A Trip Down A River To The Source - Part Three
Now, here is where I have to point something out which I think is quite important to understanding this text (and in fact many similar texts in the Hebrew Bible [known normally to us Christians as the Old Testament]). The point here concerns the issue of Biblical geography. It also concerns the need to have some general understanding of the issue of Biblical meteorology (the weather sciences - something that my late father in particular was really an expert at as he was a professional meteorologist in the US Air Force)), because without an understanding of these issues, you are missing the richness and an important aspect of what is happening in this text. We really need to get connected here to God's creation a little bit and not just any experience of God's creation. No! Our experience should be rooted in the same Biblical geography and meteorology that Isaiah the prophet was familiar with. I think everyone can appreciate the rightness of this strategy. (This book is an essential volume to have in your library - http://www.amazon.com/The-Geography-Bible-Denis-Baly/dp/0060603712)
Let me give a small example of this which I think most people will understand and see some value in.
Look at Isaiah 10:
"He has come to Aiath; he has passed through Migron; at Michmash he stores his baggage; they have crossed over the pass; at Geba they lodge for the night; Ramah trembles; Gibeah of Saul has fled. Cry aloud, O daughter of Gallim! Give attention, O Laishah! O poor Anathoth! Madmenah is in flight; the inhabitants of Gebim flee for safety. This very day he will halt at Nob; he will shake his fist at the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem." (Isaiah 10:28-32 ESV)
These twelve localities mentioned in the text above were villages in ancient times which were located in the Northern district of Jerusalem.
If you think on them and study them a bit further, you will find some more familiarity. For example, the "Anathoth" mentioned was the hometown of the prophet Jeremiah. Note the following:
The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, ... (Jeremiah 1:1 ESV)
Anathoth, like most of these twelve villages, was located in the ancient land of Benjamin, which occupied the northern area from the area of the ancient Temple north of Jerusalem about 15 miles.
Now, all of us, I think, in general are very familiar with the city of Jerusalem in this text, but we may not be as familiar with some of these other geographical terms, which, of course, are important to Isaiah (and also to the LORD, who inspired Isaiah to write this). But herein lies the point. Unless you attempt to familiarize yourself with these geographical terms, your understanding of this text is certainly not going to be at the level of someone who is really intimately familiar with Biblical geography. In fact, you’re just going to read over this material and not really understand its intent, but if you know the Biblical geography, you are going to see things in this text which are just not apparent to those not in tune with the geography that Isaiah knew. Without properly orienting yourself to the geography of the Bible, you just will not have the "eyes" needed to "see" what is going on or really being said.
Now, this is exactly the same thing we find in Isaiah 66 and here we are talking about the introduction by Isaiah of the term "river" in this text. This is because Isaiah is not just introducing this concept of a "river" out of the clear blue sky. No, not for one moment.
Here is where we really need to think this through a bit and in fact it is where having a proper understanding of Biblical geography and Biblical meteorology is so helpful in really capturing what it is the prophet is telling us and what we are going to find here is such a wonderful thing of beauty being expressed. But to see this whole picture the prophet is showing for those who have "eyes to see it" and "ears to hear it", we really have to go back to the beginning.
Rivers in the Bible
When we go back to the beginning of the Bible, we can see that a river was a key part of the landscape of the Garden of Eden.
"A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates."
(Genesis 2:10-14 ESV)
So the Garden of Eden was a riverine oriented environment. Anyone who has a garden knows that to have a prosperous one, you need water. In the drier environments of the Middle East, water really is closely linked to life. If you do not have water, you will have serious problems.
We must understand that the land of Israel was not a riverine culture like Egypt. "Palestine does not depend, like Egypt (or Babylon) on the water supplied by the overflow from the river, but 'drinketh water of the rain of heaven." (Deuteronomy 11:11) - Hastings Dictionary of Religion and Ethics, article 'Water' Vol. 12, pg. 715.
One only need to remind themselves of the drought period mentioned in the book of Genesis (42:3) to know that without water, especially in an agrarian society, one simply cannot live.
It was this fact of needing water and the abundance associated with it that caused Lot to move down to the plains area near the Jordan river here in Israel. Even though those societies were evil, Lot saw the situation he was facing where he was living next Abraham and saw that the solution he needed involved securing water for his flocks. Why was this? This is where a clear understanding of Biblical geography is not only helpful, but really a necessity.
When we consider the geography and the lay of the land where this incident of Lot looking down to the plains area of the Jordan river, it is very easy to understand why they were having problems. When you have many animals competing for scarce water and fodder resources for animals, problems can arise and this is what happened in the area where they found themselves. Note Genesis 13:1-7:
"So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord. And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram's livestock and the herdsmen of Lot's livestock." (ESV)
Now, the location where they were staying, the region of Bethel, is a well-known locality which is about 15 miles directly north of Jerusalem. In fact, this region of Bethel is one of the highest points in the Jerusalem region and its elevation is at least 2,800 feet above sea level and it is definitely a highland terrain.
Biblical scholars have recognized for centuries that while there have been some changes here in Israel relative to the presence of forests, the overall climate has not changed that much. Note CBTEL:
"In the sense in which we employ the word (river), vis. for a perennial stream of considerable size, a river is a much rarer object in the East than to the West. The majority of the inhabitants of Palestine at the present day (written in 1874) have probably never seen one. With the exception of the Jordan and the Litany, the streams of the Holy land are either entirely dried up in the summer months, and converted into hot lanes of glaring stones, or else reduced to very small streamlets deeply in a narrow bed, and concealed from view by a dense growth of shrubs. The cause of this is two fold: on the one hand, the hilly nature of the country - a central mass of highland descending on each side of a lower level and on the other the extreme heat of the climate during the summer. There is little doubt that in ancient times the country was more wooded that it now is, and that, in consequence, the evaporation was less, and the streams more frequent; yet this cannot have made any very material difference in the permanence of the water in the thousands of valleys which divide the hills of Palestine." (Strong; Cyclopedia, Vol. IX, pg. 38-39, art. 'river')
Note: The oak is really one of the most important tree species in ancient Israel with specimens living many hundreds of years or in some cases even longer.