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Oxford Bible Atlas Contextualizes the stories and lands of the Bible through user-friendly maps and illustrations.

From Garden of Eden to New Jerusalem

The Bible contains much material which purports to tell of past events, of people, of what things they had said or what deeds they had done, and very often where they had said or done these things. This is particularly true of narrative material, but other types of literature, such as prophetic oracles against foreign nations, or letters written to new churches, may allude to or presuppose geographical settings and geographical knowledge. The beginning of the Book of Amos (Amos 1–2 ) takes on greater significance when read with a geographical awareness. The announcement of God's judgement starts some distance from Israel, in Damascus, Gaza, and Tyre, but then comes closer, to Edom, Ammon, and Moab, then to the immediate neighbour Judah, and finally to Israel itself.

The Bible opens with a poetic and stylized account of creation, but then comes another creation story. This story is set in a place, a garden in Eden, a region which, from the perspective of the teller, is in the east (Gen. 2: 8 ). Very few would seek to place Eden on a map, seeing it as belonging to the realm of myth, but it is noteworthy that it does reflect a geographical interest, both in the indication of the direction (‘east’) and in the description of the river which flowed out of Eden, its four branches, and where they flowed (Gen. 2: 10–14 ). Similarly, the New Jerusalem, described almost at the end of the Bible (Rev. 21: 10–22: 5 ), would not be located on a map, but an awareness of what Jerusalem was actually like would help the appreciation of how different the New Jerusalem would be.

But in between, and once a few more pages have been turned after the account of the Garden of Eden, the stories are given a geographical setting which can more easily be related to what is known of the ancient world. This prompts the question of the extent to which the stories preserved in the Bible are descriptions of actual events and real people. The issue has been and continues to be much debated. Of course the answer will vary depending on the particular story. To some extent, it could be argued that this is not an issue relevant to the preparation of an atlas. What matters is not whether something happened but whether it is given a real rather than fictional geographical setting, and whether it is possible to use a knowledge of geography and of archaeology to illuminate the context in which the story is set. It has been argued that, if a story has preserved accurately the context in which it is set, why can it not have preserved accurately the details of the people about whom the stories are told? And if that is the case, then surely the Bible can be seen as a reliable historical source. But this is to overlook the fact that different types of material can be given geographical (and indeed ‘historical’) settings. There is perhaps inevitably a danger of circular argumentation, particularly when the Bible itself is one of the ancient sources used to reconstruct the context. Some have argued that that the Bible should not be used in the task of reconstructing a picture of events in the southern Levant in the time of which it purports to tell. But the Bible is a relatively ancient source, and to dismiss it for lack of objectivity would be to dismiss other ancient sources written for particular and sometimes propagandist purposes (which would be true of many which have informed the attempt to give a historical context in this volume). To rely on the objectivity of the archaeological evidence would be to overlook the extent to which such evidence needs to be interpreted. So the aim must be to use all the available evidence, aware of its strengths and weaknesses, to achieve as balanced a judgement as possible. The warning that it may be necessary to differentiate between the picture of a ‘biblical’ Israel created within the text, and the actuality of what was happening in the southern Levant in the first millennium BCE and the first century CE is a valid one. So the primary aim in this atlas is provide the reader with an awareness of the world in which the biblical narratives are set—the context against which the text is to be read.

There are a number of factors which need to be taken into account when considering apparently geographical statements in the Bible, not least the issue of the geographical awareness of those who made the statements and the extent to which the intention was to pass on information which was purely geographical. Brief mention will be made here of some of the relevant issues.

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