How can we read Scripture as embodied people who will live with an embodied Savior for all eternity? One unexpected answer to this question is to study biblical geography. If the word geography causes you to doze off, I can relate. I failed the map reading section in social studies in second grade, which spurred my dislike of Bible maps for the next 15 years. Only when I began teaching at a Christian school that included maps in its Bible curriculum did I realize how illuminating geography can be.
I now know that it’s not only possible to learn the geography of Scripture; it’s spiritually and missionally formative. Tracing God’s work in the physical world prepares us to participate in his work of resurrection in our lives and communities. Here are five reasons why.
1. Geography reminds us that God has always been at work in the physical world.
When we read Genesis 25–33 with a map beside our Bibles, we notice that God shows up at crucial thresholds in Jacob’s life: at Bethel before he flees the promised land and at Peniel before he reenters it, as David W. Cotter has noted. Jacob names these locations “house of God” and “face of God” to commemorate his encounters with God’s gracious presence and power during these moments of vulnerability. God’s revelation isn’t abstract or purely spiritual. It is rooted in significant geographical locations.
Since Genesis, God has been weaving himself into the terrain of history, seeking us out and calling us home. The study of biblical geography shatters the false dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual by highlighting specific places where God stepped into our world. Tracing God’s mission on a map reminds us that God has always been at work to meet us in the physical world, now and in eternity (Rev. 21:1–5).
2. Geography helps us meet biblical characters as embodied humans—and take seriously our own embodiment.
Trace Ruth and Naomi’s journey from famine in Moab to the barley harvest in Bethlehem, which literally means “the house of bread.” We will be more likely to empathize with the bitterness and hunger these two women experienced when we meditate on their travels instead of passing over the brief note that they “went on until they came to Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19). This context deepens our awareness of God’s provision for Ruth and Naomi’s bodies, and not just their souls.
Taking seriously the embodiment of Bible characters allows us to take seriously our own embodiment as well. Geography is one way to remind ourselves that our bodies and their circumstances matter to the Redeemer who will have a body for all eternity.
3. Reading geographically helps us engage with the text’s setting in active ways.
Geography invites us to immerse ourselves in the world of the Bible, asking questions as we read. What is Bethlehem’s location relative to major trade routes and borders, its elevation, natural resources, and way of life? What other biblical events unfolded there? How does its geographical context contribute to our understanding of a specific Bible passage? These questions become guardrails that ground our Bible study in the physical world, deterring us from over-spiritualizing or allegorizing the text.
We can engage geography in embodied ways by sketching maps in the margins of our Bibles, using a Bible atlas or dictionary, tracking the mileage of Bible characters’ journeys, referring to a photo or video collection, and visiting the Bible’s setting ourselves. When we teach, we can include geography-based projects and visuals in our messages, remembering that the visual organization of information significantly increases the engagement and retention of our listeners. These active strategies honor the way God has created us and will one day resurrect us.
4. Learning geography shows us the scope of God’s mission.
Have you ever considered why Mark includes two stories about Jesus feeding large crowds (Mark 6:30–44; Mark 8:1–10)? When I sailed across the Sea of Galilee, a Jerusalem University College instructor pointed out that at the time of Jesus the western side was the Jewish side, and the eastern side was the gentile side. A lightbulb went off as I realized that Jesus fed crowds on both the Jewish and gentile sides to demonstrate that he is the Bread of Life for all people.
Tracking the first-century political borders around the Sea of Galilee illuminates the multiethnic people of God. This Jewish Messiah crossed the lake into the gentile district, bringing God’s kingdom to more people. References to “the other side of the Sea of Galilee” or “the far shore” do more than develop the plot—they showcase Jesus’ heart for the nations.
Geographical awareness also equips us to think missionally. Jesus told a former demoniac to stay on the gentile side of the lake and share the good news of the kingdom in his own community (Mark 5:19–20). Jesus commissioned Paul to leave his community and invite Gentiles into the kingdom, leading him westward to establish Christian communities in strategic port cities (Acts 9:15). Tracing on a map God’s call to specific individuals reminds us that there is biblical precedent for both staying and going. It also inspires us to intentionally engage the landscapes where we’re placed.
5. Geography shapes our view of the crucified and resurrected God.
Reading the Old Testament with a map in hand highlights God’s longstanding commitment to meet his people in the physical world. Jesus’ ministry continues this trajectory, bringing us face to face with the God who so loved the world that he died to restore it (John 3:16). “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” rings more authentically when we study the places where he lived, died, and rose from the dead (John 1:14).
Standing near Nazareth, Jesus’ childhood home, I learned that he had grown up in a small, conservative Jewish village. Considering the setting of his childhood, whether through a tour or book such as In the Steps of Jesus by Peter Walker, introduces us to Jesus the first-century Jewish rabbi. Geography is the vehicle that transports us to his cultural world so that we can understand his life and ministry more authentically.
Jesus’ crucifixion outside Jerusalem concurrent with the tearing of the temple veil emphasizes his intent to welcome his people to dwell with him for eternity (Matt. 27:51). As Barry Beitzel’s research notes, his resurrection appearances expand outward from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, highlighting Jesus’ global mission (Acts 1:8).
During one of these appearances on the road to Emmaus, Jesus guides two of his disciples through a discussion on the suffering Messiah (Luke 24:13–27). Unbeknownst to them, the crucified and risen Savior journeys with them, illuminating his own identity through Scripture.
On the road they make sense of his mission and around the table they recognize the Messiah. As we join them on the roads and landscapes of Scripture, we, too, make greater sense of God’s mission.
Reading the Bible geographically is a spiritual discipline that influences our theology of God, the coming kingdom, and our role in it. Christ has died and is risen. We will die and rise. We will dwell with God in physical bodies in physical places. As the stories and sermons of Scripture root themselves in global landscapes, we will understand God’s mission in the physical world in new and tangible ways.
Kelsa Graybill has an MA in Bible Exposition from Talbot School of Theology and writes about the intersection of Scripture and spiritual formation at kelsagraybill.com.
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