It took little time for me to realize that the seat located just behind the rear stairwell of the tour bus uniquely offered a wide, unobstructed view of the Israeli landscape. “I see… You are The Rebel of the group. The Rebel always sits in the back of the bus,” teased our tour guide, a kind-hearted and brilliant man named Stephen. I always responded to Stephen’s light-hearted teasings with a grin. I dared not let on about the prime real estate I had come to occupy, lest I lose it to another member of our group.
Our group had departed Nazareth – by way of Tabgha, Magdala, and Capernaum – and was headed by bus through the Judean Desert to Bethlehem. As I gazed through that wonderfully wide window of the tour bus on this hours-long drive, observing the harsh, rocky, and burnt landscape of the Jordan River Valley, I realized how little consideration I had previously given to the arduous journey of Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary just prior to the birth of our King.
It started with a long descent…
Nazareth is situated in a “bowl” within the hills belonging to the Nazareth Range, of the elevated Lower Galilee tableau; the city sits +1,138 feet above sea level. Embarking on their journey, Mary and Joseph were first tasked with traversing the long descent from the hills down to the rolling flatlands of the Jordan River Valley, the deepest valley on planet Earth.
At its highest point, the Jordan River Valley is -696 feet below sea level; at its lowest point, the valley is -1,300 feet below sea level. “On both sides, to the east and west, the valley is bordered by high, steep, escarpments with the difference in elevation between the valley floor and the surrounding mountains varying between 1,200 m (3,900 ft) to 1,700 m (5,600 ft).” [Wikipedia]
The tough terrain may not have been the only peril which Mary and Joseph had to face on their journey.
As the LA Times reported, “One of the most terrifying dangers in ancient Palestine was the heavily forested valley of the Jordan River… Lions and bears lived in the woods, and travelers had to fend off wild boars. Archeologists have unearthed documents warning travelers of the forest’s dangers.”
Wandering the lowlands…
As our tour bus continued south along the banks of the Jordan River, the tree-scattered hills of the Galilee were soon relegated to our memories. Barren, treeless mountains and towering dunes stretched as far as the eyes could see. Piles of rocks and large boulders lay piled at the base of the parched, cracked, collapsing edges of the mountainside, which starkly ascended toward the heavens from the flatlands lining the Jordan River.
Rocks and dirt.
Dirt and rocks.
We had entered the brutal wastelands of the Judean Desert.
At a roadside rest-stop our group stepped off of our tour bus to stretch our legs. It was mid-October, but the heat was unbearable. The glare of the sun in the hazy sky bounced off the steep sides of the giant, treeless dunes. Stephen informed our group that it had not rained in Israel for the last four months.
We don’t know exactly what time of year Mary and Joseph made their trek to Bethlehem. Like the African Savanna, Israel has a dry and a rainy season. If Mary and Joseph’s journey occurred during the winter months (and early spring), temperatures in the Judean Desert are “in the 30s during the day [and] rains like heck,” according to James F. Strange, professor of the New Testament and biblical archeologist at the University of South Florida. [LA Times]
“It’s nasty, miserable. And at night it would be freezing.” Whether during the hot, dry months or during the cold, wet months, the voyage through the Judean Desert would have been grueling, especially for a heavily pregnant Mary.
According to Professor Strange, “To protect themselves during inclement weather, Mary and Joseph would likely have worn heavy woolen cloaks, constructed to shed rain and snow. Under their cloaks, the ancient residents wore long robes, belted at the waist. Tube-like socks and enclosed shoes protected the feet.” [LA Times]
Climbing the mountains of the Judean Desert
Several hours after our tour bus left the area around the Sea of Galilee, the bus made a right turn and began the long ascent toward Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We left the plains behind, but my view out of the bus window changed little; rather than peering at the barren mountains from below, I viewed this stark landscape from within. We gradually meandered upward, as Mary and Joseph had so long ago.
Dirt and rocks.
Rocks and dirt.
Onward and upward through the mountains and dunes the tour bus climbed.
Stephen told us the tragic tale of a group of school children who, on a field trip to the mountains, had been caught by a flash flood and been swept away. This mountainous area of the desert is a treacherous place.
Along our ascent, we passed a camel standing in the middle of a highway intersection. We passed a bedouin who lay fast asleep beneath a lone tree, his donkey beside him.
Gradually, the sight of trees became more frequent, but the sight of rocks scattering the hillsides remained. As the amount of cars on the road increased, I knew we were nearing our destination.
The Christ was Born in Bethlehem
By the time our tour group had reached the area of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, we had made a total ascent of approximately 3,500 feet from the Jordan River Valley below.
Bethlehem lies 98 feet higher than and 6.2 miles south of nearby Jerusalem.
It sits +2,543 feet above sea level. The town is situated on a hillside within the Judean Mountains.
It was after this monumental climb from the sub-sea level valley below that a likely exhausted Mary gave birth to our Lord.
Through my modern eyes, Mary and Joseph’s journey was no less than a monumental task.
The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem spanned approximately 90 miles, across unpaved terrain and steep slopes, encompassing tremendous changes in elevation. It is likely, given Mary’s condition, that she and Joseph only covered ten miles each day.
The pair would have had to supply their own provisions for their journey. “In wineskins, they carried water,” said Rev. Peter Vasko, the coordinator of the Holy Land Foundation. [LA Times] “And they carried a lot of bread. . . . Breakfast would be dried bread, lunch would be oil with bread, and herbs with oil and bread in the evening.” It is difficult for me to imagine myself making such a journey with so little sustenance.
Additionally, the Rev. Vasko noted that “bandits, pirates of the desert and robbers” would have been “common hazards along the major trade routes like the one Joseph and Mary would have traveled.” [LA Times]
Wild animals, thieving bandits, little food, and a landscape that causes even the most seasoned explorers to shudder: for a heavily pregnant Mary, these challenges must have seemed insurmountable. Yet, faced with no choice, Mary and Joseph made this grueling journey to Bethlehem – a town fated to become the birthplace of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.
Before I traveled the path that Mary and Joseph did so long ago, I wasn’t able to appreciate the difficulty of their task; it remains somewhat unfathomable still. Now, however, my respect for the pair’s strength and perseverance abounds. Through sharing my own journey by bus, following in Mary and Joseph’s footsteps, it is my hope that your own understanding and appreciation of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem has also grown.
At the least, I hope that the events precluding the birth of our Lord, culminating in the Nativity, is forever deepened and given greater dimension within our hearts and minds.
May the Lord bless you and keep you this Christmas season.