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The Geography of Ancient Israel

Updated: Nov 1, 2023


DW | Old Testament

1.4 - The Geography


With any civilization, we must first begin with an overview of the terrain as the environment played vital roles in how each culture developed. Unlike Egypt, Palestine had little natural protection since it was only a narrow strip of settled territory along the seacoast. It formed a natural highway for merchants, visitors, and invaders moving between the great city-states in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Being mountainous for the most part, it could only support a modest population and could not compete with the massive armies of Mesopotamia and Egypt. However, being an international crossroad, this most likely contributed to the high literary culture found in the Old Testament. Biblical authors seemed to have known well the beliefs and writings of other nations.


The natural geography of Palestine divides the land into a series of long, north-south zones with very easy means of getting across the country from west to east. The four major zones are:

1) The Coastal Plain

With sandy or marshy soil that stretches from a narrow belt in the north to broad areas in the south.

2) The Hill Country or Shephelah

A series of low hills and valleys up from the coastal plain, often good for sheep-herding and orchards, and well settled in ancient times.

3) The Central Mountain Range

Which runs like a spine down the eastern part of the country, often reaching 2,000 feet in height and sparsely settled in early times. Jerusalem sits on this range.

4) The Jordan Valley

Which is the lowest area on earth and stretches down the whole eastern border. It is broken twice by water: the Lake of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the middle. Just to give you some perspective, the Sea of Galilee is 684 feet below sea level and the Dead Sea is an amazing 1290 feet below sea level. These two lakes are connected by the Jordan River, which takes 200 miles to go the 60 miles between them as it wanders in loops. Below the Dead Sea, no river flows, but the valley continues for another 185 miles to the Red Sea. This area is called the Arabah.

These north-south zones are broken only by the Esdraelon Valley stretching across the middle of the country just above Mount Carmel. Its the most fertile farming area which was heavily populated at all times. Mount Carmel itself sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea, breaking the easy journey up the coastal plain and forcing travelers to pass through near Megiddo. This narrow pass became the center of many battles and has become popularly known as Armageddon.

The land can also be divided by four major regions that stretch across its length from east to west.

1) Galilee

Is a mountainous region north of the Esdraelon Valley that gives up to the high mountains of Lebanon.

2) Samaria

Is the middle of the country, and its hilly nature is bordered on the north by the Esdraelon Valley. It formed the heart of the northern kingdom after the time of Solomon.

3) Judah

Is a mixture of the high mountains and dry, wilderness area to the east, but on its west is rolling hills and wide plains that produced much of the fruits and vegetables of the land.

4) The Negev

Is a desert area stretching across the whole southern part of the land and making up more than half of the total area of Palestine. It gradually becomes the Sinai Desert dividing Palestine from Egypt. Few settlements were made in the Negev

We'll explore each of these areas in more detail as we study the history of Biblical Israel.


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