The Inanity of Nain

Jerusalem small sxc huGeography is part of historical context.


No! Not just maps and boring stuff, but real places and the experience of living and moving and having one’s being there.

Like the wise one said, “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”~ Mark Twain… ooops wrong quote… let’s try… “Geography is destiny.”~ Abraham Verghese or “For (it is well sayd) as geography without historye seemeth a carkasse without motion, so history without geography wandreth as a vagrant without certaine habitation.”(sic)~ Nathaniel Butler .[1]  Geography is a three dimensional encounter with the places of events and how everything about those places played a role in those events—climate, contours, ecology, travel, survival patterns, etc. Archaeology plays and important part here as well, as we seek in bits and pieces to discover places as they were.

One of the most valuable experiences of my study was a course in historical geography with Jerusalem University College.[2] We didn’t just tour Israel, we moved our classroom from place to place remaining long to allow our professors to unpack the significance of places for texts. We might not all be able to visit these places ourselves, but that should not deceive us into thinking that the information that comes from being there is unimportant for interpretation. If we cannot go, we should avail ourselves of those who have made it their living to know.

One usually begins with Bible atlases, like The New Moody Atlas of the Bible,[3] or Carta Bible Atlas,[4] which a friend who knows recommends most. You should actually read the articles and not just look at the pictures… though getting pictures of the places you are reading about is excellent as well. One can always use Bible Dictionaries and Bible Encyclopedias, like The New Bible Dictionary,[5] or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia[6] or even The Anchor Bible Dictionary.[7] There are also books, like With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel, by Bargil Pixner, where the fifth gospel is the land itself.[8] Mark Turnage, director of The Center for Holy Land Studies,[9] blogs regularly on issues of place and meaning[10] and directs a variety of different land experiences.

My point is NOT that you must go back to school to master the land in order to understand the Bible, though I am sure such pursuits would be rewarding. My point is that in our study of the Bible, we must not ignore place. Let me illustrate quickly.

In Luke 7:11-16, Jesus departs from Capernaum with a crowd of followers (Luke 7:1), seemingly heading to Jerusalem. 25 miles down the road, they approach a village called Nain, though Luke calls it a polis city, and out from “the gates of the city” a funeral for the only son of a widow is emerging. Moved with compassion, Jesus raises this man from death.

Now the legitimacy of the story has been challenged based on the failure to find in Nain, any remnant of a city wall… no wall, no gate. There are three possible solutions, however.

1. Duh! We have not discovered everything that there is to discover and we may yet hope to validate such a remark with physical evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In fact, according to James Strange, a Topographical Survey by the University of South Florida suggests that earthen contours around the town suggest an undiscovered & buried wall.[11]

2. If we know how people talk, we will recognize the possibility that in a world in which city squares and markets are usually at the main gates, people might commonly refer to the entrance points of a town as the “gate” even when there is no gate. Copely Square in Boston, just north of me, is a big rectangle and my own town square a mile and a half from my house is round.

3. The most important point, even if the most unlikely solution, has to do with Nain’s location. While I will unpack the full importance of this fact in the days to come, one needs to recognize that Nain shares the western edge of Mount Moreh (more of a hill) with another city known to have had gates. Center to center, they are only two miles apart. While the text does SEEM to suggest that the gates mentioned belong to Nain itself, there is a possibility, if certain statements are read differently that the gates involved actually belonged to this other town, to Shunem.

“Wait… did you just say Shunem?”

Why, yes I did.

“So Jesus raises a widows son in the same vicinity where Elisha, helper of widows (2 Kings 4:1-7) raised a woman’s son… (2 Kings 4:36-37) a woman later widowed in the narratives?” (2 Kings 8:1ff)

Why, yes, he did.

“So, even if the whole gate issue were removed, we are still looking at a replication of the wondrous miracle of that great prophet of old?”

Why, yes we are. In fact, everyone present got it… only we miss it. (Luke 7:16) In fact, Luke, the only gospel writer to tell this story, also got it, and he uses the connection to build one of his favorite typologies for Jesus. Jesus the prophet. More on that later.

[1] The Historye of the Bermudaes or Summer Islands, 1619?  Nathaniel Butler was Bermuda’s governor from 1619 to 1622. The quote is usually attributed falsely to John Smith from Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, & The Summers Isles, 1624.  (You gotta love the Internet, right?)






[7] (No, It’s not cheap.)

[8] He has several works now that unpack the relationship between land and Jesus.



[11] Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 4: “Nain” pp. 1000-1001.

[12] media pic is from

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