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How far and how literally do named locations inform us of the recipients of a proclamation or prophecy?

There are many passages where the recipient is known already, both contextually in the book and section and internally in the verses. For example:

Amo 5:4 For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live; 5 but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing.” 6 Seek the LORD and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, (ESV)

It is well accepted that this passage is speaking specifically to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Contextually Amos as a whole speaks mostly to the Ten Tribes of Israel. In this section he is speaking just to "house of Israel" and in v6 he calls them the "house of Joseph" which is definitively Ephraim and the northern kingdom.

We see, internally, that places of worship specific to the North are listed in Gilgal, Bethel and Beersheba. All three are in the north geographically and were places of idolatry, such as the the Calf of Samaria in Bethel. These are the final nail, if you will, in identifying the focus of this passage as the Ten Tribes of Israel, as if we didn't already know.

Elsewhere in the Prophets we are given similar listings which one would think are there to identify the recipient. For example I offer Jeremiah 31:5-6 which speaks of Samaria and the vineyards and the hill country of Ephraim. However, most commentators treat Jer 31:4-22 as all Israel even though only Ephraim and locations specific to the Ten Tribes are listed until Judah is mentioned again in v23.

This is more a hermeneutic methodology questions as I am trying to discern what the priority of geographic evidence is in hermeneutic hierarchy, compared to other things like the overall context of a book, other names of people given (such as Joseph in Amos 5:6). Should we pay closer attention to these places and make sure they inform our interpretation or is it not definitive enough to be considered more than convenient validators?

Other passages of possible consequence: Zechariah 10 Joseph and Judah mentioned in v6, Ephraim in v7 and Gilead (a northern region historically possessed by Manasseh). Jeremiah 50:17-20 Israel is named but Carmel and Bashan and Gilead are all named as is Ephraim and then there is differentiation between Israel and Judah in v20. Can we take this to mean 17-19 is speaking just to the Ten Tribes, or do the locations given support that possibility?

Again, the interpretive questions I ask about those passages are not the focus, but rather the part that geography would play in forming an interpretation of such passages.

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Short Answer: It depends on which hermeneutic you follow.


To my knowledge there are three major hermeneutical approaches to this question:

Approach #1: The literal hermeneutic

In this approach, the text means precisely what it says; Bethel refers to Bethel, Judah to Judah, Ephraim to Ephraim. If we read a prophecy anticipating the downfall of Gilgal it is because Gilgal was going to fall, it was predicted in advance, and the writer wanted to show that to his readers (for whatever reason.)

Location names could be very important in this approach for helping us determine the intended audience -- but they don't have to be. Many who follow this approach, for example, consider the Bible to be the "Word of God" to all His people across all ages, so the "original audience" would not be confined to the "Bethels" and "Gilgals" mentioned in the text.

Approach #2: The contextual hermeneutic

In this approach, the text represents an ancient author's attempt to communicate with his ancient audience. The author wrote to particular people, during a particular time, in a particular language that was common to both himself and his audience -- including vocabulary and points of reference. The author's intention was to communicate as effectively as possible. At times that meant employing metaphors. One of my favorite examples of this is the prophecy

Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. -Malachi 4:5, NASB

The idea is not that Elijah was literally going to show up on the scene; to understand the prophecy we need to ask who Elijah was to the original audience. Elijah represented the lone voice of righteousness amidst national apostasy, a herald of repentance and spiritual transformation (or something else, depending on your theology). The prophecy was intended to call to mind the literal person as a point of reference in order to communicate something. Someone reminiscent of Elijah would come crying out for the repentance of His people.

Location names are important in this approach because every place mentioned is a point of reference which the original audience would have associated with some important idea(s). (Dick Harfield's answer represents this approach.) However, they may or may not be helpful in determining the original audience; they do not necessarily directly point to the original audience, but they may give us clues about the characteristics of the audience. Examples (theologically biased, but they'll work for my purposes here):

  • Moses wrote to the Israelites in the wilderness about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because it was reminiscent of what they had just seen happen with Egypt. Moses wants to associate extreme wickedness with Egypt so the audience is clear on how to think about the place they just left. He tells of Lot's wife being judged for looking back because he doesn't want them to look back.

  • The author of Jonah writes to his Hebrew audience about Jonah's cold heart toward the Ninevites because he wants them to repent of their cold hearts towards the wicked and instead serve as a witness to them in hopes of their repentance.

  • The author of Esther writes to his Hebrew audience about how God reversed the fortunes of His people when doom seemed certain because he wants his kinsmen to rest assured that no matter how bad things get, God will bring them victory in the end.

In all of these examples the specific locations (or people) mentioned are important as points of reference, but they only imply things about the original audience; they don't directly name the audience.

Approach #3: The spiritual hermeneutic

In this approach, the Bible has far deeper meaning than the rudimentary words on the page. You have to be spiritual to see these deeper truths -- and sometimes even enlightened. Possible examples:

  • When you read of the Israelites leaving Egypt, it is really talking about the Christian's "exodus" from his old life. The crossing of the Red Sea was the baptism of the Christian. The wandering in the wilderness was the time of trials that we have on this earth. The crossing of the Jordan is our entry into the next life, and the Promised Land is heaven. (See 1 Cor. 10).

  • The story of Sarah and Hagar is really a story of two covenants -- one fleshly and one spiritual, and the superiority of Jesus' way over the Jewish way. (Gal. 4)

  • The Gospel is preached in the first genealogy in Genesis (from Adam to Noah); "Adam" means "Man", "Seth" means "Appointed", and so forth. When you read them all in order you get the following: "Adam appointed mortal sorrow; the Blessed God shall come down teaching. His death shall bring the despairing rest."

