The Shephelah, meaning “lowlands,” was a band of gentle hills lying between the coastal plain and the hill country of Israel, and it was covered with sycamore fig trees and olive trees (1 Kings 10:27; 1 Chronicles 1:15; 9:27; 27:28). This pastoral description of the region paints a deceptively peaceful picture, however, for the various valleys that cut through this region from west to east offered invading armies quick access to the heartland and key cities of Israel, making the Shephelah a very strategic stretch of land. Because of this, several important towns kept close watch over its key access points, including Aijalon, Beth-shemesh, Azekah, Libnah, Mareshah, and Lachish. From the very beginning of Israel’s conquest of the land, the valleys of the Shephelah were the location of pivotal battles, beginning with Joshua’s defeat of the Amorites at Aijalon while the sun stood still (Joshua 10:10-14). The Shephelah continued to serve as a buffer between the Philistines and the Israelites from the time of the Judges through the time of the Divided Monarchy. The Valley of Sorek was home to the judge Samson, so it is no surprise that he had several hostile encounters with the Philistines there (Judges 13-16). This same valley is also where the Philistines sent the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel after it afflicted them with tumors (1 Samuel 6:1-7:2). Later, young David slew Goliath in the Valley of Elah and sent the Philistines into a panic (1 Samuel 17), and he also saved the people of Keilah from the Philistines in this valley while on the run from Saul (1 Samuel 23:1-5). Later Jehoash of Israel defeated Amaziah of Judah at Beth-shemesh (2 Kings 14:11-14), and Asa defeated a massive army of Cushites at the Valley of Zephathah (2 Chronicles 14:9-15). During the final days of the northern kingdom of Israel, the Philistines captured several towns within the Shephelah as part of what was likely an effort to compel Judah to join an anti-Assyrian alliance (2 Kings 16-17; 2 Chronicles 28; Isaiah 7-8). After Israel had fallen to the Assyrians, king Sennacherib of Assyria attacked Lachish and Libnah to bring Hezekiah firmly under Assyria’s yoke (2 Kings 18:13-17; 19:8; 2 Chronicles 32:1-23). Years later when King Zedekiah rebelled against the rule of the Babylonians, they came and attacked every fortified city of Judah. Lachish and Azekah in the Shephelah were among the last cities to fall to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 34:1-7). Finally, over four hundred years later Judas Maccabeus launched a surprise attack against Seleucid forces just west of Aijalon (1 Maccabees 3:38–4:25; 2 Maccabees 8:8–8:36).
Whether one believes the biblical story of God planting a garden in Eden for Adam and Eve should be understood as allegory or historical event, an unassuming reading of the story suggests that the places mentioned were recognizable to the original audience and would have been sufficient to clarify for them where the garden was located. The story locates the garden of Eden at the confluence of four headwaters into a single river that watered the garden. These four rivers are called the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. The identification of the last two rivers is widely accepted as the two great rivers that flow along either side of the lands of Asshur (Assyria) and Babylonia. The identification of the first two rivers, however, has become obscured over time and has been the subject of diverse speculation since at least as far back as the time of the first century Jewish historian Josephus. Some of this confusion stems from the incorrect assumption that Cush, noted as the basin of the Gihon, refers to the kingdom of Cush located immediately south of Egypt in Africa, which leads to the conclusion that the Gihon must be the Nile River (as Josephus also surmised). But the story makes it clear that the four rivers of Eden all joined together to form a single river, and this is difficult to reconcile with a Nile River identification. The Table of Nations, however, includes among the descendents of Cush several tribes along the Arabian coast as well as those of the kingdom of Cush in Africa (Genesis 10:6-7; see also Numbers 12:1; 2 Chronicles 14:8-14), and this is likely the region intended in the story of Eden. This then coalesces very well with an identification of the Gihon as the modern Wadi al-Batin (or at least its southwestern extremity), a now intermittent river running across the middle of Arabia that flowed with greater consistency in ancient times due to a wetter climate. If this is correct, this may assist in the identification of the Pishon, which is noted in Genesis as flowing through Havilah, where there is high quality gold, aromatic resin, and onyx. The most widely accepted location for Havilah is in the southern extreme of Arabia and perhaps in Africa across the Red Sea, and this fits perfectly with other passages in the Bible that associate this region with gold, incense, and precious stones (1 Kings 9:28; 10:10-11; 22:48; 1 Chronicles 29:4; 2 Chronicles 8:18; 9:1-10; Job 22:24; 28:16; Psalm 45:9; Isaiah 13:12; 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20; Ezekiel 27:22). No known river that converges with any of the other three rivers of Eden currently exists in this region, but this author’s cursory study of the terrain of the area suggests that perhaps a river may have once flowed through the valley that leads directly from the land of Havilah to the Gihon River (Wadi al-Batin), and this would make it a fitting candidate for the Pishon River. Without more thorough hydrological and geological study of the area, however, this can only be considered a suggested possibility.
