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Biblical Geography Basics

Lesson 7, Activity 2


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There’s geography in my Bible. Maybe from our first session you’ll remember that when I speak of geography I’m also including in that human geography. That is the way people interact with and respond to the place where they live. One form of human geography, which is displayed repeatedly in the Bible, is that of travel. And when you open your Bible atlas and you look at a map, it’s likely you’re gonna see maps not just with road systems drawn on them but arrows pointing this way and that. Because the Bible is filled with people who are on the move. From Abraham’s family moving into and through the Promised Land, to Israel moving into and through wilderness, to Jesus, to Paul. The Bible is full of people who are traveling. And that’s why in this session we’re gonna focus on that topic of traveling.

Now, when people were traveling they were traveling for many of the same reasons that you and I do. I pulled together this list rather quickly of people on the move in the Bible, and I see that people traveled to visit family, they traveled to attend weddings, they traveled to participate in religious festivals, they traveled in pursuit of commerce or their business, they traveled in pursuit of war, they traveled in pursuit of diplomacy, they traveled to flee from famine, and they traveled to evangelize. Now, that’s just a sample of why people were moving from place to place. And while I see some connections there as to why I travel, some of the biggest differences occur when I look at how people moved from place to place, modes of travel, and the inherent risks of travel in the ancient world. That is gonna be the subject of this session, traveling the Promised Land, modes of travel. And then we’ll say just a little bit about some of the risks associated with travel.

Modes of Travel

Now, when I move from place to place—and, I’ll bet you, you as well—I often do so in some sort of mechanized vehicle, whether it be a school bus, an automobile, a taxi, or a motorcycle. In Bible times ordinary people walked. That was their primary way of getting from place to place. They walked on a daily basis to get water. They walked to attend religious festivals. They walked to attend weddings. They walked to share the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness. Their week, their months, their year was filled with walking, which gave them a big advantage. I mean, they had no animals to care for, they didn’t have equipment to clean and repair, and so walking was a very convenient way for them to move from place to place.

And if you’re wondering about distances, take a look at this. On the extreme end of things we have what I call the ultra-marathoners of the ancient world: the Roman postal messengers, some of whom are said to have covered 95 miles in a single day. That’s moving. The average person now…the average person would walk in any given day about 17 to 23 miles. That still sounds like a lot to me, but across all of the ancient literature and things we have in the Bible as well, the average person, the average daily travel of a person, is somewhere in the area of 17 to 23 miles. People walked from place to place to place. That was the primary mode of travel.

Now I wanna talk about several other modes of travel, but please never lose sight of the fact that the primary way in which people got from place to place was by walking. What about horses? In the ancient world we find some records of people using horses. Occasionally they were ridden, and this is largely in a military context, where we have cavalry, particularly in the Persian and the Roman periods. More often when we hear about horses they are pulling something, battle chariots or royal ceremonial chariots. We’ll have more to say about that in a moment. There are some advantages to having a horse as a mode of travel. Now, first of all, they gave you quite a bit of distinction. When we look at the price of these ancient animals, the horse was twice the price of an ox in antiquity. And then, man, if you were on a horse, if you were riding a horse, you were saying that you were someone special. There was a certain distinction to that.

The second advantage is speed. Of course, a horse can move much more quickly than someone who is walking. Wonderful example of that is the Persian Pony Express that bridged the Persian Empire 1,700 miles in ten days for that mail service with the assistance of horses. Here you see an example of a typical battle chariot being drawn by horses. Their primary function in the ancient world was to move the archers around. The archers were the long-range engagers of the approaching enemy, and you wanted to be able to move those archers around quickly on the battlefront where they were needed. Typically, the chariot was used to do that. And once there was confusion created within the enemy ranks, then the chariots could go on to take advantage of that chaos as the primary pursuit vehicle.

Chariots also had a ceremonial side. Ceremonial royal chariots were kind of the stretch limousine of the ancient world. It gave you some prominence, some distinction if you rode around in one. Remember Joseph when he rose in power in Egypt to become second in command? One of the first things the king of Egypt did was to put Joseph in his own ceremonial chariot and drive him around. That’s the stretch limousine that says you are someone important.

Donkeys were also used, primarily as pack animals, though occasionally ridden by people. Donkeys, for me, are kind of like a small pickup truck in the ancient world. You’ll always have a friend if you have a pickup truck. I suppose that was true in the ancient world as well. Freight donkeys could carry about 100 pounds of cargo. Their advantages in using this animal for moving freight…they could sustain on lower quality forage so you didn’t have to look for the very best of grain or pasturage for them. And they were particularly good where the terrain became mountainous and rocky. Their sure-footedness meant that they were at their best on those kinds of trails. They were so important to people in the Old Testament that actually the law code of Israel mentions them a number of times to make sure that people are taking care of this very, very valuable tool that they had in the donkey.

In this photo you see a picture of a young man riding a donkey. It illustrates why donkeys are used less often as people carriers and more often as cargo carriers. You’ll notice that you don’t ride a donkey like you ride a horse, by sitting in the middle of its back. You ride a donkey by sitting back over its haunches, over its loins. And you can imagine that that’s a pretty bumpy ride back there. And the faster you’re asking that donkey to go, the bumpier the ride becomes. That’s why primarily in antiquity the donkey was used not as an animal to be ridden but as an animal that would haul cargo.

