Bible History and Geography

Some ask why I’m so much into the history and geography of the Bible. “What’s the big deal?” they wonder. Jim Monson, author of Regions on the Run, answers this question succinctly:

The Bible is not merely history; it is ‘purposeful’ history for it teaches us how to live. Its message is embedded in the everyday lives of people, most of whom lived in a small area called the land of the Bible.

Jim Monson, Regions on the Run, p. 5

Chinese Kitchen

Chinese Kitchen

Chinese Kitchen, Odessa, Texas

December 24, 1996 was a remarkable day in my life. I had recently returned to Odessa from Russian language school in Columbia, South Carolina. And since I had worked with Stewart McWilliams in the Single Adult Ministry at Temple Baptist Church prior to language school, I was back in Odessa helping where I could at the church until I moved to Israel in March 1997.

In addition to assisting with the Single Adult Ministry during my time in Odessa, I also swept the street and sidewalks around the church, did set-up and clean-up in Sunday School rooms and the auditorium, and did some hospitality for out-of-town guests. When I received a call from Joanna Sadler, one of the church receptionists, that December morning asking if I could have lunch with a single missionary lady, I thought it was in my capacity of hospitality. I didn’t know I was being set up on what amounted to a blind date. Assuming I was doing my duty, I called the young woman and asked her if she would like to have lunch. We agreed to meet at Chinese Kitchen at the corner of Grandview and University.

What I didn’t know was that the receptionist had asked the “visitor” if she would mind having lunch with me because I was having trouble getting my visa to Russia and needed some encouragement (she was mistaken on both counts). Neither was I fully aware that the visitor had grown up in Odessa and had come to faith as a 13-year-old in the Junior High Ministry at Temple. Had I been more aware of some of those details I might have been  aware that this was a set up, but I doubt such knowledge would have prevented me from doing my duty and taking her to lunch.

I arrived at Chinese Kitchen a few minutes before our appointed time and waited for my guest to arrive. About 10 minutes late, she finally arrived. After a cursory introduction of ourselves, we went inside and made our way through the order line.

I don’t remember what either of us ordered, and the truth is, the food became quite incidental. We spent the next 3-hours or so, talking about life, faith, theology, and worldviews. I was excited to meet a single female in my age range, who was interested in all the things I was interested in and shared the same priorities in life. On top of that, she was attractive to me.

Based on all the things we had in common we were interested in each other, but there was one seemingly insurmountable obstacle. She was committed to live and serve in Europe and I was equally committed to return to live and serve in Israel.

Since I’m writing this story, you probably already figured out that the insurmountable obstacle wasn’t so insurmountable after all. More on that in another entry.


Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day

In honor of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am re-posting this article.

Beniko Gihon #137010

Beniko Gihon #137010

Working with tour groups in Israel is [almost] always a blessing. It’s exciting to see visitors’ faces when, as they say in Hebrew, “the coin falls.” In other words, when “the light comes on” or the connection between a certain event and place happens. I love to see the joy of discovery, especially as it relates to the Bible. But my groups generally have modern cultural and historical interests, too. Every group is different, and I’m regularly on the look out for things out of the ordinary and not on the itinerary that will make my group’s visit to Israel more special than it might already be. For this group, I found that special historical gem in the breakfast line.

As I approached the special-order egg line, I noticed the tattoo on his arm, 137010. Immediately, I knew he was a holocaust survivor because I’ve seen these tattoos in the museum, and probably a dozen times in person. However, I never had the nerve to ask the bearer to share his/her story; I just imagined what it might have been.

This time was different. I took a deep breath and asked the elderly gentleman a) if he spoke Hebrew, and b) if I could ask a question. “Yes,” he answered to both questions. I was hesitant, but I proceeded to ask if he would tell me the story of the numeric tattoo that appeared on his left forearm. I was afraid he would be embarrassed, but he wasn’t. In fact, he seemed pleased that I asked.

Beniko Gihon #137010

Beniko Gihon #137010

Interacting with my inquiry about his tattoo, he said, “My name is Beniko Gihon; in Germany my name was changed to 137010. I am a Jew originally from Greece.” He continued with a moving, two-minute version of his story. His family had been rounded up in Thessaloniki, and he was the only survivor. Over the course of five years, he was systematically transferred to/from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Dachau. He had a variety of jobs, but mainly focused on his work in the crematoria.

