The geography of Scripture first came alive for me when I visited the Holy Land. During the trip, I was rarely without my Bible. It acted as a guidebook as I made connections between the words on the page and the tangible, sensory experience around me. Since visiting Israel, I’ve continued to draw on that experience as I dig into the Word. It was valuable for these reasons:
The Sensory Experience
I quickly realized how the mental pictures and storybook images that I had previously developed proved to be inaccurate or incomplete. Most often, these images were two-dimensional, non-realities of desert lands. Today, I no longer imagine the pastoral lands around Galilee; I remember them. I’ve seen the boats the disciples would have cast their nets from. I watched shepherds lead their flocks over the hills of Bethlehem with just the sound of their voices. All of my senses were engaged, and to some degree they are reengaged every time I read God’s Word. Now that I’ve experienced the land for myself, I’ve left the flannel board and cut-out characters behind.
The Cultural Insight
While wandering around the Mount of Olives, my group saw a large tomb that housed hundreds of boxes that were a yard long, 8 inches high and 8 inches wide. Our guide filled us in on a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Being buried on the Mount of Olives was an honor, but space was extremely limited. After several months to a year, families would exhume the bones and place them in small rectangular boxes, burying them in a less prominent tomb on the mount. This practice is called “second burial” and may have been the practice referred to by the disciple in Matthew who said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (8:21). Jesus bluntly tells the disciple, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (8:22). Jesus wasn’t referring to leaving one’s father dead or unburied—which would have been a dishonor of the Law and culture.
The Sharper Image
Jesus came to seek and save the lost, but He emphasizes that He was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. I always assumed this made sense: He was Jewish. He lived in Israel. But I never realized how easily Jesus could have taken His message to other cultures. There were vibrant Hellenistic cities in Israel at that time. Herod the Great admired Rome and built cities paying homage to its architecture and culture. He built Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast near Joppa. Beth Shan, a Hellenistic center in Israel, was along the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus must have passed that city in His ministry, but purposely avoided it because He was primarily focused on His ministry to Israel. Paul and the other disciples would later model that intense focus in their mission to the Gentiles.
If you visit the Holy Land, do so with your Bible open. In Israel, the Bible provides clarity and direction. Sometimes, we underestimate how far-reaching its influence really is.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).