The Wilderness of Zin – Yahweh’s Kingdom?

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This next post is a rare acknowledgement by yours truly of the approach of a  Jewish festival. The Ten Days of Penitence, beginning with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and culminating with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement ) are nearly upon us and it got me to thinking about desert landscapes.

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I nearly always think of desert landscapes when any of the four main (“Mosaic”) Jewish festivals come around (Rosh Hashanah, Passover [Pesach], Pentecost [Shavuot] and Tabernacles [Succot]) as they were all – according to tradition – conceived during the desert wanderings of the Children of Israel – sometime around the 12th to 11th centuries BC.

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These days most biblical historians, archaeologists  and scholars dispute these wilderness origins for most, if not all of these festivals, dating them instead to reigns of the later kings of Judah – somewhere about the 8th to 7th centuries – or even as late as the Babylonian exile during the 6th to 5th centuries BC.

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But whatever the exact historical origins of these celebrations they are fundamentally related to the worship of the ancient desert god Yahweh – one of the several Israelite/Hebrew components for what would gradually evolve into the eventual single Jewish God.

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Having been fortunate enough to travel extensively throughout most of the “Mosaic Wildernesses” – known today as the deserts of Sinai and the Negev (or Arabah) it is not hard for me to understand how the ancients came to regard these spectacular landscapes as the domain of supernatural beings, and even gods. They have a mystery and a feeling of wonder, which in certain lights and conditions can be almost overwhelmingly sensually intense. The evening winds cascading and rebounding  through the canyons of the southern Sinai mountains at dusk sounds like the angry roar of giants – or even the voice of the gods.

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However, the current scholastic consensus is shifting northwards from southern Sinai to the less lofty, though equally spectacular jagged hills and psychedelic plains of the central Negev – formally known as the Wilderness of Zin – as being the true domain of the Hebrew Yahweh and even the location of his sacred mountain stronghold of Horeb.

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Whatever the eventual verdict regarding the birthplace of the Jewish God will be – assuming a verdict is ever arrived at – Zin remains my favourite place on Earth. I think these images here give you a taste of the “divine” and rugged beauty of the place.

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A very hearty Shanna Tova to you all!

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YAHWEH’S ANVIL – SINAI “THE GREAT AND TERRIBLE WILDERNESS”

In 1978, my oldest friend Simon and I spent the summer as volunteers on a kibbutz in northern Israel. Although our labour was voluntary we were paid a weekly amount to cover basic needs such as cigarettes, booze and staples from the kibbutz general store. Fortunately, we didn’t smoke; the beer was cheap, and we were sufficiently content with the food produced in the members’ dining room that we’d spent relatively little, and by the end of the stay had a reasonable amount of money saved up. We decided to pool our savings with another couple of English guys, Tim and Ben, hire the cheapest car available (which happened to be a typical 70’s yellow Fiat 127) and drive down south to spend a week in the Sinai Desert.

The Sinai was still under Israeli rule in those days and free to roam almost all the way to the edge of the Suez Canal. Little did we appreciate then, that a uniquely peaceful era in the modern history of the Sinai was nearing its end and that we were about to enjoy privileged access to virtually the entire peninsula.

These days, most travellers associate the Sinai primarily with its exotic beach resorts and scuba diving and snorkelling. And little wonder, as the peninsula is blessed with a sublime coastline both above and beneath the waves. Even now, the beach at Dahab remains the most beautiful I have ever seen, and the Sinai’s coral reef―as regards accessibility, scale and quality―is more than a match for any other in the world.

But for me, from the moment we passed through Eilat and entered the peninsula its superlative watery attractions notwithstanding, the feature which most grabbed my attention was the equally extraordinary landscape. The combination of desert plains and craggy mountains in a myriad of different colours; from white, to golden ochre through deep umbers and sienna, and culminating in blues and purples, was simply astonishing. The changing light; the chromatic sunrises; the intense sapphire of the day and the copper-tone sunsets reacted with the multi-surfaced sand and rock, presenting an optical feast of shifting tones and colouration.

In the south of the Sinai Peninsula in particular it was easy to see how its awesome visual dramatics gave birth to Yahweh―the eventual supreme divinity of the Israelites, and which would gradually evolve into the monotheistic Judeo-Christian concept of “God”. And funnily enough, of all the many remarkable aspects of the Sinai, the one which struck me most had an appropriately biblical reference: I recalled, even back then, the passage (Exodus 19:12) where Yahweh warns the Children of Israel not to touch the sacred mount (Mount Sinai / Horeb) “or they shall certainly die”. Until witnessing for myself the “biblical wilderness”―familiar then, only with the mountains of Europe which have nothing like defined parameters, but rather evolved from their neighbouring foothills which themselves slowly emerged from undulating plains―I had always found that to be an odd warning. I even recalled as a child in Synagogue on a Saturday morning, when first reading the relevant passage, asking my grandfather how the poor Israelites were supposed to know where the sacred mount began. But now, looking at the actual mountains of southern Sinai, thrusting forth from ironing-board-flat plains like dark icebergs on a gravelly, sandy ocean, I could immediately attest to the voracity of the biblical author’s knowledge of the geography he was describing. And it sent a shiver down my spine.

Presented here are a handful of the dozens of photos I took on that trip with my trusty old Cannonet 28 on high-speed Ektachrome film. Sadly, most of the transparencies were too damaged to convert, but I think these few―with the help of some digital enhancement―begin to convey to sheer wonder of what we saw on that wonderful trip to that “great and terrible wilderness”.

Finally, and on a lighter note, I recommend viewing these images to the sound of America and their iconic track The Horse With No Name . This song became a kind of unofficial anthem to our trip, and thus the adoptive name of our trusty little Fiat…