A recent article on the discovery in 2016 of the mikveh uncovered at the site of King Herod’s palace at Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan got me thinking about a theme I have been contemplating for some time. That theme is the disconnection between religious ritual and spiritual reality.
21st Century people might call that “disconnect” hypocrisy in the process of dismissing all religions and spiritual truth. That modern tendency to discount all religion in that way, and especially Christianity, reflects a lack of understanding that bothers me when I hear it. The recent discovery reminds why I feel this way.
Digging into the history of King Herod, the palace at Machaerus and the mikveh that was recently discovered there sheds some light on the subject and reminds me that there is much more than meets the modern eye. And, in some fundamental ways, nothing has really changed from then to now, and yet everything has changed at the same time.
Before we get into the meat of the matter, I should explain that a mikveh is a small pool or bath used in ritual purification. Thus, the discovery of a mikveh in King Herod’s palace indicates that the royal inhabitants engaged in the Hebrew purification ritual that was instructed in the Old Testament (the Torah).
Of course, the instructions in the Torah were traditionally understood as religious in nature, though the ritual cleansing in mivka’ot (plural of mikveh) might be seen through the lens of modern science as good hygiene. The purification rite that were instructed would have inhibited the spread of contagious diseases and infection. But for them, with no understanding of modern hygiene, health and medicine, these practices were purely religious in nature.
With that in mind, what then is the significance of the discovery? How does it shed light on the disconnect between religious practice and spiritual reality? What is the nuance that modern people often miss in discounting everything they lump together as “religion”?
A friend of mine commented recently, “I don’t believe in religion.” I agreed with him, responding, “Religion is man-made.” But part of me flinched a little bit at my own comment.
Religion is what I left when I left the Catholic Church, but religion is what I studied in college. A World Religion class led me forward on a journey that ended in my commitment to Jesus as the Savior and Lord of my life, terminology I realize that smacks of religion.
That commitment made in a particular place and time began a life-long journey of faith, of attempting to know, understand and follow a living God. Not religion, but relationship with God, the creator of heaven and earth Who “knit me together” in my mother’s womb, Who can number the hairs on my head, Who knows the thoughts and intents of my heart.
I bristle at the word, religion, but I realize my friends probably consider me religious. Ironic isn’t it.
These thoughts are triggered by reading Colossians 2:8:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
I realize this may seem like so much religious mumbo jumbo. All the more reason to unpack it if I can.
Jesus didn’t pull any punches, and the religious leaders were often the targets caught in his cross-hairs. One theme of his criticism was that they kept up righteous appearances while they were anything but righteous on the inside. It’s a bit unnerving, is it not, that Jesus could see the thoughts and intents of the heart!
For those who might be tempted to say that the one person in history you would most like to meet is Jesus, maybe you should rethink that!
But then again, Jesus didn’t do anything more than God, the Father, already does. God “discerns our thoughts from afar”; He even knows every word “on my tongue” before I say them. (Psalm 139)
Think about that. Where can I go that God is not present? There is no use trying to hide from God. It’s futile to think that we can.
So, we might as well be honest. God already knows what’s going on in our heads and hearts!