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Historical Geography of the Pentateuch

by Dr. David Livingston


Pentateuchal geography is very interesting in that pre-Flood geographic and geologic features must have been altered to some degree by the great Flood. Indications are that pre-Flood history was relatively short, although some evangelical scholars consider it to have been quite long, as much as 100,000 years. Yet, there is no historical confirmation of this in that writing has only been evident from about 3000 BC (or perhaps a little earlier). Topics to be covered are:

  1. Garden of Eden
  2. The Ancient City
  3. Table of Nations
  4. Mesopotamia
  5. Abraham's Journeys
  6. Moses in Egypt
  7. The Exodus
  8. Rivers and Seas
  9. Transport and Roads
  10. Other Significant Geographical Features

1.  Garden of Eden

The description of it is found in Genesis 2-3 (see Eden, Garden of). It was a wonderful garden and forest. Most scholars consider that it was located in lower Mesopotamia near the Persian Gulf. However, it cannot be found today inasmuch as Noah's Flood altered the landscape, including that area. W. F. Albright contended that Hebrew miqeddem means "in primeval times" and not "from or in the east" (Albright 1968:97).

1.1. Four Rivers of Genesis 2:10-14.  For those who believe Noah's Flood was universal, it means the Flood would have obliterated these four rivers flowing from one source in Eden, and that only the names were remembered by the Flood survivors and used again. Others believe the Flood was local and at least some of the rivers continued to exist after the Flood.

1.1.1. The location of the Pishon river is unknown.

1.1.2. Gihon River:   The Septuagint (LXX) says this river encompassed "Ethiopia." However, the Hebrew name of the land it encompassed was "Cush" and describes an area in Mesopotamia, not Ethiopia (Genesis 10: 6-12). After the Flood, that is where Cush settled and gave his name (Sumerian "Kish") to a city and to the area. Later, the name Cush is found in Ethiopia (Psalms 68: 31; Is 18: 1).

1.1.3. Hiddekel is the Hebrew name of the modern Tigris River, the third river in Eden. Today it is 1150 miles long before it joins the Euphrates.

1.1.4. Hebrew Ephrat is the Euphrates River, meaning "fruitful." With two sources in Armenia, it is 1800 miles long-1000 miles being navigable. It was also called "The Great River" in the Bible (Genesis 15:18; Deuteronomy 1:7; Joshua 1:4; but see Daniel 10:4 where Hidekkel is used of the Tigris). These two rivers give the name to the lands of Mesopotamia, which means "between the rivers."

2.  The Ancient City

Since there was a concentration of people in a city there will be a concentration of human debris, or artifacts, there also. For this reason, most archaeology has been done on city mounds and, early on, was as much a search for treasure as it was for research. Hamlets and villages, "daughters" of the central city (mound) are more difficult to locate and probably were relocated during different periods. Although surveys and excavations off the tells are increasing, formerly, little time was spent examining the countryside by most archaeologists. This is unfortunate because we learn little about the "common man" while concentrating on city mounds. Most of the populace lived out in the countryside and the (usually) fortified cities were mainly centers for commerce, religion, and government. Generally they were city-states much like medieval Europe. (See article on Archaeology).

2.1. Cities Before the Flood:   after Cain killed his brother he went into the land of "wandering" (the meaning of Hebrew nod) and built a city. Here he apparently set up a new religious system in defiance of YHVH -- "wandering" not in the countryside, but in his heart. Some indication of the earliest cities are given in Genesis 4. Cain built the first city (Genesis 4:.17), naming it after his son Enoch. This may set an early precedent for men to name cities after themselves. According to Sumerian King Lists, eight cities (at least) were built before the Flood. If the names of men were given also to these cities, we may be able to equate Eridu of the King List with Irad of Genesis 4:18 and possibly Lamech with Larak. (Hallo 1970: 64. See article on Cain.)

