Listen to the Land (Historical Geography) - Lesson 1

Introduction to Listen to the Land

The land influences the people that are living on it by affecting their stories. Learning to listen to the land helps you understand the details that are hiding in the background so that when you read the Bible, it’s like you see the narrative in living color and 3 dimensions.

Cyndi Parker
Listen to the Land (Historical Geography)
Lesson 1
Watching Now
Introduction to Listen to the Land

I. Landscape Pictures

II. Biblical Writers Used Their Landscape

III. Psalm 23

IV. Helpful Definitions

A. Topography

B. Toponymy

C. Archaeology

  • The land influences the people that are living on it by affecting their stories. Learning to listen to the land helps you understand the details that are hiding in the background so that when you read the Bible, it’s like you see the narrative in living color and 3 dimensions.

  • Major rivers in the Ancient Near East provided the resources necessary for empires like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Persia to grow and flourish. Israel is on a couple of the major trade routes that connects these cultures. The location of mountains, hills and valleys in Israel affects the lifestyle and travel patterns of the people who live there and the people travelling through.

  • Learn how the geography and climate of the Cisjordan and Transjordan regions shape agricultural and shepherding activities, emphasizing the importance of rain patterns and water management techniques in biblical times.
  • Learn how the granite, sandstone, and three types of limestone shape the lifestyle, agriculture, and building practices in the biblical lands, highlighting the geological factors that influence whether inhabitants are migratory or sedentary.
  • Bashan is in the north and has enough rainfall and arable soil to support crops and large animals like cattle. The Dome of Gilead provides connection points for international and local travel. Ammon and Moab are neighbors and descendants of Lot’s daughters. Edom is south and are descendants of Esau.

  • The people that migrated to live in the coastal plain were known as the Philistines. Because of the location and terrain, the roads were sources of international travel and trade. Cities were built for commerce and control. The Negev was an important area to control for travel.

  • The Rift Valley is valuable because of its location and resources. Bitumen and Balsam were sought after. It was a popular trade route but it was important to know where to get water. Jericho was at crossroads and was near some major springs. Connecting events in biblical history to the event and location of the baptism of Jesus adds weight and significance to it.

  • The hill country of Judah has enough rain to grow grapes and other crops. Hebron was first given to Caleb and then was the city that David ruled from when he first became king. It was a connecting point for local roads. Bethlehem and Tekoa are also cities in this area.

  • Jerusalem is framed by the hills and valleys that are near it. The Sorek Wadi System is to the west and the Mount of Olives is to the east. David built a palace and Solomon later built a temple. Jerusalem was important in Jewish history and also has a place in eschatology.

  • By the beginning of the first century, Jerusalem was the site of a magnificent Jewish temple built by Herod the great. He also built an impressive palace and a Roman fort which overlooked the temple. The events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus take on added layers of meaning when you understand how the geography of the events reminded people of Messianic prophecies.

  • Benjamin has the smallest tribal allotment but it is one of the most significant areas in the nation of Israel. The geographical features, the cities located there and the roads that run through it make it a region of national and international importance.

  • The Shephelah is between the hill country and the coastal plain and has unique geographical features. When you know the location of the roads, valleys and cities in this area, you can see their significance in the stories. When you understand where Micah and Isaiah came from and their historical context, you can understand why there is a difference in their message and tone.

  • The rocks and roads will give you valuable information about the Sharon Plain and Mt. Carmel. The international road took different paths around Mt. Carmel depending on your final destination. The harbor and palace that Herod built in Caesarea were impressive.

  • The hill country of Joseph has abundant resources and nearby roads for commerce. Shiloh was a religious center and the place where Joshua met with representatives from each tribe to determine their tribal allotment. The women of Shiloh also were instrumental in saving the tribe of Benjamin. Shechem was important as far back as Abraham. Every time people would see Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, it was a reminder of the blessings and curses of their covenant with God.

