The Valley of the Shadow

by Mark Ziese on April 22, 2014

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …” Psalm 23:4 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 [...]

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An Edgy Guy

April 3, 2014

We sat uncomfortably in the classroom, rocking from side to side, trying to absorb the Hebrew text of Pirke Avoth. This portion of the Mishnah claims that Moses carried not only a hard copy of Torah down from the mountain, but an interpretive oral tradition as well. The latter was chewed, memorized, and repeated from [...]

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A Wee Wise Folk

March 25, 2014

I descend into the gorge of the Wadi Hamam. The rising sun plays hide and seek with the rocks. It is a beautiful morning to be out and about, pack on my back. The air is cool. There is not a soul in sight. The Sea of Galilee glitters in the distance. I pick my [...]

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So Close, So Far

March 11, 2014

In the savage heat of July 3-4, AD 1187, the Crusader army thumped east from Sepphoris. They stopped to draw water from a spring, presently located behind the McDonalds with the McDrive Thru (Birket Maskana). The goal of the march was ostensibly to relieve the citadel at Tiberias. In a short time, however, that Crusader [...]

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February 27, 2014

Shemuah (A “heard thing,” “report,” or “announcement”). First, please accept my apology for the interruption. The last few weeks have been overwhelmingly busy. I hope to return to the Jesus Trail soon. Second, hear my thanks to all who explore Bible Lands on a regular basis. Our mutual interest in things geographical, historical, biblical, and [...]

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Dead Reckoning to the Horns

February 19, 2014

I put my nose on the sun. The pavers of the Roman road scatter and disappear but the ridge continues. Cultivated fields drape like panniers from either side of it. I cut through these, occasionally hopping a fence row. I am certain that at some point I will rejoin the “Jesus Trail.” It doesn’t happen. [...]

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February 10, 2014

I bend forward into the sink. Icy water runs across my hair, face, and neck. The cold shocks the leftover night from my head. It is 4:00 am. The call to prayer sounds in the distance. I back away from the flow, close the faucet, and shake like a dog. Satisfied, I pull a shirt [...]

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Down on the Eco-Farm

February 3, 2014

  I tumbled into consciousness in the decade of the 1960s. For some it was a return trip. For me, it was a notable first. That it happened in the state of Oregon where both firs and fungus grow tall, means that flower-power, hippies, and leather fringe jackets will forever trigger childhood flashbacks. (Not to [...]

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The Green Goat

January 27, 2014

Desperate for a good night’s sleep, I exchange the Jesus Trail for asphalt. I backtrack up the highway to an Israeli hostel. It carries a most curious name: Yarok-Az, or the “Green Goat.” It is advertised as an “eco-friendly organic goat farm.” Such a description will charm a sticky tick out of a tight place. [...]

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January 20, 2014

Somehow, I drift off to sleep. It is a feat akin to napping during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. On the floor of the percussion section. Between kettle roll and cannon fire. When I open my eyes at last, the mechanized chaos has been replaced by a soothing sound: the cooing of doves. It [...]

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Monkey Butt

January 13, 2014

(With Christmas season over, we return to the Jesus Trail. I find myself on the edge of the Lavi Forest, between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.) I stand by the road in the wood and wave goodbye to a dear friend. He smiles weakly and waves back. I detect concern in his eyes, as [...]

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How Christmas Trumped Realpolitik – Part II

January 6, 2014

Eb wanders in the room, looking a little disheveled. His hands are in his pockets. “Where have you been, Mr Milk Groootto?” I smirk. He rolls his eyes. “Nowhere.” After the whole Divine Indiscretion fiasco, I wasn’t sure when I would see Eb again. But I’m glad he’s here and I know just what he needs. [...]

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How Christmas Trumped Realpolitik – Part I

December 30, 2013

(Note: In light of the Christmas season, I am taking a break from our Jesus Trail adventures. Today we head south for a visit to Bethlehem. We will return to the Trail in January. Merry Christmas to all our readers!) I hold Josephus by the hand and squint into the wind. Our view is good, but Herod’s was better. [...]

