How Education Makes Us Better Tourists: A View from the Qumran Caves

In the visitors’ center at Qumran, near the Dead Sea in Israel, there is a gift shop.  And another gift shop. And another.  They sell olivewood crosses, yarmulkes, mezuzot, shofars, bath salts, therapeutic mud, and a million other things that are also sold in every other gift shop in Israel.  There is also a large restaurant with a respectable buffet of Middle Eastern food.  When I was there last summer, these were jammed.  It is no exaggeration to say that there were 500 people in the complex.  Tour buses were stacked like cordwood in the parking lot.

Curiously, outside, on the archaeological site of the Qumran community, only a few small groups circulated.  Some didn’t even pause to examine the “scriptorium” where the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts known to exist, may have been copied.  (There is controversy over this room among scholars:  Were scrolls really copied here?  Was it big enough?  Or were the scrolls stored in the nearby cave brought from somewhere else? The answers affect the way we think about the formation of the biblical writings, and the canon as a whole.)  In the hours I spent at the site, I might have seen a few dozen tourists walk over to the viewpoint over the most famous cave, the one with the greatest wealth of texts.


Above the site of the Qumran settlement, as you walk away from the seas, rise red cliffs where other scrolls were found. I hiked up in those cliffs, to two of the scroll caves.  It’s a hike—not dangerous, but rocky, and moderately challenging in summer heat.  I sat in the shade and mulled over the phenomenon of storing a community’s writings in such a place.  And I was by myself—completely alone.  It had not occurred to a single other soul to go see where the scrolls had been.  Even the air-conditioned museum down below was nearly deserted, apparently offering no competition for the spa products and cold soda.

Education allows the tourist to widen his or her scope, to appreciate deeply the sites that are notstarred in every guidebook.  Some of the most interesting sights in the Middle East seem to be completely off the radar of tour companies.  One stands atop the ruined fortress at Lachish at midday—alone during tourist season—still able see the Assyrian siege ramp, and able to understand why Judeans lived in fear in the eighth century, and also why the Assyrian king Sennacherib was so pleased with his defeat of this city that he had reliefs portraying it carved all over his palace walls.  Or in Egypt, if one ventures just slightly beyond Giza to Saqqara or Dahshur—which are scarcely less impressive sites!—then suddenly the tour buses and junk-hawkers evaporate, and one has whole pyramids to oneself.

The average tour bus trip is something of a mystery to me.  Time and time again, as I traveled to significant sites in the Middle East, I passed by groups milling through yet another stop, and seeming to barely process what they were seeing.  These tours take many forms, from the Birthright groups taking young Jews in hopes that that they will learn to love Israel, to Christian churches, especially evangelical ones, trying to bring the Bible alive.  Each of these groups has its own set of stops and stories—and far be it from me to criticize those stories.  Every history we tell is in its own way a story, a selective, artistic presentation of only some of the possible data.  But when these stories are a bit better informed and a bit less canned, they more personal.

Education also allows the tourist to think for him- or herself,   Does it not seem wise, if one is going to spend thousands of dollars on a trip to the Holy Land, to not only seek out guides who know a bit more, but also to put in a little work oneself to prepare for what one is going to see?

Photo 11Theological schools seem to me to be in a uniquely propitious position to do Holy Land tourism better, not primarily because we have the faculty to lead trips, but because we have motivated and intelligent students who are willing to put in the study time to make a trip transcend the average and become more meaningful.

When Marianne Thompson and I led a Fuller group to Israel in 2012, we saw this happen. She taught the Gospel of John on the southern steps of the Temple Mount—a place where Jesus walked, and yet surprisingly, also a lightly touristed place in my visits there. I watched students light up to realize where they were. The place is remarkable, yet there is no signage to identify its significance. (The state of Israel is not interested in telling the stories of Jesus.) It is these places without videos or signs, without pilgrim paths or souvenir shops, that we can encounter as students first.

Holy Land tourism, if done well, is not sight-seeing; it is story-forging.  It is relatively easy to purchase a trip to the Holy Land, travel there, and consume the story that one has purchased, the same story that nearly everyone else purchases. It is more difficult, intellectually, to read, listen, and prepare for such a trip, and then to go there and absorb the sights and sounds in ways that will allow the participant to do more than say, “I’ve been there”—that will allow the land to inhabit one’s thoughts and words in fresh ways.  Just as most theological students would prefer not to preach someone else’s sermons, they should also prefer not to re-tell someone else’s stories and regurgitate some else’s opinions about the Holy Land, but to shape those stories for themselves.  Just as, in a Fuller classroom, we expect students to write original papers, so too the expectation of a Fuller trip to the Holy Land is that students will each come away with a unique perspective on their experience.

I do not disparage the value of merely being there, of seeing all the usual things with one’s own eyes.  There is no substitute for firsthand experience, for seeing the terraced farms of the hill country of Judah, the idyllic Sea of Galilee, the massive stones of Herod’s temple mount, and the water channel by which Hezekiah protected Jerusalem from siege. But even seeing is conditioned by what you know. So go there with a group that is not about souvenirs and headsets, but about education and transformation—that trip to Israel will bear fruit through a lifetime of teaching and preaching.

Professors Marianne Meye Thompson and Chris Hays invite students to journey with them to Israel during the summer of 2014, from June 23-July 6. For more information, see


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