2.2. Development of City-States (Genesis 4):   Very old Sumerian King lists aimed to substantiate the right-to-rule of the particular king who had a Kinglist written or rewritten with his name as the latest. These early lists speak also of kingship before the Flood. Babylonian and Assyrian King lists have also been found naming some of the same kings as are on the Sumerian King lists (ANET, pg. 265-266, Jacobsen 1966). The Flood sweeping over the earth, evidently the same great flood as in the Bible, is described in detail in other very early (2500 BC) Sumerian texts. The Gilgamesh Epic is one example. (Gilgamesh is mentioned in the Sumerian King lists.) The eleventh tablet of the epic relates the story of the flood that destroyed the earth (ANET: 42, Heidel 1965). The King list exalts kings. The Bible exalts patriarchs. (Family is at the heart of God's plan for man.) Abraham's home city was Ur. Despite the very high figures listed for the years of the kings' rule in the king lists, it appears that kingship moved to Ur (and it became the "capital") at about the same time that God told Abraham to get out of Ur (see article on Ur).

3. Table of Nations: Mankind After the Flood

3.1 Only one family survived the Flood.   The Flood was like a funnel for pre-flood language, literature, and customs. There is no antediluvian writing aside from the Bible. Indications from Genesis are that the eleven sections (separated by "toledots") were very early, the earliest even pre-flood. In Genesis 5:1 Hebrew sefer is translated correctly in the NIV saying, "This is the written record of Adam's line." It seems probable that the Almighty would give His followers written laws to counteract the written laws of the societies around them. For instance, composed not long after Abraham's time, Hammurabi's Code is outstanding jurisprudence, but it is not fitting for the followers of YHVH. Thus we find in Genesis 26:5 that Abraham was obeying written laws: mishmar, mitsvot, chuqot, torah (charge, commandments, statutes, and law). We can be confident these were written since in the same verse He also said Abraham was obeying His oral commands, His qol (voice). All said, this completely contradicts the Wellhausen theory of source documents (see Albright 1968: 109). The above may seem unrelated to ancient geography, but it has to do with the question, "Who revived and passed on pre-flood traditions (including the records of ancient civilizations)?" How would anyone after the Flood know the names of the kings before the Flood and the names of their cities unless they had firsthand knowledge?

3.2. Descendents of the Sons of Ham:   Ham had four sons: Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan (Genesis 10:6). An area in Mesopotamia was called Cush (or a linguistic equivalent) from earliest times. Mizraim is Egypt where the Pharaoh reigned as a divine king. Canaan included the area of Palestine and extended also some distance to the north of present-day Israel. All that we know of Canaanite society indicates that divine kingship is found throughout the area. Put's location is uncertain.

3.2.1.Mizraim (Egypt)  is called the "Land of Ham" in the Psalms (78:51; 105:23,27; 106:22). That the Egyptians are recognized as descendants of Ham is clear throughout Scripture. Egypt's roots were in Mesopotamia where the other sons of Ham originally located. Civilization, usually taking generations to develop, appeared "overnight" in Egypt. The sudden appearance of a "dynastic race" which used Mesopotamian motifs and materials-ships, knife handles, art forms in the sculpture of body muscles and animals, cylinder seals, bricks, architecture, and writing (CAH: 35-40; Hoerth:130; Roux 1966: 80-81; Wilson: 37-41). These "new" Egyptians seem to have emigrated from Mesopotamia. They quickly became independent of Mesopotamia and developed indigenously. In early historic Egypt the Nile valley was swamp and the tablelands were good pasture for livestock. However, a drastic climate change early caused the populace to leave the higher areas, move into the Nile valley, and the table lands became desert (Frankfort 1965:16; Gardiner 1961: 387-398; Kees 1961: 17-24; Wilson 1957: 19-20, 29). Some scholars believe this climate change was affected by Europe's warming up after an ice age caused by the great Flood.

3.2.2. Canaan:   W. F. Albright said, "Today it is clear that the ethnic identity of the people later known as 'Canaanites' was already established no later than the end of the fourth millennium BC" (1968: 110-11). Divine kingship was operating throughout their area. What was the area of "Canaan"? Abraham and Terah set out for "the land of Canaan" but stopped at Haran (Genesis 11:31). Ugarit (just south of modern Turkey) was considered Canaanite (Albright 1968: 116). Shechem was Canaanite (Genesis 12:6). Tyre and Sidon were a part of "Canaan" (Isaiah 23:11, cf. Matthew 15:22 and Genesis 10:1). That area was called "Phoenicia" and it may have included the area as far north as Ugarit.

