When we begin to recognize the great amount of geography in our Bible, it naturally leads to the question of why it is there. The answer is found both in the way God chose to share his thoughts with us and the intimate link between the Bible’s central message and land. Let’s start with the process God used to get his thoughts to us. The Holy Spirit moved the thoughts of God through the minds and hands of human beings who put those thoughts into writing. That means there is a human side to the Bible. And if there is one thing we know about human beings, we use a great deal of geography when we speak with one another. Who we are, how we think, and how we most naturally communicate is intimately connected to where we are from. I can easily spot it in my own life and communication. I have both a snowblower and a lawnmower in my garage. During the winter I talk about “lake effect snow,” and during the summer I enjoy “lake effect cooling.” All are a product of where I live near the Great Lakes.
The inspired authors and poets of the Bible lived, thought, and spoke like people rooted not only in a specific time but also in a given place. If we had the opportunity to hear them speaking during an everyday conversation, they would sound like where they were from. They would have spoken about places like Jerusalem and Bethlehem. They certainly spoke to their friends and family about salt and soil, mountains and rivers, winter rains and summer dewfall. When God used people like this to write down his thoughts, he did not ignore this dimension of their communication. He used their native languages, individual writing styles, and even their geography when speaking to us. During this process, God kept the Bible from human error, but not geography. When you think of it that way, it would actually be more surprising if geography weren’t in the Bible.
But there is a more to it than that. There is also geography in the Bible because the promises of God given to Abram and the hope of forgiveness from sin were intimately connected to place. The Lord visited Abram when he was 75 years old and told him it was time to move. The Lord relocated Abram and his family to Canaan because this family and this land were part of a divine plan to bring salvation to the world. Three promises live at the heart of the Old Testament (genesis 12:1–9): 1. Abram’s family would become a great nation. 2. This nation would be given a land of their own (later identified as Canaan). 3. And finally the Lord promised that he would restore the blessing lost in the Garden of Eden through one of his descendants who lived in this land. In the New Testament we meet this descendant who lived and died in the Promised Land; his name was Jesus. However, before he was born, believers in the Old Testament paid particular attention to the parts of the threefold promise they could see and touch. They did not have the cross and empty tomb; but they did have family and land. These fulfilled promises were like a down payment on the third, the Savior from sin. That is why we see so much attention paid to these promises in the Old Testament. And that is why place plays such a prominent role in the Bible. The story of salvation is a story of place.
There is one last place where geography plays a role in the Bible. In Acts 1, Jesus tells his disciples that after the Holy Spirit comes, they will “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (acts 1: 8). The actual location of the Promised Land (Israel) makes that mission possible. Geography expedites the spread of the gospel. That is because Israel is a land-bridge that connected the people of Asia, Africa, and Europe. From Israel the message of Jesus could easily spread to the corners of the earth.
So it is not just the natural tendency of human beings to include geography in their communication. The core message of the Bible demands that geography be part of this sacred text, a book whose focus is not just people but place.