Commonplace Book

A House Facing East

Posted at — Aug 23, 2019

I’m working my way through “A House for My Name” by Peter J. Leitbart. It recently comes highly recommended from a few different sources1. I’m really only at the beginning of the book, but I wanted to share an interesting bunny trail that a particular passage led me on.

On page 532, Leitbart states

If you want to return to the Garden [of Eden], you have to travel west, and moving east is moving away from the Garden. All through the Bible, east and west have this meaning. Cain is cast out of the land and wanders in Nob, which is east of Eden (Genesis 4:16). Lot moves east and settles near Sodom (Genesis 13:11). When Israel enters the land from Egypt, they circle around to Moab and cross the Jordan from the east. This shows that entering the land flowing with milk and honey is like returning to the Garden. Later when Israel goes into exile, they are taken to the east, away from the land, and to return they travel wast.

Leitbart also cites the wise men coming from east to west to seek Jesus as a way of seeking the “true Tree of Life”.

I had never heard of this orientation-specific behavior before, nor of Leitbart’s physical description of the entrance to Eden, and it led me to check out the original Hebrew word used for “east” in the Old Testament cases.

It turns out the word “qe.dem” can actually have quite a few different meanings. In particular, not only the meaning “east”, but also the meaning “front”, as well as “ancient”. In fact, qe.dem is translated as “eternal” in Deuteronomy 33:273 - “The eternal God is your dwelling place …“. I did a bit of online searching and found that not only is there a precedent for traveling east to west as a metaphor of going “back to Eden”, but some resources suggest that Jewish temples and alters always faced east, and that some Christian churches purposefully faced west.

Going back to the dual translation of “qe.dem” as both “front” and “east”, the first thing that I immediately thought of was written language. In English, our written language starts on the left (west) and moves towards the right (east). But what about languages like Hebrew beginning (having their “front”) on the right (east) and traveling left (west)? Does cultural and language influence the way a person orients directions in their mind? Does moving from right to left symbolize fulfilling or completion in a unspoken way for a native Hebrew speaker?

I’m not sure whether it ties in, but I have always thought of pictures of faces in profile. When a face profile faces to the left they are looking to the past, when they face right, they look to the future. But is this only something I hold to because of Western cultural influence and the way written language shapes my thoughts?

Unfortunately I’m not exactly sure who would be an expert on this subject to ask, regardless, it is interesting to think about.

  1. As usual, I forgot where I heard of it immediately after I place it on my “to read” list. I do remember the latest TGC Book Reviews newsletter mentioned it, but I heard about it prior to that. [return]
  2. ISBN 978-1-885767-69-1 [return]
  3. In the ESV and KVJ translations [return]