The findings of this study reveal that Christians who understand and experience the historical geography of Israel enjoy a clearer comprehension of the Bible, clearer direction to its application, and more effective communication of the text. In the realm of the spiritual life, historical geography provides a greater confidence in the Bible as God’s Word and instills a greater love for God and the Bible. Those who study historical geography, coupled with a study-trip to Israel, experience even greater benefits than those who study in the classroom alone.
The state of geographic apathy in the American church and seminary simply reflects the geographic illiteracy of its culture. Out of ten leading evangelical seminaries, seven offer only occasional elective courses on historical geography (some have not taught it for years), and not one seminary requires the subject. In addition, historical geography has not played a major role in our popular Bible study methods even though it offers a sizable contribution to biblical understanding.
Interpreting a passage in context remains a basic rule of Bible study for evangelicals, but Scripture’s geographical context remains underrated. For evangelicals who believe in interpreting the Bible in context, historical geography must be considered basic to that context. The research in this study has demonstrated that historical geography is indispensable to biblical interpretation and to a comprehensive understanding of biblical history.
Since there was no literature to date expressly researching the benefits of understanding and experiencing historical geography, this study contributes to the need that existed as far as evaluation of how historical geography affects Christians. A full 98% of survey respondents noted that historical geography helps their memory of biblical events and applications, while 87% agreed that the study better directs them toward biblical application. In relation to the spiritual life, 96% have increased in their love for God and the Bible through the study of historical geography. And 99% agree that experiencing the land of Israel has strengthened their spiritual life.
Beside the place where water gushes from the ground, there a man drives his tent stake—and so lays the foundation of a city. The rains run through immovable ravines, and beside those rivers people cultivate their fields and water their livestock. Where the easiest ground to travel lies, there a wayfarer walks—and so a highway begins.
Geography affects history. Trace any civilization back to its origin, and geography provides the stage of history’s drama. Be it a strategic military position, an abundant water supply, or a convenient traveling route, geography determines, to a great extent, where historical events occur.
While the usual means of overland travel in the biblical world were walking or riding a donkey, horse, or camel,1 today we live in an age where getting around obstacles, traveling across great distances, and finding something to drink no longer prove a challenge. With a transportation system that requires little more than a basic understanding of road signs and airline gates, our culture gives little attention to the importance of geography. In addition, America finds itself land-locked between two oceans with friendly countries to our north and south; we have become an island of culture. Consequently, we feel very little need to know historical geography.
Teaching the Bible begins with studying and understanding the Bible. And within this discipline, evangelicals strongly believe in interpreting a passage in its context—a discipline that also includes its historical and geographical context.
Ministering in an age of images and sound-bytes, evangelicals often find themselves following a marketing approach to the Great Commission. With an emphasis on communication over content—on methods over message—the church can succumb to expediency and miss many essentials needed for proper understanding and teaching of the Bible. Making disciples includes not only creatively introducing people to Jesus Christ, but teaching them all of God’s Word and obedience to it.
Historical geography provides a wonderful contribution to our careful understanding of Scripture. The more someone understands the land of the Bible, the more one understands the Bible itself. Its message is enabled to have a more profound impact on one’s spiritual life and ministry. Because the land of Israel serves as the basic canvas unto which the message of the Bible can be painted in vivid reality, I have sought to incorporate historical geography into my teaching whenever possible; this helps the passage come alive to an audience in a way they can see, feel, hear, and thus, more properly understand and apply. An even greater benefit can occur when one uses his or her understanding of historical geography to experience the land of the Bible first-hand through a trip to Israel.
This study investigated some of the benefits of understanding and experiencing Israel’s historical geography. The findings of this research provide helpful insights to those who want to study the Bible in context, teach historical geography classes, and prepare groups to go to Israel. It should also prove instructive to those who may not recognize these advantages. The results will show the benefits of actually traveling to the land itself beyond classroom study. The conclusions are available to travel agencies and interested organizations so that they may encourage people to enjoy the benefits of going to Israel. In short, the research revealed the advantages believers can gain by incorporating historical geography into their personal Bible study and public ministries.
Those who study the Scriptures are blessed with tools providing rich insights into God’s Word. In seeking to learn how to study the Bible itself, one may begin by looking to masters on the subject. Many good books exist today in order to teach believers how to study and apply the Bible for themselves, and many of them mention geography as part of a thorough study. But beyond the token reference to the subject, few authors emphasize or illustrate the clarity historical geography brings to a passage. Interpreting a passage in context is held up to evangelicals as a basic rule of Bible study, but Scripture’s geographical context remains largely underrated.
Beyond an individual’s study with maps and atlases, studying geography in the classroom and also on location in Israel introduces the student to fuller understanding and appreciation of “context.” The benefit of seeing what one reads, both in media and on location, increases the capacity to retain and recall biblical truth.
Most of what has been written in texts, atlases, and tour books provides information on the land of Israel but does not reveal the transformation of those who study it.2 In fact no published research has been found that has evaluated how historical geography has influenced the lives of its students and travelers.
When one reads the Bible, it becomes clear how geography is the stage on which the redemptive narrative takes place. The land God chose was not arbitrary, for He designed even the land itself to develop the spiritual lives of His people. One of God’s stated purposes in bringing the Hebrews from Egypt was to give them a land that fostered faith. God told the Hebrews who were about to enter the land:
For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year. And it shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. And He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied (Deut 11:10-15).
The land’s dependency on rain for water and its location as a land bridge between world powers forced the Jews to trust God or starve, to influence the world or be influenced by it. In his excellent volume, The Land Between, James Monson observed, “This land served as God’s testing ground of faith. It was here, in this land where both personal and national existence were threatened, that Israel’s leaders and people were called upon to learn the true meaning of security and well-being, of trust in the Lord their God.”3
This study examined the biblical and extra-biblical literature which demonstrates how historical geography remains essential to Bible study and, ultimately, to the spiritual lives of believers both ancient and modern. In addition, the lack of evaluation on how the subject affects real people today reveals the need for this study’s research on the benefits of understanding and experiencing the historical geography of Israel.
Administer a test and you can assess how much knowledge a student has of historical geography. But how can the more difficult emphasis on a changed life be measured? What difference has historical geography made to the hearts as well as the heads of modern students and travelers?
Studying historical geography, in my own experience, has permanently marked my life and changed the way I understand the Bible. Places and names which I used to pass over now immediately bring to mind a site’s history, its geographical pros and cons, its scenery, and even its smells. Having knowledge of a passage’s geography gives me a head start as I attempt to understand why events took place—sometimes repeatedly—in certain locations. Walking the land of Israel has provided me with a deeper appreciation of God as Lord of world history and of seemingly minor details—both of which bring comfort to my life.
My experience is not unique. I have conducted and videotaped a number of interviews with those who have both studied geography and also been to Israel. Those interviewed include a Ph.D. student, a middle-aged couple, a retired couple, a travel agent, an Israeli tour guide, a pastor, and a professor who has taught historical geography in Israel for years. Their testimonies illustrate the importance of understanding and experiencing historical geography—not just from a knowledge-based perspective but also as it benefits one’s spiritual life. I have integrated their testimonies into a video, filmed in Israel, which can be seen by clicking here. This video visually demonstrates some of the benefits of experiencing Bible Lands.
The purpose for this study project has been to survey the extent to which historical geography has impacted the spiritual lives and ministries of those who have taken historical geography courses and traveled to Israel. I distributed a survey to various students of historical geography (the survey appears in Appendix A). Dallas Theological Seminary gave me access to the class rosters of past historical geography students. Jerusalem University College introduced the survey to some its former students, and the Master’s College Israel Bible Extension (IBEX) sent my survey to many of its alumni. In addition, several private individuals and participants from a local church’s tour to Israel participated in the survey.
The research revealed those who understand and experience historical geography enjoy a clearer comprehension of the text, a clearer direction to its application, and more effective communication. The study of historical geography provides a greater confidence in the Bible as God’s Word and instills a greater love for the God of the Bible. Those who study geography, coupled with a study-trip to Israel, experience an even greater benefit than those who simply study in class.
The spiritual lives of those who study historical geography are enriched. Whether they limit their study to the classroom, or enlarge it by traveling to Israel, their experience adds a dimension of authenticity and confidence to their faith.
A knowledge of Israel’s geography serves as an additional way to retain the truth of a passage. Remembering what a location looks like enables one to picture the action, to remember the event, to imagine its occurrence in a way that enables retention. Also many events took place in the same location, which also helps to tie the Bible together better. “No study is more fascinating and none brings richer rewards than the faithful study of the lands in which God revealed himself to his people.”4
In anticipating how those surveyed would respond, I asked James Monson what reactions or life-change he has seen in his students over the years. Monson, an expert in the field of historical geography, taught the subject at Jerusalem University College (formerly The Institute of Holy Land Studies) for many years and lived in Jerusalem for over thirty years. His reply is worth repeating:
The question you raise is a good one. I often questioned students when groups came over to our home in Jerusalem, and everyone was excited … but none could put into words exactly what had changed in their lives since studying in the land itself. Usually, it is something like, “The Bible came alive,” which is difficult to catalog. I am not aware of anything formally written on the subject, but I have not really searched diligently… . Again, the problem you will have is that most tourists have fuzzy answers… . My impression is that most would answer that their experience gave them the ‘first person’ perspective of the land, something like speaking a language rather than simply knowing all the rules or paradigms.5
My prayer for this study project has been that it will contribute to the body of Christ in several key areas. First, since there is no current literature expressly researching the benefits of understanding and experiencing historical geography, the project will help provide an evaluation of these benefits. Many have taught the subject—both in and out of the land—but there has been little evaluation of how historical geography benefits a believer. The project will give much-needed insight into a valuable tool for Bible study and communication. Hopefully, the study’s positive findings will encourage those who teach both in and out of the land to do their own evaluation of historical geography’s benefits.
I also plan to use the study’s findings to give me direction as I prepare and teach an ongoing class on historical geography at my local church. In discovering the areas where people tend to benefit the most, I will be better able to incorporate them into the class. The findings will also help me prepare the groups that I lead on trips to Israel throughout my ministry. And the results of this study will continue to enhance my pulpit ministry each week as I incorporate historical geography into the messages.
