Geography is the colorful and multi-dimensional stage upon which all of history’s lessons are unfolded! The word itself is derived from the Greek ge (earth) and grapho (write) and literally means “earth description”. The ancient Greeks coined the terms and were also the first to develop geography as a scientific discipline.
Geography can be broadly defined as the science that describes the surface of the earth, such as its climates, peoples, animals and products.
Most of the Christians today live in a culture and geographical setting that is far removed from the setting in which Biblical events occurred. It is very unfamiliar to modern readers of the scripture for the most part. Yet if we can understand more about the lands that the people in the Bible lived in, it can help us to understand much more about why certain things were done and said a certain way in the Bible.
The special focus of this study will be on the land of Israel or Palestine. A basic knowledge of the physical features of the land is necessary for proper understanding of the Bible’s narrative. It is the record of how God involved himself with his people at certain times and places to make Himself known as a God who had much grace and love and mercy.
When reading I Samuel 17, one might wonder why the Israelite and Philistine armies were at a standoff, why the Philistines did not simply advance across the Ela Valley to engage the outnumbered and very underequipped Israelites. Why did the two forces face each other across the valley for forty days? But a survey of the Ela Valley reveals that it is divided by a deep ravine that the Philistine war chariots could not cross. And, since the ridge on each side was easily defended, making it impossible for either army to attack on foot, it was not until the Philistine champion, Goliath, challenged the Israelite warriors to a contest that the deadlock was broken. This clarifies things just because we know about the geographical conditions.
Studying the text without a basic knowledge of its physical setting is like watching a play without scenery. You just don’t get the full impact of what it is saying to you. This is especially applicable to studying the Bible, a setting where land features are so varied and yet so vital in determining the script and human reactions of what took place.
How can one fully appreciate Israel’s sufferings during the wilderness wanderings without giving attention to the barren and desolate conditions of the Sinai? How can the incident of Gideon and the fleece be meaningful unless we know about the heavy dew that characterizes the Valley of Jezreel? How was David so successful in eluding Saul by hiding in the Wilderness of Judah? An understanding of the geography here illuminates the setting and suggests answers to such questions.
Within the confines of a land approximately fifty miles wide and a hundred and fifty miles long, there is an almost infinite variety of settings. From the slopes of 9,100 foot Mount Hermon to the shores of the Dead Sea which is 1,300 feet below sea level, one moves through lush Galilean greenery to the salt-encrusted fringes of the Judean wilderness. Numerous hills, valleys, rivers, and streams dot the landscape, with few of them not having either biblical or historical significance. The Bible lands are especially notable for their unusually distinctive topographical features. For example, the longest and deepest rift on the earth’s surface runs through the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea and then continues through the Gulf of Eilat into Africa.
Without a real knowledge of the land, a reader tends to project their own settings and surroundings into the text. For example, if you have been to the mountains you might think of the mountains as you have seen them with your eyes and not as they really were in bible times.
As we continue this study, we will look at chronology, the geography of cities and the vastly different climates of Palestine. It should be of great interest and help us to understand much more of what we read in the Word.