The first reading from the lectionary this past Sunday was taken from Genesis, and included this promise by God to Abraham. “Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.” Many Jews and at least some Christians take this as a promise that the Jews will someday possess the entire Middle East. I believe this is a mistake, and that it results from a failure of geographical imagination.
I say this as an historical geographer, not as a biblical scholar or apologist for any side in present day territorial disputes. If we take the words to be a faithful relation of an oral tradition predating the writing of Genesis, we should place them in the context of the geography that was known to men who first set the wording of the tradition, because the words must mean what they meant for those men. Placing them in this context is what I mean by proper use of the geographical imagination. This is, in fact, an axiom in my field of historical geography. The beliefs and behaviors of historical actors can only be understood in the context of the knowledge—and this includes the geographical knowledge—of those actors.
For instance, we cannot understand Columbus if we don’t understand that he believed the globe was about nineteen thousand miles in circumference.
For a man living two to three thousand years ago, in what we today call the Middle East, the land between the Nile and the Euphrates was not a part of the world—it was the world. To the north and east lay the wild highlands of the Iranian and Anatolian Plateaus. To the south and the southwest lay the wild deserts of Arabia and Libya. To the northwest lay a dark and fearsome sea. Between the Nile and the Euphrates lay all the civilization this man had ever heard of; beyond these rivers was darkness and barbarians.
If we zoom in and examine the geography of that day in greater detail, we again see that the two rivers—more specifically the two alluvial plains at their mouths—marked the ends of the earth as it was then known. In 1916 the archaeologist James Breasted described the internal geography of the region as the “fertile crescent.” In fact the shape more closely resembles a sickle with the convex back of its blade pointed to the north. At the tip of the blade lay Chaldea, in the far south of Mesopotamia, near where the Euphrates empties into the Persian Gulf. At the butt of the handle lay the delta of the Nile. Beyond Chaldea and the delta of the Nile lay terra incognita.
The blade of the sickle curved north and then west from Chaldea, following the course of the Euphrates. Within the concave curve of the blade lay the waste of what Breasted called the “Desert Bay,” today’s Syrian Desert. Against the concave back of the blade rose the high and wild plateaus of Iran and Anatolia, which caused the orographic precipitation that gave rise to the Euphrates and its sister river, the Tigris. Of the two rivers the Euphrates was more important in the mental geography of the ancient world because along side of it ran what the geographer James Fairgrieve called “the Way.”
“It was comparatively easy to pass from Babylon up the Euphrates valley, then across the valley of the Orontes between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon. Down the valley of the Leontes and Upper Jordan, across the Plain of Esdraelon, past Megiddo, or Armageddon, the meeting place of the armies of this little world, through the land of the Philistines by the shores of the Mediterranean, across the narrow strip of desert to Egypt.” (James Fairgrieve, Geography and World Power )
As Fairgrieve states, near the point where the western tributaries of the Euphrates spill out from the Anatolian Plateau, the Way turned south and followed the rift valley that contains the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The mountains of Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, and even the lower highlands of Samaria and Judea, wrung orographic precipitation from the breezes that blow east from the Mediterranean, and the streams and rivers fed by this precipitation supported caravans and a string of oasis along the Way.
In Galilee the Way passed over to the coastal plain, through a low spot between the mountains of Lebanon and the highlands farther south. As this plain of Esdraelon was the natural the battle ground for armies who approached each other along the Way, from Mesopotamia and Egypt, it has given its name to the cosmic battle that we are told will determine the fate of the world. For Armageddon was the great battleground of that world.
From the plain of Esdraelon, the Way continued south along the coast, through Gaza, where Samson pulled down the temple, and then across the Sinai Desert to the delta of the Nile. And that was the end of the line. Beyond it swirled the sands of Libyan—terra incognita.
So when God speaks to Abraham in Genesis 15:18, he is not parceling out what we know to be one region in a larger world. He is describing the entire world, as Abraham knew it. He is saying, in effect, “from one end of the Way to the other.” This is certainly the case if we place the words in the context of what we may suppose to be Abraham’s geographic knowledge, somewhere between 2000 and 1000 B.C. And not a great deal would have changed in what we might call the relevant geographic knowledge of the scribes who are now believed to have put the story into writing some centuries later.
We should also bear in mind that the Bible is, on the whole, largely indifferent to geography outside of a narrow theater of action, or as a symbol with transcendent meaning. Compared with other sacred books, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible takes unusual care to place events in specific localities, but it has very little to say about the configuration of the wider world—the terra incognita—beyond those localities. This is one reason attempts to write a purely scriptural geography, such as the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes, are so unsatisfactory. Where the geography related in scripture is not simply local and factual, it is symbolical. This is the case with the Wilderness of Sinai, for instance, or the plains of Esdraelon, or the four streams that are said to flow from the Terrestrial Paradise (which overly literal medieval geographers identified as the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris and the Ganges).
As I said at the outset, I haven’t written this to make a theological or geopolitical point. It was simply that one of this week’s lectionary readings suggested the need to make a historical geographical point. And that point is, again, that the words and actions of historical figures must be understood, not only in terms of their actual geographical situation, but also in terms of what they understood their geographical situation to be. To understand these words and actions, we must use or geographical imagination to take up temporary residence in that world.