Sep 8, 2014

The Importance of Biblical Geography

I am a big proponent of the idea that geography is an important component of a well-rounded biblical understanding. I find it puzzling that the some who devote themselves to learning the biblical languages and Second Temple Judaism are relatively unconcerned with developing a competency in biblical geography. So I am always encouraged when I find a commentary that highlights the importance of geography. Here is a rather longish quote from an older commentary on Joshua by George C. M. Douglas. 
"In reading almost any book of the Old Testament, we have to take notice of geography if we are to appreciate fully what we read: but what is thus true in general attains its most emphatic exemplification in the book of Joshua. The study of the geography of the Holy Land is as old as the study of the Old Testament by Christians outside that country: and to this hour we are told by travellers that there is no better guide to their geographical studies than the book of Joshua. I have occasion often to mention the great contribution to sacred geography in the first Christian centuries, the Onomasticon, or list of names, written by the Greek bishop Eusebius, and edited half a century later by the great Hebrew scholar among the Latin fathers, Jerome. The Christian (not to speak of the Jewish) pilgrims before the Crusades, and during them, and after they were over collected a mass of traditions which have been laboriously sifted. From the dawn of modern times there have been intelligent travellers, who have accumulated stores of information for us: and in the latter part of last century, and in the early years of this one, these travellers went to work more scientifically and systematically than any of their predecessors, aided no doubt by the accurate and learned work Palæstina, by the Dutch scholar Reland. It is still some years under fifty, however, since a vast step in advance was made by the late Dr. Edward Robinson of New York, aided by his countrymen the missionaries at Beyrût, one of whom, Dr. Thomson, still living, has given much information in a popular form in his Land and the Book. It would be invidious to single out names of others, both dead and living, who have carried on a noble work. But there is no indelicacy in mentioning the labours of a society, that of the Palestine Exploration Fund, which has accomplished what individuals were not in circumstances to achieve, and whose labours have reached a climax in giving to the world in 1880 the map of a trigonometrical survey of Palestine west of the Jordan, on the scale of an inch to the mile, accompanied by memoirs which are in process of publication, and to be followed as quickly as possible by maps on a somewhat reduced scale (one just published, three-eighths of an inch to the mile, is admirable) with the ancient as well as the modern names, to suit them to the wants of the readers of the Old and of the New Testaments. We have had many good maps before, among which those of the Dutch traveller C. W. Van de Velde and of President Porter in Murray’s Handbook may be singled out: but it is no reproach to earlier labourers in this field to say that the Palestine Exploration maps must displace or essentially modify all earlier efforts, at least so soon as the part of Palestine east of the Jordan has also been surveyed and published. And among the workers on this survey, speaking of geographical research over the whole country, not of topographical research in Jerusalem, for instance, it is no disparagement to the others to single out Lieutenant Conder, R.E., because his duties have led him to take a specially prominent position. It has been no small labour to go over and digest all the information communicated in these publications, and in the quarterly statement of the Society; and after all, I fear that I have to admit that pages of this Handbook must be unspeakably dry, particularly in chapters 15–19, so that sometimes nothing better can be recommended than to pass them over. Yet I felt it impossible to publish the book without the summary of this information; and I am sure that there are those who will take the map and carefully trace the lists which seem so dry to others, and find them deeply interesting. I may say in a sentence, that the boundaries of the tribes are still in many cases doubtful; but that there is hardly room for doubt that in some cases very considerable modifications must be made of preconceived opinions, in the case of the group of Issachar and Western Manasseh and Ephraim, and in the group of Zebulun and Asher and Naphtali. When the Palestine Exploration Society have done for the country east of Jordan what they have accomplished for Canaan proper, the next great service to scriptural geography will be a careful survey of the Negeb and the desert of Et Tih, that is, of the southern extremity of Canaan from about Beersheba outwards to the great desert in which the children of Israel wandered. It is true that this will have less influence on the geography of the book of Joshua than their present labours: yet there are important points for it also. Especially it will settle how far south the limits of Judah and Simeon are to be extended; and this in connection with the very interesting question of the situation of Kadesh-barnea; see notes on 15:3. The Rev. H. A. Trumbull (Quarterly Paper, July 1881, pp. 208–212), while not committing himself finally, gives strong evidence from personal examination in favour of Rowlands’ view."

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