3.2.3. Cush:   Hebrew "Cush" of Genesis 10:6f. may be transliterated "Kish," which links this passage with well-known extrabiblical Sumerian history. The prototype for "Cush" is "Kish," the first king of Sumer after the Flood. In early times, the Hebrew letter vav was sometimes interchanged with yod. This is evidenced by the writer's explanation in Genesis 3:20 that chevah, Eve, means chayah, the "mother of all living" (Keil and Delitzsch 1975:106; all lexicons support this meaning). Later, at least by Isaiah's time, the Land of Cush was also found in Africa (2 Kings 19:9, Isaiah 18:1; Isaiah 20:35, Zephaniah 3:10.). However, that Cush or Kish was first located in Mesopotamia is well attested (Genesis 2:13,14; 10:6-10). All of Cush's descendants lived in Mesopotamia, seat of the Sumerian kingdom of Kish. From Kish the early Babylonian emperors took their royal title as kings of the world (Jacobsen 1966: 156). Thence they spread across the southern peninsula of Arabia, eventually crossed the Red Sea, and colonized African Nubia and Abyssinia (CAH: 39).

3.3. Descendants of Japheth:   his descendants populated the European area. (See Table of Nations.)

3.4. Descendants of Shem:   (See article on Table of Nations)

4.  Mesopotamia

Sumerian religion controlled ancient city-states, each with its particular gods and cults. As city-states grew into empires, mutual tolerance (between cities) was manifested in a generally accepted hierarchical order of the chief gods from the cities of the empire. Some of the ancient cities with "divine" kings became empires with "divine" emperors. For instance, a well-known example from later times is the system used to govern the enormous Roman Empire. This was the same system used to control the city of Rome -- the ruler being a "divine" emperor. Temples owned the land, theoretically at least. And Sumerian society crystallized around the temples, economically and geographically. What was true of the first society after the Flood was true of all to follow -- except Israel. Abraham tended to reject these cities. Although he sometimes camped near them, he did not take part in their religion or government. Nor did he stay long in any of them (see Genesis 12.6, 8; 13, 18; 20.1; 21.33; 22.19. see further Hebrews 11: 9-10).

4.1. The Tower of Babel:   The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) was almost certainly an early ziggurat or temple-tower. What was the significance and purpose of building of the tower in Genesis 11:4? The tower had a temple of the patron god on top: Not YHVH, the Creator, but a god of their own choosing. The top reached up to "heaven." Why? In defiance of YHVH. The leaders in this rebellion said, "Let us make us a name" (to establish their own power and might.), lest we be scattered." They fabricated a religio-political system that held them together.

4.2. Babylon or Babel:   (Genesis 10: 10) The name means "gate of god." One of the most important and frequently mentioned cities in the Bible, even referred to in Revelation (Revelation 17-18) in a veiled reference to Rome. Fifty-four miles south of modern Baghdad, it was a huge city in its heyday with walls fourteen miles long and 135 feet thick. The famous "hanging gardens" were, no doubt, a part of the temple tower, or ziggurat, which reached up to "heaven"-- the latter being the small temple at the top. Excavators found at Babylon the Enuma Elish creation epic, which some say inspired the biblical creation story. But only a cursory reading of the text itself will eliminate that concept. (Heidel, pg. 139-40. See article on Babel.)

4.3. Accad or Akkad or Agade,:   (Genesis 10: 10) It was near Babylon. Emperor Sargon I of Akkad established an empire, which included Syria, Elam, and Sumer. From the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur this empire was known as Sumer (to the south) and Akkad (to the north) as late as the Persian Period. Their language was Old Akkadian, written in cuneiform, similar to Assyrian and late Babylonian.

