Look To The East: What do directions mean in the Bible?

When I first started this blog I wanted it to explore some of the more obscure bits of the Bible, to kick around some less familiar ideas. Well, today’s post may well come across as obscure and playing with some odd ideas. Feel free to correct me in the comments.

See, the Bible has a weird relationship with the East.

Not a specific country or political entity, just the direction.

For instance, the Tabernacle and the Temple both faced to the east (so I guess when you entered them, you walked westwards. Keep this in mind.)

The wise men saw a star in the east and travelled from the east to find the infant Jesus.

The Messiah, when he arrived, was meant to come from the east; specifically the Mount of Olives (which is to the east of Jerusalem).

The east is the source of blessings and divine salvation. Which is cool.

But wait – people who travelled to the east found themselves either in trouble or causing trouble:

Cain was exiled to the east after killing Abel. (Shameless plug – I talk about this more here.)

People travelled east to build the Tower of Babel. (Another shameless plug.)

When Abraham and Lot decided to go their separate ways, Lot went east and ended up in Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Israelites were exiled to Babylon, in the east.

There’s a tension here, almost a paradox: good things come from the east, but if you travel to the east you end up in A Bad Place. What’s going on here?!

Well, this is where things get a little complicated. Because maybe this tension isn’t about geography as such, but about time and movement.

Here’s what I mean: write down, in a line and in order, the following years: 1945, 1066, 1914, 1966 and 1666.

Done that?

Now, my list goes in ascending order from left to right. That’s because I’m English. I speak English, I think in English, and I write in English. And as English is written from left to right, I perceive time as moving in that direction too – left to right, west to east.

Okay, but Hebrew is written from right to left, and low and behold, that’s how time progresses in Jewish thought – right to left, west to east. (Check out this Scientific American article on the subject.)

Hmm.

See, it’s not that good places were in the west and bad places in the east; it’s all about the direction travelled, but the direction travelled temporally, not physically. You face east to see the past and the present, the realms of memory and experience. You look ‘east’, to what’s gone before, to see God coming, but when you see him, he’s travelling towards you and if you want to stick with him you’ve got to move yourself, travel towards the west, towards a future with God.

If instead you move to the east, you’re moving away from God, to a place that God has left. And it may be an attractive place, or an exciting place, but God ain’t there no more and sooner or later you’ll find yourself in trouble. You’re living apart from God’s blessings, away from his ongoing work.

So travelling to the west is, maybe, symbolic of moving into the future, in the direction of God’s ongoing story. It’s a dynamic thing.

Travel to the east, however, is travelling into exile, into captivity, less dynamic and more static, away from God’s salvation. Moving east is a bad idea because it’s moving away from God.

It’s a theory anyway.

However it works, it’s an important lesson – even seemingly unimportant details can teach us something. The geography of the Bible is practical, sure, but it’s also full of symbolic value, where rocks, trees and points of the compass have layers of meaning, informed by language and history and divine revelation. Abraham and Moses and Peter and Jesus walked through a theological landscape, a landscape we too can learn from.

So look to the east. You never know what you’ll see.

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24 thoughts on “Look To The East: What do directions mean in the Bible?

  1. Wow, Matt! I think you are secretly a Bible scholar. This is the most well thought out “obscure” idea I’ve seen. Something I would never have noticed or thought about – and I think about a lot of things. Very impressive, workable & practicable idea! Keep it up!

    • Thank you :) I found the idea of the East having symbolic meaning really interesting when I first heard about it. I guess that’s why I love writing this blog – I get to learn about a lot of cool stuff! Thanks for your ongoing support, it’s really appreciated.

