On the bus ride from Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport to Bethlehem, Mike distributed listening devices with earbuds, which we wore in just about every location we toured. Mike is a well-informed and interesting guide who speaks English with a lilting Near-East accent, and we enjoyed hearing his fun facts, historical background information, and thorough explanations of the places we saw.
Although I didn’t take notes, my friend Donna, a court reporter, transcribed much of Mike’s lecturing over the course of the trip and graciously shared it with the entire tour group afterwards.
Besides the formal explanation of sites, there was so much to hear during our pilgrimage week. On that initial bus ride, the driver played “The Holy City” over the bus stereo, which I suspect was recorded on an ancient cassette tape found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. I might have enjoyed the rousing, high-pitched chorus, but my ears ached from flying with a sinus infection.
You’d recognize the song if you heard it. Here’s the refrain:
Lift up your gates and sing,
Hosanna in the highest!
Hosanna to your King!
The bus was alive with the sound of music, but I just wanted to get some rest.
Alas, it was not meant to be, with my hotel room situated above the “coffee bar.” That first night at our hotel, from 1 to 4 a.m., I heard loud techno beats and a sped-up dance version of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” Over and over. All I could think was, Please, just try to stop.
Around 5 a.m. we heard the melismatic call to prayer from a minaret loudspeaker. Then the next evening we heard the haunting cry of a shofar through the twilight from somewhere beyond the hotel walls. And these are just the sounds I recall from the little town of Bethlehem, “How still we see thee lie!”
In Jerusalem, we heard the echo of our own voices. We sang a subdued song in Jesus’ cramped cell at the home of the high priest Caiaphas and listened to our voices bouncing off the high ceiling of the church named for Jesus’ grandmother, the Church of Saint Anne.
We heard a brief lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, century upon millennium of conflict and complexity outlined in forty quick minutes.
We heard everyday city-sounds and the lovely speech of different languages, but I was surprised at the overall lack of urban noise. I heard no honking in traffic or people shouting into cell phones. Even souvenir vendors were moderately hushed and respectful while hawking their stuff.
On the countryside we heard the gentle splash of a handful of Jordan River water, right before it trickled over our scalps, to the sound of Rev. Shane’s, “Remember your baptism.” We heard the mellow gurgle of Galilee water in our boat’s wake.
With our mind’s ear we imagined sounds documented long ago: the voice of Jesus teaching on the temple steps near the Huldah Gates; the voice of Jesus asking the man at the Bethesda pool, “Do you want to be well?”; the rhythmic tone of Jesus’ refrain, “Blessed are the . . . for they shall . . .”
Noise can be striking and memorable, but silence is just as telling. The silence of churches and other holy sites evoked a shut-my-mouth reverence for the things of God. I enjoyed the muted reverence inside the Church of All Nations and the Dominus Flevit Church, in contrast to the noisy mobs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Holy Sepulchre had a more frenzied vibe, with people from all over the world clamoring for a fistful of Jesus’ presence. After walking through, I waited in the courtyard and enjoyed some prime people-watching.
In Bethlehem we quietly crouched through the entrance into the cave of St. Jerome, who worked silently for decades translating scriptures into Latin so later generations might hear God’s word in the church’s vernacular of the time. In the stillness I said to myself, Praise God for scribes and scholars, oddballs and bookworms of every kind who obey the strange calling to make things with words. And did God whisper back? Blessed are the writers; may their still, small words outlive them.
I confess that my favorite sound in Israel and Palestine is one that we didn’t actually hear—but heard of. It was a crash heard back in 1947, a truly startling sound that continues to reverberate today.
The story goes something like this. Once upon a time about seventy winters ago, three Bedouin goat-herders set off among the caves around Qumran to find a lost goat. As they searched, wind whipped across the cave openings, whistling a forlorn tune on God’s desert flute. One of the men lobbed a rock into a cave hoping to scare up a goat. Instead, he was startled by the sound of pottery shattering. Following his ears, he found bits of ancient text preserved in pots, later called the Dead Sea Scrolls. This turned out to be one of the greatest archeological finds of the twentieth century.
This version of the discovery story echoes Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep:
“And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” -Matthew 18:13
The story’s power is hardly diminished by echoing the gospels, but who knew ancient animal husbandry might still provide inspiration into the twentieth century? I suppose livestock is still worth chasing. That was Jesus’ point—that we’re all sheep, each individually worthy of his pursuit.
Also, when we put ourselves in the goat-herders’ place, the Bedouin discovery story offers a life lesson in serendipitous discovery. The first step is this: follow the goat God gave you. John C. Trever, the first American scholar to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, prescribed his process in these terms: “Let your evidence lead you where it will.” Each of us has a goat—a passion, a project, a desire planted in us—that deserves a good chase.
The next step: once you’ve thrown the rock, listen. Listen, because passive hearing gets you only so far. Listen, because following your goat may entail receptivity to things hidden in caves.
The Bedouin man was hoping to hear a startled goat scamper out of the darkness. What he heard instead astonished him, the sound of pottery breaking—jars of clay holding textual treasures.
God can make noise of things that sit silently for generations. God can reveal things that are hidden and will guide us into all truth. Revelation is the work of God, but receptivity is ours. From hearing to listening to heeding, let us adopt an attitude of receptiveness.
Paul takes up the distinction between hearing and heeding in Romans 10. Here he quotes a snippet of Moses’ late-life pleading with the Israelites after forty rambling years: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Rom. 10:8, Deut. 30:14). Just a few sentences later Paul asserts, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). The mouth—confession—and the heart—belief—are crucial to faith, but the gateway to faith is the ears.
“Have you not heard?”
I learned that part of the inner ear is called the “labyrinth.” Like a winding desert cavern, its name implies a maze wherein hearing might find its way to belief and transformation, but it’s not a straight shot. While Jesus healed those who were literally deaf, Paul pursued those with selective deafness, so to speak. When it comes to faith, we’re all hard of hearing in some way. Sometimes the message gets all turned around inside the maze, dizzy but never returning void.
I wonder, did the Bedouin goat-herder find his goat? Hard to say, but he found something of even greater significance, ancient scraps of Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah. Part of the lesson in serendipitous discovery is discerning what’s important.