4.4. Asshur or Ashur and Assyria:   (Genesis 10: 11) One of the sons of Shem (Genesis 11:22) Asshur, the man, probably established a city which eventually was expanded to the Assyrian empire. Significant is the fact that the patron god of Assyria is also Asshur.

4.5. Calah (called Nimrud today):   (Genesis 10: 11) A large city, estimated to have been sixteen square miles.

4.6.Elam:   (Genesis 10: 22) The Elamites were one of the earliest people known from the third millennium BC and were a menace to early Mesopotamian cities. A King Chedorlaomer of Elam is mentioned in the invasion of Abraham's time (Genesis 14: 1ff.). Much later Cyrus the Great took Media, Elam, and Anshan and made them into the great Persian Empire. It lay in the Zagros mountains with Shushan (Susa) as its capital.

4.7. Erech (Sumerian Uruk, modern Warka):   (Genesis 10: 10) Flood deposits found there are only from local floods and not of the magnitude of Noah's Flood. Nimrod founded the city about 3000 BC. It was the residence and fortified city of the Gilgamesh Legend, which carries a story of the Great Flood.

4.8. Haran:   (Genesis 11: 31) Six hundred miles northwest of Ur and four hundred miles northeast of the land of Canaan, it was a key junction for caravans. The moon-god Sin was worshipped here.

4.9. Kish or Cush:   (Genesis 10: 8-9) Flood deposits were found here also, but not of great depth and not the same period as other flood deposits. Copies of the Sumerian King List, found in various places, always say something like, "Kingship first descended from heaven after the flood at Kish." In other words, divine kingship, in vogue before the Flood, was reinstituted at Kish. Later Sumerian and Babylonian kings traced their right-to-rule back to Kish. It was the foundational city for Sumer. Divine kingship played a pivotal role in ancient times along with its opposition to the Lord's people.

4.10. Nineveh:   (Genesis 10: 11, 12) Nineveh is mentioned along with Calah and other cities built by "Nimrod." It is divided into two huge mounds by a rivulet of the Tigris River, one being called Kuyunjik, and the other known as Nebi-Yunus ("The prophet Jonah!").

4.11. Ur:   The Sumerian King list mentions Ur (the Third Dynasty) as being a capital city at approximately the time of Abraham. The oppressive religio-political system may have forced him to leave to save his family. Ur was on the shores of the Persian gulf in Abraham's time making it a seacoast city then -- with the usual moral filth that dominates port cities. Now 150-160 miles from the Gulf, the delta has filled up that much in 4000 years.

5.  Abraham's Journeys

The first occurrence of  "the land of Canaan"  is found in Genesis 11: 31 and Numbers 13: 2. It is also called "Palestine" (Exodus 15:14), meaning "country of the Philistines," and even "land of the Philistines" (Genesis 21 and 26). There is no reason to think that the use of the term "Philistine" in Abraham's time is an anachronism. In the Table of Nations (Genesis 10: 14), the Philistines (Philistim) were already recognized as a nation well before his time. It is a small country, only slightly larger than Vermont. "Dan to Beersheba" is barely 150 miles. The Sea of Galilee is only 28 miles from the Mediterranean, and the Dead Sea is only 50 miles long. It is also called "Land of the Hebrews" (Genesis 40: 15), and "Land of Promise" (Hebrews 11: 9; cf. Genesis 12:7, Deuteronomy 34: 1-4).

5.1. Regions:   There are five fairly distinct regions in the land:

  1. The maritime plain along the Mediterranean seacoast was a trade route.
  2. Above the coastal plain was the Shephelah in the southwest, a lowland area, but a little hilly. Control of it alternated between Israel and the Philistines. North of it was the Plain of Sharon.
  3. Going north and south was the central Plateau or Ridge, the high backbone of the land. It was on the roads here that the patriarchs traveled back and forth.
  4. The Jordan, or rift, valley was very deep-over 600 feet below sea level as it exited the Sea of Galilee, and over 1300 feet below as it entered the Dead Sea.
  5. The eastern table land, a very high plateau, fairly level and, in places higher than the western part of the Promised Land.

