Much of the Old Testament (OT) records history of God’s dealings with man in space and time, things that God has said and done in actual places and at actual dates in human history. A knowledge of the space and time in which what you’re reading in the OT took place certainly brings what you’re reading into sharper focus and enhances your understanding of it. So here’s a little about the historical and geographical setting of the OT.
Virtually all of the events of the OT took place in one little area of the world, commonly called in modern times, “The Middle East.” When historians refer to this area in ancient history they call it…
The Ancient Near East
Those titles (“Middle East” and “Ancient Near East”) were obviously given from a European perspective, because it’s when you’re in Europe that this area is east. It’s northeast corner is the Caspian Sea, it’s southeast corner, the Persian Gulf, it’s southwest corner, Egypt, and it’s northwest corner, Anatolia or modern day Turkey. Altogether, including the water, it is a region about half the size of the continental United States (and much of it is desert). And pretty much on this small stage the entire drama of OT history was played out.
In this area is what is commonly called “The Fertile Crescent.” I sprayed a green line onto the map above to show the Fertile Crescent. The name is probably self explanatory. It is a fertile area that forms sort of a crescent or new moon shape. And what it does is it links 2 very large fertile river basins at each end, the Nile River basin in the southwest, Egypt in other words, and then the basin of the 2 rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, in the east, which was an area called Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia was a word that meant “between the rivers.” Meso – middle, potamia – rivers, the middle of the rivers.
These rivers in Egypt and Mesopotamia made their valleys very fertile. The Nile River would flood its banks every rainy season depositing a rich fertilizer of dissolved minerals and silt around the banks. And likewise snow melt from the mountains at the source of the Tigris and Euphrates would create an annual flooding around their banks that had the same effect.
These 2 fertile areas on either end of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt and Mesopotamia, were the centers of power in the ancient world. These were the east and west world powers. In Mesopotamia you had empires like the Sumerians and then the Assyrians and then the Babylonians and then the Persians. It was not until after the end of the Old Testament that the center of power moved westward, first to Greece and then to Rome.
Now, underneath the fertile crescent you can see there is the Arabian Desert. Very few would ever want to travel across that desert. They would want to travel where food and water was available in the fertile crescent. And so all of the traffic between Egypt and the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, all the traffic for trade or for cultural reasons or to go to war with each other was funneled through the little narrow piece of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, which was known as the land of Canaan. And any traffic from north of the Mediterranean Sea in Anatolia where the Hittites lived to the southeast to Arabia would also travel through that narrow corridor. The land of Canaan was really at the cross roads of the ancient world. And that’s the piece of land that God chose to give His people Israel. Ezekiel 5:5 says, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her.’” It’s the land bridge for 3 continents, Europe, Africa and Asia. And I think that’s a big part of why God chose this land for His people, because it was at the center of the nations and the cross roads of the world. This way the whole world could see them, and see what blessing comes to people whose God is the LORD (YHVH), and also what curse comes to those rebel against Him. This is the ideal spot if they were going to be a light to the nations as God wanted them to be.
Land of Israel
This land God promised and gave to the Israelites is about 150 miles long from Dan in the very north to Beersheba in the very south, just a little bigger than New Jersey.
It’s a fascinating little area in that within it you’ve got about every kind of climate and every kind of scenery. It’s like entire world in miniature. There’s a ski resort today up on Mt. Hermon in the north. Then there’s the agriculturally rich plains of the Jezreel valley. And then there’s the rugged Judean hill country. From pine trees to palm trees, lush green and waterfalls to dry dirt and rocks. And in the Bible days a great variety of wild animals were here, lions, bears, leopards, crocodiles, ostrich, antelope, hippopotamus, camels, etc. It’s like bits of the whole world are all squeezed together in this little area.
