway, in valleys, and on mountain slopes. My wide angle feature on my iPhone could never get wide enough to catch it all!

We drove past goats, sheep, and cattle who were grazing on the sides of mountains. Never once did we see an open field. The animals were always weaving in between rocks, taming the grasses that grew in-between the boulders and always with their shepherds close by, often on a ridge, but clearly checking their smartphones.

And there was so much chaotic spring weather! We experienced a rainbow that painted itself on the Sea of Galilee where we were able to take a boat out onto the water. We saw snow in the Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian boarder, and rain and hail that drove about 60 of us into the tiny church on top of Mount Carmel. We carefully gauged our muddy steps in Nazareth, and also green grass with wild mustard blooms everywhere. (These apparently only show off for two weeks of the year.) And later we would be scorched by the desert sun in Jericho.

Ronny would always be speaking to us, whether on the microphone on the bus or though his headsets aptly branded as “whispers,” when we were walking around. He would point out the things we could see clearly in front of us, and then he would remind us of the vast history underneath that was still yet to be exposed. He would not only quote the Bible, but he would also use its lengthy passages of borders and land divisions to paint pictures in front of us of a people and culture that lived in the margins of those simple lines.

Ronny spoke passionately about the generations of the heartbreaking dance between conflict and resolution. He spoke about how he had been forced to jump on the technology bandwagon and create online virtual tours during the two- year COVID tourism drought, and he celebrated the fact that we were his first in-person tour since lockdown. Despite the fact that there is still palpable tensions between Israel and Palestine, you can feel, especially in places like the Palestinian-run cities of Jericho and Bethlehem, everyone in the nation agrees that they are glad to have tourists back. And they’re ready with smiles, jokes, and a haggle for their best deal.

My daughter, Mena, will never forget her camel ride at the Mount of Olives with the Temple Mount of Jerusalem in the background, right before we walked down the Palm Sunday Road. I dare say that she'll never forget about floating in the Salt Sea (fun fact: locals don’t like it when you call it the Dead Sea). She will also forever be a food snob about Israeli bananas and good hummus.

Both of us took pictures of everything while quickly running past it, hoping that our iPhones would automatically anticipate the target without the blur. And an endless number of selfies were made in planes, on hilltops and valleys, in churches, on buses, at sunrise and sunset, on the Southern Steps of the Temple, with the trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the caves of Qumran.

Neither of us were prepared for the breathtaking submersion into the ice cold waters of the River Jordan, or what it felt like to be together in the presence of the Isaiah Dead Sea Scroll. Who could've prepared us for the rush of emotions felt viewing the artifacts in the Holocaust Museum, or running up the mountain at Beit She’an, fist bumping the statue of Peter in Capernaum?

Or even taking a late-night tour under the Western Wall, squeezing into a gondola at Masada, seeing Alabama and Auburn gear along the Via Delarosa, stepping into the Garden Tomb, singing Amazing Grace in the Upper Room, and having a local guide pray the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, in Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born. We were prepared least of all for Jerusalem itself to hit us like a musical crescendo as we entered the city, causing us both to be overcome with emotion. You can’t prepare.

Most of the time, travel and new cultural experiences tend to stretch and move me in leaps and bounds. I am so glad that Mena and I had a guide who has been blessed with gift of teaching, and that both of us already had a deep working knowledge of the Bible. Most of all, I am grateful that we both have a relationship with the Author and Creator of it all.

In the short time since we have been back, I have noticed a dramatic change in how I read the Bible. There are now words in this sacred text that bring back the sense of smooth stone walls under my fingertips, slick muddy stones under my feet, dusty wind in my hair, and the smell of spice or incense. We are different now, but we weren’t prepared for how different we would become.

Jessica Orso and her husband, John, have three children, Mena, Jake, and Evelyn. Jessica began volunteering with Dawson's Preschool Ministry in 2007. Since then, she has enjoyed working with the Day School, Dawson Kids, and the FRC. She now hopes to use her love of connecting family ministries as the Discipleship Team's Administrative Assistant.