Baker's Concise Bible Atlas: Introduction

Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative

Why Historical Geography?

Geography-the colorful and multi-dimensional stage upon which all of history's lessons are unfolded! The word itself is derived from the Greek ge ("earth") and grapho ("write") and literally means "earth description." The ancient Greeks coined the term and were also the first to develop geography as a scientific discipline. But geography is so much more than a collection of measurements and tabulations of interest to only the academician.

Geography can be broadly defined as "the science that describes the surface of the earth and its associated phenomena, including its climates, peoples, animals, and products."e; These factors are vital elements in our planet's development and in many ways determine the destiny of civilizations-their economic base, political confrontations, military campaigns, travel routings, location of cities, and designation of national borders.

Although highly significant in the area's historical development, much of the geography of the Bible lands is unfamiliar to modern readers of Scripture. Most Christians today live in a culture and geographical setting far removed from that in which the biblical events occurred. Yet, ignorance of the physical setting of the saving events of one's faith is a distinct and underrated liability in biblical and theological studies.

This book explores the fascinating biblical lands and their remarkable history. The basic approach will be to trace the biblical chronology and examine broad historical periods and their major events in the context of their geographical settings. Although our study will include all the biblical history and locations, the special focus will be on the land of "Israel," or "Palestine," as it is also called.

The Significance of Biblical Geography

For those who have never traveled to the Holy Land or used a biblical atlas, the geography of the lands of the Scriptures may seem to have little relevance to either Christianity or the other major faith systems that have developed in that area of the world. There are at least four reasons why the study of biblical geography is both important and satisfying.

First, a basic knowledge of the physical and climatic features of the land is necessary for a proper intellectual understanding of the Bible's narrative. Scripture is not merely a treatise on ethics or theology, although it does outline the development of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Rather, it is the historical record of how God involved himself with his people at particular times and places. G. Ernest Wright has remarked, "Geography, history, and religion are so inextricably bound together in it [the Bible] that the religious message cannot be truly understood without attention to the setting and conditions of the revelation" (Westminster Bible Atlas, p. 5).

A familiarity with geographical circumstances will enable the student, or even the cursory reader, to more accurately scrutinize and interpret the biblical events. For example, when reading 1 Samuel 17, one might wonder why the Israelite and Philistine armies were at a standoff, why the Philistines did not simply advance across the Ela Valley to engage the outnumbered and underequipped Israelites. Why did the two forces face each other across the valley for forty days? But a survey of the Ela Valley reveals that it is divided by a deep ravine that the Philistine war chariots could not cross. And, since the ridge on either side was easily defended, making it impossible for either army attack on foot, it was not until the Philistine champion Goliath, challenged the Israelite warriors to a contest that the deadlock was broken. Many clarifications of this sort result from a study of geographical conditions.

Second, geography-by providing a rich and decorative backdrop for the dramatic events of biblical history-heightens the sensory and emotional impact of the narrative. Studying the text without a basic knowledge of its physical setting is like watching a play without scenery. The interrelationships in any series of events cannot be fully comprehended apart from a consideration of where they took place. This is especially applicable to studying the Bible, a setting where land features are so varied and yet so vital in determining the script and human reactions in this stranger-than-fiction saga. In short, geographical data helps us to relate in depth to this fascinating cast of characters as living, breathing fellow humans.

How can one fully appreciate Israel's sufferings during the wilderness wanderings without giving attention to the barren and desolate conditions of the Sinai? How can the incident of Gideon and the fleece be meaningful unless we know about the heavy dew that characterizes the Valley of Jezreel? How was David so successful in eluding Saul by hiding in the Wilderness of Judah? Again, an understanding of geography illuminates the setting and suggests answers to such questions.

Picture the scene and mentally join the actors! Within the confines of a land approximately fifty miles wide (east to west) and a hundred and fifty miles long (north to south), there is an almost infinite variety of settings. From the slopes of 9,100-foot Mount Hermon to the shores of the Dead Sea (1,300 feet below sea level), one moves through lush Galilean greenery to the salt-encrusted fringes of the Judean wilderness. Numerous hills, valleys, rivers, and streams do the landscape. Few of these features are without biblical or historical significance. The Bible lands are especially notable for their unusually distinctive topographical features. For example, the longest and deepest rift on the earth's surface runs through the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea and then continues through the Gulf of Eilat into Africa.

