Having spent these last weeks deeply immersed in learning to translate Biblical Hebrew by translating the entire book of Ruth, the word sha’ar or gate has become a regular part of my Hebrew vocabulary and my thinking about community life.
You see, in the ancient world, the gate of the town was the most important place (that is, in Near Eastern culture — once the Romans came along that would switch to the marketplace or forum). Everything happened at the gate — that was where important contractual business happened, where news was shared (or gossip, depending on your point of view), that was where you went if you needed help, that was where strangers arrived and tried to find there way. The gate was everything.
So the great delight of my day yesterday (there were many, many delights but those are topics for other times) was seeing what is known as the “Abrahamic Gate” at the Tel Dan archaeological site. The first delight? I was able to read the Hebrew sign — hasha’ar. The second, standing in a place, preserved by the accidents of time and geology, that represented so much in the life of a human community. Whether or not Abraham actually walked through that gate as it says in Genesis 14:14, I was standing at a place so important in the lives of a people, the kind of place I simply can’t imagine.
Because, folks, were are our gates today? Today, a gate is something to keep people out or to keep something in….and yes, a gate served somewhat that function in the days of Abraham. But we have no place of welcome and information like the gates of his day or of the story of Ruth and Boaz? Where do our elders sit? Where is the place in which our community centers all of its activity?
In our recent past, in many places, the answer to that question would have been the church. But not today. Not today as churches struggle for survival, as they struggle to have their message heard in a world with too much information. But I think, having seen that magnificent gate, that there is still hope for the church to be just that in our day — the place where the essential information is clear and shared personally, no matter what is going on in the culture around us.
That’s what I was thinking about as I saw the Solomonic gate at Tel-Hazor, and the Israelite and Abrahamic gates at Tel-Dan. I’m sure I’ll see more gates today and other things that make me think.
If you are following the itinerary, we are switching things up today because it is the Sabbath here…today we will head toward the Mediterranean and visit Caesarea Maritima, the site of Herod’s city, then come back through the Valley of Jezreel, stop at Tel-Megiddo (also known as Armageddon) and then Bet-Sheaarim and Harod Springs. Tomorrow, Pentecost, will be our big day of the Sea of Galilee, so stay tuned!