Many places in the land of Israel have familiar names to most Christians: the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the Mount of Olives. Yet without an understanding of where each familiar name fits in relation to another, the places can seem like a spilled box of puzzle pieces without the box top for perspective; there is no cohesion.
I shared this frustration. I possessed a knowledge of the place-names, but they played no role in my Bible study except to distract and confuse me. Because I could not appreciate a site’s contribution to the biblical narrative, I dismissed what was not familiar to me as irrelevant, or at the very least, of minor importance.
Then my wife and I took a seminary elective class on the historical geography of Israel, and the following year we journeyed to Israel with a group of others. The year after that I went again for an extended period of study both in the classroom and on site. The advantages of historical geography surfaced in my classroom study and then leapt off the page when I took my newfound knowledge to Israel. The benefits I found came not from the joy of travel, or fascination with a foreign culture, but from discovering an integral part of Bible study I had missed all my life. Like seeing an entire puzzle put together, I was now able to see the individual sites in light of the whole. I became aware of a cohesion and logic as to why God included geography in the Bible. What I had dismissed earlier as irrelevant I began to recognize as an integral part of God’s dealing with His people.
Thus the enthusiasm for this research project began with my own experience. While there exist today many sites where one can still reasonably assert that “Jesus was here,” most references to “here” have to be said in a general way. But Jacob’s well in Israel, near modern day Nablus, provides a place where Christ truly stood. When my wife and I stood beside the well and drew water from its deep source, we read the words Jesus spoke in that very spot so long ago. The words did not seem more true to me, having read them there, but the impact of Jesus’ words was deepened in my heart because the visual He used was there before me and dripped from my hands, “Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
Historical geography revealed to me that my relationship with Christ involves my whole person, and God desires to employ all the senses He created in me to enhance my relationship with Him. More than knowledge, the relationship involves my emotion and imagination. Far from mysticism, these very subjective elements can be utilized in studying the objective truth of God’s Word. As Smith says, “Sight and insight. These are the objects of our journey. And where better to find them than when we meet God in the holy places of his own choosing?”70
Along the same lines, Howard Hendricks, a master at teaching people how to study the Bible, encourages his readers to study the Bible “imaginatively.” One of the ways he suggests is to vary the setting in which one studies.
For example, many of Jesus’ parables were given by the Sea of Galilee. So if you live near a lake or the seashore, consider taking your Bible there to read and reflect on the Lord’s teaching. Likewise, many of the Psalms were composed by David when he was a shepherd, out in the fields. You might drive out to the country to spend some time studying those passages. The idea here is to do whatever it takes to see the Word of God from a different perspective.71
Alister McGrath notes that one of the downfalls of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on knowledge came with the exclusion of the benefits of emotion:
The emphasis on reason has been at the expense of our imaginations and emotions—two God-given faculties that are meant to be fully involved in our Christian life… . I began to realize the importance of letting biblical ideas impact on my imagination and experience… . I also began to explore the theme of projecting oneself into the biblical narrative. In other words, when Scripture recounts what happens, allow yourself to be caught up in that narrative. Up to this point, I had thought that we were meant to increase our factual knowledge of events. For example, when reading a text about the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, it was important to be able to find Galilee on a map, understand its cultural history, see how this fitted into the general patterns of Jesus’ ministry, and even try to date the event. Yet this led to nothing more than the accumulation of facts. It did not excite or challenge me… . I had to think of myself as being there, witnessing what is said and done… . No longer was I simply registering ideas as I read. I was reliving the historical events on which my faith was grounded.72
Having enjoyed a remarkable increase in my love for God and His Word through historical geography, I informally began to ask others about their perspectives. I noticed a pattern in their responses: it deeply impacted both their love for the Lord and His Scriptures. I also noticed when I would incorporate the area of geography into my teaching and preaching, the listeners continually commented how it helped them better understand the text of Scripture. In addition they noted how seeing pictures and hearing of the land gave the Bible more of a concrete reality to their faith. Thus I discovered what I experienced personally in relation to historical geography’s benefits others also experienced directly and indirectly through hearing it taught.
Since most seminaries do not emphasize historical geography as an essential element of Bible study, the benefits of the subject for the body of Christ are often left to chance-experience—like my own. For that reason I felt a formal study would provide objective results that could be examined and considered. My goal is that the conclusions of this research will help believers discover, understand, and personally experience the benefits of the historical geography of Israel in a way that will assist their study, application, and communication of the Bible.
