Have you noticed that the Bible is full of people taking journeys?
From Noah in his ark, to Abram going to a new country, to Moses and the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land, to Jesus going into the desert — the Bible abounds with people going in search of a place where they can encounter God in a new way.
During Lent, we often consider making a pilgrimage to a local shrine to encounter God as part of our journey of penance and search for reconciliation. That shrine may only be a small side chapel in a local church, or it might be a trip to Rome.
However, pilgrimages are not just a Christian journey of faith. There were many pilgrimage sites in Old Testament times and Jesus himself took part in pilgrimages that were part of the life of first-century Jews.
One of the first places of pilgrimage that we encounter in the Bible is Beth’el. The name in Hebrew means “house of God.” It is mentioned several times in Genesis, but the most famous time is Gn 28, when Jacob is fleeing from his brother, Esau. Jacob stops at what was then a Canaanite place called Luz. There he has a dream. In his dream, he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, with God at the top.
Jacob awakes and says, “Truly, the Lord is in this place. …. This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven!” (28:16-17). He then sets up a large stone, anoints it with oil and names the place “Beth’el.”
Later on the place became a pilgrimage center for the Kingdom of Israel, after it broke away from Judah following the death of Solomon. However, the evil king Jeroboam set up a golden calf in the shrine and thus destroyed its sacredness.
Hebron is another site that was holy to people of ancient Israel, and this place continues to be so to this day. It is the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. This is where Abraham bought a cave at Machpelah to bury Sarah. He was later buried there also, as were Isaac, Rebecca, Leah and Jacob. The Tomb of the Patriarchs is located in the West Bank, in the Palestinian Territories.
This city is also located in the Palestinian Territories. This is where Rachel, the mother of Joseph and wife of Jacob, died after giving birth to Benjamin. While the tomb structure presently in Bethlehem dates to the time of the Ottoman Turks who ruled the area from the 14th to the 20th century, the site has been revered since the fourth century A.D. It is presently located in a Muslim cemetery. Gn 35:19 notes that Rachel was buried “on the road to Ephrath (now Bethlehem).”
The most famous of these ancient sites, before Jerusalem was made David’s capital, would probably have been Shiloh. This was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept after the chosen people arrived in the Chosen Land. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that Shiloh consequently became “the religious center for the entire people, where the land was allotted and where the congregation assembled.” In the Book of Joshua, Shiloh is listed as the place where the Ark of the Covenant was set up (18:1) and where people made pilgrimages for major feast days. The Ark remained at Shiloh for 369 years. At that time, it was taken into battle against the Philistines (1 Sm, chapters 4-5). The Philistines won that battle and took away the Ark.
They didn’t keep it long, and after they suffered a series of disasters, the Philistines returned the Ark. They left it in a field near a town called Kiriath-jearim. There, it was kept in the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar was put in charge of it. The Ark stayed in that house for 20 years until David took it to Jerusalem.
This capital of David’s kingdom has been a pilgrimage site for Jews ever since David’s time. Here was the Temple of Solomon and the Ark. The first Temple (Solomon’s) stood for 410 years until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and the Ark disappeared forever. The Temple was rebuilt 70 years later and enlarged by King Herod.
Devout Jews of ancient times tried to travel to Jerusalem for the great religious feasts, especially Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. In Luke, we hear how the 12-year-old Jesus and his family traveled to the great city for Passover, “according to festival custom” (2:42). Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with his disciples before his Passion, death and resurrection. In Acts of the Apostles, we hear how devout Jews were gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ disciples (Acts 2:1-13).
The Temple and all of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans not long after, in 70 A.D. Only foundation stones of this Second Temple remain, and are known as the Western or Wailing Wall. Modern Jews consider the wall to be a synagogue and gather for prayer and major feast days there.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Jewish Encyclopedia”; “Norms Regarding the Designation of Shrines as National Shrines”; “Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy”; the Jewish Virtual Library; Online Etymological Dictionary at etymonline.com; and vatican.va.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in March 2014.