This study’s results should generate interest in historical geography by helping others realize the many benefits it offers. Tour companies, pastors, seminaries, and other interested parties could use the findings to encourage believers to make the subject a worthy investment of their time for the glory of God. What once the believer neglected out of ignorance becomes instead a fresh source of familiarity, insight, and inspiration.
It may seem an overstatement to claim that a person must study historical geography to understand the Word of God, but it is fair to say that the study will take a person much further toward an accurate understanding of God’s Word. Geography occurs on almost every page of Scripture. God used it to mold the lives of His people in the biblical narrative, and God uses it to shape the lives of believers today.
1 Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 8.
2 Historical geography texts, atlases, and other pertinent literature are reviewed in Chapter 2.
3 James M. Monson, The Land Between: A Regional Study Guide to the Land of the Bible, Fourth ed. (Rockfork, Ill.: Biblical Backgrounds, Inc., 1996), 14.
4 E. S. Young, The Bible Geography, 6th ed. (Claremont, Calif.: Bible Students League, 1923), 3.
5 Correspondence from an e-mail dated September 30, 2002.
Marking its one hundredth anniversary in 1988, the National Geographic Society commissioned a Gallup survey to test the geographical knowledge of young adults worldwide. Americans ranked sixth out of the eight countries surveyed, ahead of Italy and Mexico. Twenty-four years later the Society commissioned the survey again. The National Geographic–Roper 2002 Global Geographic Literacy Survey, released in November 2002, surveyed over 3,000 young adults in nine countries, including the United States. After twenty-four years American students fared no better, ranking next to last. Out of fifty-six questions asked, the average American answered only twenty-three correctly. Robert Pastor, professor of International Relations at American University, said, “The survey demonstrates the geographic illiteracy of the United States. The results are particularly appalling in light of September 11, which traumatized America and revealed that our destiny is connected to the rest of the world.”6 Almost 11% of the young adult citizens of America were unable to find the United States on a map! The location of the largest body of water on Earth, the Pacific Ocean, eluded 29% of respondents. And in spite of daily news on the nation of Israel, “More … in the study knew that the island featured in last season’s TV show ‘Survivor’ is in the South Pacific than could find Israel [on a map].”7 In fact, one quarter of young adults worldwide could not locate Israel.
When seeking a reason for America’s geographical illiteracy, the survey traced it in part to education. Although since the 1988 survey, “the percentage of young U.S. citizens who reported taking a geography course in school rose from 30 to 55 percent”8 (and those who studied geography did better on the current survey), America’s education system has, for the most part, still minimized geography’s importance. Eric Ransdell, a documentary filmmaker and foreign correspondent, blames the American education system for citizens who do not care about the decline in foreign affairs news coverage.
For decades we’ve been reading about how American schoolchildren can’t find Mexico or Canada on a map, and yet nothing seems to change. These people who don’t know the difference between Switzerland and Swaziland then become the main consumers of news. And in poll after poll they tell us that they want less foreign news and more of what I call “selfish journalism” —which stocks to buy, sex and beauty tips, 10 steps to a healthier colon and so on. It becomes this horrible feedback loop where people are sent out of our schools in a state of complete ignorance of the rest of the world and then, maybe because they’re embarrassed, clamor for even less information on something they know almost nothing about.9
In his book, Don’t Know Much About Geography, Kenneth Davis presented his thoughts on why Americans did not learn geography in school, “The reason so many people don’t remember anything about the geography we learned in school is that it was dull… . The typical response to these subjects is a glazed eye and an expression like ‘How dry.’”10 Roger Downs, head of the geography department at Pennsylvania State University, observed, “If geography is not in the curriculum, it’s not tested—and that says to the students that it is not valued.”11 Geography courses are almost always available as graduate and post-graduate electives, but it is assuming too much to believe a student will pursue that which no one has guided him or her to recognize as valuable.
What is so sad about the failure to understand geography is that it reveals a complete misunderstanding of what geography is. In its simplest expression, geography asks humanity’s oldest, most fundamental questions, ‘Where am I?’ ‘How do I get there?’ ‘What is on the other side of the mountain?’ … Eventually, these questions have pushed us off the face of the Earth and into the heavens in search of answers to even bigger questions, ‘Where do we come from?’ ‘Is there anybody else out there?’ ‘Who or what put this universe together?’12
When we narrow the subject of geography to Israel and the Bible, we can see how our culture’s general apathy and illiteracy toward geography has crept into our theological education. In my own seminary education, the extent of the benefits of historical geography was never emphasized except in an elective class I took on the subject. In fact, out of ten leading evangelical seminaries, seven offer only occasional elective courses on historical geography (some have not taught it for years), and not one seminary requires the subject.13 Again, why would a student elect to take a course of which he could not possibly know the value? With each revision of a seminary’s curriculum, required courses in subjects like history, geography, and exegesis in the biblical languages tend to be reduced to allow more room for courses in the “practical” disciplines. Many laity also view historical geography as a nice, but not essential, skill—something perhaps for a pastor or professor, but not that valuable for the average believer.
The church’s illiteracy in historical geography poses a problem, because apart from its inclusion in Bible study, believers cannot fully understand the context of a passage. The Christian has the obligation to know the Word intimately, for as Paul told young Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). “All Scripture,” is literally, “every [individual] writing.” The biblical text in its minute detail remains God’s means through which the believer becomes equipped to live the Christian life. The better a believer knows the Word—including the geography of the text—the better equipped he or she will be for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.
In searching for relevant literature for this study, I did not find much that discussed the value of historical geography for the spiritual life. Dr. Robert Ibach provided me some assistance and noted,
There are quite a few items dealing with pilgrimages to the Holy Land over the centuries. Some of them go all the way back to the fourth century. Even though these books may not deal with personal spiritual growth, the fact that Christians over the centuries have found these pilgrimages to be important speaks to their contribution to Christian life.14
As early as the third century A.D. the value of historical geography for Bible study was recognized by Origen of Alexandria. “Once he had moved from Alexandria to Caesarea, [he] went on ‘an investigation of the traces of Jesus and his disciples and the prophets’ in order to understand the Bible better.”15
But it was not until the forth century that a historical geography was written down for the purpose of assisting Bible study. Eusebius of Caesarea, a pupil of Origen, remains best known for his Church History in which he “collected, organized, and published practically all that is now known of many persons and episodes in the life of the early church. Without him, our knowledge of the early history of Christianity would be reduced in half.”16 Having lived in Palestine all of his life, Eusebius was well-suited to the task of writing his Onomasticon (“a collection of names”) around A.D. 325, a work that became the first historical geography text of its kind. He “is both the first church historian and the first biblical geographer; without his Onomasticon many biblical sites would never have been identified.”17
Eusebius recognized the value of geography to biblical study, and he systematized his work—a venerable index and encyclopedia of sites and locations—with the Bible student in mind. “Eusebius’ arrangement made sense in terms of what he expected his readers to do. He apparently imagined them engaged in a study of a particular Biblical book.”18
Here we have a painstakingly methodical work of scholarship in which Eusebius maps out a landscape of sites that would become pilgrims’ goals for centuries to come. Eusebius was probably an unwitting contributor to the huge boom in Christian pilgrimage during the fourth century, and may well have been amazed at how his study became a building block in the construction of ‘the Holy Land’ as a uniting idea for Christians.19
Despite the Onomasticon becoming a resource for the creation of a kind of Christian Palestine … , Eusebius’ work seems to be a kind of exegetical aid to the study of the Bible, and perhaps an enticement to Christian scholars like himself to investigate sites further. Eusebius’ intended audience was not the ordinary (though usually wealthy) pious Christians who would come to see Biblical sites after [A.D.] 325, but rather scholars like himself who wanted to understand the sacred text as well as possible, even if they might not set foot in the land.20
Having lived in Palestine, Eusebius recognized the value geography gave to increase one’s understanding of the Bible’s message. And so his work was the first of many tools providing a geography of the Holy Land for those Bible students who may never see it. As Carl Rasmussen has noted, “Once one has a basic understanding of the geography of the Middle East one has a much better chance of coming to grips with the flow of historical events that occurred there.”21
Most of the standard works today on how to study the Bible make mention of the importance of geography in Bible study. Usually included in the sections on interpretation, authors aptly relate how geography contributes to one’s understanding of a passage’s historical context. In answering the question, “where did the action take place?” one must think geographically. Therefore interpreting a passage in context must include its historical and geographical context as well.
However, the majority of authors give the subject such short, cursory remarks as to imply it provides nice, but not critical, information. Virkler’s entire work devoted to interpretation has no mention of geography except in a bibliography at the end of his chapter on Historical-Cultural and Contextual Analysis.22 Traina’s exhaustive work mentions geography only in passing and lists but a couple of geographical resources to pursue.23 Osborne’s “comprehensive introduction” to hermeneutics presents two short paragraphs on how the “topography of the land can add marvelous insights to the study of a passage.”24 Hendricks places the importance of geography both in observation (asking “where” a biblical event occurred) and interpretation (under the value of consulting other sources). Hendricks makes a helpful comment when he relates how geography “… has become a blind spot in our culture. When you read about places in the Bible, don’t assume anything; you’ll seldom be disappointed. Most people don’t have a clue as to where biblical events took place.”25 Of those major works consulted, only one actually walks a person through an example of how geography gives aid to one’s understanding of a passage.26
Usually the geographical discipline finds itself embedded as a sub-point under interpretation, under context, under historical background. With so many other elements of hermeneutics to consider, most authors spend little time explaining the benefits of understanding historical geography. Most list atlases and a few other recommended resources but do not explain the benefit of using them.
With such a cursory emphasis on historical geography, many Bible students may dismiss it as contributing little to one’s understanding of a passage—and so miss many critical insights. One author laments, “The lack of interest in Bible study is due, at least in part, to lack of a knowledge of Bible Geography. In order to understand the history of any people it is necessary to understand the geography of the country in which they lived.”27
People who study the historical geography of Palestine use information derived from the Bible, inscriptions and other ancient texts, topography, geology, and archaeology. Even a limited knowledge of these subjects can illuminate biblical events and lead to a better understanding of the Bible itself.28
The historical/geographical context of the biblical message in many Scripture texts is intrinsically related to the meaning of that message… . If, indeed, this background is essential to a proper understanding of the text, then it is not optional – it is an indispensable part of biblical studies.29
In our worthy desire to interpret and apply Scripture properly, therefore, we must ensure as much as possible that the enterprise is built knowledgeably upon the grid of the Bible’s own environment. At the outset, it is imperative for one to see geography not as a superfluity that can be arbitrarily divorced from biblical interpretation.30
The state of geographic apathy in the American church simply reflects the geographic illiteracy of its culture. However, inspiration demands we give attention to the details of biblical geography, for they contribute to the “context” in which every passage lies. Understanding the context remains essential for interpretation, and thus, for spiritual growth.
