Two weeks ago, we began our series of The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People. To prepare for this series, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a biblical history tour through Israel. For ten days we walked, hiked, and drove through the lands of the stories from the Bible. We made our way through over fifty biblical sites and studied archeological ruins, read Bible stories in the locations where they took place, and gained an invaluable experience.
Early in the trip, our leader explained a phrase and concept that would shape my time in Israel, as well as my time spent in reflection on the trip: physical theology. So many of us have been exposed to the stories of the Bible. Whatever knowledge of them we may have, often our understanding is devoid of a physical awareness of where these stories took place: the geography, topography (valleys were important for the use of chariots in wars and cities were stationed on high ground for defense), and history surrounding these places. Justin Taylor writes about a lecture given on physical theology on thegospelcoalition.org and says,
“God has revealed Himself in time, space, and culture. People of faith from biblical times through today seek to live according to His purposes as reflected in the Bible. [T]he original context of Scripture—the land, culture, and language—is valuable for understanding both the message of the Bible and its contemporary relevance. The ancient Israelites and Jews in later periods lived off the land and lived out their response to God through the law, the feasts, and the challenges of life in the land. The land was God’s testing ground of faith, and as we encounter the “physical theology” expressed in Scripture, we are better equipped to grasp the lessons it has for us today.”
Although there were so many things I learned and experienced throughout the trip, the physical theology that I gained was by far the most precious. My hope and goal has been to integrate this experience into the sermons for our new series, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to incorporate the physical theology into the sermons.
Yesterday we talked about Chapter 2 and the story of Abraham. Something I just didn’t have time to cover was the side-story of Abraham allowing Hagar and Ishmael to be sent away. He gives them some food and water and sends them off to wander in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water ran out, Hagar put Ishmael under a bush and went away because she couldn’t watch her son die. As she sits there sobbing, God hears the boy crying and the angel of God calls to Hagar asking what’s the matter. He tells her not to be afraid, that God has heard the boy crying. Then the angel of God tells her to lift the boy and take him by the hand for he will make Him into a great nation. In Genesis 21:19 we read the final verse of the story,
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
It’s a beautiful story about God hearing the downtrodden and distressed. There’s a personal element but also God’s promise being fulfilled; in Genesis 16, God told her that Ishmael would father a nation, just not His promised nation. This story isn’t just beautiful though, it’s true and a part of history. Here’s a picture of the well at Beer Sheva (called Beersheba in the English translations of the Bible).
Although there has been some reconstruction to the trough (known as a cup in those days, which brings more meaning when the Psalmists write about the cup overflowing), the well beneath ground has been around for thousands of years and is likely the very place Hagar experienced God’s goodness and provision. In addition to the well, the remains of the village that would have been there can still be seen to this day
Our God is incredible, the one who hears the cry of a boy and answers with provision. The God who has revealed Himself over and over throughout history in visible ways that continue to be seen thousands of years later. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and His hand has been at work throughout history; not just in the lives of those people we’re familiar with like Abraham, but also those like Hagar, the Egyptian servant who saw God’s promises fulfilled at the well at Beer Sheva.
As we read The Story and hear the names of places, look them up and study the location, archeology, and geography. Understand that the Bible is not made up or make-believe, but it’s history telling one story about God wanting to be reunited with His people.