Oh the Places You’ll Go: the Cave of Machpelah

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Somehow, in my many travels to Israel, I had never made it to Hebron – until this summer. Lisa and I got a driver to take us twenty miles or so south of Bethlehem. It’s a tense region, with Palestinians and Israelis living near one another but at odds with one another. It’s the West Bank, so historically this is Palestinian territory – but with much maligned “settlements” of Jewish communities wedged in.

While making note of such things along the way, my goal in this journey was to visit the Cave of Machpelah, which nowadays doesn’t resemble a cave at all. {Click here for pictures!} Not long before Jesus was born, King Herod, builder extraordinaire, the ultimate construction show-off, built a massive stone structure over the cave – a building that has withstood Mamluk and Crusader invasions and takeovers, still standing much as it was fashioned 2000 years ago. Impressive – with an elegant simplicity and quiet strength.

The Cave is first mentioned in Genesis 23. Abraham, sorrowing over the death of his wife Sarah, and 1200 miles from their homeland back in Ur (remember Genesis 11 and 12?), purchases the cave and its neighboring hill and caves as a burial place for her, and for their family. As each one dies, the lovely, profound phrase the Bible provides is first found in Genesis 25:8: “Abraham breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.” Same for Isaac (Genesis 35:29). Jacob died in Egypt; after many tears, Joseph embalmed him and took him to the Cave of Machpelah “to be gathered to his people.”

They weren’t thinking resurrection, or a heavenly reunion. Rather, they were literally gathered in the same lovely burial ground, gathered like old time family cemeteries, like the one where a bunch of Howells are gathered in Oakboro, NC. In Herod’s building in Hebron, we have the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah.

As Abraham still figures as the great ancestor of both Judaism and Islam, the building is divided (on the inside, not visible from the outside) into two halves, one a Jewish synagogue, the other a Muslim mosque. Two separate entrances, two security checkpoints. You can peek from one side into the other only through one small window. Lisa and I visited both.

First the Jewish side. I had to cover my head, and zip on the lower half of my travel pants. The synagogue was set up like a school, with desks, books, and very serious men with heads buried in their books, or bustling about carrying books. Sssshhhhhh – I was told a couple of times. It was cool.

Then we exited and entered the mosque. Lisa had to don a gown they provided to cover her whole body. A large, open room, with children running about happily, moms huddled in conversation, men watching their kids with pride, a few people here or there kneeling in prayer. I have to say the warmth and hospitality of the mosque far exceeded that of the synagogue – but they have differing purposes. I loved our interactions with the Muslim children. Four girls asked me to photograph them, and giggled when they saw the result; two boys nabbed Lisa and asked the same.

Viktor Frankl, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, suggested that it’s all in how you frame whatever you experience that determines your happiness and thriving or misery. In this divided Cave of Machpelah, it’s not hard to bemoan the division. People who adore Abraham as their forefather are unable to be even in the same room, or wear the same clothes, or approach God in the same way.

But I think I reframed it in my mind and saw cause for hope. Here in a single building, over the grave of a single ancestor, you have Jews and Muslims – and here we were as Christians – praying, thinking, breathing, interacting, looking around, enjoying being in a sacred space. It felt way more hopeful than the barbed wire and armed guards between the Jewish settlements and the Palestinian neighborhoods in the town.

I am so glad we went. Travel is a challenge. Many can’t afford it or aren’t physically able. I’m a lucky dog I can go – and I feel an obligation to do what I love, and that is to tell you about it. I enjoy my den at home in Charlotte where I am typing these words. It’s comfortable, familiar, restful. It’s home.

But when I get off my couch and get driven to Hebron to see humanity struggling to live together, and to make sense of how to worship God together, or in parallel but differing ways, I shed some of my prejudice, I chuck some of my preconceptions, I am humbled, I am amazed, I shudder and am amazed by what God experiences every day in every place, and how good and patient God really is – with a place like Hebron, with its people, and thus also with me, and you. I do suspect that, when time is no more, all those we saw and interacted with in the Cave of Machpelah that day, and even the villagers we drove past on the way, will, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, be gathered to their people, together, all of them, all of us. At least that’s what I’m hoping for.