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Biblical Geography Basics

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There is geography in my Bible, but the reality is not all the geography in the Bible is like the geography that I know at home. So in this session, what I’d like to do is speak about five key characteristics of the Promised Land so that you can begin to compare what you know or think you know about the geography of this land to the way the geography really is.

The Promised Land Is a Small Land

First characteristic: The Promised Land is a small land, and whatever is coming to mind at the moment, let me suggest you’re probably still thinking of the land as larger than it actually is. In order to estimate its size, let’s first start by defining its perimeter with the assistance of this map. On the east and west we have water boundaries. To the west we have the Mediterranean Sea. On the east we have the Jordan River Valley and its associated lakes. North and south borders are marked by two cities: the city of Dan in the north; the city of Beersheba in the south.

Now, that allows us to begin to put some data together in terms of mileage. From north to south, from Dan to Beersheba, the Promised Land is only about 145 miles in length. In terms of width…just depends on where you are. From the west shore of the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea is 27 miles. From the west shore of the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea is 57 miles.

A little more math allows us to compute the square miles. The Promised Land is approximately 6,750 square miles. Now, that makes it slightly smaller than New Jersey, slightly smaller than Lake Huron, about the size of Jamaica, and a land mass that would fit into England seven and one-half times. Israel is a small land. I know we think of it as a big place because of its theological importance in our lives, but Israel is a small land.

The Promised Land Is a Diverse Land

Secondly, Israel is a very diverse land, and there’s a number of ways that we can make this diversity apparent. Here I’d like to illustrate by highlighting the uniqueness of its three geographical zones, starting with the Coastal Plain, then talking about the Central Mountain Zone, and finally the Jordan Rift Valley.

Let’s begin with the Coastal Plain. As the name suggests, the Coastal Plain is a plain that lies along the coast adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. In terms of qualities, it is low in elevation, the highest place on the Coastal Plain a mere 150 feet above sea level. Topographically it’s flat. Agriculturally it’s fertile. And in terms of transportation it travels well, but it also invades very easily. It is the one place in ancient Israel where we still find farm fields best defined in square miles rather than just in acres, and it’s the one place in modern Israel where we still find four-lane highways at work. Now, this is a place that is flat, that is fertile, that travels well, and that invades easily.

Now compare that to the Central Mountain Zone, and please realize we’re only moving 15 miles or so to the east from the Mediterranean Sea before we’re into this Central Mountain Zone area. It, by contrast to the Coastal Plain, is high in elevation. Remember the highest place in the Coastal Plain 150 feet above sea level? Here the lowest place in the mountains is about 1,500 feet above sea level, and the elevations in the central mountains go well into the 3,000 plus range. The mountains make it a highly secure place, very difficult to access, very difficult to invade. However, it’s less productive agriculturally and travel…well, you might have guessed, it’s much more difficult to travel here, and transportation is pushed up onto the ridge lines rather than running in the valley systems.

This picture of the Central Mountain Zone contrasts ever so sharply with what I showed a moment ago in terms of the Coastal Plain. Here we have mountains with very steep sides. Valleys that are very, very narrow, which yield high security but very, very difficult agriculture. You can’t farm the land that exists there naturally in the valley bottoms and feed very many people. And so throughout the Central Mountain Zone, in place after place, we see farmers have built terraces into the mountainsides, building their own farm land so that they can grow the necessary food to feed the population that lives there.

Now contrast that, the Coastal Plain and Central Mountain Zone, with what we find in the Jordan Rift Valley. Now we’re actually dropping below sea level with the lowest point in the Jordan Rift Valley being 1,300 feet below sea level. It is, as the name suggests, a valley pressed in by mountain ranges east and west, a valley that narrows as we move from north to south. A valley only can be farmed effectively in the north because that is where the greater rainfall is. And even though it’s a valley, it’s lightly traveled because of the tremendous elevation changes required to get into that valley system and the hot temperatures that exist when you get in there traveling in the summer season.

The Jordan Rift Valley starts up at the Sea of Galilee and, my goodness, here already we’re 700 feet below sea level and it does nothing but descend from there. As we follow the Jordan River, we are hearing its Hebrew name echoing. Yarad in Hebrew means to descend, and the Jordan River does nothing but descend from the Sea of Galilee as it makes its way south to the Dead Sea. In the northern part of this Jordan Rift Valley it’s wider, and the greater amount of rainfall allows just a bit of agriculture. But the farther south we go the drier and drier it gets, until, really, no natural agriculture is possible as we get to the north shore of the Dead Sea.

