"Okay brothers and sisters, this year our fall mission theme is biblical geography." This is not the type of catch phrase that has historically packed 'em in for the big Church mission. To many, the very idea of studying geography sounds as boring and dry as building a compost heap in the desert. It comes as no surprise that most people can spend a lifetime reading the Bible without once cracking a Bible atlas.
Why is studying Bible geography so important in understanding the message of the Bible? Simply put, the land of Canaan is the stage or playing board on which the biblical drama takes place. The Bible is not just a book of sayings unconnected to land or culture; it is the record of God acting in the events of human history. As Pope Paul VI said in Directorium Catechisticum Generale, "the history of salvation is being accomplished in the midst of the history of the world."
When we read the Bible (salvation history), we follow the events from one place to another. The places in which God reveals Himself often become places of recurring themes. For example, the city of Bethlehem is a city in which the two great kings of Israel were born; David and Jesus. Over and over the city of Shechem becomes the place where many of Israel's watershed decisions were made, such as the ten northern tribes' refusal to follow the house of David in 930 BC. Bethel pops up as a reoccurring meeting place between God and the Patriarchs.
Besides the concept of covenant, no single aspect or feature in the life of the Hebrew people contributed more powerfully to the making of their distinctive mind and imagination than did the land in which they lived. To the biblical writers and characters, they could not separate their religion from the land of Israel(Eretz Israel), a land where God eagerly participated in the daily affairs of men. Much of what is spoken of in the Bible, particularly by the prophets, uses language colored by the geography: mountains, valleys, etc. Both the geographical and climatic features became a common and essential source of the prophetic message. With a look into a Bible concordance one will discover that God's message is saturated with not only cities but the land features of hills, wilderness and rocks. Over five hundred times mountains are mentioned in the Bible, over four hundred and fifty times seas are cited and over seven hundred mentions of water.
As a student of the Bible, a working knowledge of the chief features of the land of Israel is indispensable because so many familiar and important events occur upon them. Like observing any drama, a familiarity with the stage on which it takes place helps the viewer to not only follow the plot, but also to assist in remembering key parts of the story.
What makes studying the geography of the Bible so enjoyable is not only the thrill that comes from better understanding the plot, but the insight that comes from personally entering into what can be called "geographical typology." This means we can see the landscape of our own lives in the biblical drama as the drama relates to the land.
Now using biblical typology, let's look at the land of Canaan and discover a little bit about ourselves. To the people of the Old Testament, the known world contained less than one-half of the land area of the United States, with one third of this desert. Populations grew up along what is called the fertile crescent starting at the head of the Persian Gulf to the east and moving in a northwesterly direction up the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Turning southward, the traveler enters Syria passing through the beautiful valley between the Lebanon mountains. Continuing southward there are several routes through Canaan toward the land of Egypt to the southwest.
In Bible days the two major areas of population were in Mesopotamia in the northeast and Egypt in the southwest. The only practical way to get from one major area of population to the other was by a small land bridge called Canaan. Mighty kingdoms on both sides of the fertile crescent considered this strip of land a thoroughfare; and both of them labored to impose their authority over it, mainly so as to control the trade routes passing through it. Whoever controlled Canaan controlled not only trade, but influenced culture and religion in the known world.
This thoroughfare called Canaan is only fifty miles wide and one hundred miles long. With a total area of only ten thousand square miles, it is about one seventh the size of Missouri and one third the size of South Carolina. This tiny stage of Canaan holds ninety-five percent of the biblical drama.
It was to this land that God called Abraham and promised that his ancestors would possess it. (Genesis 12:1; 17:8). Over and over God describes the land of Canaan as "a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful of all lands" (Ezekiel 20:6).
The variety of topography and climate on such a small stage is staggering. Located where four ecological zones converge, Canaan displayed swamps, deserts, tropics, snow, mountains and fertile valleys. In the north of the country one can ski on Mt. Hermon at nine thousand feet above sea level, then travel one hundred miles south to the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth at thirteen hundred feet below sea level. Jerusalem can receive over thirty inches of rain a year, but only fifteen miles away at the Dead Sea only two inches a year falls.
To easily remember the topography of the land of Canaan, divide the stage into two parts corresponding to God's description of the land as a land flowing with milk and honey. Think of milk and honey not so much as foods, but as two contrasting lifestyles. We can divide the land into these two parts, milk and honey, by superimposing a clock on the land of Canaan with the center being Jerusalem. From three to seven o'clock we will call right stage, or milk. From nine to one o'clock we will call left stage, or honey.
Right stage is represented by milk, specifically the milk of the nomadic herdsmen. With two deserts joining right stage, Sahara to the south and Arabia to the east, right stage only receives about ten inches of rain a year. Life on right stage is hard, silent, lonely, exhausting and the land unpredictable. Does this sound like a place you would like to live?
Abraham came face to face with the unpredictable nature of right stage when a famine hit forcing him to travel to Egypt (Genesis 12:10). Later in Genesis 26:1 Isaac also experiences the unpredictable nature of right stage. God often used famine as a tool. It was on right stage that Elijah heard the still small voice of God (1 Kings 19); it was in the desert that John the Baptist attracted a crowd (Matthew 3). Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness of right stage before beginning His public ministry (Matthew 4); and Paul spent three years in the desert before beginning his ministry (Galatians 1:17,18). It was to the canyons of right stage that over five thousand Byzantine hermits fled in the 5th century AD. While many heard the voice of God on right stage, life was physically and mentally exhausting.
Now let's look at left stage. Left stage is represented by the fig and date honey of the farmer. Receiving between twenty and forty inches of rain annually, left stage is an agricultural jackpot. Life on left stage is predictable, noisy, busy and relatively easy. Does this sound like a place you would like to live? Israel thought so too. But there is one major hitch to living on left stage and that is that the superhighway (The Via Maris) connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt runs through it. Israel wanted to live on left stage, but the problem was everyone else did too.
To stay in control of left stage, Israel would have to be obedient to the Lord. When you live on a thoroughfare you run the risk of adopting ungodly practices. Been on the internet lately? When you live on a superhighway you can get run over by the world, which is what happened to Israel. When Israel penetrated left stage she picked up the ways of the world and forsook God. For a study in how not to live on left stage just look at Solomon whose heart was turned from the Lord by his many foreign wives (1 Kings 11). In the nearly two thousand years from Abraham to Jesus, Israel only controlled left stage for about one hundred and fifty years.
Next time you read through the Bible, pay close attention to the battle that takes place between left and right stage. The lesson we can glean from the land flowing with milk and honey is that God wants us to learn to live in the noisy and silent, the busy and lonely times, the predictable and unpredictable, easy and hard. In short, God wanted Israel (and by way of geographical typology, you and I,) to possess the land flowing with both milk and honey. The key is looking to God in every situation and obeying His will.
Where are you now in your life? Right stage? Left stage? Are you looking to the Lord or are you starting to think the way the world does? The apostle Paul learned the secret of possessing the land of both milk and honey. Paul said "for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:11-13).