Maps That Bring Bible Events to Life
“IT LOOKS like rain,” said an anxious English tourist in Israel, peering at a few clouds through the coach window. The local guide, hearing the remark, laughed and shook his head. “It will never rain in Israel at this time of the year. You are not in England now.”
How easy it is for us to judge the Bible lands by our own country and our own experience, especially if we have not visited the Middle East! Without realizing it, we can miss so much when we are reading God’s Word, simply because we do not have that background. By finding out more about the customs and ways of the people and the lands in which they lived, however, we can gain a deeper appreciation of so many incidents recorded in the Bible.
Maps play an essential part in conveying this information to us, and in many ways they speak more eloquently than words. Yet some people find maps difficult to read and understand. The little time used to become familiar with maps, their symbols and contours, and the meaning of the different colors, will aid us in that we will be well repaid when we use them as tools in our study. Maps should not just be used for finding the location of places. In the words of Bible geographer Denis Baly, having found the place we want, “one should know also, at the very least, how it is related to the physical landscape, to the valleys, hills, rivers and plains.”
It is then that we begin to build a visual picture, and if this is added to actual photographs of the type of area involved, the setting will come to life. As we read a Bible account, how easy for us then to people that setting with the characters described, just as if we were there watching it happen! By looking at a few examples, it will be possible to illustrate this use of Bible maps.
DAVID’S FLIGHT FROM KING SAUL
After slaying the giant Goliath, young David went on to vanquish the Philistines. So popular did he become in Israel that the women celebrated the victory in song and dance, comparing the thousands struck down by King Saul with the tens of thousands by David. How angry Saul became when he heard that! Admiration turned to hatred, so that he tried to pin David to the wall with his spear. David’s continuing success made matters worse, and Saul “felt still more fear because of David, and Saul came to be an enemy of David always.”—1 Sam. 18:6-29.
Despite help from Saul’s son Jonathan and his own wife Michal, David came to see that, as he put it: “There is just about a step between me and death!” (1 Sam. 20:3) He finally fled to the cave of Adullam, located southwest of Jerusalem in an area where the mountains of Judah descend toward the coastal plain. In this inaccessible region are numerous limestone caves, and here hundreds of men gathered together to David. (1 Sam. 22:1, 2) But warned by Jehovah that the people of Keilah, near Adullam, would betray David into Saul’s hands, he sought a safer refuge.—1 Sam. 23:6-13.
The wilderness of Judah was just such a haven. Hundreds of years later Jesus Christ spent 40 days here protected by the angels from its wild beasts—leopards, wolves and hyenas. (Mark 1:12, 13) In our own day spectacular discoveries have been made in some of its thousands of caves. Ancient Bible scrolls dating back some 2,000 years have been found, preserved by the exceptionally dry climate. Not far away another cave disclosed remains from the second Jewish revolt against the Romans in 132-135 C.E. Why had its leader, Bar Kokhba, fled to this region, and why did these scrolls remain hidden for so long? For the very same reason that David “took up dwelling in the wilderness in places difficult to approach, and he kept dwelling in the mountainous region in the wilderness of Ziph.”—1 Sam. 23:14, 15.
The wilderness of Ziph and of Maon close by form the high central part of the wilderness of Judah. (1 Sam. 23:24) When we look at a map, this wilderness can be seen to the south of Jerusalem, stretching right along the western side of the Dead Sea, with the three cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron approximately forming its other boundary. Next, we notice a number of valleys, or wadis, intersecting the wilderness from west to east, making travel from north to south almost impossible.
Walking down the Kidron valley from beside the temple mount in Jerusalem, a person very quickly leaves behind the busy city, and in the words of Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni, enters “this frightening wilderness.” Following this valley in its continuation, the Wadi en-Nar (“fire wadi”), it drops some 3,000 feet (c. 900 m) to the Dead Sea, becoming a deep gorge or canyon with precipitous cliffs rising more than 200 feet (c. 60 m) on each side. To walk along its bed in winter is to be in danger of being caught by a flash flood of water rushing down the wadi after a sudden downpour. In summer the heat can be devastating. Each of the wadis in the region presents similar problems.
No wonder David found this to be a safe refuge! Even with an army of 3,000 men, it was difficult for King Saul to search the innumerable caves that pock the limestone cliffs, many only being accessible by rope from above. He and his men later heard a report that David had moved to En-gedi, an oasis near the shore of the Dead Sea, and Saul went searching “upon the bare rocks of the mountain goats.” Hidden right back in the darkest part of one cave, David had a fine opportunity to kill Saul, but would not touch Jehovah’s anointed.—1 Sam. 24:1-15.
On another occasion, when he could have slain the sleeping king in his camp, David merely took his pursuer’s spear and water jar from his side, later standing on the other side of the gorge to point out the failure of Saul’s men to protect their king. His voice echoing around the barren hills, David called across, asking what he had done that Saul should chase after him “as one chases a partridge upon the mountains.”—1 Sam. 26:1-20.
