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Today I will be reviewing "The Bible and the Land" by Gary Burge. This is the first volume in the "Ancient Context, Ancient Faith" series put out by Zondervan. If you have not read my introductory review of this series, you might want to do so. Here is the web address: [...]. Reading this introductory review will help you get an overall understanding of the purpose of the books in the series. As the title of the book suggests, "The Bible and the Land", this volume has everything to do with how a knowledge of the geography/landscape, climate, and political boundaries of the biblical lands is vital for an accurate understanding of the biblical text. Burge successfully proves that many texts are misunderstood because of incorrect assumptions that we have and/or qualities that we underemphasize regarding the geographical context in which the biblical narrative takes place.
I can personally attest to the large role that geography/landscape and climate (specifically) play in regard to a person's basic assumptions. I spent the first 24 years of my life in the Midwest (primarily Iowa), 1 year in the Southwest (Nevada), and the last 3 years of my life in the Northeast (New Hampshire). As far as terrain goes, I have experienced about everything that America has to offer: from the rich rolling fields of Iowa to the endless succession of rough-edged, naked crags separated by miles upon miles of barren desert in Nevada to a sea of endless trees in New Hampshire. Each of these three geographical locales also present their own unique climates. In Iowa I experienced hot and humid summers mixed with bitterly cold and windy winters, getting a good mixture of both sun and precipitation. Nevada really only has three seasons: spring, summer, and fall, and rain is both longed for and feared. New Hampshire, on the other hand, has short (yet beautiful) spring, summer, and fall seasons with unbearably long and cold winters.
The terrain and climate of each of these locales bring certain geographically-bound realities to the table. Because I grew up in Iowa, I still get nervous when I see a storm brewing on the horizon, sizing up the fastest possible route to the basement in the case of a tornado--this is a fear that no native New Hampshirite has. Because I lived in Nevada for a short season of my life, I tend to drive in the rain with as much caution as those in Iowa and New Hampshire drive in an ice storm. Still further, I have found that many of my 'childhood' sermon illustrations from Iowa only work with a hefty amount of explanation simply because the folks in the New Hampshire congregation do not hold the same assumptions about certain natural phenomenon as I do.
I remember the first time I saw a river in New Hampshire; unlike the disgustingly brown rivers in Iowa, this river was clear, rocky, and fast. I commented to my (at that time) future in-laws; "Look at how clear the water is!" They looked at me like I had a hole in my head. And why? Because they had never seen brown river water! I remember driving with my new bride, Kristal, from New Hampshire to the Midwest. When we got to the Mississippi River I said nonchalantly, "There's the Mississippi." She whipped her head out the window to look at the brown river (something that was familiar to me, having grown up only 20 minutes away from it) in the same way that I whipped my head out the window the first time we drove through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This may sound other worldly to many of you, but, having grown up in the Midwest, I didn't see my first mountain until I was 15, and I was 17 before I saw the ocean for the first time in my life.
Consider just a few of the ways in which our geographical surroundings shape the way we think, the assumptions we have. Although there are laws preventing people from starting fires willy nilly in New Hampshire, no native to New Hampshire fears the devastating effects of forest fires as would a resident of Nevada. Both Iowa (because of a great dependency upon agriculture for its livelihood) and Nevada (because it is already bone-dry) feel the weight of drought in a way that New Hampshire never will. On the other hand, however, residents in neither Iowa nor Nevada will ever take 'frost heaves' into consideration when deciding which route to take home. Since I have been in New Hampshire I have never had to check my sheets or shoes for vinegarroons or scorpions; and conversely, while I was in Iowa I never felt the need to take a flash light with me outside at night out of fear that I might stumble upon an angry mama black bear.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. A person's natural surroundings have a large impact on how they see the world. Each of us live our lives in a unique corner of the earth's ecosystem, and each ecosystem brings with it different challenges, excitements, fears, and blessings. This is exactly what Burge seeks to establish in this book. His goal is to give the reader a sound understanding of the unique, built-in realities of the ancient land--realities which the biblical author's simply took for granted; realities which we must uncover if we are to understand with accuracy the true sense of much of what the author's of Scripture were trying to communicate.
