There is geography in the Bible. To the degree that I miss it or misunderstand it, I may miss or misunderstand something God is saying. That is a price I am unwilling to pay. And it compels every fully-engaged Bible reader to have a little geographer in them. Now what? What can I do to become that geographer who engages the geography of the Bible in more meaningful ways?
The first step is as easy as it is hard. Notice it. As you read your Bible, notice when geography appears on the page. This is difficult because it means changing a habit, and old habits can be hard to break. One way to break the habit of ignoring the geography is to actively look for and identify every element of geography you meet during your Bible reading. Here you may consider marking the mention of geography in your Bible or creating a “geography sheet” for each chapter. Even if you cannot pronounce the name of a place, are puzzled by the mention of a tool, or cannot picture the animal, the first step is to notice. In the process, you will discipline yourself to see what had previously escaped your attention. Let me also encourage you to be patient with yourself and the process. Changing habits takes time, and the habit of how we read the Bible is no exception. It will take time. But I can assure you that with effort and a bit of time, you can become someone who notices the geography they had been missing. But noticing is just the first step.
Once you have begun to recognize the geography in the Bible, the next step is to learn more about what you are seeing. This is the place to put your Bible atlas and your Bible dictionary to work. Your goal is to step into the sandals of the biblical authors, poets, and those who first heard or read their words. You want to see the outdoor world of the Bible as they did. That means learning as much as you can about the geography you have discovered by asking questions like these. Where is Shechem located? What roads connect it to other places? Who lives there? What does a millstone look like? Who used it and how? What is a rock hyrax, where did it live, and what did it do all day? That’s a lot of questions and it may seem like a distraction from the meaning of the text. But don’t become overwhelmed by the task and remember, the authors of the Bible used these places, animals, and things because it helped convey the message of God. There is a lot of outdoors in the Bible. So start with the things that interest you most and get ready to feel the reward. You will find that the Bible is very much at home in this land; and you will find yourself becoming increasingly at home in your Bible.
Learning geography also means learning how people thought and felt about a place. We call these its connotations. We know that places have such connotations from our own experience with language. Places like Gettysburg, the World Trade Center, or the Berlin Wall all evoke different memories and different feelings within us. It is the geographical backstory of places like this which allow phrases like “Remember the Alamo” to achieve their full power. Every culture has places that evoke strong memories and strong feelings. The same is true for those living in Bible times. For example the mention of Babylon or Sodom evoked strong negative emotions. By contrast Jerusalem is a place associated with feelings and hope. The risk for us is that we flatten these place names, treating them as neutral elements in the text rather than as expressions with connotations that provoke powerful memories and emotions. We may not experience the same connections as the original readers of the Bible when places like these are mentioned. But our reading comes alive when we can at least know that the mention of a place would have raised strong emotions or mental images for the reader.
Once we have learned more about a place and the connotations linked to it, it is time to assess the role(s) being played by the geography mentioned in a particular verse or set of verses. It may be that the author is attempting to shed light on why events were evolving as they were. Place can have a powerful
influence on events, and historical geographers make it their business to study this dimension of the geography. Consider again the first geography-laden verses of the story about David and Goliath (1 samuel 17:1–3). The geography of these verses transport us to the Elah Valley. This is no ordinary valley in Israel but a unique valley that had both economic and military value. At its mention, the historical geographer goes to work considering how control of this valley would have provoked a war between Israel and Philistia and why the battle was being waged in the way the story describes.
Another tool we can use to assess the role of geography is literary geography. While historical geography investigates the role of geography in shaping events, literary geography investigates the role geography plays in shaping readers. This is a particularly helpful way of thinking about geography when we are reading a non-event based portion of God’s Word like proverbs, or psalms, or epistles. But it is also helpful in reading historical narrative as well. Consider the repeated mention of Bethlehem in the familiar Christmas stories of Matthew 2 and Luke 2. In these two chapters, Bethlehem (or the town of David) is mentioned nine times. If the point of the Holy Spirit was to help us recall that Micah had promised the Savior would be born in Bethlehem (5:2), then once or twice would have been enough. Literary geography asks the next question: How does the repeated mention of Bethlehem affect the reader of the Christmas story? The answer comes when we do a little digging into the mention of Bethlehem in the Old Testament. We will quickly find it to be a place associated with solutions. When the landless family of Naomi and Ruth faced the threat of hunger, the Lord offered a solution in the form of Boaz in Bethlehem. And when the troubled nation of Israel was struggling under the leadership of their first king, Saul, the Lord offered a solution in their second king, David, who lived in Bethelehem. And as the entire world struggled with sin, all eyes turned to Bethlehem for the biggest solution of all, the one offered in the birth of Jesus. By repeatedly mentioning Bethlehem in the story of Jesus’s birth, both Matthew and Luke cast the story of Jesus in the warm glow of the rescue and solutions of the past, and invite their readers to understand Jesus’s arrival as yet another in a series of solutions associated with this town.
No matter if geography was your favorite class in school or not, every fully-engaged Bible reader has to have a little geographer in them. What can you do to become that geographer? Notice the geography that appears in the verses you read, take steps to learn more about it, and then investigate what roles geography is playing. A stronger set of geographical skills is not the only tool you will need as a Bible reader, but it is an important one. And what is more, it is a skill that anyone can develop.