5.2. Seasons:   There are two seasons of the year in this land: rainy season, October to April, and the dry season (almost like a drought), usually April-October. The "early rains" occurred during late October and November, the "latter rains" came in March and early April. Between these two wet periods, there were intermittent winter rains. But the summer night's dew was a tremendous boon to agriculture (Genesis 27: 28, Deuteronomy 33:28, Judges 6:38). The changeable weather situation was sometimes used by God to put pressure on Israel to repent (Leviticus 26:3-5). As rainclouds go from west to east the rain slackens after passing the highlands ridge. Standing on the ridge one can actually see the clouds "melt away" to nothing after passing the ridge and coming into contact with the dry, desert air.

5.3. Gezer Calendar:   This small clay tablet of the ninth or tenth century BC, found while excavating Gezer in 1908, was apparently a schoolboy's exercise (ANET: 320). However, it is very instructive concerning the year-round harvest cycle. To summarize, there were (in the fall) two months of olive harvest (beginning about mid-September). Next were two months of grain planting, then two more months of late planting; a month of hoeing flax (for weaving); by late May or June the barley harvest was ready followed by another month of harvesting and festivity (Exodus 9: 31). July-August were two months of grape harvest. Finally, summer fruits were ready. Some of these events may not apply today, but for the most part it tells of the year-round agricultural activities. (See article on Agriculture.)

5.4. Cities of Canaan:   The cities of Canaan existed in the Early and Middle Bronze periods down to the end of Late Bronze I during the time of the patriarchs and the formation of the Pentateuch. The very height of their cities came at the end of Middle Bronze II and included some of the Late Bronze I period. In any case, the spies sent by Moses returned to report that the cities were "great and walled up to heaven" (Numbers 13:28; Deuteronomy 1:28; 3:5) indicating that they were at their peak of power.

5.4.1. Shechem (Tell Balata. Also known as Neapolis or Nablus):   It is first mentioned in Genesis 12:6. Shechem lies in a deep valley surrounded by Mounts Ebal and Gerizim, and was on an important east-west road through the hill country. It lies at almost the exact center of the Promised Land. It was the first city Abraham contacted when he entered the land. After him Jacob came here, then later Joseph sought his brothers here and, at his death, his bones were buried here. The ancient city, Tel Balata, has been excavated and the massive walls of the Middle Bronze (patriarchal) period were discovered. At no time did the Shechemites fight against, or oppose, Israel. Significantly, the El Amarna tablets from nearby kings complained to the Pharaoh that King Labayu (of Shechem) cooperated extensively with the "'Apiru" or "Habiru," perhaps having some reference to the Hebrew tribes (if the early date of the Exodus is considered). Of course, at a later conquest date these intruders would likely not be the Israelite tribes (Albright 1968:88). Jacob's Well:   although best known from a New Testament experience of Jesus with a local woman (John 4), dates back to the time of Jacob who bought the land and, apparently, the well from the king of Shechem (Genesis 33:18-20). Mts. Ebal and Gerizim:   are both like huge semicircular amphitheaters facing each other, Ebal on the north and Gerizim on the south, enclosing the ancient city of Shechem. The Israelites were to assemble there, half on each mountain, to pronounce the blessings and cursings for those who keep God's covenant (Deuteronomy 27: 4, 12; Joshua 8: 30-35).

5.4.2. Bethel:   "Bethel" is the second most-mentioned city in the Old Testament (surpassed only by Jerusalem). Edward Robinson, made the identification of Bethel as the little village of Beitin. W.F. Albright concurred and, beginning in the 1930s, excavated Beitin assuming it was Bethel. The early church fathers, Eusebius and Jerome, gave the exact distance to Bethel from Jerusalem using Roman milestones. However, recently it has been discovered that the distance does not match that of Robinson (who measured the distance to Beitin from Jerusalem on horseback in the 1830's) and Albright. The distance given by the church fathers brings one only to el-Bireh under which should be found the site of ancient Bethel. The original site for "Bethel" (Beitin) may actually be Zemaraim, or Ophrah, or, possibly, even Beth-Aven.