  • Who was Omri, and why was he significant in making Samaria an important city? When the people of Judah returned from Persia, there was a conflict with the people of Samaria. The animosity that was still present during the ministry of Jesus set the stage for an encounter he had with a woman that was at a well near the city.  

  • Upper and Lower Galilee have the climate soil that is conducive to widespread agriculture. Lower Galilee also has some valleys that became major roads. Major empires of the fertile crescent exerted their influence here as they expanded. When the Greeks took control with their military, they also spread their cultural influence.

  • The Jezreel Valley is the center of activity for many of the biblical narratives. Not only was it an important economic and strategic location for Israel, but also for the Canaanites, Egyptians, Arameans and Assyrians. It is also a place where significant events took place in the lives of the prophets and Jesus.

  • This body of water is often referred to as a, “sea” even though it is fresh water, not salt water. There are not many stories in the Hebrew Bible that take place in this area, but it is a center of activity for Jesus during his ministry. Many of the parables are illustrations taken from local culture and geography.

  • The Huleh basin has an abundance of water from several sources. The soil is also good, but the conditions for growing crops in some areas presents some challenges. Dan is a strategic city in the north as a gateway to the region and a religious center under Jeroboam. Caesarea Phillippi was built by Herod and was a place that Jesus used to teach his disciples about his role as Messiah and their future as leaders of the church.  

  • The Gospel of Luke traces the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, and the book of Acts traces the journey of the gospel going out from Jerusalem. The events in Pentecost have a connection to the events at Mt. Sinai. The gospel is for the world but the events that made it possible are anchored in Israel. (Don't forget the Epilogue, Lesson 21!)

  • There are two different stories in the Gospels of Jesus feeding large groups of people. One account is in John 6 and another account is in Mark 8. The message is similar but the geography gives you some clues to help you understand why the details are different.

Have you ever read about a place and when you went there in person, it came alive? As you walk through the hills and valleys of Israel with Dr. Parker, you will see the stories of the Bible in living color. 

Your location affects your lifestyle, relationships, worldview, occupation, diet and travel. In ancient Israel, you depended on the resources around you to survive. People often lived near springs or rivers, but it was possible in some places to collect rain water and ration it through the year. The terrain and the type of soil would determine what crops you could grow, or what animals you could raise. Living near a road would give you opportunities to sell what you produced or buy what you needed. Your location would determine the amount of risk you would face from people in neighboring countries. By living in the hill country, you would develop a different mindset than if you lived on an open plain.

Once you begin to have an understanding of the, "rocks and roads" of Israel, reading your Bible with a good map next to you will help you get a 3 dimensional perspective. When the characters and the scenery become life-like in your mind, you will find yourself being inspired and motivated in your understanding of your relationship with God and how you can apply it in your interactions with others. Take this opportunity to learn from Dr. Parker to "Listen to the Land!"


Recommended Reading:

Encountering Jesus in the Real World of the Gospels, by Dr. Cyndi Parker

Holman Illustrated Guide to Biblical Geography, by Paul Wright

Satellite Bible Atlas: Historical Geography of the Bible

Recommended Books

Listen to the Land: Historical Geography - Bible Study

Listen to the Land: Historical Geography - Bible Study

Have you ever read about a place and when you went there in person, it came alive? As you walk through the hills and valleys of Israel with Dr. Parker, you will see the...

Listen to the Land: Historical Geography - Bible Study
Satellite Bible Atlas

Satellite Bible Atlas

A comprehensive guide to biblical geography, The Satellite Bible Atlas by William Schlegel provides historical context and insightful maps to help readers better understand the world of the Bible.
Satellite Bible Atlas

Dr. Cyndi Parker
Listen to the Land (Historical Geography)
Introduction to Listen to the Land
Lesson Transcript