The actual names of locations or people are not really important for building an historical context for the writing, because (A) in this approach we don't really care about the historical context, (B) it is not really even important that the names & places listed were real, and (C) the places or names listed were not intended to tell us about the original audience in the first place.


Example Applications: Zechariah 10

As requested by the OP, here are some examples of how each approach might handle some relevant portions of Zechariah 10. (Note that these examples are not perfect, but they will help illustrate the ideas.) Here are the verses, for reference:

I will strengthen the house of Judah,
And I will save the house of Joseph,
And I will bring them back -v. 6a

I will bring them back from the land of Egypt
And gather them from Assyria;
And I will bring them into the land of Gilead and Lebanon -v. 10a

And He will strike the waves in the sea,
So that all the depths of the Nile will dry up;
And the pride of Assyria will be brought down
And the scepter of Egypt will depart. -v. 11b

Literal

6a) This means God was promising to make the tribe of Judah strong and save the descendants of Joseph, and that He was planning to bring them back.

10a) This could be taken to refer to (A) Ephraim, (B) Judah, Joseph, and Ephraim, or (C) all Israel (with these tribes used as a synecdoche for the whole). It means God will bring them back from Egypt and Assyria and bring them into the land of Gilead and Lebanon.

11b) This means God will part the waters of the Nile like He did during the Exodus, that Assyria would be ashamed, and that Egypt would cease to rule.

What we learn about the audience: The audience could be taken as exiled Judah, Joseph, and Ephraim, if not all Israel. Or, it could be that we are the audience and God just wanted us to know that He is going to bring His people (the Israelites) back into the Primised Land (Palestine.)

Contextual

6a) Judah and Joseph were known to the readers as the people of God. They had been exiled for their sin and they longed to see restoration. Zechariah is communicating to the readers that God's people were going to be gathered together into one unified nation again.

10a) Egypt and Assyria were known to the readers as the kingdoms of the world (vs. the kingdom of God.) Gilead and Lebanon were known to the readers as the Promised Land from which they were exiled for their sin. Here Zechariah is predicting a gathering of God's people out from the oppression of the world and into the blessed Promised Land.

11b) The drying up of the Nile would recall for the readers the parting of the Red Sea and the Exodus. Zechariah is describing this salvation as a 2nd Exodus in which they would be set free from their oppressors as their oppressors were simultaneously humiliated and stripped of power.

What we learn about the audience: This was likely written to the people of God who were in exile and were desperate for restoration. They were in need of hope and reassurance of God's promises.

Spiritual

6a) Judah, Joseph, and Ephraim could be taken as the Church. God's wants to strengthen us and save us from our hardships and bring us back into His blessings. (I have also heard Mormons say "Joseph" in places like this refers to "Joseph Smith" -- something you have to be alive 3,000 years later to fully understand.)

10a) This could either be taken as a prophecy about Jesus rapturing His Church at the end of time, or it could be taken more devotionally as a promise from God to the modern reader that He is going to take them out of their difficult situation.

11b) The parting of the Nile represents baptism. God is saying there will be baptisms. The pride of Assyria being brought down is a prediction of humility for God's people and / or humiliation for those who oppose God's people. The scepter of Egypt departing means God is going to give the Church victory over the nations.

What we learn about the audience: Irrelevant.

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  • Thank you, very complete answer. The only thing you could maybe add is briefly how each approach would handle one or two of the verses I listed where the location could impact. I leave it to you too decide which verse, but it would show in application, not just theory, how each approach differs in how it treats locations. – Joshua Dec 2 '14 at 18:52
  • @JoshuaBigbee OK, I updated it with a final section per your request. Let me know if that helps. For many of these examples there are a variety of ways the texts could be handled under each hermeneutic, but hopefully this gives you a general idea of how they work. – Jas 3.1 Dec 2 '14 at 20:25
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I propose that before considering location and its meaning, we must consider time. In this respect, Amos is considered to have been written before the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. When Amos is talking about locations in Israel, he really is talking about the northern kingdom in contemporary or near-contemporary terms. Amos was a prophet of Yahweh and possibly a monotheist, so when he talks of Bethel and Gilgal, these are locations noted for the worship associated with stones, as well as the golden calf (possibly representing the moon god, but probably also Yahweh). Reference to the god of Beersheba is also made in Amos 8:14, saying this [these] will fall and never rise up again. And when he says these places will go into exile, come to nothing or fall and never rise again, he is anticipating the downfall of the other gods of Israel. So, the locations identify the gods that Amos despises, and from this we can develop our understanding of the theme and purpose of the Book of Amos. Amos is writing in the northern kingdom, Israel, and for the people of Israel, with no indication that the people of Judah are a significant target. A mere shepherd, Amos is preaching repentance and warns against danger from Assyria, but no one will listen to him. I think if I discuss the "house of Joseph" I would be going into the particular, whereas you are asking about the application of hermeneutic technique.

Jeremiah was written about the time of the Babylonian Exile and therefore long after the time when Israel had ceased to exist. Much of the time, Jeremiah recognises the distinction between Israel and Judah, as had the earlier prophets, but sometimes the name Israel is used as a synonym for Judah. This progressive substitution reflects the emergence of a national desire to claim the inheritance of the northern kingdom for Judah. The Book of Jeremiah is not written in chronological order, and chapters 30 and 31 belong to an earlier time in the life of Jeremiah, with God telling him that the Israelites will soon return from exile, to form a single nation with Judah. In 31:5, Jeremiah says that the Lord is saying that the Judahite people will plant vines in Samaria (the entire province and former kingdom, not just the capital city). Being nationalistic, Jeremiah knew that this single nation will be ruled by the Judahites, under a Judahite king (see Jeremiah 23:5-6). So here, the time in which Jeremiah wrote must be taken into account before considering the meaning of references to places.

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