The land of Judah in southern Israel was home to many important leaders throughout Israel’s history. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all lived in the hill town of Hebron for a time, and later several of them were buried in the family tomb there. Likewise, David was born in the Judean town of Bethlehem, and while he was on the run from Saul, he traveled from hideout to hideout throughout Judah, which was no doubt familiar terrain for him. Various strongholds near the oasis of En-gedi in the barren Judean wilderness served as some of David’s hideouts, and Masada (which means “stronghold”) was likely among them. When David first became king, he reigned over Judah from the town of Hebron and moved to Jerusalem only after he gained control over all Israel. His son Absalom later staged a rebellion against him from Hebron. Hundreds of years later Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and Masada became the final holdout for a group of Jewish zealots during their revolt against the Romans.
The mountainous region of Phoenicia (corresponding roughly to modern Lebanon) lay along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, just north of ancient Israel. Throughout most of their history the Phoenicians enjoyed a peaceful relationship with the people of Israel. They were renowned for their abundant supply of cedar, which was resistant to termites, and for their purple dye, which was extracted from murex shells along the shore. The name “Phoenicia” means “the land of purple.” The Phoenicians were also renowned as skilled seafarers and international merchants, establishing trading colonies in places as far away as Carthage (south of Italy) and even Spain. The island city of Tyre was one of the most prosperous of the Phoenician cities. When King Solomon built the first Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, he partnered with King Hiram of Tyre to float cedar timber down the Mediterranean Sea to Joppa, where it was brought ashore and hauled to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 2). Solomon also partnered with Hiram to send out merchant ships to very distant lands to bring back exotic goods (1 Kings 10). Hundreds of years later, Jesus ministered in the region of Tyre and Sidon for a time (Matthew 15:21).
During their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas traveled to several cities in the Roman provinces of Lycia and Galatia in southern Turkey. Over the previous centuries many Jews had been scattered to distant locations like southern Turkey, so this is why Paul and Barnabas were able to find audiences for their message about the Messiah in Jewish synagogues in these cities. Along the way, however, some of these Jews fiercely resisted their message and even persecuted them, but Paul and Barnabas were still able to establish churches in Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Later, Paul, along with Silas, revisited these churches during his second and third missionary journeys to strengthen and encourage them. He also wrote the New Testament letter of Galatians to these churches to exhort them to hold firm to the gospel and not follow those who were teaching that righteousness can be achieved by obeying the law of Moses.
The scenic and spacious Jezreel Valley is located just north of ancient Samaria. This fertile plain served (and still serves) as the breadbasket of Israel–and the site of numerous bloody battles throughout Bible times. From Gideon to Deborah to Saul to Josiah, various commanders have recognized the importance of maintaining control over this prolific farmland, but equally important was maintaining control over the Great Trunk Road, which passed through the valley and connected Egypt with Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The Central Ridge Route, which served as the main artery running north and south throughout Israel, also terminated just south of the valley. At perhaps the most strategic location in the valley lay the raised fortress of Megiddo, which guarded a key mountain pass along the Great Trunk Road. Perhaps it was this long and bloody history of Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley that was in the apostle John’s mind as he foretold in the book of Revelation of a great battle between good and evil at a place called Armageddon, which means “Mount Megiddo.”
Though the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Chinnereth and the Sea of Gennesaret) is hardly mentioned in the Old Testament, by the time of the New Testament the freshwater lake boasted a thriving fishing industry and several noteworthy towns along its shores. The lake is nestled among the lush hills of Galilee at an elevation of more than 600 feet below sea level and is fed by the northern section of the Jordan River. The main section of the Jordan River originates from the Sea of Galilee’s southern extreme. Soon after his baptism Jesus relocated his ministry from his hometown of Nazareth to the fishing town of Capernaum, and several of his disciples were fishermen on the lake. A number of the events described in the Gospels took place along (or sometimes on) the lake, including Jesus feeding thousands of people, walking on water, and calming the wind and the waves. Such storms are not uncommon on the lake, as winds can rush in suddenly from the west or the east and generate waves over 10 feet high. Jesus also taught many sermons and parables along the shores of the lake, including his famous Sermon on the Mount, and in one instance Jesus taught from a boat on the lake while people listened from the shore (Mark 4:1).