Without a knowledge of the unique geography of the Bible lands, readers of Scripture tend to project their own settings into the text, yet these lands are far too unusual to be subject to such generalizations. For example, before studying Israel's geography, I had thought of the "mountains of Judah" in terms of my own experience with the Oregon Cascades. Such comparisons are faulty and hinder one's proper understanding of the biblical texts.

Third, familiarity with biblical geography is important for one's theological view. The mighty works of God in history serve as the very foundation of our faith. Through the historical deliverance of Israel from Egypt, God revealed himself to his people as Deliverer. In the same way, the resurrection of Jesus exemplified the saving power of God and became the central element of the gospel proclamation. We have already shown that history and geography are interwoven. As C. H. Dodd affirms in History and the Gospel, "Some religions can be indifferent to historical fact, and move entirely upon the plane of timeless truth. Christianity cannot."

Christianity must ever be aware of history, because it rests on the affirmation of a series of actual events. Doing theology without regard for the very real setting of those events can lead to an over-spiritualization of the text, which is equivalent to denying essential elements of the faith. To neglect either history or its geographical setting is to omit important aspects of divine revelation, a position that can lead only to an inadequate view of God.

Fourth, the study of biblical geography has an important relevance to teaching of the Scriptures. An effective Bible teacher uses the geography of Bible lands as a framework for presenting historical information. Many travelers in those lands have acknowledged that the Bible truly came alive in that geographical environment. Viewing pictures of biblical sites and identifying them on maps-both ancient and contemporary-provides the same kind of experience. Associating events with their locations furnishes a natural background for the historical narrative and imparts a memorable sense of reality to the Bible as nothing else will do. As geographer James Fleming has said, "An up-to-date atlas-maybe more than one-is a tool no serious student of the Bible can be without."

Identifying Biblical Sites

There still remains considerable debate over the location of some of the important biblical sites. Is Cana of Galilee-the setting of the water-into-wine miracle-to be identified with Kefr Kenna or Khirbet Kana? One site boasts an ancient church and displays purported remains of the stone vessels used by Jesus to change the water to wine at the wedding feast. How reliable is Kefr Kenna's claim to be the authentic site of this miracle? How about biblical Emmaus? Is it to be located at Amwas? On which side of the Jordan is the site of Bethsaida?

Although such questions may not matter to the average reader, they require that biblical geographers think carefully about their procedures for identifying a site. Although it is not within the scope of this text to present a detailed analysis of the arguments involving disputed sites, some basic ground rules must be established. The late American archaeologist William Foxwell Albright suggested that a geographer mush consider five aspects of a topographical problem. A brief mention of those points will prepare us for future discussion of certain debated sites.

1. Critical study of the written sources in which the ancient place-name appears. All written sources in which the name occurs must be evaluated with a view to establishing the most reliable reading found in ancient texts.

2. Approximate location of the site from related documentary indications. The geographer must analyze accounts of journeys, military campaigns, and city lists to select the most likely location for an ancient site. Military defenses, communication routes, water supply, and agricultural factors are among the factors that must be considered in the identification process.

3. Linguistic analysis of place-names and their cross-cultural transmission. This process begins by comparing an ancient place-name with its modern counterpart(s). Even though the ancient name is preserved among local residents up to the present, there is a need for caution. Not every name preserved from earlier times has remained attached to its original site.

4. Archaeological indications. If a site can be generally located in a certain district, careful examination of all possible sites in the entire area may yield the correct identification. This is done by comparing the available written sources with the documented periods of occupation, as determined by geographical survey and / or archaeological excavation. The site in question must meet the expected requirements from the standpoint of its size and nature of settlement.