  2. well my take on the east is a little different from yours. I think of it more like a reminder just like the communion. Communion representing the blood and flesh of Christ (his death and what it achieved for us); whereas the east represents our expectation of the soon coming King. The bible says he will come again in the clouds. Jesus is the light of the world, just like the sun that rises from the east and illumintes the world. I think the direction is significant; “we saw his star in the east and we have come to worship him”; “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches, I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star;” “There shall come a star out of Jacob…” the sun is the closest star to us. As the sun rises it shines light towards the west, as Jesus rises He shines the way and points us to the only entrance to the tabernacle- Jesus.
    The star for the wise men pointed to Jesus and they came to worship Him. Its not so much looking to the east but we being in the east should see and recognise the bright and morning Star from where we are and move towards Jesus. The levites (Moses and Aaron and his sons) camped in the east of the tabernacle and Judah (David being an offspring ) the standard that camped in the east toward the sunrise: all representing the priestly work of Christ who is the lion (king) of the tribe of Judah. in the east pagans worshiped the sun god, their alters where in the east. But our God was positioned differently; we enter in the east and the tent in the west giving our backs to pagan style of worship. We are not looking at the sun/ star and how it rises but more or less what the rising sun is doing…shining light where there is no light (knowledge of God) allowing us to see our way to God. So basically everything points to Jesus.

  3. I found this very interesting. We did end up with the same conclusion i just felt like adding my own to sense. Its true, east looks like a place where people are in sin, fall into sin, run away with their sin and turn their backs on God. thanks for the thoughtful study.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments – the contrast with pagan worship and the thoughts on the sun/stars were fascinating. Really valuable thoughts, thank you :)

  4. Hi
    Very interesting…I too am looking into this and noticed in your bad list of east happenings they are worded differently than the good
    East definitely seems to represent a closeness to God or dwelling in His ways

    Cain lives in the land of Nod which means wandering or without direction….although it says east of the garden he has no idea how to find God again

    Lot seperates from Abram and goes toward the east
    Or he left with the intentions of following God but didn’t do too well as we see in the evets that follow

    Babel. People moved eastward or from the east is another meaning here….just check out footnotes and look up meanings …the bible always flows together :-)

  5. Yeah i agree with Heather. The east according to the word is where God is so definately a good place thats why everything is facing that way. I did some research on this study myself a few years ago. Im glad to see that others are looking at the significance of Gods directions.

    • Gen 4:16 And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD,and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
      I believe the correct interpretation of word “east” (from the Hebrew) is when you leave the “presence” of the LORD. It will be up to you to study this out, within your bible. An easy way to reduce time in studying is to us E-Sword, place “east” in bible search and study each verse. This way you allow the bible to translate itself. The “fore part” (time), east wind and others will come up under Strong”s search of the word “east”. I fought this word for years, and have come to my own conclusion this is a truthful and acceptable understanding for me. Yes, you can leave the presence of the LORD, that is easy to do, deny him and see if you are not “left alone” to your fate. An understanding of NOD will greatly help. I love the words of God. and would greatly wish to see a discussion on “Hebrew: is it the hidden truth concealed in the bible? Please do so, Thank you James

  6. hi matt,
    SO good. so profound, so helpful. googled general phrase “biblical meaning of directions” to help me with a dream I had. saw your blog and shed tears. made everything the Lord wanted me to know make sense. just a quick heads up – you have two typos: see your paragraph “Okay, but Hebrew is written from left to right,” I think you intended to write Hebrew written RIGHT to LEFT (to actually contrast with ‘graph you write just above that) then similar typo in same ‘graph where you write, ” how time progresses in Jewish thought – left to right, east to west. again, I believe you intended to write RIGHT to LEFT. From the little bit of Hebrew I remember, RIGHT to LEFT is, indeed, correct. But until your piece, I NEVER thought of spiritual significance of direction. This was just sooo amazingly well done, Matt and an answer to prayer. Even forwarded it to someone who just literally moved EAST to WEST to get a hold of what you wrote in this piece, ” So travelling to the west is, maybe, symbolic of moving into the future, in the direction of God’s ongoing story. It’s a dynamic thing.” Great thoughts. Thank you!

