One of the characters in Leon Uris’s novel Exodus quips that Moses should have walked the tribes of Israel for another forty years and found a decent place. With equal anecdotal relish, present-day leaders of the state of Israel delight in relating with a twinkle of the eye that they have only one thing against Moses: if he had only led the Israelites south or east of the promised land, they would have had oil instead of milk and honey.
Despite these and other witty sleights, we should remember that the land of Canaan (Palestine, Israel) is a land specially prepared by God for his ancient, covenant people. A relatively small land (one-third the size of the state of Utah), its position as a land bridge between three continents gives it the title “crossroads of the East.”
Many of history’s greatest civilizations immediately surround it: Egypt to the southwest; Babylonia, Assyria, Aram, and Persia-Media to the east; Phoenicia and Anatolia to the north; and Macedonia, Greece, and Rome to the northwest. The story of this Holy Land is essentially a history of the struggle among these mightier civilizations to control this land bridge. The history of the ancient Near East is somewhat like a complicated chess game, with not only the “power pieces” mentioned above but also a host of minor players: Amorites, Hittites, Jebusites, Girgashites, Hivites, Perizzites, Amalekites, Ammonites, Moabites, Midianites, Edomites. Even though the country is small (the distance from Dan to Beersheba is only about 150 miles; the land’s greatest width is 75 miles), because of the land’s geological structure and topographical layout, numerous little city-states could exist for generations side by side. Some of these “Canaanite” people (that is, those who inhabited geographical Canaan) were not removed entirely from the land by the Israelites and for centuries were used by Israel’s God to test and to try his people, “that through them I may prove Israel, whether they will keep the way of the Lord … or not” (Judg. 2:22).
Thus, except for strategic importance the land of Canaan itself had little to offer the bigger neighboring nations, yet it did serve as a “probation location”—God’s testing ground of obedience—for his chosen people. As an ancient historian recorded, “God did not choose the people for the place’s sake, but the place for the people’s sake” (2 Maccabees 5:19). Through the land itself—its topography, its natural highways, its soils, its climate, its rainfall—God would try his people.
Therefore, to study the geography of the land of Israel is to enhance greatly one’s understanding of Old Testament history. Nephi asserts that “there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews. … Behold, I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about” (2 Ne. 25:5–6; italics added).
This land—variously known as the land of the Amorites, land of Canaan, land of the Hebrews, land of the children of Israel, Judah, Israel, Yehud, and Palestine—is a unique region of the world. In such a small area (somewhat parallel in situation and climate to southern California) there are coastal plains, some low hills (the Shephelah), the central hill country, and the desolate chalky Judean wilderness; then just forty to fifty miles inland from the Mediterranean is the Jordan Rift, part of the deepest crack in the earth’s surface. (This rift extends from southern Turkey to Mozambique in eastern Africa. Its lowest point is at the southern end of the Dead Sea, nearly 1,300 feet below sea level.) From north to south there is skiing to skin diving: from Mt. Hermon, which is snow-covered much of the year, to the Negev and Sinai, which border on some of the greatest deserts on the earth’s surface and where, as it is said, “It’s so dry even the lizards carry canteens!” Diverse topography, indeed, in such a little country! No wonder the visitor to Israel quickly catches the significance of such phrases as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves” (Luke 10:30; italics added). From Jerusalem, at 2,700 feet above sea level, to Jericho, at 850 feet below sea level the lowest city on the globe, is a descent of over 3,500 feet.
Israel’s climate also plays a key role in God’s testing of his people. Israel sits at the southern edge of the European storm belt systems, which means that in some years parts of the land may be untouched by rain. Notice in the following description of the promised land given by the Lord how trust in God and obedience to him is serious business for anyone living in his testing ground:
“But the land, whither ye go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water of the rain of heaven:
“A land which the Lord thy God careth for: the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.
“And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments …
“That I will give you the rain of your land in his due season [January and February, mostly], the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn [grains], and thy wine [grapes], and thine oil [olives]” Deut. 11:11–14).