I am not suggesting if one learns historical geography all his or her questions will be answered or that geography holds the hidden secret to a new level of spirituality. But I am arguing that historical geography has not played a major role in our popular Bible study methods even though it offers a sizeable contribution to biblical understanding.
At the top of most recommended resources for studying historical geography one finds the Bible atlas. Atlases reflect the wide variety of formats and theological perspectives found in the Christian church—from liberal to conservative, from concise to comprehensive, from reference-only to hands-on map marking. Good atlases reveal more than maps; they teach the importance of geography as it relates to history, archeology, topography, climate, and soils. Several outstanding atlases available today introduce one to the benefits of historical geography, providing a “rich and decorative backdrop for the dramatic events of biblical history—[which] heightens the sensory and emotional impact of the narrative.”31
Beyond the atlas exist books written exclusively to describe the geography of the land and its relation to the history of Israel. “A large part of the problem is that so many books about subjects like history and geography are written by ‘experts’ to be read by other ‘experts.’”32 For the most part, historical geography has a literary following of students and scholars primarily because the texts for the subject are written on a scholarly level. Though often cumbersome and detailed, some of these volumes still offer impeccable and precise descriptions, imagery, and locations of biblical sites. One author of such a work relates how “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.”33 George Adam Smith, in his monumental volume on The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, explains the value of including geography in the study of Scripture.
Students of the Bible desire to see a background and to feel an atmosphere—to discover from “the lie of the land” why the story took certain lines and the prophecy and gospel were expressed in certain styles—to learn what geography has to contribute to questions of Biblical criticism—above all, to discern between what physical nature contributed to the religious development of Israel, and what was the product of purely moral and spiritual forces. On this last point the geography of the Holy Land reaches its highest interest.34
The study of historical geography can be greatly assisted with a good Bible encyclopedia, such as the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible.35 Such volumes provide articles on sites and customs, rich background information and photographs, complete with bibliographic data following each article.
With the advent of computers, students of historical geography can study through excellent interactive websites,36 DVD’s,37 and pictorial compact discs38 which hold a variety of educational materials and photographs of Israel. Many of these sources also allow the use of their material to be used in educational contexts and ministries.
In addition to individual study through a variety of books and tools, today the opportunity exists to study the historical geography of Israel in a classroom setting. Being taught by one who has a passion for the subject tends to reveal more of its value, and the class offers the additional benefit of seeing descriptive pictures of the geography as well. When the teacher utilizes audiovisuals of maps and sites, doing so has been demonstrated in one study to provide a more understandable and stimulating way to learn the Bible over a format not using audiovisuals.39 Employing visuals has been proven to “speed learning … prevent misunderstanding … [and] improve retention.”40
With so many photographs, it is possible to memorize the land of the Bible much as you would memorize the words of a text. Then, as you read the Bible, you will visualize “the whole region of Galilee” (Mark 1:28), “the whole region of the Jordan” (Matt. 3:5), and “throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). In addition you will better appreciate biblical passages that use the land to convey important thoughts or ideas.41
In the same way Eusebius’ Onomasticon did much to set in motion pilgrimages to the Holy Land, so a classroom study of historical geography often ignites a passion to visit the land itself. Studying while on tour in Israel takes the audiovisual benefit to another level. Saint Jerome relates in his Commentary on Chronicles how,
In the same way that they who have seen Athens understand the Greek histories better, and they who have sailed from Troy through Leucate, and from Acroceraunia to Sicily, and from there to the mouth of the Tiber understand the third book of Virgil, so he who has contemplated Judaea with his own eyes and knows the sites of ancient cities, and knows the names of the places, whether the same or changed, will regard Scripture more lucidly.42
In a book devoted to techniques for increasing one’s memory, O’Brien explains what he calls the “journey method” as “the most powerful of all mnemonic techniques.”43 In using association and imagination, this memory technique adds geography to its arsenal of memory-triggers. The example is given of golfers describing the details of each hole played, including the clubs chosen and the number of strokes and putts played.
Each golfer has used a mental route consisting of 18 stages around the golf course. At each stage they have stationed specific facts about their game. When they mentally retrace their steps, the golfers recall, by association, the details stored along the journey… . When the items of information actually belong to the context of the journey, it is obvious that mentally “walking” the route will bring us to the data that we need.44
In a similar way, one’s memory of biblical events can be strengthened by associating the events with their geographical locations. Taken beyond the limits of simply imagination, it seems association would best be strengthened by actually experiencing Israel’s geography first-hand.
One study reveals we learn far better when all five senses are involved, most notably, 83% of what we learn we gain through sight. In addition, if we have been taught using both sight and sound, our long-term memory is greatly improved over simply using sight or sound alone. 45 This shows the value of not only teaching geography in the classroom using visuals, but it shows the greater value of experiencing the geography of Israel first-hand—employing all the senses.
I searched through relevant literature and found nothing that surveyed historical geography students and travelers to Israel to determine how the experience has benefited them as students of the Word, as believers, or as communicators. Many works discuss historical geography—particularly its necessity—but nothing was found that evaluated how the subject had impacted real people.
Most literature devoted to the benefits of actually going to Israel are found in tour books. As such they provide invaluable help with regard to the history of sites and even spiritual and practical preparation for the trip.46 But as books of preparation and on-site information, their purpose is not to provide an evaluation of a study tour’s benefits.
Several experts who have taught historical geography, both in the class and on location, were contacted and asked if they knew of any such studies or literature.47 To a person they were unaware of any publications on the subject. One said he would be surprised if such a study existed, because the discipline is relatively new, and most who work in the field are so busy they have not done any direct analysis of its benefits.
God Himself reveals how geography is the stage on which the divine drama of history takes place. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1, emphasis mine). He created the earth with intent; from its formless, void beginning, God fashioned it in its details. God asked Job,
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who enclosed the sea with doors … And I said, Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves stop? (Job 38:4, 6-8, 11).
When Job questioned God on matters of heaven, God asked Job matters of earth. In referring to His vast wisdom in Creation, God communicated spiritual truth to Job through the physical realm. Likewise, Jesus told Nicodemus, “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12). The veracity of the earthly things lends credence to the heavenly.
I find it interesting that the same elements required for believability surface in the basics of writing a secular novel. In answering the question, “How can setting affect your characters?” Tina Morgan directs budding novelists,
Whether your story takes place on an imaginary world or right here on present day earth, setting is a crucial part of any story. How you build the world around your characters will play a vital role in the overall believability of your novel. The type of world you create will determine the reactions and behaviors of your characters (emphasis mine).48
Just as setting plays a role in the believability of a novel, God intended His created “setting” to support the believability of His divine drama. This was God’s point to both Job and Nicodemus. Morgan’s last line ought to stand out to any creationist, for it rings true. God created His world to elicit a particular reaction and behavior from His people—faith and faithfulness.
God prepared the Promised Land for His chosen people with the same degree of care that He prepared His chosen people for the Promised Land. The promised Land might have been created an environment without blemish; it might have exhibited ecological of climatological perfection. It might have been prepared a tropical rain forest though which coursed an effusion of crystal-clear water; it might have been created as a thickly-carpeted grassy meadow or as an elegant garden suffused with the aroma of flowers and blossoms. It might have been—but it was not… . God prepared for His chosen people a land that embodied the direst of geographic hardship. Possessing meager physical and economic resources and caught inescapably in a maelstrom of political upheaval, the Promised Land has yielded up to its residents a simple, tenuous, mystifying, and precarious existence, even under the best of circumstances. It is an important and helpful insight to realize that God prepared a certain kind of land, positioned at a particular spot, designed to elicit a specific and appropriate response. God has been at work in both geography and history.49
The land God chose was not arbitrary, for He designed even the land itself to develop the spiritual lives of His people. For example, one of the most important geographical features of Canaan was its lack of a natural abundance of water. Thus God used a simple, physical resource like water to teach the spiritual truth that He alone is the true source of life. Unlike Egypt, which had the Nile, and unlike Mesopotamia, which had the Tigris and Euphrates, God specifically told Israel He was taking them to a place which “drinks water from the rain of heaven.” In Egypt and Mesopotamia, with no need for rain, the main deities were gods of the sun, Amon-Re and Marduk respectively. But when the Hebrews entered Canaan, they found the locals worshipped Baal, a god of rain. Since water remained the most important variable in the land of Canaan, God used the climate in His relationship with Israel to encourage them to trust and obey Him. For obedience God sent rain; for disobedience God sent drought.
It is geographically significant that ancient civilizations emerged on the banks of rivers. Ancient Egypt owed its existence to the Nile; Mesopotamia drew its life sustenance from the Euphrates, Habur, and, beginning with the Seleucid period, the Tigris; the Indus valley civilization was located along the river by the same name; the Hittite empire rested astride the Halys; old Indian culture sprang to life in the Brahmaputra and Ganges valleys; ancient China had its Hwang-Ho and Yangtze; and European culture emerged on the banks of the Tiber, Danube, Rhine, and Meuse… . Even in twentieth-century America, virtually all major commercial and industrial cities have outlets to rivers, oceans, or the Great Lakes network. Those few exceptions are themselves located at the hub of important interstate highways or airline routes.50
Even in modern history, water remains a vital resource in Israel. In 1948, during the War of Independence, the anticipation of the Arabs’ cutting off the Jews’ supply line proved a threat not only to food supplies, but to available water.