The Roman province of Galatia was home to some of the first churches established by the apostle Paul (Acts 13-14), and it appears he continued to regard these churches with deep affection throughout his ministry (Galatians 4:19-20). Sometime after Paul returned from his first missionary journey he wrote the letter of Galatians to these churches to warn them against turning away from the gospel of grace and seeking righteousness through obedience to the law of Moses. Later Paul revisited and encouraged these churches during his second and third journeys (Acts 15:41; 18:23). The map shown here depicts the inbound route Paul took during his first journey, though the exact route Paul followed to reach Pisidian Antioch from Perga is uncertain. Some scholars suggest he took the Sebastian Way, which was a well maintained but somewhat indirect route for traveling to Antioch. Other suggest Paul followed the more direct but also more difficult route along the valley of the Cestrus River. During his second and third journeys it appears that Paul approached these churches from the east by taking the road leading from Tarsus to Derbe, and he revisited the churches in the reverse order from his first journey.
While the island of Cyprus is often remembered as the home region of the apostle Barnabas during the time of the New Testament (Acts 11:19-20), its history intermingles with Israel’s at least as far back as the time of the Exodus, though mostly indirectly. Cyprus was located about 165 miles northwest of Israel, and in ancient times it was covered with forests. It was also abundant in copper, silver, iron, various minerals, wine, oil, and grain and became famous throughout the Near East for these prized resources. A contingent of Mycenaean Greeks inhabited Cyprus by 1400 B.C., and later the island received a larger wave of Greek settlers after Mycenaean culture collapsed in Greece. Cyprus maintained close contacts with cities on the mainland that lay to the north and to the east of the island, but its direct contact with Israel was limited during the Old Testament, perhaps because of Israel’s limited interest in sea travel and trade. The island, or perhaps certain cities such as Kition, are referred in the Old Testament by the names Elishah and Kittim (Genesis 10:4; Numbers 24:24; 1 Chronicles 1:7; Isaiah 23:1-12; Jeremiah 2:10; Ezekiel 27:6; Daniel 11:30). Eventually the island came under the rule of Assyria and was later controlled by Egypt during the Babylonian era. As with rest of the Near East it was then subsumed into the mighty Persian Empire until Alexander the Great, after which it came under the rule of the Ptolemaic Empire. In A.D. 58 Rome acquired Cyprus and established it as a Roman province. They divided the island into four districts, which were named after the primary town in each district: Salamis, Paphos, Amathus, and Lapethos. As mentioned earlier, the apostle Barnabas (and perhaps his relative John Mark) was from the island of Cyprus (Acts 11:19-20), and when Paul set out with him on the first missionary journey, they went first to Cyprus (Acts 13). Later Barnabas parted ways with Paul and returned to Cyprus with John Mark, presumeably on another missionary journey (Acts 15).
During his second and third missionary journeys (Acts 15-21), the apostle Paul traveled extensively throughout western Anatolia, most of which formed the Roman province of Asia. During Paul’s third journey, he spent two years ministering in Ephesus, one of the most prestigious cities of the Roman Empire, but eventually the local silversmiths incited a riot, forcing Paul to leave for Macedonia (Acts 19). Eventually the apostle John relocated his ministry to western Anatolia as well, and the seven churches he addressed in the book of Revelation (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea) were located there (Revelation 1:11).