Chapter OneThe Setting
of the Bible
1. Why the Setting Is Important
The Bible is full of people, places, and events-it tells of God's concrete
dealings with humanity and humanity's relationship with God in the
day-to-day situations and problems of real life.
While an understanding of the message of the Bible-the Gospel of
God's eternal love for His people-does not depend on our knowledge
of the historical, geographical, and cultural background or setting of the
Bible, such knowledge will often add a concrete dimension to our reading
of the Scriptures that can help put the biblical message in sharper focus.
For example, in Genesis 23, Abraham's wife Sarah has died, and Abraham
needs a place to bury her. God had promised that the land of Canaan
would belong to Abraham and his descendants, but at this point he doesn't
own even a square inch of it; he is still a nomad. Abraham approaches
Ephron the Hittite, who owns the cave in which he wants to bury Sarah.
The story reflects an established pattern of negotiating. Ephron seems to
be very generous, but in reality he ends up selling the cave to Abraham for
an exorbitant price. This was the only part of Canaan Abraham owned
when he died, and he paid many times what this little piece of it was
worth-yet Abraham continued to have faith in God's promise that one
day his descendants would own all of the land (see Hebrews 11:8-10).
Similarly, geography often plays a role in the Bible. When God called
Abraham to go from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan, almost due west of
Ur, Abraham ended up in Haran, almost as far north of Canaan as Ur
was east of it (Genesis 12). The problem was not that Abraham had a
poor sense of direction. Rather, it was impossible for Abraham to travel
due west to Canaan, since between Ur and Canaan there was only desert.
Abraham had to follow the River Euphrates, the one reliable source of
water on a journey of some 600 miles as the crow flies, before heading
south to Canaan. (See page 49 for more on roads and travel during biblical
2. The Ancient Near East
The setting of the Bible is what is today called the Middle East: modern
Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and
Iran. This same region is referred to as the Ancient Near East when we
look at its history.
It is an area smaller than the United States, much of it desert. The
earliest great civilizations prospered around the rivers in this region-the
Egyptian Empire along the Nile River, the Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian,
and Persian Empires around the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, in
what is now Iraq.
We sometimes have the mistaken notion that Abraham, with whom
the story of God's people begins, lived in rather primitive times. Nothing
could be further from the truth-unless we assume that technology and
urban sprawl are the hallmark of civilization. When God called Abraham
(ca. 2000 B.C.),
Egypt had already had a flourishing civilization for more than
a millennium; the pyramids had been standing for almost five
On the island of Crete, the great Minoan civilization had already
prospered for more than five centuries.
The region around the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (also called
Mesopotamia = "Between the Rivers") was the scene of the great
Sumerian civilization. Ur of the Chaldeans, where Abraham came
from, was a thriving city on the Euphrates River.
Great civilizations also flourished farther east, in the Indus Valley
and in China.
It was not until after the end of the Old Testament (ca. 400 B.C.) that
the center of power moved westward, away from the Ancient Near East,
first to Greece and then to Rome.
3. The World Powers of Biblical Times
There were six great empires during biblical times. (The exact boundaries
fluctuated, and some of the boundaries were never clearly defined.)
The first three empires were east and southeast of the Mediterranean Sea;
the last three show a gradual shift toward the west, until with the Roman
Empire the focus of power shifted from northern Africa and the Near
East to Europe.
Egyptian Empire. Became the home of Israel when the Patriarchs
moved to Egypt at the end of Genesis; the Israelites left Egypt in
the Exodus, 400 years later.
Assyrian Empire. Destroyed the northern kingdom, Israel, in 722
B.C. and deported its people. Its capital was Nineveh (which was
spared after Jonah preached there).
Babylonian Empire. Destroyed Jerusalem and the southern kingdom,
Judah, in 586 B.C. and deported its people to Babylonia. Its capital
was Babylon (where the prophet Daniel rose to prominence).
Persian Empire. Destroyed the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C. Its
capitals were Persepolis and Susa (the latter providing the setting
for the book of Esther). The first Persian ruler, Darius, allowed the
Jews to go back to Jerusalem.
Greek Empire. Founded by Alexander the Great around 330 B.C.
After Alexander's death, the empire was divided into four empires
(see pp. 472-74). The legacy of the Greek Empire was not political
but cultural: Hellenism (see p. 481).
Roman Empire. The empire that was in its glory days during
the time of Christ and the early church (see pp. 645-53; for the
Roman Empire after the time of Christ, see pp. 895-901).
4. Roads and Travel in Biblical Times
Our understanding of both the Old and the New Testament accounts
can be enhanced by understanding the influence that roads and weather
played in the course of biblical events.
