As I've mentioned before, my family has been trying to read through the Bible in a year using the Chronological Arrangement in Accordance's Daily Readings module (included in all three levels of the Library CD-ROM). Last night, we read the book of Jonah.
Now, Jonah is one of those books which makes a lot more sense when you understand a little of its historical and geographical background. First, Jonah is told to go to Nineveh (wherever that is), but instead he flees to Joppa (wherever that is) and boards a ship headed for Tarshish (wherever that is). Using the Atlas, I was able to show my family that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria to the northeast of Israel, and that Joppa was a port city on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. The location of Tarshish is subject to debate, so the Atlas does not contain a site for it, but one possible association is with the Phoenician colony of Carthage, so I pointed out where Carthage was to give my family the sense that Jonah was heading as far west as he could think to go—in the exact opposite direction God told him to go.
When Jonah finally does head to Nineveh, Jonah 3:3 describes the city as "extremely large," and makes a statement about a "walk of three days." The IVP Old Testament Bible Background Commentary explains this as describing the time it would take for Jonah to visit key locations of the city to proclaim his message, rather than the time it would take to travel its diameter (which would imply a city about sixty miles across!).
To give my family a sense of Nineveh's scale, I amplified to the PhotoGuide and showed them photos of a massive reconstructed gate, and the huge mounds which mark the long buried city walls.
Reconstructed City Gate of Nineveh
The City Walls of Nineveh
Perhaps it's just me, but I've always found the Ninevites' immediate repentance in response to Jonah's message a little startling. Why would the Assyrians, the most powerful and ruthless people of that day, be so receptive to a message of doom from the God of a relatively insignificant nation which had, at various times, been in a state of vassalage to Assyria? Thankfully, the PhotoGuide provided me with an answer:
Interestingly, an ancient text from Gozan describes the occurrence of a total eclipse (in 763 B.C.), accompanied by flooding, famine, and earthquake during the reign of Asshur-Dan III. Such ominous signs might well have made the Ninevites more receptive to Jonah's warning.
How cool is that?! I then turned to the Timeline to see how close the reign of Asshur-Dan III was to the time of Jonah, and sure enough, the two coincided.
The PhotoGuide went on to talk about the Fall of Nineveh, which also showed an exciting parallel to the Bible:
Nineveh was conquered by the Medes and Babylonians in 612 B.C. Little is known of how Nineveh fell, but one ancient historian relates that part of the city wall was swept away by the flooding waters of a river (either the Tigris or the Hosr, which runs through the city) and that Assyria's enemies were able to enter by means of this breach. The book of Nahum also speaks of a flood playing a role in Nineveh's destruction (Nahum 1:8; 2:6).
I don't know about you, but I love this kind of information. To be able to take a story which is so well known for its miraculous elements and see it in the light of its historical and geographical context is really exciting to me. Heck, my family thinks it's pretty cool too.
As I hope this example shows, the Atlas, Timeline, and PhotoGuide are incredible resources for enriching your understanding of the Bible. If you're not taking full advantage of some of these resources, or if you (gasp!) don't have them yet, you don't know what you're missing.