Geography of the Bible Lands: Introduction

"Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son" (Heb. 1:1-2). The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us how God revealed Himself to people in the past.

As creator of the universe, God stands outside of time and space. He nevertheless chose to enter a real flesh-and-blood world in order to create, and then redeem, mankind. For hundreds of years God communicated His words and will to an eager, yet usually recalcitrant, people who made their homes in the lands hugging the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Then, in what the Apostle Paul called "the completion of time" (Gal. 4:4), God Himself bent down to enter the human race, choosing to dirty His hands and feet in a small, noisy, and very needy corner of the Roman Empire called Galilee (cp. Phil. 2:5-8).

Unlike sacred books of the world's other great religions, the Bible is full of stories of real people living in real places. God's decision to communicate eternal truths through fallible human beings, to wrap His message around mankind's experiences with rock and soil and water, is both mind-boggling and humbling. It also suggests that a full understanding of God's revelation cannot be gained without an appreciation of the physical context in which that revelation was given.

The writers of the Bible knew well the land in which God chose to reveal Himself, for it was their home. They were intimately familiar with the rugged terrain of Judah, with cold winter rain and scorching desert heat, and they had experienced the relief offered by a small spring of water or the shelter of a crevasse in a mighty rock. They knew what it meant for the hills surrounding their city or village to be filled with enemy troops or to lie down at night secure after a bountiful harvest. Time and again the Bible's historians, prophets, and poets used such information to enliven the divine message they had to tell. Geographical information fills the biblical text, and the biblical authors assumed that their readers knew even more. The land of the Bible has rightly been termed the "playing board of biblical history" (James M. Monson, Regions on the Run, Rockford, IL: Biblical Backgrounds, 1998, p. 3). It is difficult at best to understand fully the instructions (the Bible) without the board (the land) on which the events of the Bible were played out.

Many people journey to the lands of the Bible with the hope of walking where Jesus walked. In spite of the established pilgrimage spots in the Holy Land, however, it is just not possible to say with certainty that Jesus stood on spot X when he healed such-and-such a person or delivered such-and-such a teaching. On the other hand, the location of many biblical cities, hills, valleys, and the like are known, and by carefully studying the geographical settings of the Bible, the serious reader can enter more deeply into its world. It becomes possible to follow Joshua's army into the hill country of Canaan after laying waste to Jericho. One can climb to the crest of the hill on which David's Jerusalem stood and still experience the energy of the Songs of Ascent (Pss. 121-134). Jesus must have often gazed over the Sea of Galilee in the early mornings from the hills above Capernaum (cp. Mark 1:35); doing so today helps the serious Bible reader appreciate Jesus' call to ministry—and one's own place in the kingdom of God.

There is yet another reason understanding the geography of Bible lands is important for understanding the Bible. God created the features of the lands of the Bible in the way that He did—and then chose to bring His people there (Gen. 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:12-18)—for a reason. In fact, the lands of the Bible are uniquely suited to teach lessons about the nature and character of God as well as the ways that His people should respond to Him.

The various natural features of the lands of the Bible combine to form a setting in which personal or national security was always in doubt. With limited rainfall, an overabundance of rocks but scarcity of good soil, and a position situated alongside a major international highway on which the armies of the world marched, the lands of the Bible were well acquainted with lifestyles that demanded their inhabitants depend on God to survive. In today's maddening times, the lands of the Bible offer lessons of peace and security that should be heard and heeded.

THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL PERIODS OF THE NEAR EAST

TERM APPROXIMATE DATES
Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) ?-18,000 BC
Epipaleolithic (formerly Mesolithic—Middle Stone Age) 18000-8300 BC
Neolithic (New Stone Age) 8300-4500 BC
Chalcolithic (Copper Stone Age) 4500-3300 BC
Early Bronze Age 3300-2000 BC
Middle Bronze Age 2000-1550 BC
Late Bronze Age 1550-1200 BC
Iron Age 1200-586 BC
Babylonian and Persian Periods 586-332 BC
Hellenistic Period 332-63 BC
Roman Period 63 BC-AD 324
Byzantine Period AD 324-638