002 - Why That Land (Israel)?
Season 1, Episode 2
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
Any good story has a setting which is significant to understanding the characters and the plot development and the behaviors and the actions of characters throughout the story. And that’s the case here with the Bible in the Old Testament. Geography shapes politics and politics shapes theology. Meaning simply that the geography of the physical world affected the social practices of everyday life and people’s basic outlook and attitudes about life. And it also influenced how these ancient cultures dealt with other nations around them and their views and understanding of religious and divine things.
The geographical setting of the Bible is both very small and very large. On the one hand, a good bit of the Old Testament, the Bible takes place within the relatively small land of Israel, which is about the size of the state of New Jersey. It’s just 200 miles north to South and about 60 miles wide. Yet, on the other hand, the ancient world was quite large and it included advanced civilizations that were thousands of miles apart, engaged in very active trade and other geopolitical affairs.
The setting of the Bible and the Old Testament is the ancient Near East, and here we are primarily talking about the region of the world that was around the eastern Mediterranean. This included Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Egypt, Arabia and Syrio-Palestine. This area is known as the Fertile Crescent because the geography and the climate produced ideal conditions for settlement.
Ancient Near East also refers to the thought and culture that inhabited this region from approximately 3000 up to 300 BC. The Ancient Near East ends with the rise of the Greeks and Alexander the Great.
The Old Testament world centered on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia and on the Nile River in Egypt. The land of Canaan, as its first called in the Old Testament, was the ancient land bridge between these two civilizations. Israel’s history and people occupied this thin ribbon of fertile, usable land that lay between the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the Arabian desert on the other. Because of that, it was centrally positioned as the hub of international commerce and travel between these great civilizations and major land areas of the ancient Near East.
Think about what God said through the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel chapter 5, verse 5: “This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the center of the nations with countries all around her.”
And under David and Solomon, Israel would rule over territory that stretched from the Red Sea in the South all the way north to the Euphrates River. Solomon’s vast wealth came from trading ships and caravans that he sent all over the world, bringing back treasures from places like India, Africa, all over the Mediterranean.
I want to take a closer look at these four major regions of the ancient Near East.
The first is Mesopotamia. Now this is a Greek word that means the land between the rivers or in the middle of the rivers, and it refers to the region that was at the head of the Persian Gulf, moving northwest through the Broad flat plain that lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. And these are the two of the rivers that are mentioned in Genesis Chapter 2 in the description of the Garden of Eden. Now this is the country of modern day Iraq.
The world’s first urban civilization is born here in these swampy areas that was near the mouth of these two rivers, these great rivers, as they emptied out into the Persian Gulf. This first ancient civilization in this region is the Sumerian people and they were founding cities, building large cities in 3100 BC, 3200 BC, nearly 1000 years before Abraham.
One of those was the city of Ur. This is Abraham’s home that God calls him out of and it was ancient even before Abraham was born. Another one of the great cities of ancient summer was Uruk. This was home to King Gilgamesh, the first hero of Western literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Sumerians are notable for a number of things, including inventing the first alphabet or the earliest alphabet. They also created the earliest form of writing called Cuneiform, in which they took a wedge-shaped stylus and would press characters into damp clay, and then they would harden into tablets. The Sumerians also invented the base 60 system of math, or the sexagesimal system of math that we still use today for counting time and polar degrees in geometry.
The Sumerians and Mesopotamians cultures were able to really engage in much more advanced trade. They were also a very strong military type of civilization. In Mesopotamia, because of the geography, the climate was very unpredictable. These two great rivers meant the region was highly fertile when it was properly irrigated and with the way the rivers lay, and it was flat, you could easily irrigate.
But both rivers were prone to frequent flooding. The different weather changes that would come down where air currents out of the Persian Gulf would move up and air cold air would come down out of the mountains, and so a lot of unpredictable climate changes and weather patterns that were challenges.
There are no natural defenses in the topography of Mesopotamia. This wide flat plain that was capable of being very fertile if the flooding was properly controlled. It was easy to get into, so it was very inviting for outsiders to come and live. The region, the land was easy to enter and capture, though it was really hard to hold onto for a long period of time. So people from all around the edges, especially the mountains to the north and to the West constantly were seeking entry into the land wanting to establish and live.
The absence of these land features made it very difficult to defend, so Mesopotamia was a highly desirable place to live, but the challenges of doing so from both natural enemies and from human threats made for a very powerful incentive to develop enterprising, aggressive and expansion minded civilizations. And so, the Mesopotamians and their different forms of culture over the millennia were very resilient people, and they would build fortified cities for protection expansion to be able to preserve it, to defend it with the walls that were built around the cities because of the ease of getting in and the constant human threat.
