At some level, I had always known it was there. I knew there was geography in the Bible. But truth be told, I became quite skilled at ignoring it. For those who know me now, this is surprising not only because Bible geography has become my passion but because they know me as a lover of the outdoors. As a child, I played outdoors more than indoors. I spent weekends working outside on my grandparents’ dairy farm in Wisconsin. And during our summer vacations, my parents took us hiking for weeks at a time in the national parks of the American west. I was and still am an outdoor adventurer who loves to camp, hike, and backpack.
How did someone like me become so skilled at ignoring the geography in his Bible? As a reader in this information-rich age, I quickly move past things I don’t recognize or understand to things that I do. The Bible is full of people we recognize and places we don’t. It is full of stories we love and places we skip.If the geography in the Bible was geography with which I was familiar, I would have had a harder time overlooking it. Of course, this is not the fault of the Bible’s authors and poets. They simply spoke about things they knew well. But for me it was foreign territory. I did not know where Jerusalem was in contrast to Jericho. I did not know the difference between the Judean Wilderness and the Negev. I did not know what a threshing floor looked like or how it was used. And I could not have told you about the habits and habitat of the Palestinian red fox to save my life. So I happily read past the Bible’s mention of all these without realizing that I was paying a terrible price. God was still speaking when I stopped paying attention. I had been treating the geography in the Bible as if it were trivia. And if there is one thing I have come to understand, there is no trivia in the Bible. God is using every word to shape my understanding, attitude, and faith, even if that happens to be geography.
I am different now. The Lord had a plan to bring together my love of the outdoors and my love for the Bible. I came to see that although the Bible is not a geography book it is a book filled with geography. That realization brought me to a bit of a crisis. There is geography in the Bible! Now what? That is what this booklet is about. It is a product of a conversion, the geographical conversion of my Bible reading. Now I am a Bible reader who enthusiastically looks for the geography in Scripture and who does all he can to help others recognize and enjoy it as well. I hope to intrigue if not infect you with a similar passion to pursue the way in which the Lord speaks to us using geography.
Ironically the very word, geography, might interrupt our path forward so let’s make sure we understand it in the same way. We can divide geography into three categories: physical geography, human geography, and natural history. Physical geography includes the natural features on the surface of the earth and the raw forces which act upon them—subjects like geology, topography, and hydrology as well as forces like precipitation, wind, and earthquakes. In Psalm 125:1–2, the inspired poet mentions this type of physical geography.
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.
Human geography (one dimension of cultural study) changes the focus slightly. It investigates how human beings interact with and respond to geography during the course of their lives. It is the story of how people grow and process their food, secure water, raise their livestock, build their homes, travel, and give familiar places their names. Because the Bible tells the story of real people, this dimension of geography shows up frequently. We encounter the names of towns and regional labels. We meet people who are digging wells, traveling, and plowing farm fields. Some of those experiences parallel our own. But more often than not, it is the differences that cause confusion. For example, consider Jesus’s words which he expects us to understand how salt was used by his listeners. “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out” (luke 14:34–35).
Then there is natural history. This takes into account the other life forms with which humans share the surface of the earth, particularly the plants, the trees, the insects, and the animals. The Bible’s authors regularly crossed paths with other living things, living things that also inhabit the pages of our Bible. For example, the inspired poet compares the life of a believer to two types of trees. “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (psalm 92:12). And when Jesus warns a would-be follower of the uncertainties that attend following him to the east side of the Sea of Galilee, he cautioned, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (matthew 8:20). You see, geography is more than place names and certainly more than maps.Geography includes the features and forces on the surface of the earth (physical geography), the many ways in which human beings use and adapt to those features and forces (human geography), and all the other living things with whom human share a place on the surface of the earth (natural history).