Most people who have never been to Israel think that Israel is mostly a desert. What comes to mind is dust and dirt, sweltering and penetrating sun, and rocks, sand, and stones everywhere. What is not known about this small country about the size of New Jersey is that there is so much topographical variety within its borders.
Once a person lands in Israel, it becomes obvious that Israel comprises of a whole assortment of regions, each having their own characteristics and topography. Many of these regions have their own weather too, despite being so closely located to each other. Becoming aware and appreciating both the similarities and differences of each regions of Israel is a crucial dimension of understanding the land (and its stories) of the Bible!
Beginning from south to north, the Aravah and the Negev are the driest of regions. From the southern border of the land of Israel at the Red Sea, to the border of the Negev with the Egyptian Sinai, all the way up to the the area of Beersheba and Arad (the two primary biblical cities of the Negev), topography can vary even within these two regions. Israel’s “Grand Canyon” (the Machtesh Ramon) is a vast open area that classically looks and feels like a desert. It resembles the surface of the moon. Acacia trees dot the landscape in these dry regions, especially the further south you go.
The middle regions of Israel (from west to east) – the Coastal Plain, the Shephelah (“Lowlands”), the Judean Hill Country, and the Judean Wilderness, are once again all different. The coastal area along the Mediterranean Sea is flat, while the Shephelah consists of 5 primary valleys separated by small rolling hills. The Judean Hill Country (where Jerusalem is located) rises to about 2,700 feet above sea level, while the Judean Wilderness drops off to 1,300 feet below sea level along the coastline of the Dead Sea. This is a difference of 4,000 feet! Jerusalem can get as much rain as London does during 3-4 months/year, while the Judean Desert may get only a few light rain events each year. Rain (that comes from the west) simply can’t make it up and over the Judean hills, thus leaving the chalk limestone Judean desert, as the psalmist says, “dry and weary where there is no water.” (see Psalm 63:1)
Continuing northward, Israel is defined by the Sharon Plain (to the west along the Mediterranean Sea), the Hill Country of Samaria in the middle, and the Jordan Valley to the east. Further north is the Mt. Carmel region and the Jezreel Valley, called The Emeq in Hebrew, separating the hills of Samaria to the south, and the start of Lower Galilee further to the north. The Jezreel Valley is well irrigated and is considered the “bread-basket” of Israel, with the Carmel full of olive trees. It’s in the region of Lower Galilee where Jesus grew up (in Nazareth). This region is characterized by a series of hills and valleys.
Lastly, Upper Galilee, the Hulah Valley (north of the Sea of Galilee), and the Golan Heights mark the northern border regions of Israel. Mt. Hermon rises to about 9,000 feet in elevation as it borders both Lebanon and Syria. Compare the elevation of Hermon with the Sea of Galilee itself just 35 miles south which lies 600 feet below sea level. Snow covers the heights of Hermon half of the year. Who ever would think that Israel has enough snow to offer a ski resort for Israelis? Depending on the year, skiing takes place for about 6 weeks each year? Apple orchards are abundant in the Golan Heights.
When one superimposes all the stories of the Bible onto the land, one begins to understand how people lived in each region. The role of archaeology also offers unlimited insights into the life and culture of the Bible! Additionally, one also begins to appreciate the distances between cities and regions. Knowing the regions is like knowing the playing board of the Bible! It’s a crucial part of being able to understand the Bible in its context.
While recently the Yesha Council, for instance, has produced 3-D topographical maps of Israel (only available currently in Hebrew, see above), the very best topographical study maps are produced by Jim Monson and Steve Lancaster at Biblical Backgrounds. These are computerized maps that are carefully designed to be accompanied with study guides focusing on biblical history. Obtaining the resource, Regions on the Run, is a great place to start in learning the regions of the Bible.
Paying attention to the regions of the Bible is an essential part of Biblical education. The stories of the Bible will begin to jump off their pages and come alive in “3-D” understanding as you do!