Even graver than the risk of famine in a besieged Jerusalem, however, would be the risk of dying of thirst. Ninety percent of the city’s water came from the springs of Ras el Ein, sixty miles to the west. The eighteen-inch pipe and the four pumping stations required to get the water up three thousand feet to Jerusalem lay in territory as Arab as the slopes of Bab el Wad. Even the little additional water available to the city from one of its most ancient sources, King Solomon’s Pools, lay in Arab-controlled territory. Once the British left, the Arabs could cripple Jewish Jerusalem and force its surrender without a shot by depriving the city of the most vital element of daily existence, water. A bundle of dynamite sticks would be all they would need to do it.51
Still today the rains in Israel remain crucial and regularly make headlines. The largest reservoir in the country is the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) which supplies its water to most of the country via the National Water Carrier. How the rains affect the Kinneret’s level is a constant source of concern. In February 2003, after a generous rain upon the land, Arutz Sheva News Service referred to it as a “Blessed Rainfall.” This dependency on rain for water dates back to God’s original design for His people to depend on Him.
In many places in Israel, such as Be’er Sheva, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, the amount of rain this year has already passed the annual average. Heavy rains are expected today and tomorrow throughout the country, and heavy snow has already closed the Mt. Hermon area. The level of the Kinneret Sea was recorded today at 212.81 meters below sea level.52
Because of water’s vitality to the land of Israel, God often drew upon its imagery in Scripture to teach valuable lessons. Thirst for water is like a spiritual thirst which only God can fulfill (Ps 42:1; 63:1). An enemy is likened to water which runs off an impervious object; with God we are impervious to attacks outside His will (Ps 58:7). Water represents God’s literal blessing on the earth through the giving of rain (Ps 65:9-13; 72:6-7; Mic 5:7). An increase, or a lack of water, represents God’s blessing, or lack thereof, on the land (Ps 107:33-28). Water represents sexual joy in marriage; just as a personal fountain was to be enjoyed privately, so the pleasure is not to be shared with another but the spouse (Prov 5:15-18). Living water represents water drunk from its very source, like a spring. Cisterns can represent that which someone provides for himself; the imagery suggests that a direct relationship to the Lord is incomparable to any substitute (Jer 2:12-13).
Scripture validates the benefits of historical geography through repeatedly stressing that Israel’s location among the nations was God’s choosing. The location of the land provided not only the setting for Israel’s history, but it also provided the means by which the Lord powerfully related to His people. The land developed the faith of the Jews because it possessed little in and of itself to provide a living for its inhabitants. With scant physical and economic resources, and sitting as the land bridge for world-powers, the Jews immediately recognized the need to rely on the Lord or perish.
The geographical nature and position of this land do not inherently encourage its independence nor its development as a natural center of political power. Geological forces have made it a mixture of mountains, canyons, passes and plains. Ripping through it from north to south is the Rift Valley, one of the great cleavages in the earth’s crust. In this deep valley bodies of water, swamps or dry and inhospitable plains have produced regions through which travel was difficult. The slightest shift in world climatic conditions can render the country helpless, producing drought and famine. In this context there also exists an almost continual conflict between the herdsman and the farmer, between the desert and the sown… . Such a land does not lend itself to unification or rule under any one government. Natural routes are constricted by uplifted limestone hills, deeply eroded canyons and sharp geological faults. At the same time the country lacks natural frontiers and is vulnerable to attack on all sides.53
The Bible makes it clear how geography took both an active and passive role in God’s dealing with people. George Adam Smith, in his fundamental volume on The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, offers this excellent summary of Israel’s placement among the nations.
The Semitic home is distinguished by its central position in geography— between Asia and Africa, and between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, which is Europe; and the rôle in history of the Semitic race has been also intermediary. The Semites have been the great middlemen of the world. Not second-rate in war, they have risen to the first rank in commerce and religion. They have been the carriers between East and West, they have stood between the great ancient civilisations and those which go to make up the modern world; while by a higher gift, for which their conditions neither in place nor in time fully account, they have been mediary between God and man, and proved the religious teachers of the world, through whom have come its three highest faiths, its only universal religions. Syria’s [Israel’s] history is her share in this great function of intermedium, which has endured from the earliest times to the present day.54
Smith’s emphasis on the mediatory role of Israel among the nations speaks both of its physical and spiritual functions. As the “land between,” Israel sat in an amazingly strategic geographical position, because it served as the only intercontinental land bridge between the super-powers of the ancient world. God said in Ezekiel 5:5, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her.’”
The most important international roadway of the Fertile Crescent, called the Great Trunk Road, or the International Highway, ran through the length of the land of Israel. Any invading army coming to or from Egypt, or traveling from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aqaba, had to go through Israel. Israel was the crossroads for international imperialism, war, and trade.
As a “kingdom of priests” Israel’s mediatory role was to take advantage of its geography for the glory of God. As world powers traveled through the land, Israel would either influence them for the Lord or be influenced by them toward idolatry. The majority of Israel’s history, unfortunately, reflects the latter.
The major routes that connected the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa passed through the region of Israel and Syria. It was in this area that God placed the descendants of Abraham, that they might live in obedience to his covenant. There they were tested to see if they would keep themselves free from pagan influences, if they would be a light to the nations around them, and if they would trust in God rather than chariots, for their ultimate security.55
The tribes of Dan, Manasseh, Ephraim and Naphtali did not take control of the major cities within their borders along the most important routes of the nation. Judges 1:27-35 laments this failure.
But Manasseh did not take possession of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; so the Canaanites persisted in living in that land… . Neither did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites who were living in Gezer; so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them … Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, but lived among the Canaanites… . Then the Amorites forced the sons of Dan into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the valley; yet the Amorites persisted in living in Mount Heres, in Aijalon and in Shaalbim.
Their failure to take possession of the land resulted in God’s judgment, for He said the nations “shall become as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judg 2:3). This regional geography was one of Israel’s greatest opportunities lost. Rather than influence other nations, Israel was influenced by them.
The main north-south highway east of the Jordan river was called the “King’s Highway.” During the time of Abraham, a king named Chedorlaomer had the military goal of controlling the highway. As he sought to deal with the rebellious cities of the plain he first systematically defeated the strategic cities along the King’s Highway—Ashteroth-karnaim, Ham, Shaveh-kiriathaim, and as far as El-paran on the Gulf of Elath. Then he turned north “to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and conquered all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites, who lived in Hazazon-tamar” (Gen 14:7). It is at that point Chedorlaomer faced and defeated the cities of the plain. He used geography to his advantage as he cut off the cities’ escape and any potential enemy allies or reinforcements, because he controlled the region and highway surrounding the cities. Several centuries later, the King’s Highway was used by the children of Israel as they journeyed from the Sinai wilderness to the east of the Jordan River (Num 20:17; 21:22).
When Abraham followed God’s call to journey to Canaan, his major route of travel was the vast international roadway system stretching across the Fertile Crescent. Beginning in Ur, Abraham followed the highway up through Haran and down into Canaan. As Abraham arrived at Damascus the text does not mention whether he took the International Highway southwest or the alternate Transjordanian “King’s Highway.” The latter is more likely, as it affords a straighter route to Shechem, Abraham’s first stop in Canaan. Also, if Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, followed tradition and crossed the Jordan where Abraham crossed, then Abraham must have forded close to the cities of Penuel, Succoth, Mahanaim, and Adam (Gen 32:31). He then could have ascended the Judean hills to Shechem via the Wadi Faria.
The route Abraham used during the majority of his sojourn in Canaan is called the “Way of the Patriarchs,” a road that stretches south from Shechem in Samaria through Bethel, Ramah, Gibeah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Beersheba in the Negev. It is also called the “Ridge Route,” because it follows the watershed ridge of the Judean and Ephraimite hills. Abraham spent most of his life wandering this ancient path, residing at various times in Shechem (Gen 12:6), Bethel and Ai (Gen 12:8; 13:2), Hebron (Gen 13:18; 14:13), and particularly in the Negev (Gen 13:1; 20:1). These areas had tremendous significance as Israel’s history unfolded.
Higher in elevation and away from the chariots of the plains, the hill country of Judah enjoyed relative seclusion from the foreign influence of the coastal and transjordanian highways. Experiencing mostly local traffic along the Ridge Route, the hill country’s isolation afforded the inhabitants a measure of protection, though they still had to defend the approaches into the hill country.
The most important junction that led up to the hill country, from both the east and west, crossed a wide-open highland region called the Central Benjamin Plateau. A buffer zone between the dominant, quarreling tribes of Ephraim and Judah, the plateau hosted the crossroads of one of the major ascents to the hill country’s ridge route.
When Joshua began his conquest of Canaan, he first sought the Central Benjamin Plateau. Jericho proved a necessary site for Joshua to conquer first, the ancient city was built at the largest oasis in the area. Jericho also guarded the route that ascended to the Central Benjamin Plateau. When Joshua conquered Ai and Bethel, and obtained the surrender of the Gibeonite cities (Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, Kiriath-jearim), he effectively divided the land of Canaan in half (Josh 9:17). The significance of this geographical move allowed Joshua to conquer one area at a time without fear of the other area coming to the enemy’s aid. The kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon were concerned with Gibeon’s surrender “because Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were mighty” (Josh 10:2). In addition, the king of Jerusalem, Adoni-zedek, would have been particularly concerned because Gibeon was the doorway from the coastland through the Shephelah and the Central Benjamin Plateau to Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s main route to the coast and to their Egyptian ally was now cut off. This made Jerusalem vulnerable to the Israelite army. So the cities banded together to retake control of the strategic city of Gibeon.
When Saul was named king of all Israel, he established his base of operations in Gibeah. In addition to being his hometown, the city lay along the Ridge Route at the southern part of the Central Benjamin Plateau. The Philistines knew its strategic placement for both east-west travel (via the Beth-horon ridge route) and north-south travel (via the “Way of the Patriarchs”). If the Philistines could control the plateau they could keep the northern and southern tribes from uniting under their new king against Philistine domination. They attempted the same “divide and conquer” strategy as Joshua and tried to control the plateau. When they failed, they attempted to ascend to the hill country through the Elah Valley in the Shephelah. This valley provided the next major road to the hill country of Judah and Ephraim through Bethlehem. If the Philistines were to come up through Bethlehem, they could travel north along the “Way of the Patriarchs” and gain control again of the strategic Central Benjamin Plateau. The Philistines camped on the mountain between Azekah and Socoh, and Israel camped on the mountain by Socoh (1 Sam 17:1-3). Israel was poised to stop them at Socoh because there the road forked, allowing two possible ascents to the hill country—one through Hushah on the northern road, and one though Adullam and Beth-zur on the southern road. David came to see his brothers in the battle by traveling from Bethlehem along the road that descends into the Elah Valley. His victory over Goliath occurred in the valley between the two encampments and provided security again for the hill country of Judah and Saul’s base of power in the Central Benjamin Plateau. Once Goliath was killed, the Hebrews ran the Philistines out of the valley back towards their cities of Gath and Ekron.
