Once upon a time in a faraway land…
This is how many fairy tales begin, but for many, they see the Bible in the same light. While it is true that Israel is more than 6,700 miles from America, seeing it in this light causes many people to view the Bible as a fairy tale story that happened long ago; rather than a true story that happened with real people in real places.
How does a Western-minded student of the Bible, in the twenty-first century, overcome the more than 6,700 miles of space and two millenniums that separates them from the land of the Bible? How can we step out of our world and into the world of the Bible, so that the accounts of Scripture become more than fairy tales in a faraway land?
The answer to these questions and more are found in our hermeneutical approach to studying Scripture. Many textbooks of hermeneutics challenge the Bible student to scrutinize the repetition of words and to identify the antecedent to a pronoun. Perhaps, even more, important is to discover the verbs and even more specifically the main verb that drives the passage. We cannot forget also the importance of studying the original languages and ensuring our interpretation based on the tense of the Greek verbs that tell a story in themselves.
Yet, there is an area of hermeneutical discipline that is often overlooked and that is the geographical references. We have a tendency to play the role of the death angel in the book of Exodus and “Passover” these hard to pronounce foreign places and regions. As a result, they (the geographical references) become “Once upon a time in a faraway land”.
If we are ever going to grasp the truth of Scripture with real people and real places we must accept that all Scripture is given by inspiration, including the geographical references. If we really desire to know more about the God of the Word and the Word of God we must be immersed in the geography of the Bible. (Click link to Tweet). Don’t let this frighten you, it may surprise you how simple this can be.
First, know that a great percentage of the Bible’s events happens in the land of Israel. This brings a great deal of aid to our study because we discover that Israel is a relatively small area. Sometimes it helps to make comparisons for better understanding. To help imagine the size of Israel in our context you can picture that Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey. If you need a second comparison, you can imagine that Israel is about one half the size of Lake Michigan.
Next, it is helpful in preaching or teaching or studying to have an illustration to reference. If we can break down the geography in simple illustrations it opens the world of biblical understanding and causes the Bible to burst with new life. Let me share a simple illustration that I often use and has become well-known in the church I pastor.
This simple illustration gives me great liberty in making application to a text concerning its geographical reference. For example, I could say that Jerusalem is approximately located just below the right side of your wrist (looking at the photo it would be to the left). Now, I can easily show that Jerusalem is in Judea and just west of the Dead Sea. I could easily add that at your elbow is where Jesus invested the vast majority of His ministry. At the top of the elbow is Capernaum which served as Jesus’s ministry headquarters.
With this one simple illustration, I can give a geographical context to almost anything that occurred in the land of Israel. Yet, there is more than just picking out the geographical location on a map. The geography also gives aid in understanding the reality of what is being taught. For example, when Jesus delivers the great Sermon on the Mount, He shares that a city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. When you understand the geography of the Mount in which He shared this it is easy to see His focal point. The mountainous terrain that surrounds the Sea of Galilee, near where Jesus shared this lesson is absorbed into the darkness of the night sky, that is until one lamp is lit.
Below is a picture I took while on a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee at night. This would not have been the exact focal point of Jesus when sharing this lesson, but it will help you to see His application. It is very practical and logical how He would have been able to illustrate this simply using the geographical idiosyncrasies of the area surrounding Him.
Finally, the geography also enhances our ability in preaching, teaching and studying to make application to the text of Scripture. One such illustration of this is found in the Exodus account. According to Exodus 13 when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt God did NOT lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near. Instead, God led them in the opposite direction to the southern area of the Sinai Peninsula. In reading this text, we cannot fully appreciate what is happening without understanding the visual aid of geography. So, take a moment to examine the reality of what is happening geographically.
Now that you can see the geography it causes us to ponder why God would lead His people so far in the opposite direction away from the Promised Land. If they had traveled by the way of the land of the Philistines the distance is such that they could have been in the Promised Land in a matter of days. Yet, instead, it took several months just to reach Sinai where they spent a year before heading north to Kadesh Barnea. Yet, when we study geography along with the spiritual application we learn that had the Israelites traveled through the land of the Philistines they would have never entered the Promised Land because they would have been fearful when they met the Egyptian guards in the area or else the Philistine army. What seemed like the longer route, actually became the closest way for them to arrive in the Promised Land. Ironically, many times, what seems like the long route in our lives, proves to be the closest route to following where God wants us to be.
Travis Farris is the Senior Pastor at Walnut Memorial Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. He is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as a graduate of Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in Pineville, KY. Travis is also immediate past president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference.
He is married to Jessica Farris and they have three children JaiCee, Silas and Titus. Travis is an avid hunter in addition to enjoying biblical geography and apologetics.
You can follow Travis’s blog at letuspresson.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org