How valuable this picture is when we consider many of David’s cries for help in the Psalms! Though he might be tempted to think that literal crags and rocks—yes, high mountains—were his refuge, yet he constantly reminded himself that Jehovah was his real protector and salvation. As a shepherd, David was used to the hills. He was nimble and fleet of foot like the long-horned mountain goat, or ibex. Yet it was his God who kept his feet from slipping on the narrow path. (Ps. 18:1-3, 31-33) When betrayed by the people of Ziph and sought by his enemies who set traps for him, David’s heart could still remain steadfast in Jehovah, and he could play his harp and accompany it in song amid the desolate cliffs and gorges. (Ps. 54, 57) Even when the pressure from David’s enemies brought him to a low state of depression, he could still talk to Jehovah and look to Him for deliverance. (Ps. 142) Are we able to do this when great difficulties beset us? We can do so if we build our faith in God.
AN ATTACK ON JUDAH
When Jehoshaphat was king over Judah in the 10th century B.C.E., he received some disturbing news. A confederation of tribes from the east, inhabiting Moab, Ammon and Seir, were reported to be heading for Judah “from the region of the sea, from Edom; and there they are in Hazazon-tamar, that is to say, En-gedi.” (2 Chron. 20:1, 2, 10, 11) When we look at our map, En-gedi already is familiar to us, and we can soon find Moab, Ammon and Edom. But we may be inclined to ask: How did this army get to En-gedi, and why did it come that particular way?
An earlier king of Judah, Rehoboam, had built a string of fortified cities in strategic positions. Our map identifies those of Bethlehem, Etam, Tekoa, Beth-zur, Hebron and Ziph as protecting the eastern flank of Judah. (2 Chron. 11:5-12) To be successful, the enemy needed the element of surprise, and likely they thought that the empty and forbidding wilderness of Judah would provide that unexpected approach. They may have come around the southern end of the Dead Sea. Or they may have marched over the low Lisan peninsula, crossing the Dead Sea at its narrowest point (about two miles [3 km]), by an ancient and shallow ford that some scholars say existed. Then, passing the great rock of Masada, they reached En-gedi before they were spotted, perhaps by a scout from one of the forts above.
This gave Jehoshaphat little time, for the enemy was about a day’s march from Jerusalem. Like David, he trusted in Jehovah and cried out to him for help. The reply: “The battle is not yours, but God’s.” He was told to station his men just below Tekoa at the end of the torrent valley, for the enemy forces were “coming up by the pass of Ziz.” This was done by Jehoshaphat, with the singers placed in the forefront.—2 Chron. 20:3-21.
The pass or ascent of Ziz ran northwest from near En-gedi, first climbing for some 1,300 feet (c. 390 m) by a steep zigzag path winding back and forth. Then it went on across a hilly plateau and followed a twisting route up toward Tekoa at nearly 2,700 feet (c. 820 m) above sea level. What a climb, with many ups and downs as the route crossed smaller wadis and tributary streambeds! Hot and tired, the enemy probably hoped to rest unseen near the top. But not a chance! They were discovered and ambushed. What confusion set in as they wondered where the ambush came from, not realizing that Jehovah was assisting Judah! As the hills rang with Judean shouts of praise, the invaders thought their own allies were to blame. Disagreements broke out, and they started fighting one another until the entire army was routed and destroyed. Can we see and hear that battle raging amidst those rugged and desolate heights, with songs of praise echoing across the mountains all around? How Judah blessed Jehovah for his great victory!—2 Chron. 20:22-30.
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Jesus’ well-known illustration about the Samaritan who helped a man attacked by robbers was played out along a road just north of the wilderness of Judah, or Judaea. More than once the account emphasizes the fact that those traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho were “going down.” (Luke 10:29-37) How well Jesus knew that route! And we can travel almost the same road today. Check the map, and notice that it descends more than 3,000 feet (c. 914 m) in the 14 miles (c. 23 km) from Jerusalem to Jericho. Bordering the desert wilderness most of the way, it runs below sea level for quite a distance. With very little habitation on the route, how lonely and blisteringly hot this road could be, and how easy for robbers to hide near a projecting cliff or boulder waiting for the unsuspecting traveler!
Not without purpose did Jesus give his illustration this setting. Many of his hearers knew that road, and they could picture it in their mind’s eye. They could “see” what was happening, and they could imagine the kindly Samaritan giving his instructions at the isolated inn. Can we picture this, too, as we read the account?
USING BIBLE MAPS
The examples considered herein show how we can use maps of Bible lands. If detail is required, find a large-scale map of the area. Check the locations given, and then look at the contour lines and coloring that appear on some maps, noticing any rivers, highways or relevant boundary lines. Try to visualize the region, bearing in mind that crowded, twisting contour lines and swiftly changing colors indicate many hills and valleys, whereas contours that are widely separated and gentle, using only one or two colors, show plains and less undulating land. If you can find some pictures of the area, these will add to your mental vision.
Small-scale maps can be useful for tracing longer routes, such as Paul’s journeys, where detail is not so important. For instance, see endsheet maps in the New World Translation. But the smaller a map is, the less likely is it to contain all the names you require, and their position will be only approximate. Also, maps are often related to particular periods in history, for names have a habit of changing quite frequently. Many helpful maps are found in Aid to Bible Understanding.a
Though you may never have the opportunity to visit the lands of the Bible, get to know them with the help of maps. Make your reading of the Holy Scriptures more meaningful by creating a picture in your mind. Then it will stick and help you to recall a Bible event more easily.
a Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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WILDERNESS OF JUDAH
Wilderness of Ziph and Maon
Ascent of Ziz
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Caves of the Judean wilderness
The southern end of the Dead Sea, as viewed from En-gedi
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“Going down” to Jericho—a 3,000-foot descent