JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: This is John Burnett in Texas. They say an oilman has to be a gambler, but can he be a prophet? Zion Oil and Gas, based in Dallas, is a publicly-traded company that believes it is commanded by the Bible to search for oil in Israel, both to help the Holy Land and make money for investors. The 22 employees of Zion Oil in Texas and Israel, and many of its 30,000 investors, believe the company is on a mission from God.
JOHN BROWN: God creates this. He provides the money and the place where to drill. Now, why we haven't got the oil yet, I don't know. I have never drilled one oil well I didn't expect to find oil.
BURNETT: That's Zion's founder and CEO, John Brown. He's a hulking, 73-year-old evangelical Christian who went to Israel, had a religious experience, came back and sold his business in Michigan, then started Zion with no prior experience in the oil industry.
Brown sits in Zion's Dallas office, where there's a picture of him kissing Jerusalem's Wailing Wall.
BROWN: I was an alcoholic that God saved. Took me from being in the tool business and sent me to Israel and told me he was going to do something. Zion Oil & Gas was nothing. I didn't even think about something like that at that point.
BURNETT: Zion has so far drilled four wells in Israel, all of them dry holes, which is disappointing. In recent years, wildcatters struck a huge natural gas field off the coast of Israel. And as Emily Harris just reported, an Israeli company - also using the Old Testament as its inspiration - has found oil onshore in commercial quantities.
Zion is still waiting for its prophetic payday.
BROWN: This is just a small map here...
BURNETT: Brown reaches into a drawer and pulls out a map of the Biblical Twelve Tribes of Israel to show where he wants to drill next.
BROWN: See Megiddo, here?
BROWN: That's the head of Joseph. That's the Jezreel Valley. See...
BURNETT: Zion's motto is geology confirming theology. Brown believes the Book of Deuteronomy alludes to an Israeli oil bonanza.
BROWN: And he talks specifically about the land of Joseph and the blessings of the deep that lies beneath. It doesn't say specifically oil. There's a huge possibility it could be, let's put it that way.
BURNETT: Never mind that Old Testament scholars say the ancient Hebrew word in Deuteronomy is olive oil, not petroleum.
Down the hall, a geologist named Lee Russell sits in a room surrounded by seismic maps of Israel. Russell spent 35 years working for major oil companies before coming to Zion. As a devout Christian, he shares John Brown's vision but he only recommends drilling wells based on modern geo-science.
LEE RUSSELL: It just so happens that where I see the right geological ingredients coming together, they're not in conflict with the blessing being on the head of Joseph.
BURNETT: Zion Oil is listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Since going public in 2000, the company has burned through $130 million. According to Morningstar, Zion's stock has lost 90 percent of its value in the past five years.
Not surprisingly, Zion depends on investors of faith. People like Andy Barron, an orthodontist in Temple, Texas.
ANDY BARRON: I used to have a lot more money in it than I do now.
BARRON: But with my belief that God is in charge of all of it and it's all his anyway, I think the upside of betting on God is pretty good.
BURNETT: A former Zion board member, who asked not to be named, was more blunt. Zion could find produceable oil, he said, but it's undercapitalized; the company doesn't have enough money to drill enough wells in an expensive environment like Israel.
Zion President Victor Carrillo agrees the company is an extremely risky investment.
VICTOR CARRILLO: No one that I know of at Zion pushes: Hey, you should invest in this company. You have to convince yourself, or God has to convince you, that you should invest in this company.
BURNETT: If Zion receives a new drilling permit from the Israeli Petroleum Commissioner and raises new revenue, the company hopes to drill its next deep well sometime in 2015. The question is whether Zion Oil & Gas can survive long enough to see if the prophesy is fulfilled.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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