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Israel: Understanding the Setting of the Story of the Bible

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Simply put, setting is the location of the events of a story. It also serves as more than a backdrop. “The setting is important to our understanding of character type and of what to expect, as well as to the emotional value that arises from the conflict. As we need to know a character’s gender, race, and age, we need to know in what atmosphere she or he operates to understand the significance of the action.”1

Authors use setting to ground us in the story and to give us cues as to the theme. The authors (and Author) of the Old Testament are no different. They evoke visual scenes using places and imagery both to engage the reader (or listener) and to add nuance to the story. Contemporary readers, distanced from these scenes geographically and temporally, miss the vivid pictures and signposts. “We often miss imagery in the Old Testament stories because we are unfamiliar with the historical realities they describe. We do not know what images to associate with the words.”2 Familiarity with archaeology, historical studies, and the geography of Israel assist us with imagining the world of the original authors in a way that draws us into God’s story and lends a greater understanding. The text comes alive.

This brief survey of selected settings in the Bible gives an introduction to how setting functions and helps give readers a picture in their minds of the world of the Bible.

Jaffa (Joppa)

Located in present day Tel-Aviv, Jaffa, or Joppa, has a violent history. Nations fought over control of this port. It passed hands between the Philistines, Israelites, Assyrians, Greeks, Maccabeans, Romans, Arabs, and Crusaders. From this port also Solomon received cedars from Lebanon to build his temple (2 Chronicles 2). Later, lumber was again shipped to Joppa to rebuild the temple when the Israelites returned to the land after captivity (Ezra 3).

More importantly, at this port, Jonah ran from God’s task for him. In a time during a political uncertainty and religious destitution in Israel, God asked Jonah to take his message of forgiveness to Nineveh—Israel’s enemy. Jonah is the only prophet who ran from God.

Approximately 800 years later, in Jaffa, God gave Peter a vision. He repeated the message he gave Jonah: take my message of forgiveness to the outsider (Acts 11). While the message was not new, its implementation would be on a larger scale.


After Peter received the vision, while “puzzling over what the vision he had could signify” (Acts 10:17), Cornelius, an officer in the Roman army in Caesarea, summoned Peter in order to hear God’s message.

Caesarea, a rich port housing a temple dedicated to Caesar, a theater, an amphitheater, a Roman garrison, bath houses (both for the noble and for the public) and one of Herod the Great’s palaces, was the Roman capital of Palestine. The palace in Caesarea was the home of the Procurator (Pontius Pilate in the time of Jesus), and archaeologists found an inscription here bearing Pilate’s name. With a mostly Gentile population, tensions between Jews and Gentiles ran high.3 Yet God chose this scene as the first place where the Holy Spirit would descend on Gentiles, much to the surprise of the Jewish Christians: “The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). God makes his message unmistakable: salvation is for everyone, even those considered enemies.

Visitors can stroll through the ruins, including part of Herod’s palace (most of it lies underwater due to a tsunami), where Paul was imprisoned for two years, and the hippodrome where Maximinus had Christians executed in gladiator games in the fourth century AD. Caesarea has a rich heritage for Christianity, from the first Gentile Christians to Christian bravery in the face of martyrdom.

Valley of Jezreel and Surrounding Mounts

Northeast of Caesarea lies the Valley of Jezreel and its surrounding mounts. The Valley of Jezreel is a lush, fertile area. Numerous stories, particularly of wars, take place in this large valley as nations battle over this rich land. Mounts, including Carmel, Tabor, and Megiddo, overlook it.

Megiddo is a tel (archaeological hill) overlooking the Valley of Jezreel to the west. Because of its position at the head of the Carmel Ridge, an important ancient trade route between Egypt and the east, whoever controlled Megiddo controlled the trades. This small hill was conquered, razed, and rebuilt 25 times beginning before 3000 BC. Archaeologists unearthed ivory, gold, and jewelry as well as impressive architecture, all of which testifies to the wealth of the city.4 With this history and position of power, it’s no wonder it became the symbol of the war to end all wars in Revelation (as Armageddon, which comes from Har Megedon, or the Mountain of Megiddo). God’s ultimate victory proves his authority on earth over all other powers.

Current visitors can walk through the ruins, including ancient gates, a palace built by Solomon, and a water tunnel system. Visitors can also view four temples and a large stone altar used by Canaanites.

