The following is written by Dr. Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University
“Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him and let him go.’”
(John 11: 43-44 Common English Bible)
It was spring then, and little pink blossoms peppered the almond trees while the olive groves slept and dreamed of warmer summer winds. Passover was approaching, a time when the crowds of Jerusalem would heave their way towards the Second Temple to slaughter the sacrificial lambs demanded of each family. From their tombs on the eastern mountain ridge the old kings and prophets stood a silent guard as the great masses churned their way through the roadside veins of the countryside and the alleyway capillaries of the city. Beneath their lookout lay the tiny hamlet of Bethany, as inauspicious a community as could be imagined in the shadow of God’s chosen city. In this place was a quiet and stillness unknown to the commoners, soldiers, and merchants living and working nearby. To the east lay the salty Dead Sea, to the west the fiery Jordan Valley, trapping the village in these brief months in a constant crossfire of desert heatwaves and Mediterranean rains. Imagine for a moment the tranquility of such a place: the steam of rainwater baking on the rocks in the heat; the smell of roasted meat and fresh bread mixed with the scent of new flowers; the comforting silence born of the absence of human hubbub and busyness.
Bethany was a paradise in the shadow of Jerusalem’s splendor, one that served as a figurative and literal retreat for Jesus and his ragtag group of Jews in his final days. It’s mentioned no less than five times in the Gospels, most often for lodging and eating with friends and family, particularly the beloved sisters Martha and Mary. But we also see it as a place of comings and goings: it was where Jesus prepared for his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and where he blessed the disciples before the Ascension. Bethany was a place between places, a sanctuary for preparations for bigger and better things.
How odd, then, that Jesus would choose Bethany as the site for one of his most amazing feats, the resurrection of his friend Lazarus. The Gospel of John lists it as the last of Jesus’ seven signs or miracles, and none could have been more climactic or astounding. The defeat of death! The pronouncement of a new life after life! The conquest of cosmic entropy and emotional antipathy! Yet notice how Jesus took his time to arrive in Bethany after learning about Lazarus’ fatal illness—the ease and casualness with which he delays his departure for two days, with which he teases his disciples with riddles about Lazarus falling asleep. When he finally arrives in Bethany, it’s four days too late: Lazarus is dead. The detail of four days is an important one—in that time Jews believed that a person’s soul remained with their bodies for three days. If Jesus had come too early, his raising Lazarus could have been brushed off as an improbable but not impossible phenomenon.
And yet the four days proved nothing before the hand of God as Jesus cried for his friend to come out of his tomb still wrapped in his bandages. Imagine the fear and terror felt by the disciples at such a sight! Imagine the joy and rhapsody! And most importantly, imagine the surreality! Perhaps the most awe-inspiring feat of God’s power since the sundering of the Red Sea for Moses or the consumption of Elijah’s altar on Mount Carmel…and in such a podunk nowhere as Bethany! Jerusalem lay less than an hour’s walk away and here was where Jesus broke the bonds of death. It’s an important reminder of one of the great Christian truths—size and worldly importance matter not to a God who can breathe life upon a mountainside of graves. It is God who makes all things great and mighty, not the designations of man. If a million angels can dance on the point of a pin, then surely God can work wonders in a place overlooked and abandoned by most, even the most insignificant little hamlet as Bethany.