Here is my main first day impressions:
Israel is super hilly. No flat spaces at all. Literally, everything is on a hill, and the hills are borderline mountains. A big part of this trip for me is to reconcile how I picture all of these locales with what they really look like. I have always imagined that some of this land is flat. It's not. Hills everywhere! So if you picture Jesus and the disciples walking a long, flat, straight road (like I pictured them) then your mind's eye needs serious lasik surgery because there aren't many flat spots. I couldn't stop thinking about this and trying to adjust how I've thought about the settings in the Bible for the past 25 years.
Secondly and I already knew this) this region is not that big. The area that most of the Bible took place in is pretty darn small, especially the stuff in the gospels. This makes sense because Jesus walked everywhere. I had to mention this because even though I intellectually already grasped it, being here jammed home just how small of a space all of this took place within.
Here are some facts that we learned today:
You probably thought of Israel as a land relatively devoid of trees. We certainly did. However in Jesus day that was not the case. In the time of Jesus it was relatively heavily wooded. Israel was deforested during the 1500's - 1800's via Turkish taxation policies. Instead of taxing people or income you were taxed by the number of trees on your property while the Turks had control over this bit of land. Therefore people living in the land would cut down any trees that weren't fruit bearing trees, now when you drive through the countryside there are literally zero tall trees. I always assumed it had always been that way, but it turns out that the Turkish taxing authorities didn't understand the law of unintended consequences, especially as it pertained to the long term effects on Israel's ecology. Oops.
Everything is very green here right now, because Israel is green in the winter and brown in the summer. Fun fact to know and share.
This is a picture of a shepherd's hold. It is basically a little sheep pen and the shepherd would sit where I'm sitting in the above picture to make sure the sheep couldn't leave. He was the gate for the sheep. Just like Jesus talked about being the gate for the sheep to enter. He cared for the sheep, he guarded the sheep, he lead the sheep in and out of the hold. This is an active shepherd's hold, in fact we saw an actual shepherd leading a herd of sheep today!
King Herod was a bad dude, and I don't mean that in the cool way, he was literally a monster. He had children throughout Israel killed when Jesus was a toddler and even killed some of his own children, amongst a bunch of other terrible things that he did. This was his palace that he had built on top of a mountain near Bethlehem. Ironically, he celebrated himself and now he is mostly forgotten and disdained, while Jesus who was born in humble circumstances a few miles away is the most revered person in the history of the world. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
This is inside a 1,600 year old church in Bethlehem. This is allegedly the exact place Jesus was born. It is highly unlikely that this is the actual spot, but Jesus was born in this town, certainly within walking distance of this location. Bethlehem is pretty well developed now and very touristy so it's pretty hard to imagine what it was like on Jesus birthday, however this is the birthplace of Jesus.