    • Thank you for your gracious comments, and I’ve fixed the typos! I’m glad the post was helpful. I’d be interested in hearing about the dream you mentioned, but obviously I understand if that’s a personal thing.

      Thanks again :)

      • hi matt, thanks for your prompt reply! thanks, again, for all your study and thought show obviously shared in your piece. so, the dream showed me in motion. 1) was moving diagonally, “screen right to screen left.” 2) if on a compass, would look like SE to NW. dream showed me FOURTH in line1) hands linked safely with indiscernible being in front of me2) and indiscernible FIFTH being in line dont know “who” they were or why I even felt safe with them. just know i was safely: 1) walking through waist high water; dark body of water2) comfortably warm, perhaps slightly warmer than body temp3) water was so dark i couldn’t even call it “ink” black, as it had no sheen. was truly ABSENT all color a vapor or steam was rising from this body of water thru which the FIVE of us were moving 1) i had almost a child like curiosity about this kind of steam or vapor coming from the body of water thru which the FIVE beings were leading me with my FIFTH parter always behind2) the child like curiosity was met with an assurance. NOT a direct conversation or audible answer but I believe the FIFTH being who held my RIGHT hand as we progressed, assured me it was NOT poisonous or toxic vapor by any means, just a steam, almost a creative steam or something to do with creative (ity) dunno because i smiled inside and trusted that answer, a childlike confidence propelled me to 1) smile and sink down into this dark, vapor covered body of water.2) my other partners never tugged at me, felt the jolt of me slowing the momentum by my dunk or yanked on me.3) in fact, they stood still so i could enjoy the dunk but then, while i was smiling and enjoying my total immersion in this wonderfully comfortable body of water, ALL THE WHILE MY face turned upward and eyes open, 1) i saw a clear, translucent, crystal clear amazing almost glistening wall of gurgling, “happy” water rise higher and higher over me 2) i was NOT sinking, the bottom on which i was standing NEVER moved (bottom was soft comfortable, sturdy) 3) but the wall of water, as i stayed submerged, rose higher and higher but  NEVER ever seemed dangerous or ferocious or fast and “waterfallish.” it kust gurgled higher and higher 4) i continued to look up at this wall of clear beautiful, delightful wall of water rise higher and higher and began to be aware of my human limitation of NOT having gills!! hello! : ) 5) so i panicked and thought to myself, “reason tells me IF i dont get myself out of this, i will drown!!” 6) that said, my lungs were NEVER hurting during this submersion, my chest never felt tight. NOTHING was wrong. i just used reason to “rescue” myself. i remember the impression of my other partners or being number ONE, TWO, THREE (holding onto my left hand) then me (as number FOUR in the chain moving NW) then being number FIVE; they all never moved, they all allowed me to submerge and they ALL just chilled as I stayed under. they never even tugged me to signal a panic mode or anything. they left all kinds of latitude for me to come up when i was ready 7) so i woke myself up so i could breathe!!  : ) i spent a long morning in prayer about the meaning of this dream. that was the day i came upon your blog. i really wanted to get the direction aspect of the dream. had already done my research on numbers.  i believe i have the meaning/interpretation of my dream, perhaps completed by your writing. in fact, it blew my mind because of the literal way i could also take what you write. seemed to line up or even affirm my personal hopes and dreams and what i believe are imminent answers to those prayers. I believe God has placed a dream in my heart, incubated it forever and is now showing me it is imminent through the dream, your write up, prophecies over my life. i am excited.

        would love to hear your take on my dream and will compare notes to what i believe the Holy Spirit gave me. thanks, off the write this week’s installment of my blog. feel free to check it out whenever you’re in the clear. thanks, again!http://stillprocessing2013.blogspot.com/

      • Hi, thanks for sharing your dream. I don’t have the gift of dream interpretation, so wouldn’t want to make any guess as to what it all means, but the image of wading through water reminded me of Ezekiel 47. Don’t know if that’s of any use…

        (I wrote a post linking that passage to the living water Jesus talks about – http://wp.me/p2cCCT-6H – but like I said, I’m not Joseph!)