Carmel is a 30-mile mountain range beginning near the Mediterranean coast. At its highest point, Carmel is 1742 feet, and Mount Carmel stretches to only 470 feet. Egyptian texts in 1600 BC refer to it as a “holy peak,” indicating that it was an ancient sanctuary.5 That holy distinction remained throughout the centuries across numerous cultures. It housed altars for Yahweh, Baal, and other deities. On this sanctified mount, where many people came to worship many gods, Elijah struggled with the prophets of Baal to display Yahweh’s supreme power and authority (1 Kings 18). After Elijah won the contest, defeating Jezebel’s god, and spotted the incoming storm, he ran down this small mount into the Valley of Jezreel.

Seeing the topography of Carmel helps readers understand Carmel’s place among the prophets. Carmel’s caves made it an ideal hiding place (Amos 9:3). A wooded mountain known as the “garden with fruit trees,” its fertile agriculture (attested to by cisterns and oil and wine presses cut into limestone; see 2 Chronicles 26:10) made it a symbol of fertility, beauty, and prosperity (Isaiah 33:9, 35:2; Song of Solomon 7:5; Jeremiah 46:18, 50:19; Amos 1:2; Nahum 1:4).

Across the Valley of Jezreel from Mount Carmel is the prominent hill, Mount Tabor, where Elijah and Moses appeared to Jesus at the Transfiguration (traditional site). It gained this designation because of its reputation of being a holy mountain (see 2 Peter 1:18). Mount Tabor had a history of religious practices and worship of the Israelite God and other gods.

Whereas on Mount Carmel Jezebel gathered her forces of prophets against Elijah, on Mount Tabor, the prophetess Deborah told Barak to gather his army for an attack against Israel’s enemy, Sisera, as the Canaanite army pursued them across the Valley of Jezreel from Megiddo (Judges 4). From one side of Jezreel to the other, perched on different mounts, the Bible gives us two examples of powerful women, one who ruled according to God’s Law and another who ruled according to her own desires.

Sea of Galilee

Northeast of the Valley of Jezreel lies the Sea of Galilee and its surrounding towns and villages. This is the setting of Jesus’ youth and early ministry. The Sea of Galilee is also known as the Sea of Kinnereth (Number 34:11; Joshua 12:3; 13:27) because of its harp shape (the Hebrew word kinnor means harp). It is also known as the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1; 21:1) because of the location of the city of Tiberias along its western shore, the Lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1; also referred to as the Lake in Luke 8:22) because of the plain of Ginnosar on the northwest corner (Josephus also calls it the Lake of Gennesar in The Jewish War) and the Sea (Mark 2:13). Due to the surrounding channels, sudden gusts can surprise fisherman with storms in minutes (Matthew 8, 14). Visitors can see a 2000-year-old boat discovered during a draught in 1986 and preserved at Yigal Allon Centre (at the northeast side of the Sea).

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a village of ten to fifteen family caves. Most likely, Joseph moved his family to this out-of-the-way place both to stay out of the reach of the murderous son of Herod the Great, Archelaus, and to work at Sepphoris, where Herod Antipas recruited masons for large construction projects.6 Nazareth is located six kilometers southeast of Sepphoris down the Romans road. Joseph went to work every day to Sepphoris as a carpenter/mason, an hour commute via donkey each way. As it was such a small place at the time—barely a village (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46])—it explains why Jesus made Capernaum his home base during his earthly ministry.

Early in his ministry, Jesus moved to Capernaum, one of the most important cities lining the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:13). Three of Jesus’ disciples lived there, including the two first converts, Peter and Andrew, who moved there from Bethsaida. As it was a border city to Philip’s territory, Capernaum had a garrison and a customs office. The centurion who commanded the garrison built a synagogue for the Jewish inhabitants (Luke 7:5). The faith of this centurion amazed Jesus, who healed the centurion’s slave. One of the tax collectors at the customs office (Matthew) left his work to follow Christ (Matthew 9:9). In Capernaum, Jesus taught in the synagogue, healed the sick (such as the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends), and performed miracles (Matthew 8, 17; Mark 1-2; Luke 4, 7; John 4, 6).

