Notes on the Historical Geography of Israel
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Matthews poses the question, “What do topography, ecology, and climate have to do with shaping the culture and identity of ancient Israel? 1 Basically, it distills down to this – knowing Israel’s geography can help us ascertain meaning of the biblical text. What I refer to further here is historical geography.2

Greater knowledge of Ancient Israel is not necessarily essential (for the gospel and much of the Bible is perfectly intelligible without these details), but this study will give us appreciation for points that would otherwise be missed. Historical Geography takes into consideration at least these main eight concepts.

  • Climate
  • Topography
  • Water Sources
  • Natural Resources
  • Agriculture
  • Demography
  • Architecture
  • Social Structures

These eight shape our understanding of biblical Israel. What we are doing in historical theology is attempting to describe ‘space’ — real space and imagined space. Space can actually be divided into three: “The “first space” (physical reality), “second space” (imagined space), and “third space” (lived spaced).” First, of course, let us regard physical space.

Israel is set within the land of Canaan (Num. 34:7-11; Josh 13:4- 5), and Canaan is fairly close to the equator of the earth. (For comparison, Israel is about the same attitude as Dallas, San Diego, and Southern Georgia. Israel is not very big, but demonstrates some diversity of topography and climate).

And, Israel’s features can be summarized by about seven different regions: the Coastal plain, the Shephelah foothills, the Central Mountain range, the Wilderness 3, Rift Valley, TransJordan Mountains, and Eastern Desert. Obviously some other signifiacnt geographic locations are the bodies of water: the Mediterranean, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, and the Salt Sea 4

Pg. 24, Zondervan Atlas of the Bible

Where is Israel? Physical space.

Dan to Beersheba is the classical description of the borders of Israel (Judg. 20:1; 1 Sam 3:20), kind of like saying ‘from sea to shining sea.’ to describe the United States here in North America, but the rule of Israel extended to different areas at various times (1 Kings 9:26; 2 Kings 14:22; 2 Chron. 26:2). Israel, however, never was able to control the Northwestern coast except for maybe a brief moment in David’s reign (2 Sam 24:7).

However, Joshua 20:7 divides it into three regions; and all of the land of Canaan west of the Jordan River is divided into three regions extending from north to south: (1) Galilee (Hill Country of Naphtali), (2) Hill Country of Ephraim and (3) Hill Country of Judah.5.

Another triad that we could use to describe the land of Israel are the three tentposts of Abraham’s travels: Bethel, Shechem, and Hebron. Later on in the book of Joshua, the three tentposts, that prop up how Israel describes the land are tied in Joshua’s book to Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron, which is fairly close to Bethel, Shechem, and Hebron as Abraham traveled south (Gen. 12:7-8; 13:18).

Looking towards the East, we see a different view of Israel

Pg. 25, Zondervan Atlas of the Bible

Lived Space

Concerning lived space, we think of such features as roads and towns, cities and architecture.

There are three kinds of roads in ancient Israel: international routes, interregional routes, and local routes. The most important international route was the “The Way of the Sea” (cf. Isa 9:1) or the ‘Via Maris.'”

The most important interregional route was the ‘Patriarch’s Highway’ via Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Gibeah, Ramah, Bethel/Ai, and Shiloh. Other call it the “Ridge Route,” because it tiptoes water supplies along the ridges of Judah and Ephraim.

Regional Notes

As follows are just some miscellaneous notes on different regions, demonstrating how to connect matters of geography to biblical interpretation.

