Ancient Geography

The is the fourth entry in the “Year 1, Quarter 4” material. In this post, we will be discussing the regional geography of the near-East. This material is meant to be discussed while on a road trip with your kids, during breakfast, or during some downtime at the dentist's office. Check out the other topics for this quarter here:

  • What is sin?

  • Overview of the Books of History

  • Conquering of Canaan

  • Ancient Geography

  • The Story of the Bible

  • The Marginalized

  • Major Character: Joshua

  • Memory Verse: Joshua 1:7-9

Ancient Geography

The story of the Bible is tied to specific places and times.  The place is very far away from our own and has strange names and unfamiliar geography.  This blog will help acquaint us with several of these places.

The first thing to remember is that the majority of the Old Testament is set in the Middle East, which is an arid, desert environment.  Israel itself is not an uninhabitable desert, but is described as the “land of milk and honey.” This description seems strange to us but is because this particular region is ideal for pastureland and orchards.  Milk is a reference to goats and milk-producing animals, and honey is a reference to fig trees, whose fruit will actually drip sweat honey-like substance.  

Pinnacle of Israel

The map that we use shows Israel as a large nation in this region.  This is as large a territory as Israel ever acquired. Remember that at the beginning of the books of History (Joshua) Israel is a wandering nation which has only conquered two small territories on the East side of the Jordan River (Moab and………).  After the conquest of Canaan and the period of Judges, King David manages to unite the tribes of Israel and recognize him as king around 1000 BC. David also manages to fight and defeat several surrounding nations and tribes, which forces these nations to send regular tribute to Israel.


Nations Defeated by King David - www.bible-history.com

Unlike Saul, who spent the majority of his reign worrying about his own throne and rule, David’s rule was characterized by a concern for the rule and reign of his God. Many people assume that the books of First and Second Samuel describe David as some ultimate king and conqueror, the likes of which have never been seen in the world.  With a close and careful reading, though, the reader can disabuse themselves of this notion. King David certainly does much better than his predecessor, but often barely keeps his kingdom from tearing itself apart. He faces frequent assassination and coup attempts by sons, relatives, and enemies. God, in fact, tells David that because of all the strife, violence, and bloodshed that characterizes his kingdom, his son would be the one to build the temple.  David’s son and successor Solomon used the peace and tribute of David to build the First Temple in Jerusalem.  

CHALLENGING QUESTIONS

  1. What were the unique characteristics of David’s reign?

  2. David’s son Solomon seems to violate all of the commands laid out in the Torah for kings to follow. What is the difference between the way David ruled and Solomon ruled? How were the outcomes different for the two kings?

COMPELLING METAPHORS

  • God is king and we are brothers of Jesus, the firstborn from the dead.  How should we act as heirs to God’s Kingdom?

  • Do the kings of old have anything to teach us as princes and princesses of the true king?

Journey to the Promised Land

The Israelites base their national identity in their journey to the promised land.  The Torah describes the story of a family that is called out of Mesopotamia and drawn down to the land of Canaan. After three generations, Abraham’s semi-nomadic family ends up in the land of Egypt during a huge famine.  They are caught up in slavery there, and through God’s providence and Moses’ leadership, the people are brought up out of Egypt through the reed sea.  

In addition to being a historical landmark and regional power that Israel has to deal with, Egypt becomes a symbol of despotic power that is opposed to the God of Israel.  Egypt’s economy and climate are very different from Israel’s. Egypt is fed by the huge Nile river, which is dependable for water year-round. Israel’s largest bodies of water are both salt-water (the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean) and they are highly dependant on seasonal rivers and wells.  Much of the Bible is focussed around these two different types of cultures. Egypt and Mesopotamia do not ‘need’ to rely on God to provide rain for their agricultural endeavors.

Israel, on the other hand, has a unique ecology that makes survival much more precarious. This small plot of land also plays an incredibly important part in World History, as it acts as a “land bridge” of sorts that allows traffic to flow in between Europe, Africa, and Asia.  God leads his people to settle in a strategically important, but economically undesirably place to live. On the flipside, it is providential that God chooses to put his holy people who are promised to ‘bless all people’ in the one place where they might actually be able to reach and communicate with ‘all people.’

The other key area to understand geographically is the desert wasteland to Israel’s immediate east and south.  Israel travels through the wilderness in the book of Exodus and Numbers before entering Canaan. They are also forced by God to wander nomadically in the desert for 40 years before entering the promised land.  The wasteland that they enter is characterized by blazing hot summer days, cold nights, and rainfall that averages less than two inches per year. There are a few nomadic tribes that call these deserts home, but for the most part, they are completely uninhabitable, austere, and deadly places to live.  

Each year, the Jewish people celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) commemorating their time in the wilderness.  This Feast comes at the end of harvest time and celebrates their deliverance into the promised land and out of the harsh desert environs of the Arabian and Sinai Deserts.  

CHALLENGING QUESTIONS

  1. Why are the terms going down or south often associated with apostasy in scripture?

  2. Why are groups often put into captivity or banished to the East in scripture?

INTRIGUING METAPHORS

As our culture, society, economy, and lives improve and we become more self-sufficient, how do we start to become like Egypt and Babylon?

  • What kinds of attitudes are fostered by our wealth and prosperity that might be opposed to God’s plans?

  • Why does Jesus tell us in Matthew chapter five that God’s kingdom belongs to the poor, hungry, meek, and mourning?

Future Captivity

When the people of Israel agree to the covenant in the book of Deuteronomy, they also agree to the curses set forth in the second half of chapter 28.  These curses include the national punishments of exile and destruction if Israel was not faithful to God.  

The book of Judges seems to fulfill this in small ways; we see many of these curses fulfilled by neighboring peoples as various Israelite tribes commit apostasy. Once the people cry out to God for help, though God consistently brings deliverance.  After the first three kings, however, Israel seems to bring the true fulfillment of these curses. The nation is split after the death of Solomon and then after a long period of apostasy and failure, God brings the northern kingdom into exile. The kingdom of Assyria brutally destroys the cities and royal families from the northern kingdom of Israel and hauls them away into captivity.  

During this time, the Southern Kingdom of Judah seems to remain slightly more faithful than their sister kingdom in the north, but ultimately breaks faith with God and is punished for their failure.  The kingdom of Babylon has risen to power in place of Assyria by this time, and it is Babylon that ends up destroying Jerusalem and bringing Judah into exile from the land.  

During their captivity, national power again shifts hands and the leaders of Israel return home after 70 years of captivity.  Persia has now risen to power and will play an important role in commissioning and returning many of the Israelites back to their home in Jerusalem.  This is what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about.

CHALLENGING QUESTIONS

  1. Watch this video on the ‘Way of the Exile’ and discuss with your family.

  2. How can we relate to the Israelites who were taken into captivity? In what ways are we like captives? In what ways have we been set free?

INTRIGUING METAPHORS

Western cultures have most recently dealt with these issues on an international scale during the Atlantic Slave trade.  How do the descendants of slaves relate to the cultures they are now in?

  • What kinds of problems, tensions, and challenges are created when we do not treat people like they are made in God’s image?

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