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:
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.
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.)
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.