There are many ingredients that go into effective Bible teaching – whether that be pulpit preaching or children’s Sunday school lessons. Two critical ingredients are history and geography. It is almost impossible to teach the Bible well without an awareness of history and geography. Haddon Robinson follows John Stott in speaking of the world of the Bible. I’d like to try and whet our appetites for study in these important fields. Work put in here will yield a real harvest in presenting the Bible to others.
John Smith, in his History of Virginia (not highly relevant here), wrote:
As geography without history seemeth a carcus without motion, so history without geography wandereth as a vagrant without certain habitation.
So true. So what are some of the elements of geography that will help our biblical teaching?
Nations and Empires – In the back of most Bibles are a set of maps. It can’t be just one. We need to get a sense of the ancient world from Spain to Iran, with Israel as a tiny place. We need to see Israel and even Jerusalem close up. But more than that, we also need to see a world changing through time. The great Assyrian Empire, so feared, then gone. The mighty Babylonians, then the Medo-Persians, the swift conquering, lasting cultural impact of Greece, the machine that was Rome. We need to see Egypt and Assyria with Israel in between. We need to see how Judea really was on the fringe of the Roman empire. Nations and empires, kingdoms and regions.
Distance and Terrain – The fertile crescent was quite some distance for Abram, or for a captured Judean king. The direct route from Babylon to Jerusalem was another story – that would need some major hill removal and valley filling if a motorway were ever to be made. The lush green rolling hills around Galilee are not out of reach of arid Judean mini-mountains, but again the direct path via Sychar was seldom travelled, many preferring the fast falling Jordan river route. Heading west wasn’t easy either – sea voyages were fraught with dangers from storm and foe (although there was the fishy option), but Roman roads and iron-fisted peace helped the spread of the gospel.
Cities and Towns – We all know that our town is not the same as the one down the road. A city isn’t just more inhabited than a town, it is different on numerous levels. So we must avoid seeing every biblical place as some sort of generic town. Nazareth was a garrison town for Roman soldiers, Tarsus was a city of some means, also well acquainted with Rome’s fast moving war machine, and Philippi had its history with Rome too. Yet each of these places was different. Tekoa and Jerusalem are by no means the same. A reading of Acts points to the strategic nature of hub cities in the growth of the church, while the most obscure of villages have a part to play in God’s plan – even little Bethlehem is graced beyond words! And what about Rome, can the gospel penetrate even Rome?
All of this, and more, lies motionless without the vivifying force of history. To which we turn tomorrow.