So, thank you for having me. This is one of my most favorite topics to talk about. And I titled this “Listening to the Land”, because the land is actually a character in the Bible and we don't think of the land as a character, but it really does influence the narrative just as much as any of the human characters that are walking around on top of the land. So, we are talking about historical geography, but I find that title to scare people away. So, listening to the land brings in the narrative part of what the land is actually doing. It is influencing the people and therefore influencing the narratives that happen there in the land. So, we're going to learn how to see the land as a character, learn how to listen to what it is telling us. Because, if we can tune our ears into the land, it tells us all kinds of secrets. Which is really fun because they hide in the background of the narratives. And what happens, and what my goal is for the class is that we end up taking this Bible, which we end up reading in black and white. It's its print, it's in two dimensions. And we're just hoping that as we listen to the land, all of this explodes off the page into living color with real people who are living in real places, during real time, with real politics, real cultural influences that are challenging them every day. And God shows up in that context. And so this can just explode and like poof up into living color. It's just so much more intoxicating as we are reading Scripture.

So that's the goal for the whole entire class. So, I'm excited to get into this. Now, because we live in a modern age where we've had globalization and technology is really fancy and amazing because we're able to connect with people all around the world. But, because of that, we've stopped paying attention to place and the particularities of places. But I would argue we still know intuitively that the land influences us. We just don't pay attention, but it's still there in our cultural context. So, I like to play a game. I'm going to show you a picture. So, it's a rough mountain landscape and there's like low hanging clouds. The cliff faces are quite dramatic in this picture. So all we're looking at, we don't see any people anywhere in this picture, but we can look at the geography, we can look at the context, and we can start to assume things about the people who live there. So this land is going to influence people. It's going to dictate who can do what in this land. So if I were to ask you, “what kind of clothes are people wearing?”. Most people answer me, “Well, something like North Face or Patagonia”. Right? You need this like robust, heavy clothing that can deal with a robust type of geography. What's on the menu? Like, what are people eating? And maybe they're raising their own vegetables. But we look at this landscape and we tend to think something a little bit more gamey, a little bit heavier in, you know, texture, and the meatiness of it. What kind of activities are people involved in? Maybe hiking, maybe skiing, maybe hunting. There's something like interacting with that kind of robust landscape. So, we could take all of that and then say, how many tourists are in this kind of landscape? And usually people will guess, maybe not so many. I mean, where does an airplane land in a landscape like that? It's just, it's difficult to get there. You may go to be lost, like you want to get lost in the woods or have some privacy or alone time. But to get in there is challenging. And so there are fewer people, fewer tourists, fewer international influences that are coming and affecting the people who live there. So the landscape is definitely dramatically influencing how people live. 

Well, let me show you another picture. Everything changes. It's a beach, it's flat. We could play the exact same game. What are people eating? Well, fish tacos are on the menu. They have to be, right? It has to be some kind of seafood, something where you're eating out of the sea. In landscapes like this, food tends to be lighter, not so gamy and spicy as well. There's something really interesting about that. What are people wearing? Maybe shorts. Just t-shirts. Very casual. And what's interesting is, as you are engaging in this kind of landscape and you're wearing casual clothing and because you want to be outside all the time, outside is not a rigorous thing. It's quite enjoyable. People's perception of time tends to relax, and this kind of landscape also dictates how you end up observing time, which I find so interesting. How many tourists are in this kind of location? Probably a lot more, right? We love being in these kinds of locations. Well, maybe I do. I'll just speak for myself and say I love being in this kind of warm weather environment. It's a flat landscape. It's very easy to get in. Traveling there, traveling out is easy. If it's on the coast, it probably also means that you have extensive international connections. Because going from continents, going across oceans, at least modern day, is really quite an easy thing.

And so, in the United States, we could think of places like New York and San Francisco. They face the oceans. They face different continents. And New York is, has a certain kind of culture to it because it faces Europe. San Francisco has a certain culture to it because it faces Asia, right? So it's really quite, like the geography is having quite a specific influence on us. This is all the same for people who lived in the times of the Bible. People who lived up in the mountains like the Israelites did are going to be affected like the mountain picture I showed earlier. They're closed off, it's a little bit more robust. It's very family oriented. When you get down on the coastal plains, it doesn't quite look like this, but it's open to international influences coming and going a little bit more relaxed. So this is what we're going to be doing. We're going to be practicing taking stories of the Bible that we are very familiar with, but not just asking what happened. We're trying to ask, where did it happen? And if we understand how to listen to that landscape, then we're going to like see all of these other additional influences in the story that's behind the text. 

