Old Testament narratives can be exciting. Take Joshua for example. The narrative propels the reader from epic to epic: Rahab the prostitute hides the two spies, the Jordan River stops flowing, and then the walls of Jericho tumble down.
But before the book’s finale hang 10 geography-laden chapters that seem to convert a beautiful color atlas into a Word document. The preacher faces 63 verses of geography in chapter 15, complete with place names like Hazar-shual, Biziothiah, Baalah, and Eltolad (Josh. 15:28–30). The coloring pages in our children’s Sunday school curricula usually skip long lists of places. Many preachers do as well. The sun stands still in Joshua 10, and soon afterwards the expository series stops with it.
The kids’ coloring pages usually skip long lists of places. Many preachers do as well.
It’s not just Joshua that has geography-heavy chapters. Other books like Numbers, 1 and 2 Samuel, Ezekiel, and Nehemiah are packed with cities, towns, and complicated travel itineraries.
There’s no doubt that preaching geography can be tricky. Here’s some counsel for approaching these chapters.
1. Trace the locations before you preach the book.
Geography can be a preacher’s best friend if you know how to use it. Take time before preaching through a book of the Bible to trace the plot’s geographic movement from town to town, mountain to mountain, and lake to shore. Make looking at geography a part of your regular study routine.
This can be a frustrating task when the 12 pages of maps in the back of your study Bible don’t have a city that’s mentioned in your passage. Some Bible software or websites will do a great deal of the work for you. But tracing geographical routes by hand before letting Logos do it can be extremely helpful to sermon prep. Just like you’ve trained yourself to do your own exegetical reflections before consulting commentaries, make it a habit to study the terrain yourself before using a digital tool.
2. Remember the theological purposes of geography-heavy texts.
Theology trumps geography every time. It’s possible to get too caught up in history and forget a text’s theological importance. In Joshua 15:33–63, more than 100 towns and cities are named. Even the best Bible atlas has trouble keeping up! When approaching such texts, you should ask not only “Where are these places?” but also “What’s the point?”
Joshua 15 traces the boundaries of Judah’s inheritance, the boundaries of God’s blessing. Every valley, mountain, and town listed tells of God’s provision for this tribe. Though it’s easy to get lost in the detailed map, we shouldn’t miss the treasure amid the details. Mid-chapter we find Othniel’s heroic conquest and the subsequent rewards given to him (15:13–19). But even this great victory is tempered by the narrator’s notice that Judah didn’t rid themselves of the Jebusites (15:63). Despite all the blessing, the chapter ends in failure. This points us to the need for a Savior who is better than Joshua and Othniel, to a more permanent and complete fulfillment of God’s promises than the land of Canaan.
3. Only use visual aids when it reinforces your message.
For most of the church’s history, very few people have had maps in the back of their Bibles. Martin Luther never lowered a screen and dimmed the lights to project a map of how far Ramah is from Bethlehem. That didn’t keep the Reformation from moving forward. You’re in good company if you choose to preach without a map or visual.
But visual aids can enhance a sermon if used to reinforce the main point of a Bible passage. For example, if they see the locations of Succoth, Etham, and Pi-hahiroth on a map, it may help your church understand that the Israelites, because of their sin, traveled a long way to go a short distance.
4. Relate the geography of the text to places your congregation knows.
Instead of saying, “The distance from Dan to Beersheba is 150 miles,” add some local color and say, “The distance from Dan to Beersheba is about the same as from Detroit to Grand Rapids.” A true Michigander will nod their head with understanding. “Tyre was the Martha’s Vineyard of the ancient world” has more flavor and gives a more helpful mental picture than “Tyre was a wealthy maritime city in northern Israel.”
Approach a geography-heavy text with equal measures of humility and hopeful expectation. These texts aren’t always easy to study or preach, but they are part of God’s Word so preachers should submit to their authority and come with an eagerness to learn and grow (2 Tim. 3:16–4:5).