Okay, brothers and sisters, this year our fall mission theme is biblical geography.”
This is not the type of catch phrase that has historically packed ’em in for the big Church mission. To many, the idea of studying geography sounds as dry and boring as building a compost heap in the desert. It comes as no surprise that most people can spend a lifetime reading the Bible without once cracking a Bible atlas.
Why is studying Bible geography so important in understanding the message of the Bible? Simply put, the land of Canaan is the stage or playing board on which the biblical drama takes place. The Bible is not just a book of sayings unconnected to land or culture; it is the record of God acting in the events of human history. As Pope Paul VI said in Directorium Catechisticum Generale, “the history of salvation is being accomplished in the midst of the history of the world.”
When we read the Bible (salvation history), we follow the events from one place to another. The places in which God reveals Himself often become places of recurring themes. For example, the city of Bethlehem is a city in which the two great kings of Israel were born, David and Jesus. Over and over, the city of Shechem becomes the place where many ofIsrael’s watershed decisions were made, such as the 10 northern tribes’ refusal to follow the house of David in 930 B.C. Bethel pops up as a reoccurring meeting place between God and the Patriarchs.
Besides the concept of covenant, no single aspect or feature in the life of the Hebrew people contributed more powerfully to the shaping of their distinctive minds and imaginations than did the land in which they lived. The biblical writers and characters could not separate their religion from the land of Israel (Eretz Israel), a land where God eagerly participated in the daily affairs of men. Much of what is spoken of in the Bible, particularly by the prophets, uses language colored by the geography: mountains, valleys, etc. Both the geographical and climatic features became a common and essential source of the prophetic message.
With a look into a Bible concordance, one will discover that God’s message is saturated with not only cities, but also the land features of hills, wilderness and rocks. Mountains are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible, seas are cited more than 450 times and water is mentioned more than 700 times.
As a student of the Bible, a working knowledge of the chief features of the land of Israel is indispensable, because so many familiar and important events occur upon them. Like observing any drama, a familiarity with the stage on which it takes place helps the viewer to follow the plot, and also assists in remembering key parts of the story.
In the same way, studying the geography of the Bible imparts a better understanding of the plot, along with providing the insight that comes from personally entering into what can be called “geographical typology.” That means we can see the landscape of our own lives in the biblical drama as the drama relates to the land.
Using biblical typology, let’s look at the land of Canaan and discover a little bit about ourselves. To the people of the Old Testament, the known world contained less than one-half of the land area of the United States, with one third of it being desert. Populations grew up along what is called the fertile crescent, starting at the head of the Persian Gulf to the east and moving in a northwesterly direction up the valley between the Tigris andEuphrates rivers. Turning southward, the traveler enters Syria passing through the beautiful valley between the Lebanon mountains. Continuing southward, there are several routes through Canaan toward the land of Egypt to the southwest.
In Bible days, the two major areas of population were in Mesopotamia in the northeast andEgypt in the southwest. The only practical way to get from one major area of population to the other was by a small land bridge called Canaan. Mighty kingdoms on each side of the fertile crescent considered this strip of land a thoroughfare, and both labored to impose their authority over it, mainly to control the trade routes passing through it. Whoever controlled Canaan controlled not only trade, but also influenced culture and religion in the known world.
The thoroughfare called Canaan is only 50 miles wide and 100 miles long. With a total area of only 10,000 square miles, it’s about one-seventh the size of Missouri and one-third the size of South Carolina. This tiny stage holds 95 percent of the biblical drama.
It was to this land that God called Abraham and promised that his ancestors would possess it (Genesis 12:1; 17:8). Over and over, God describes the land of Canaan as “a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands” (Ezekiel 20:6).
The variety of topography and climate on such a small stage is staggering. Located where four ecological zones converge, Canaan displayed swamps, deserts, tropics, snow, mountains and fertile valleys. In the north of the country, one can ski on Mt. Hermon at 9,000 feet above sea level, then travel 100 miles south to the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth at 1300 feet below sea level. Jerusalem can receive over 30 inches of rain a year, but only 15 miles away at the Dead Sea, only two inches a year fall.
To easily remember the topography of the land of Canaan, divide the stage into two parts corresponding to God’s description of the land as a land flowing with milk and honey. Think of milk and honey not so much as foods, but as two contrasting lifestyles. We can divide the land into these two parts, milk and honey, by superimposing a clock on the land of Canaan, with the center being Jerusalem. From three to seven o’clock we’ll call stage right, or milk. From nine to one o’clock we’ll call stage left, or honey.
Stage right is represented by milk, specifically the milk of the nomadic herdsmen. With two deserts joining stage right, Sahara to the south and Arabia to the east, stage right receives only about 10 inches of rain a year. Life on stage right is hard, silent, lonely, exhausting and the land unpredictable. Does this sound like a place you’d like to live?
Abraham came face to face with the unpredictable nature of stage right when a famine hit, forcing him to travel to Egypt (Genesis 12:10). Later in Genesis 26:1, Isaac also experiences the unpredictable nature of stage right.
God often used famine as a tool. It was on stage right that Elijah heard the still small voice of God (1 Kings 19), and it was in the desert that John the Baptist attracted a crowd (Matt. 3). Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness of stage right before beginning His public ministry (Matt. 4), while Paul spent three years in the desert before beginning his ministry (Gal. 1:17-18). It was to the canyons of stage right that over 5,000 Byzantine hermits fled in the 5th century A.D. While many heard the voice of God on stage right, life was physically and mentally exhausting.
Now let’s look at stage left. Stage left is represented by the fig and date honey of the farmer. Receiving between 20 and 40 inches of rain annually, stage left is an agricultural jackpot. Life on stage left is predictable, noisy, busy and relatively easy. Does this sound like a place you would like to live? Israelthought so, too. But there’s one major hitch to living on stage left, and that’s that the superhighway (The Via Maris) connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt runs through it. Israelwanted to live on stage left, but the problem was, everyone else did, too.
To stay in control of stage left, Israel would have to be obedient to the Lord. When you live on a thoroughfare, you run the risk of adopting ungodly practices. Been on the Internet lately? When you live on a superhighway, you can get run over by the world, which is what happened to Israel. When Israel penetrated stage left, she picked up the ways of the world and forsook God.
For a study in how not to live on stage left, look at Solomon, whose heart was turned from the Lord by his many foreign wives (1 Kings 11). In the nearly 2,000 years from Abraham to Jesus, Israel controlled stage left for only about 150 years.
Next time you read through the Bible, pay close attention to the battle that takes place between stage left and stage right. The lesson we can glean from the land flowing with milk and honey is that God wants us to learn to live faithfully in the noisy and silent, the busy times and lonely times, the predictable and unpredictable, the easy and hard. In short, God wanted Israel (and by way of geographical typology, you and I) to possess the land flowing with both milk and honey. The key is looking to God in every situation and obeying His will.
Where are you now in your life? Stage left? Stage right? Are you looking to the Lord, or are you starting to think the way the world does?
The apostle St. Paul learned the secret of possessing the land of both milk and honey. St. Paul said “for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13).
This article by Jeff Cavins originally appeared in Envoy Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.