Getting to Know Israel
“The fifth Gospel”—that’s what one professor of biblical geography called the land of Israel. His point was that the Gospel writers, when presenting the life of Christ, assumed that their readers would know exactly what they had in mind when they mentioned various geographical points of interest. Further, they also assumed that the readers would understand that the message of Jesus rises up out of that geographical context. Unfortunately, many Bible readers skim over the geographical information provided in the Scriptures. They are only concerned with the meat of the passage. However, all the events of the Bible occurred in an historical context as well a geographical context. This is an introductory article for a new feature that will help explain the facts and importance of various biblical sites. We will start with an overview of the land of Israel.
Geographically, geologically, and topographically, the land of Israel (hereafter referred to as the Land) is one of the most diverse regions in the world. It covers an area no larger than the state of New Jersey, yet it has altitude variances as extreme as 1,300 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea and almost 9,000 feet above sea level at the peak of Mount Hermon. There is lush green foliage and desert sand. There are broad valleys (like Jezreel) and treacherous ravines (like the Sorek system just west of Jerusalem). There is the desolate region of the shepherd (the Judean wilderness) and the verdant plains of the trans-Jordan plateau. All of this serves to illustrate my personal description of Israel as the land of contrasts.
Israel is a geological land bridge connecting three continents: Asia, Europe, and Africa. It rests along and on top of a significant fault line that lends itself to consistent seismic activity. Historically, Israel has experienced several large earthquakes (see Amos 1:1 and Zech. 14:5 as examples of earthquakes being significant enough to date events in Israel’s history). It is because of these geological stresses that Israel has such a variety of mountains and valleys popping up and slicing through the Land. They also make it difficult to get around in the Land.
If you could look at Israel as a cross section from west (the Mediterranean) to east (north of the Negev), you would find that it has four basic geographical regions. The first is the coastal plain (the region of the Philistines and many of the Canaanite peoples). Inland, and at a slightly higher elevation, is the central mountain range (Galilee in the north, Samaria in the center, and Judea in the south). This range also has adjacent foothills to the west of Samaria and Judea that provide a buffer zone between the coastal plain and central hill country. This is called the “Shephelah,” or lowlands, in the Bible (see Dt. 1:7). The next region is the Jordan/ Rift Valley, which is below sea level from the Sea of Galilee in the north (minus 600 feet) to the Dead Sea in the south (minus 1,300 feet). The fourth region is the trans-Jordan plateau, a high range of both semi-barren land in the south and grassy grazing land in the north. This is the first part of the “promised land” that the children of Israel saw when they ended their wilderness wanderings.
But Israel is more than mountains, valleys, rivers, and deserts. Most of all, Israel is people. Israel’s population has been estimated at slightly over four and a half million. However, that number changes almost daily, especially with the current influx of Russian emigrés. Of that four and a half million, approximately 85 percent are Jews. The remaining 15 percent are Arabs, Druzes, or other ethnic groups. Israel’s capital city is Jerusalem. Her other major centers of occupation are the coastal cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. And, although the “fifth Gospel” was and still is important to the student of the Scriptures, our hearts, like our Lord’s, are moved with compassion when we consider the multitudes that occupy the Land.