In the Wilderness, with Igal Hecht

For one full year I lived in the Negev Desert. I made my home in the tiny town of Mitzpeh Ramon, perched on the Makhtesh Ramon desert crater. In 1980 it was still a small town. Forty years later it is not much bigger.

Then, there was no internet and no cell phones, only landlines, radio, and the national television station. Not everyone in town had a TV. For ten days out of each month, I would hitchhike a ride to a military base on the Sinai border, check in with the commander, and then walk out to live among the Bedouin where I was conducting ethnographic research. I was alone in the “terrible wilderness” and, despite its hardships, I loved it. I felt like I was time traveling.

This was the Biblical Wilderness of Zin, which scholars believe was and is partly in the Sinai, and that is also in the contiguous Negev desert. From the eastern Sinai there were days where I could see Jebel Hilal in the centre of the peninsula, which is one of the many candidates archaeologists put forward as Mount Sinai, where Moses gave the Children of Israel the Ten Commandments.

My wife Mira and our then-infant son Ben would also go down into the Makhtesh Crater for picnics and hikes together, and when we could, east toward Ein Avdat national park to visit the oasis there with its dramatic desert canyons. There we saw the wild deer of the desert and also spotted them near our apartment in Mitspeh town itself. Once, on a taxi drive through the crater to Eilat on the Red Sea, we saw a pack of wolves in the canyon near sunset.

In those days I read the Bible and all about the Bedouin. In my mind’s eye I could imagine the patriarchs around every bend in the trails that I hiked, behind every boulder and beside every Acacia tree. On some days I could almost hear the three angels speaking to Abraham:

And he lifted up his eyes, and looked: and lo, three men stood by him, and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground.

I often thought to myself, “Someday, someone should take the desert theme that is so central to the Bible and make a series of illustrated documentaries that would entice young people to read the text directly.” That day has finally come.

Igal Hecht is a Canadian filmmaker. Born and raised in Israel, his family brought him to Canada as a young teenager. He once told me, “I felt totally at home there. Although my family emigrated from Russia it was the rhythms of nature there, the history of the return of the Jewish people to their indigenous homeland and the Bible stories which inhabited the landscape for me-all of these formed my imagination. It took me many years living in Canada until as a trained filmmaker I finally allowed myself to make films about Israel and in Israel. From then on I never stopped.”

Igal’s latest series takes the wilderness as its theme. It is an obvious theme for readers of the Bible, but it is not sufficiently highlighted. It is also central to the New Testament. These episodes are hybrid genres, actors re-enacting scenes of Biblical narrative interspersed with “talking heads,” men and women who have spent their scholarly lives reading the primary and secondary sources about these ancient men and women in an attempt to make sense of them for the modern mind.

The viewer of these kinds of films needs to be reminded that these experts are often fluent in ancient Hebrew, New Testament Greek, ancient Aramaic, and sometimes Babylonian, Assyrian, Sumerian, and ancient Egyptian, not to mention having mastered European languages and the various academic arguments about “what really happened in Bible times” that keep the universities and publishing houses so busy. That is to say, they are masters of primary sources and “secondary literature.”

The episodes include the story of Lot, Job, Ruth and Naomi, David, Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus. They can be seen in “historical order” or in any order the viewer chooses. Igal and his actors use the Wilderness of Zin as their backdrop to tell these stories. Then come the talking heads. Each episode goes from mythic dream to down-to-earth interpretation.

I believe this series is really “an invitation to the reader.” Its installments should be used in schools that still teach the Bible, whether secular or religious, for the Bible is no longer taught to many young people anymore. These kinds of films are a way of getting people to read.

Although formal Bible studies are on the wane (they are “politically incorrect”) there is still a lot of public interest in the Bible. Perhaps this is because it is one of the many “enemies” of the cultural Marxists and cultural relativists who now dominate our colleges and universities. Most of this interest is informal and internet-based.

In the 2017 edition of The State of the Bible, its annual survey, the American Bible Society reports that more than half of all Americans who regularly read the Bible now search for related material on the Internet. This shift in how the faithful learn about scripture has resulted in unprecedented public exposure to one kind of Bible study—namely, the academic kind. Major websites now offer the latest that scholars have to say about the Bible—its authorship, its historical accuracy, its proper interpretation—and those websites attract hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month. In an age when interest in the humanities is generally waning, the department of biblical studies is providing enrichment to what has become the most popular online branch of the liberal arts.

As I watch this series on a closed website, I am first transported forty years into my own past, when I wandered these same places, alone, without a cell phone. The silence was phenomenal.

But then I am transported centuries and millennia into the mythic past of Judeo-Christian origins, to reconnect with not only the truths that one extracts from scripture, but with the human dilemmas that these stories first highlighted: the existence of one God, the nature of law, the nature of our soul, the nature of family, and the role of the sacred in our lives. None of these issues have gone away. They are as old as the Bible, and Igal’s films take us there at the push of a button on our computer screens.

Allow yourself to go on this journey with Igal. You won’t regret it.

Image: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0, Public Domain


  • Geoffrey Clarfield

    Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large. Having spent more than twenty years living and working in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he offers readers a cross cultural perspective on the pressing issues of our times. He has contributed numerous articles to the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the New York Post, the Brooklyn Rail, the American Thinker, Books in Canada, and Minerva Magazine.

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