We also find in the history of ancient Mesopotamia the rise and fall of multiple people groups as different tribes would come in and out and rise to power, and then another one would come along, pose a threat, take them down, establish dominance. The three most notable of these people groups that show up in the Old Testament are the Sumerians were first, the Babylonians had a couple of different eras in which they were dominant, and then the Assyrians later.
The second major region is Asia Minor. The Greeks would later call this Anatolia. In today’s modern world, this is the country of Turkey. And Asia Minor simply referred to the land continent of Asia, but it was the smaller, lower portion, separated by the Halys River from Asia Proper off further to the north.
The basic geographic features of Asia Minor consisted of in the center a high, flat plateau, very barren, ringed by fertile plains along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. But these fertile plains were broken up by rugged mountains. And so that combination of the plateau, the coastal plains, and the mountain ranges that came from the plateau down through the plains produced extreme weather challenges and patterns there for Asia Minor as well, particularly in the interior and in the mountains. It was a very difficult place to live. And so the people who inhabited ancient Asia Minor were very stern, austere people used to difficult ways of life.
This is the native homeland of the Hittites. The Hittites were the ones who really were kind of the first to develop warfare using horses. The Hittites and other groups from Asia Minor always looking eastward toward Mesopotamia and towards Syria, Palestine because of its fertility and ease of life there.
The third major geographical region in the ancient Near East is Egypt, meaning the gift of the Nile, and, of course, the dominant central geographical feature for Egypt is the Nile River. Most people, about 90% of the Egyptian population lived in a strip along the Nile River that was about 10 miles wide and 400 miles long on either side of that, it’s desert. It was that strip along the Nile River on both sides that was cultivatable, and so most people lived there
Egypt had almost the perfect climate. The average temperature year round was about 75 degrees and there was very little rainfall. The Nile River produced all the water in the irrigation that was needed for abundant living. And unlike the rivers in Mesopotamia, because of the weather patterns, because of Egypt’s geography, the weather was much more predictable and as a result, the Nile River was very consistent. It would flood annually at about the same time every September within just a few days.
And you could almost mark the extent of the flooding where the floodwaters would stop along the land by driving a stake into the ground. Every year like clockwork, the Nile River would flood and then recede at a predictable time and so Egyptian culture built its life and the rhythms of its life year in and year out around the consistency and the predictability of the Nile River. This predictability and uniformity meant that Egyptian culture was likewise very unified and strong and stable.
Now Egypt was also free from invasion because it was surrounded by extensive natural defenses on the east, the Red Sea, and the Sinai Peninsula protected it on the West. You had the desert on the north. You had the Mediterranean Sea. And then in the South, about 400 miles downriver — the Nile River flows from the South to the north and the Nile Delta empties out into the Mediterranean — about 400 miles give or take downriver from the from the delta, there’s a series of falls or cataracts that made invasion upriver nearly impossible because of the challenges involved in moving boats across this series of Cataract falls as you were heading up into Egypt. So on all four sides, Egypt was really well protected just by the natural geography.
That combination of the consistency of the Nile River, the stability of weather — it was easy place to live, could produce great food, especially in the delta itself, was very fertile, and this was the primary place where grain was grown in that part of the country.
If you’re familiar with the story of Joseph, who ends up in Egypt as a slave and then eventually becomes kind of the second in command over the nation, and he’s put it in charge by the pharaoh of building up a store supply of grain in anticipation of a coming drought and famine. Joseph is supervising the growing in the cultivation and the harvest of grain from these grain fields and wheat fields that grow in northern Egypt.
Well, the Egyptian culture as a result of all of this is very complacent, serene way of life. It was safe, it was stable. One of the reasons we find as you get into the Old Testament stories when difficulty would break out famine or war or conflict — later in the New Testament, persecution would break out in Israel — most people looked South to go to Egypt as a safe place to get away to, and indeed it was. Because of that stability and serenity of life and the ease of being able to grow food and sustain culture, you didn’t have to worry a whole lot about or defending your land from outside invaders.
Egyptian culture was much more prone to think about the afterlife, developed a much more sophisticated and in-depth religious system.
So, you put all those things together–it’s one of the reasons when we come to the story of Joseph and the Exodus. And we see the Hebrew people are growing and getting larger here that would lead up to their oppression under Pharaoh. It helps us in understanding — this thing about the culture and how it relates to the geography helps us understand about why the Egyptians had such a strong reaction to the Hebrews. Because their size: they were growing. They were wealthy, they’re foreigners. They had their own culture; they pose a threat to the status quo. The fear was they would disrupt life.