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A Divine Indiscretion

December 21, 2013

(Note: In light of the Christmas season, I am taking a break from our Jesus Trail adventures. Today we head south for a visit to Bethlehem. We will return to the Trail in January. Merry Christmas to all our faithful readers!) There is nothing more natural, beautiful, or healthy than a mother with a baby [...]

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From Plonk to Krug

December 17, 2013

The small eatery in Kafr Canna is abuzz with life. Some folks are take-awayers. Others, like Hani and me, dine in. Or out, I suppose. We sit at a table out front. Between us is a spread of delights: round pita bread, golden falafel balls, and a variety of Arabic “chip dips.” We dig in. [...]

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December 11, 2013

After losing the Jesus Trail a second time, I trudge back up the hill to the center of Mashhad. I peer across the valley, stymied. The irregular outline of Kafr Canna rises in the distance. It is almost one of those “you can’t get there from here” situations. But I know I can. I can [...]

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December 3, 2013

Who doesn’t know the story of Jonah? This Old Testament narrative is an ironic one. For starters, the antihero bears a name that means “dove” in Hebrew (Yonah), yet he acts in a most hawkish way. He receives the “word of YHWH,” the formula for a prophetic call, yet rejects this vocation. By his own [...]

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Duct, Duct, Sluice

November 26, 2013

  I slouch on a stone wall near the entrance to Sepphoris. There, on the Jesus Trail just outside ancient “Bird-town,” the pine trees provide some welcome shade. The pack is peeled off my back and rolls over on the ground. I am a sweaty mess. I retrieve my blue Nalgene bottle from the pack pocket and [...]

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A Frankish Fort

October 18, 2013

Gwuf . . . gwuf . . . gwuf . . . My walking shoes exhale as they press against the stairs. The pitch is steep, the steel rail, helpful. The passage is constructed of creamy limestone, glossy from the rub of countless hands and feet. I reach out to touch the wall. The surface [...]

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Hide and Seek, Seek and Hide

October 7, 2013

Jesus insists that we do the right thing. In his Sermon on the Mount, he calls his listeners “salt” and “light.” We can make a difference. Our deeds are not done in secret. And then he drops the metaphor: “A town (Gk, polis) on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14). I wonder if Jesus [...]

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And then I Stopped Breathing

September 30, 2013

But only for a moment. We were driving up the road to Sepphoris when George, my favorite driver, began stammering:  “Dr. Mark! Dr. Mark!” (George insists on such formalities, even in the midst of crisis.) I awoke from my drooling slumber, oddly enough, still lecturing on the finer points of the Middle Bronze Age. I [...]

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Ribs of Stone

September 23, 2013

The dried seafloor is peeled back to reveal the road. It runs away from me like the pith of a split banana. The creamy ruts of farm vehicles are baked hard and pie-crust frilly on the edges. They issue commentary on a day prior to my own. I’m guessing it was a sweltering one, a [...]

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Breaking Rocks, Gnashing Teeth

September 16, 2013

I drop over the al-Nabi Sa’in Ridge and hit dirt. Up until this moment, my experience of the Jesus Trail has been urban. The apartment buildings step downslope toward the Suffuriyyah drainage basin and exhaust themselves. The ground goes rural. I scamper over a barricade at the end of the street into a construction zone. [...]

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Heaven’s Promenade

September 9, 2013

The bowl that holds Nazareth has a concrete rim. Because of the vista it offers, optimistic developers have dubbed that rim “Heaven’s Promenade.” The reality falls short of this lofty promise. Closer to earth, it is simply the al-Nabi Sa’in Ridge. The Jesus Trail runs along this promenade. Aging exercisers join me here to celebrate [...]

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Nazareth Rise

September 2, 2013

I rise so as not to disturb other sleepers. Three Columbians, two young men and one woman, came into the hostel last night to join the two Canadians and myself already in residence. One of the Columbians took the bunk beside me, another swung into the bunk directly above. I listen to their breathing. It [...]

