Understanding the Land of the Bible: A Biblical-Theological Guide

By O. Palmer Robertson
Phillipsburg, NJ : Presbyterian and Reformed (1996). x + 158 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
8.1 (Spring 1997) : 122-123

The author, the respected Professor of Old Testament at Knox Theological Seminary, has produced a popular book on Bible geography. But his aspirations are higher than just a treatment of the geographic features. He has sought to offer "an introductory overview of the geographical features of the land of the Bible, noting how those diverse elements affected Biblical history. In addition, it points out the role certain features of the land have played in God's purposes in redemptive history" (3).

The book divides into well-conceived chapters covering the land from "south to north" and from "west to east" as it gives specific physical features of the land and brief discussions on most of the major cities in various stages of Biblical history. In addition John D. Currid has added a small section on "Climate and Vegetation."

In terms of his first goal of providing an "introductory overview," the author has presented a very clear, non-technical set of descriptions that should help the novice. The work has a brief but helpful bibliography, as well as "place" and Scripture indexes. The most distressing feature to this reviewer, which spoils the volume almost beyond redemption, is the maps. It has nine maps (12, 17, 26, 43, 56, 65, 81, 912, 112), all of which suffer from poor graphic design and several of which contain outright errors. All the maps are poor greyscale renditions that make discerning the geographic features quite difficult. Only the map on p. 56 has any kind of legend to indicate what various symbols represent, and because of the greyscale printing, even those are difficult to discern. But beyond the artistic quality are several egregious errors. For example, the map on p. 17 locates Jericho differently from the one on p. 43; on p. 91, the inset map of Jerusalem has the Mount of Olives west of the Temple with the Old City of David misplaced as well; on p. 43, Mt. Nebo and the town of Heshbon are in improper relation, with the Heshbon site identified as more likely being Medeba.

In terms of providing a "biblical-theological guide," several other items are worthy of note. The author in several places identifies Solomon as the "messiah" in the sense that he totally fulfilled the land promises of God to Abraham (Gen 15:18; Exod 23:31) by the advancement of his kingdom (9, 19). Yet that assertion is unsupportable. Numbers 34:1-12 details the geographic extent of the Promised Land, which encompasses the region of Phoenicia, including Tyre, but during Solomon's reign Tyre was an independent nation (1 Kgs 5:1-12). Though Solomon's "economic" control may have stretched north to the Euphrates River, "economic" control is not the same as possession of the land.

The author, in keeping with his covenantal perspective, rejects a future millennial kingdom in which Christ personally rules in the land (140-43). That perspective forces him to see the Battle of Armageddon (Rev 16:16) as spiritual in nature and to conclude that "excessive literalness not suitable to the pattern of Scripture's own self-interpretation" (34, 104) mitigates against viewing this as a literal and future event.

In the final chapter, Robertson lists five perspectives on the land: The Crusader Perspective, The Pilgrim Perspective, The Zionist Perspective, The Millennial Perspective, and the Renewal Perspective. However, his categories are arbitrary and ill-defined, the comments for three of the five being less than a page, hardly enough space to present a "perspective." He reserves the more lengthy descriptions for the Zionist and Millennial perspectives, ones that he seeks to discredit.

 In spite of several good points in this book, the items noted above preclude recommending it. Readers would be better served to obtain a standard Bible atlas with notes, such as The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands by Barry J. Beitzel (Moody Press, 1985).