Even in more recent history, the roads to Jerusalem proved a critical asset which had to be guarded or obtained. In the 1948 War of Independence, the Chief of Staff of the Haganah, Jacob Dori, said, “The war will be won or lost on the roads of Palestine. Our survival will depend on our transportation.”56 One major road to Jerusalem started at Tel-Aviv (ancient Joppa) and passed through the coastal plain to enter Judea’s low-rolling hills near Gezer, a site Solomon himself fortified to protect another critical ascent to Jerusalem. As the road entered the hill country, it was called in Arabic, Bab El Wad (“The Gate of the Valley”). The Arabs’ control of Bab El Wad gave them a strong advantage in cutting off the Jewish supply line to Jerusalem and procuring a bona fide siege much like the city endured in ancient times. What success the Arabs enjoyed from Bab El Wad, they owed to geography, because
for twenty miles, the road twisted its way up a series of tight curves, its path buried at the foot of the valley, each of its sides a sheer, impenetrable descent of rock and forest. There every rock could hide a rifleman, every curve an ambush, every clump of trees a company of attackers… . [For the Jews] Protecting that fragile communication line was an immense, almost insurmountable problem.57
King Solomon used geography to fulfill Israel’s opportunity as the “land between” and its obligation as a “Kingdom of Priests.” A simple notation in 1 Kings 9:15 records that Solomon fortified “Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer.” By controlling these key cities, spread along the International Highway, Solomon also controlled trade and communication between travelers and potential allied enemies. “These sites reflect important political and economic advantages which made Israel a powerful country in the eastern Mediterranean. It was Israel’s first period of relative greatness when her influence extended over the international routes of the region and beyond.”58
Hazor, located in upper Galilee, held a strategic place on the International Highway, for standing in Hazor, one could fully see to the north, northeast, and southwest. Travelers, merchants, and armies had to pass through the slender plain by Hazor because west of the city lay the mountains of Upper Galilee, and east of the city lay a swampy valley. Since Solomon controlled Hazor, he controlled the northern entrance into Galilee and Israel. Remains of the “Solomonic gate” are still visible in Hazor today. Moreover, the modern Israeli army still considers Hazor a strategic location.59
Megiddo was located at the main pass through Mount Carmel and stood as arguably the most strategic city in Israel. Solomon fortified this city, south of Hazor, because Megiddo not only lay along the International Highway, but it also crossed the main road which connected Shechem and Ephraim to the Acco Plain’s ports of Tyre and Sidon.60 It was also a major east/west crossing point from the Mediterranean coast to the Transjordanian Highlands and King’s Highway. As with Hazor, one who controlled Megiddo controlled both traffic and trade, levying taxes at will.
Gezer lay about twenty miles west of Jerusalem in the northern part of the Shephelah. Solomon fortified Gezer because Jerusalem’s main highway through the Aijalon valley intersected the International Highway at Gezer. By controlling Gezer Solomon not only monitored travel along the International Highway, but he also controlled the main route to Jerusalem from the coast.61 So from Galilee to the coastal plains Solomon controlled all traffic through the nation. This played an integral role in his national security as well as his wealth. The annual tribute brought to Solomon amounted to 666 talents of gold (1 Kgs 10:11). This was in addition to the taxes levied from traders, wares of the merchants, all the kings of the Arabs, and the governors of the country (1 Kgs 10:15). These taxes evidently came from Solomon’s “toll booths” in the key cities fortified along the International Highway—Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. Solomon enjoyed a vast export system, by which he sent chariots and horses to all the kings of the Hittites and to the kings of the Arameans (1 Kgs 10:29).
In addition to his wealth, Solomon used his position to fulfill Israel’s mediatory role to the nations. As 1 Kings 10:24 notes, “And all the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart. And they brought every man his gift, articles of silver and gold, garments, weapons, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year” (italics added).
Because of Israel’s location among the nations, God’s people had the opportunity to influence the nations for God (like Solomon) or to be influenced by the nations away from God. Unfortunately the northern kingdom of Israel succumbed to the latter to the extent that Isaiah would refer to the region of Galilee as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isa 9:1). The northern tribes of Naphtali, Issachar, Zebulun, and Asher had important international highways running through their midst, and pagan powers continually sought control of these areas for economic and political benefit.62 Reflecting this influence, the northern kingdom of Israel had not one king who followed the Lord, but they pursued a syncretistic worship of false gods alongside Yahweh. This disobedience resulted in judgment and eventual Gentile control of Galilee.
The southern kingdom of Judah also failed in the opportunity its geography provided. In a context of judgment, God laments that Jerusalem’s placement among the nations had borne no fruit.
Thus says the Lord God, “This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her. But she has rebelled against My ordinances more wickedly than the nations and against My statutes more than the lands which surround her; for they have rejected My ordinances and have not walked in My statutes.” Therefore, thus says the Lord God, “Because you have more turmoil than the nations which surround you, and have not walked in My statutes, nor observed My ordinances, nor observed the ordinances of the nations which surround you,” therefore, thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I, even I, am against you, and I will execute judgments among you in the sight of the nations. Moreover, I will make you a desolation and a reproach among the nations which surround you, in the sight of all who pass by. So it will be a reproach, a reviling, a warning and an object of horror to the nations who surround you, when I execute judgments against you in anger, wrath, and raging rebukes. I, the Lord, have spoken” (Ezek 5:5-15 nasb, italics added).
Matthew 4:14-16 notes how the Lord Jesus particularly chose Capernaum as the base of operation for His public ministry “to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —the people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light, and to those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a light dawned’” (emphasis added). Isaiah’s use of “the way of the sea” foretold that the area by the Sea of Galilee would behold the light the Messiah would bring to a region riddled with spiritual darkness. While several cities by the Sea of Galilee could have fulfilled this prophecy, some suggest Jesus’ selection of Capernaum drew upon its geographical benefits.
Capernaum rested astride the international artery of trade (Great Trunk Road) that ultimately linked Egypt and Mesopotamia… . By anchoring His ministry at Capernaum, it became unnecessary for Him to travel great distances, because those who heard and believed His message in Capernaum became instant and far-flung ambassadors.63
When Christ ministered in the region of Samaria, He stopped near the ancient city of Shechem, a city with a major north-south and east-west crossroads. After converting a woman by a well, He was welcomed by many Samaritans in the village of Sychar, staying with them two days (John 4:40). Many travelers who passed within their valley could then hear of the “One [who] is indeed the Savior of the world.”
Jesus’ final words to the church issue a commission outlined by geographical parameters. “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8).” The book of Acts reveals how the Holy Spirit used the Church to spread the Gospel message successively in these specific areas: in Jerusalem (Acts 1:1-6:7), in all Judea and Samaria (Acts 6:8-9:31), and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 9:32-28:31). Antioch replaced Jerusalem as the base from which the outreach to the nations took place. The book of Acts culminates in the most important city of the Roman Empire, Rome.
God used Israel’s strategic location to demonstrate the true source of security. This was true on both the national and local levels. A number of factors helped determine the location of cities in Israel. In addition to accessibility to water (as in Capernaum), there was the availability of natural resources (i.e. Jericho and its proximity to water and the Dead Sea’s bitumen),64 regional topography (Megiddo), local topography (Jerusalem, Samaria, Masada), and easy lines of communication (Hazor). It was very common for a location to experience continual settlement because the geographical factors that determined it did not change. The same factors that determined the first choice of the site usually attracted new settlers. In fact, as a city was rebuilt over and over on the same site (called a “tell”), its walls became higher and thus even more attractive to settlers.
Geography played a major role in how the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel selected their capital cities. Jeroboam chose Shechem as his capital, most likely because of the significant religious history of the city. Shechem had great spiritual significance for Abraham, Jacob, and Joshua. Also Shechem was situated on an essential crossroads along the “Way of the Patriarchs.” In addition to this crucial north-south road, another road also went northwest to the International Highway, and still another went east toward the Transjordanian Highway. The Israelite kings Baasha, Elah, Zimri, and Omri chose Tirzah as their capital primarily because it is at the western end of the Wadi Faria, the main route between the Jordan Valley and central Samaria. Since this wadi provided the most important entrance into Israel’s hill country, Tirzah essentially controlled all traffic between the Transjordanian Highway and Shechem. In an aggressive move, Omri later shifted his capital to Samaria, a location closer to the International Highway. The city had steep slopes all around the high hill on which the city sat. It also provided room for many people to live—perhaps 40,000—as the city covered twenty acres. It required cisterns for water supply, which was a major drawback in times of siege. Samaria enjoyed much produce since the valleys and the nearby Dothan Plain were very fertile. Samaria also had a better location for trade than the previous three capitals.
But as with most strengths, cities had a potential for weakness. The geographical benefit of a city could become its inhabitants’ source of trust rather than God. For example, King Asa of Jerusalem trusted God against “Zerah the Ethiopian [who] came out against them with an army of a million men and 300 chariots” (2 Chr 14:9), and God gave Asa victory as he battled in the Shephelah. But when “Baasha king of Israel came up against Judah and fortified Ramah in order to prevent anyone from going out or coming in to Asa king of Judah” (2 Chr 16:1), Asa panicked and paid the king of Aram to come to his aid. Asa’s response was to take “silver and gold”—all that he had dedicated to God—to buy help from a pagan king. What was it that caused Asa, who had such faith to gain victory over a million from the south, suddenly to become terrified and look to his own devices for help? It was because God took from Asa something Asa trusted in more than God —the Central Benjamin Plateau. Asa could not imagine what he would do without that land, so he scrambled to try to get it back at all costs; he felt he had to have it to be secure.