5.4.3. Ai:   Until recently, the traditional site for Ai was Et-Tell, which was unoccupied at the time of both early and late Conquest dates -- ca. 1400 BC or 1250 BC. It was abandoned from 2400 BC to 1220 BC. Thus its identification as Ai is likely in error. Many have conceded this and suggested other locations. A new possibility for it is found at Khirbet Nisya (close to modern el-Bireh-ancient Bethel). The archaeological periods matching the biblical periods of occupation were found there, the topography matches the description in the Bible, and it is correctly located in relation to the (new) location of Bethel.

5.4.4. Hebron:   (Genesis 23: 2) Abraham spent considerable time at this city about 20 miles south of Jerusalem. Here Sarah died and Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. Little excavation has been carried on here, but a large mosque, originally a building of King Herod, covers the cave where Sarah and Abraham were buried. Isaac and Jacob and their wives were traditionally buried here also.

5.4.5. Beersheba:   Modern Beersheba surrounds what is likely the ancient city mound of Pentateuchal times -- Bir es-Seba. Bir means "well." The tell is about 25 acres in size. Almost no excavations have been conducted there and what little has been done indicates that it was occupied at least as early as Iron Age I (Aharoni 1973: 115). Tel Beersheba, about three miles east of the modern city was inhabited during the periods of the Judges and the Kingdom, but no earlier remains have been discovered, ruling it out as the Beersheba of patriarchal times.

5.4.6. Sodom and Gomorrah:   The five Cities of the Plain were thought by some to be under the waters at the south end of the Dead Sea. However, this is extremely difficult to prove. On the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, on the other hand, there are five rivers or streams emptying through wadis into the Sea. All five are at about the same level, approximately 300 meters below sea level. Each has permanent springs and ruins above the wadi and all five are at about 300 meters below sea level. Thus they do not take up valuable agricultural space down on the plains below them. Excavations at Bab edh-Dhra (Sodom?) and Numeira (Gomorrah?) and other surface surveys, have revealed that all five cities were either destroyed or abandoned at about Abraham's time and are much more likely to be the Cities of the Plain. (Shea 1988: 12-23; Coogan 1981: 75-82).

5.4.7. Dan:   Dan excavator, Abram Biran, found a fascinating feature on the east side of the mound. It is a complete Middle Bronze IIA/B mud brick gate, from the time of the patriarchs and the only one ever found in Israel. Excavations continue there.

5.4.8.Dothan:   The site near which Joseph was sold to some traveling merchants. The late Joseph Free (Wheaton College) excavated a huge tomb from the Late Bronze and Iron Age periods. Hundreds of complete vessels and other finds are being prepared for publication. (See also article on Cities of Canaan.)

5.5. Cities of Refuge.   Numbers 35: 9-34; Deuteronomy 4: 41-43, chapt. 19; Joshua 20: 7,8. (See article on Cities of Refuge.)

6. Moses in Egypt

Egypt has two parts: Upper and Lower (in elevation), the former in the south and the latter to the north. The delta could be considered a third part, with the Land of Goshen extending eastward out of the delta. The Exodus began here.

6.1. Nile River.    This river is the longest in the world-over 4150 miles in length. It flows northward and is Egypt's lifeline. Flooding each year (in ancient times) gave fresh fertilizer for agricultural lands. Priests told Greek historian Herodotus that in the very beginning of historical Egypt, the Nile delta was just beginning to form, and the Mediterranean shoreline was 150 miles inland from where the shoreline is today.

6.2. Memphis.   Memphis was founded (built on ground brought up out of a swamp) by Menes, or Min, who, as founder, chose the god Ptah as patron god of Memphis. In his description (ANET 4-6; Frankfort 1948: 24-35), Ptah is actually concocted in the image of Menes himself.  The Memphite Theology sounds somewhat like a creation story although it is only speaking of the origins of Memphis. This city became the key city in Egypt, to which kings came for coronation for centuries!

