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The Contours of the Land in Israel's History

The Land of Palestine

The land of Palestine took its name from the Philistines (the Pelishtim in Hebrew) who settled along the Mediterranean coast from Joppa to Gaza about 1300–1200 BC. According to the Bible, the Philistine people were connected with Caphtor, usually associated with the island of Crete (Jer. 47:4; Amos 9:7). Prior to the Philistine migrations, the region was known as Canaan. This term signified a “land of purple” and was probably derived from the purple dye the indigenous peoples manufactured from the murex shellfish found in abundance along the Mediterranean coast.

Palestine is often referred to as the geographical and theological center of the ancient world. It was at the crossroads of the important trade routes of antiquity, the “land between” the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe. It was also this general area that played an important role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The land area measures approximately 150 miles from Dan to Beersheba (north–south) and 70 miles from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River (east–west, at its widest point). Modern day Israel stretches some 263 miles from north to south (Dan to Elath). This equates roughly with the area of state of New Jersey (approx. 8,630 square miles). The climate is typical of the Near East, mild to cold winter depending on the altitude, with some snow at higher elevations. The rainy season lasts from October to April, with hot, dry, cloudless summer months from May through August.

The land is easily divided into four basic longitudinal, or north–south, geographical regions: the coastal plain, the central mountains, the Rift valley, and the Transjordanian mountains (cf. Deut. 1:6–8). The major latitudinal or east–west geographical divisions of Palestine are connected both with the geographical features of the land and political boundaries of the Israelite divided kingdom. These divisions included the region of Galilee in the north, Samaria in the north central area of Palestine, Judah in the south-central portion of Palestine, the Negev (or “dry” steppe) in the south, and the Sinai peninsula forming a great natural barrier between Palestine and Egypt.

The Shephelah
The Shephelah is hilly territory along the western side of Judah, forming a barrier between the cities of Judah and the Philistine Plain to the west. Image Credit: Todd Bolen.

The Coastal Plains

The coastal plain gradually widens to distances of ten to twelve miles in southern Palestine. This fertile strip of land receives more than thirty inches of rainfall annually off the Mediterranean Sea. Three distinct plains are identified along the coast: Acre (Akko), extending northward from Mount Carmel (twenty-five miles long and five to eight miles wide); Sharon, between Mount Carmel and the port city of Joppa (fifty miles long and ten miles wide); and the plain of the Philistines in the extreme south from Joppa to Gaza. The coastal plain never held primary importance to the Hebrews geographically during Old Testament history. The Phoenicians controlled the northern plain, the Philistines controlled the southern plain, and the plain of Sharon was wasteland, marsh, and dense forest in ancient times.

The Central Hill Country

The region of the central hill country was the most varied geographically and the most important historically in Old Testament times. The majority of Israelite cities were located here, and the territory comprised the bulk of the land area controlled by the Hebrew united and divided monarchy. The mountainous terrain forms the spine, or backbone, of western Palestine and is commonly divided into three major geographical sections: Galilee, Samaria (or Ephraim), and Judah. The slopes reach heights of 3,000 to 3,300 feet; the region receives adequate rainfall and was suitable to the Hebrews for agricultural cultivation, including grain fields, vineyards, and fruit and olive groves. The principal features of Galilee include Mount Tabor (Judg. 4:6, 12) and the Jezreel Valley. The city of Shechem, flanked by Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, dominated Samaria (Josh. 8:30–35). Jerusalem was prominently situated at the crossing of the trade routes in Judah (2 Sam. 5:6–12). The strip of land between the coastal plain in the south and the central highlands was known as the Shephelah. This broad and fertile piedmont (or plateau between coast and mountains) was a forested area in Old Testament times and occupied by the Philistines (cf. Judg. 14–15; 1 Sam. 17). During the days of the Judahite monarchy, Beth Shemesh and Lachish were important fortifications along the southwestern flank of Judah (2 Chron. 25:17–28).

Jordan Rift Valley
The Jordan Rift Valley is an elongated depression that runs through the heart of Palestine. It is one of the most important geographical features in the biblical story. Image credit: Zairon.

The Jordan Rift

The Jordan River rift, or Jordan cleft, is a great geological depression that begins in Syria in the Lebanon mountains and runs south to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. The Jordan River valley that forms the eastern boundary of Palestine is also part of this jagged geological trench. The Jordan River has its origins on the lower slopes of Mount Hermon and rises from three spring-fed rivulets. The Jordan flows southward from Hermon to the Hula Lake and swamp and then drops quickly some 900 feet and empties into the Sea of Galilee. This inland, freshwater lake is nearly 700 feet below sea level and is surrounded by rounded hillocks. The lake itself is seven miles wide and thirteen miles long.