Another way Scripture validates the benefits of historical geography is seen in how God linked geography to His covenants with Israel. By obediently living in the land, Israel could expect to enjoy the provisions God promised through the covenants. In the Abrahamic Covenant, land, seed, and blessing came through Abraham’s obedience to leave one land and go to another God selected. The Mosaic Covenant promised rain on the land (blessings), or drought (curses), depending on the obedience of Israel to the Law. God’s promises to the Jews were always connected to the physical land, and the ultimate judgment was for God to take from them the land He gave. The hope of ultimate restoration also involved a return to the land. For example, Nehemiah found hope in his belief in God’s promise to return His repentant people to the land (Neh 1:9). The Davidic Covenant gave a messianic and eschatological promise directly tied to the land, for God told David his descendant would rule on his throne over an eternal kingdom (2 Sam 7:16).
In anticipating the coming of Christ, Isaiah 40 clearly noted the voice preparing the way for the Lord will be one crying in the wilderness (of Judea). All four Gospels indicate that John the Baptist specifically fulfilled this geographical prophecy (Matt 3:1; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:2; John 1:23). Isaiah’s words speak of changing the geography of the land, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain” (Isa 40:4). In light of John’s ministry, the geography represents changing the hearts of the people. For to make smooth what is rough would correspond to John’s message and baptism of repentance (Matt 3:2; Mark 1:4), as well as to the general Old Testament command for repentance in order to bring in restoration (Deut 30).
Some time later, when John the Baptist struggled with doubt during his imprisonment at Machaerus by the Dead Sea, Jesus’ response would have been a personal encouragement to him because of John’s familiarity with the area’s geography. “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear …” (Matt 11:4-5). Jesus quoted from Isaiah 35:5-6, showing John, from Scripture, how Jesus’ ministry was fulfilling Old Testament prophesies; Jesus was the “Expected One.” But the verses before and after these—which John would have been familiar with as well—provided a more subtle form of encouragement to John:
The wilderness and the desert will be glad,
And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom;
Like the crocus it will blossom profusely
And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
The majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the glory of the Lord,
The majesty of our God …
And the scorched land will become a pool,
And the thirsty ground springs of water;
In the haunt of jackals, its resting place,
Grass becomes reeds and rushes (Isa 35:1-2, 7).
John was imprisoned in the “wilderness … and the Arabah”—the very place God promised in Messiah’s kingdom to make as fertile as Lebanon, Mt. Carmel, and the Plain of Sharon. John’s circumstances seemed to demand doubt, but Jesus’ words would have reminded him the conditions would not always be that way—even the geography around John would change when the kingdom comes. This context would have encouraged John that Jesus was who He said He was.
Even in modern Israel, geography is linked to God’s promises, and the importance of the land remains the major point of contention in the Middle East conflict. In a recent gathering of Rabbis in Jerusalem, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu said, “No one, from the simplest person to even the Prime Minister, has the right to cede even one granule of the Land of Israel! The Holy One, blessed be He, gave it to us! To us alone He gave it!”65 In another Jerusalem demonstration, a youth held a sign paraphrasing Joel 3:2, “Dear Nations, ‘I will gather all (you) the nations … and enter in judgment with them on behalf of my people, Israel, whom you scattered … and divided up my land!’ G-D.”
Historical geography also plays a vital role in biblical interpretation. For example, geography bears importance as to how Jonathan and his armor-bearer—only two men—could rout the entire Philistine army. The outnumbered and frightened Jews of Saul’s day hid themselves in caves along the Valley of Zeboim. It is also by way of this valley (the main route from the Ephraimite hills to the Jordan Valley) that many Jews crossed the Jordan river into the land of Gad and Gilead (1 Sam 13:6). The Philistines placed a garrison at Michmash where they could both monitor and use this valley road to make periodic raids, maintaining control of the area (1 Sam 13:17-18). When Jonathan determined to climb the ravine to assault the Philistine garrison, instead of traveling along the normal ascent to Michmash, he attempted something very difficult, for it took the Philistines by surprise.
I have seen this ravine; it is very steep. The names of the crags imply the difficulty in scaling them. “Seneh” means “the Thorny One” (MT), and “Bozez” means “the Gleaming One” or “the Miry One.”66 Ultimately, the victory was given to two men over twenty because the Lord was with them (1 Sam 14:6, 12, 23). Once this area was controlled, God intervened and sent panic throughout the Philistine army. Moreover, in spite of the fact that Israel had no decent weapons of war, the author specifically notes that it was “the Lord [who] delivered Israel that day, and the battle spread beyond Beth-aven” (1 Sam 14:23) and “from Michmash to Aijalon” (1 Sam 14:31). Evidently this is the last time Philistine domination controlled the Central Benjamin Plateau.
Knowing the historical geography of Galilee gives insight as to why in later history the people of Nain exclaimed of Jesus, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited His people!” (Luke 7:16). The little city of Nain was located at the Hill of Moreh on its northern edge, facing the Jezreel Valley. On the southern side of this hill lay the city of Shunem. The people of this area had, as one of their few claims to Old Testament fame, the memory of Elisha’s raising the dead son of a kind woman in Shunem (2 Kgs 4). When Jesus came to Nain and raised the son of a widow, the two similar events struck a chord in the hearts of the residents so that they exclaimed, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” The emphasis on a “great prophet” indicates they most likely thought of the greatest prophet of that locale: Elisha. Some may have even put together the connection that just as Elijah came before Elisha, so John the Baptist (who came in the spirit and power of Elijah) prepared the way for Jesus (who worked a miracle in the same region as Elisha). It also is fascinating to note how Elijah passed the prophetic mantel to Elisha by the Jordan River above Jericho. This is the traditional site where John the Baptist (the New Testament “Elijah”) baptized Jesus, transferring the prophetic mantel once again; the geography emphasizes this meaning.
Geography occurs on almost every page of Scripture. In regard to Israel’s water, highways, Joshua’s campaigns, Saul’s battles, Solomon’s wealth and influence, northern capitals, the ministry of Jesus, John’s doubt and comfort, and hundreds of unmentioned others, the often overlooked, but critical element is historical geography—the stage upon which the divine drama plays out. “It has been said, ‘Geography is latent history.’ In fact, geography determines history.”67
Before we come to Scripture with the question, “What does this passage mean to me?” we must understand what it means in context, including what it meant to the original readers. “Even new Bible readers hear the warning to read the Bible ‘in its context’ and not treat passages in an isolated fashion. However, many understand the context to be literary only and then forget to read the Bible in its historical context, that is, the time period in which it was written and about which it narrates.”68 Context includes historical geography and thus validates its benefit in our study and application of the Scriptures.
The 2002 National Geographic survey revealed that most young adults knew that El Niño affected the weather and that the AIDS epidemic most affected Africa. Nick Boyon, senior vice president for international research at RoperASW, noted, “When geography and life intersect, people pay attention.”69 This is an outstanding observation, for geography always intersected life in the biblical world.
In light of America’s geographical apathy and illiteracy—both in culture and Christendom—this study provides a useful contribution to the field of historical geography, particularly with no previously published surveys on how understanding and experiencing the land of Israel has benefited real people.
6 Robert Pastor from Bijal P. Trivedi, Survey Reveals Geographic Illiteracy [Website Article] (National Geographic Today, 2002, accessed 20 November 2002); available from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/11/1120_021120_GeoRoperSurvey.html.
9 Laura Miller, America the Ignorant [Website Article] (Salon.com, 2001, accessed 27 September 2001); available from http://archive.salon.com/news/feature/2001/09/27/stupidity/.
10 Kenneth C. Davis, Don't Know Much About Geography: Everything You Need to Know About the World but Never Learned (New York: W. Morrow, 1992), 17.
11 Roger Downs, from Trivedi, (accessed).
12 Davis, 16-7.
13 Fuller Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Asbury Theological Seminary, Bethel College and Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary offer courses in historical geography as electives only. Denver Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary do not even have an elective course on historical geography. This information was obtained in August-September 2003 through correspondence directly with these institutions.
14 Correspondence from an e-mail dated August 15, 2003.
15 G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, Rupert L. Chapman, and Joan E. Taylor, The Onomasticon by Eusebius of Caesarea: Palestine in the Fourth Century A.D. With Jerome's Latin Translation and Expansion in Parallel from the Edition of E. Klostermann, ed. Joan E. Taylor, trans. G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, English ed. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2003), 2.
16 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 130.
17 Jerome. Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide: From Earliest Times to 1700, fourth ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 208.
18 Freeman-Grenville, Chapman, and Taylor, 8.
19 Ibid., 1.
20 Ibid., 1-2.
21 Carl Rasmussen, NIV Atlas of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 9.
22 Henry A. Virkler, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1988), 89.
23 Robert A. Traina, Methodical Bible Study: A New Approach to Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Francis Asbury Press, 1985), 153.
24 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 129-30.
25 Howard G. Hendricks and William Hendricks, Living by the Book (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 93.
26 Hans Finzel and Patricia H. Picardi, Observe, Interpret, Apply (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1994), 56, 61.
27 Young, 3.
28 Richard Cleave, The Holy Land Satellite Atlas, English ed., vol. 2 “The Regions” (Nicosia, Cyprus: Rohr Productions, 2000), 4.
29 Randy Cook, “Physical & Historical Geography of Israel: Geographical Introduction and the Jerusalem Area,” ed. Bill Schlegal and Todd Bolen (Unpublished notes from the Israel Bible Extension, The Master's College, 2001), 1.
30 Beitzel, 3.
31 J. Carl Laney, Baker's Concise Bible Atlas: A Geographical Survey of Bible History (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1988), 12.
32 Davis, 17.
33 Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, trans. A. F. Rainey, second ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979), ix.
34 George Adam Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land: Especially in Relation to the History of Israel and of the Early Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897), ix.
35 Merrill Chapin Tenney and ed, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975).
37 See for example James C. Martin, Above Israel (Gaithersburg, Md.: Preserving Bible Times, 2002), DVD Visual Material.
38 See for example Todd Bolen, Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, 10 Volumes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2004), CD-Rom.
39 See William P. Sanders, “Using a Relief Map of the Holy Land in Adult Biblical Education” (D.Min. Dissertation, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, 1996).
40 Donald P. Regier, “Audiovisual Support for Your Teaching,” from Kenneth O. Gangel and Howard G. Hendricks, The Christian Educator's Handbook on Teaching (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1988), 196.
