Half of my family are from Wales – coalminers and such who drifted towards the home counties to find work during the depression between the two World Wars. They brought their language and their songs with them. Consequently the culture I grew up in had a distinctly Welsh flavour to it. So once in a while, when my travels take me west of the Severn, I get this sense of connection; an instinct of homecoming that you wouldn’t expect from a boy raised a stone’s throw from Windsor castle, and who planted his own family on the wide prairies of Texas. When I am in Wales for any length of time I tend to slip into my granddad’s patterns of speech – there’s lovely boyo – and I sing louder in the car than usual. There’s nothing like belting out Cwm Rhondda while you’re driving down the Cwm Rhondda through Treorchy: Bread of heaven, bread of heaven – feed me ‘till I want no more!
What came as a complete surprise to me was that I had a similar sense of connection when I went to Israel for the first time. I have no Israeli blood in me (nor any Palestinian for that matter). The closest family connection I have to that end of the Mediterranean is a sister-in-law who married a Cypriot. Not exactly close ties to the Promised Land…
Except for the fact that, as children of God, Israel is “our old stomping ground.”
A little strip of land with the sea to the west and the desert to the east. About eight thousand square miles give or take (and there has been a lot of give and take), making it just about the same size as Wales. In the same way that the old Welsh-family stories of collieries, choirs, and eisteddfods resonate for me in Wales; so too I have God-family stories that come alive in Israel. To sit on a breezy bluff overlooking the Sea of Galilee while the familiar words of the Beatitudes run through my head. To sit quietly in the shade of an olive grove called Gethsemane and think upon the fervent prayers that were made there…not my will, but Yours…. To smell the sea on the wind at Joppa and imagine Jonah going down to the harbour, down to the boat and down into the cargo hold to hide from God.
When God prompted Abram to leave Mesopotamia and strike out for Canaan, Abram wasn’t bringing a new faith to the region. He wasn’t going there as a missionary, in one sense it was more like he was going home. The One True God was already being worshipped there in Jerusalem even before Abram arrived. God’s priest was named Melchizedek. He blessed Abram, and Abram gave tribute to the priest-king of Salem:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
From this episode we come to understand that God was known and worshipped in the Land of Israel before there even was a Nation of Israel. It’s an old, old family history we have as sons and daughters of God Most High. We go back a long way together, we share a lot of stories, and our roots – whether we ever go back there or not – are set deep in the rocky soil of the Judean Hills.