“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …”
This line from the twenty-third Psalm offers comfort in times of trouble, assurance in moments of fear. It has been a whispered prayer of believers through the centuries.
The song matures quickly. In just six verses it moves the listener from the wide open spaces of the pastoralist to the table, house, and presence of YHWH. Between these outer and inner realms it navigates the “valley of the shadow of death.” Such gloomy places defy compass and map.
Walking across Galilee, I drop into the shadows of the Wadi Hamam. It is impossible to say which, if any, physical valley the author of the twenty-third Psalm had in mind. David, the songster, was a southerner. The Wilderness of Judea was his stomping ground. Yet, I can’t imagine a more appropriate visual than this one. The thought rattles in my pack.
I leave the perch where the inhabitants of ancient Arbel (Arbella) overlooked the Sea of Galilee and descend through their cemetery. Shallow graves are carved directly into the bedrock. Some of these are large. Others are quite small. Most are vertically accessible and were undoubtedly covered with boulders when occupied. A few of the graves are cut horizontally, cave style. All are empty now. Even the dead are absent.
I peer into a grave, thinking about life and death. Am I all alone, hidden by these canyon walls?
The phrase “valley of the shadow of death” (Heb., gay tzalmaveth) is the matter of some discussion among linguists. The modifier of “valley” is a compound of tzal(l), meaning “dark” or “deep darkness” and maveth, the standard term for “death.” Together they suggest something like “gloomy darkness,” or even a place totally devoid of light. However sliced, it is a place where ordinary human senses are useless. There are, after all, things that go bump in the night! A Good Shepherd is required.
From the cemetery the path grows more precarious. I watch for the blazes painted on rocks. The switchbacks are tough, requiring me to use my hands as well as feet. The pack on my back, too heavy to begin with, tugs at my shoulders. I fret, thinking to myself, “This is not the place to slip.” At times, the drop is only a few feet. I could self-arrest. At other times, the air beneath my feet is a hundred feet deep. “No self-arrest here! Ha!” Even if one could possibly survive a slip or fall, it could be hours — or days — before a rescuer happened along the trail.
Not surprisingly, history demonstrates that this valley is no stranger to death.
I think of the text of Hosea. While difficult to prove, it is possible that an 8th c BC Assyrian king ordered that the inhabitants of Arbel be thrown down from these heights. In 10:14 the prophet suggests, “Shalman(eser) destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children.” They were crushed together in this “valley of the shadow.”
More certain (geographically) is a reference to the slaughter of rebels by King Herod (the infamous baby-killer of the Christmas story). In the account of the historian Josephus (War 1.16.4-5), rebels hid in caves high up on the cliff face. Relentless in his pursuit of the “lawless,” Herod lowered soldiers down to them in “chests.” From these suspended platforms, the soldiers pulled or “hooked” out those inside and flung them down to a grisly end.
At last I safely near the bottom of this “valley of the shadow.” I hear the trickle of water. I climb through a fence. A small stream runs to the east, draining this corner of eastern Galilee. Low hanging branches obscure the muddy trail. It is all that remains of the “International Coastal Highway.”
Cliffs rise up on either side. I breathe a sigh of relief. This may be a valley of the shadow, but the sun is rising. It illuminates the rim.
Lo ira’ ra’, ki attah emmadi.
“… I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”