Jesus' homeland—barely the size of New Jersey—lies on a narrow strip of land between the desert and the deep blue sea. That's the Syrian Desert and the Mediterranean Sea.
Tiny though the Jewish homeland was by international standards, its location was strategic—for soldiers on the march, caravan merchants on the move, or travelers on their way to visit long-distance relatives. Israel, as we call the land today, provided the most hospitable land bridge connecting southland regions, such as Egypt and the rest of Africa, with nations and empires to the north, such as Greece and Rome.
Travelers headed north or south typically decided to pass through Israel rather than risk the hazards of traveling by sea or desert.
During Jesus' few years of ministry, he never traveled more than about 70 miles (113 km) from his hometown of Nazareth. Yet in those relatively meager miles, he covered a continent's worth of varying landscapes. The country is that geographically diverse: from barren deserts to lush tropics, sandy beaches to snowcapped mountains, and fertile fields to desolate wastelands.
Israel's landscape also lays claim to fame in several geological categories:
Rolling hills make up most of Israel. The biggest highland area is the ridge on which Jerusalem sits. It's about 80 miles long and 20 miles wide (130 x 30 km). And it's the reason Jerusalem-bound travelers in Jesus' time always said they were going up to Jerusalem. Whether travelers were coming from the north, south, east, or west, they always had to climb the Judean hills to reach Jerusalem.
The famous Mount of Olives, where Jesus prayed the night of his arrest, is actually a tiny ridge of hills that is part of this highland area called the Judean hills.
When Joshua and the Israelites invaded Israel more than 1,000 years before Jesus, they chose this area to fight most of their battles. That's because the hills gave a tactical advantage to their lightly armed militia over the heavily armed and slow-moving Canaanites, with their chariots.
Jesus was a man of the hills. He grew up in Galilee, among the gently rolling hills of northern Israel. His hometown of Nazareth sits atop a ridge near the sprawling Jezreel Valley—also known as the Valley of Armageddon, where some say the final battle between good and evil will take place.
Called the Great Rift Valley, this tear in the earth's crust stretches 4,000 miles (6,400 km)—from Syria, through Israel, all the way to the country of Mozambique near the southern tip of Africa. That's the distance from Anchorage to Miami, as the snowbird flies. Or from Moscow to Madrid and back again.
The entire rift valley, a trench that averages about 30-40 miles (48-64 km) across, is prone to earthquakes, such as the one that occurred the moment Jesus died: “The curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened” (Matthew 27:51-52).
Another tremor followed on Sunday morning, at the Resurrection: “Sud-denly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it” (Matthew 28:2).
The Bible reports many other earthquakes. One terrified a Philistine army that was preparing to fight the Jews (1 Samuel 14:15). Another was big enough to serve as a calendar landmark for the ministry of the prophet Amos: “He received this message in visions two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah” (Amos 1:1). And God may have used an earthquake to bring down the walls of Jericho, which lies inside the rift valley, near the Jordan River.