Forerunner, "WorldWatch," November-December 2010

A nation's or region's geography constrains its policy choices, especially in its international relations. This is essentially the definition of geopolitics. Where a nation is located—landlocked or coastal, northern hemisphere or southern, Eastern or Western, high latitude or low, etc.—and what geographical features the land possesses—mountains, rivers, coasts, deserts, forests, etc.—dictate to a great extent how it can and will react to most events and crises that affect it. Other factors, such as mineral wealth, arable land, and natural harbors, also play their parts.

Geopolitics is not an exact science—nations do act "outside the box" on occasion—but it provides a framework for understanding why nations decide to do one thing over another. For instance, a large nation like Russia, which has almost no natural barriers to invasion, will endeavor to create a series of buffer states between itself and its most powerful enemies to forestall aggression against it. Thus, since its rise to great power status, Russia has sought to establish and protect its "near abroad," the quasi-independent republics that line its western and southern perimeter. This fact of geography helps to explain Russia's domination and intervention in nations like Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the like.

Despite its small size, the land of Israel, on which the Bible's actions center, is not exempt from geographical and therefore geopolitical realities. Its size, shape, topographical features, and climate all shape its rulers' courses of action, as well as its enemies' options in coming against it. A serious student of the Bible will keep these factors in mind, especially when reading through the historical narratives found from Genesis to II Chronicles and beyond.

Israel has been an independent actor in three general periods in history: 1) from the invasion under Joshua until Judah's defeat by Nebuchadnezzar; 2) from the return of the Jewish exiles under Zerubbabel until Titus razed Jerusalem in AD 70; and 3) in its current manifestation as a nation since 1948. In all three periods, Israel has found itself struggling to retain its independence due to external imperial ambitions and internal tensions. This consistent political situation is a result of its unchanging geography.

Generally, Israel has stretched from southern Lebanon and the hill country in the north (often including the Golan Heights) to the Negev in the south—in effect, "from Dan to Beersheba," a Hebrew phrase that implies "all Israel" (Judges 20:1; I Samuel 3:20; II Samuel 24:2). On occasion, Israelites also ruled areas east of the Jordan River, but they never encroached far into Arabia or even into Sinai, for that matter. Only under a strong leader like David or Solomon did the borders venture much beyond the "Dan to Beersheba" rule. This holds true even today.

Deserts protect Israel from three directions, providing fairly deep buffer zones from enemies to the southwest, southeast, and east. The Sinai Desert holds off the Egyptians except when they are particularly strong, as in the days of Thutmose III and Ramses II, for example. The southeastern desert guards the approaches from Eilat/Aqaba at the northern end of the eastern arm of the Red Sea. Thus, it has not had to worry a great deal about an invasion from Arabia. Finally, the eastern desert, along with the Jordan River, makes attacking from that direction a risky proposition, especially if Israel holds both Judea and Samaria. Today, however, air forces considerably lessen the deserts' effectiveness as barriers to invasion.

Israel's greatest vulnerability lies in the north where few natural barriers exist, and history shows that this is the route most of its conquerors—excluding Egypt—have taken when invading the land. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans have all marched down the northern trade routes and through the northern valleys to lay waste to Samaria and Jerusalem. The only real check is the chokepoint between Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee, a hilly area about 25 miles wide, where either direct confrontation or guerrilla tactics can stymie an approaching army.

Once through this area, to reach the wealthy coastal cities or to turn south toward the heart of Israel, an invading force would have to fight its way through the rich valleys of the northern hills. A decisive victory for the invader here could open the rest of the land to exploitation. This fact explains why Megiddo—Armageddon in Revelation 16:12-16—has been the site of many bloody battles in which imperial powers and determined defenders have contested for possession of the land.

Imperial powers have coveted the land of Israel because it forms part of a land bridge connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe. As geopolitical analyst Dr. George Friedman notes, "Israel therefore occupies what might be called the convergence zone of the Eastern Hemisphere."1 If this area is successfully gained, it allows for both swift movement of troops and supplies along the eastern Mediterranean coast and secures maritime shipping lanes. As the crossroads of three continents, control of this narrow strip of land is fiercely contested.

Because it is an international magnet (attracting other ethnicities, religions, and commercial/cultural/political influences), and because its own internal geography creates different types of people (coastal, cosmopolitan merchants; northern farmers and warriors; and southern herdsmen and fighters), Israel's leaders must also deal with domestic tensions that threaten to tear the nation into a hundred pieces. When these divisions are minimal, Israel tends to be strong and able to hold off foreign incursions. However, when the nation is deeply divided, its chances of being overrun increase. Even today, Israel's prime ministers must often cobble together coalition governments to provide enough stability to hold its neighbors at bay.

As we read biblical history, these geopolitical factors frequently come into play in understanding why Israel's leaders acted as they did when faced with both internal and external crises. Keeping them in mind may also help us make sense of today's news accounts—and the events of the end time.