The fourth region of the Ancient Near East that we will take the most in-depth look at is called the Levant, about a 50- to 60-mile-wide strip along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s this land bridge, so it includes Syria, Lebanon, Canaan. There are four distinct features that we want to really understand something about.
If you’re standing the Mediterranean Sea, and you’re going to move inland to the East, you would first have a coastal plain, lush, fertile agriculture. It transitions into a series of low rolling hills called the hills of Jordan. From there, the terrain very quickly climbs up steeply to a mountainous ridge formed by the Rift Valley. That’s a very deep sharp cut in the Earth’s crust, and it has mountains on both sides and the Jordan River runs down through that. And then on the far side of the Rift Valley, the fourth area, called the Transjordan.
Now the coastal plain. In the South there are no natural harbors. For the closest, you have to go north of where the central Ridge comes out and connects into the Mediterranean with Mount Carmel there on its end and it’s going to be the northern part of Canaan and up into Syria, where you have where you have harbors. And so the sea trade routes that crisscross the Mediterranean at this time in the Old Testament, those harbors and those routes are all coming into the northern part of the country.
The coastal plain and you can read about the Plain of Sharon in the central section in the coastal plain and the southern part of Canaan, the Plain of Philistia. This is the home to the five great cities of the Philistine people in the time of the judges, and David and Saul.
The Philistines are occupying these cities along the southern coast. The Israelites occupy the hills and the mountain Ridge along the Jordan River. These are both groups of people that are on the verge of nationhood and those Jordan Hills in southern Canaan called the Shephalah becomes their battleground. These encounters and collisions and battles between the Philistines and the Israelites take place in that hill country, that hill region.
The most significant feature of the coastal plain is the Central Valley. This is also called the Valley of Jezreel. Or you may see other places it’s referred to as the Plains of Esdraelon. The Jezreel Valley is and was the breadbasket of Israel. This is where most of the wheat produce of the country was grown, and it’s a triangle shaped plain, and it’s bordered on all three sides of the triangle by mountains.
On the mountain line of cliffs that run along the northern part of the valley, in the New Testament times the city of Nazareth sits right up on those cliffs looking out over the valley. So you read Luke 14. Jesus goes back to his hometown in Nazareth and after speaking in the synagogue, the people get angry and they drive him out to the top of the hill in order to throw him down. Well, that doesn’t happen. Luke says he just walked right through the crowd and went on his way. But that top of the hill where they were going to throw him down was on the cliffs looking out over the Jezreel Valley. You can see a great picture of that area.
And the southern part of the valley is bounded by what’s called the central Ridge. This is another mountain range that comes off perpendicular from the Rift Valley and the mountains along the Jordan Valley. The Jezreel Valley is significant here in the Old Testament, not only because of its agricultural production. But because it is the central point of control in the geopolitical conflicts and the battle for who is going to have economic and political control over Canaan. Because Canaan is the land bridge that connects all of these civilizations, the trade routes run right through here and people want to control those trade routes because if you control the trade routes, you control the money and it’s an opportunity to become very, very wealthy in a hurry. You do it simply by putting up a tollbooth on the highways. Every trade caravan, every merchant that is passing through, you take a small cut of the money.
Because of how the topography and the geography lies in Canaan: mountains down the West Sea down the side.
In that central Ridge that bisects the country, from the mountains to the coast, there were two, the two important trade routes coming from the north. One came down from Syria and the harbors down along the coast into the Jezreel Valley. The other came from Mesopotamia, down through the great city of Hazor. That was up on the other side of the mountains off to the northwest. That road also came into the Jezreel Valley and they met and crossed through the southern ridge, the central Ridge to the south at a natural pass in the edge of the Jezreel Valley called Megiddo. That road was the way in and out. So if you were going to move from north to South and Canaan; if you were going to travel from Egypt to the seaports in Syria; if you’re going to travel from Mesopotamia and take your merchant caravans into Egypt, you had to take the road that went through the Jezreel Valley and crossed at Megiddo.
And so if you were going to control ancient Canaan and have your hand in the wealth of the trade system, you had to control the Jezreel Valley. And if you’re going to control the Jezreel Valley, you had to control the pass at Megiddo. We find from the very earliest evidence the civilizations who would inhabit Canaan, building fortifications at that pass to control that road.