One of the things I’d love to see more people do when they study the Bible is to pray this simple prayer, ‘Lord, cloth the facts with fascination. Help me crawl into the skin of these people—to see through their eyes, to feel with their fingers, to understand with their hearts, and to know with their minds.’ Then the Word of God would come alive.73
By means of a survey (included in Appendix A), I determined to discover the scenarios in which historical geography had most affected those who studied it. I developed the survey to answer the question, “How can understanding and experiencing the historical geography of Israel help believers in their study, application, and communication of the Bible?”
I define “understanding and experiencing” as those who have simply taken a class on historical geography (“understanding”) and those who have taken a tour to Israel (“experiencing”). Of course, those who traveled to Israel grew in their understanding, and those who only took a class also experienced geography in a limited way. But simply said, I surveyed these two groups as well as those who are part of both groups, having taken a class as well as traveled to Israel.
The survey compared the responses of these three groups in relation to their varying degrees of exposure to historical geography. For example, how valuable was the classroom instruction alone? To what degree, if any, did going to Israel benefit believers over simply studying in a class? Was there an advantage to having the class before going on the trip, or could the class just as easily be taken on location in Israel? Is a class even necessary if one gets to go to Israel?
For each respondent, the survey employed seventeen questions to reveal the extent to which historical geography has assisted him or her in three key areas: study of the Bible, application of the Bible, and communication of the Bible. Each one who responded was asked to rate the contribution historical geography has made to their interpretation of the Bible and their confidence in the Bible as God’s Word. In addition, to what extent did those surveyed see the Bible’s history and geography as bound inseparably together? For those who had gone to Israel, the survey probed to see if their time in Israel changed the way they read the Bible.
Following study and interpretation lies application of the Bible. What difference has historical geography made to the hearts—as well as the heads—of those who have studied it? While it may seem difficult to determine the level of one’s spirituality through a survey, it is possible to reveal the respondent’s own sense of what has contributed to his or her spiritual growth. One person’s perspective may seem subjective and irrelevant, but if collectively the survey shows historical geography contributes significantly to the spiritual life, its contribution—however subjective it seems—cannot be ignored.
For example, how much has historical geography made a difference in one’s love for the Word of God and the God of the Bible? Does historical geography clarify application of biblical principles? Does the element of geography increase one’s memory of the lessons of the Bible? Also what difference to the spiritual life does studying in the class make in comparison with studying in Israel? Since this area of the survey is the most subjective, I provided a place for all respondents to answer in their own words how their study of historical geography affected their relationship with God.
In addition to asking basic demographics (age and sex), the survey inquired as to who taught the respondents’ classes, who led their tours, and how much time they spent in Israel, if applicable. Some of these elements were cross-tabulated to see any relationships of significance.
The survey itself was administered between June and October of 2003. I limited the survey to those who could respond via e-mail. This method greatly reduced the time and expense involved in obtaining results, and many of those who responded preferred this method of communication. The immediacy of the correspondence also allowed me to seek and obtain greater clarification from respondents when necessary.
Those who took the survey responded from a variety of sources which follow. I chose these sources primarily to ensure a high level of quality in the instruction the students received. When asking about their experience studying historical geography, I did not want the quality of teaching to be a variable; all instructors are recognized as experts by those in the field of historical geography.
Eleven responses came from private individuals and a local church’s tour to Israel.74 James Monson graciously introduced my survey to the Jerusalem University College Director, Dr. Paul Wright. Eight students from JUC responded to the survey. Dr. Charlie Dyer, senior vice president and provost of Moody Bible Institute, taught at Dallas Theological Seminary for twenty years. A licensed tour guide for Israel, Dr. Dyer has made close to fifty trips to Israel and has awakened a love for historical geography in many students. DTS gave me access to the class rosters of Dr. Dyer’s past classes on historical geography, and thirty-one responded to the survey. Professor Todd Bolen, from The Master’s College Israel Bible Extension (IBEX), has lived in Israel for eight years. He kindly distributed the survey to IBEX’s alumni, and 107 people replied. In total, 157 people took the survey.
70 F. LaGard Smith, Meeting God in Holy Places: A Devotional Journey (Eugene, Oreg.: Harvest House, 1997), 11-2.
71 Hendricks and Hendricks, 106-7.
72 Alister E. McGrath, The Journey: A Pilgrim in the Lands of the Spirit, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 15-8.
73 Hendricks and Hendricks, 104.
74 My thanks go to Charles Stolfus for opening the files on Denton Bible Church’s trip to Israel in June 2001. This trip’s guides were the popular Israeli tour guide, Amir Tsarfati, and Reverend Tommy Nelson.