We spent a number of sessions together now, confirming that there is geography in this treasured book that we share. Now what? We started answering that question in our last session. And we spoke about three different ways in which we could more effectively integrate geography into our Bible reading. Those steps were number one, notice it; number two, learn what I can about it; and number three, consider the different roles—either historical roles or literary roles, which the geography may be playing in that element of Bible communication.
Today we step into a little bit deeper part of the swimming pool. We’re going to give you three more steps that you can take to improve your integration of geography with your Bible reading. Let’s start again with the risk and we’ll get to an overview of those three points.
First of all, we have to realize that biblical authors and their first readers shared these three things in common. They shared a language. They shared a cultural environment. And they shared a geographical environment. All of those things work together to help the biblical authors and their first readers understand one another well. Now, to the degree that we lack literacy in this shared geographical environment, we may either fail to notice or respond appropriately to the geographical clues left there for us by the biblical authors.
I want to read that again, and I want you to think about that carefully. To the degree that we lack literacy in the shared geographical environment, we may fail to notice or respond appropriately to the geographical clues left by the biblical authors. And so I’ve shaped the question for this session around that reality: How can I grow my geographical literacy? I may not be learning Greek or Hebrew in order to better understand the language of the biblical authors, but what can I do to improve my geographical literacy that would help me better understand what they’re saying to us?
Develop a Mental Map
There are three things that I have in mind for us here. The first is to develop a mental map. Now, when you think of a map, you may be thinking of a map that looks something like this: a physical map whether it be in paper or in electronic form. Our mental map is the geographical template we’ve built in our mind through repeated trips to familiar places. You have a mental map. We all have a mental map. And if we could get inside our head and see how it looks, put it on paper, it might look a little bit messy like this. Not so beautiful, but it works. It’s the mental map that gets us to the grocery store. It gets us to school. It gets us to church, and it even allows us to give a lost visitor directions.
Realize that the biblical authors had a mental map as well. And when they are using geographical references, they are tapping into their own mental map and they’re expecting their readers to be tapping into a similar mental map. Places like Judea, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea immediately popped up in the right location in their minds. Has that happened for you? If not, let me suggest one of the things we can do is build a stronger mental map of the land of the Bible.
How can you do it? Well, remember, building a mental map is all about repeated trips to familiar places. So if you’re not able to travel to the Holy Land (which, by the way, may be one of the best ways to generate this mental map); if you’re not able to actually be in the Holy Land, take your Bible maps out. And don’t just glance at them briefly, but linger on them. Look at relationships between places, between cities, between regions. Look at where rivers and lakes are located on the map. And then when you close the Bible atlas, try to visualize what you’ve been seeing where those places are. You can begin to build a mental map by making repeated trips to familiar places even if you’re just using a map. This will improve your geographical literacy.
Consider the Connotations
What else can you do? Second step, consider the connotations. Consider the connotations. Places convey connotations. And in order to understand what that is, ask yourself these two questions: What do I think about when I’m at a place? How do I feel when I hear it mentioned?
What do you think about when you’re at a place? How does it make you feel when someone mentions it? Let me give you a couple of examples from my own life. When I was a teenager, my parents took our family to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where we visited the Civil War battlefields. And I pointedly remember not just being there but the sorts of feelings that it began to evoke. What would it have been like to be in one of those battles? What would I have heard? What would it have smelled like? How would I have felt? Those are the connotations that are associated with a place.
This photograph is one that communicates very different connotations to me. It’s from a spring mountain-climbing trip in the Rocky Mountain West. I have very different feelings when I see that picture and what I think of that place: relaxation and fun and enjoyment of time with my wife.
Now, Bible places convey connotations too. And one of the best examples of it comes from the mouth of Nathanael when he was told that there was a Messiah who had come from Nazareth. We have his response—“Nazareth”—and you can see the disdain in his face. “Nazareth, can any good thing come from there?” Nazareth had a connotation that informed how Nathanael thought about the place and about a Messiah who had come from there.
This is a picture you may not recognize at all, but you’ve heard the term, I bet. It’s a threshing floor. Now, a threshing floor, again, is more than a place. It’s a place with a connotation. The threshing floor is a place where the harvested wheat and barley were processed. And because it played such an important role in the diet of those who grew those crops, the threshing floor was a happy place filled with this excitement and joy over the harvest that came in. It’s perhaps a connotation that’s linked to the fact that the temple in Jerusalem was built over the threshing floor of Araunah.
Here’s another location. And I’ve shown it to you to illustrate the complexity of the idea of the connotation. This is from Shiloh, a place that starts off with very positive feelings and memories connected with it and very positive connotations, and then drifts down the other direction into very negative thoughts and feelings.
The positive feelings come from the fact that the tabernacle was put in this location when Joshua entered the land. It’s where he gave all of the individual tribes their parcel of land. People thought highly of Shiloh. They had good feelings about it. Then later, at the time of Hophni and Phinehas, when those two scoundrels really ruined the reputation of the place, people didn’t think so highly of it anymore. All of that to say, places have connotations.