Well, the Hebrews would come along and would refer to that pass at Megiddo as Har-Megiddo, meaning the Mount Megiddo. Greeks would later translate that into Armageddon. Of course, that then immediately brings to mind John’s vision in the Revelation, the Book of Revelation, that great final cataclysmic battle in the end times between the kings of the Earth on the plains of Armageddon.
Well, this is the Jezreel Valley. And John is seeing this great vision that may well have dual symbolism, a final battle for who’s going to be in control of Canaan. But also representing this battle that has been fought from the beginning of human history over who is going to be in control of the Earth. Who is going to be in control of the world’s wealth, symbolized, perhaps even literally so by the battle for the pass at Megiddo into the Jezreel Valley.
The Rift Valley is another important feature. As I said, the Rift Valley is geologically at crack in the Earth’s crust. It runs all the way down through Palestine, varying in width, but begins in what is northern Galilee in the New Testament times. It makes its way down South toward the Red Sea where it disappear down under the Red Sea and eventually resurface in East Africa, most predominantly in the country of Kenya where the Rift Valley is a very significant cultural and geographical feature in Kenya. It also produces on the upper edges of that Valley what is known as the Kenya Highlands.
While this Rift Valley is the Jordan River Valley in Palestine. Mountains on both sides of this east and West. That meant east to West travel was very difficult.
Lake Galilee, or the Sea of Galilee as its also called, is the dominant water feature in the northern part of the Rift. Then the Jordan River Valley itself runs down to the South and the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on the Earth’s surface. About 1300 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea is about 9 miles wide and at its widest and about 4040 plus miles long. It’s the saltiest body of water on Earth, 25% solid matter inthe water there in the in the Dead Sea. Modern day Israel extracts salt and other chemicals out of the water there and then they use the purified water for irrigation.
South of the Dead Sea, the Rift Valley continues. There’s no water, no river there, but the valley itself continues heading on south the rest of the way down to the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. So this is called the Arabah. It’s about 100 miles long. It’s that portion of the Rift Valley from the Dead Sea down to the Red Sea. And it’s the watershed between the two, so catching rain runoff that would pop up from time to time. There are lots of cliffs and wadis along the Arabah in this portion of the Rift Valley. A lot of sharp mountains, very rugged terrain, but very colorful because of the soil compositions and all of that.
Now this land south of the Dead Sea is the land of Edam. During David’s reign, he had conquered that land and brought Edam under the control of Israel. During Solomon’s reign, when Israel was at its greatest extent, Solomon actually had a naval port all the way at the end of the Arabah on the Red Sea.
Now the region is very rich in copper. Might be related to the name Edom, which translates into “red.” So Solomon had an extensive copper mining operation that was running here in this part of the country, and that copper and copper goods that were manufactured were part of what Israel exported, and perhaps was a one source, another source of Solomon’s great wealth.
What was the impact of this geography on the ancient world and the Old Testament? Egypt is isolated as a result of its unique geographical makeup. Mesopotamia is always threatened. So, what we’re going to find in the Old Testament story is Egypt is a place of refuge. Mesopotamia is a place of hostility and invaders.
But also because of the geography and the way these civilizations were, no single region had all of the necessary natural resources for civilizations to flourish, and so trade and exchange was crucial, and in fact, it happened, and it happened extensively and very early on. Canaan and Lebanon would export wood, incense, figs and wine. Egypt was a primary exporter of gold and ivory, papyrus, linen, grain. Mesopotamia would export stone and timber, textiles, silk and wool especially. Asia Minor had coming out of the mountains, silver, other kind of minerals, precious gems, timber, and cattle. And Arabian traders would bring in for trade the highly desirable and very, very expensive frankincense and myrrh.
Ancient Israel, Canaan, sat right at the crossroads of these ancient empires and civilizations who were engaged in trade. The major trade routes by land and sea, all converged right here. Ancient nations battling for control of this narrow strip of land here between the sea and the Jordan Valley called ancient Canaan. Generation after generation, millennia after millennia, nations were battling for control. Control of highways, control the money.
And so, Israel is put right at the economic center of the Ancient Near East. God placed his chosen people and began and decided to do his redemptive work right at the very center, not on the edges, not in the backwater, not in some far-off forgotten corner of the world, but instead right at the center of the world’s politics, economics, and power. And it’s a fascinating statement about the nature of the character and the providence of God that it was here, that God determined before civilization ever even began that he would reveal himself his character and his love for the world right in the middle of the battle for control over the wealth and the wisdom and the power of the earth.
That’s where God story is set.