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Biblical Geography Basics

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There is geography in my Bible. Last time we observed that this is a book full of people on the move, full of people who are traveling from one place to the next. We’re gonna build on what we began in our last session here by looking at routes in and through the Promised Land. What we’d like to do in this session is talk about how people chose their routes, what the nature of ancient roads was, and the location of some of the primary named road systems that we meet in Bible times.Routes in and through the Promised Land—let’s begin with route selection.

Route Selection

Route choice was first and foremost influenced by the fact that when people traveled they walked from place to place to place. By contrast to me, as I travel, they felt every mile that went by. Every foot of elevation change was registered in the burning of their thighs, and they got wet as they waded through rivers. That all influenced the route that they chose to use when they went from place to place and, very often, topography is gonna play a role in that decision-making process. People who walk prefer to walk in broad valleys, where little elevation change is registered in their thighs. That’s the number one route choice.

When you can’t find a valley to walk, you look for a mountain ridge to follow, because on that mountain ridge you’re going to minimize elevation change. When you have to cross over a mountain range, you’re going to look for either a mountain pass or a high plateau, which would minimize the crossing elevation in that mountainous terrain. And as you moved up toward that plateau or pass, you are going to look for the most gradual slope that’s gonna take you up and back down again as you move through that mountain range.

Now, as people walk from place to place to place, their first choice, of course, would be a direct route. It’s shorter. But almost always a longer route was selected in favor of some of the topographical preferences we’ve just listed, but also in order to circumnavigate natural obstacles. Lakes, flooding rivers, high mountain peaks were all avoided. But routes were chosen to improve water availability. Remember, one of the big travel risks was dehydration. And travel routes were chosen in order to connect with villages, which could provide resources and overnight safety. Routes were chosen based on these preferences. And because these preferences almost never occurred along the shortest line between places, routes between places were often quite curvy and circuitous. Because these preferences, furthermore, operated for millennia, people walked the same routes, wearing pathways into the landscape, and these became the ancient road systems. It is these preferences which created the pathways that became the roads of Bible times.

Nature of Ancient Roads

Now, routes in and through the Promised Land also means we need to look at what roads were like. What were these pathways slash roads like? And when we’re done in the next few minutes, I suspect you’re gonna see the inadequacy of the word road to describe these rather primitive pathways through the ancient world. When you think about roads in Bible times, don’t think about hard-surface roadways and highways and freeways. Think rustic hiking trail or footpath. That was a road in Bible times. If they were improved, it was getting rocks out of the way that you might otherwise trip over. It was cutting back the brush and the thorns, and it was repairing winter rainstorm damage where washouts might occur on the road system.

Look at Isaiah 40 verses 3 through 4. In this language, the inspired author of Scripture is talking about roadway improvements, and really the ideal road is in view here. “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley lifted up, every mountain brought low. The rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” Oh, to have a road like that. But that ideal road is far from the reality of most local internal roads, which looked like this. Just a simple rustic footpath worn into the land by generation after generation of people who walked the same road between two places. International highways, if you want to use that term, were simply and nothing more than widened footpaths. That’s what roads were like in the ancient world.

Location of the Key Roadways

Routes in and through the Promised Land also takes us to the topic of location and labels of key roadways. You know, we don’t have a map from the ancient world that has all of these roads inscribed on them. But we can make a pretty good guess at where road systems went. If we know that people traveled between two locations, like Jerusalem and Jericho, from an ancient document, we can pretty well determine where those road systems would have gone in a number of different ways.

First of all we know because we know how people traveled in the ancient world. Because routes were chosen based on the preference of those who walked, and because the topography has remained largely unchanged, we can determine the most logical route a walker would have used when walking between two known locations. We can put a road on a Bible map simply by knowing something about how people walked as they traveled in the ancient world.

