Experiencing the Bible on location
Growing up in North America, I loved memorizing the Bible, but I couldn’t always understand the stories. For instance, when Peter denied Jesus the third time, a rooster’s crow marked his betrayal. Thanks to long days spent at friends’ farms, I knew that sound well, could see the bird’s cocky strut. However, Jesus’ picture about a camel fitting through the eye of a needle proved puzzling. “What an obscure animal,” I thought back then.
Since moving to the OM Near East Field and crossing the Mediterranean on assignment as a writer for OM Middle East North Africa (MENA), I’ve discovered places, plants, animals and objects mentioned in Scripture. And these bits of the Bible, in real life, have transformed my understanding of God’s Word.
Although I haven’t visited Israel, the obvious choice for Bible travellers, journeys through Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Greece and across the Arabian Peninsula have shed light on many stories. For example, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River happened in the Dead Sea Valley, near a place I can now envision—the long road winding over endless desert mounds, sand shimmering in the summer heat, leading lower and lower until the salty sea suddenly springs into view.
During His ministry, Jesus trekked through Tyre and Sidon, key cities in the south of Lebanon. I’ve strolled along the same ports, noticed fishermen cleaning their nets much like some of the disciples must have done in a country not too far away. Salty air, stinking heaps of fish, men weathered and wrinkled by overnight excursions to sea—these elements set the stage when Jesus called Peter and Andrew to become fishers of men. In Tyre, tall white pillars stretch against the bold blue sky, still lining broken fragments of the old city’s promenade. Though I wonder what the scraps of stones looked like when Jesus was in town, now I can fill in the biblical text with colours and textures. I can see the Mediterranean lip against the shore on one side of the city, green hills rise up on the other.
The Apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion happened on “the road to Damascus.” Current conflicts in Syria have prevented me from visiting that destination, but I had my own hair-raising experience on Lebanon’s side of “the Damascus highway,” my eyes squeezed shut not because of blinding light but because of a reckless minivan driver careening too sharply around the road’s curves.
In Egypt, I snapped pictures non-stop as my bus rolled over a bridge spanning the Nile. Neon lights line both sides of the river these days, but my mind spun backwards to the story of Moses, a baby floating downstream in a basket. In Greece, I climbed Mars Hill in Athens at sunset, remembering how Paul used the rocky platform to make the Greek’s “unknown god” known, to introduce his listeners to their Creator. And, after visiting Lesvos, which the Greeks call Mytilini, I discovered that island had also been a stop on one of Paul’s lengthy voyages.
Plants, animals and objects
When John the Baptist set the stage for Jesus’ arrival, he ate locusts and wild honey. These, too, have been added to my everyday experiences. Coming eye-to-eye with one of the large whitish insects on the other side of my bedroom window wasn’t my favourite experience, but I love eating the local honey stashed in my spice cupboard.
I thrilled to visit Lebanon’s cedar reserves—the famous trees prized in Solomon’s temple and used so often as imagery in Psalms.
From the Near East to North Africa, palm trees dot every shoreline, waving their wide floppy fronds in the wind just like the people of Jerusalem did when they welcomed Jesus into the city.
Even the wise men’s gifts in the oft-recited Christmas story confounded me. Gold, of course, was a reasonable offering, but I couldn’t place frankincense or myrrh until I wandered through a souk (market) in Oman, where vendors hawked small portions of both products for exorbitant prices.
As for those once obscure camels, they came to life on a drive through the Arabian Peninsula. The hump-backed animals roamed freely along the edge of the desert, and I visited a roadside market where the number of camels for sale helped me realise that Jesus told stories about everyday objects and animals his audience understood.
As a writer, I constantly observe the details of my surroundings, knowing that descriptions of sights, sounds, tastes, and smells bring stories to life. For the last two years, I’ve woven those elements into articles about what God is doing now in this part of the world. But as I’ve travelled through the Middle East and North Africa (and beyond) – seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching – stories of what God did 2,000 years ago have also come alive. In writing about His work, I have experienced God’s Word anew.