Let’s explore the ways being a geographer changes our reading of two portions of God’s Word, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, one a piece of poetry and the other a story from Jesus’s life.
Psalm 125 speaks to believers who feel at risk. It offers them the assurance of the Lord’s enduring presence and protection but communicates those assurances using geography. This psalm is one of the “Songs of Ascents.” These are songs that God’s people would sing as they traveled up and through the mountains to Jerusalem in order to worship at the temple. The mountains through which they walked become a symbol for the Lord’s enduring protection.
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore (psalm 125:1–2).
The psalm likens those who trust in the Lord with the destination of the pious travelers. They are headed for Jerusalem, which is also known as Mount Zion. Just the mention of these names is comforting. By contrast to cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, which have negative connotations, Jerusalem is the city which God chose as his own, a place lavished with divine love (psalm 132:13–14). How reassuring it is to hear that the Lord thinks of me like he thinks of his cherished Jerusalem!
But how are God’s people like this city? First they are protected. In ancient as well as modern times, capital cities are not just seats of government but symbols of a country’s independence. That is why an invading army would eventually target a nation’s capital city. Its defeat spelled the end of that nation’s autonomy. This is the reality that makes Jerusalem such a tempting target and that makes its natural defenses so cherished.
Ancient empires that came into the Promised Land did so using the most easily traveled road that was located on the coastal plain. Jerusalem was about twenty miles east of that road within easy reach of enemy soldiers if it were not for the mountains. A mountain range with high summits, steeply sloped sides, and narrow valleys stood between Jerusalem and the coastal plain. These are the mountains that surround Jerusalem, mountains that were hard to penetrate and that protected the Holy City from harm. And this is the geographical reality integrated into the reassuring words of Psalm 125, words pilgrims sang as they negotiated those very same mountains en route to the holy city. Just as Jerusalem is protected from harm by the mountains that surround it so the Lord’s own are protected from those who wish to harm them by the Lord who surrounds them.
This beautiful image is reassuring, but only reassuring as long as the protective barrier holds up. Here the inspired poet of Psalm 125 references the geology of the Judean mountains to assure that the protection offered will never go away. The mountains that surround Jerusalem are mostly composed of a very hard limestone (Cenomanian) which erodes at the very leisurely rate of just one centimeter (.4 inches) every 1,000 years. When we think of that in terms of those coming to Jerusalem to worship, they are traveling through mountains that never change in one’s lifetime, little more in the lifetimes of the family members who had traveled the same trails for generations. That is powerfully reassuring. The protection that the Lord offers does not fade or tarnish but like the mountains that surround Jerusalem, it is a protection that will never expire.
Like a capital city, we are targets of the Lord’s enemies. In times of trouble when we feel vulnerable to attack, our own limitations become all too apparent. It is at those moments in particular when the Lord invites us to look beyond ourselves to the One who is capable of doing so much more than we can ask or imagine. But how good is his protection? Will it hold up? The answers to those questions come to us from the dusty trails walked by those traveling to worship in Jerusalem. God’s people are as precious to him as is the holy city of Zion. Just like the protective shield of mountains between Jerusalem and invading armies, so the Lord has placed himself between us and those who mean us harm. And just as those mountains along the trail never change, so the protection the Lord has promised us will endure long beyond the time we walk this earth. That is the comfort the Lord extends to us in this psalm—reassurance that takes on greater clarity when we understand the geography used to shape the message. Understanding not just the mountains but how they related to Jerusalem gives us a deeper understanding of the significance of what the psalmist says about the Lord’s protection.
Now let’s move to the New Testament and a story from the life of Jesus. In these few verses, we will see that both human geography and natural history play a role in understanding what Jesus is asking of his disciples:
When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (matthew 8:18–20).
Where people choose to live is one dimension of human geography. In this case, what Jesus is saying is related to where people chose to live around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is preparing to move from the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee to the east side of the Sea of Galilee, crossing over to the “other side.” At just this moment, a man asks Jesus if he can come along. Jesus asks him to give it careful thought because this move was different than others Jesus had made. The northwest side of the Sea of Galilee was home to people who resembled this teacher of the law. They were observant Jews with a background in the Old Testament. It was easier for Jesus to introduce himself to them, and he was more likely to receive the offer of accommodations and a meal on this side of the lake. The other side of the lake was settled primarily by Gentiles. Their background was in paganism, not the Old Testament. This would make it more difficult for Jesus to explain who he was. And it was less likely that these non-Jewish listeners would offer Jesus and his followers food and a place to stay.
So when the man asks to follow Jesus, he does not say, “No!” But he does want him to think carefully before making the commitment. To foster his thinking, Jesus compares his life to the life known by two members of the animal kingdom, birds and foxes. Both appear to have more secure living conditions than Jesus.
Birds build nests primarily as the home for raising their young. By locating a nest high above predators or disguising it carefully in the natural surroundings, the parent birds are offering their young security. This contrasts sharply with Jesus’s life. While he has a town he calls his own (matthew 9:1), he has not built a home of his own. He appears to have stayed in the homes of others when invited or slept outside when the offer did not come.
Foxes dig dens. Jesus is talking about the red fox of Palestine, which employs multiple dens to create a secure store of food for its family. While the fox will dig a den in which to hide and raise its kits, they will dig a number of other dens near this residence in which to cache their food supply. If any one of their food storage dens is compromised, it does not mean the fox family does without food because the backup dens will be uncompromised. Jesus’s food plan looks very different. He does not own land on which to grow his own grain, tend his own animals, or even work for a landowner to receive a share in the harvest. Instead Jesus relies upon the generosity of others to provide a meal for him. We can presume there are times he went without.
Jesus uses both of these pictures from the animal kingdom in order to help the man intending to follow him understand what he is in for if he follows Jesus to the other side of the lake. On the best of days among his own Jewish people, Jesus did without a home of his own or without knowing where dinner might come from that night. Now he was getting ready to cross over to the other side where things would not get more certain only less.
When Jesus uses language like this, he is not saying that we his followers need to do without a place to live or a plan to provide food for our families. But he is asking us to adopt a perspective on life. He is asking us be ready to cross over into settings that are less friendly and familiar to us in order to share the news of forgiveness. And when we do, he is asking us to be ready, if necessary, to do without things that others may view as normal and even necessary for living. That is the lesson Jesus is teaching. And notice again that in doing so, he is teaching by using elements of human geography and natural history.
I have always known that there was geography in the Bible. I simply became quite skilled at ignoring it. I am different now. That conversion has forever shaped the way I read and study my Bible. I love looking for, learning about, and discovering the ways in which God has spoken using geography. As the trail divides here and we part company, I hope that this marks not the end but a new beginning for you as the reader of this sacred book. Just remember, the Bible may not be a geography book; but it is a book filled with geography.