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The ‘Hic’ in Nazareth

August 26, 2013

Nazareth is a congested place, a town poured in a limestone bowl. Undisciplined roads scrape the steep slopes. Some 100,000 people call this miracle-site home, and oddly enough, in a modern manifestation of honking glory, they all manage to pound away on their car horns at precisely the same time. Daily. The city is a [...]

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A Nazareth Walkabout

August 19, 2013

Linda is not your usual tour-guide. Of course, her tour is not your usual either. For starters, this tour is free. It originates daily from the Fauzi Azar Inn. And even though the focus of our walkabout is Nazareth, the boyhood home of Jesus, the tour is not about the churches or shrines or even [...]

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A Story with Windows

August 12, 2013

The Fauzi Azar Inn is a structure with a story. I learn this from an elegant lady who knows it best. What I consider to be just a place to spend the night, she remembers as a childhood home. Her name is Suraida and she is the granddaughter of Fauzi Azar. Suraida is eager to [...]

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Jesus Trail

August 5, 2013

I step off the public bus in Nazareth. I drag my pack out of the luggage compartment and step away from the curb. The bus fumes away. It is early evening. I draw a deep breath. Here we go. The street is a familiar one. I am just under the Church of the Annunciation. According [...]

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The Nimble Finger-Eater and other Ghanaian Wheels I have Known

July 29, 2013

My first venture into the country of Ghana has gone by quickly. On the whole, it has been a marvelous experience. I have little room to complain. However, if forced to identify one persistent challenge to my visit, it would have wheels. Before I tell you about our problem vehicles, let me tell you about [...]

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Noble Ghanaians

July 22, 2013

If we were to combine everybody’s list of noble Ghanaians, it would be quite a collection. However, since I don’t have the time to contact everybody this afternoon, my own short list must suffice. These individuals are doing big things with few resources. Take note of their names; when we all get to heaven you [...]

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Signs of Faith

July 17, 2013

Watching Ghana fly by my windshield, I see familiar needs in unfamiliar places. I see oddities that I’ve never seen before. I see more West African Dwarf Goats than in all of Kentucky and West Virginia put together. And I see faith and free enterprise combined in (how shall I put this respectfully) other creative [...]

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Reptiles with Attitudes (and DNA trails)

July 10, 2013

When it comes to apex predators, it is hard to imagine anything more terrifying than the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). This reptile grows to lengths of fifteen feet or more and can easily weigh a thousand pounds. In Africa’s muddy water it is without peer; even on land it can be deceptively quick. The Nile [...]

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Ambrosia over Apocalyptic

July 7, 2013

I cannot link cocoa to the biblical world. But it will be fun to try. If cocoa had originated in ancient Israel, the prophets might have been more relaxed. With a little Cadbury on their fingers, the Assyrians or Babylonians or Romans might have been more content to stay home. Why, if chocolate had migrated [...]

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Swinging in the Rain(forest)

July 2, 2013

Edem, KK, James, and myself get the the skinny from the Park Guide. The “swing,” as he calls it, is a third of a mile long, half a football field above the ground, and is “suspended from seven solid trees.” The “solid” part is of interest. I would hate to dangle a half a football [...]

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The Door of No Return

June 27, 2013

At the end of the tunnel hangs an ominous sign: “Door of no return.” Through this door human beings were marched from the bowels of the castle to the holds of slave ships. The transition from a stone to a wooden prison offered the captives one last gaze to the African sun. They would not [...]

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A Church Tour

June 22, 2013

The church is made of people not materials. I witness this in West Africa where believers gather in houses of concrete, mud, or leafy shade. They are rich in joy and hope. My host and former student, Austin, directs an organization known as Training Tomorrow’s Leaders. He and his wife Amanda live in Tamale (TA-ma-leh), [...]

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The African Bush Elephant

June 18, 2013

Moses of the wilderness talks as we follow tracks in Mole National Park. He is a a wealth of knowledge. He describes the African bush elephant’s keen sense of smell. “If someone tries to hurt him, he will take the smell. If that person comes back again, even after many years, twenty years maybe, the [...]