Well, that quick overview of these three zones tells us something about the diversity of this land. The Coastal Plain, the Central Mountain, the Jordan Rift Valley—changes that occur in just 30 miles east to west, but those changes could not be more dramatic as we move from the Mediterranean Sea to the snowcapped elevations of Mount Hermon or from the rich agricultural fields of Galilee out into the Judean wilderness. This small land of Israel is an extremely diverse land geographically, and that presents a challenge for us who are trying to learn this land as students of the Bible. Because no single picture of the land will do justice to the whole thing.

The Promised Land Is a Water-Impoverished Land

Israel is a small land. Israel is a diverse land. Number three, Israel is a water-impoverished land. Now, we don’t have ancient statistics, but I’ve drawn some modern statistics together here for you. These are contemporary water realities in nations from across the globe, and I trust that in this list you will be able to find either your country or a place close to yours which portrays the difference between water availability where you live and water availability in the modern land of Israel and the West Bank. Wherever you find yourself in this chart, I suspect it will be well above the water availability that exists in Israel and the West Bank.

Another way to create that insight is to look at water usage. Today the average family in the United States uses approximately 127,000 gallons of water per year—127,000 gallons of water per year. In the pre-modern Middle East, a family of six together with their animals subsisted on about 5,300 gallons of water. If you live in the United States, realize that people living in Bible times were subsisting on approximately 4 percent of the water that you use on a yearly basis. Now, there’s no doubt about it; this diverse land is also a very water-impoverished land.

The Promised Land Is a Land of Milk and Honey

Number four, the Promised Land is a land of milk and honey. You know, the Promised Land has been given many place-name labels like Canaan or Israel, but the name that God uses most often as Moses talked about this land to Israel as they were moving toward it was, “You’re going to a land flowing with milk and honey.” And I can’t tell you how often I’ve met people who come into the modern state of Israel and go, “Wow, I’m not expecting to see what I’m seeing here. This doesn’t look to me like a land of milk and honey.” So let me explain how that label functioned for Moses and Israel.

It contrasts things in a number of ways. Let’s start here. Its language, which contrasts Canaan, the Promised Land, with where Israel was at the time they heard the land label— they were down in the wilderness. If you walk into the modern state of Israel and say, “Wow, this doesn’t look very much like a land of milk and honey to me,” it would if you were down in the wilderness and moving in the direction of Canaan. It’s language which contrasts Canaan with wilderness.

Secondly, it’s language which contrasts the primary commodities of the Promised Land when we look at its northern and southern realities. When we look at rainfall totals (and that’s what this map does for you), you’ll see that the darker colors exist toward the north side or top of the map. That is where the greater amounts of rainfall occur in the Promised Land, and it’s there that we have a tremendous burst of winter and springtime flowers that create the opportunity for bees to create honey. The northern part of Israel is the land of honey.

The farther south we go, the drier the landscape gets. And as we get farther south agricultural gives way to pastoralism, the raising of sheep and goats. And it’s goat milk that is the primary commodity of the south, and so when the Lord speaks of this land as the land of milk and honey, He is using two elements of its produce, two components of the natural world to help us understand this land as a whole. It is a land which in the north produces honey and in the south produces milk—the land of milk and honey.

The Promised Land is a Hub of International Exchange

And finally, number five, the Promised Land is a hub of international exchange. Remember, in our earlier session we spoke about the Fertile Crescent and the way in which three continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe—find a land/bridge connection with one another through the Promised Land. If you go to the west of the Promised Land, you’re into the Mediterranean Sea. If you go to the east, you’re in the Arabian Desert. The Promised Land offers a narrow, fertile land/bridge between those two natural obstacles, and consequently this is the place that merchants would use as they moved their products between these continents.

Here’s the backstory to that: As the products moved, news of the day moved. There were no formal CNN or Fox News or other news outlets by which to deliver the news, so people got the news from around the world by listening to the merchants speak. And remember that the Lord had a message of forgiveness that was destined not just for one people, not just for one country, but for the world. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” That message meant for the world was being played out on the land/bridge, so that as the promises of the Messiah were spoken, as the promises were fulfilled in Jesus, the news of all of that was spread by the merchants to the world around. The land of milk and honey, the Promised Land, is also a hub of international exchange.


There is geography in my Bible, but not all of the geography in my Bible is like the geography in my home region, and not all the geography in the Bible is necessarily what I might have thought it was going to be. These five characteristics, though generalizations, will help you begin to enter the Promised Land with new insight into its realities. Remember, the Promised Land is a small land. The Promised Land is a highly diverse land. One picture does not do justice to all. The Promised Land is a water-impoverished land. The Promised Land is a land of milk and honey. And the Promised Land is a hub of international exchange.

And speaking of travel and movement, in our next session we’re gonna explore the ways in which people traveled from one place to another in the Promised Land and the challenges that they faced as they did.