6.3. Pithom and Rameses are probably located in the Wadi Tumilat in the eastern delta. If so, the former is likely Tell el-Maskhutah and the latter Tell ed-Daba. Some scholars identify the pharaoh of the Exodus as Rameses II, discounting an earlier use of the name in the area (before Rameses I), and opt for a late date for the Exodus and Conquest. On the other hand, there are reasons to date these climactic events to the earlier reigns of either Thutmoses III or Amenhotep II (see Date of Exodus). As for the name Rameses, an area of Egypt known as the "land of Rameses" is mentioned in Genesis 47: 11. This is probably not an anachronism, but rather an indication that the name Rameses was well-known in Egypt long before the Exodus, during patriarchal times.

6.4. Heliopolos (On).   (Genesis 37: 36 cf. 41: 45, 50)  The former name is Greek and means the "city of the sun." Midianite traders brought Joseph here and sold him to Potiphar. Later, Joseph was given a daughter of the priest of On as a wife.

6.5. Midian.   Located south of ancient Edom. Although later in the Old Testament the Midianites were the enemies of Israel, this was not true in Moses' day. He went to live with them for 40 years, and married the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest. After Moses had brought Israel out of Egypt, Jethro met him and, after watching his dilemma of judging cases, recommended a better way (Exodus 18).

7.  The Route of the Exodus

The route and the date of the Exodus have been subjects of much controversy.

7.1. Two possible routes.   Starting from the Land of Goshen, the short way along the coast through Philistia was unacceptable. The Lord had chosen the long way through the wilderness of southern Sinai Peninsula. After first camping at Etham, the Lord directed them to next camp beside Pi Hahiroth, opposite the Canaanite temple of Baal Zephon ("Lord of the North," Exodus 14: 2, 9). It was here before this god, who supposedly protected seafarers, that Pharaoh would lose his army to the sea, and was a final blow to Pharaoh, who still had not given in to the power of YHVH.

7.2. Plethora of locations.   Nine different places on the Red Sea have been designated as the crossing place as well as three lakes on the Mediterranean coast, four lakes along the Suez Canal, and some others. Mt. Sinai has been given 13 different locations. Therefore, one can hardly be dogmatic about the route. (See article on Route of the Exodus.)

7.3. Kadesh Barnea   is at the edge of the Wilderness of Zin -- a crossroads area. Hagar fled here (Genesis 16: 14) Israel camped here several times during the wilderness wanderings. Three oases are found together here. Miriam died here (Numbers 20:1). Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebelled here (Numbers 16-17). The spies returned here to give a bad report of the land (Numbers 13: 25-14: 3).

7.4.Transjordan Table Land: Edom, Moab, Ammon.

7.4.1. Edom  is south of the Zered river and is found among 5600 feet high cliffs east of the Arabah. The area is poor in agriculture, but rich in copper and it controlled the trade routes to Africa and South Arabia. Petra is about halfway into Edom. "Edom" means "red" and came from Esau's red skin (Genesis 36: 1). It is also a land of red rocks. Another name for it is Mt. Seir (Genesis 36: 8). The Edomites obstructed Israel's travel through their land along the Kings' Highway late in the wilderness wandering (Numbers 20:17-21).

7.4.2. Moab  is between the Arnon and Zered rivers, north of Edom. Named after Lot's daughter's illegitimate son, it is a barren, treeless land, but good for grazing (like some American western states). The chief city was Dibon. The "Moabite Stone," telling of Mesha's sacrifice of his son to his god when Israel attacked them, was found here.

7.4.3. Ammon.  The name of another son of Lot through incest (Genesis 19:30-38), Ammon was often the adversary of Israel (Deuteronomy 23: 3 and at other times later in history). Modern Amman is the site of ancient Rabbath-ammon, which contained the gigantic bedstead of Og king of Bashan (Deuteronomy 2 and 3).

8.  Rivers and Seas

8.1. Jordan River.   It flows through the Rift Valley from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea. Its sources are springs coming out the foot of Mt. Hermon. The name "Jordan" means "going down" in Hebrew. Tributaries flowing into it (from the east) are the Yarmuk, and the Jabbock rivers.