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Moses in the Wilderness

June 14, 2013

We stand on a bluff overlooking the largest wildlife refuge in the country of Ghana. Mole (MOH-Lay) National Park unrolls under our feet, soft and green in the rainy season. Life abounds in this savanna wilderness: baboons, warthogs, birds, crocodiles, antelope, and snakes await the curious traveler, as do lions. But we have driven a [...]

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Africa’s Lumpy Head

June 10, 2013

Africa has a brown lumpy head. Either that or horns. With the Magreb’s Atlas Mountains on the west and the Cyrenian rise on the east, Africa’s upper corners reach up to hook Europe. Between them sags the Bay of Sidra where the lost sailors in the conclusion of the book of Acts feared submarine sand. [...]

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The Charming Man

June 1, 2013

I climb up the metal stairs to see the Charming Man. This is my second attempt today. On the first attempt, the wait was so long that the shebab were sitting on the stairs. I picked my way through them so I could look into the narrow room. The two chairs were full and still [...]

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He Was Slingshot

May 29, 2013

Sling shot (verb): To be slung or flinged. In the center of Urfa is a citadel. On the top of the citadel are two columns. From between these two columns, Abraham was slingshot. That is the story anyway. We stand in the shadow of the columns and peer over the edge. Beneath us is a [...]

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Urfa’s Dergah

May 25, 2013

Urfa is a different town by day. The night before, when we filed though Urfa’s bazar and dergah, it was a cacophony. Buyers and sellers haggled. Families socialized and ate. Hollering, honking, munching, braying and wailing filled the sultry air. Every space was contested. Tanner was wide-eyed. “Welcome to the Middle East,” I had shouted. Dir balak! “Be [...]

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Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake

May 14, 2013

The squad crosses the road. They are intent on the march, despite a lack of herd and shepherd. That some are speckled, spotted, or streaked makes me smile. After all, this is the village of Haran, the exilic home of Jacob the trickster (see his shenanigans in the text of Gen 30:25-43). It is a [...]

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Abraham’s Home

May 10, 2013

I stand in a paved courtyard. Surrounding me is a cluster of dwellings constructed of mudbrick (or adobe). A discovery like this is not unusual in a region where wood is scarce and temperatures are extreme. What is odd is the way in which the overhead space is closed. Bricks are stacked in concentric circles [...]

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Hot Camel Flies

May 2, 2013

It is hot. The breeze blowing across the Mesopotamian plain carries no refreshment, only dust. I do what comes naturally in this part of the world: I recline in the shade of a goat-hair tent and sip hot çay. The tea is served in a tulip glass lacking a handle, so I sip carefully but quickly. [...]

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A Provincial Place

April 28, 2013

The mound emerges through the haze. “There it is!” I shout to my companions. They respond with the kind of noises that men make when they have seen one site too many. They know where this is going. “Now if we can just find the road to get there.” More than 60 years ago the [...]

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A Museum of the Almighty

April 22, 2013

The bearded saints look down. Rows and rows of them. They are lean, dark-eyed, and, despite their great antiquity, ephemeral. From their vantage point high on the walls of the Church of the Holy Cross, they are supreme. This is their domain. I look up. My eyes meet theirs. I feel small. The interior walls [...]

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Manuel’s Labor

April 9, 2013

We approach the church that Gagik built. Except Gagik didn’t really build it. He commissioned an architect-monk named Manuel to do the hard work. Of the 10th century complex erected on the island of Aghtamar, the only structure that survives is the Church of the Holy Cross. We are fortunate. Manuel’s labor is a triumph [...]

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The Island of Imagination

April 2, 2013

We jump from the launch to the landing. Motion arrested, I stand on the concrete slab and try to imagine how Aghtamar, the island stronghold of King Gagik, would have appeared to a tenth century visitor. My imagination is assisted by the sequence of authors who frame the narrative of early Armenian history. It is [...]

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