Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Geography



ISAIAH 40: 3-4

Holy Sites -- Gila's HighlightsLet's flatten the curve proclaims Isaiah the Prophet

It was on the eve of Passover that I received an email announcement from my brother. "Flatten the curve" appears in the Holy Scriptures.  In the mouth of none other than the Prophet Isaiah, the Comforter. (In Hebrew "flatten the curve" is transliterated as vehayah he-akov l'mishor.)

Topographical map showing mountains and steep valleys in Judah

Courtesy of Bible History Outline

Note the mountains and steep valleys in the eastern part of Judah

Isaiah lived in Jerusalem during the eighth century BC, many centuries before it became the coronavirus capital of Israel.  Some believe that his public ministry may have extended for as long as 64 years, from the reign of King Uzziah to that of Manassah, the son of King Hezekiah.  Whoa! What a long time to prophesy!
In Jesus' day, Isaiah's book, actually scroll, was the number one best seller.  No less than 19 fragmentary copies have been found in caves in the Judean desert.  In 1947 one Isaiah scroll, often called The Great Isaiah Scroll, was found intact, with all sixty-six chapters, hidden in a clay jar near Qumran opposite the Dead Sea.

Diagram of the caves where Dead Sea Scrolls were found

Diagram courtesy of Benny Arubas

The Great Isaiah Scroll was found in Cave number 1 in 1947

Cave number 1 near Qumran where the Greater Isaiah scroll was found

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Cave number 1 near Qumran where the Greater Isaiah scroll was found is on the left

Qumran is only five miles as the crow flies from the center of John the Baptist's ministry by the River Jordan in the land of Judea.  As John the Baptist prepared the way, he quoted from Isaiah chapter 40, "A voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord'; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." (Matthew 3:3)  Obviously he, John the Baptist, is the voice crying out in the wilderness.

Probably site of John the Baptist's ministry by the River Jordan

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Probable site of John the Baptist's ministry by the River Jordan

But the Essenes, a sect of Jews opposed to the Jerusalem Temple leadership and rituals living in isolation at Qumran, interpreted this verse from Isaiah 40 differently.  A voice of one calling, "in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God."  Thus the Essenes made their way to the wilderness to await redemption.

Dining Room at Qumran where the Essenes shared simple meals

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Dining Room at Qumran where the Essenes shared simple meals

The ancient parchment (sheep or goat leather) scroll of Isaiah does not have punctuation such as commas or quotation marks.  Thus both interpretations are valid. This is one of many topics we explore together when my groups visit Qumran.
Today in Jerusalem we pay homage to Isaiah at the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls including the Great Isaiah.  In the Jewish Quarter we see the Broad (outer) Wall mentioned by Isaiah (22: 9-10) and visit the ancient City of David with Isaiah's haunts.

The Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem houses the Dead Sea Scrolls including Isaiah

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem houses the Dead Sea Scrolls including Isaiah

With a new discovery we can add yet another new site in Jerusalem to our Isaiah story – the Ophel.  In excavations right below the Temple Mount, below the southern steps, a hardened clay seal or bulla bearing the name Isaiah was unearthed by archeologists.  The small thumbnail-size bulla clearly reads on one line "L'Yesha'yah[u]" meaning "Belonging to Isaiah."  Below that line are three Hebrew letters nun, vav, yud – navi. Remember, Hebrew reads from right to left.

Isaiah seal found in the Ophel Excavations in Jerusalem

Courtesy of the Antiquities Department

Isaiah seal found in the Ophel Excavations in Jerusalem

What is missing is an aleph, a fourth letter at the end of the line.  Then nun, vav, yud, aleph would signify "prophet."  But the clay bulla is broken off at that point.  Thus the reading "prophet" is not certain.  Nevertheless, it is exciting to wonder whether this find is Isaiah's personal seal.
Was there another Isaiah working in the king's court? Only people of high social rank or royalty would have their own seals. The average Joe (Yossi in Hebrew) did not.
Furthermore, on the left edge of the seal there is a visible fingerprint. Could this be the fingerprint of "our" Isaiah?? If so, how tantalizing!
When we visit the Ophel together I point out where the Isaiah bulla was discovered in 2009, one of 34 hardened inscribed clay seals found outside the royal bakery.  It was only after wet sifting and study by scholars that the find was announced to the public just last year.

