Friday, September 12, 2014

Geography of the Bible

For the past few months, I've been reading the Bible, book by book, and writing a report as I go, which I'm calling The Bible: a Book Report.  I've also been reading various commentaries and books, and watching documentaries to help me better understand this complex and important book.  I just finished watching a fascinating three-part documentary called Walking the Bible in which a writer (like me!) literally walks through the various places where Bible stories are set.

Writer Bruce Feiler, host of "Walking the Bible" plans his journey.

What's kind of amazing to me is that the Bible is not set in some fairy tale land.  It's set in real places, many of which you can visit today.  While the stories told in the Bible may be a mix of history and myth, the places where these stores are set do in fact exist.  Scholars sometimes disagree about their exact locations, but we know the general location of most of them.  Here are some of the places Bruce Feiler visits.

1.) The Garden of Eden

While the exact location (and even existence) of the Garden of Eden is subject to endless debate, the Bible itself gives its general location.   Genesis 2: 10-14 reads: "A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.  The name of the first is Pishon...the name of the second river is Gihon...the name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria.  and the fourth river is the Euphrates."  The garden of Eden, according to the Bible, was located in Mesopotamia, around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the so-called "Cradle of Civilization."  This is a fitting location, as it was the birthplace of human civilization.  Today, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers run through Iraq.  Baghdad is actually located on the Tigris river.  I always cringe when I think that, when the United States invaded Iraq, we were basically bombing the Cradle of Civilization and the Garden of Eden.

2.) Mount Ararat

Genesis chapters 6-9 describe the Great Flood, a story which was very common in the legends of the ancient Middle East.  The second most famous flood story after the Bible is the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells a similar story to the Bible.  After the flood, the Bible says that Noah's ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, which is a real mountain which exists in eastern Turkey.  Bruce Feiler visits, and climbs Mt. Ararat.  His guide is a Kurdish man who calls himself "Parachute."  Mount Ararat is located on lands generally occupied by the Kurdish people, who have gotten really screwed over by the mere fact of living on the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.  For a good film about Kurdish people, I recommend Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly (2004).

A view of Mount Ararat

3.) Sodom and Gomorrah

Scholars disagree over the exact location of the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which you may recall God burned with fire because they were full of inhospitable rapists.  However, it is generally believed that Sodom and Gomorrah were located at the Dead Sea.  This is a super salty sea where nothing can live, and everything floats.  It's located along the turbulent West Bank, on the border of Israel and Jordan.  Why are all these biblical places located in such turbulent areas of the world that are constantly bombed?  It's a shame, really.

On the border of the Dead Sea is a place called Mount Sodom, which has a salt formation called "Lot's Wife."  If you recall in the Bible story, while Lot and his family were fleeing Sodom, his wife looked back, and was turned into a pillar of salt.

"Lot's Wife" at Mount Sodom on the Dead Sea.

4.) Canaan

Much of the first part of Genesis tells the story of Abraham, a man who is really the father of three world religions today: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are sometimes called "The Abrahamic Religions" because they all have at their origins a man named Abraham, who left his home in ancient Sumeria and settled in the land of Canaan, which would eventually become the nation of Israel.  Here's a map showing Abraham's biblical journey from the Cradle of Civilization to the "Promised Land" of Canaan.

5.) Mount Moriah

One of the most famous biblical stories of Abraham involves God telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac on a place called Mount Moriah.  Scholars disagree over the exact location of this "Mount" but tradition places it squarely in present-day Jerusalem, particularly on the Temple Mount, the site today of the Dome of the Rock, which Bruce visits.  This is a place that has been revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout the centuries.

Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Mount Moriah?)

6.) Egypt

The biblical books of Genesis and Exodus have Egypt as their primary setting.  Abraham's great grandson Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers.  This is the plot of the musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."  Ultimately, the story goes, Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt, and ended up being the salvation of his whole family during a famine.  His family moves to Egypt and it is there that they become a Nation, the nation of Israel.  Egypt, of course, was a real place, which you can visit today.

7.) Mount Sinai

The biblical book of Exodus tells the story of Moses, and how he led the Israelite slaves out of Egypt and back to their Promised Land of Canaan.  This is the plot of numerous films, including "The Ten Commandments" starring Charlton Heston.  But before the Israelites can get back to Canaan and ultimately set up a new nation, they wander for 40 years around the Sinai Peninsula, a big desert which is a real place that exists today in Egypt.

On the Sinai Peninsula exists Mount Sinai, where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments.  While scholars disagree about the exact location of this holy mountain, tradition places it in the south, next to St. Catherine's monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the world.

Stay tuned for more on the geography of the Bible... 

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