Don't Know Much About History. . .

Using Software Tools to better understand the world of the Bible.

by David Lang (Posted: 2/5/03)

Whenever we read the Bible, we are entering another world: a world of people, places, and events from which we are separated by thousands of years. In some cases, the people and events are familiar to us, deeply ingrained in our minds through our childhood exposure to them or because they are an important part of our collective cultural consciousness. Yet even episodes as familiar as David and Goliath or Jonah and the Whale tend to contain numerous details and to assume certain perspectives which may be entirely foreign to us. The writer of First Samuel assumed that his readers would know where the valley of Elah was and why retaining control of it was of strategic military importance to both the Israelites and the Philistines. The writer of the book of Jonah assumed that his readers would know the locations of both Nineveh and Tarshish, and that they would understand immediately the political situation which would have made Jonah want to avoid the one and flee to the other. When we read these stories from our vantage-point, it can be like listening to one half of a telephone conversation.

Clearly, if we "don't know much" about the history and geography of the Bible, we are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to understanding its message and its theology. How do we overcome such a disadvantage? How do we bridge the gulf which separates us from the Bible's human authors and original audience? How can we learn to interpret the Bible in light of its historical and geographical context? Thankfully, there are software tools available which can help us to better understand the world of the Bible. In this article, we'll look at two such resources: the Accordance Bible Atlas and Bible Lands PhotoGuide, to see how they can be used to deepen our understanding of the Bible.

(NOTE: Similar resources may be available through Online Bible and Manna Bible Maps, but since I'm less familiar with those tools, I'll leave those for somebody else to cover.)

Where is Ramah, and why is Rachel weeping there?

To see how these software tools can give us a better understanding of the Bible, let's look at a passage of Scripture that is familiar to most of us, but which becomes much more intelligible once we understand its historical, geographical, and political context. That passage is found in Matthew 2:16-18:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

Most of us are familiar with the story of Herod's slaughter of the innocents, including the part about Rachel weeping for her children in Ramah, but how often do we stop to think about what that quotation from Jeremiah really means? Most of us gloss over this verse as a poetic description of a tragic loss; or at best we point to it as an example of an Old Testament prophecy fulfilled. But where exactly is Ramah, what does it have to do with Bethlehem, and why is Rachel described as weeping there? Why, for that matter, is it Rachel, and not Leah, who is described as weeping, since Bethlehem was in the territory of Judah, and Judah was the son of Leah rather than Rachel? Finally, what did this image of Rachel weeping for her children have to do with the events of Jeremiah's day, and why did Matthew connect that image to the slaughter of the innocents in the time of Christ?

The answers to these questions are more than just a matter of curiosity; they are the key to fully understanding the passage. So, in the pages that follow, we'll learn how we can use the software tools listed above to help us find those answers.

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