In ancient times, the location of roads was determined to a large extent
by the natural features of the landscape. Most roads through the rugged
hill country of Judah generally followed the mountain ridges, since a more
direct route would mean climbing in and out of many valleys and ravines.
Water-either too much or too little-was also a problem. Roads in
valleys and low-lying areas could flood during the rainy season or become
too muddy for use. Travel during the dry summer season was much easier
than traveling on muddy, rain-soaked roads in the winter months. The
spring and summer seasons were "the time when kings go off to war"
(2-Samuel 11:1) because the roads were dry and the newly harvested
grain was available to feed their troops.
Too little water, on the other hand, was an even more serious problem.
When Abraham traveled from Ur to Canaan (see map on p. 109),
he could not simply go west, which would have saved him hundreds of
miles, since there were no sources of water in the Arabian Desert. Instead,
he had to follow one of the major international trade routes that connected
Mesopotamia with Egypt, Turkey, and Arabia. From Ur, these
routes followed the great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, and both
went through Haran, almost 400 miles to the north of Canaan.
The Major International Routes
The "major international routes" were not unlike the transcontinental trails
in the early American West, such as the Oregon Trail. Basic "road-building"
operations included the removal of stones from the path, the clearing of trees
and bushes, the maintaining of shallow fords in the river beds, and possibly
the construction of trails along steep slopes. But these major routes generally
followed relatively easy terrain and were never far from water sources.
These roads had to be recleared and releveled periodically, especially
when an important personage such as a king was to travel on them. Thus
it is not just poetic language, but rather a statement about actual road
maintenance when we read, "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight
paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill
made low" (Luke 3:5)-that is, ruts or eroded low spots must be filled
in, and bumps must be removed.
Living near an international highway brought economic benefits. These
roads served as thoroughfares for itinerant tradesmen and merchants, for the
conveyance of governmental and commercial messages, and for the transportation
of scarce supplies, such as copper, iron, tin, gold, silver, incense,
dyes, and pottery. (Bulkier items such as timber and stones were usually
shipped on boats and rafts.) Those who controlled the roads-whether
brigands or a more permanent central government-could derive considerable
income from the traffic on these highways. The central government
could collect tolls from passing caravans, sell food and lodging, and offer
the services of military escorts that could be hired by the caravans to ensure
their safe passage through "dangerous" territory.
On the other hand, these same roads were also used for military expeditions,
which brought no economic benefit but only enormous risk in
the case of hostile armies.
Those living along the international routes were also exposed to new
intellectual, cultural, linguistic, and religious influences, and this inevitably
led to a degree of assimilation. For
example, the ease of travel in and out of
Samaria helps to explain the openness of
that area to non-Israelite religious and
The remoteness of the Hill Country
of Judah and the relatively difficult access
to Jerusalem made the southern kingdom
less susceptible to foreign influences. This
difference helps explain why the deportation
of the northern kingdom happened
some 130 years earlier than the deportation
of the southern kingdom, Judah (see
Roads in Canaan
By the time Abraham arrived in the land
of Canaan (ca. 2000 B.C.), the lines of
communication within the country were
already well established. Two international
highways ran through the country, one
along the coast (sometimes referred to as
"the Way of the Sea"), the other east of
the Jordan River (the Transjordanian highway). The western international
highway probably played a role in the story of Joseph, who found his brothers
near Dothan, was thrown into a cistern, and then was sold to Midianite
merchants, who took him to Egypt (Genesis 37:12-28). Dothan was less
than 15 miles from the western highway, and the cistern may have been
The map on page 49 shows many of the regional and local routes in
Canaan. One of these is especially important for biblical studies: the interregional
route that ran from Beersheba in the south to Shechem in the
north-via Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Gibeah, Ramah, Bethel/Ai,
and Shiloh. This route appears again and again in the biblical text. Some
people call it "the Route of the Patriarchs" because Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob traveled its length, while others refer to it as "the Ridge Route," for
in many places it runs along the ridge of the watershed of the Judean and
Ephraim mountains. Even when it is not specifically mentioned, it often
furnishes the backdrop for many events recorded in the Bible.
It was not until shortly before New Testament times that the Romans
developed advanced road-building techniques, which included the preparation
of the roadbed by leveling the ground and cutting rocks, the use
of curbing to mark the edge of the roads, attention to drainage, and the
laying of paving stones. The Roman Empire developed a system of roads
that ultimately would stretch from Scotland to the Euphrates-some
53,000 miles in all. (The U.S. Interstate Highway System, by way of comparison,
consists of approximately 30,000 miles of road.) It is probable
that the construction of a rather well-developed road system had already
begun in Syria and Judah in New Testament times.