God in the east

Avraham Faust has a short article in the current (November/December 2017) issue of Biblical Archaeology Review entitled “Archaeology, Israelite Cosmology and the Bible”.

We have found that homes, buildings, and city gates in ancient Israel had an eastern orientation, if possible. That is, main doorways and entrances were on the east side. Sometimes it was impractical for them to be on the east. But, the Israelites still avoided putting them on the west.

Israelites were not alone among ancient peoples in doing this. It probably had to do with orienting buildings toward the sunrise and away from the sunset. Sunrise represented life and sunset represented death. Mythologies in the Ancient Near East often supported the idea that beginning and renewal arose in the east. The Egyptians saw the west as the realm of death.

The Hebrew language supports the idea that the Israelites held this notion. The word for east is the equivalent for the word for forward. So when God told Moses at the Reed Sea to tell the people to “go forward” (Exodus 14:15), he was telling them to go east. By contrast, the word for west was also the word for backward.

In addition, because of the geographical location of Israel, the west was associated with the sea. The sea had a cosmological connotation of chaos as opposed to order.

So maybe there is a cosmological meaning to the claim that an “east wind” dried up the Reed Sea. Perhaps this meant a wind from God more than a compass direction.

The Israelites entered Canaan from the east like the rising sun of renewal. God seems to dwell in the east and come from there.

The most important Israelite building was the Jerusalem temple. The temple almost certainly had no entrance on the east. The east side of the temple abutted the steep Kidron valley. An entrance from that direction was not practical. However, in Ezekiel’s description of the ideal, future temple the main gate is on the east and there is no gate on the west.

So in Ezekiel 43:1-4 we hear:

Then he brought me to the gate that faced toward the east. I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east; the sound was like that of rushing water; and the earth radiated his glory. It was like the vision I saw when he came to destroy the city, and the vision I saw by the Kebar River. I threw myself face down. The glory of the Lord came into the temple by way of the gate that faces east (NET Bible).

So Faust concludes that the archeological reality fits with what the Bible tells us about Israel’s view of the world. Israel’s cosmology was one in which divine action was expected to come from the east. Orienting your buildings and cities that way was a tangible opening of yourself to God.

American culture and language are different. The west signifies the frontier and new possibilities. “Go west, young man.” My house faces west. I never give a thought to any spiritual significance of that.

When I was growing up in Montana, we referred to Minnesota as “back east.” Much later I was going to summer school at Princeton. I mentioned to someone that I had a relative in Pittsburgh. They said, “Oh, way out west.”

So it depends on your orientation. When reading the Bible you put yourself in the place of a people with their backs to the western sea and looking for salvation, or perhaps judgment, from the east.

 

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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2 Responses to God in the east

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Over a decade ago, I read somewhere—-and, unfortunately, I forget where—-that the entrance to Ezekiel’s Temple faces east, whereas the Jerusalem Temple faced west, because Ezekiel’s Temple is eschatological: it will be a time when there will be no sun worship. According to this view, the Jerusalem Temple faced west to prevent sun worship. That may not work, but that idea stuck with me for a while.

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