Valley of the Shadow of Death
In Israel there is a real Valley of the Shadow of Death. It’s a steep, deep and narrow canyon. The sun only hits the bottom of it when it’s directly overhead at high noon. The rest of the time the bottom of the canyon is dark. David probably led his sheep through the valley of the shadow of death as he was growing up. Source: Here
I heard this story told at a funeral recently although the speaker embellished it a little more than the above account. I looked around on the internet and after a while found this account on a blog with over 40,000 subscribers! I was intrigued. Where was this valley?
Most of my internet searches for the location of Psalm 23‘s Valley of the Shadow of Death pointed me to the road running from Jerusalem to Jericho. Here are a couple of examples,
“The Valley of the Shadow of Death is also another name for the road between Jerusalem and Jericho where the good Samaritan helped the man along the way. It was a winding road that was very steep, and shepherds had to take their flocks through it on the way to fields. People would hide in the caves to steal the lambs to eat, so the entire 23rd Psalm was written with this in mind.”
“What is the valley of the shadow of death? I have read that in Israel there is a certain wadi called the Wadi Kelt, which literally means the valley of the shadow. It lies between Jericho and Jerusalem, and is the main route by which shepherds would take their flocks from the Jordan River valley to the hill country of Judea. It has steep cliffs and many caves, and it is easy to get lost there. Bandits would hide in the caves and ambush travelers passing through.”
Many of these accounts also reference Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) which was set on this road.
The opening story is the least common description of The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Interestingly, none of those who tell this story identify the actual location or name of the valley that fits this description. I’ve found nothing to substantiate this account.
The second effort to identify the location of The Valley of the Shadow of Death encounters the same difficulty. None of the explanations that I’ve found cite an ancient source referring to the road running from Jerusalem to Jericho by this name. Yet they all match the road with the name.
At worst this attribution is unsubstantiated, at best, it’s a possibility. Presenting it as a fact seems over confident and misleading. While stating that “the entire 23rd Psalm was written with this in mind” seems irresponsible.
The primary exegetical problem with the quest to find a geographical location is that Psalm 23 is fundamentally a metaphor.
- God is not literally a shepherd herding sheep. He’s a loving God who cares for His people. Therefore, they shall not want.
- God does not literally lead his people (or sheep) beside still waters. But he does provide periods of calm in people’s lives.
- There does not need to be a specific dark valley for us to sense the moments of darkness in our lives, when in some cases death threatens and we feel without hope. We understand that a shepherd would protect his sheep in any valley in which they might sense danger.
In fact, the psalmist immediately abandons the shepherd imagery as he next describes a heavenly banquet.
Any attempt to locate a specific geographical feature arises from focusing upon the word “valley”. Yet the more important word in this title is “death” or “darkness”. However, even this shouldn’t be the focus of the psalm. The psalm revolves around the actions of the Lord. The name Yahweh occurs in both the opening and closing of the poem.
Walter Brueggemann writes in “The Message of the Psalms”,
It is, of course, a psalm of confidence. It recounts in detail, by means of rich metaphors, a life lived in trustful receptivity of God’s gifts. p154