8.2. Yam Suph.   Sometimes called also the Red Sea, it is a portion of the western arm of the Red Sea. Mentioned 14 times, first in Exodus 10:19 and last in Deuteronomy 11: 14. The two northern arms of this sea create the Sinai peninsula between them. The eastern arm gives access to the Promised Land. The western gives access to Egypt.

8.3. Mediterranean Sea.   Its name means "Between the lands." In early times and in the Bible, it is called "The Great Sea."

8.4. Sea of Galilee - Kinneret.   The latter name is in reference to the lake's shape like a harp or lyre (Hebrew kinnor). Although not mentioned in Abraham's travels, there was a large city at the southern end of the Sea called Beit Yerach (Temple of the Moon). It was either the sole seat of moon worship in Abraham's day, or was a sister-city with Jericho (Yericho), also a seat of moon worship (Hebrew yerach means "moon").

8.5. Dead Sea.   Also called the Salt Sea (Numbers 34: 3, 12) and Sea of the Plain or Arabah (Deuteronomy 3: 17).

8.6. Persian Gulf.   It is 520 miles long by 200 miles wide. It was extremely important to early trading ventures with Eridu and Ur being on the coast in Abraham's day. Now it has silted up, and in the 4000 years since Abraham, created a delta and marshes out as far as 150 miles from the original coast.

9. Other Important Geographical Features

9.1. Ararat Mountains:   Called Urartu in Babylonian and Assyrian texts, they include most of modern Armenia (between the Black and Caspian Seas) and are more like a mountainous plateau averaging 6000 feet above sea level. The heart of the area is Lake Van. Noah's Ark came down upon the mountains (plural) of Ararat (Genesis 8: 4), not necessarily on the volcanic cone of Agri Dagh (modern Mt. Ararat). Another possibility is Mt. Judi, or Cudi Dagh, ("C" is pronounced "J" in Turkish), about 200 miles south of Mt. Ararat. The latter was considered the correct location for the first fifteen hundred years of the Christian era. (Also see article on Noah's Ark.)

9.2. Mt. Nebo:   On this mountain, also called Pisgah, Moses stood and could actually see most of the Promised Land from there. It is in Jordan near the north end of the Dead Sea. It was here that Moses died and was buried (Deuteronomy 32 and 34).

9.3. Lebanon Mountains.   The range runs north and south. The name means "white" (from Hebrew laban), 10,000 feet at the highest, they were originally covered with forests of pine, oak, and cedar. But are largely cut off today. The Anti-Lebanons are another range of mountains to the east, also going north and south with Mt. Hermon, 9,000 feet, at the south end of the range. Between the two ranges lies the great Rift Valley, very pronounced here.

9.4. Jordan Rift Valley.   This is a geological fault commencing in Kenya, forming the Red Sea, the Arabah, the Dead Sea, and Jordan Valley, ending at the north end of the division of the Lebanon Mountains.

10.  Transport  (See article on Travel and modes of transport)

11.  Roads.   Usually called "Way of . . ." (Hebrew, derek) There are at least four main roads mentioned in the Pentateuch.

11.1. Way of the Sea:   the coastal route from Egypt to Damascus (Exodus 13:17). The Lord would not let Israel take this road on the Exodus because it went directly into area controlled by the Philistines.

11.2. Way of the Red Sea:   (Exodus 13:18; Numbers 14: 25; 21: 4) Israel left Egypt on this road down into the wilderness of Sinai.

11.3. The King's highway:   (Numbers 20: 17; 21: 22) After wandering for forty years, the Israelites finally went north on this road through Edom, Ammon, and Moab, all east of the Jordan River.

11.4. Way to Bashan:   (Deuteronomy 3: 1) Israel took this road to conquer Bashan, which was north of Gilead.


Genesis in particular, and the Pentateuch in general, is made up of climactic events. Instead of feeling sorry that there is so little preserved from this era, we should be glad for what has been preserved. These books of the Bible are incredibly accurate historically. When compared with other ancient near eastern documents they are "world's apart" from them, in a unique class by themselves. Thus, in composing this article it should be expected that we would discuss some history along with the geography. In other words, this has been "Historical Geography."


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© 2003 David Livingston