Here lived Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed. Archaeological evidence shows that one particular house became a gathering place: “Prior to the mid-C1 AD [mid-first century AD] the broken pottery found in the floor revealed normal family use; thereafter only storage jars and lamps were found. Despite our ignorance regarding the contents of the jars, the hint that the room was put to some type of public use is confirmed by the great number of graffiti scratched in the plaster walls. Some of them mention Jesus as Lord and Christ.”7 Tradition, reaching back to a pre-Constantinian period, identifies this house as Peter’s mother-in-law’s, where Jesus stayed (Matthew 8:14). Today, a church stands above it. Visitors can view the house through a glass floor.

Capernaum also houses the best preserved synagogue from the Byzantine period as well as homes from the first century that can give contemporary Bible readers an idea as to the design and layout of village homes. The floors were made of cobbles, and branches covered with straw and dirt made up the roofs (Mark 2).

Bethsaida, another town on the Sea of Galilee, had been a fortified city since 1000 BC. Most likely, Bethsaida was the capital of the Kingdom of Geshur. David married the daughter of the king of Geshur, and this marriage produced Absalom (2 Samuel 3:3). After Absalom killed Amnon, he fled to Bethsaida, where he spent three years (2 Samuel 13). After the Assyrians conquered it (2 Kings 15:29), it wasn’t resettled until the second century BC.

During Jesus’ day, it lay in Philip the tetrarch’s territory and had a Hellenistic character (which explains why Andrew and Philip had Greek names rather than Semitic). Philip the tetrarch rebuilt the city and made it his capital. It was a prosperous fishing city, but was conquered by the Romans during the wars of AD 66-70. An earthquake in AD 363 flooded the city, and part of the city sank into the Sea of Galilee.

Archaeological digs, which began in 1988, have discovered the house of a fisherman (the house had over 100 items connected with fishing, including nets, anchors and other fishing implements), a winemakers house (where 13 jars of wine were found in the cellar), and a city gate dating to the Iron Age (time of David). As the fisherman’s house is unique in Bethsaida, many believe this to be the home of Peter and Andrew. Archaeologists found wine jars imported from the island of Rhodes (where some of the finest wine of the times was made) in that house. Clearly, their fishing enterprise had been doing well.

The city gates give modern-day readers a good idea as to the typical layout of a city. Between the stone walls are four chambers (so that the gates had an E shape with two chambers on each side), where the city elders sat, meeting and talking with visitors and traders. This information gleaned from the comings and goings enabled the elders to make wise economic decisions for the city. Stone tablets leaning against the walls served as the city gods. Inhabitants and visitors placed sacrifices to these gods in a shallow stone basin at the entrance. The path leading up to the city makes a sharp right turn a few feet before the gate. This gave inhabitants of the city an advantage if the city were attacked. Soldiers marching up the pathway, with their shield in their left arm, would be momentarily vulnerable as they turned right to enter the city.


No survey of Israel would be complete without a word about Jerusalem, the religious and political epicenter of ancient Israel and the setting of Christ’s Passion Week.

From the 10th century BC, when David established Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to the 16th century AD, the boundaries of Jerusalem expanded and contracted numerous times. Present-day Jerusalem houses hundreds of churches, synagogues, and mosques (sometimes in the same building) and pilgrimage sites, such as the Garden of Gethsemane, the Dominus Flevit church (marking where Jesus wept over Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives), and the Via Dolorosa. Most of the sites are based on tradition.

Some sites, however, have archaeological and historical support. The Citadel is part of Herod the Great’s palace. When the Crusaders took over, they dug a moat around Herod’s palace, built below it, and made it into a citadel. Later, the Muslims built on top of the palace and used it as a prison. Currently, tourists can visit a museum inside the remains. This museum has models and exhibits that explain Jerusalem’s history.

During the time of Jesus, the Procurator (Pontius Pilate), who lived in Caesarea, stayed in this palace when he was in Jerusalem. Pilate was in Jerusalem at the time to ensure control during the Passover, when a large influx of Jews came to Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate sentenced Christ to death on a platform in the open at this palace (John 18-19).

