The Christian Traveler's Guide to the Holy Land

By Charles H. Dyer and Gregory A. Hattenberg
Nashville, TN : Broadman & Holman (1998). 238 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 228-230

“A trip to the Land of Israel is worth a year of Bible College.” Many a Christian—lay and otherwise—has proven the truth of that adage, even some who had been doubters prior to such a trip! A good trip that has a good host with a good guide following a good itinerary will be a great experience that can permanently alter the way one reads the Bible. Yet many Israel trippers lack one necessary requirement to make the trip truly successful: a good preparation beforehand. Over a hundred years ago, church historian Philip Schaff, after a long trip to the Middle East, wrote, “A trip to the Holy Land is worth more than a year of lectures at Oxford and Cambridge. The benefit of travel, however, depends on the preparation of the traveler. The more knowledge we carry with us the more we shall bring back.”

Israel-trip planners usually prepare their own notes and syllabi as a handout to their group members beforehand. Such books as “The Source,” “Exodus,” and “O Jerusalem” have been recommended. The old Vilnay Guide and some of the standard newer ones like Baedeker and Fodor have also been used. But these books do not usually provide the help that an evangelical Christian is seeking. It is hard to include everything that a traveler should know to prepare best for this trip of a lifetime. Practical information necessary for travel must accompany the biblical and historical information so necessary to provide context for what travelers will see—What to bring?, Do I need?, What will the weather be like?, Is it safe? Those and a host of other questions often arise, and sometimes many wish they had asked the questions before they left home.

Most visitors to the Land will be there only for a week or two at the most. They are looking for something that can help them get the most out of that short time. Dyer and Hatteberg, both associated with Dallas Theological Seminary, have written a book that will be of incalculable help to the average Israel traveler. They have made many trips there and Dyer is also a licensed Israel tour guide.

The book’s first section, “Preparing for the Trip” (6-35), supplies important practical information on safety (“the best international security system in the world,” 7), jet lag (18), travel tips (8-14), a suggested packing list (15-16), passports (20-21), and even some conversational Hebrew and Arabic (17). It also suggests four-week schedules for Bible reading and Bible studies to enhance one’s spiritual preparation (22-35). One serious criticism is in order, however: the book includes a total of only four maps (37, 38, 167, 178), not enough and not detailed enough to provide the geographical context needed for even the average Christian visitor.

The heart of the book is a listing of fifty sites in Israel with a brief description of each and the appropriate Scripture passages illustrating the site’s role in biblical times (44-136). The summary of these sites and their role will be the guide’s most valuable aspect for the Israel tourist. Jerusalem has seven pages, but these consist mostly of a scriptural summary of the city’s overall role in biblical periods. They describe no individual site of the hundreds in the city. They should have included at least a survey of the sections of the “Holy City.” This lack illustrates what is probably the weakest aspect of the book: its lack of archaeological and historical information. Most first-time travelers to Israel complain that they are bewildered by the unfamiliar time periods (Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Mameluke, Ottoman, etc). Some help in this regard with the post-Biblical period would have been helpful.

Two other important sections are brief descriptions of the main sites in Jordan (137-57) and in “The Lands of the Aegean” (Athens, Corinth, Crete, Ephesus; 158-66), which are often omitted in such books. There is also a section of beautiful color photographs (168-97). The Appendix contains the words of thirtysix familiar Christian hymns and gospel songs (199-236) for times of worship at special sites or on the bus while the group is “on the way.” My only suggestion here is that some simple Hebrew folk and Scripture songs should be among them (“Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” “Hava Nagila,” etc.). It has been my experience (24 trips) that people of all ages deeply appreciate some exposure to such Jewish songs in the Jewish land.

The Land did not just exist in biblical times. It has had a vast and varied history the last two thousand years as well. Though the biblical information is what the Christian traveler most wants, travelers need to know a much wider context of historical and cultural information, whether they realize it or not. One such example is the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Something should be written to orient the visitor to the current “political” situation that he will encounter there firsthand. Israel is not a “hothouse” composed of isolated biblical sites, pristine and unchanged in all of their ancient glory. The Middle East has crime and grime—all the modern problems existing alongside the past. Right beside a “tell” can be a modern city or even a refugee camp. This sometimes shocks the traveler who is unprepared and arrives with an idealistic and even mystical outlook on the “Land of the Bible.”

Such a book as this that attempts to include so many types of information is bound to lack in some areas, and this book simply lacks enough specific information about each site. For the more serious traveler, the best book is still The Holy Land by Jerome Murphy O’Connor (4th ed., New York: Oxford, 1998). But it is hard to be too critical of a book that definitely meets a felt need. The best option to see the Land of the Bible is a serious study trip of 2½–3 weeks or, even better, to spend an entire semester there. Not everyone can do that, however. Anyone going on a brief trip or leading one definitely will want to consider this very helpful little guidebook. Hopefully, your guide or teacher can fill in the important archaeological and historical information.