Secondly, because roads tended to follow the same contours of the land through all historical periods, remember that these same realities of walking were informing the decision-making process. That meant roads were going in the same place generation after generation, century after century. Because of that, if we have evidence from a later time period, we can use that later evidence to inform us on the location of where a road might have been in an earlier period even if we don’t have evidence that directly links to that earlier period. Evidence from a later period can be used to inform us on the location of a road in an earlier period. One of the best pieces of evidence that we have in the Promised Land is evidence left behind by the Romans. Most of this evidence comes from later than the gospel era and, nevertheless, those data points help inform where roads would have gone earlier.

Now, the Romans were interested in controlling a vast empire. And in order to make sure that they could control it all and collect taxes throughout their empire, they put time and energy into a road system that allowed for easy transportation and the quick deployment of their military. And so, toward that end, they would improve roads and they would mark them. They would improve the road beds. They would put up stone markers, and those stone markers are called milestones. About 450 of those later-period Roman milestones have survived in Israel alone. In this picture we see examples of both a Roman road marker and one of those improved Roman roads. Roman milestones were circular stone columns, about five feet in height, and they were located about every thousand paces along the improved Roman road. You can see that it’s cobbled. You can see that there are curb stones, a far cry from the simple footpaths that you saw earlier.

Now, although these are later than the Bible times era, they nevertheless inform us where roads likely would have gone in Bible times as well. And that allows us to put some of these important road systems on our Bible maps. And I’ve picked out four of them here that I’d like you to learn just a little bit more about. They are the International Highway, the King’s Highway, the Ridge Route, and the Jericho Gezer Road.

The first two are primarily going to be used by merchants and armies who are moving between larger regions that are separated from one another. The latter two are local road systems. Let’s take a look at each.

The International Highway shown in red on this map is the road system that connects the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Here you see it as it moves through the Promised Land. It is the road system that would have been the primary road system for merchants, the primary road system for armies moving between the empires. It allows you to transit the land bridge in the least amount of time with the least amount of elevation change. On this map, look at the purple road, the one that extends from Ezion Geber all the way to Damascus. This is the King’s Highway. It is also an internationally used highway, but it has a big set of disadvantages to it. And as you move down this road, you are moving through drier landscapes with less water and fewer resources. And you’re having to absorb more elevation changes. That’s because you have some very deeply cut river systems on the east side of the Jordan River Valley. This is the King’s Highway. The International Highway, the King’s Highway, primarily used for the movement of international trade goods and for the movement of armies.

By contrast, we have some local routes. And in green on this map you see what we’re calling the Ridge Route. This is the north/south road system that connects the important cities in the Promised Land. It’s moving along the watershed ridge in the central mountain zone in the place that allows the traveler to absorb as little elevation change over distance as possible. This is the primary road system we would read about in the Bible as people moved from place to place within the Promised Land. Individuals like Abraham, folks like Joshua and Jesus and Paul, are all gonna be moving north and south through the interior of the Promised Land using this Ridge Route.

On this map in yellow you see the Jericho Gezer Road. It is one of the key routes for moving east and west through the interior of the Promised Land. What you need to realize is it’s very difficult to move east and west across that central mountain zone because you run into a number of mountain ridges that stack up east and west next to one another. Going east and west involved a lot of mountain climbing, so ancient travelers would look for ways to eliminate the highest elevations, and this road in yellow allows you to move from Jericho out to the coast with a minimum amount of elevation change. You do so by first of all climbing a bit through the Judean wilderness. But once you’re through the Judean wilderness you come to a high plateau. If you move south or north of that plateau, you will have more elevation change to accept. But the high plateau allows you to make the transition across the central mountain zone with a minimum of elevation gain. This is the route that Joshua used when he brought the Israelites into the land to conquer this real estate.


Those four road systems are the ones that we meet most often in Scripture. Remember, people in Bible times were not static people. They were people who were on the move, walking from place to place to place. And as they walked, they allowed that walking to inform their route selection.

Once more, we need to realize that the nature of ancient roads was a far cry from the roads as we think of roads today. They were nothing more than rustic footpaths modestly improved. And we’ve also helped you identify the key locations for four of the transportation routes that move in and through the Promised Land. Of course, as people moved they needed to drink water to remain hydrated. And so in our next session we’re gonna give some attention to the water realities that existed in the ancient land of Israel.