A. The Geography of the Holy Land

1.The Galilee

The boundaries of the Galilee included on the south the Plain of Esdraelon, on the north the great gorge of Kasimiyah which separate the Galilee from Lebanon, on the east the valley of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, and on the west the narrow Phoenician coastal plain. It measures about fifty miles from north to south and from twenty-five to thirty-five miles east and west or an area of about sixteen hundred square miles.

The Galilee falls into four natural divisions: the Jordan valley and the three strips running from east to west between the Sea of Galilee and Mediterranean.[1] The upper Galilee consists of a series of plateaus and with hills ranging from two to four thousand feet, the lower Galilee of a series of ranges all below 1850 feet, and finally the Plain of Esdraelon. Thus, as one looks north from Samaria there are three zones rising in steps to the border of Lebanon where the lofty snow-covered peak of Mount Hermon dominates the scene.

Although the summers in the Galilee are as dry as in Judea it is watered by rivers and a wealth of wells in the hills. The abundance of water means lush fertility. In the lower Galilee there is a profusion of bush and scattered forest trees, holly-oak, maple, sycamore, bay, myrtle, arbutus and sumac. In the valleys are found olive orchards and stretches of cultivated fields. The upper Galilee is equally as rich. The growing of olives was abundant. Grain crops were also grown there as Josephus[2] and the underground silos excavated at Sepphoris attest. Jacob’s and Moses’ blessings are redolent of the rich abundance of nature in the Galilee:

“Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall yield the dainties of a king. Naphtali is a hind let loose, that bears comely fawns.” (Gen 49:20–21)

“O Naphtali, satisfied with favor, and full of the blessing of the LORD, Blessed above sons be Asher; let him be the favorite of his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil.” (Deut 33:23–24)

2. Judea

The name derives from the land claim of the tribe of Judah. The land was probably more specifically defined after the restoration and demarcated in the Persian satrapy system as the province of Yehud although at that time it included only a small area around Jerusalem. It lay between Samaria on the north and Idumea on the south. The name Judea appears first in the books of Ezra and Maccabees.

It was almost square extending forty-five miles on a side between the Jordan/Dead Sea and the Mediterranean but excluding the coastal cities of Ashkelon, Jamnia, Azotus and Gaza. There is a natural border formed by the Valley of Ajalon from Gazara to Jericho. Therefore the northern boundary was not far north of Jerusalem. The southern boundary ran from just south of Masada westward to the Mediterranean south of Gaza.

Judea is largely “hill country.” The limestone mountains range from 2000 to 3,346 feet rising from the coastal plain and its foothills, the “Shephelah” (i.e., “lowlands”). Access to the interior is only possible by traversing valleys which cut through them intermittently. The mountains then descend again in the east into the great rift of the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea. This is the great “wilderness” where the population has always been sparse and water scarce. This is not a wilderness in the western sense meaning out in the wilds. Traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem one finds this wilderness is nothing but sand and rock with an occasional spring that surprises the traveler in its stark contrast to the surroundings because of the lush vegetation which accompanies the presence of water. Sparse grass can grow there for two weeks during the raining season of the year. A barren and awesome, austere environment! Traveling by foot from Jericho to Jerusalem takes four hours. From the Jordan valley one indeed has to go up the mountains to reach Jerusalem from Jericho making it entirely clear that one had to “go up to Jerusalem” in order to reach it.

Roads go around Judea and do not pass through it so commerce, of necessity, by-passed the great capital city. It is only the deliberate traveler, making a way through the mountain trails and passes, who reaches Jerusalem. There is only one north-south way over the tableland which makes its way from Bethel and Jerusalem to Hebron and Beer-Sheba. The “gate” to Jerusalem from the south along the western shore of the Dead Sea provides three oases, at Ein-gedi, Ein-Feshkha near Qumran and the “fountains of Elisha” at Jericho. Here again, the first two of these oases form a stark contrast with their parched and desolate surroundings. South along the Dead Sea lies Ein-Gedi, its palm trees and vegetation carpeting the land. It was a welcoming asylum from a life-threatening barrenness which includes even the Dead Sea whose mineral and salt content render it unlivable for any kind of aquatic life.

The Judean plateau runs like a spine north and south through the land. Where the plateau breaks there are low ridges and shallow glens. Some of these breaks in the tableland are rich in vegetation in places such as Bethlehem, Hebron, Eshcol and Bethany. The shallow and rocky soil of the Judean valleys can sustain viticulture and olives, figs and citrus fruit and some grains. But the overwhelming reality of Judea is that of stone. Salt could be mined from the Dead Sea, a valuable commodity indeed. The greatest wealth, however, derived from the sacrifices flowing into the temple and the annual half-sheqel tax. So the wealth of the country was concentrated in Jerusalem.

B. The Politics of the Holy Land in the First Century

When Jesus was born, perhaps around 7 B.C., Herod the Great was the client ruler of all of Israel’s historic, geographic patrimony including the Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Perea, and the area known as Gaulanitis. When he died in A.D. 4 his will divided his kingdom into three parts ruled by three of his sons: Herod Antipas became Tetrarch (“ruler of four”) of the Galilee and Perea; Phillip the Tetrarch of Gaulanitis; Archelaus the Tetrarch of Samaria and Judea. In A.D. Archelaus was deposed for misrule and replaced by the direct rule of Rome through the governorship of procurators.

The procurators proved to be basically inept, if not corrupt. Their misrule and depredations contributed directly to the revolutionary spirit that infected the populace leading to the destruction of the nation, Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple in A.D. 70.

The places mentioned in the Gospels are indicated on this map such as Tyre, Caesarea Philippi, Capernaum, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Caesarea Maritima, Emmaus, Cana, Samaria, and Bethphage.