Then God warns his people not to turn aside to serve false gods, lest they suffer his consequent indignation and punishment.
“And then the Lord’s wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you” (Deut. 11:17; italics added).
According to the Lord’s own explanation, if his counsel is not heeded and him only worshiped, he will shut up the heavens and not send the rains upon an otherwise quite productive land. An account in the Bible of a famine in Canaan (such as those that forced Abraham into Egypt; Jacob’s family into Egypt; Elimelech, Naomi, and sons into Moab; and that resulted from Elijah’s curse on Israel), simply means it didn’t rain that year. Famine generally meant no rain. Thus God proved his people even through climate and rainfall.
Note how the physical settings of many Bible accounts help elucidate the meaning and purpose of the events and make them more enjoyable to study. For instance, Abraham left his tent home at Beersheba and journeyed to Moriah, arriving there “on the third day.” (Moriah is the same hill where Solomon later erected the great temple; see 2 Chr. 3:1.) As Abraham was preparing to sacrifice as God had commanded, his beloved son asked the heart-rending question, Where is the sacrificial animal? Abraham said, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb” (Gen. 22:8; italics added). At the critical moment when the profound test was consummated, the Lord’s angel appeared and instructed Abraham to offer up a ram caught in a thicket instead of his son (see Gen. 22:13). It is interesting to discover that a place now supposed by many to be Golgotha or Calvary, just northeast of the present Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, is the northern extension of the same Mt. Moriah. At Golgotha God did provide a lamb as prophetically uttered by Abraham—the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. It is significant also to note that in Leviticus 1, directions are given for the sacrificial offering of a male sheep without blemish; verse 11 stipulates that the priest was to slay the lamb specifically on the north side of the altar. [Lev. 1:11].
Geography and politics were closely related during the early events of David’s rise to prominence in the southern kingdom. Some in the scholarly world (see, for instance, chapter 1 of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Princeton University Press, 1953) consider a story such as that of David and Goliath to be a simple legend, not historical because of its miraculous elements and its lack of clear details of time and place. Having walked through the entire Elah Valley and having stood on Shochoh and on Azekah, between which ancient sites this particular battle was pitched, and having explored and calculated the distances between that valley and Gath and Ekron, to which Philistine cities the defeated armies fled, I can only disagree with such smooth discarding of truth and fact. There is some clear, verifiable detail in this biblical account, detail that definitely supports and coincides with the history of the time. Philistine armies consistently sent out forays from their coastal plains in attempts to capture key settlements of the Shephelah; the armies would then try to continue their penetration into Israelite-held hill country. By killing Goliath, David saved Gibeah (Saul’s capital), Bethlehem, and Hebron—the whole Judean ridge—from potential Philistine subjugation.
Geography is also key in understanding an unusual episode during the years when David was a fugitive from an emotional and jealous Saul. The incident sheds light on David’s motives and on his keen awareness of his political destiny. David and his bands usually hid out in the southeastern Judean wilderness and the strongholds in the desolate cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. When he heard of another Philistine advance up the Elah Valley to the settlement of Keilah, he immediately struck up a forced march by his own army across southern Judea, over the hill country around Hebron (3,300 feet above sea level), and down the western slopes to the little town of Keilah to rescue its inhabitants. Why would David be so interested in the defense of a little Judean town on the other side of the country, with the prospect both of confronting an enemy undoubtedly more numerous and of being treacherously betrayed by the inhabitants of Keilah? Because David knew that if the Philistines took the Shephelah, the low hills area, the next step was Bethlehem, his hometown, or even Hebron, where he was soon to be crowned king over Judea. Likewise, when the Amalekites burned David’s town of Ziklag and he pursued and conquered those Negev marauders, he sent gifts of spoils to all the chief settlements of Judea, again perceiving the need to maintain the gratitude of the people of that kingdom for protecting their western and southern borders. All three of these incidents—David and Goliath, the Keilah confrontation, and the Ziklag retribution—are singularly more tangible and more real in light of their geographical settings.
