The land of Israel is located on a land bridge between Asia, Africa, and Europe. All travelers, caravans, and ancient armies had to pass through this region in order to move north or south. Communications and traffic between Egypt and Mesopotamia also needed to go through Israel. Although the land was not as rich as the land of the Nile Valley to the south or the Tigris-Euphrates Valley to the northeast, no land in the Fertile Crescent was more strategic. No major cultural development in the ancient Near East came about without the land of Israel playing some part. Israel was, and still is, the geographical key to the Middle East countries of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt – and indirectly affects Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as well.
The land of Israel is often referred to as Palestine, which is derived from the word Philistine, referring to the ‘sea people’ who migrated from Asia Minor and the Aegean islands around the middle of the twelfth century B. C. These people were made to leave the Egyptian delta and settled on the Mediterranean coast.
The land mass of Israel is situated between the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Transjordan Desert to the east. The Mediterranean lies between the continents of Europe and Africa. It is 2,196 miles long (from Gibraltar to the coast of Lebanon) and varies between 100 and 600 miles wide. Its maximum depth is 2.7 miles. Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica, Crete, and Cyprus are the five largest islands. Because of its size, the Old Testament often refers to the Mediterranean as “the great sea”. It is also called “the Western Sea” because of its proximity to the land of Israel. Not only does this great sea serve as Israel’s border, it also has a major effect on Israel’s climate.
The Transjordan desert lies east of the Great Rift Valley. It is a vast wilderness and was occupied only by nomadic tribes during the biblical period. This region extends east between 300 – 700 miles to Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, respectively. It is known as the Syrian Desert in the north and the Arabian Desert in the south. This desert region is noted for its extreme temperatures and arid conditions. The Syrian Desert receives between 4 and 8 inches of rainfall a year; the Arabian Desert receives less than 4 inches a year. Like the Great Sea, the desert has also had a very significant effect on Israel’s climate.
The Lebanon Mountains (10,000 feet) and Mount Hermon (9,100 feet) serve as a natural border to Israel’s north. The southern border of the land is “the brook of Egypt”, or the riverbed. It is dry except during the rainy season, when its flow unites with other wadis, or riverbeds, to drain the northern half of the Sinai Peninsula. These eventually empty into the Mediterranean.
In contrast to its great importance in biblical and religious history, the land area of Israel is small, being approximately the size of New Hampshire or Vermont. In the Bible the expression “from Dan to Beersheba” is used to define the territory, which is about 150 miles.
The land of Israel is divided into four distinct geographical regions: the coastal plain, the hill country, the Great Rift Valley, and the Transjordan highlands.
The coastal plain is a band of sandy soil bordering the Mediterranean Sea. For the most part this sandy soil stretches the whole region along the sea. Except for the projection of Mount Carmel into the sea the coastline is unbroken, so there are not many inlets or bays for harbors, which may be the reason the Israelites were not seafaring people. The sandy soil stretches a span of 3 miles inland in the north and 25 miles in the south. It falls into four natural divisions: the Plain of Asher, the Coasts of Dor, the Plain of Sharon, and the Plain of Philistia.
The hill country is a mountainous region that runs north to south along the biggest portion of the land. That is why many of the cities and towns are built on top of mountains or into the side of mountains. The region is divided into four sections: upper and lower Galilee, the hill country of Ephraim (Samaria), and the hill country of Judah. The highest elevations are in upper Galilee, where the mountains rise to nearly 4,000 feet above sea level. This country had many forests initially until many of them were cut down for settlements.
To the east of the hill country lies the Great Rift Valley. It is a part of a major fault system that extends for the biggest part throughout the whole land. It starts at 1,800 feet above sea level and drops to 1,300 feet below sea level ending at the Dead Sea. It averages about 10 miles in width throughout the land and the bodies of water that fill it ( Sea of Galilee and Jordan River) provide natural barriers between settlers east and west of the Jordan. It is divided into five sections: The Huleh Valley, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and the Arabah.
The region farthest from the sea is the Transjordan highlands, which is a high plateau rising to nearly 4,000 feet. They descend steeply on the west to the Great Rift, and slope gradually on the other side into the Syrian-Arabian Desert. This region is noted for its chilling winds in the winter and its burning winds (siroccos) in the spring and fall. Most of the rainfall flows into the Rift, hence making the other side a desert.
The vast sea on one side and the huge desert on the other side provide for the huge difference in temperature in this small land. They could either be blessed with rain and moist conditions blowing in from the sea, or scorched from the arid air blowing in from the desert. It seems that God placed them in a land where he could either bless their obedience or discipline their disobedience by allowing the desert to have the greater influence when rain was withheld.
The climate in any particular place mostly is in direct relation to distance from the sea and elevation. A pretty sure guideline for rainfall would be that it increases to the north and west (25 to 45 inches annually) and decreases to the south and east (2 to 25 inches annually). The temperature and amount of rainfall increases or decreases in direct proportion to where one is located in the land. Summer temperatures in the hill country range from 65 to 85 degrees, in the Rift Valley, from 80 to 105 degrees. Winter temperatures in the mountains range from 45 to 50 degrees, while the Rift valley ranges from 50 to 70 degrees.
The wind is also a significant factor for them as it blows in from the Mediterranean. The sea breeze is a result of convection; as the land area warms under the hot sun, the warm air rises and the cool air over the Mediterranean flows inland to take its place. The sea-to-land breeze is felt along the coast by midmorning and in the mountains by noon. By early afternoon, the even-stronger breeze reaches the Rift Valley, which brings cooling relief to those who live under the hot sun there.
Another wind that has a very significant effect on Israel’s climate is the scorching wind that comes out of the desert in the east, as described in James 1:11. It sucks the moisture right out of the ground, plants, and inhabitants. This hot, dry desert wind is called sirocco. It usually blows during the transitional seasons at the beginning and end of summer. The siroccos produce the highest temperatures of the year and are especially destructive to spring vegetation. The beautiful wild flowers can wither overnight under the hot blast of the sirocco.
The two maps below show the geographical sections of Israel and where Israel sits as the land bridge to the other great continents of its time.