Maps can provide insight into the meaning and purpose of an author, but there is another tool to use when studying places. Places don’t only have locations and neighbors, they have names (names with meaning) and histories. By using a concordance we can often find out that an author is saying more than we realize. Let us return to Amos as an example.
Amos chapter 5 begins with a lament of Israel’s fate and a call to “seek God and live” but according to verse 5 they are not to do it at three places: Bethel, Beersheba and Gilgal. By using a concordance we can get both a better appreciation for why these particular cites are named.
A concordance lists all occurrences of a word in the Bible. You may have a brief English concordance in the back of your Bible, or maybe you’ve seen the massive Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance in a library. The easiest complete concordances to use these days can be found in Bible software or on the Internet. If you don’t already use one, I recommend blueletterbible.org. By doing a search for our three cities (one at a time) we can find all the other places in the Bible where these locations are referred to by name. Lets look at one of them for an example:
Just a glance at the concordance will show you that Beersheba appears extensively in Genesis, especially during the lives of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). One quarter of the references to Beersheba in the Old Testament are directly tied to the patriarchs. Remembering how important these three men would be to the audience of Amos (Israel) should make us slow down and review these references in their context. As we do this we will discover a theme. Abraham (who names the place) makes a covenant with Abimilech who tells him “God is with you in all you do” (Gen 21:22,31). When Isaac comes to Beersheba we find the same idea in a vision from God, “fear not, for I am with you in all you do” (Gen 26:23-24). When Jacob late in his life travels to Egypt God appears to him in Beersheba and tells him, “I myself will go down with you into Egypt”. Beersheba and the idea that “God is with you” go hand-in-hand.
When we return to Amos chapter 5 we see that Amos touches on the same theme. He deals with Beersheba in 14-20. He says in verse 14,
“seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.”
They had been claiming, that like the patriarchs, God was with them, but that could only be true if the forsook evil. Amos continues to play with this theme. He shows that for God to be “in their midst” in their current condition would be disastrous (Amos 5:16-17). They had been longing for the Day of the Lord, when God would “show up and judge their enemies, but for them the Day of the Lord would not be salvation but judgment. They had the audacity to say that God was in their midst, but when he shows up they will learn the consequences of sin in the presence of God.
By consulting a concordance we have discovered much more depth in Amos’ message. We may not know much about the religious activities in Beersheba at that time, but we can appreciate the history of Beersheba and how Amos uses that to criticize the hypocrisy of his time. Pursuing the history of a location, and sifting through it for pertinent details, can be time consuming. Often however, it can lead to a better understanding of a passage so it is worth hitting a concordance any time a location seems to be part of the meaning and not just the setting.
If there was ever a subject in school that felt worthy of the teenage anthem, “I’m never going to need this!” It’s Geography. What good are maps when we have turn-based navigation and GPS? And what about all those names of countries and far-off cities, how many people are actually going to travel that far from home? Although I resonate with the questions rallied against education (and remember having them myself) I have learned that becoming a better Bible student has made me a better (and more appreciative) student of all sorts of “never need” subjects. And that includes geography.
Because most of the Bible takes place in locations far from home, geography becomes really important. Words like Jericho and Shiloh don’t strike us like the words Seattle or Washington D.C. We don’t have memories of landmarks, or general understandings layout, or familiarity with architecture and agriculture. Not only that, even if you visit these places today they are very unlike the places in the Bible. This is because we are separated not only in space but also in time. All the places in the Bible, an ancient book, are ancient places.
It is worth noting that this wasn’t true for the original author and original audience, for them these were places they had visited or at least could point to on a map. They knew a basic outline of national borders and demographics. That means when they refer to places it’s a lot more than just a name: it’s a place with people and neighbors, culture and history, reference and meaning. This makes it vital that we seek to understand the geography of the passages we study. I’ll demonstrate the value of this with a single book: the minor prophet Amos.
Amos begins with a formulaic roll call of judgment. He calls out one nation after another “for three sins and for four” and declares that God will judge them for their actions. Because we are not familiar with these places in the time of Jeroboam II we can miss something striking in what Amos is doing. This can be remedied by studying a map of Israel and the surrounding nations during the time of the prophets (remember places change location with time so make sure you are using a map from the right time period). These are easy to find in the back of a good study Bible or online. Once you have a map handy, just mark the places that Amos singles out for judgment one-by-one and connect the dots. If you do so, look at what we find:
Amos was preaching primarily to the people of the Normal Kingdom of Israel, he begins with their neighbors and encircles Israel as he goes. It’s then he moves in to strike! Israel has been behaving just like their pagan neighbors and are also heading for judgment. You can imagine the effect this would have on his audience. As he begins to preach “judgment for Edom” and “the sins of Tyre” would gather a crowd. The people would be nodding in agreement, and maybe even cheering for the end of their enemies, but as Amos finishes his circuit with first Judah and then Israel the people discover that the circle of judgment around them is a noose tightening around their own neck.
You can’t always tell when maps are going to help you understand a passage. The authors of the Bible never provide footnotes that say, “Consult the map on page 55.” A good rule of thumb is to check it any time there is travel mentioned or it seems like the locations are somehow intertwined in the meaning. It never hurts to do a little extra study on the places of scripture, and sometimes it brings fresh and valuable perspective.