I was no more than a child in ‘single figures’ when quite by chance I came across a very old and well-worn volume in the bookcase above my father’s bureau, bearing on the flyleaf a faded and shakily handwritten inscription. It read, “Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well”. Later I was to discover its source· and this, in turn, led me to a truly fascinating account of its origins and meaning.
Historically, the valley of Baca was situated in Palestine along a route, used in olden times by pilgrims on route to Zion··. I also came to learn that in those far-off days it possessed an infamous reputation as an arid, parched and infertile valley. Nothing but bush and scrub grew or could grow and seemingly, many aspiring pilgrims perished in Baca’s barren and desolate wasteland for lack of sustenance, especially water. Arabs from that region and era also applied the name “baka” to a bush similar in shape and size to the Balsam tree, which is known to emit a ‘tear’ of acrid white sap. The expression “valley of Baca” thereafter took on a figurative connotation, perhaps with play on the Hebrew word “bakah”, i.e. to weep, “the valley of weeping”. (You may already have noted some similarity to the manner in which we in our day refer to an area near the equator, namely the Doldrums, known for its dearth of wind to fill the sail when at sea. We too use the term figuratively, when we describe a low energy mood state as “passing through the Doldrums”).
Now what options, we might ask, would be open to any aspiring traveller seeking to traverse the dreaded valley of Baca? What viable choices would actually be available to would-be pilgrims en-route to Zion? Well, the first and most obvious choice I suppose would have been to have called it off altogether, i.e. simply abort the journey of pilgrimage there and then. This may seem to be an unlikely choice. However, since we are reviewing all options it is a distinct possibility wouldn’t you think? A second option might have been to continue along the scheduled route, bearing its hardships stoically, whilst at the same time looking to greener uplands on the further side. And a third choice would have been to make camp, simultaneously deploying ‘scouts’ to investigate alternative routes.
In fact, and based on what these words suggest, one such leader apparently found and deployed a yet further alternative – namely that of actually passing through the Valley of Baca itself. Then, right at the point and place of crisis – and where others had called it off (or perished) – he dug a well, thus providing support and refreshment to his entire travelling party. (It would, beyond that of course, serve to bring relief and sustenance to any who travelled that road in future days). Hence the words, “Who passing through the valley of Baca, make it a well.”