When I was in seminary, one of the things that really bothered me was, I was so, I loved what I was learning, but I was learning these bubbles, these stories and these narratives and not everything fit together. But when I learned to study the land, when I learned how to pull those bubbles, theological bubbles, down and anchor them onto the ground, then they became anchored in a historical timeline. But then they became the layers and layers and layers of events that happened in the exact same location became intoxicating for me to start figuring this stuff out as I was studying the Bible. So we're doing this, we're taking the biblical stories, and instead of just saying they have a theological message - we're going to pull them down onto the ground, put them into a very specific place. And we're going to then learn to see these people as real people, in a real time, with real issues, real problems, real theological questions. And then we're going to look and see how God interacted with people in that kind of context. 

Now, this is interesting to me because the biblical writers really loved using their context and their geography to explain really big, huge theological concepts. Like, it's hard to describe God; it is of just too big of a concept. It's hard to describe, like, why is God important? How do I yearn for God? What does that look like? And, so, the biblical writers used their own landscape to explain these kinds of huge theological concepts. The thing is, no matter where we are around the world, we fill in those pictures, those analogies with what we're familiar with, that will change our theology. So, this is another game exercise. I will call it an exercise. I think that's probably a better word. This is an exercise I like to do. This is Psalm 23, which is a very beloved psalm. Many people have it memorized. It's referenced all the time in lots of different contexts. We have Precious Moments, little characters. It's on greeting cards. People preach this in churches. They say it at funerals. So it's a well-known psalm. It's attributed to David, who's known to be a shepherd. If we read this and let me tell you, I'll just put myself in the examination seat. When I was young and read this and we read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. You know, already we're like, “Ooh, this sounds good”. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” Well, I grew up in an urban environment. There was no such thing as sheep on my horizon line. I had no idea. But I had seen pictures of Scotland and Ireland and the UK, or I took this picture on the South Island in New Zealand where there's more sheep than people. And, if this is the picture you're pulling into your reference as you read this psalm, when you read The Lord is my Shepherd, you're like, “Oh, that's nice”, right? Because look, I'm in a paddock that there's greenery everywhere. This is wonderful. Nothing here is going to kill you. So, what is the role of the shepherd in this kind of environment? The role of the shepherd is to get you where you want to be. And then you don't need him, anymore. Right. Because what? What do you need? You can eat the greenery of the field. You have what you need. And the tendency then is to lie down and enjoy life. And if that, maybe that's not what you think Psalm 23 is about, but if those are the pictures, you're using for Psalm 23, there's something in there that is influencing your theology. 

Now, let me pull up a picture of what it really would have looked like if David was a shepherd out in the Judean wilderness with a flock of sheep; where the ground, as we're about to examine in a future segment of this course, the ground is rough. The animals, there's all kinds of animals out here that will kill you. There are snakes and scorpions and there's owls and there's birds of prey. And it is rough. And this picture is taken in the rainy season when the land is as green as it's going to get, which is astonishing. Okay, so now let's just think about Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…” And then you go, “Oh, oh, the Lord is my shepherd.” Now, all of a sudden, every single day, I'm in danger. And if, “the Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want” in this kind of context, that is a richer, a deeper and a more significant theological concept. And then, “he makes me lie down in green pastures…” like he's that kind of protective entity around you that you can lie down? And, “in green pastures…” and you think, “where are the ‘quiet waters’? Where are the ‘green pastures’?” And you suddenly realize, not only is God's role as Shepherd more interactive and necessary for my survival, but I as the sheep, have to get up and follow my shepherd every single day, or I am going to die. A picture changes everything. So this course is all about trying to get the right pictures within the right like bits of the Bible so that we can really start getting into the minds of the biblical writers. And maybe we'll just encounter God in a whole different kind of a way, which is what I really hope that we do. Realizing as well that the people of the Bible took their homeland very seriously. And so it is beneficial if we do just a little bit of extra work to really dig in and to see the right kind of pictures and to really understand their context. And then hopefully out of that, our understanding of God becomes so much better. 

