Common Misconceptions about Biblical Geography
By John A. Tvedtnes

Editor’s note: This article was first published as “Geographical Misconceptions Concerning the Bible Abound,” Provo Sun, 19 April 1998.

The Bible is perhaps the most widely-read book in history, yet misconceptions about its contents abound, particularly when it comes to geography. We sing hymns that speak of “Judea’s plains” (though Bethlehem is in the hill country), of traversing “moor and mountain” (in a land devoid of moors), and of the “green hill far away” (in a land where shades of brown are normal). Here, we shall examine a few other examples of geographically-based Bible misconceptions.

Several individuals have asked me why Bible commentaries speak of David being buried in Jerusalem when, in 1 Kings 2:10 we read that “David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.” After all, don’t we read in Luke 2:4 and 2:11 that Christ was born in “the city of David, which is called Bethlehem”?

There is a common fallacy here. Christ lived a thousand years after David, so one cannot read the New Testament usage back into the Old Testament. Luke calls Bethlehem the city of David because David was born there. But David ruled from Jerusalem, which he had captured from the Jebusites, and which, as royal property, came to be called “the city of David” (2 Samuel 5:6-6; 1 Chronicles 11:4-7). The Bible tells us that David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, also called “the city of David” (2 Samuel 6:10-16; 1 Chronicles 15:1-3, 29). In the accounts of Solomon’s construction of the temple in Jerusalem, we find that the city was also called Zion and “the city of David” (1 Kings 8:1; 2 Chronicles 5:2).

In addition to these, we have the fact that when Assyrians coming against Jerusalem, king Hezekiah fortified “the city of David” and redirected the water from the spring Gihon (2 Chronicles 32:5, 30; 33:14; Isaiah 22:9-11). When, in the sixth century B.C., Jews returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, they called the site “the city of David” (Nehemiah 3:15; 12:37). As to royal burials, we note that two Old Testament passages (2 Kings 9:28; 14:20) specifically identify Jerusalem as the “city of David” where kings Ahaziah and Amaziah were buried.

Visitors to Israel are shown “Rachel’s Tomb” south of Jerusalem, just outside Bethlehem, yet 1 Samuel 10:2 places Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin, north of Jerusalem, at Ramah. The error comes from two places. One is the use of Jeremiah 31:15-17 (Rachel weeping for her children) by Matthew 2:16-18 in reference to the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. The original passage refers to the captivity of the northern tribes of Israel, which Jeremiah says will some day return. (Leah, not Rachel, was the mother of Judah, in whose territory the town of Bethlehem was located.) The other problem lies in a mistranslation of two verses describing Rachel’s death, Genesis 35:16 and 48:7, where the Hebrew text says there remained “yet a kibrah of the land.” The word kibrah means “wide expanse” rather than “a little way,” as the King James Bible has it.

Most Bible readers, unacquainted with the boundaries of the tribes of Israel, make unwarranted assumptions, particularly in regard to the “ten lost tribes” of Israel. Most books and articles on the subject assume that the kingdom of Judah comprised the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi, and that all the rest of the tribes belonged to the northern kingdom of Israel, which was carried into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. But one other tribe must be accounted a member of the kingdom of Judah. The territory assigned to Simeon in Joshua 19 was in the south, not the north, and was completely surrounded by the tribe of Judah. Indeed, later passages indicate that those cities (chief of which was Beer-Sheba) belonged to the tribe of Judah, suggesting that Simeon was probably completely absorbed by the larger tribe. [1]

Another story that can be clarified by an understanding of the geography of the holy land is that of Joshua who, while battling a Canaanite army, commanded the sun and the moon to stand still. Most people assume that he wanted to prevent the setting of the sun so they could continue the battle, but this is not so. Joshua said, “Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon” (Joshua 10:12). Knowing that Gibeon is in the hill country to the east of the valley of Ajalon, we learn that these words were uttered at sunrise, not at sunset. It seems likely that Joshua, who was pushing the Canaanite army westward from Gibeon, hoped that the rays of the rising sun could be used to his advantage, blinding the enemy soldiers.


[1] For a discussion, see my article “The Other Tribes: Which are They?” The Ensign, January 1982.


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