41 Cleave, 4.
42 J.-P. Migne, ed., Praefatio Hieronymi in Librum Paralipomenon Juxta Lxx Interpretes, 79 vols., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Sive Biblioteca Universalis, Integra, Uniformis, Commoda, Oeconomica, Omnium Ss. Patrum, Doctorum Scriptorumque Eccelesiasticorum Qui Ab Aevo Apostolico Ad Usque Innocentii III Tempora Floruerunt . . . [Series Latina, in Qua Prodeunt Patres, Doctores Scriptoresque Ecclesiae Latinae, a Tertulliano Ad Innocentium III], vol. 29 (Paris: 1846), col. 401-2. This quote’s English translation is taken from Freeman-Grenville, Chapman, and Taylor, 2-3.
43 Dominic O'Brien, Learn to Remember: Practical Techniques and Exercises to Improve Your Memory (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000), 37.
44 Ibid., 38.
45 Terry Hall, Dynamic Bible Teaching with Overhead Transparencies (Elgin, Ill.: David C. Cook, 1985), 8.
46 See most notably Charles H. Dyer and Greg Hatteberg, The Christian Traveler's Guide to the Holy Land (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 22-35.
47 I contacted Dr. Charlie Dyer, Dr. James Monson, and Professor Todd Bolen.
48 Tina Morgan, The Importance of Setting [website article] (Fiction Factor, 2001, accessed 1 November 2003); available from http://www.fictionfactor.com/articles/setting.html.
49 Beitzel, (preface) xv.
50 Ibid., 2.
51 Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem! (London: Granada, 1982), 130.
52 Hillel Fendel, Blessed Rainfall, Arutz-7 News, English Edition [Website Article] (accessed 19 February 2003); available from http://www.israelnationalnews.com/news.php3?id=39228.
53 Monson, 13-4.
54 Smith, 5-6.
55 Rasmussen, 14.
56 Collins and Lapierre, 50.
57 Ibid., 52-3.
58 Monson, 26-7.
59 W. B. Coker, “Hazor,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill Chapin Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 50-3.
60 Anson F. Rainey, “Megiddo,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill Chapin Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 164-76.
61 Anson F. Rainey, “Gezer,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill Chapin Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 706-10.
62 Monson, 24.
63 Beitzel, 171.
64 Ibid., 54-5.
65 Hillel Fendel, Rabbis Union: No One Has the Right to Give Away the Land, Arutz-7 News, English Edition [Website Article] (accessed 24 June 2003); available from http://www.israelnationalnews.com/news.php3?id=45568.
66 P. Kyle McCarter, I Samuel: A New Translation, The Anchor Bible, vol. 8 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983), 239.
67 Timothy Tennent, The Historical Context of Islam, Lecture 1 (South Hamilton, Mass.: Biblical Training), Audiocassette.
68 Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 21.
69 Trivedi, (accessed).
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.
My goal for this research is that the conclusions will help believers 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. Rather than reproduce the actual survey in this chapter I have included it in Appendix A. Also I have arranged the results to each of the survey questions by category rather than the order in which the survey asked them. These categories are arranged in accordance with the goal stated above: (1) understanding and experiencing historical geography (those who have taken a class and those who have gone to Israel), (2) historical geography in relation to study of the Bible, (3) historical geography in relation to application of the Bible, and (4) historical geography in relation to teaching the Bible.
In the survey the respondent was asked to rate certain statements by placing an “X” on the line by the number most closely representing their view. For example, the following answer reflects someone who “agreed” with a survey’s statement:
The survey listed three levels of agreement (“disagree,” “agree,” and “strongly agree”) along a seven-number continuum to define the level of agreement to applicable statements. In reporting the results, each of the seven possible positions will be illustrated in a bar graph. But when discussing the results, I averaged the responses into clusters closest to the three basic levels of agreement (“disagree,” “agree,” and “strongly agree”).
In regard to basic demographics, 45% of respondents were male and 55% were female (as illustrated in Figure 1). The largest percentage of those answering the survey were between the ages of 15-25 (50%), followed by those between 26-40 (30%), those between 41-60 (17%), and finally, those over the age of 61 (3%) (see Figure 2). Particularly with respect to age, this survey does not reflect the average age of those who study in the classroom or those who go to Israel; the figures simply show the ages of those who responded to the survey.
This category of survey questions reflects those who have taken a class on historical geography and/or those who have taken a tour to Israel. Every respondent falls into one or both of these groups.
Of those who took a class on historical geography, 73% “strongly agreed” with the statement, “My classroom study of the historical geography of Israel improved my understanding of the biblical narrative.” This percentage represents (as throughout these reported results) the responses averaged into the clusters closest to the three basic levels of agreement (“disagree,” “agree,” and “strongly agree”) (see Figure 3). In addition to the 73% who answered they “strongly agree,” 24% “agree” and 3% “disagree” with the statement.
Of those who took a tour to Israel, 84% “strongly agree” with the statement, “If I bought fifty books on historical geography, they could not contribute what my trip to Israel has given me” (see Figure 4 on next page). It is noteworthy to mention that of those who “strongly agree,” over two-thirds gave the statement the highest mark possible. 14% simply “agree,” and 2% “disagree” with the statement.
For those respondents who went to Israel, as well as took a class on historical geography, 87% “disagree” with the statement, “I gained more of an understanding of historical geography in class than I did on-site in Israel” (Figure 5). 8% “agree” and 5% “strongly agree” with the statement.
In a statement also relevant to the category of Bible application, 68% “strongly agree” and 25% “agree” with the statement, “My on-site study of the historical geography of Israel contributed more to my spiritual life than my classroom study of the same.” Only 7% “disagree” (see Figure 6).
While those who took the survey can be classified in two general groups—those who have and have not been to Israel—the groups that has been to Israel can be further classified into four groups. The five groups are listed in Figure 7.
Of those who took the survey, 9% took a class on historical geography but have never gone to Israel; 6% have gone to Israel but have never taken a class on historical geography; 15% first took a class on historical geography and then went to Israel; 6% first went to Israel and then took a class on historical geography. But by far the majority of those surveyed (64%) first went to Israel as part of an educational study tour that also included a historical geography class. Again, these figures do not represent the average experiences of all who do or do not travel to Israel; the percentages merely represent those who took the survey.
Comparing the necessity of study prior to going to Israel, 45% of those surveyed “strongly agree” with the statement, “A knowledge of historical geography prior to going to Israel is essential in order to experience the most benefit in Israel,” while 35% “agree,” and 20% “disagree” (Figure 8).
Other group delineations were defined by teachers, tour guides, and time spent in Israel. Of those respondents who took a historical geography class, 20% were taught by Dr. Charlie Dyer, 7% by Jerusalem University College, 71% by IBEX, and 2% by various other instructors (Figure 9).
The distinctions by way of tour guides fell into the same groupings. Of those who traveled to Israel, 8% were led by Dr. Charlie Dyer, 7% by Jerusalem University College, 75% by IBEX, and 11% by various other tour guides (Figure 10).
As far as how much time was spent in Israel by those who went, 17% spent one to four weeks, 72% spent one to six months, and 11% spent six months or more (Figure 11).
The literature review has already demonstrated the importance of historical geography in Bible study, particularly as it relates to context. The survey also documents this fact based on real people who use the discipline in their study of God’s Word. For example, 70% “strongly agree” with the statement, “If I excluded historical geography from my Bible study, I would be eliminating an indispensable part of biblical interpretation” (Figure 12 on next page). 24% agree with the statement, and only 6% disagree.
Responding to the statement, “The geography and history of the Bible are so deeply intertwined neither can be completely understood without the other,” 65% “strongly agree,” 30% “agree,” and 5% “disagree” (Figure 13).
A full 60% of respondents “strongly agree” with the assertion, “The study of historical geography has provided me a greater confidence in the Bible as God’s Word” (Figure 14). 32% “agree” and 8% “disagree.”
Traveling to Israel changes the way students of historical geography read the Bible, for an overwhelming 95% of respondents “strongly agree” with the statement, “I feel after going to Israel it is impossible to read the Bible the same as before going” (Figure 15). In addition, only 4% “agree” and 1% “disagree.”
Historical geography also has a valuable contribution to the spiritual lives of believers. In regards to remembering the Bible’s applications to life, geography was found to assist in the process. Of those responding, 75% “strongly agree” that “Geography has increased my ability to remember biblical events and the life-lessons they teach” (Figure 16); 22% “agree,” and 3% “disagree” that historical geography contributes to their memory of biblical events and their applications. Notably, every person responded to this statement, and not one answered the lowest possible score (indicating the most disagreement).
Respondents answered a more direct statement regarding historical geography’s relation to biblical application. Of those responding, 44% “strongly agree” with the assertion, “My study of the historical geography of Israel has given me clearer direction for biblical application” (Figure 17 on next page); 43% “agree”; and a total of 13% “disagree.” Since fewer “strongly agree” with this statement over the previous one, it implies that the emphasis for many in Figure 16’s statement was on memory over application. Even still, 87% either “strongly agree” or “agree” that historical geography directs them better toward biblical application.
The survey also asked all respondents to rate how historical geography has directly impacted their love for God and His Word. In doing so, 80% “strongly agree” that “Historical geography has increased my love for the Word of God and the God of the Bible” (Figure 18 on next page). Moreover 16% “agree,” and just 4% “disagree” that the study increased their love for God and His Word.
For those who have gone to Israel, the figures of historical geography’s impact on their spiritual lives overshadow the general survey’s experience. For example, 99% either “strongly agree” (83%) or “agree” (16%) with the statement, “Experiencing the land of the Bible first-hand has strengthened my spiritual life” (Figure 19). Only 1% “disagree.”
In comparing the spiritual value of studying historical geography in the class versus studying on site in Israel (see Figure 6, discussed earlier), 93% either “strongly agree”(68%) or “agree” (25%) with the statement, “My on-site study of the historical geography of Israel contributed more to my spiritual life than my classroom study of the same.” Only 7% “disagree.”
The survey also provided a place for respondents to write in a personal response in relation to their spiritual life. Below are listed some of the more notable answers. All responses are included in Appendix C. (Only two respondents objected to the value of going to Israel; rather than comment here I have done so in the footnotes of Appendix C.) The question was stated, “Please answer in your own words: How has your study of historical geography affected your relationship with God?”
