Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.
While the usual means of overland travel in the biblical world were walking or riding a donkey, horse, or camel, today we live in an age where getting around obstacles, traveling across great distances, and finding something to drink no longer prove a challenge. With a transportation system that requires little more than a basic understanding of road signs and airline gates, our culture gives little attention to the importance of geography. Consequently, we feel very little need to know about geography.
Those who seek to understand the literal meaning of the Bible strongly believe in interpreting a passage in its context—a discipline that also includes its historical and geographical context. That’s why the historical geography of Israel provides a wonderful contribution to our understanding of Scripture. The more someone understands the land of the Bible, the more one understands the Bible itself. Its message is enabled to have a more profound impact on one’s spiritual life and ministry.
When one reads the Bible, it becomes clear how geography is the stage on which the redemptive narrative takes place. The land God chose was not arbitrary, for He designed even the land itself to develop the spiritual lives of His people. One of God’s stated purposes in bringing the Hebrews from Egypt was to give them a land that fostered faith (Deuteronomy 11:10-15). The land was never intended to be just a place to live.
The land’s dependency on rain for water and its location as a land bridge between world powers forced the Hebrews to trust God or starve and to influence the world or be influenced by it. In his excellent volume, The Land Between
, James Monson observed:
“This land served as God’s testing ground of faith. It was here, in this land where both personal and national existence were threatened, that Israel’s leaders and people were called upon to learn the true meaning of security and well-being, of trust in the Lord their God.”
Studying historical geography, in my own experience, has permanently marked my life and changed the way I understand the Bible. Places and names, which I used to pass over, now immediately bring to mind a site’s history, its geographical pros and cons, its scenery, and even its smells. Having knowledge of a passage’s geography gives me a head start as I attempt to understand why events took place—sometimes repeatedly—in certain locations.
Walking the land of Israel has provided me with a deeper appreciation of God as Lord of world history and of seemingly minor details—both of which bring comfort to my life.
My experience is not unique. I have conducted and videotaped a number of interviews with those who have both studied geography and also been to Israel. Their testimonies illustrate the importance of understanding and experiencing historical geography—not just from a knowledge-based perspective but also as it benefits one’s spiritual life.
My research revealed that those who understand and experience historical geography enjoy a sharper comprehension of the Bible, a clearer direction to its application, and a more effective communication of truth. The study of historical geography provides a greater confidence in the Bible as God’s Word and instills a greater love for the God of the Bible. Those who study geography, coupled with time in the land, experience an even greater benefit than those who simply read books.
The spiritual lives of those who study historical geography are enriched. Whether they limit their study to the classroom, or enlarge it by traveling to Israel, their experience adds a dimension of authenticity and confidence to their faith.
A knowledge of Israel’s geography serves as an additional way to retain the truth of a passage. Remembering what a location looks like enables one to picture the action, to remember the event, to imagine its occurrence in a way that enables retention. Also many events took place in the same location, which also helps to tie the Bible together better.
It may seem an overstatement to claim that a person must study historical geography to understand the Word of God, but it is fair to say that the study will take a person much further toward an accurate understanding of God’s Word. Geography occurs on almost every page of Scripture.
God used it to mold the lives of His people in the biblical narrative, and God uses it to shape the lives of people today. Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.