The wealth and power achieved by King Solomon, due in part to his control over very important trade routes connecting the Ancient Near East, earned him a reputation far and wide–so far that the queen of Sheba in southern Arabia traveled over a thousand miles to visit him in Jerusalem. The people of Sheba traded frankincense, myrrh, gold, and precious stones throughout the Ancient Near East.
The small nations of Ammon, Moab, and Edom lay east of the Jordan River, and the people of these nations were distantly related to the Israelites. The Ammonites and Moabites were descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot, and the Edomites were descended from Jacob’s twin brother Esau. The Israelites had passed by these nations on the way to the Promised Land and battled against them at various times throughout history. David eventually subjugated the Moabites and the Edomites, but many years later they regained their independence. While much animosity often existed between Israel and these nations, the Bible also recounts how Naomi and her husband moved to Moab to seek relief from a famine, and Naomi’s descendant David placed his parents in the care of the king of Moab while he was on the run from King Saul. The people of Edom eventually migrated to the area just south of Judea (Israel) around the time that many Judeans were exiled to Babylon. Herod the Great, who was king of Judea hundreds of years later at the time of Jesus’ birth, was actually an Edomite (Idumean). The Maccabean rulers had forcibly converted the Edomites to Judaism over a hundred years earlier.
Though southern Greece was located over 700 miles from Israel, its history often overlapped with the events of the Bible. During the time of the Judges, Sea Peoples from the Greek mainland began attacking many lands of the Bible. Hundreds of years later during the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, the Greeks fought many famous battles (e.g., Thermopylae Pass, Marathon, Salamis) to keep their land from being subsumed under the vast Persian Empire, who ruled over virtually the entire Ancient Near East. Later the Greeks fought against the Romans, and in 146 B.C. all of Greece came under the rule of Rome. Nearly 200 years later the apostle Paul traveled to southern Greece, visiting the renowned philosophical center of Athens before moving on to Corinth and establishing a church there with the help of Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos. Corinth was a very prosperous city strategically located near the isthmus linking the southern peninsula to the mainland, giving it command over both land and sea travel in the region.
The famed city of Jericho was one of the oldest cities in the world. By the time the Israelites watched its walls fall down under Joshua’s command, Jericho was already thousands of years old. Located on a plain where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea, the heavily fortified city stood guard over the entrance to Canaan from the southwest, which meant the Israelites had to conquer it in order to safely enter the Promised Land. With its hot desert climate and abundant springs, Jericho was known as the “city of palm trees” (Deuteronomy 34:3). Centuries later it was likely near Jericho (which had moved further south) where Jesus was baptized, and he also encountered Zacchaeus and a blind man named Bartimaeus there. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan tells of a man overtaken by robbers on the steep route descending from Jerusalem to Jericho. About ten miles southwest of Jericho lay the forbidding wilderness of Judea, where Jesus fasted and was tempted by the Devil. The desert community of Qumran, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, was also located nearby.
One of the most well-known stories of the Bible is David’s defeat of Goliath, a Philistine giant from the town of Gath. The Philistines may have originated from the island of Crete and settled along the eastern Mediterranean coast around the time of the Judges. As the Philistines pushed further into the interior of Canaan, they often came into conflict with the Israelites, who resided mostly in the hill country. The Philistine threat was likely one of the reasons the Israelites eventually demanded a king to help rally the nation. The five primary cities of Philistia were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza, and these may have been what was in young David’s mind as he chose five stones in preparation to face Goliath. The Israelites subdued the Philistines, but the area remained largely Gentile throughout Bible times. In the New Testament, Peter traveled to the nearby cities of Lydda and Joppa and healed Aeneas and Dorcas, and Philip the Evangelist (one of the original deacons of the early church) met an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza and explained to him that Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Scriptures.