5. Evidence of tradition. Unwritten legends and traditions are sometimes helpful in pinpointing a biblical site. However, this approach must be used with great care, since many traditions are relatively recent, dating from the Crusades (A.D. 1099-1291) or even later-far removed in time from the actual series of events linked to the site.

Establishing a Biblical Chronology

Simply stated, history is a systemic record of past events. Chronology serves as the backbone of history, in that it establishes the order and dates for the events. Chronology is essential for any thorough study of history, and biblical history allows for no deviation from that rule.

A foundation for biblical chronology has been established by comparing events recorded in Scripture with ancient Assyrian annals. These records list the names of certain rulers and principle astronomical events of the year, such as the eclipse of June 15, 763 B.C. Examples of important dates established through such lists are the Battle of western campaign of Tiglath-pileser III (743 B.C.), the conquest of Samaria (722 B.C.), and the attack on Jerusalem by Sennacherib (701 B.C.). Although a rough chronology of other biblical events can be established as we work backward or forward from these commonly recognized dates, such study is not without its difficulties.

A major problem in establishing a biblical chronology involves harmonizing the purported "biblical dates" with the archaeological evidence. If evacuation determines that a certain site was not occupied at the time of its supposed association with a superficial biblical event, it has been generally assumed that the Scripture is in error and that the dates attached to certain events be adjusted accordingly. Although there is certain room to refine our understanding of the biblical dating system, another possible explanation to be considered is that the archaeological data are either incomplete or have been misinterpreted. Perhaps the site in question is not the one to which the Bible refers! A cautious approach necessitates exploring numerous alternatives before rejecting or modifying the biblical information.

Some of the problem areas discussed by those who have devoted themselves to the study of biblical chronology include the birth of Abraham, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the duration of the period of judges, the division of the monarchy, the date of Ezra's return to Jerusalem, and the year of Christ's crucifixion. It is not within the scope of this survey to tackle these problems in depth. The chronology presented in these pages is based on thorough study of the biblical record, with equal attention given to other ancient texts and pertinent archaeological findings. (For further study on the subject, a good reference is Jack Finegan's Handbook of Biblical Chronology [Princeton University Press, 1964]).

The chronological table below represents a general consensus on the key dates and events of the biblical period.


2166 Birth of Abraham

1876 Jacob's entrance into Egypt

 430-year Egyptian sojourn

1526 Moses born in Egypt

1446 Exodus of Israel from Egypt

1406 Conquest of Canaan by Joshua

 Period of judges (325 years)

1168 Major invasion of "the sea people" (Philistines)

1050 Saul anointed king

1010 David rises to kingship

 966 Building of Solomon's temple

 931 Division of the kingdom

Kingdom of Israel in the north (10 tribes)

Kingdom of Judah in the south (2 tribes)

 733 Capture of Galilee by Tiglath-pileser

 722 Capture of Samaria by Sargon II

 605 Deportation of Daniel by Nebuchadnezzer

 597 Deportation of 10,000 Judeans by Nebuchadnezzer

 586 Destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonians and exile to Babylon

 539 Fall of Babylon to Cyrus

 538 Decree of Cyrus to rebuild the Jerusalem temple

 537 Return by Sheshbazzar to rebuild the temple

 458 Return by Ezra to establish worship in the temple

 444 Return by Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem

 332 Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia

 301 Ptolemies rule Palestine from Egypt

 198 Seleucids rule Palestine from Syria

 167 The Maccabean revolt

 164 Jerusalem temple cleansed by the Maccabees

  63 Pompey conquers Jerusalem; beginning of Roman rule

  37 King Herod established ruler of Judea

 5/4 Birth of Christ


  33 Crucifixion of Christ

  66 First Jewish revolt

  68 Execution of the apostle Paul

  70 Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus

 131 Second Jewish revolt, led by Bar Kokha

 135 Jerusalem rebuilt Roman-style by Emperor Hadrian

The time has now come to begin exploring the lands of the Bible-the places and the people woven into the rich tapestry of human history in a broad region of the ancient world.

Taken from "Baker's Concise Bible Atlas" by J. Carl Laney. Used by permission of Baker Book House Company, copyright ©1988. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company. (

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