Geography: Who Cares?

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Excerpt For years I told students in the geography classes I used to teach about a true event that illustrated the thesis of this article: i.e., most people are not interested in geography... Continue reading

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For years I told students in the geography classes I used to teach about a true event that illustrates the thesis of this article: i.e., most people are not interested in geography. The illustration is that I taught at a well-known, Midwest USA, Big Ten university. Shortly after my employment, I was invited to the Dean's house for a new faculty get-together and dinner. At dinner I was seated across the table from a very impressive young academic. During the course of our conversation he inquired what subject I taught. I responded, "Geography." "That's interesting," he replied, and immediately followed that comment with the admission he had learned a very important lesson from the one geography course he had taken. I was eager to learn this valuable piece of information, and inquired as to what it was that he had learned. He retorted, "The one thing I remember from my exposure to geography was, 'I didn't like it!'"

Unfortunately, his response is much like that of many I have encountered in my teaching career and in casual conversations. Even Bible students, who should be very familiar with the importance of geographical locations for a comprehensive understanding of Bible stories, are not immune to this attitude. In order to determine a reason for this lack of interest, I conducted a very unscientific survey with my college students. It revealed that most people who graduated from high school in the last fifty years or so have received only passing introduction to the discipline of geography. This, I surmise, is the result of the imposition of governmentally-mandated subjects into public school curricula, all designed to make "well-rounded" students. Since curricula is a zero-sum game, the discipline of geography and talented geography teachers became the losers as new subjects were inserted. To illustrate the seriousness of this problem, I point out that college graduates who desire to be certified to teach secondary social studies, which includes geography, in the State where I taught only had to take one course in the subject–and that could be any course in geography, even the geography of the moon! As a result, I believe many people in the 21st century, especially Bible students, have come to see the knowledge of geography as irrelevant. Hopefully, this article will help the reader realize the essentiality of geographical settings in order to identify issues and determine principles as expressed in Scripture passages.

No less an authority than the first Bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril (ca. 450 AD), is reputed to have written, "Geography is the fifth gospel." For our purposes, the term "geography" can be succinctly defined as the climate (weather patterns), geology (minerals/soils), and topography (hills/valleys) of a designated area of land. In antiquity, every aspect of life was contingent upon the geographical characteristics of the land. The human authors of Scripture inherently understood that geography determined issues related to water, agriculture, livestock, shelter, roads, industry, commerce and defense. Geographical aspects of the land were characterized by descriptive phrases, such as "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex 3:8, 17 and eighteen other places in the Old Testament). Although interpretations as to the exact meaning of this expression vary, the inference from the Scriptures is that the phrase connects with the geography of the land and the physical sustenance derived from it. Let's explore some geographical aspects of the land and applicable scriptural passages.

First, climate. Climate refers to the weather conditions of a particular area. Rainfall density and temperatures of the various regions of the land determine the quality of agricultural productivity and desirability of habitation. The eastern Mediterranean area, known as the Levant, is characterized by unique weather patterns termed Mediterranean climate, a climate distinguished by warm, wet winters under prevailing winds and calm, hot, dry summers. The rains come in three seasons of the year, which the Bible refers to as "the former rains" (early/fall/autumn rains), September to November; "middle rains" or simply "rains" (winter rains), December through February; and the "latter rains" (late/spring rains), from March to May. In the Bible the harvest seasons were associated with the "former" and "latter" rains. Knowing this helps to explain Bible verses such as, "Then I will send you rain on your land in its season, the autumn [early] and spring [late] rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil" (Dt 11:14).

Since rainfall is the key to agriculture, it could be that the "land of milk" refers to the dry regions primarily in the south, where rainfall is not sufficient for farming but adequate for livestock. The "land of honey" may then relate to regions primarily in the western and northern areas, where rainfall is adequate for consistent agricultural production. Similarly, the higher elevations of the land in the north receive more rain than the very low elevations of the south. Therefore, farming is more prolific in the north, while grazing animals are more prevalent in the southern portion of the land. The rainfall over the winter promotes the growth of flora in the springtime. This is illustrated by the Song of Solomon (2:11-13a):

See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.

Another geographic consideration is geology, that is, the earth's physical structure. Various regions of the Holy Land are made up of different geological types. A reader should be aware of the differences, because geology determines the type of soil and that, in turn, determines the specific agriculture of a region. Also, geology determined the quality of easily accessible building materials. The area of the Sea of Galilee is predominately basalt (lava) rock, and homes were constructed in Bible times using that rock. Around Jerusalem and Bethlehem the soil is limestone and chalk, and prone to form caves. Many homes from antiquity have been discovered that used caves as part of the structure. Thus, each mineral had characteristics that made it more or less desirable for agriculture, building and industrial purposes.