Isaiah seal was found near the Royal Bakery in the Ophel Excavations

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The X marks approximately where the Isaiah seal was found near the Royal Bakery

The Ophel is a good place to talk about Isaiah and his role as counselor to King Hezekiah.  In fact, right below in the Kidron Valley, Assyrian emissaries appeared in 701 BC and tried to terrorize and bully Isaiah's fellow Jerusalemites by shouting that their god was mightier than the God of Israel and that Hezekiah would allow them to die by famine and by thirst.
Isaiah counseled King Hezekiah to take heart, not to surrender. He urged the people to stand fast and assured them that Jerusalem would be saved.  And it was.
Ophel Excavations below the Temple Mount with Mount of Olives in the background

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ophel Excavations below the Temple Mount with Mount of Olives on upper right

As Elie Wiesel, writer-philosopher (and witness-chronicler of the Holocaust) writes "No one is as harrowing as Isaiah when he rebukes, nor as comforting when he consoles."  He eloquently announces the end of suffering and the dawn of happier days.
On Isaiah's lips Jerusalem evokes a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah, yet he promises in the name of the Lord, "I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem.  They shall never hold their peace, day or night." (Isaiah 62:6)
In the Gospels Isaiah is quoted no less than twenty-five times.  From the prophecy of the virgin bearing a son who should be called Immanuel (Matthew 1:23) to the cleansing of the Temple, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?   But you have made it a den of thieves," (Mark 11:17) to the suffering servant (Matthew 8:17).
At the end of a 2019 pilgrimage, a very vigorous and engaging 85-year-old woman confided to me that she loved the book of Isaiah and had committed chapter 53 to memory.  At the airport, while standing in line for security, she proceeded to recite the beginning verses until she reached "He was led as a lamb to the slaughter."   Then she stopped and thanked me for so often referring to Isaiah during our tour.   Those around us in the security line began to recollect all the places we had visited where Isaiah's prophecies had come to life for them.
Meeting the challenges of our day, let's not be faint-hearted and take comfort in the words of Isaiah in the very same chapter which refers to flattening the curve,
"But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."  Isaiah 40:31
Sending prayers from Jerusalem on Easter Sunday for the health and safety of you and your family....

Copyright 2020 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

Comments from friends:
"As long as we are connecting COVID19 to the Bible, let's remember Leviticus 13:4-5 and a 14 day quarantine for leprosy.
4 But if it is a white bahereth [bright spot] on the skin of his flesh, and its appearance is not deeper than the skin, and its hair has not turned white, the kohen [priest] shall quarantine the [person with the] lesion for seven days.
5 And on the seventh day, the kohen shall see him.  And, behold! the lesion has remained the same in its appearance; the lesion has not spread on the skin.  So the kohen shall quarantine him for seven days a second time."
Dave Wheels, Pennsylvania
"Isaiah 40:31 is one of my favorite verses … because it seems to me to describe the transitions of life in our earthly bodies.  First we soar, then we run, then we walk, as the years advance.
Kathy M, Ohio
Gila Yudkin, a  Connecticut-born Yankee living in King David's court, has been guiding with Isaiah in hand for not nearly as long as Isaiah's public ministry.  (Gila's guiding ministry is only forty years! So far, that is…)  Gila loves working with groups thirsty for biblical insight, archeological anecdotes and old-fashioned fun.

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A complete copy of the Great Isaiah Scroll can be viewed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  When you come with Gila to the Shrine of the Book, she will show you where an original section of the 2,000 year old scroll is displayed.  She will also reveal the secret about the mechanism to lower the Isaiah scroll into a bomb-proof vault in the event of an attack.  In the meantime you can read "Let's inspect the ancient scroll of Isaiah."
Gila's favorite Isaiah passage is his glorious vision of a world at peace where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat. .. (Isaiah 11:6)   A safari enthusiast, Gila has never seen a leopard, much less a leopard lie down with a young goat, even though leopards once prowled the oasis of En Gedi. But she has seen lots of ibex scampering off the cliffs towering over the oasis.  See the photos at "Let's shoot ibex at En Gedi."


More on the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Let's decipher the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran

Dead Sea Scrolls, from A to Z

Shepherds, Scholars and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Cave number 4 at Qumran

Eleazar Sukenik

Original jar still held by Kando

More on biblical archeology:
Let's visit Gezer, Solomon's wedding gift

Excavating Ziklag David's elusive Philistine base

Let's saunter through Solomon's Stables at Megiddo

Gezer & Solomon's wife

David at Ziklag

Megiddo & Solomon's Stables
See Gila’s Recommended Holy Land Books for a thrilling read on the controversy surrounding the scrolls and a neat literary travelogue on the history, politics and myths of the Dead Sea.

Coming to Jerusalem soon?  Would you like to find the venues
where you can quietly be transported back in your imagination to the
time of Jesus?  Isaiah?  David?  Abraham?

Make every minute matter while you "Explore Jerusalem's Soul" with Gila's Unorthodox Guide.  This updated PDF (Adobe Acrobat) 46-page guide gives you ten places to meditate on the Bible, lesser-known churches, most rewarding roof-top views and the top ten places for sampling Middle Eastern food.  And some are within walking distance of the Isaiah Scroll at the Israel Museum!   More on Gila's Jerusalem Guide....




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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin