Geography of the Old Testament


An understanding of the geography of the ancient world is of tremendous value in understanding the Bible. It is this writer’s conviction that a good Bible atlas is an essential tool for any serious student of the Bible. The brief notes that follow are meant only to be supplement to a set of adequate maps; it is recommended
they be read with maps in hand. We will begin with the area to the north of the Persian Gulf.

Two rivers flow into the Persian Gulf: the Euphrates and, farther to the east, the Tigris. Between these rivers lies a valley which is usually called simply the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley. Beginning with this valley and moving north and northwest, then back down the coast of the Mediterranean and into Egypt is a geographical feature known as the Fertile Crescent, which has long been regarded as the cradle of civilization. It is within this area that most of the events of the Old Testament take place.

Modern-day Israel occupies that land which once made up ancient Palestine (and before that Canaan). Modern Syria and Lebanon together make up what was once known simply as Syria, which lay along the
northern portion of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, bordering Palestine to the north. Be sure to note the difference between Syria, and Assyria. The latter was a kingdom which occupied the northern part of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, that area which is today encompassed by Iraq. The Old Testament is largely concerned with the areas of Babylonia – in the southern portion of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, on the northern end of the Persian Gulf – and Assyria in the Tigris- Euphrates valley, of Syria and Palestine (also known as Canaan), and of Egypt.

Let’s now look briefly specifically at the land of Palestine, beginning with a discussion of its distinctive topographical features.

That part of Palestine which lies to the west of the Jordan River encompasses only about 6000 square miles. The land of Israel has traditionally stretched from Beersheba in the south up to Mount Hermon
above Lake Dan in the north, a distance of only about 150 miles. From the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean is a distance of 28 miles, while from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea in the south is twice
that – about 54. Thus we are dealing with an area which is much smaller than most people realize.

Probably one of the most important distinctives of Palestinian geography is its terrain, which is very rugged indeed. Proceeding from the Mediterranean in the west to the desert to the east of the Jordan River, the land is divided into five distinct geographical areas. Running north and south along the Mediterranean coastline is the Coastal Plain, sometimes also referred to as the Plain of Sharon.  This is the only really fertile area of Palestine. Unfortunately it also happens to be the only really feasible route between Egypt and the empires to the east. As such, it was often responsible for entangling Israel in the affairs of the other nations of the region.  Moving inland from the Coastal Plain one comes next to the the shepha (or shephila) – the foot hills. From these one passes on up into the rugged, mountainous areas of Palestine, which are usually referred to simply as the Hill Country. It is here, among other things, that one will find the city of Jerusalem. To the east the hill country drops off rapidly into the valley of the Jordan, and, on the far side of Jordan, to the plateau area which in turn moves into the Arabian desert.

Of particular note in all this is the elevation of the country. Jerusalem, in the Hill Country, sits about 2600 feet above sea level, yet the shoreline of the Dead Sea 15 miles away is 1200 feet below sea level. Thus, in a fifteen mile distance measured horizontally we have a drop in elevation of almost 4000 feet. This is why, for example, in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus begins by saying ‘a certain man was going DOWN from Jerusalem to Jericho.’

This ruggedness of the land dominates much of the history of Palestine. In times of danger the people of Palestine lived in the hills, where they were relatively safe from enemies and easily defended. Historically, their major military defeats came only when they moved out into the plains area or the foothills.

One other dramatic feature must be mentioned in any discussion of geography. Stretching roughly from Mount Carmel, to the west of the Sea of Galilee, all the way across Palestine is a flat area or plain. Sometimes called the Plain of Jezreel or Esdraelon, this area even today serves as the breadbasket of Israel. Overlooking this plain is a fair-sized hill on top of which sat an ancient city called Megiddo. Militarily, whoever controlled this city controlled the plain, and with it most of Palestine. Historically, most decisive battles were fought in and around this hill. The Hebrew word for ‘hill’ is ‘har’, and this hill on which Megiddo sat was called ‘Har-megiddo’ – the Hill of Megiddo – which transliterated into Greek is Armaggedon. This then is where we get our image of Armageddon as a decisive battle and, ultimately, as the decisive battle of all of human history.

The climate of Palestine is relatively mild, with an average year round temperature in the 60s. The major problem faced by occupants of the land in their daily lives was that of water. Sixty miles to the east of the mountains is desert, and, to the west, moisture-laden winds off the Mediterranean bring ample rain to the plains, but on the east side of the mountains there is very little precipitation. When water did come, it was usually in the form of torrents pouring off the mountains to wash away shrub, dirt and any straying animals or people caught unawares. Polluted as it was with mud and debris, it is poorly suited to provide residents with the water they need for livestock or fields.

With the problem of water so acute, then, and so constantly in the forefront of the minds of the people, it is easy to see how the abundance of water to drink and to harvest became a central prophetic image in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. Ezekiel, for example, when he prophesies of a New Jerusalem, envisions it as a city with an overabundance of water – water to swim in. And in the Twenty-Third Psalm we read ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…. He leads me beside the still waters’; a paradisical image for any farmer whose only experience with large quantities of water was as torrential floods from the mountains.

Calvin Culver

Computers for Christ – Chicago