Geography can help us understand the Bible better

Although we may not really think about it too much, and though it may affect us less today than it did when transportation was much more difficult, geography plays a large part in our lives. It may affect what we eat, what we live in, what kind of jobs are available, what we think about the world, etc. So, it is good to know a little about Bible geography so one can better understand what is going on and why.

Let’s take a little walk with Abram in this chapter from a book titled Where it Happened by Islip Collyer, written in the early 1900’s.

“The ruins of Ur are about ten miles from the present course of the Euphrates; but in the days of Abram the river flowed past the western wall of the city, and the sea was about a hundred miles away, which is at least fifty miles nearer than it is today. It is known that there have been great changes in physical conditions. Ur was certainly a wealthy and prosperous city in a fertile part of Asia. The surrounding country was well watered by the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, and the city was equipped with all that the art and science of the day could give. The prospect of leaving such a centre of comfort and culture to go to an unknown land a thousand miles away must have seemed as formidable and chilling an undertaking as if we were ordered to the remotest part of the earth.

“It was while he was in Ur of the Chaldees that the command came to Abram: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee” (Genesis 12:1). From his later experience we gather a clear idea as to the manner in which this command reached him. Beings in human form but with powers obviously superhuman appeared to him, and gave the instructions by word of mouth. He accepted the message as from God, and unlike so many of his descendants, his faith remained steadfast even though there were long intervals in which nothing was seen of the messengers, and the many trials of mortal life invited the weakness of human nature to feel doubt.

“Abram’s father went with him on the first stage of the journey. About six hundred miles to the north west there was another city similar to Ur in culture and religion. To this city they migrated, and there remained until the death of Terah. The Abram and Lot, his nephew, moved four or five hundred miles to the south, and entered the land we know as Palestine [Israel today].

“Some readers may ask why they made the journey so long. A direct line from Ur to Palestine would only have been about a hundred miles. Why did they choose a route so indirect as to involve a journey of nearly twice the distance? Other readers would point out that a desert lay between Ur and Palestine. We would not venture to say, however, that a more direct course than that taken was impossible. There were trade routes even across parts of the desert, for the camel is a wonderful animal for traversing such inhospitable lands. Then it was not all desert between the Euphrates and Palestine. It was largely arid steppe land, in which even in the driest times there were vast quantities of ripe seed ready to grow at the magic touch of water. A short spell of rainy weather would clothe the land with verdure. A period of dry heat would make the land like desert again, but would ripen the seed ready for the next rain. Even apart from the fact that his father was going to Haran in Mesopotamia, it was natural for him to travel slowly through country which could support his cattle, rather than try to cross the ill-favoured land immediately between Ur and Palestine.

“After the death of his father, Abram, now seventy-five years old, started on his long journey to the south east. His route would take him through or near to Damascus. It may have been at this time that he found the faithful servant Eliezer of Damascus who was the steward of his house. As Damascus figures largely in the Bible narrative it is well to have some idea of its geography.

“Damascus is about sixty miles from the Mediterranean Sea. It has been famous for its orchards and its swords. Probably orchards were there in Abram’s day, but we must not suggest that they made swords of steel then, for there are scholars who deny that steel was known so early in history. It is certain, however, that in later times Damascus blades were the most famous in the world.

“As Abram approached Palestine his attention would inevitably be drawn to Mount Hermon. This mountain rises to over nine thousand feet above sea level. At five thousand feet, or rather more, there is a ridge extending for more than twenty miles. Such a giant, capped with snow, would attract the attention of any traveller. The importance of Hermon was in its effect on the entire country to which it gave life. You do not need to be told that the atmosphere is colder at the higher levels, and that this mountain would collect plenty of snow in winter. Millions of tons would form on that elongated head, and as the snow of the lower ranges would melt first with the warmth of spring, leaving the peak for the heat of summer, it is evident that streams of water would flow down into the valley just when they were most needed. The river Jordan was mainly supplied from Mount Hermon.

“From the upper reaches of the Jordan he might pass through a fertile valley with the river on his left hand and a wall of mountainous land on his right. About fifteen miles from the foot of Hermon he would come to the waters of Merom, where the river Jordan flows through a lake of about four miles in length. Another ten miles southward still through fertile land, and he would reach a far more important lake, variously called the Sea of Chinnereth, the Sea of Galilee, the Lake of Gennesaret, and in later times the Lake of Tiberias. It is little more than thirteen miles in length, and seven miles across at its broadest part. It may seem strange to speak of it as a sea when we know of so many lakes much larger. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that alarming storms would be unknown on such waters. Strong winds sometimes arise very quickly, lashing the waters into a fury.

“The shores of the sea of Galilee are below ocean level, and a little further to the south the strip of land lying below the level of the Mediterranean widens so that a direct course southward would take the traveller into the depths. It is part of that extraordinary fault, or break in the strata of earth’s surface, which falls continuously down the valley of the Jordan, till it reaches the Dead Sea 1300 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean. The “fault” extends to the Red Sea. In summer the Jordan valley becomes very hot. It is not merely that the increased atmospheric pressure at this low level makes the air warm, a still more important factor is the complete protection from cold winds. This, with the slope towards the south, makes the Jordan valley a sun trap on a gigantic scale.

Perhaps now you can picture Abram’s journey a little better.

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