Location, Location, Location

Geography is an important part of biblical studies and, for many of us, it can open up surprising new insights. Some biblical scholars feel it is so important that they refer to the land of Palestine as “the fifth Gospel.”

I highlighted earlier the fact that Palestine in Jesus’ time was approximately 50 miles wide and 150 miles long, roughly equivalent to the size of the state of Connecticut. The vast majority of the Biblical story takes place in this small area. Palestine has often been referred to as “a land in-between.” It forms a land bridge between three continents, is the homeland of three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and is a territory where the sea and the desert come together.

For a small territory, it has amazing diversity in climate, plant and animal life. Mount Hermon is 9,200 feet high – higher than Mount St. Helens, while the Dead Sea is 1,300 feet below sea level – the lowest spot on earth. There are coastal plains, low lying hills, a central mountain ridge, and the impressive Jordan rift valley.

Knowing where Jesus traveled and who he talked with in these regions helps in understanding his message. I often challenge the participants in my adult education classes to pay attention to where Jesus was when a certain event occurred. This can often help us understand what he did and said.

Jesus’ home base was located in Galilee and three times during his short three-year public ministry he traveled in-and-out of this region; all of these journeys are described in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus also traveled to Perea, which is east of the Jordan River, but only Luke records this facet of his ministry. Jesus’ time in Judea is carefully documented in the Gospel of John and John’s chronology is often linked to various religious festivals.

Many of the insights I will be sharing with you in the weeks ahead come from my three trips to Israel in 1986, 1988 and 1980. Dr. James Fleming and Dr. James Martin were the biblical scholars who lead these study trips and they opened my eyes to the significance of the land and how understanding the geographical and cultural context of Jesus’ life and ministry provides important insights in the content of his teaching and deeds.

I still remember the thrill of walking on land where Jesus walked and visiting the area around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent so much time. I also have a clear memory of standing outside Jerusalem and looking toward the Herodian, one of Herod the Great’s mountain fortresses. It was from a location like this that Jesus told his disciples that if they had the faith to move mountains, it could be done. To the disciples, who knew that Herod the Great had actually forced Jewish workers to literally move the top of one mountain to its neighboring peak in order to build this fortress, Jesus’ observation hit home!

This experience was an eye-opener to me because it showed the important connection between location – the geographical context — and Jesus’ teachings. The connections between the words of Scripture and the land itself provided a deepened understanding of the Biblical message, the gospel of peace (shalom), and I have been blessed ever since. I will share these insights with you in the weeks ahead.

So What? 

  • Do any examples come to mind of important experiences in your life where the location of the experience was a key to what occurred? 
  • Here’s a helpful key when reading the Bible: First, what did God say and do then and there? Second, what does it mean for us here and now? Addressing both questions is important as we read God’s Word. 

Helpful Resources

  • If you want to learn more about the land of Palestine during Jesus’ time – and I would encourage you to do this, take advantage of the excellent resources of the Preserving Bible Times. Their web site is www.preservingbibletimes.org. In particular, explore their “Above Israel” and “The Bible and the Land” DVDs as well as two very helpful books – A Visual Guide to Bible Events and A Visual Guide to Gospel Events
  • Doug Greenwold, the Executive Director of Preserving Bible Times, leads a trip to Israel each year and the web site noted above will provide details if you are interested in joining him for this remarkable Holy Land experience.