When I wrote the Bible Lands PhotoGuide for Accordance Bible Software, I spent months poring over photos of Israel so that I could write meaningful captions for them. So when I actually traveled to Israel, I had a pretty good idea of what I would see at each site. I also experienced numerous “aha” moments where I recognized something I had previously seen in photos.
One humorous example of this came as we were walking through the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem. Our tour group walked right by a fenced in area on their way to a museum, and as I glanced into it I recognized the excavated remains of Hezekiah’s Broad Wall (2 Chronicles 32:5; Nehemiah 3:8). I was a bit scandalized that we had just ignored a wall built 2700 years ago by a famous biblical king. I didn’t realize that our tour guide intended to bring us back to it after the museum.
Even though my in depth study of all those photos gave me a good sense of what to expect, there was one thing those photos could not adequately give me: a proper sense of scale. There’s a difference between seeing a photo of the colonnaded street of Beth-Shan and actually standing at the foot of one of those massive columns. Even if the photo actually shows people standing next to those columns, so that your mind is able to conceive the difference in height, it is somehow not the same thing as actually being there. Getting a sense of scale from a photograph is a clinical kind of knowledge. It cannot convey the experiential knowledge of actually being dwarfed by something and feeling awe at its grandeur. Somehow, this second kind of knowledge is deeper and far more real. I suppose you could say it’s the difference between seeing in three dimensions rather than two.
Throughout my time in Israel, getting a sense of scale and understanding the actual size of things helped me to connect the dots in various Biblical stories. For example, I had always imagined the Sea of Galilee to be a large body of water. In truth, it’s a rather modest lake. It’s funny, I had never had trouble believing Jesus could walk on water, but I always thought it strange that he would even think to walk across a “sea.” Look across the lake in the vicinity of Tabgha and Capernaum, and you realize walking that distance would only take a few hours.
When it comes to connecting the dots in the text of the Bible, size matters. Whether the elements in these narratives are bigger or smaller than we imagine, developing a proper sense of scale can give us a clearer picture of what they describe.