I was translating his story for a man from my group and noticed that others had started to lean in closer to listen in on our conversation, which indicated that they found this interesting, too. After a couple minutes, his eggs and mine were ready, so, unfortunately, we had to bring this encounter to a close. I thanked him for sharing his story, we shook hands, and parted ways.

I found a table near my group and sat down by myself. To say that his story was gut wrenching would be an exaggerated understatement. But, his story wasn’t the thing that affected me the most. It was the question he posed: “Why were the Christians so quiet?”

I wanted my group to hear Beniko’s story, but I wondered if that would be asking too much. As I ate my breakfast, I kept an eye on him from across the room and wondered whether I should ask him to speak on the bus. Since he didn’t seem to mind my initial inquiry, I decided to go for it, and the outcome was just what I had hoped.

After my group boarded the bus, I brought them up to speed on what was about to happen, then I introduced Mr. Beniko. He climbed the stairs and stood proudly in the front of the bus and began to share his story.

Beniko, which is the Greek version of Benjamin, started with some details of his family and how the Nazis came to Greece and killed so many. The rest were taken to the labor and death camps in Germany and Poland, which is where he learned to speak German, and where his name was changed to 137010.

His story lasted longer than I had given him, which I knew it would. But, seeing him standing in the front of the bus and hearing his biography was worth every minute.

Some specific details that pierced my heart:

“I saw, with my own eyes, the soldiers toss little children in the air and shoot them like birds.”

“As people were herded off the trains near the crematoria, they pleaded with the soldiers to know where their children or parents were. The soldiers would point to the smoke rising out of the crematoria and say, ‘there they are.’”

“The people were packed so tightly into the ‘showers’ that when the Zyklon B gas was released they all died standing, and only fell to the ground when the doors were opened. As we removed the bodies, we could see the scratches on the walls where those on the outer edges were trying to claw their way out.”

As a worker at the crematoria, “I collected the fat that came from the bodies as they were burned. The Nazis used the fat to make soap for us prisoners, and I bathed with soap that may have been made from the remains of my parents and other family members.”

Beniko’s story, made the horrors of the Holocaust real and personal for us, impacting each in a slightly different way. I tried to give some current perspective to his presentation because the easy thing would be to say, “I wasn’t there” because none of us were. I reminded the group of the words of James 1:27 that pure religion is to care for the widows and orphans, which I understand to mean “take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.” I also think that being born again demands that Christians have an active interest in “the least of these” (Mt 25).

Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

Over the last few years, I have inherited a number of photo libraries from people who have either died or lost interest or ability to store their photos. These photos range from the early 1960s to the 1990’s and are from many countries around the globe.

As I’ve gone through the collections looking for things that are useable for teaching or publication, I have traveled down memory lane with the photographer and his/her subjects. It’s been fun, interesting, and in some sense  a little strange to look over the photographer’s shoulder. I’ve seen 1000’s of vacation and family event photos mostly of people I do not know. Among the various photos, I’ve seen kids graduate, receive sporting medals, swim, feed animals, laugh, cry, and sleep. I’ve seen corners of the earth that have piqued my interest, and I’ve seen certain places so many times, I deserve honorary citizenship. I’ve seen churches built and rebuilt and remodeled. I’ve seen seminary students graduate and ministers ordained and members banqueting and picnicing together. I’ve seen people fishing, displaying their catch, and napping on the beach after a long day on the water. I’ve seen royalty and wannabe royalty. I’ve seen the wealthy and the pauper. I’ve seen logos of airlines that no longer fly. Through these photos, I’ve traveled to New York City, Moscow, London, Jerusalem, South Carolina, Texas, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Washington DC, and a bunch of other places, some of which, I can’t identify.

Many of the photos I’ve surveyed have been of locations, and many of them have been useable for my purposes. The ones, though, that tug at my heart and make me think more are those of people: Where are they today? Are they still living? If so, where? What are they doing? Do they have family? Do they remember being photographed? Below is one such photo, which was taken twenty-five years ago today. It was taken (presumably) in a kindergarten in Jerusalem by a Christian tourist. I wonder where these boys are today? They should be close to 30 years old? And the teacher, did she continue to teach or did she leave the profession to raise her own family? Perhaps you know, or perhaps more likely, this information is lost to history.


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