Now that we are so excited and convinced that we really should start this journey of looking at the geography of the land of the Bible, I would like to introduce a few concepts. They're gonna come up throughout the course, so it's good to just kind of cover a who and what. What are we talking about here? Maybe even “how did we get to the point that we even know some of this data that we're going to be looking at over the next couple sessions?” So, when people talk about historical geography of the land of the Bible, they often say, “you have to be the master of several different genres of study”. So, one of them would be topography or the physical geography of a place. And so I really like the work of Dr. Paul Wright. He, in his new book, is going to discuss some of the things that we will be discussing in future sessions, but he'll do it in greater detail. But it is the process of studying and looking at the arrangement of natural and artificial physical features of the land. So, we're looking at where's the shape? So, when we go places, is there a steep hill, is it a wide open valley? Is it water? Is it dry? These kinds of physical details about the land and we're going to maybe think in our heads or have echoing in our ears behind us, in our future journey together. We're going to have a quote by George Adam Smith. He talks about how, “geography cannot prove the Bible”. So, the stuff we're about to look at isn't going to prove the Bible, but the events of the Bible are not disproved by it. Meaning the events that we have recorded in the Bible are so in tune and ingrained with the realia that we find on the ground that it is the real geography of the land is not going to disprove the events we have record of in the Bible.

So this, just the physical geography part of the Bible can be a real gift for us in trying to explain or understand why it is that we trust this book. Okay, so for things like this, we are going to be looking at an awful lot of maps because we should, we need to become addicted to these maps, exploring these maps, because it helps us understand the shape and texture of the ground. We're going to look at where are the roads, where are the hills, where are the mountains, where is the water? As we will discover very quickly, water is massively significant to people in the Bible. It is a thirsty land and the people who live there are a thirsty people. And what is the texture? We're even going to get excited, or at least I'm going to try to get you excited over rocks and soil, because the soil that is on top of the ground is going to determine what kind of occupation you actually can have. So, we're going to look at all this. This would all be a part of the topography. Now, we're not in this particular course, we're not going to spend a whole lot of time looking at toponymy, this link between the historical record and the landscape. So the question, “what do we call this place?” Those types of questions. “How do we know where Shechem was?” “How do we know where Beit She’an was?” These types of questions, we're not going to go into the scholarly data behind how we got there in this course. But, I can teach you the things that we know, right now, because of people like this man, Edward Robinson. He had a colleague. His name was Eli Smith.

Eli Smith spoke Arabic fluently. And so, Edward Robinson, who knew the scriptures inside and out, and was very familiar with the concepts, even just in reading scripture, of what type of cities were grouped and clustered near each other, just because of how they show up in the text and which one seem to be further away. And so when they went exploring, he picked up Eli Smith, because this was all during the Ottoman Empire. They’re exploring, and they would go to the local Arab communities and say, “this place on the hill, what do you call this?” Which is a better question than, “Do you call this place Jerusalem?” Because then local people are like, “yeah, sure.” You know, white guys from Europe. “Sure, whatever he wants it to be, we'll call it that”. But instead, “what do you call this?”, and found that in the transmission of Hebrew and then later Arabic, often the place names were preserved in the local vernacular. And so it is because of them and their exploration and their very close study of toponymy, they were able to identify over 700 different places that are mentioned in Scripture and accurately ‘find them’ or identify them on the ground. And so a lot of what we do now is working on, is based on or is found, they provided the foundation for what we know. We also could spend hours looking at archeology. So archeology is going to come up a bit in this course, not a huge amount. I tend to focus primarily on our maps in the texture of the ground, in the rocks and soil. But we could say archeology is a very informative part of studying historical geography. So archeology is the process of studying the human history and even prehistory. So before humans were writing things down, right? So studying human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of the artifacts that are there. 

