Bauckham’s ‘Bible and Mission’ – 8: Geography!

Posted: February 18, 2015 by J in General

03990_000_bible-map-8I’m inviting you to read through RB’s beaut little book with me – hope you’re enjoying the ride.

The biblical theme of movement from the one to the many that RB is describing, necessarily implies Geography. This is a much-neglected dimension of Scripture. But places are particulars, and the crossing of geographical boundaries is part of the meaning of mission with its universal agenda. How then does geography function in the Bible’s big picture?

1. Horizons and ‘Representative Geography’

Judging from the table of nations in Genesis 10, how did the OT writers see the world? It extended from Spain west to Iran east, from Ethiopia south to the Black Sea north. This sets the scene for the rest of the OT histories. The number of nations – 70 – is symbolic. Seven was often used in lists that represented a more comprehensive whole. They are real nations but numbering 70 they stand for all the nations on earth: this is what RB calls ‘representative geography.’

The ‘ends of the earth’ is an important bible concept (with Israel at the earth’s centre). But unlike the Greeks the OT does not glamorise these lands: they are just far-away places. The ‘scattered ones’ of Zephaniah 3 who come from the far South are real people – but through their link with Babel they also stand for all those who are far off. Often OT prophets speak of a future for particular foreign nations, but in a way that makes them representative of all nations: as in the list of seven nations in Isaiah 66. The particular leads to the universal.

2. Centre and Horizon

Though placing Israel firmly at the centre of the world, the OT prophets do not imply a superiority for the centre as was common in Hellenistic culture – or for the fringes, as in Herodotus. Rather the centre is a matter of God’s election. Likewise Paul rejects ethnic superiority in Colossians 3: in Christ there is no longer Greek and Jew, etc.

Much of the OT plays down Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the nations, but her place in the midst of the nations is always acknowledged. By the time of the NT, Jews had been scattered and were living in many of these countries. This international structure to Israel’s life and thought became the framework within which Christian mission arose.

3. Seeking and sending

Does the Bible envisage a centripetal or a centrifugal movement with regard to the centre? In the OT and the gospels, very often centripetal, with the nations coming in to Zion.

In the NT the sending of the apostles and others has a centrifugal direction built in. However the geographical force of this sending is not always full-strength, as the concept of the temple-as-centre came to be identified with the local Christian community rather than with the Jerusalem temple. In John’s Gospel, Jesus himself becomes the temple, the centre of God’s presence on earth, the particular through which God reaches the whole world.

4. A Diaspora People

One other geographical image is important in Scripture: the OT image of God’s people as scattered exiles is appropriated in the NT to describe believers living as a minority in a world where their beliefs are marginalised.



I find this discussion of geography in general refreshing and different, since the theme is so often ignored in bible scholarship. But RB demonstrates its value. His ‘representative geography’ concept is persuasive, and I think very helpful for our reading of Scripture. It enables us to read the OT prophetic vision in its particulars while remaining sensitive to its universal scope. The framework of centre and edges to the world is so important for reading Scripture from within the right world-view. It also gives us some framework to help in structuring our thinking about what the church is, then and now.

The idea of diaspora is perhaps the most urgently relevant geographical idea for the Western church, struggling as it still is to throw off the shackles of its privileged, state-backed past. Once we face up to being a powerless minority, rather than, say, society’s moral policeman, ‘this may improve our witness to the Christ who was himself so often found at the margins’ – as RB points out. I think he has in mind that our long-outdated sense of entitlement is one of the least attractive aspects of the church in the modern west, with its hostility towards entrenched power and privilege. Good call.

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