Understanding and Experiencing the Historical Geography of Israel
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.