Now, I wanted to show this picture because this is a picture of a tel. A tel is an artificial mound. And so as you can see, there's a field here and then we get this hill and it almost is shaped like a little mini volcano. These, if you go and visit, it's not just found in the Middle East. They're found all over the place. But just because of the rocks and the soil and the way things work in the Middle East, these dot the landscape and you can see them all over the place. The process of archeology then helps us understand who lived here. How did they live? What kind of artifacts did they use? What kind of pottery did they use? And archeologists do this by cutting slowly into the side of this tel, or this artificial hill, and taking very careful note of what they're finding. Now, you may say, “can you really tell that much based on pottery? I mean, doesn't one broken piece of pottery look the same as every other broken piece of pottery?” I would say, “well, if you're trained, if you know what you're looking like or looking at, it does make a huge difference”. So archeologists can identify things very quickly. If I give you an example, because I think you'll be able to identify things very quickly, if I use something more modern. I could say, let's say we're digging through a tel of our own and we happened to find a lot of different vehicles. My guess is you could put all of these in chronological order that you would be able to tell.

Oh, yes. The very first one is the 1901 Ford. Right? And everyone's going to go. “This obviously is the oldest one, right?” It's going to this is 1936, right. This, because it is a material you are accustomed to, even if you weren't alive, when this was here, you understand this is the earliest and we can actually watch the development of technology and we can even know we don't have anything like this anymore. This must be a projection towards something we might have in the future. It's the same thing with archeologists, as they are digging a tel. They find pottery, they find vessels, they find cooking pots. They can find all kinds of different things as they go and go, “Ah, this is dated to a particular era”. And they understand that because of the artifacts that are there. Archeologists often dig squares in a tel and they leave what we call a bulk or a baulk in the edges of the square. It's actually this baulk that is going to give us a timeline. You can read it like a story. The earliest, most recent history is at the top. And as you move down, you're going older and older and older to previous levels of civilization. And so this then leaves a record of history behind. Every once in a while, you might take a tel, and it's not commonly done anymore, but older tels they used to dig an entire trench down a huge section of the tell. And then you can find walls and you can find big sections, big markers that belonged to that particular tel. 

So this is just to give us a brief, brief, brief overview of the entire industry, or what we would be studying if we had a lot more time together. We would go in-depth into each of these regions, each of these topics of study. We're just going to hang out in the first one because it's the one that I love the most and the one I can do the best with the the screens and the technology that we have. So, we're going to get addicted to maps, to rocks, to soil and to roads. Okay. We have a question. “So you said that geography can't prove the Bible, but the events in the Bible are not disproved by it.” “Well, I don't say that. Adam Smith says that.” “Is it possible to say the same thing about archeology?” “Hmm. Archeology is complicated. Archeology is complicated. Archeology has done a tremendous job for us to clarify our understanding of history. Archeology has also done a very good job showing us where our blind spots are, where we assumed things about ancient culture and ancient people that were not correct. So archeology can be a very good corrective for us as well. I am not of the camp that would say everything we find in archeology proves the Bible, but I would say archeology right now is showing us all of our blind spots and then giving us so much more information about the reality of who the people were as humans. So we're just now starting to study villages - like the early days of archeology, the only thing we really cared about were the big cities: Jerusalem, Beit She’an, Scythopolis, Megiddo. Anything that was like big and fancy and like it seemed really exciting. But now we have people who are going out and going, “How did the farm people live? How did just the common Israelite that is never going to have a name that is never going to find their way into biblical history, how did they live?” And even as we start to flesh that out, it gives us a better understanding of the biblical text, because it's just a bigger, better picture.