ΤοThe Problem with PlacesThe heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork Psalms 19:1Our lives are inextricably bound to our environment, which provides resources for our use, and places constraints on our behavior. People living in harsh landscapes, such as the arid regions found in the majority of the Bible lands, are forced to think deeply about their world in order to formulate unique techniques to survive their surroundings. This interaction with the environment is the basis for social, cultural, and religious development. To truly understand other cultures and their history, we must have a thorough knowledge of the environmental context of those cultures. This is particularly true of our attempts to understand the lives of people in biblical times. So, we begin by looking at the environmental setting of the Bible—the Near East, the Mediterranean world, and Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula.There are some major problems that face biblical scholars working with extrabiblical historical data, archaeological data, and geographic data. These issues underpin our work and lead to controversies in the field. Biblical scholarship has been going on for thousands of years and the more we learn about the Bible, the more questions arise. Before delving into an overview of the geography and archaeology of the Bible lands, it is important to be aware of some of the major controversies facing biblical historians and geographers. Working with ancient data is rarely straightforward!Historical GeographyOne challenge for biblical scholars is identifying places mentioned in the Bible with known archaeological sites and modern cities. Sometimes identification is easy—cities like Jerusalem, Damascus, and Rome have been continuously occupied for centuries, and have always had the same name. Other cities, like Ephesus, were abandoned long ago, but its traditions have not been lost. Many cities and places mentioned in the Bible have been otherwise forgotten, so it is up to specialists in historical geography to identify such sites.So how do historians determine the location of lost cities mentioned in the Bible? It is a painstaking process, but the Bible provides the most important clues, and even the most skeptical scholars recognize that the Bible is very accurate about geography.
Careful study of the descriptions of locations of places in the Bible is the starting point. Often, extra geographic information is provided, such as ancient itineraries or descriptions of the local region (perhaps hills are nearby, or a source of water is mentioned) to roughly identify the location. If we read that someone visited a place on a journey between two cities with known locations, it is safe to assume that the place must be situated somewhere between the two cities. Then, it is up to the scholar to visit the possible sites in the area. Using scientific dating techniques, it is possible to discover whether the site was inhabited during biblical times. This makes identifying the site of the biblical place reasonably simple.The Philistine city of Ekron is an example of an historical geography success story. The five major Philistine cities (the Pentapolis in the Old Testament) are written about at length in the Bible. The cities of Ashkelon, Gaza, and Ashdod had never been lost, and archaeological excavations confirmed that these were Philistine cities. But the cities of Ekron and Gath were lost. Archaeologists interested in Ekron identified a possible candidate—Tel Miqne on Kibbutz Revadim in Israel. Excavations there showed that it was a Philistine city, and in the final year of excavation certain proof was found—an inscription stating the name of the city as Ekron. Scholars digging at Tell es-Safi in Israel think they have located Gath, and as excavations continue, the answer will become clearer.(Continued)