It’s helpful to know about the 4 geographic zones that run north-south in the land. Starting on the Mediterranean side you’ve got the 12 mile wide coastal plan. When the Israelites settled in the land they let the Philistines live there. Then moving east you have a central mountain range that’s about 36 miles wide. That’s where most of the Israelites lived. They were known as a people of the hills (I Kg 20:28). And then there is the rift valley. The body of water toward the top of the map that most of us probably know as the Sea of Galilee or Lake Gennesaret (Lk 5:1), in the OT it’s called the sea of Chinnereth. The Jordan River flows out of it south. The word “Jordan” comes from a Hebrew word that means a descender, or one that goes down. And that’s what the Jordan does. It goes way down in elevation and empties into the lowest land area on earth, which is the region of the Dead Sea, and empties into the body of water known as the Dead Sea. It’s called the Dead Sea because it has no outflow and the water just evaporates because of the intense heat and it leaves behind a very high mineral content in the water that’s unsuitable for life. I guess you’ll bob up like a cork if you dive into it because the mineral content is so high. And then east of the rift valley is an area called the Transjordan Plateau. But it’s not flat terrain. Much of the plateau consists of hills and valleys where grain fields and olive groves and flocks and herds flourish.
So that’s some basic geography of the OT. If you can master the maps of the Ancient Near East and the land of Israel and hold them in your mind it will add clarity to what you’re reading.
The other dimension that is helpful to master in your mind is…
The Time of the Old Testament
Basically the Old Testament covers 2000 years of history B.C. But there is in Genesis 1-11 what we might call the primeval part, where we read about creation and the fall of man in sin, the flood, the tower of Babel. The first section is all about God and mankind generally. It’s not about God’s chosen people yet.
The history of Israel in particular really begins around 2000 B.C., which brings you to Genesis 12. So about as far as we are after Christ, the history of Israel started before Christ. You can divide the history of the OT into 4 equal parts of 500 years each. And those 4 quarters are distinct periods of time. I find it helpful to associate major events, prominent people and the primary mode of leadership with each of the 500 year dates.
So the first words under the dates are events – Election, Exodus, Empire, Exile (credit for the alliteration goes to David Pawson). 2000 B.C. is when God elected or chose Abraham and his descendants to be His people. Then at roughly 1500 B.C. is when Moses lead the people out of Egypt and then they came into the land God promised to them. 1000 B.C. brings you to about the reign of David and it was a time of unparalleled prosperity and peace. And you can call it “Empire” because they not only had their own land but many other nations were under their control. And then when you get to 500 B.C. the Israelites had had their the lowest point of their history – Exile. And actually by 500 B.C. they were returning from exile in Babylon.
Then it’s helpful to me to attach a prominent person to each of those dates. Abraham is the man to attach to 2000. Moses to 1500. David to 1000. And maybe Ezra or one the prophets you could attach to the exile or return from exile period.
But also the leadership of Israel changed. The leadership primarily in each of these 4 periods was different. In the first period they were led by patriarchs, the head father of the family, from Abraham to Joseph. In the second period they were led primarily by prophets from Moses to Samuel. In the 3rd 500 years they were let by kings, from Saul to Zedekiah. Then in the 4th period they were led by priests, from Joshua who came with Zerubbabel back from the exile to Caiaphas in the time of Jesus. So the leadership changed from patriarchs to prophets to kings to priests. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t prophets at other times or priests at other times, but the leadership of the nation passed from one group to the other, until Jesus came who was prophet, king and priest all in one.
Now, maybe you notice in the timeline above there are 2 white spaces. Those represent 2 400 year gaps. The first gap is in the first quarter. The second gap is in the last quarter. Concerning those 400 year gaps we have virtually nothing recorded. God was not doing or saying anything He thought the rest of mankind needed to know about during those times. The first gap is between Genesis and Exodus. I think we often miss that when we turn the page from Genesis to Exodus. We’re going by about 400 years there. The second gap is between Malachi, the last book of the OT, and Matthew, the first book of the NT.
Then on the timeline there is this yellow dotted line. And that represents the rise and fall of the Israelite kingdom. You see the peak of their prosperity was under the rules of David and Solomon. And then everything went downhill from there, the kingdom divided in two, they had a bunch evil kings and things got worse and worse until the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and then the southern kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians and they were taken into exile. And then it goes up a little when they’re allowed to return from exile, but not even close to how it was in the time of David. Understand of course that the lines really should not be so neat and straight. Israel had many ups and downs in their history, but these lines present the summary.
– James Williams