To illustrate the importance of geology, one need only point to the shallow Mediterranean coast of Canaan that is not friendly to seafaring ships. Although a few shallow-water ports existed throughout Israel's history, the lack of deep-water bays or inlets prevented the Israelites from becoming sea traders. When Solomon chose to build a navy, he recruited mercenary sailors from the region of modern Lebanon, where great ports had existed throughout history at Tyre and Sidon (ancient Phoenicia). But Solomon constructed his port at the very southern extreme of Israel, Ezion Geber, on the deep-water Gulf of Aqaba (1 Kgs 9:26, 27). I
n 25-13 BC, the megalomaniac Herod the Great created a deep-water port at Caesarea Maritima by having a harbor excavated by hand and building a giant breakwater. This created a place that became Israel's major port in the first century AD. One final example of how knowledge of geology can add depth of understanding to a Bible passage is Jesus' statement, "And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck" (Mk 9:42). Jesus made His pronouncement at Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. As the Sea of Galilee rests in the cone of an extinct volcano, the surrounding land area is covered with volcanic, basaltic rock. At Capernaum the main industry, after fishing, was the production of large two–piece grinding stones, or millstones, carved from this basaltic rock. Many of these still exist, as anyone can attest who visits the site. This is just one of many examples where Jesus used geography and geology of the land to illustrate His teachings.
 
Another aspect of geography is the knowledge of location, perhaps the least-enjoyed part of studying geography in school. But, knowing the locations where events occurred in Scripture can help reveal facets that add in-depth meaning to scriptural accounts. To fully grasp the total teaching of many New Testament passages, it is necessary to ask two questions as we read: "What happened there before?" and "What happened like it before?" Here are a few examples.
 
Jesus was baptized by John at a place called "Bethany on the other side of the Jordan" (Jn 1:28). The place was so titled to prevent confusion with another Bethany close to Jerusalem. Now we should ask our two questions, "what happened there before" and "what happened like it before." Archaeologists and scholars believe Bethany on the eastern side of the Jordan River was where John was baptizing, and is the same location where a chariot of fire drawn by fiery horses separated the prophet Elijah from his disciple, Elisha, accompanied by a whirlwind that took Elijah to heaven (2 Kgs 2:11). The corollary to John the Baptizer as the forerunner of the Messiah, and Elijah who served the same role for Jews (Mal 3:1, 4:5), could not have been missed by the many who were present on the banks of the river at Jesus' baptism. This was a fact Jesus acknowledged when asked if John was Elijah (Mt 11:13,14; 17:10-13).
 
The gospel writer Luke has a story about Jesus encountering a funeral cortege at the small village of Nain. The body was of a man, the only son of a widow. Having compassion on the woman who was in deep grief, Jesus brought the man back to life (Lk 7:11-17). Although many aspects of this account could be explored, I want to focus only on the excitement of the people who exclaimed, "A great prophet has appeared among us…" (v.16). Consulting the Old Testament to see what had happened like it before, we would discover the prophet Elisha performed a comparable deed (2 Kgs 4:34-37). The Bible records Elisha befriended a barren woman who lived in Shunem. Elisha prophesied she would bear a son, which she did. Later, the Shunammite woman's son died. Elisha brought the boy back to life. Then, by asking our second question (what happened there before?), we would learn that the Elisha account happened at a village named Shunem, only about 1,000 feet (300 meters) from Nain! Although the depth of these accounts could consume many pages, suffice it to say that these two accounts make it clear that God, not methods, idols or potions, returned life. Witnesses in the New Testament who were familiar with the Old Testament had to acknowledge that as great were the miracles associated with Elisha, none of them could compare with the simplicity of what Jesus did. Jesus returned life to a man with a mere word. And Jesus did this again, at Bethany near Jerusalem, for another man named Lazarus (Lk 11).

Staying with the connections between Jesus' miraculous acts, the book of Luke and the prophet Elisha, we can examine Jesus' meeting with ten lepers in Luke 17:11-17. Jesus came to a village on the Samaria-Galilee border. Ten lepers saw Him at a distance and called out, "Have pity on us." Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests. Luke implies Jesus did nothing else other than tell them to go see the priests. Now for the "what happened like it or there before" questions. 2 Kings 5 gives us the story of Naaman, a commander in the army of the king of Aram (modern Damascus). Naaman had a skin disease the Bible calls leprosy. On one of his forays into Israel, Naaman captured a Jewish woman who then served in his household. She told Naaman about the prophet Elisha, who lived at Dothan in Samaria, and that Elisha could cure him of leprosy. Naaman traveled from Damascus to Dothan. For unexplained reasons, Elisha refused to meet with Naaman, and just sent a message that Naaman was to wash seven times in the Jordan River. After initially resisting the admonition to go to the river, Naaman eventually did as Elisha said, and was cured. Naaman, a foreigner, humbly returned to Elisha to thank him. In the Luke story, only one leper of the ten returned to thank Jesus, and he was a foreigner, a Samaritan (Lk 17: 15-19). The location connection is that Elisha's home at Dothan along the Samaria-Galilee border is where we read about the ten lepers who first encountered Jesus.
 
My recommendation is that the next time you are doing a Bible study, preparing for teaching, or just for edification, you pull down the atlas that has been collecting dust on your shelf. Instead of quickly thumbing past the pages that contain rainfall distribution, climate, soil conditions, geology, etc. in your search for a place on a map, go back to those pages you overlooked and determine the location's geographical uniqueness. Then ask the two important questions, "what happened like it before" and "what happened there before." You'll be amazed at how the Bible will begin to come alive if you do.

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