Fast forward a few millennia. I’m sitting on a plane at JFK about to embark on my own investigative mission to Canaan. My goal is research, not conquest, and my point of departure is New York, not Sinai. But on this, my very first trip to Israel, I feel just as exhilarated and anxious as those 12 spies must have felt.
I know a great deal about Israel. As a Christian, I have read through the Hebrew scriptures many times; as a student of Middle Eastern history I’ve examined the region extensively from an academic perspective. Yet I have never seen the land in person. As my plane leaves the tarmac, I suddenly wonder if I too will be disappointed by what I find.
The trip goes by in a blur and three weeks later I return. Friends and family immediately bombard me with questions: What is Israel like? How are the people? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? My Israeli friends are especially interested to hear my thoughts. Was Israel what I expected?
Israel is a paradise, I tell them. The immense Jerusalem sky, the ancient hills, and the sun-washed shores of the Mediterranean are beyond breathtaking. I ramble on about the aromatic food, the endearing people, and the surprising array of cultures. I try my best to impart some sense of Israel’s spiritual energy, struggling to convey what it’s like to walk in the cool confines of the Garden Tomb, pray at the Western Wall, and stand before the Golden Gate at twilight listening to the cry of the muezzin inside Al-Aqsa.
My listeners nod and smile, mildly amused. They are probing for something deeper, something more substantial. Based on what I saw, they ask, is there any future in Canaan?
Here my voice softens a bit. I can’t lie—I saw some giants.
Towering over all the rest was the giant of fear. I felt its presence inside the claustrophobic halls of Yad Vashem. I saw it at a checkpoint in the faces of two Israeli soldiers when I rapidly and mistakenly approached their guard shack on foot. I heard it in the voices of two Arab men in East Jerusalem who wanted to know who I was and why I was photographing their neighborhood, suspecting that I worked for Shin Bet. I sensed it in the eyes of Palestinian day laborers as they returned home, gazing out the window of their bus at the ever-thriving Jewish state around them.
After fear, there is hopelessness. On a windswept peak in Samaria I met a settler raising his family in a trailer because his house had been bulldozed a stone’s throw away. When I asked about the future, he could only manage a melancholy shrug. One Palestinian man in Bethlehem brought me onto his balcony and pointed despairingly to the red-roofed Jewish settlements on a nearby ridgeline. When will it end? he asked me. When President Obama landed in Israel hoping, perhaps, to reboot the peace process, I asked my half-Jewish, half-Arab cabbie if he was optimistic about the future. “Jews are crazy, Arabs are crazy,” he said. “Things will never change here.”
Finally, there is desperation. Everywhere I went I found people brooding, seething, waiting to explode. Around the corner from my hotel, in the midst of a busy thoroughfare, I found a plaque commemorating eight Jews who had been killed in a bus bombing in 2004. One morning after exploring Hezekiah’s Tunnel I surfaced to find the Temple Mount in turmoil as Palestinian rioters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli police, injuring nine.
Giants do live in the land of Canaan. I saw them. But even so, I refuse to give a bad report. What country is not plagued by some measure of fear, hopelessness, and desperation? What state is not beset by problems? Where do people live in perfect harmony? Giants like the ones I saw are not confined to Israel but lurk at all times in every corner of the globe.
Strange as it may sound, my idea of Israel did match reality. I’ve never imagined it to be some spotless utopia where life is serene and everybody knows your name. It is a land haunted by terror and tragedy, fear and doubt. And yet it’s the land where God has chosen to reveal Himself to man. All through history God has worked through adversity to make His power known in this place. Over and over He has turned sorrow into joy, exile into redemption, and hopelessness into hope for all the world to see.
Israel is an exceeding good land filled with wonderful people and incredible potential. The giants that remain are far less mighty than some may think, especially in the face of supernatural power. Some may find this Deus ex machina approach unsatisfying, but for me it’s the only approach to take. Putting one’s faith solely in material factors and solutions—things that one’s eyes can see—is, I think, a mistake.
There is a future in the land of Canaan, a future despite the giants. Joshua and Caleb saw it. I saw it more recently. My hope is that others will see it too, abandoning their fears and moving ahead with the confidence of those who know the future is there to possess.
Robert Nicholson is a 2012-13 Tikvah Fellow.