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
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
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. (www.bakerbooks.com)