EIGHT REASONS TO OVERCOME THE GAP OF BIBLICAL GEOGRAPHY
A cartoon has a student responding to his teacher about learning to read maps. The student explained, “My father’s GPS says I don’t need to learn how to study maps.” In similar fashion, I am asked, “Why do we need to study biblical geography? Just tell me why? Who cares about it anyway?”
Geography mattered in American education until the early part of the 20th century. Americans were expected to learn the four core subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography.
Our founders, especially John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, argued that learning geography was practical and useful. These men asserted geography instilled a national identity so that the citizens of the United States would know how they fit into the new country and within the world.
Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem asserted that biblical geography was vital when around AD 450 he reportedly said, “Geography is the fifth Gospel.” Geography studies weather patterns (climate), minerals and soils (geology), and the hills and valleys (topography) of a certain land.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT THE GAP OF BIBLICAL GEOGRAPHY?
The Gap of Biblical Geography acknowledges that most Bible students have not traveled to the lands of the Bible. Therefore Bible students are predisposed to imposing their own geographical frameworks upon the biblical story. In addition, some geographical places may have changed due to natural disasters: earth quakes and floods, as well as man-made changes, such as war, agricultural endeavors, and construction projects.
Sadly and slowly modern public educational intuitions have pushed the study of geography into an irrelevant zone. Bible colleges, universities and seminaries have hidden the geography courses as electives with little direct emphasis on the study of geography.
WHAT IS BIBLICAL GEOGRAPHY, ANYWAY?
A study of biblical geography focuses on the land of Israel, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Mesopotamia and Persia. The student should note that the life in the ancient world was essentially controlled by the geography of the land: people settled where water, food, possible production of livestock and protection could be found.
So why even try to overcome this gap? Below are eight reasons to help explore why the biblical student should seek to overcome this gap of biblical geography.
Eight Reasons to Seek to Overcome the Gap of Geography?
Not all reasons are of equal value, but all are essential in defining the motivation for the student to devote the time in this discipline.[i]
First, biblical geography allows the biblical student to identify with the biblical characters.
The student may even begin to develop a sense of comradeship with them. For example, the student may be able to picture himself passing through the Valley of Elah between Succoth and Azekah along with young David. Or maybe the student can understand something of what David felt as he hid in the caves of Ein Gedi as King Saul was seeking to kill him. Maybe the student can imagine what it would be like to accompany Elijah when he escapes from Jezebel after killing the prophets of Baal? Perhaps the student can envision walking on the water with Peter or being associated with Paul as he makes his second missionary journey into Europe? The student should have some idea about the Via Ignatia as Paul travels through Philippi and Thessalonica. Who would want to miss out on this journey?
Second, the biblical world is like a stage upon which the drama of the Bible takes place.
In modern terms, it is like a football field upon which the players participate and strategize in order to win the game of life. The stage or field allows the student to better understand the motives of the players. Why do kings behave a certain why? Why do armies, like Israel’s army not engage the enemy for forty days even though the nine foot giant, Goliath, taunts them? God designed every hill, valley, river and mountain in Israel. God selected the actors and wrote the script. So, does the geographical stage make any difference? Why do Gentiles settle in certain areas of the land of Israel and not in other areas? Why does the Hellenistic culture penetrate the high population areas and not the sparely populated regions of the western mountains?
A third reason for examining biblical geography provides historical accuracy to the people who live in the land.
Certain periods of biblical history are identifiable because of the geographical features mentioned by the biblical narrative. Caesarea Philippi adds historical dimension to Jesus’ questions about, “Who do men say that I am?” and Peter’s response, “the Son of the Living God.” This is really an apologetic reason for studying the geography of the lands of the Bible.
Reason number four: Context and background underscore accurate interpretations of the biblical text under study.
Knowing about the geographical features of the Sea of Galilee will enable the biblical student to picture the sudden storms which come upon this Sea. The student will know that the waves of the Sea of Galilee rage and dash upon the objects in its way. The student’s knowledge of the patterns of climatic features which cause the phenomena will stand a better chance of correctly dividing the Word of God. The geographical backgrounds allow the student to participate in the action or events that are recorded in the biblical text. The geographical context is often neglected in biblical interpretation and exegesis.
A fifth reason surrounds the value or relationships between the biblical people.
Geographical features, then as well as today, often serve as dividing lines to separate people or to unite people. Often the mountains were hiding places from enemies and other times they were places of joint worship. Certain times kings would unite from one geographical section to fight against another group from the other side of the desert or the seas. This allows the student to be able to see how one group of people related to another or how one biblical person interacted with others: brothers, father and children, husbands and wives, kings with subjects and the list can go on. The land often caused some people to be friends with other peoples and enemies with still another group.
A sixth reason highlights that the people in the Bible were real people who lived in real places at a very historical period.
The realization that these people are real and not mythological characters makes the seriousness of the Bible much more marked. The student needs to be familiar with biblical geography because it will allow the student to understand that God was involved in the lives of His people at particular times and specific places. G. Ernest Wright asserts, “Geography, history and religion are so inextricably bound together in it [the Bible] that the religious message cannot be truly understood without attention to the setting and conditions of the revelation.”[ii] Knowing about the geography around which people lived helps the Bible student to appreciate what was important to the folks living then and how they conducted their lives.
The seventh reason provides the student with the opportunity to participate in the biblical drama.
As the student deepens his/her understanding of the geographical features, he/she will be able to understand the text with a deeper meaning. The geographical areas were quite important to those living in the past centuries and had special meaning to them, just as where the student lives has special meaning to him/her.
Perhaps the most important reason for studying biblical geography has to do with the fact that the Bible is replete with geography.
One scholar says, “Of all the writings held sacred by the world’s religions, only the Bible presents a message linked to geography.”[iii] This information does not provide the tourists with a detailed geographical itinerary. The Bible is not a geographical handbook. As a matter of fact, the geographical references found in the Bible are almost incidental.[iv] Another author concludes, “Thus, in the land of the Bible, geography and history are so deeply interwoven that neither can be really understood without the help of the other.”[v] To overlook or refuse to consider the geography of the Bible is paramount to cutting holes in our Bibles. Who would ever do such a thing?
- H. Dodd explains in his History and the Gospel, “Some religions can be indifferent to historical fact, and move entirely upon the plane of timeless truth. Christianity cannot.”[vi] The very works of God in history serve as the foundation of the Christian faith. God showed Himself as the deliverer at the Exodus and as the Resurrection at the resurrection of Jesus. To try to do theology without acknowledging the role of history and geography is equivalent to denying the very foundation of the faith.
NEXT WEEK – WE WILL EXPLORE HOW TO OVERCOME THE GAP OF GEOGRAPHY.
[i] Terry C. Hulbert, Introduction,” Walking in their Sandals. Version 2.0 CD. (ND). Many of the items in this section are highlighted in a summary fashion by this CD. It is a great resource for any student seeking to gain a greater understanding of biblical geography of Israel. A link is provided for updates and other materials that Dr Hulbert and Columbia Seminary have developed.