Importance of Learning Biblical Geography

Importance of Learning Biblical Geography

One of my favorite classes in seminary was a seminar on biblical geography. The textbook was a Bible atlas, and all the classwork dealt with reading a passage of the Old Testament and drawing it on a map with colored pencils.

And I loved it!

The benefit of this class was that it made the biblical stories come alive. Instead of being words on a page, you could see where events happened. Names of places became tangible places, with rocks, trees, and streams. The journeys people took could be traced with a pencil or your finger.

Here are three reasons why learning biblical geography will help you better understand the Bible:

Better Understand the Story

Stories are shaped by geography. The places are as much a part of the story as the characters. And sometimes, geography is the only way to understand the story.

In 1 Kings 9:15–16, the author describes how the Pharaoh of Egypt destroyed Gezer and gave it as a wedding gift to his daughter, who was marrying Solomon. What kind of gift is a destroyed city?

When you look at Gezer on a map of Israel at the time, it is situated between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea. Most importantly, Gezer was a stop on the Grand Trunk Road, a coastal trade route connecting most of the known road. Pharaoh’s gift of Gezer means that Mr. and Mrs. Solomon could rebuild the city and use it to collect tolls on this road—the gift that keeps on giving!

Better Understand the Culture

Why is it that Israel seems to keep having troubles with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon? When you study Old Testament geography, you will see that Israel is situated at the intersection of three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. Moreover, in the days of the Old Testament, Israel was right in between these great empires: Egypt to the southwest and Assyria and Babylon to the northeast. Israel’s location was prime real estate, of which all three empires wanted to claim as their own.

Better Understand Theology

At times the biblical authors can use geography to highlight theological truths. Locations can do this, but so can overall geography. A great example of this can be seen in the geography of the Gospel of Matthew.

Another example is in the geography of the book of Acts. Jesus tells disciples to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And in retelling the acts of the apostles, Luke follows this same pattern. The narrative focus remains in Jerusalem until the end of Acts 7. Then in Acts 8 Philip finds himself in Samaria preaching the Gospel. Finally, in the rest of the book much of the focus is on Paul, the apostle who brings the Gospel to the Gentiles. Luke traces his several excursions into the Roman empire, traveling about the Mediterranean. At the end of Acts (Acts 28), Luke describes Paul as being in Rome for two years, where he is “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).

So the narrative in Acts moves from Jerusalem—where it all started—to Rome—the center of the world at the time. This also highlights a truth about the Gospel: God’s grace is no longer limited to the Jewish people (identified with Jerusalem). Instead, God’s grace is made available to the entire world, and Paul is preaching it in the capital of the world!

Summary

It is important for readers of the Bible to gain a basic understanding of biblical geography. Geography helps all readers—but especially visual and spatial learners—to make the stories more tangible, more concrete.

A good way to start is to use an ESV Study Bible; it provide some of these geographical explanations, along with big colorful maps. Of course, you can also use the maps at the back of any Bible; they might not be as detailed, but they will give you a broad picture of the world in ancient times.

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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