The Geography of Israel—Genesis 15:18

The Boundaries of Israel

The territory of Palestine stretched from the Mediterranean Sea in the west eastward to the Jordan River, or at times the eastern desert. It bordered ancient Phoenicia (Lebanon) in the north and the Sinai Peninsula in the south, the latter marked by the Brook of Egypt.

The Regions and Terrain

The coastal plain that ran along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea was relatively flat and low and was dotted with swamps and scrub forests in ancient times. As one moves east, a hilly area, named the Shephelah (Hebrew “lowlands”), marks the transition between the coastal plains and the hills that rise up to approximately 914 m above sea level. The Shephelah hills are relatively uniform in height at about 1,200 feet. To the east of the central mountain range, a sharp descent plunges into the Jordan Valley, a crustal rift that extends from northern Syria to Eilat on the Red Sea. It has the lowest point on dry land, which is 396 m below sea level. The Judean Desert dominates the south and the fertile forests of Lebanon in the north.

Bodies of Water

The Old Testament period labeled the Mediterranean Sea as the Great Sea. The biblical authors demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of it and its islands, and it enabled extensive commerce and trade throughout the biblical period. However, we have no textual evidence that the Hebrews themselves sailed on it. They depended on the expertise of the Phoenicians to help them build ships and navigate. Even so, most of the mercantile expeditions of the kings of Judah sailed from Ezion-Geber on the Red Sea, Palestine’s southern border (1 Kings 9:26-28; 10:22; 22:48). The Red Sea, known as “yam suf,” allowed trade with Africa, Arabia, and India. The Sea of Galilee, called the Sea of Kinnereth, probably due to its shape similar to a lyre (kinor in Hebrew), is fed by three rivers descending from Mount Hermon, which combine into one before filling the Galilee basin. In ancient times another body of water, Lake Huleh, existed between Mt Hermon and the Sea of Galilee.

Main Ancient Roads

Roads and highways, though not as developed as their modern-day counterparts, were vital in connecting the different areas of the ancient Near East, especially in the Levant, which was located strategically between the major civilizations of its time. The mainland trade routes of the fertile crescent crossed through the region connecting Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Phoenicia, Assyria, and Babylon, which were the most important regions.

Though little resembling modern roads, people did some essential work on them such as leveling the ground and removing obstacles to prepare and maintain each of the main roads and highways of antiquity. As Isaiah 62:10 declares, “Build up the highway! Take out the stones.”

The two most critical international highways that traversed Israel were “The way of the Sea” and “The King’s Highway.” “The Way of the Sea,” known in later periods as Via Maris, was the most ancient and probably the most important of the two roads. It runs along the coastline, branching out to reach many important cities. The Old Testament mentions it at least twice, once by name in Isaiah 9:1 and indirectly as the “way of the land of the Philistines” in Exodus 13:17. “The King’s Highway,” referred to in Numbers 20:17 and 21:22, crossed the region into the Transjordan in a parallel route to that of the Via Maris and was, to an extent, its competitor.

Mountains and Ranges

The central mountain range stretches along the center of the country, running north to south. It includes the regions of Galilee, Ephraim, Judah, and the Negev. In Galilee, the northernmost part of the range, hills may reach an altitude of more than 3,000 feet. The hills of Ephraim, in the central part, include Baal Hazor, the highest mountain of the area with an elevation of 3,330 feet. The Judean hills, in which the cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron are located, form a boundary between the more fertile areas of the range with the desert east and south of it. Of the three cities, Hebron has the highest elevation at 3,350 feet above sea level. The Negev mountains are a southern continuation of the Judean hills. Lower in height (between 1,500-1,800 feet), they are semi-arid, becoming gradually more desert-like as one travels south.


Naturalists generally describe the climate in the Levant as Mediterranean. Instead of four distinct seasons, it mainly has two: wet and dry. The north receives significantly more moisture than the south, causing drastic differences in the temperatures and general climate in a tiny geographic area. Deserts almost entirely surround Israel, ranging from the Arabian desert in the south to the Syrian Desert in the east. Along the coast temperatures may vary between 14°C–26°C. In the Judean hill country, temperatures vary between 9°C–25°C and 10°C–45°C in the Negev.


Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A historical geography.

Aharoni et al., The Carta Bible Atlas.

Frick, “Palestine, Climate of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 119-126.