“The name Galilee is used only six times in the Old Testament but appears sixty-four times in the New Testament, primarily in connec­tion with the ministry of Jesus. The term seems to mean “region” or “district.” In the Old Testament period the region was referred to as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isa 9:1), but by the New Testament era it had a large Jewish population.”6


“In the Old Testament,the Sea of Galilee is mentioned only five times and is called the”Sea of Kinnereth.”Tradition relatesthe name Kinnereth to the lyre-like shape of the lake, but the lake probably derived its name from the city of Kinnereth (Josh 19:35), located atits northwestern cor­ ner. This name, in modified form (“Lake of Gennesaret”), is used once in thegospel accounts. Thenames used inthe New Testamentare “Seaof Galilee” (five times), “Sea of Tiberias” after the city of Tiberias (ca. AD 20; John 6:1; 21:1), andsimply “thelake” (thirty-one times).”7

In the Jezreel Valley:

It was probably during a winter rainstorm (with the ensuing muddy conditions) that the Canaanites abandoned their chariots, which were stuck in the mud, and fled on foot before the troops of Deborah and Barak, which were advanc­ ing from Mount Tabor (Judg 4:15; 5:20-21; Ps 83:9; map p. 126). Although the wet season caused problems fortravelers, it enabled the inhabitants of the region to reap in spring and early summer bounti­ ful harvests of wheat and barley, which “God had indeed sown” (in Heb. “Jezreel” means “God sows”). 8

Another snippet concerning Judges:

The placement of the tabernacle at Shiloh during the period of the judges may have been motivated by the usefulness of the natural defenses of Ephraim.It iswith goodreason that oneof theLevites was saidtolive in “a remote areain the hillcountry of Ephraim”(Judg 19:1),for certainly this was one of the most secluded places in the whole of the Cisjordan mountain chain.9

Concerning King David’s and Jonathan’s endeavors.

“The spring and summer seasons were”the time when kings go off to war” (2 Sam 11:1) because the roads were dry and the newly harvested grain was available to feed their troops.”10

And, though most people do not travel along the central mountain slopes, Jonathan and his armor-bearer seemed to have done it. (1 Sam 13:23 – 14:14).

Concerning the move of the Northern capital to Tirzah and Samaria.

The move of the capital of the Northern Kingdom to Tirzah(see, e.g., 1 Kings 15:21, 33) seems to reflect a more inward, defensive, con­ servative approach to international matters. But when the capital was finally moved to Samaria (1Kings 16),located not far from the Sharon Plain on the western slopes of the mountains, the Northern Kingdom was open to the full force of cultural, religious, and political influences from the west (witness the arrival of Jezebel and her gods; 1 Kings 16:29- 34). Samariaeventually becamea great Greco-Roman city, and in time its name replaced Manasseh as the name of the region.11

Borders and Boundaries: Imagined Space.

There are three passages that mention land deeds.

Genesis 23:17-18 Abraham purchases the Cave of Machpelah

2 Samuel 24:21-25 David purchases the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite to build an altar.

Jeremiah 32:6-15:  Jeremiah “redeems”his cousin Hanamel’s field”at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin”

Three spots also describe boundaries markers

Genesis 31:43-55 Laban and Jacob establish clear territorial boundaries

Deuteronomy 19:14: And, “A curse is invoked on anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker (Deut. 27:17, cf. Prov.23:10).

1 Kings 21:16: In the days of Ahab.  The land was surveyed in triangles with a boundary marker placed at each corner.


Here are five important cities, and how they relate to the stories of the Bible.

Shechem: Abraham’sentrance to Canaan here (Gen.12:6-7), Joshua’s covenant renewal ceremony  (Deut.11:29; Josh.24),Rehoboam’s meeting withthe tribal elders (1Kings 12:1-17); after this, its “importance diminishes with the moveof the northern kingdom’s capital to Sa­maria” (1 Kings 12:25; 16:24).

Shiloh: Lying east of the trade route (Judg. 21:19, “its fame rests on the story of Joshua’s division of the land (Josh. 18:1), [and] its use as a cultic center where the ark of the covenant resided in Eli’s time (1 Sam. 4:3-4)” Its ruins demonstrate God’s displeasure (Ps. 78:60; Jer. 7:12-14).