  7. Thanks so much for this thought-provoking blog entry. I found it through ulterior motives as I am a choral conductor planning next season which is exploring the four compass points. “West” has been giving me a lot of trouble since I live in the “west”, i.e. Canada, and it is too much of a cop-out to just program monuments of western art music and be done with it. I’ve been spending the day researching what “west” means both in society in general and within the Christian tradition and your blog post popped up giving me much food for thought and ideas to contemplate. It is a great gift, this internet thing! I look forward to exploring your blog further.

  8. Errors mentioned above that you fixed… 2nd part is not fixed yet. Still says that time progresses in Jewish thought from “left to right”, east to west.
    I too was searching for answers in something God was speaking to me, and this helped TREMENDOUSLY! I thought He was telling me to move from (currently living in) east to the west (CA), but when I made all the plans and was ready to take on a job and move, literally, it was as if it all got blocked and the desire to move there left me. People kept giving me story about Abram in Gen. 12. I finally did a word search on each step Abram took, and when I was searching out directional meanings, I found your blog. It confirmed that God was not speaking to me in the literal sense, but in the symbolic sense. I fully believe I will be moving, however I don’t know where to, but the point He was/is making to me is that He is taking me into my future of blessings, etc… ie… all the good He has promised me for my destiny. :-)
    Thank you for your incredible insight!!

  9. Jonah chapter 4:5… He sat on the east… No doubt in doing so he left the things of God and the revival happening in Ninevah.

  10. Hi Matt !

    Thanks for the insight. It’s really fascinating how the little things mentioned in the bible can have more meaning that we thought them to be. I had always seen lots of small details mentioned in the bible and always wondered why. For instance the numbers, names and phrases that keeps repeating through out the bible. It’s been a few months now i have been reading the bible and finding that these have a significant meaning than we take them for granted. I came here after realizing that the holy spirit put them there for a purpose and your blog helped me finding the importance of “east” in biblical view. I also like how you said in your opening “… more obscure bits of the Bible, to kick around some less familiar ideas” . Keep up the good work, and it’s my prayer that God reveal more to you to prove his word right.

    God bless

  11. Very astute observation. I am a writer that teaches from the Jewish perspective. I’ve thought about this in very limited detail. What you have shared here is way beyond that. Very good! Keep it coming. I would like to share with you and your readers my blog. takindownthegiant.blogspot.com. Keep it coming, sir!!

  12. Hi. All very interesting.. Just a quick note as now I have no time..
    In the OT there are two original words translated as east. Well one is always ‘east’ which is always geographical.(from this you may gather alternative meaning) the other may be translated ‘east, eastward, eternal, old etc.. I believe the latter means to pursue God or gain an eternal perspective. Jonah left Nineva and went eastward.(to see what would happen). A hot east (literally) wind arose. One passage, one author, same moment, two original words, one literal meaning, one literal with implied meaning..
    I preached on Jonah Yesterday, Shadow of Christ. Jesus also went east (not written) to pray in the garden before His betrayal. God even gave Jonah a garden to show him Gods shelter (protection) is superior than mans.. Anway lots of fun, God word is nothing short of amazing..

  13. Thanks for the insight into the meaning of the “EAST” still not sure I get it all or understand the ‘east wind’ or look to the ‘east’, need a little more information.

  14. I was wondering why the Lord banished Adam and Eve from the gardens from the East Gate. Does east symbolize a new day a new promise? We look to the east to see the sunrise it’s the beginning of a new day. Gen 3:24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

  15. The Lord says He removes our sins as far as East to West because they never meet where as North to West have a begging and an end. I don’t feel like I have gotten the answer for East yet…

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