Why Location Matters in Bible Study

James Coakley
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Think about the geographical places that have shaped and influenced who you are today: your hometown, the neighborhood you grew up in, the places you went to get away, the trips you took to distant places. I have spent most of my life in the Midwest in middle-class suburban neighborhoods and that has left a deep imprint on me.

Understanding the role that geography has in our lives can increase our delight in reading God’s Word as we pay attention to the physical surroundings and locations of events in Scripture. Where something happens is an important element to ponder as one reads any text, including Scripture. Many Bible readers tend to overlook the significance of setting in Scripture because they focus more on the characters and action. However, the setting itself can be seen as another character in the story. Settings can create a certain mood and help the reader visualize the scene.

Look for how the geographical locations mentioned in the text enhance the account. Treat the setting as you would a character—as a contributing participant with a voice. Oftentimes the setting evokes a certain mood and functions as a literary stage that gives readers a greater sense of certainty that they are reading the passage as the authors intended.


Setting is very common. This is more evident in narrative books of the Bible since accounts depicted occur in a physical setting, but there are also examples of it in the poetic and prophetic portions of God’s Word.


Pay close attention to the information that the biblical author gives about the setting, and reflect on how and why that location plays a role in the account. Review previous events that took place in the same location, and think about whether or not there are similar elements to those accounts and any possible literary or thematic connections. Remember that settings often have symbolic connotations that the author is activating (which does not diminish the historical or physical context).


It is important for readers to notice the location of biblical events because setting is closely intertwined with the action and characters in revealing the author’s plot development. It also helps the reader to emotionally enter into the overall mood of the account and connect more intimately with the characters because we often find ourselves in similar settings. Lastly, readers can deepen their engagement with the text by dovetailing the literal historical setting with the symbolic significance of the physical space.


Sometimes a geographical location is mentioned to anchor the account historically without necessarily invoking literary and theological connotations. Therefore, readers have to be careful not to over-spiritualize or read too much into the setting. Don’t force symbolic significance without significant evidence that the author intends such a connection.

Location and Jacob’s Story

When Jacob flees from his brother Esau after he took Esau’s blessing, he comes close to the border of Israel and the text states that “he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set” (Gen. 28:11). It was there that he laid down upon a stone to sleep and had his dream about angels ascending and descending. He calls the name of the place Bethel. The next day he leaves the land and went “to the land of the people of the east” (29:1), where he spends the next twenty years.

Then, in Genesis 32, Jacob is returning home when, just before he crosses back into the land at the Jabbok River, he has a mysterious wrestling match, and his name is changed to Israel. He calls the name of the place “Penuel,” and the text says that “the sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel” (Gen. 32:31).

Don’t force symbolic significance without significant evidence that the author intends such a connection.

So, when Jacob left the land in fear in Genesis 28, the text explicitly states that “the sun had set,” at that particular location (Bethel). Twenty years later he has another divine encounter at another place he named (Penuel) before reentering the land of Canaan. After the encounter, the text specifically states that the “sun rose.” Clearly the sun set and rose each day for the twenty years he was away, but Moses only mentions the sunset and sunrise at the beginning and ending of Jacob’s prodigal years away from the land. So, the subtle mood that the scene creates is that, for the time Jacob was away from the land, it was “nighttime,” but when Jacob admits who he is and has a divine encounter (along with a name change), literally and symbolically there was a new day dawning in his life.

Some places have eerie and ominous overtones (e.g., cemeteries and old, decrepit houses) in modern storytelling. The same can be true of places mentioned in the Bible. Certainly, the mention of wilderness or storms at sea in the text creates some of those same bleak and foreboding “moods,” not only for the characters but also for the readers of the passage.

Location and Joseph’s Story

Genesis 37 contains another example of how the mention of a place can create a certain sense of foreboding. When readers come to Genesis 37, there is a specific reference to a place (Shechem) that acts as a red herring to the overall account. Joseph is sent out by Jacob to find out what is going on with his brothers since they have not come back home in a timely fashion. Young Joseph left Hebron and arrived at Shechem (Gen. 37:13– 14). The mention of Shechem is a dead end since the brothers are not there, but there is a nameless individual who tells Joseph that he overheard them say they were going to Dothan. Joseph then leaves for Dothan and finds his brothers there, and the trajectory of Joseph’s life takes a radical turn as he is sold as a slave to Midianites going down to Egypt.

The red herring reference of Shechem is intriguing because its mention is not that significant to the main storyline. Moses could have left it out and just simply recorded that Joseph set out and found his brothers shepherding their flocks at Dothan, omitting the mention of Shechem from the text. So what is the purpose of Moses’ mention of Shechem in Genesis 37 if it really is not necessary in the grand scheme of things?

Here is where the previous mention of the geographical place comes into play. Prior to Genesis 37, we read of an earlier event that took place in Shechem in Genesis 34. It was at Shechem where Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, was kidnapped and sexually violated. Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi brutally murdered the men of Shechem as a vindictive act of revenge against the town. So the reference to what happened in Genesis 34 at Shechem should still be lingering in the mind of the reader when they come to read Genesis 37. An ominous mood looms at the mention of Joseph anywhere near that place, since the last time an offspring of Jacob was by themselves at Shechem, bad things happened. Moses is foreshadowing danger to the reader in Genesis 37 by mentioning that place, even if it is a red herring to the main action.

Even though the mention of Shechem seems like a geographical dead end, it is intentionally included to get the reader mentally prepared to expect another perilous action that will soon take place at Dothan. Joseph, who is by himself just as Dinah was when she ventured out on her own (and in the same vicinity), is about to step into a danger zone geographically.

For Further Reading:

14 Fresh Ways to Enjoy the Bible

by James Coakley

The Bible is God’s masterpiece and gift to you—claim it for all that it’s worth. The Bible is the most read book in all the world....

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