Borrowing Traditions & Stones

October 08, 2016

This morning I stood by the flowing water of the Jabbok River. I listened as the water ran over rocks and pebbles, a sound quite similar to the river's name.

Raed, our guide for the trip in Jordan, stood on the banks and talked about how understanding ancient tribal traditions helps us understand biblical stories. He told the story of Jacob preparing to meet Esau after years of alienation. Jacob sent his family, servants, and herds across the Jabbok and then stayed behind and wrestled all night. At the end of the evening, Jacob grasped his wrestling companion and begged for a blessing. For those living in this area, guests were expected to bring a blessing. Perhaps Jacob invoked that tradition.

After visiting the Jabbok likely near the spot where Jacob sent his family across, we trekked north to the ruins of Gadara (also known as Umm Qais). One of the cities of the Decapolis, this is the city overlooking the tombs where Jesus drove the legion of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs.

From the ruins of Gadara, we could see out over the Sea of Galilee, including the city of Tiberias in Israel. We could also see the Golan Heights, and off in the hazy distance we could see a bit of Syria.

After Gadara, we trekked to another city in the Decapolis, a region where we know Jesus preached. Gerasa (also known as Jerash or Jarash) contains more impressive ruins than Gadara. The Greeks built part of it. Then the Romans added to it, creating a mix of architectural styles. Later, the temples to Roman gods gave way to Byzantine churches. A sign outside one of the church ruins noted, "As with most other churches found in Jarash, this three-aisled basilica was constructed using many stone blocks taken from earlier Roman structures." Christians took stones from the Roman temples and other buildings to build their churches.

As I looked at the Roman-turned-Christian structures (or at least what remains after a massive earthquake in the 8th Century destroyed the city), I thought about that borrowing. And I thought back to Raed's comments about our faith teachings borrowing cultural traditions from the people who used to live in what is now Jordan.

We cannot understand our scriptures without their context, a lot of which includes Jordanian history and people. And we cannot understand our faith as we know it without considering the culture in which we were raised.

Just as we should seek to see biblical events through the lens of the people who shaped them, we must also learn to identify which parts of our faith are cultural concepts our churches borrowed. We must make sure we keep Christ as our Cornerstone, but it's okay if our Roman columns or our borrowed cultural ideas topple over.

You can see more photos from day two in Jordan here.