The word negev means south. Stretching from the hills of Judea to the Red Sea, the Negev Desert covers the largest part of the southern region of Israel. To live here for a time is to become a part of a unique, mysterious world with its own special way of life.
Located in the midst of this rugged beauty is the biblical site of Beersheba, a place known since the time of Abraham and Isaac. Here each summer native and foreign scholars, together with students and volunteers from around the world, labor to unearth a biblical city.
This past summer a group of 29 LDS youths headed by Brother LaGrande Davies were given permission from the Israeli government to be a part of this archaeological excavation. Some of us were studying archaeology, but many of us were simply excited to be a part of this first-time experience for members of the Church. An archaeological dig? What’s that? Just exactly what the word says, dig! And that we did, beginning each morning at 4:30 A.M.
I wanted a different experience than most people have abroad. I didn’t want the ordinary, structured, tour-group atmosphere where you deal almost entirely with the people of your own group and have everything mapped out for you. On this dig we would be living, eating, working, and laughing with youth and scholars from all over the world.
It’s difficult to work eight hours a day in the extreme conditions of a desert in the same two-by-two-foot hole of dirt with someone from a completely different cultural and religious background without coming to know and appreciate his uniqueness. The gospel suddenly became more significant to me as I realized the contrasting way of life it offers. As I sat with my equally tired and thirsty German, Israeli, Indian, or Dutch brother who had dumped those last hundred buckets I had filled, and he thanked me for the drink from my canteen, the words of the Savior filled my mind: “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13–14.)
Four-thirty has always seemed too early to be moving about. It was especially so in Israel. Suddenly from a PA system would come a double-forte rendition of a Sousa march, breaking into any likeness of quiet and sleep. If I looked closely at the trees during this early morning time, they would be covered with small drops of dew. Some mornings it stayed while we worked on the tel (hill), and I got the feeling that I was one of those grave diggers in the old horror movies.
On the hill where we did our work I could see for miles; there was barren desert land as well as many irrigated fields in the distance. Every now and then a group of men on camels would pass by or we would see small herds of sheep or goats cared for by Bedouin women or children. The Bedouins dress in long, dark robes, with the women covering everything except their eyes. Observing these things often broke the monotony of digging, shoveling, hauling, dumping, scraping, and sweeping.
After the workday was over everyone had time to shower and wash their clothes. Then we gathered the pieces of pottery we had found, and we had pottery wash. Under a few low-hanging pepper trees were several long wooden tables covered with plastic buckets and trays. The pottery was dipped in water and arranged on trays to dry. We examined the pieces for possible whole pots and possibilities for pot shapes, judging from rims and handles and sides. We talked about the periods during which they had been made and the areas in which they were found. The supervisor from the area answered many questions we had and added interesting background information. Days at the tel were long and hot, but the evenings were nice. The wind always blew in late afternoon. The same PA system that so abruptly awakened us now played classical music. Some nights we sang to guitars in low, soft sounds, or we’d have lectures where archaeological scholars shared a lifetime of study with tired but interested people seated on straight, hard, brown benches in the open air. Afterwards we often sat and watched the sun go down, ran along the hills around the campsite, or just thought about the day—or the one coming up. Some nights many of us would go up on the hill and tell spooky stories in the ancient ruins. A volleyball net was put up, or groups would get together and sing or have old-fashioned flicker shows in their tents.
Each person was assigned a tent with several other persons; each had one cot to sleep on, a blanket to cover him, and a stand to put his suitcase on. We all ate together in a long mess hall. Breakfast and supper were basically the same meal—plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers, milk, and bread. Lunch was the big meal of the day. Meat was served at this meal but never at the other two because we were observing strict Jewish food laws. Almost every food is prepared, cooked, and served in the distinctive, traditional Jewish way in accordance with the Jewish religion. “Kosher” is the popular name for the Kashruth dietary laws, a discipline of the Jewish faith set forth in the Old Testament.
The food was served family style around the table. You either learned to be quick or go hungry.
As part of the educational experience we went on several field trips to other archaeological sites. The bus we took looked like something out of an old war movie. Israel’s weather is beautiful in the very early morning and evenings, and that’s when we did most of our traveling. We passed Bedouin tents of goatskin, groups of camels and donkeys ridden by small children, herds of goats and sheep, old women in long dark robes, and much desolate ground. In other areas we saw fields of greenery and modern apartments in colors that match the clays of the desert.
My friend and I were the only Mormons working in our area. We were always kidded about our so-called “strange beliefs,” and every time we’d mention religion, the others would jump down our throats. But they couldn’t stop us from singing. It reached the point that if we’d stop, they’d ask us to begin again. I think we sang every hymn in the hymnbook and every song we’d ever learned in Primary or Sunday School. It was very special singing about the Savior in the land he loved. Songs like “I Am a Child of God” and “Come, Come, Ye Saints” began to touch the hearts of the people we were working with, and they began asking questions.
I remember how excited one young woman was when she found out I was a Mormon. She had visited a world’s fair and had been very impressed by all the young people who were eager to explain our church to her. She wanted to know what it is in our church that gets our young people so excited. She said, “I thought religion was something for the old, when you don’t have anything better to do. What is it that makes you all look so happy?”
Some of us didn’t realize how much we were being watched. I happened to overhear the conversation of two young women. One of them was speaking very harshly and using profanity. Finally the other woman spoke up and said, “I don’t have to listen to you and this kind of language! I’m going to get me a good Mormon friend!”
One Jewish boy I met had heard something about archaeology and the Church. He said, “I understand that one of you Mormons made an important archaeological find in the states. I think it was New York, wasn’t it? It was supposed to be some kind of record starting with my people here in Jerusalem. Would you tell me about it?”
When you are placed out in the middle of nowhere and denied most of the conveniences you are accustomed to, you become grateful for things you never realized you were blessed with before. It amazes me that I could be completely covered with dirt, have blisters on both hands, sore muscles, flies flying around my head, and an upset stomach, and yet feel so completely blessed for experiences in which physical discomfort teaches patience and gratitude. I started thinking past the physical and material things because I was living on so little and was amazed at how little I need materially and how much my whole life depends on my Father in heaven.
Having participated in this travel-work-study program, I find the whole existence of man has taken on a new meaning for me. Everything seems to take its place in an orderly plan, and I realize that man, throughout all the ages, has not changed a great deal. I understand more fully that I am a part of the Lord’s plan. In the same way we tried to reconstruct broken pieces of pottery into the original vase or jar, I see the small lessons I am learning fitting into an organized, divine piece of art.