The New Moody Atlas of the Bible
By Barry J. Beitzel
(Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009), 304 pp., 118 maps, $49.99 (hardcover)
Zondervan Atlas of the Bible
By Carl G. Rasmussen
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 303 pp., $39.99 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Harold Brodsky
Biblical atlases make fine gifts. Both the Moody and Zondervan atlases include attractive shaded relief maps and landscape photographs—illustrations that are likely to encourage browsing. But as reference works, they are becoming increasingly obsolete. Much like dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopedias, it is usually easier to search for information online then to flip pages in a book. I can no longer recommend a Biblical atlas as a textbook for a college course or an adult study group.
Most Biblical atlases begin with physical geography—the mountains, the rivers, the climate, the roads, the location of cities and the nature of agriculture. Then comes historical geography: peoples, regions, military actions and geopolitical changes over time. But students become fidgety with such content. What’s wrong? Basically these students want to learn more about the Bible. Descriptive geography is not their main focus.
Matters improved for me when I changed emphasis. Instead of lecturing on geography with selected references from Scripture, I circulated narratives from the Bible that contained geographic content, but not much geographical context. Many Biblical accounts take for granted an understanding of the geographical setting. 77The relevance of geography becomes more apparent when trying to make sense of such a text. 1
When I want to find out more about a Biblical place, I go online to a website such as “Bible Geocoding,” which piggybacks on Google Maps: www.openbible.info/geo. Helpful topical Biblical maps are available at sites such as bibleatlas.org and searching the scriptures.net. Linkages to a variety of Biblical mapping resources can be found at: scrollandscreen.com.
Websites come and go, and there are others worthy of mention. How trustworthy is the web? Scholars will not depend on any one source, and are likely to have in mind special sources for verification. But for ordinary use the web quickly and efficiently makes available a broad range of relevant geographic information. No doubt publishers of Biblical atlases are concerned about these trends. The Moody Atlas bundles with its printed edition access to a digital copy of all its maps and photos. It also publishes a Kindle version. Likewise, Rasmussen offers Biblical maps and photos on a website. But this is old technology in a new bottle. These digital maps and photos retain their static printed form. For a real difference we need interactive photographs with audio clips and links to other sources. We need maps that reveal changes over time by animation and overlays. Such digital maps and photographs, if properly done, will be easier to understand, more informative and of greater interest than the illustrations we find in printed Biblical atlases.
1 Examples of this approach can be found in Harold Brodsky, “Bible Lands: The Jordan— Symbol of Spiritual Transition,” Bible Review, June 1992, and “Bible Lands: Three Capitals in the Hills of Ephraim,” Bible Review, February 1989. Also, two of my papers in the Jewish Bible Quarterly are currently on the website: www.geog.umd.edu/research/maps.