Biblical Geography and History

John David Clark, Sr. - April, 1994

Suppose you are reading in the Old Covenant writings and come across this verse from Hosea 9:9: They have deeply corrupted themselves, as in the days of Gibeah...." What will those words mean to you, if you do not know what happened in Gibeah? Of course, you'll be able to understand that God is unhappy here with the way these people (in this case His own people - Israel) were behaving. You'll be able to understand that they were doing evil. But what evil? Where was Gibeah, and what event took place there which was so disgraceful and wicked that God still makes mention of it several centuries later? Without a knowledge of Biblical history (Genesis through Esther), these words of Hosea cannot have their intended impact on your heart. Nor can the reader appreciate the fervor of the words of God here without a knowledge of the geography associated with that history. In many prophecies such as this one from Hosea, the prophets referred to events in Israel's history merely by referring to the place where those events took place! If you don't know the biblical geography and history, the prophets will at times be impossible to understand! Many have complained of being "bored" when reading the prophets, when the fact is that the prophets were not boring; rather, the reader was just ignorant of the geography and history of the Bible to which the prophets were referring!

Here is an easily understood example, from Isaiah 1:9:

Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.

In this case, most of us can appreciate what Isaiah is saying because we are familiar with the events in the book of Genesis which transpired at Sodom and Gomorrah. Though few of us are able to locate on a map of ancient Palestine the place where these cities are thought to have been, most of us know about the horrible sins for which God obliterated these famous cities. Now, have you ever considered, as you read that verse, that it is your knowledge of biblical geography and history which enables you to understand Isaiah's words here? It is only because, in your memory bank, the immoral deeds of the sodomites have been associated with the geographic place of Sodom that you can read the above verse and have it really communicate the originally intended message! If you had never heard of Sodom and Gomorrah, and were ignorant of the history of those cities, the full impact of God's word through Isaiah would have been missed!

Here is another example, from Hosea 11:8:

How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboiim?

What does this verse mean to you? For starters, who is Ephraim, and why does God mention him in the same breath with Israel? And then, what happened to Admah and Zeboiim, so that God now threatens to cause the same condition to befall Ephraim and Israel? No one can answer these questions without a knowledge of biblical geography and history. We learn in Genesis that Ephraim was Joseph's son who became the father of the leading tribe of Israel, so that many times in the prophets "Ephraim" is used as a synonym for "Israel", as in this verse. Here, by speaking to Ephraim and then to Israel, God is merely repeating Himself! As for Admah and Zeboiim, they were two cities located very near Sodom and Gomorrah which God destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah - for the same reason He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Dt.29:23)! Now, aren't you glad you know the geography and history associated with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, so that you can know what I'm talking about?

To what places and important events in Israel's history were the "holy men of old" referring in these verses?

Lo, we heard of it at Ephratah. We found it in the fields of the woods. We will go unto his tabernacles. We will worship at his footstool. Arise, O Lord, into thy rest, thou, and the ark of thy strength! (Ps.132:6-8).

God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. (Hab.3:3).

Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we are not cleansed until this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord? (Josh.22:17).

Now it came to pass, when Jeremiah had made an end of speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak unto all the people, that the priests and the prophets and all the people took him, saying, Thou shalt surely die. Why hast thou prophesied in the name of the Lord, saying, This house shall be like Shiloh....? (Jer.26).

None of these verses can be fully appreciated without a knowledge of the Bible's geography and history. How many times have you heard someone complain about how difficult it is to read the books of the ancient prophets of Israel? The next time that happens, ask that person if he has ever become acquainted with Israel's history and with the geography associated with it. My bet is that he has not. I am certain that most of the frustration which people feel in trying to understand the prophets' messages is the result of ignorance on our part of the geography and history to which the prophets continually refer. If you are unfamiliar with the words which the prophets use, how can those words seem anything but confusing?

I am not suggesting that the mysteries of the kingdom of God will be understood if you will just learn biblical geography. After all, many who actually lived in that land and knew it well didn't understand the ways of their God. What I am saying, however, is that if we will learn the things which we can learn about the Bible, we can then discern the difference between the mysteries which are of God and the mysteries which are of our own making. For example, "What happened at Gibeah?" is not a mystery of God. It is revealed information. But to many of us it may seem to be a mystery because we have not studied the book of Judges to learn what happened at Gibeah. Let us take advantage of what God has revealed, so as to prepare ourselves for what He has yet to tell us!

In my teaching activities, one of my primary goals is to bring my students to the point of asking the same questions which I ask (and I have many), because if I do that, they will be asking questions based on knowledge of the Scriptures rather than ignorance of them. Hopefully, once I have guided my students through the information which the Bible offers, they will continue to grow in knowledge and then add to my faith as well as to the faith of others. But the starting point is to learn what God has revealed: the Bible. We are living in a time when the Bible is virtually an unknown book, even among those who should know it best. And often it is slandered as a book virtually impossible to learn! What I would like you to know is that if you will trust God, and begin a careful and prayerful study of the Bible, beginning at Genesis 1:1, you can learn this most important of all documents in the history of this planet!

Don't believe the nay-sayers. You can do it! Pack up your commentaries in a box and put the box in a distant corner of your attic. Do not spend your time reading books about the Bible. You'll never learn the Bible that way. Read the Bible itself. The Bible is so much more easily understood than most of the books that have been written about it! Just get yourself some maps of ancient Israel and READ THE BIBLE! Will learning the Bible take a lot of time? Of course. But you don't have to do it all at once. In fact, you can't possibly do it all at once. It will require commitment to a goal. It will require patience and faith. But it is an attainable goal, and it is an effort which will pay enormous dividends, not only while you live here, but afterwards as well. Make learning the Bible - not just spot-reading parts of it - a top priority in your life.

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