Introduction

Everyone loves a good Bible story. Some stories, like David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, and the Birth of Jesus have entered the mainstream of popular culture. Others, such as Sisera’s Encounter with Jael, Ahab’s Battle at Ramoth-gilead, or Nehemiah’s Nighttime Ride, though not as well known, are still a good read. Conflict, intrigue, resolution, local color, character, points of relevance—these and other aspects of storytelling energize the biblical narrative in ways that for centuries have prompted the hearts and minds of Bible readers to hear and respond to the touch of God in their lives.

Great stories are told of great people, and in one sense all of the people of the Bible were great people (some were great in their courage and faith; others in their rascality). The selection of people whose stories are traced here are typical of the whole, and touch on conditions common to all humanity. In this sense their stories transcend time and place. But they’re are also grounded in time and place, and it is this aspect that gives them a tangible sense of reality. Abraham left his homes in Ur of the Chaldees and Haran, sophisticated places of opportunity and wealth, to go to Canaan, a rocky land with comparatively few natural resources and a marginal economy; understanding the where helps us to ponder the why. Ahab fought battles and forged alliances on all sides of his expanding kingdom; by mapping his policies on the historical landscape of the mid-ninth century b.c. we are better able to understand not only the realities that he faced but also the response of his contemporaries, people like Jehoshaphat, Elijah and Elisha. Let’s listen to what Jesus said, but also to what he did:

Again Jesus began to teach by the sea, and a very large crowd gathered around him. So he got into a boat on the sea and sat down, while the whole crowd was on the shore facing the sea. He taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Consider the sower who went out to sow.…(Luke 4:1-3)

The writers of the Bible knew the land in which God chose to reveal Himself well, 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 securely at night after a full harvest. Time and again the Bible’s historians, prophets and poets infused the divine message they had to tell with geographical information. In fact, such information fills the biblical text—and the biblical authors assumed that their readers knew even more.

This work focuses on aspects of history, geography, culture and personality, exploring ways that tangible realia such as these impacted the thoughts, decisions and actions of some of the great people of the Bible. The working assumption is that if we can learn to appreciate details of time and place, we can better see the contours of the characters that grace the pages of the Bible. Such factors of real life, as they can be known through literary, geographical and archaeological data, when reasonably combined with a common-sense approach based on observable patterns of behavior of people, groups and nation states in and around the Middle East today, yields a certain familiarity—even a kind of intimacy—with the people of the Bible that is too often lacking otherwise. By so gazing into their eyes, we can not only begin to grasp the greatness of their stories and the messages that these stories contain, but begin to see ourselves lingering on the corners of the page or even ducking between the lines of the text. Herein lies the immediacy of the eternal truths that the Bible contains. The proof is in the telling—and in the living.