Take the next step with me. The biblical authors intentionally harnessed the power of place connotations to influence our thoughts and feelings. One of the things that I should consider when I run into a place name is what the biblical author might be trying to get me to think about or to feel by mentioning such a place.
Organize the Bible’s Content Geographically
Third step, how can I grow my geographical literacy? Try organizing the Bible geographically. You know, we all have ways of organizing the contents of the Bible and all of them generally are helpful. We can organize the contents of our Bible chronologically, putting events one after another on a timeline. Or we can take the contents of the Bible and organize it theologically into categories like Christology or harmatology or eschatology.
All of those are helpful, but what about the idea of organizing our Bible geographically? What I mean by that is bringing Scriptures together which have a common geographical setting. Let me illustrate what I mean by that. We can take two stories from the Bible that are widely separated from one another in time, that are widely separated in terms of where they appear in the pages of our Bible. And when we organize the Bible geographically, suddenly they come into one another’s company.
Nain and Shunem will illustrate the point for me. Both of these villages are on the same rising terrain that you see in the photograph. That is Mount Moreh. In the Old Testament, the prophet Elisha went to the village of Shunem and raised a young man from the dead and gave him back to his mother. We find that in 2 Kings 4:8–37. In the New Testament era, Jesus went to the village of Nain. And look what we’re doing. We’re looking at two stories that live far apart from one another in time, but very close to one another in terms of landscape.
We see Jesus coming to the village of Nain ten to fifteen minutes’ walk from Shunem. He raises a young man from the dead and gives him back to his mother. And what do the people of Nain say? “A great prophet has appeared among us.” They were reading their Bible geographically. And they were bringing these two events together, the second in Luke 7:11–17. That is what organizing our Bible geographically can do.
Now, why did people organize their Bible geographically in Bible times? It’s because they traveled from place to place by walking. And because people traveled by walking and because one location often hosted more than one Bible event, these Bible-times walkers, when looking at an element of geography, began to pull together Bible stories and began to interpret those Bible stories that have a relationship to one another.
Let me give you another example of a place where this happens. In the photograph, you’re seeing the valley, the mountain pass between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim. This is the area of ancient Shechem. And when we look into that valley, we see a number of Bible events coming together in the Old Testament. I’ve listed the most important ones for you here. Abraham came to Shechem, came to this location and learned that Canaan was the Promised Land linking the land of Israel to the plan of salvation. Joshua brings the Israelites to the very same place years later to review the Mosaic covenant and confirm Israel’s commitment to it. He did it at the very beginning of the military conquest of the land of Canaan. And then at the end of Joshua, at the very end of the conquest, Joshua brings the people back. He gives the last address of his life here, encouraging his people to remain faithful to the Lord. Remember his words? “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
This little valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim became a place where people were anticipating the coming of a Messiah. Did Jesus ever get there? He sure did—in the story that you know but may never have linked to the place and so may never have linked to these other stories. Jesus came to the village of Sychar in that same little valley between Mount Ebal and Gerazim, and he had a conversation with a Samaritan woman. And when He was with her, He talked about a number of different things, some of which got pretty sensitive for this Samaritan woman. Perhaps in an effort to put Him off and to stop the conversation from going into any more personal corners than it already had, she said,
“Okay. I give up. I know that when the Messiah comes, He’ll make all of this clear to us.”
And then Jesus does it. He drops the sentence that brings all of these events together. He says, “I, the one speaking to you, am He.” Jesus says He is the Messiah in exactly the place where Abraham first saw the linkage between land and the promise of salvation in Canaan. It’s where Joshua came on two occasions to bring the people together to renew their commitment to the Lord in anticipation of a coming Messiah. Jesus uses that backdrop to drop the stunning announcement, “I am the One. I am the Messiah.” One place, multiple events that often have a relationship to one another. That’s what we’ll begin to see when we organize our Bibles geographically.
The biblical authors and their first readers shared a level of geographical literacy. To the degree that we lack literacy in this shared geographical environment, we may fail to notice or respond appropriately to the geographical clues left for us by the biblical authors. What can you do about it? Well, here are three steps that are more advanced than the ones we saw in our previous session.
How can I grow my own geographical literacy? Step one, develop a mental map. Remember, mental maps are created by returning again and again to familiar places. Strategically plan to do that. Build a mental map of the important places of the Bible lands in your mind.
Second, consider the connotations. Remember that places are more than cold entities on the landscape or quiet entities on a map. They are living things that solicit memories and emotions. Ask whether or not the biblical author might be using the connotation of a place like Shechem or Bethlehem or Nazareth to shape you as you hear him speaking to you in the Word.
And thirdly, consider organizing the Bible geographically in a way that allows you to bring together Bible stories, elements of Bible communication that might by other methods of organization live far apart from one another.
There is geography in my Bible. So much of it that if we ignore it, we’re going to miss a lot of wonderful things. I hope in these last two sessions we’ve given you the opportunity to learn more about what you can do now that you’re convinced there’s geography in your Bible.