The geography of the Holy Land adds pertinent insight to other biblical episodes. To know that Gath-hepher, Jonah’s hometown, is just north of Nazareth in lower Galilee, and that when this man received a prophet’s call to journey far northeast to Nineveh he urgently fled southwest to sail out of the port of Jaffa, sets a provocative stage for the unfolding of the drama.
Also, to view by map mileage or by actual sight the distance between Mt. Carmel at the western edge of the Jezreel Valley, and the towns of Jezreel and Shunem at the eastern end of that same valley, gives fresh perspective to the scene of Elijah running in front of Ahab’s chariot from Mt. Carmel to Ahab’s winter place at Jezreel. (It is eighteen miles across the valley.) And it intensifies our feelings for the plight of the grieving Shunemite woman who hurried from her village at the foot of Mt. Moreh clear across the valley the other way to plead with Elisha, who was then in the vicinity of Mt. Carmel, to quickly return with her across the valley to restore her son to life.
Much literary and prophetic imagery in the Old Testament is likewise rich in geographical implication. David mused upon the transitory nature of mortality in these words:
“As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
“For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone” (Ps. 103:15–16).
Isaiah echoed a similar sentiment: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: … surely the people is grass” (Isa. 40:7).
Both David, who shepherded for years near the wilderness east of Bethlehem, and Isaiah, a court historian and prophet in his native Jerusalem, had seen spring after spring the velvety green carpet of grass grow up to cover the whole of a very desolate Judean wilderness, only to watch the tender blades vanish as excess of sun and dearth of water ended the brief relief. Even modern scripture continues this image from the Holy Land, as the Lord instructs Joseph Smith not to fear the kings of the world and high-minded governors of the nation, “for they are as grass” (D&C 124:7).
Just prior to Isaiah’s great announcement that a child would be born, a son would be given, and the government would be upon his shoulder, he makes the following literal and symbolic utterance (using the prophetic future-perfect tense, as if the event were already accomplished):
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isa. 9:2).
Isaiah is foreshadowing the coming of the Savior, the light of the world, to dispel the darkness of ignorance and apostasy of the people who lived in the land of Zebulun (Nazareth area) and the land of Naphtali (Sea of Galilee area); but besides the spiritual side of that message there is some down-to-earth reality in the vocabulary used. Ages ago a covering of volcanic basalt was spewed all over the Galilee area by now-extinct volcanic cones on the Golan. This rock is heavy, hard, and black, thus giving even physical import to Isaiah’s description of people who “walk in darkness” and dwell in the “land of the shadow of death.”
One final illustration. Mt. Carmel is used in the Old Testament writings as a symbol of richness and fruitfulness. (Hebrew Kerem-El means “Garden of God”; see also Isa. 33:9; Isa. 35:2; Jer. 50:19). Especially to a prophet in often-dry Judah, the amount of moisture received by a mountain range in northwestern Israel could understandably be associated with prosperity and fulfillment. This image is also carried over into latter-day scripture. Note the Lord’s use of a mountain in Israel and its unique climatic condition in this modern prophecy: “As the dews of Carmel, so shall the knowledge of God descend upon [the Saints” (D&C 128:19). We understand the full impact of God’s reference only when we realize that Mt. Carmel averages 250 dew-nights a year!
As we pay attention to the geography of the land of Canaan—God’s testing ground of obedience—we understand better not only the Bible but our own modern scripture. The land does indeed make the words come alive.
[photos] The land of Canaan is remarkable for its diversity. On its northern side stands Mt. Hermon, top left, which is snow-covered through much of the year. At the southern edge is Sinai, bottom left, which borders on one of the great deserts on earth. The diverse topography is also evident in differences in elevation. From Jerusalem (left) to Jericho is a descent of over 3,500 feet. Gibeah, bottom right, was Saul’s capital, which David saved by slaying Goliath.