Bethel: Tied to both Abraham (Gen.12:8) and Jacob (Gen. 28:19) and Jeroboam’s two shrines (1Kings 12:32-33, cf Amos 5:5-6)and rebuilt by the exiles (Ezra 2:28).

Jericho: Joshua’s conquest (Josh. 2;6), Ehud’s murder of King Eglon of Moab (Judg. 3:12-30), Elijah’s ascension (2 Kings 2:4-5).

Hebron: (Gen. 13:18; 23:18). A Levitical city as well as being city of refuge (Josh. 20:7; 21:11), David’s capital (2Sam. 5:5). “Abner is murdered and buried here (2 Sam.3:27-32), and Absalom uses Hebron as his political jumping-off point for his revolt against David (2 Sam.15:7-10).”

“According to the Succession Narrative, after the death of Saul’s son Ishbaal (2 Sam. 4), the tribal elders traveled from throughout the country to Hebron in order to offer the leadership of the nation to David (5:1-5).

Realizing that this mean the wouldhave to abandon his presentcapital and choose onemore centrallylocated, Davidturned hisattention to Jerusalem,which had certain advantagesthat outweighed its less desirable location off the main trade routes.

First, its citadel was defended by surrounding hills and deep valleys. It also had a ready water supply in the Gihon Spring, and it possessed a long history of remaining unconquered (Judg. 1:21).

This also meant that the city was politically neutral since none of the Israelite tribes had been able to claim it as their own. Once David managed to capture the city (the details are too sketchy to explain how he did it) and install his administration there, he could transform it into his own city.” 12

pg. 47, Matthews

So, we see that Jerusalem is important. But, even David’s leaving of Jersualem is significant. When his son, who goes to Hebron (tying himself to Abraham), organizes a revolution and revolt, David must flee Jersualem. He goes to Mahanaim? But, “Why does David go to Mahanaim?

The following list provides some possible answers.

Mahanaim’s location, seven miles east of the Jordan River…can control the north-south traffic along the major trade route through Transjordan, the King’s Highway (1 Kings 4:14)… and close Ammonite allies (2 Sam. 17:27-29).

Ironically, Mahanaim was the administrativecenter for Saul’s son Ishbaal after hisfather was killed at the Battle of Gilboa (1 Sam. 31:1-7). Ishbaal ruled the northern tribes from this site outside of Canaan for seven years, and it is now reused by David as his seat while in exile from Jerusalem.

Mahanaim is tied traditionally to the story of Jacob’s encounter with “the angels of God” (Gen. 32:1-2) and to his successful meeting with his brother Esau in which the ancestor gained free title to the covenant lands in Canaan (33:1-17). By returning to this traditional site, David may have sought to energize his forces and remind them of his role as king and heir to covenantal leadership.

Mahanaim is referred to as a Levitical city (Josh. 21:38), and David has a previous history of seeking out Levitical support (see his journey to Nob for Goliath’s sword in 1 Sam. 21:1-9).”

So, all in all, as shown in just this smattering of random notes, we can see that historical geography plays a role in our interpretations. Obviously most people do not take the time and energy to imagine and research these things, but for those who are familiar, hopefully we can communicate some worth of this substantive field, all for the better understanding of Scripture.


  1. Matthews, “Historical Geography,” in Studying the Ancient Israelites, p 19
  2. Image Source
  3. “Jeshimon” (the”waste” orthe “desert”place; 1 Sam 23:19;26:1,3).David fled from Saul into the wilder­ness (1 Sam. 22:1-27:6)
  4. (Gen 14:3; Num 34:3, 12; Deut 3:17; Josh 3:16; 12:3; 15:2, 5; 18:19)
  5. Matthews pg. 26
  6. Rasmussen, Carl G. Zondervan Atlas of the Bible: Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 37
  7. pg. 41
  8. pg. 40
  9. pg. 46
  10. pg. 32
  11. pg. 46
  12. pg. 42
News Reporter
From Madison, Wisconsin. B.A. Biblical Studies: Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. M.Div. Student at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario.

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