We chatted with G. B. Howell, Jr., editor of Biblical Illustrator magazine at Lifeway, to talk about how to use a Bible atlas and Bible mapping for spiritual growth.
Lifeway Women: We are glad today to have with us G. B. Howell, who was editor of Biblical Illustrator magazine for about eighteen years. In Biblical Illustrator, you looked at the customs and cultures, people, and places of the biblical world. And G. B., that’s what we want to talk about today, the places we find in the Bible.
G. B.: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
LWW: G. B., when we think about biblical places, we automatically think about maps like we find in the back of our Bibles or maybe some thick atlas. And truthfully, most people don’t get jazzed thinking about those types of things.
G. B.: That’s true. Somehow I was wired differently. I always loved in school when the teacher would pull down those huge maps that stayed rolled up like a window shade. Instantly, my attention level went up. One day looking at a map of Georgia, which is where I am from, I noticed something odd. Waresboro is in Ware County, but Toomsboro is not in Toombs County. I then thought, Is Clarkston in Clarke County? No! Athens is in Clarke County; Clarkston is in DeKalb. Then I noticed places with interesting names—places like Willacoochee, Experiment, and Enigma (yes, they really do exist!). And afterwards, I was hooked.
LWW: G. B., when did you start finding yourself interested in biblical places?
G. B.: It was in seminary. I took Old Testament and archaeology classes with Dr. William Morton, who was a well-respected archaeologist. His tests always included a map with a bunch of dots with no city names. YIKES! He really expects us to know this! So it was a sink or swim type of topic.
LWW: How does understanding places mentioned in Scripture help us as believers?
G. B.: Well, it helps us understand details we might otherwise not notice. For instance, in the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” (Luke 10:30, CSB). Easily, we miss details involved in that simple statement. A map will show us that Jerusalem is in a hilly-looking area, and Jericho is in a valley. So traveling between the two would be a challenge. Looking at the key, we can figure out that the distance between Jerusalem and Jericho is about 15 miles.1 And in those 15 miles, the drop is over 3,200 feet.2 And if you have one of those maps that shows rainfall by regions, you notice that Jericho gets about 8 inches of rain a year, and Jerusalem gets about 20–25 inches.3 So that would make a difference in how the people had to live, what they could do for crops, and even how they might dress. We miss those details. People in Jesus’ day, however, would have automatically understood what was involved in going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Or you read about Jonah. According to 2 Kings 14:25, he was from Gath-hepher, which is relatively near the Sea of Galilee. God told him to go to Nineveh, which was over 500 miles northeast of Gath-hepher.4 Instead, he went southwest and caught a boat from Joppa and headed toward Tarshish, which was over 2,000 miles farther west.5 Even if we didn’t know the mileage, we would instantly be struck by the fact that Jonah was trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and Nineveh. So in both stories, seeing those locations on a map helps us to appreciate how dramatic these actions were.
LWW: So when you are reading your Bible, what do you look for related to places?
G. B.: The first question I ask myself is if something else happened there—and, if so, what’s the connection? The one we easily think of is Jesus’ birthplace, Bethlehem of Judea. That’s not a detail left to chance. It was part of God’s eternal plan. What else happened in Bethlehem? David, the king of Israel, was born there. The connection is that David was the king of Israel; Jesus is the King of kings and issued in the kingdom of God.
Another is Joppa. We know that Jonah went there rather than take the message of God to the people of Nineveh, people who were non-Jews. (See Jonah 1.) Then in the New Testament, we read of Simon Peter staying in Joppa at the home of Simon, the tanner. (See Acts 9:43.) While there, Peter had a vision of a large sheet being lowered to the ground, a sheet carrying animals the Jews considered unclean and unfit to eat. In that vision, the Lord told him to eat the animals. As the story unfolds, Peter came to realize that the gospel was not just for the Jews—the Gentiles needed to hear about Christ as well. (See Acts 10.) Again, the message of God was going to non-Jews, and Joppa was involved.
LWW: Did you ever have one of those “aha moments” related to a place?
G. B. Yes, I did, just a few years ago. Growing up, I had sung the hymn about hearing the Macedonian call to send the light.6 Growing up, I knew we always sang that when we were talking about evangelism and missions. But I didn’t realize the significance until I was looking at a map of Paul’s second missionary journey. Acts 16 records his call to go to Macedonia. When he sailed from Troas and headed towards Macedonia, he was taking the gospel from Asia into Europe. Oh my! Oh my! The implications are unbelievable.
You realize that Lydia was his first convert on European soil. She heard the gospel while Paul was at Philippi (see Acts 16:11-15), which was on the Via Egnatia, the major east/west highway through the region.7 The location had to help the news of Christ to spread from there, far and wide. And we can miss that if we don’t have a map or atlas in front of us when we read the text.
LWW: So what would you say is the main help you get by having a map on hand when reading Scripture?
G. B.: It’s the answer to the questions: What’s the significance? What are the implications? Seeing the location helps us grasp what we could otherwise miss.
LWW: G. B., what advice would you give to our readers?
G. B.: I would advise people to get a really good Bible atlas and to keep it handy. The Holman Bible Atlas is excellent as are the ESV Bible Atlas and the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. Or if you can get an older edition of the Oxford Bible Atlas—first, second, or third edition—it’s really helpful. What I like about those older versions is that the index in the back will have not only the locations of places on the maps, but it also has Scripture references and brief explanations that help users understand, “Oh, this is that Gilgal, not the other one with the same name!”
LWW: Well, G. B., you have given us a lot to think about. I think I am going to have to make sure I keep my atlas handy when I am doing my Bible reading.
G. B.: Sounds like a great plan! And thanks again for letting me be with you today.
G. B. Howell, Jr. served as a pastor in Georgia and was an adjunct professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s north Georgia campus before going to Lifeway where he was editor of Biblical Illustrator magazine. He has continued to serve churches as a transitional interim pastor with various congregations in the Nashville area. He and his wife live in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
1. “Map 9: Holy Land in the Time of Jesus,” NIV First-Century Study Bible, with notes by Kent Dobson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 1,844.
3. “Climate Patterns of Ancient Palestine,” accessed via Precept Austin on March 5, 2021, https://www.preceptaustin.org/bible_maps.
4. Commentary on Jonah 1:1-2, NLT Parallel Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 1,628
5. Commentary on Jonah 1:3, Holman Illustrated Bible Commentary, eds. E. Ray Clendenen and Jeremy Royal Howard (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 946.
6. Charles H. Gabriel, “Send the Light,” 1850, https://hymnary.org/text/theres_a_call_comes_ringing_oer_the_rest.
7. Holman Concise Bible Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1998), 523.