The narratives of the Bible deal with real people, places, and events in history. Maps and atlases help us better understand the places of Bible events. With a map, I find the stories come alive in a way that wouldn’t happen without the map. When we read accounts of journeys, seeing a map of the journey and distances involved aids our understanding. This happens when you look at a map of the Exodus and Wilderness wanderings in the Old Testament or the Missionary Journeys of Paul in the New Testament. When reading the description of the tribal allotments in Joshua, it helps to see those tribal allotments on a map. It makes the descriptions become more meaningful, which otherwise might be a bit dry and meaningless to read. We read of military campaigns and political pressures on Israel. Maps help us visualize the situation. Some atlases may even give detailed maps of important battles. Seeing the various empires surrounding Israel and how those changed over time, helps us understand this history better. It is hard to understand the Babylonian Captivity, if you don’t know where Babylon is?
Many Bibles will contain a few maps at the back. Looking at those may help you understand the kinds of things you will find in an atlas but with greater detail and description. You typically find a topographical map which shows elevations and climate. Often your read of people going up to Jerusalem. If you use a map, you will find sometimes they are coming from north of Jerusalem. I typical say when I’m going south that I’m going down. But when you see the topography of the land, you realize they are talking from the standpoint of elevation. They are going up in the sense that they are at a lower elevation, and they are climbing to a higher elevation in Jerusalem. Climate information helps us recognize deserts and wilderness areas as opposed to places with more water or fertile plains and valleys.
Maps are also given for various historical periods. Typically, you will find a map for the Patriarch period, The Exodus and Wilderness Wanderings, a map of the tribes, the United Kingdom, the Divided Kingdom, the Assyrian Period, the Babylonian and Persian Periods, the Roman Empire, Israel during the Ministry of Jesus, and Paul’s Missionary Journeys. An atlas may also give you maps of the Hellenistic and Maccabean periods between the testaments as well. You may also find a map of Jerusalem, and in atlases maps of other cities of interest.
Using a map correctly means going to the right historical period in which you are studying. It’s helpful to notice the distance scale on a map. Remember there may be multiple cities with the same name. Be aware that some sites are questionable as to location because the memory of them has been lost in history, and a map may give you several alternatives.
My favorite Bible map at the moment is a mobile app called Bible Map from http://www.ploughboy.org. It gives the ESV text on the left with locations underscored as hyperlinks. Clicking on the location puts a pin on a Google map on the right. You can change the view of the Google map between standard, hybrid, and satellite. Clicking on the information button at the site pin will take you to a detailed description with photos. The app is free, but unfortunately, it is only available in Apple’s iOS operating system. I would still recommend using other maps and atlases, but this app provides quick answers when reading.
Maps and atlases are a basic Bible study tool which will enhance your study and knowledge of the Bible.