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"Archaeology of the Heart” on Isaiah 58:9-14 by Tara Woodward – August 21, 2022

When some people hear the word “archaeology” the first thing they think of is “Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark.” It sounds epic and adventurous, full of stories about finding lost ancient treasures and cracking bull whips.

In July, I had the privilege of joining my alma mater, Princeton Seminary, on an archaeological dig in Israel at Tel Shimron, which is strategically placed in the Jezreel Valley, a tall hill between the western seaport of Haifa and along the direct route towards the Galilee region.

The earliest mention of Tel Shimron in the bible is Genesis 49:13: “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend toward Sidon.” The slight variation coming from the similarities between two similar looking Hebrew letters, “dalet” which in English is a D and “resh” which is our R, which both can look something like upside down L’s.

And while we didn’t find something as cool as the Lost Ark, which has yet to be discovered, we did discover a perfectly preserved arch that could be the entrance of the city gate (and only the second of its kind ) and cobblestone streets fit for kings (up until this point unmatched throughout Israel), both of which date from the Middle Bronze era of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, and which offer a small glimpse into what that city gate where Boaz sealed Ruth’s redemption might have looked like.

Part of archaeology in Israel also often means being respectful and careful when we encountered “buddies”, which were the human bones from various grave sites, breathing new life into what Ezekiel must have saw as the Valley of Dry Bones was transformed in front of his very eyes.

In another area, we discovered an ancient Roman key dating to the first century, by ironically no less than a priest-in-training named Peter, and it became something of a site story to recite to Peter Jesus’ famous pronouncement in Matthew 16:18-19 “And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosened in heaven.”

This same Peter even discovered a massive grain millstone from the same era, whose hefty weight and disastrous fate Jesus refers to in Matthew 18:6: “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

But the reality is, most of archaeology is actually digging a bunch of dirt, like the way you might do when you need to put some new post holes in, or in the way that your dog just can’t seem to leave that one spot in your garden alone. It’s ordinary and it’s hot, and there is hours of pottery to wash, which is really just ancient trash, and sometimes it’s just annoying to look at the same pile of rocks and rubble.

And then you begin to realize that archaeology is not just an external ancient activity, but rather there’s some archaeology of the heart that needs to be uncovered. As my friends at L’Abri say about any kind of community living, irritations abound.

You begin, for example, to get annoyed with the people around you. Why do they keep sweeping dirt onto your dirt? When will they start standing instead of sitting, placing the rubber buckets called “gufas” in the right spots? Don’t they know it’s their turn to take the wheelbarrow of dirt down to the dirt pile?

And after several weeks of waking up at 4 AM to dig for 8 hours, their endearing quirks are no longer really all that cute. After a while, when a small group of people have spent far too long in each other’s business, it’s easy to point fingers, for the filters to go down, for you say things you wouldn’t normally because you’re cranky and tired and hot—and your muscles are stiff and sore from the sheer back-breaking labour normally reserved to manage the behaviour of prisoners.

But then something changes, and like a couple several years into marriage, you start to realize how annoying you actually are to the others around you. How the quirks you thought were endearing about yourself are actually really annoying. How you’re not as funny or as kind as you thought you were—in fact, you actually discover about yourself that you’re really quite selfish and you secretly keep score (you have moved 18 wheelbarrows to their 3), because you discretely desire that your digging partner will be the last to get out of the van so that you can be the first to get into the shower—because really, you’re better at picking up after your socks and yourself than they are.

Maybe pastors should consider recommending archaeological digging as the best marriage prep out there for potential partners? These kinds of rich textual experiences which guide our personal and communal life of discipleship also help us discover some things about the archaeology of our own hearts. And while the greatest irony of archaeology is that we are always cleaning dirt off of dirt, we discover that we have some internal cobwebs that need cleaning out.

Like our passage from Isaiah this morning, we discover both personal and collective problems: our propensity for gossip, my lack of generosity, your unwillingness to bear the burdens on behalf of your neighbours. Rather than spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry, the needy, or the most vulnerable and probably annoying in our community, we would rather do as we please, do as they do in Judges: “where everyone did was right in their own eyes”, which as the common refrain that book so colourfully points out, will only lead to the disastrous love-child between a train wreck and a dumpster fire.

Here is where Isaiah does not let us off the hook. This rather skilful group of poets somehow knew our propensity for wanting to side-line our way out of responsibility. So it’s very particular about the pronouns it attaches to its beautiful images.

No longer is this a story of light shining in the darkness, distant like a flashlight on a dark night, and no longer is this about a people you happen to be a part of, but this story gets a little personal because it’s about YOUR people and YOUR light. It’s you as in “Hey you, there” and as in the charming southern “y’all.” This is your and “y’all’s” problem to address. This is your and “y’all’s” community to care for. This destroyed dumpster fire of ancient ruins just got really personal and really public.

But here is where Isaiah does not leave us to our own devices. In place of our own best-laid plans for how we hope to move forward after whatever it was that seems to have crumbled in our lives, God instead promises like he has done since the beginning of time, since the time of the Exodus and the Exile, that he will guide us always. That he will satisfy us and be our strength, that he will make our gardens grow again and our springs swell and our bones strong.

And this new chapter, which scholars sometimes refer to as Third Isaiah, will be one that’s a community of construction workers where we are known as the rebuilders of ancient ruins. The ones who raise up and resurrect what was once dead, which as the gospels point out, was kind of the whole pursuit to begin with.

While I haven’t been part of your community long, I suspect that after the last couple of years, we are all in need of some rebuilding and resurrecting. Whether that is in relationships within the church or within the community, or within your family or friends, we could all use some archaeological reconstruction and restoration.

Like a toddler that’s torn through our carefully-laid Jenga blocks, any number of internal or external factors can cut off or block access to our hearts. Where in both your and “y’all’s” community and circles do you need repair? Where as the summer hopefully lands softly, do you need restoration? Where do you need rest?

For, as Isaiah indicates, in repair and restoration, there your Sabbath rest will lie. As Repairers and Restorers, if you and y’all don’t go your own way or speak empty words, then you will experience delight, and will find your joy in the LORD—which is really the intangible treasure that our hearts have been seeking all along.


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