The Dead Sea has no natural outlet, and its mineral-rich waters have a salt content of 30 percent. The limestone cliffs lining the western shore of the Dead Sea are pocked with caves that served as hideaways for bandits, political fugitives, and sectarian religious communities. It was here among the caves of this “badlands”-type landscape that the famous Dead Sea or Qumran community scrolls were found. South of the Dead Sea, the Arabah Valley stretches some hundred miles to the Gulf of Aqaba. The inhabitants of this desolate and dry desert fringe mined the iron and copper deposits found in the hills bordering the Arabah or engaged in the caravan trade that traversed the region.

The Transjordanian Mountains

Broadly speaking, the Transjordanian mountains create an extensive tableland rising some two thousand to six thousand feet above sea level between the Jordan River and the northernmost reaches of the Arabian Desert. The region yields some minerals and is suitable for both agricultural and pastoral lifestyles. Four major wadis, or seasonal rivers, feed the Jordan River from the plateau, including the Yarmuk, Jabbok, Arnon, and Zered.

The Trans-jordan tableland may be subdivided into three main plateaus: the Seir mountain plateau in the south (from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Zered Valley), the area of Moab and Gilead in the central Transjordan (extending from the Zered Valley to the Yarmuk River), and the Bashan plateau in the north (stretching from the Yarmuk to Dan). The King’s Highway ran the length of the Transjordan plateau from Bozrah to Damascus.

The Transjordan region was the first area the Hebrews settled as part of the conquest of Palestine after the exodus from Egypt (Josh. 13:24–31). Throughout Old Testament history the plateau area was often the site of military conflict. The Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Moabites, and Ammonites all vied for control of the trade route centers along the King’s Highway and of the fruitful land of Gilead and Bashan, a most valuable commodity in the arid and desert-like environment of most of the Near East.

Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee is located in northern Palestine and played a important role in the life of Israel's northern tribes. It is the lowest fresh water lake in the world. Image credit: Todd Bolen.

Theological Significance of the Land

Palestine, or the land of Canaan, is also an important theological symbol in the Old Testament. This real estate was a major component in God’s initial covenant promise to Abram (Gen. 12:1–3) and is the goal or destination of the pentateuchal narratives. The exodus from Egypt was divine deliverance for the purpose of bringing the Israelites into “a good and spacious land . . . flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). The land of Canaan was both the goal of covenant obedience before God and the benefit for maintaining his covenant stipulations.Because it was part of God’s covenant promise, the land was integrally involved with the Hebrews’ covenant relationship with YHWH. The Ebal ceremony outlined in Deuteronomy 27 and enacted in Joshua 8 formalized the ties between the Hebrews, the Torah of the Lord, and the land of the promise. All three were inextricably bound together under God’s sovereign rule. This meant God’s presence and blessing overshadowed Israel as they obeyed the covenant stipulations (Deut. 28:1–14). It also meant that any Israelite trespass of the covenant defiled the land and jeopardized their claim to possess it (Deut. 28:15–68). Sadly, all this came to pass as a result of the policies and practices King Manasseh instituted (2 Kings 21:10–15; 24:3; cf. Lev. 18:24–25). In fact, the length of Israel’s exile from the land was directly associated with the concept of sabbatical rest for the covenant land (2 Chron. 36:21; see also chapter 6, “Leviticus”).

The Old Testament prophets and poets reminded Israel that possession of the land guaranteed neither God’s presence nor his blessing (Jer. 7:1–7). The whole earth belongs to the Lord (Ps. 24:1), and he transcends the “land” in that the earth is but his footstool (Isa. 66:1). By the same token, exile from the land of the promise did not necessarily signify God’s abandonment, as Ezekiel’s chariot vision testifies (Ezek. 1). The throne of the Lord is movable, and he is capable of seeing and responding to the needs of Israel in any location.

Finally, the geography of the land of the promise influenced even the language and literary images of the Old Testament. Psalm 23 abounds with the imagery of the land, and elsewhere the psalmist likened the righteous to trees planted by flowing waters (Ps. 1:3). The premium on water in the arid climate of the Near East conditioned the language of the prophets as well as the psalmists. The rain and dew are often symbols of God’s blessing and vindication (e.g., Joel 2:23; 3:18). Likewise, the rugged and boulder-strewn terrain of the Sinai Desert and Judean wilderness probably inspired the epithets for God such as “Rock,” “Fortress,” and “Refuge” (Deut. 32:15; cf. Ps. 31:2). Even the reference to Canaan as a land “flowing with milk and honey” pictured the richness of the land for supporting the lifestyles of pastoralism (i.e., the “milk” of flocks and herds) and agriculture (i.e., the “honey,” or nectar of crops and produce).

Content adapted from A Survey of the Old Testament by Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton.

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