From there, the Romans took Jesus outside the city gates to crucify him. According the Karl Walter (MA, archaeology and history, lecture October 2009), in order to guarantee their control during the Passover, when the population of the Jews multiplied in Jerusalem, the Romans emptied their prisons and lined the gates and pathways with crucifixions, reminding the Jews of the Roman authority. (This seems to be supported by Josephus’ description in Jewish Wars [book 5, chapter 11] of the mass crucifixions at the city walls to terrorize the Jews during the wars of AD 66-70.) As the Jews entered Jerusalem for the festivities, they encountered mass executions, places filled with mourning, pain, and putrid smells. To keep this from backfiring and inciting a rebellion, the Romans released one prisoner, allowing the Jews to choose who would be released. In this way, the largest and loudest group—those who out-shouted other kin-groups—was appeased. Pilate then washed his hands of the remaining executions. The blood of those executed was on the Jews’ head, for the Jews had not selected them for freedom.

The Holy Sepulchre (in the Christian Quarter of the Old City) now stands where Jesus most likely died and was buried. During the first century, this area, just outside the city gate, was a pockmarked quarry jutting out of the wall. Tombs from the first century BC and first century AD were found in the area (Jesus was buried near graves according to John 19), and the Jerusalem church held liturgical celebrations there until AD 66. Visitors can view tombs from early first century AD in the church.

To the south of the Temple Mount and the Old City is the City of David, the original Jerusalem. David’s Jerusalem was protected on the south, east, and west with small valleys (the Tyropoeon Valley and the Kidron Valley). The city is on a lower part of the mount in order to gain access to water, particularly from the Gihon Spring. This made the city vulnerable to the north, from where it was most likely to be attacked. Jerusalem had been a Jebusite city, populated by Amorites and Hittites (Ezekiel 16:3), before David captured it and made it the capital of Israel (2 Samuel 5; 1 Chronicles 11). He brought the Ark of the Covenant there, making it the religious seat of the nation. Later, Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah, expanding the city to the north.

Recent excavations in the oldest part of Jerusalem—the City of David—have revealed King David’s Palace as well as the Pool of Siloam, the ritual bath where Jesus healed a blind man (John 9). These discoveries give added nuances to our understanding of Scripture.

For example, archaeologists discovered water tunnels going back to the time of Melchizedek. The tunnels lead to the Gihon Spring, the major water source for the city. The magnitude of the tunnel system indicates the size and significance of Jerusalem as far back as Melchizedek. Jerusalem, which became the religious and political center of Israel, had been an important religious and political center of Canaanites for centuries. When David conquered them, it was no minor feat. It proved God's sovereignty and his choice of Israel as his instrument to reign religiously and politically.

Also, at the Gihon Springs, archaeologists discovered a tower. This helps readers understand 1 Kings 1 when David tells Nathan the prophet to take Solomon to Gihon and crown him the king at a time of political upheaval. Why accomplish such a momentous event at a spring? Because that spring and that tower was a hub with political significance. 

New archaeological digs, together with what scholars know of history, shed light onto the person of Uriah the Hittite. It appears that Uriah was a successor to Jebusite rulers. "The story of David's defeat of the destitute Uriah (2 Samuel 12) marks the very end of the Jebusite royal dynasty in  the city.”8 This presents a nuance to the story about David, Bethsheba, and Uriah. More than a story of lust, it has political ramifications. When David killed Uriah and took his wife, it symbolized his ultimate defeat of the Canaanites of Jerusalem.

These are a few examples of how an understanding of the land of the Bible will add to a reader’s understanding. Archaeological discoveries give Christians a bigger and more detailed picture. Any reader will attest to his added enjoyment of and engagement in a book when he knows the setting. Walking the ground of the story helps readers see it from the perspective of the writer. Walking in Israel reminds Christians that God enters human history in specific and physical ways, accomplishing his will for his glory and the good of mankind.

1 Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 5th ed., (New York: Longman, 2000), 171.

2 Richard L. Pratt, Jr., He Gave Us Stories: The Bible Student’s Guide to Interpreting Old Testament Narratives (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1990), 170.

3 Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 5th ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 240.

4 Ibid., 387.

5 W. Ewing, “Carmel” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 618.

6 Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land, 423.

7 Ibid., 252.

8 Eilat Mazar, The Palace of King David: Excavations at the Summit of the City of David, Preliminary Report of Seasons 2005-2007 (Jerusalem: Shoham Academic Research and Publication, 2009), 43.

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