Then there’s the camel. You were probably expecting me to speak about that, weren’t you? Camels were also used as pack animals primarily, though sometimes ridden by people. The cargo-carrying capacity of the camel, somewhere near 500 to 600 pounds, five to six times that of the donkey. The advantage of the camel, not just as extra cargo-carrying weight, but they were great on long-distance trips. They could travel somewhere in the area of 25 to 37 miles per day. When water was an issue they were able to go days without water before drinking. And these animals are designed, really, to manage well in the desert, as I’ll say in just a few moments.

Think of the camel more as you might a semi-tractor trailer. A larger animal that’s able to carry that load over distance. And they, as I suggested before, are primarily at their best in the desert-like areas. Just look at the face of this animal. You see the long eyelashes that are able to keep debris out of the eyes. The nostrils of the camel can close to narrow slits. Their toes splay out as they contact the ground and they allow the animal to walk on softer, sandier surfaces. This is the animal of choice for long-distance travel, particularly if desert environment is in view.

Now, those are some of the ways in which people got from one place to another, the so-called modes of travel. Now we’re gonna transition our attention from how people moved from place to place, modes of travel, to the risks that were inherent in travel.

Risks of Travel

You know, I don’t think that travel is particularly dangerous as I move about the country in a car or in an airplane. But that was not the case for people traveling in Bible times. There were some very strong risks inherent in travel and people did not travel without giving it careful thought because of the risks that were inherent in the ancient process of traveling. We see it reflected in Psalm 121. This is a travel Psalm. It’s one of the songs of ascent used by those headed to Jerusalem to worship. It begins, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains,” looking at the route ahead. And then comes the question, “Where does my help come from?” The challenge of the journey is captured in that question. “I lift my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from?” And then throughout the psalm we see some of the concerns that the traveler has in view. In verse 3, foot slipping, terrain risks. Verse 5, “Lord, I need you to be my shade.” Travel is hot, dehydration a reality. Verse 6, “So the sun won’t harm me by day.” And verse 7 comes back with the language, “all harm.” This psalm is full of mention of travel risks. Let’s pull them together in a group and see what they are.

At the top of the list I’m going to put dehydration. People would typically travel in the summer months of the year in the Promised Land. These are the hottest months of the year when dehydration is a peril that all travelers faced. Secondly, as people moved from place to place, they had to worry about disease, particularly if they came into proximity to ancient swamps, where malaria was a particularly grave risk. You’re moving through terrain that’s steep and there are no guardrails, and so there is a risk of falling on steep terrain. If you were looking at a water crossing you had to be concerned about the rate of flow and depth of the river. Remember, people in Bible times didn’t take swimming lessons, and so they did not know how to swim, by and large, and they were very concerned about drowning that might occur in a river crossing. Particularly if it was flooding or there was a risk of a flash flood.

And when you got outside of a village by a mile or two, you were in country that was dominated by thieves and robbers. Injury from robbery was a real risk as was wild animal attack. That’s the one that I think folks are least likely to be thinking of, and yet, ironically, it is one of the things that people thought most about. Let me illustrate.

Remember Joseph’s brothers? They were so jealous of him because of the way in which their father Jacob had given Joseph special attention, even giving him a garment that was unique from the ones he had given to them. Well, when they had Joseph alone, these brothers acted on their feelings toward Joseph and they took him and sold him eventually into slavery into Egypt, sending him down the road with camels loaded with spices and other goods that were on their way to Egypt. But the brothers knew that Jacob loved Joseph so much he wouldn’t give up looking for him unless they gave him a reason that caused all hope to expire. And so what they did is they took Joseph’s garment, the garment that was so intimately connected with him, killed a member of their flock, and then dipped that garment in the blood. They took that blood back to Jacob, they showed it to him, and without hearing any explanation about the blood on the garment Jacob concluded It’s my son’s robe. Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces. Shown the bloody garment, Jacob’s first conclusion is that something had happened to Joseph by way of wild animal attack. And these are some of the animals the travelers worried about meeting along the way: the Asian lion, the Iranian wolf, the Syrian bear, the white hyena. These animals were very much a part of the fabric of the Promised Land. They were out there waiting for unwary travelers, and Jacob responded to this by looking at a bloody garment and assuming Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Well, there they are again, the full list: dehydration, disease, falls on terrain, drowning in a river crossing, injury during a robbery, a wild animal attack. When I travel I don’t think of being at risk in any of those ways. But for people traveling in Bible times—and think of all the people who traveled and the miles that they put in—for people traveling in Bible times it was a very risky enterprise.


We travel for some of the same reasons that people did in Bible times, but our traveling could not be more different than theirs. In this session we’ve had a chance to look at how people traveled from place to place, the modes of travel, and we’ve also had a chance to look at some of the risks inherent in ancient travel. Next time we will continue with our study of travel in the Promised Land, but then our focus is going to change. We’re gonna look at how people chose their routes, what ancient road systems were like, and we’ll take a look at some of the labeled primary road systems in Bible times.