The clear theological significance of Ezekiel's presentation of a restored Israel raises the fact that there are a number of biblical statements and descriptions which purport to be geographical but whose primary purpose is theological. The wording of God's promise to Abraham, which included the statement that to his descendants would be given territory stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates (Gen. 15: 18 ) should be read as an expression of the idea of a Promised Land rather than an indication of land ever actually occupied by Israelites. Similarly in the New Testament, in the shaping of the Gospel narratives, some overtly geographical indications may have a deeper theological significance. In Mark, all of Jesus' early ministry is in Galilee. The pivotal point, halfway through Mark's account, is Peter's declaration that Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 8: 27–30 ). This declaration is set in Caesarea Philippi, in the northernmost part of the land. Then Jesus begins the journey from the far north to the religious heart of the land, Jerusalem, and to his death. Luke too presents the life of Jesus as a journey on which the disciples follow their master. This may be significant for the Lucan notion of Christianity as ‘the Way’, mentioned several times in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9: 2; 19: 9, 23; 24: 14, 22 ).
An awareness of the actual geography enables some apparently geographical statements about Jerusalem, and Mount Zion in particular, to be appreciated as theological. In Psalm 48: 1–3 , reference seems to be made to Zion being located ‘in the far north’, but this does not make sense geographically. The Hebrew word for ‘north’ (ṣāp̱ôn) is probably derived from the name of Mount Zaphon (modern Jebel el‐Aqra in Syria) which, according to the texts from Ugarit, was the abode of the gods and where Baal had his palace. The psalmist is not locating Zion geographically, but claiming it as or likening it to the divine abode. In Psalm 46: 4 , the probable association of Jerusalem (though the city is not named) with a river with streams, is more reminiscent of the picture of Ezekiel 47 (noted above) than of the actual situation. The small stream emerging from the Gihon spring hardly fits the description. But that the depiction may owe something to the tradition of the river which flowed out of the Garden of Eden and split into four branches, one of which is named as Gihon (Gen. 2: 10–14 ) is certainly a possibility. Jerusalem is perhaps being likened to Eden. The oracle preserved in Isaiah 2: 2 and Micah 4: 1 , albeit speaking about the future, envisages ‘the mountain of the LORD's house’ (that is, Zion) as becoming ‘the highest of the mountains’ and ‘raised above the hills’. Zion is in fact overlooked by higher hills such as the Mount of Olives. What is envisaged is not a geographical upheaval but a theological transformation.
The navel of the earth (omphalos)?
Mention should also be made in this context of the fact that, within the Bible, there are a few possible hints at a belief that Israel, or somewhere in Israel, particularly Jerusalem, was the ‘navel’ or very centre of the world. In the Book of Ezekiel, the Israelites are described as those ‘who live at the centre of the earth’ (Ezek. 38: 12 ). The Hebrew word translated ‘centre’ here is ṭabbûr, and in the Greek translation, the Septuagint, the word is rendered omphalos or ‘navel’. (NRSV gives ‘navel’ as an alternative translation in a footnote to Ezek. 38: 12 .) The word ṭabbûr is also used in Judges 9: 37 of a location in the vicinity of Shechem. NRSV and NAB treat it as part of a proper name (Tabbur‐erez, Tabbur‐Haares respectively), with no indication of the significance of the first element. REB retains the notion of ‘centrality’, translating ‘central ridge’ (see also RSV ‘centre of the land’). But NJB proposes ‘the Navel of the Earth’. (It has been suggested that the name of Mount Tabor may be associated with this word, and that this dome‐shaped hill might have been considered as the navel of the land or the earth, but is highly unlikely that the two words are connected.)
Elsewhere in the Book of Ezekiel it is Jerusalem which is described as having been placed ‘in the centre of the nations’ (Ezek. 5: 5 ), and this idea is preserved in later sources (see, for example, Jubilees 8: 19). Josephus, in his Jewish War 3, says, with reference to Jerusalem, that ‘some have quite appropriately called her the navel of the country’. (It is noteworthy that the placing of Jerusalem at the centre persisted in later map‐making.)