Baca - is it Mecca?

It is sometimes claimed that the Bible mentions Mecca. This is obviously worth a little investigation, as I hope to do in this short paper.

Where Does the Claim Come From?

In Surah 3:96, Mecca is given the name Bakkah:

Verily, the first House (of worship) appointed for mankind was that at Bakkah (Makkah), full of blessing, and a guidance for Al-`Alamin (the mankind and jinns).

The Bible, in Psalm 84:5,6, mentions the valley of Baca:

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs: the autumn rains also cover it with pools. (NIV)

These two quotes, taken together, have been seen to imply that Psalm 84 is talking about making the pilgrimage to Mecca. One notable example is an article by Dr. M S M Saifullah. But the argument is made by many Muslim speakers including Dr. Jamal Badawi.

Is the Claim Justified?

There are several reasons why this claim cannot be sustained. Even without reference to scholarly works, a brief look at the passage itself makes the situation clear.

The whole psalm focuses on God's sanctuary and how the writer loves to spend time there. The author is one of ‘the Sons of Korah’ and internal evidence points to it being written after the building of the temple in Jerusalem by Solomon. Because of the psalm's focus on the sanctuary, there are several phrases which describe features of it, enabling us to evaluate the claim that it is Mecca:

These five points count heavily against the claim outlined above. Firstly (I am open to correction on these points), I do not suppose that Muslims would accept the idea of Allah dwelling in the Ka'aba. I certainly am not aware of this way of thinking in Islam. On the other hand, the Bible repeatedly mentions the temple in Jerusalem as God's dwelling place, even though he is not limited to a building. In 1 Kings 8:27, Solomon, on the completion of his great temple, said this:

'But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!' (NIV)

This makes it clear that the idea of God dwelling in the temple is figurative and not that he is limited to one building. However, it shows clearly that this way of thinking is found in the Bible.

Secondly, I am unaware of any altar which is given prominence at the Ka'aba, whereas the altar was an integral part of the tabernacle and then the Jerusalem temple, necessary for the sacrificial system instituted by God. (Exodus 27:1-8, 1 Kings 8:64).

Thirdly, the Ka'aba is empty and certainly no humans dwell in it. Yet Psalm 84 mentions those who dwell in God's house. This makes no sense unless it is the Jerusalem temple, which had rooms within its courts (1 Chronicles 28:11,12) for those who were responsible for its upkeep and ceremony.

Fourthly, the pilgrims in Psalm 84 are certainly not on their way to Mecca, as their destination is given as Zion. Mount Zion is one of the hills on which Jerusalem is founded. In the Bible Zion is often used synonymously with Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2).

This point is made even stronger by examining the word used for ‘pilgrimage’ in Psalm 84:5. I don't claim to know much Hebrew or Arabic, so someone who does is welcome to correct me on this. However, I do know that both languages are Semitic and close in many ways, having the same or similar words for lots of things. That being the case, we might expect the Hebrew word translated here as ‘pilgrimage’ to be similar to the Arabic hajj. In fact, it is not. The only similar Hebrew word that I could find in my exhaustive concordance was hag, which is often translated as ‘festival’ and therefore seems to me to be in some way related to the Arabic hajj.

The Hebrew word used in Psalm 84:5 is from a completely different root to this and is usually translated as ‘road’ or ‘highway’. Thus it seems from a brief consideration that the phrase is literally like saying in English ‘those ... who have set their hearts on the highway’, meaning the way they must take to get to Jerusalem. So even the ideas of pilgrimage in the Bible and the Qur'an have a different emphasis. Just because the English translation of Psalm 84:5 says ‘pilgrimage’ we can't simply equate it with the Hajj.

Fifthly, there is no recognised function of doorkeeper for the Ka'aba, as far as I am aware. However, this was an official job at the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 25:18).

What Then is the Valley of Baca?

Baca has been translated either as ‘weeping’ or ‘balsam trees’ (which grow in dry places). It could be a real place, in which case it was a valley through which the pilgrims passed during their journey. Alternatively, it could be figurative. In this interpretation, even the dry, arid places through which the pilgrims pass are brought alive by their expectant joy as they near their destination. In either case, their pilgrimage is clearly to Jerusalem, as evidenced by the rest of the psalm. Why on earth would Jews, living in Israel and on their way to Jerusalem, take a huge detour through Mecca?

Whatever our conclusion as to the true identity of the valley of Baca, I think that I have made it fairly clear that the only link between it and the Bakkah of the Quran is a superficial similarity in name. The further details about the location point away from the two being identical. Since that is the case, why should we not link the Bakkah of surah 3:96 with any other place having a similar sounding name? Here is a quote from the article mentioned above:

...we often find this word in the names related to rivers and wadis, such as Wadi al-Baka in the Sinaitic district and Baca on the wadi in the central Galilee area, W of Meroth.

This shows that there are other places with similar names. Why then, do we not hear people claiming that the Quran is referring to these? It seems to me that it is because there is a prior commitment on the part of some to finding evidence for the Quran in the Bible. This, if found, would strengthen the claim that Islam is completely in line with all God's earlier revelations. However, in this case, it cannot be sustained.

I hope that this short paper has made it clear that the Baca of the Bible cannot be the Bakkah of the Qur'an. Rather than being a justifiable theory, it seems that some people, in their zeal to verify the Qur'an by using the Bible, have jumped all too quickly to a mistaken conclusion. A few superficial similarities are offset by several clear contradictions. It is often easy to bend the facts to fit our own theories, rather than forming our theories around the facts. This is never easier than in religion. Both Christians and Muslims are open to this temptation: I hope that fair-minded people will see this as a case in point.

Toby Jepson

Further discussion: [1], [2], [3], [4]

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