First of all, contrary to both popular opinion and logic, the 'Promised Land,' which was described as 'a land flowing with milk and honey,' was not by and large the most precious piece of real-estate on the face of planet earth. Burge says,
"The Promised Land is not an easy land--it is not paradise, neither today nor in biblical times." (pg 25)
He then goes on to explain why God would choose such a rough land as the inheritance for His people:
"The land has a spiritual architecture that incorporates elements that we desire (good cities with ample rainfall and rich soil) and things we would prefer to avoid (wilderness). But this is life. And when God brought his people to this land, he built into it those elements that would provide a framework for his people to understand life with him." (pg 25)
The chapter titles in the book give a basic idea of where Burge wants to guide the reader. In each chapter Burge takes an element basic to life in the ancient biblical land, and then clearly demonstrates from different passages of Scripture how that fundamental element of life in the ancient land shaped their view of God, His character, His works, and His ways. Take a look at the different chapter titles and their corresponding Scripture references:
Chapter 2: Land
Chapter 3: Wilderness: Deuteronomy 6-8; Matthew 4
Chapter 4: Shepherds: Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34; John 10
Chapter 5: Rock: Deuteronomy 32; Joshua 4; Luke 6:46-49
Chapter 6: Water: Deuteronomy 11:10; John 4:1-30; 7:37-39
Chapter 7: Bread: Exodus 16:1-21; John 6:1-58
Chapter 8: Names: Exodus 3:13-15; Isaiah 43:1-7; Revelation 3:5
Although I would like to provide quote after quote to demonstrate for you the many insights that I gained through reading this book, I will limit myself to just one for the sake of brevity. I hope this one snippet will whet your appetite enough to buy the book.
In the chapter titled, 'Water,' Burge comments that we modern day Americans have difficulty understanding the great significance of water for life in general. When we want something to drink we generally just walk over to the faucet, spin a knob or lift a handle, and Whammo! water comes gushing out the faucet. We are so accustomed to water coming out of the faucet on demand that we get irritated if the water should somehow get shut off. This is not how things were in the holy land in the ancient world. In fact, Burge suggests that water "is the 'oil' of the Holy Land." (pg 75) He says,
"Those of us with water on tap have been disconnected from one of the most powerful reminders of our frailty and our need for God's provision and cleansing." (pg 85)
We often forget that water is essential for life, being essential for both hydration and sanitation. And even when we do remember this fact it bears no heavy weight upon us because it is so easily accessible to us. Drought was a common occurrence in the ancient world and the widespread and devastating effects of dehydration (which sometimes would include innumerable deaths) were all-too-close to home for the ancient Israelites.
When a family bows their heads at the kitchen table to return thanks for the meal they are about to eat, no one (at least that I have ever heard) thanks the Lord for providing full glasses of water to drink. And even if someone has thanked the Lord for providing glasses of water to drink, how many continue the thanksgiving, praising Him for providing water with which to clean the dishes and take showers? The only reason anyone (other than the local farmer) ever prays for rain is so that they might have an excuse to not go to the annual family reunion. In fact, rain has become more of an annoyance in our day and age than a resource of necessity.
The reality of the necessity of water was so real to those of the ancient world that it (water) came to be used as a symbol for greater, spiritual realities. Burge explains how the biblical authors used water as a symbol for spiritual cleansing (sin being represented by dirt and infection), the abundant life, and it ultimately came to be used as a symbol for the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-39).
Behind the backdrop of the harsh realities of the ancient world, Jesus' offer regarding 'living water' to the dirty (sinful) Samaritan woman at the well is pregnant with meaning. Look at the text.
"Jesus answered, 'If you knew the gift of God, and who is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would ask Him, and He would give you living water.' 'Sir,' said the woman, 'You don't even have a bucket, and the well is deep. So where do you get this 'living water'? You aren't greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and livestock.' Jesus said, 'Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again--ever! In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up within him for eternal life." (John 4:10-14 HCSB)
The only issue I take with the book is the last chapter. Although the chapter was excellent as an independent article, it didn't seem to fit the overall theme of the book all that well. But this hardly takes away from the rich nuggets of truth found on every page throughout the volume.
Not only does Burge bring the reader back into the ancient world, giving a sense of what the text meant to its original recipients, he then takes the clear meaning of the text within its first century context and builds bridges from the ancient world to our present day context. In other words, Burge doesn't take the reader back to the ancient world just to 'wow the crowd' with his knowledge of ancient history and culture. His ultimate purpose in taking his audience back in time is to help them gain a clear and living understanding of the original message so that they might be able to make modern day parallels, and thus see the ever-present relevance of Jesus and His timeless message.
As I stated in the introductory post on the "Ancient Context, Ancient Faith" series, I have been elated with Burge's ability to make biblical backgrounds accessible to the average joe. I highly recommend "The Bible and the Land." This book is for all Christians; spanning the gap between the scholar and the simple--it is both wide and deep.