The study of historical geography adds a richer level of realism to biblical events. Relating the biblical narrative to the place in which it may have taken place adds to the visual experience of reading and understanding God’s Word. So much of God’s Word occurs in REAL places and to neglect a study of those places in the context of the passage under consideration is to miss a layer of observation that helps in making the Bible the living book it is.75
… as I read God’s Word, I actually visualize the scenes, see the people, feel the air, smell the aromas. I think you must know about the land a person is from in order to fully understand that person. When you know the land of God’s chosen people and see the places where ‘His only begotten Son’ actually walked, then you can more fully understand HIM.76
I have much clearer images in my mind when I read the Bible of what may have historically happened; I remember after my Israel trip feeling like my religious experience was much more tangibly grounded in earthly realities.77
It adds depth to my personal and preparational Bible study, and as a result has enriched my spiritual growth.78
Knowing the geography of Israel and how the Israelites had to really trust God in those areas has helped me trust God in ‘unbearable’ situations. Knowing that God sovereignly put the Israelites in Israel in those conditions (hot, desert, etc.) reminds me regularly that God knows best what his people need and that I simply need to trust Him completely.79
Historical Geography has shown me the reliability of the Bible—places are really there. It has made more real the fact that God is in the physical realm and not just the spiritual, and that Jesus came to earth. It has shown that His promise to the Jews is still good.80
… It has also shown me that as I gaze upon a rather mundane-looking, arid desert landscape in Israel and reflect upon the (by contrast) profound, history altering events that took place there, I realize that God can and does do profound and potentially history altering things TODAY in rather ‘mundane-looking’ and ‘arid’ and ‘desert-like’ landscapes.81
… When David talks about hiding in the cliffs, I know what these look like. When the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, I know how barren it is. All of this knowledge is because I lived there and studied there. If I had not had this experience it would be a lot harder for me to comprehend these small things. I need to be able to see things in order to understand them, and by my going to Israel, while I can’t SEE God, I SEE where He was and what He lived with and encountered.82
It has made me realize even more that God is a personal God, involved in events and time on earth. He acted then, is acting now, and will act in the future. I love God more!83
… It has helped me understand so many parts of the Bible more deeply than I ever thought possible, therefore better helping me to understand the Great God who created the universe, but knows me personally and dwells inside me.84
… Having a visual picture of where things took place helps me to remember what I read better and helps me explain the setting better to others.85
… Before, I believed my faith to be true…but to see with my own eyes the setting of my faith was priceless to me… . I don’t know that I would have been impacted the same way if I had just taken a class.86
I think while I was in Israel I came to see God less as a subject to be studied, with various categories, and more as a person who has stepped into human history and interacted with his people… . God has revealed himself primarily through real stories in real places, and not only through treatises and categorical data. The same God who, sometimes visibly, manifested himself on the hills of Judah is the same God who I walk with.87
… The major highways today, for the most part, follow the same route as they did in biblical days. This recognition continues to give me a ‘connectedness’ to those people and God’s work among them. We are ‘regular people’ just as they were ‘regular people’ and God may choose to work in our midst as he did then. This encourages me in my relationship with Him.88
… Reading the Gospel of John while sitting on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee provides an ultimate PowerPoint presentation of Jesus’ life. No classroom can hope to replicate that.89
… It’s an amazing experience to understand and see things first hand and to be able to picture it in my mind forevermore. Seeing God’s Holy Land has had an enormous effect of strengthening in my faith and relationship with God.90
… Every passage of Scripture puts my memories on the tip of my tongue and makes me smile because I know the land so well. I would not trade my time in Israel for anything.91
My first-hand study of the historical geography of Israel forever took Scripture (especially the Old Testament) out of that category of hard-to-relate-to historical literature (the category of Josephus, Homer, and the Epic of Gilgamesh) and plunged it into the category of stories about people just like me.92
Understanding the historical geography of the land of Israel changed my life… . Prior to going to Israel I used to scan over so much of the Scriptures relating the geography because I simply did not understand it. Now I read those portions intently because I have been there and I understand better what the text is saying… . As a result the Lord brought me to a deeper dependence upon Him, learning to trust in Him for everything in my life, no matter how big or small.93
It helps me to see the places mentioned in the Bible as actual places where God interacted with people. I see that God is not merely a Creator who left the world to its own devices, but rather, becomes involved in the actual people and places that He created. I guess you could say, He has become more personal.94
Learning the text with my feet was a breaking point in my journey of faith. After coming to Israel, my passion for the text, a passion to dig deeply and with all my strength, was stirred so deeply that I really stepped into a faith of the heart instead of a Christianity of the head… . It is important however that study tours in the land raise questions of faith as well as issues of geography, maps, data and all the other interesting information that this land yields.95
The proper response to understanding more of God’s Word is to be drawn into a deeper relationship with Him. Context is especially important for understanding the Bible, and historical geography is a vital resource for establishing this context… . In summary, historical geography has significantly enhanced my own personal walk with the Lord and is undoubtedly worth the effort to study it.96
… Insights learned through historical geography aid me in teaching and preaching God’s Word. It helps me to paint a picture in the listener’s mind and to bring the Bible to life.97
Historical Geography has added a dimension in the depth of my understanding of the culture and historicity of the Bible, which has ultimately affected how I view the God of the Bible. I feel that I have a richer, fuller understanding of Him, and am better able to appreciate the realness of how He affects His people’s lives and reaches out to them within their cultures.98
Geography clearly meant something to God. Using mountains, rivers, lakes and deserts means there is much to learn in these contexts. People in the places and circumstances they found themselves had to relate to God. As I identify with the people in the Bible, I better understand what God requires of me.99
For those respondents who teach the Bible, 71% “strongly agree” with the general statement, “When I teach the Bible I relate biblical events to the places where they took place” (Figure 20). 23% “agree” and 6% “disagree,” indicating they do not relate a passage to its historical geography in their teaching.
A more pointed statement dealt with instances when a passage actually mentions a site. For those who responded, 50% “strongly agree” with the assertion, “When a passage mentions a biblical site, I explain its significance when teaching the passage” (Figure 21). 39% “agree” and 11% “disagree.” These indicate an interesting comparison to the previous statement. Generally speaking, 93% say they relate biblical events to the places where they took place, but only 89% will do so when a passage mentions a biblical site. Confirming this, the mention of a site in a passage increases the number of teachers who generally do not include historical geography from 6% to 11%.
If historical geography assists an individual’s personal understanding of Scripture, it would also follow that using historical geography in teaching helps the understanding of the listener. The results also verify this reality, for 47% “strongly agree” and 39% “agree” that “When I include historical geography in my communication of the Bible, my listeners tell me they understand much better what I am teaching” (Figure 22). 14% “disagree,” indicating they receive no feedback as to how historical geography has helped the listener.
The majority of respondents (85%) feel historical geography should be taught when the Bible is taught. 41% “strongly agree,” and 44% “agree” with the statement, “When I am listening to a sermon, if the preacher does not relate the passage to its historical geography, he has not given me the full picture” (Figure 23 on next page). Only 15% “disagree.”
One might argue that surveying only students of historical geography can be likened to asking those in a Mexican restaurant if they like Mexican food. With the study of historical geography being almost entirely elective today, it would seem most of these students would already have an affinity towards the subject. Yet there were some on the survey who honestly answered that they felt historical geography played no role in their on-going lives today. But these exceptions prove the rule, for while all had the freedom to object, the overwhelming majority—from various backgrounds—supported the study. In addition, students who had not studied the subject would have no basis for commenting on it.
In the areas of Bible study, application, and teaching, historical geography plays a significant role in the present lives and ministries of those surveyed. Historical geography has provided 92% of respondents a greater confidence in the Bible as God’s Word, and 97% reveal that their class on historical geography improved their understanding of the Bible . Regarding the contribution of historical geography to biblical interpretation, 94% agree that its role is indispensable, and 95% believe the Bible’s history and geography cannot be completely understood without the other.
The overwhelming majority (98%) of respondents who have traveled to Israel said that buying many books on historical geography could not equal what their trip to Israel has given them. For those who took a class and also went to Israel, only 13% felt they gained more of an understanding of historical geography in class than on-site in Israel. The 87% who disagreed considered that being in the land itself offered more by way of education. This illustrates that while there is a significant benefit to taking a class on historical geography, the benefit increases when one studies historical geography on location. Comparing this percentage (87%) with the 98% who felt books could not compare with going to Israel, we see that there is more than knowledge to be gained by a trip to Israel. In fact, 93% felt that their study in Israel contributed more to their spiritual lives than their classroom study.
By cross-tabulating the different groups of Figure 7 with the statement of Figure 8 we find that those who took a class prior to going to Israel see a prior education as of greater necessity (61% “strongly agree”) than those who took the class while in Israel (39%); each group’s answer seems to reflect their experience. But those who took a class after going to Israel saw about the same degree of importance for prior education (60%) as those who took a class before traveling. More surprising results came from those who had never been to Israel. Of those who feel the question is applicable, not one disagrees with the statement, and 83% “strongly agree” that education prior to going to Israel is essential.
A full 98% noted that historical geography helped their memory of biblical events and applications, while 87% agreed that the study better directs them toward biblical application. More specifically in relation to the spiritual life, 96% have increased in their love for God and the Bible through the study of historical geography. And 99% agree that experiencing the land of Israel has strengthened their spiritual life (Figure 19).
An interesting pattern is noticed when the statement, “Experiencing the land of the Bible first-hand has strengthened my spiritual life,” is cross-tabulated with the amount of time people have spent in Israel. For those who have spent up to four weeks in Israel, 71% “strongly agree” with the statement; of those who spent one to six months, 85% “strongly agree;” and those who have spent more than six months, 94% “strongly agree.” This pattern reveals that the longer one spends in Israel, the greater impact the land has on their walk with God.
The majority of respondents believe that historical geography should be implemented in teaching as well as personal study. In fact 93% say they use historical geography in their teaching, and 85% expect it to be included in sermons they hear. Those respondents who actually teach on historical geography when a passage mentions a site were 89%, and 86% of respondents who implement historical geography in their teaching receive positive feedback.
The research clearly revealed those who understand and experience historical geography enjoy a better memory of biblical events, clearer understanding of the text, clearer direction to its application, and more effective communication of the Bible. In the realm of the spiritual life, historical geography provides a greater confidence in the Bible as God’s Word and instills a greater love for God and the Bible. Those who study geography, coupled with a study-trip to Israel, experience even greater benefits than those who simply study in the classroom.
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