“Don’t forget your water!” blasted the bus’s loudspeaker. It was Day 8 or so of our trip to Israel, and it was hot. Today, we planned to visit the ancient city of Laish, a once-walled fortress about an hour’s drive north of the Sea of Galilee. I had gotten bored on the way up and Google-mapped it. If you trace the Israeli border all the way north to where it meets Lebanon and Syria, that’s Laish. My phone calls it Tel Dan. Thousands of years ago, our blissfully air-conditioned bus would have parked right in the middle of a bustling commercial hub — a way-station for weary travelers taking the north-south road between ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Egypt. Even though Laish is in what’s considered the rainy region of the Golan Heights, this was the heat of summer. I didn’t forget my water.
Those who first settled here didn’t either. Only a few steps away from our bus runs a rushing stream, one of the sources of the Jordan River, where John baptized Jesus to begin his ministry. Whoever originally thought to build this ancient fortress did so on top of a massive, cold water spring. After all, how better to protect your most vital resource than to construct a giant wall around it? And it was that very wall, in fact, which we had come to see. Besides being a popular market for trade and a site of worship for the northern kingdom of Israel, Tel Dan hosts the oldest archaeological discovery on our trip — a 3,500 year-old mud brick gate.
Thirty-five hundred years is long time. Back then, we would have seen a line of pharaohs named Thutmosis come to power in Egypt and Greek Mycenaean culture spread throughout the northern Mediterranean. We also would have found a man living with his extended family in the southern plains of modern-day Türkiye. As later stories tell it, he would hear a voice from God, and this voice would change the world. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house,” God tells Abram in Genesis 12, “to the land that I will show you, for there I will make you a great nation.” Abram obeys and heads south. On his way, he would have come to a city set on a spring and guarded by a gate of bricks.
Unlike the path that Abram would have taken, though, ours up to Laish was concrete instead of dirt or cobbled stones. But, standing there before those same walls was like looking deep into the past. Did the father of our faith stop here to rest and refresh, to grab some water and get a drink? Did Sarai, his wife, walk these very stones? Did their family members crawl up these same steep hillsides?
One of the greatest gifts of visiting the Holy Land is simply the land itself. It’s a reminder that, from the very beginning, our faith has been intimately tied to water and to walking, to sweat and to dirt. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” In today’s terms, we call this kind of faith “incarnational.” It means our faith isn’t faith until it’s lived out in real life — until, like Jesus, that faith is “made flesh.”
Maybe this is why the Holy Land is filled with so many Franciscan churches and monasteries today. Both Francis of Assisi and his sister, Clare, insisted that our faith must be put into practice if it’s to be faith at all. They fell in love with the dusty, thirsty, sweaty humanity and humility of Jesus. They did not deny the divinity of Christ or the importance of doctrine. They simply suggested that maybe right belief has to come from right action instead of the other way around. After all, the first thing Abram hears out of God’s mouth is not something he must know or believe. Abram doesn’t even learn God’s name! Instead, all he gets is a simple command: Go.
In a world like ours so at each other’s throats over what is true and what is not, maybe this is the most important thing the Holy Land can teach us, that our faith is never more — and certainly not less! — than following God’s lead and imitating his Son.