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The Lands of the Bible—A Thematic Guide

The Promised Land, the Road to Damascus, the Walls of Jericho, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Tower of Babel are all biblical references used in common parlance that recall locations mentioned in the Bible.

The geography of the Bible is a rich and intricate field of study. Putting the text of the Bible into context can be a complicated affair as the Bible spans several thousand years. As ruling empires changed, so did place names and geographical boundaries. As a result, places in the Bible often have numerous names or variant language and spellings.

The opening chapters of Genesis take place in the larger context of the Ancient Near East, and the first geographical location mentioned is the Garden of Eden. The scripture locates the garden at the location where four rivers flow together. Two of the rivers—the Tigris and the Euphrates—are known today. The term Mesopotamia comes from the Greek term "between the rivers" and refers to the land mass between the Tigris and Euphrates that is modern-day Iraq.

Water, as often was the case, helped determine where people would settle. The lands of the Bible were surrounded by deserts so stretches of arable land gained considerable importance. The Fertile Crescent refers to the arc of agriculturally viable land extending northward from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, eastward across northern Syria, and then into southern Mesopotamia.

The Nile, the great river of Egypt, figures prominently in the narratives about Moses and the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt. Moses was found in the reeds of the Nile by the Pharaoh's daughter, and during the plagues the waters of the Nile were changed to blood. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, it was into the desert surrounding Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses was given the Ten Commandments.

After the Exodus most of the Hebrew Bible is set in what is now Israel and Palestine, for several centuries divided into the Southern Kingdom of Judah (later Judea) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The major river in this region was the Jordan River, which linked the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee and was especially important because it formed a natural boundary.

The New Testament places less emphasis on specific geography, but Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Galilee gained importance because of their associations with Jesus. Also key to the geography of the Bible found in the New Testament are Paul's extensive journeys across Asia Minor and to the areas around the Aegean Sea. It was Paul who helped spread the teaching of Jesus into Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, thus expanding what might be considered biblical lands.

Many locations that existed in ancient times have survived, and many more sites have been buried or lost over time. Biblical archaeology serves as a way of placing the Bible into a historical context. Some archaeological discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran beginning in the late 1940s, have such a deep impact on the study of the Bible that new fields of inquiry like Qumran Studies are formed.

Some sites continue to have significance, especially Jerusalem. It was the capital of Israel and then of Judah for most of the first millennium BCE. First Temple, built by King Solomon, was there, as was its replacement, the Second Temple. For Jews, it was the "holy city" and continues to be so. Because the death and burial of Jesus took place in Jerusalem, it also became a holy city for Christians and subsequently acquired the same status for Muslims. These overlapping attachments of the three monotheistic faiths to the city have been the source of frequent tensions and even war throughout millennia to the present day.

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