What Is the Function of Place in the Hebrew Bible? by Cory Crawford

God, people, and place are inseparably intertwined in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps more than by any other means, biblical authors used notions of place to express and explore their relationship to God and neighbor. This is manifest even in the common Hebrew word maqom, most often translated “place,” which carries a sense of purpose rather than emptiness—a location where something belongs—and in many cases means a place of worship (for example, Gen 28:16, Exod 20:24, 1Sam 5:3). The importance of place in the Bible grows out of a conversation between theology, experience, and physical surroundings. For example, there is the layered significance of the Jordan River, which at various points marked important social transitions (Josh 1:1-3, Josh 3:1-17) and political and metaphorical boundaries (2Sam 15-17), including in the New Testament (for example Mark 1:4-8). We might summarize the function of place in the Hebrew Bible by looking at three categories in which place plays a crucial role in biblical theology: population and promise, place of worship, and place and people.

Population and Promise

The primeval history (Gen 1-11) that opens the Bible uses place and spatial metaphors to define human-divine relationships. The creation narratives in Gen 1-3 relate God, humans, and the earth by means of space. On the first three days God systematically creates the spaces of habitation (light/dark, sky/sea, land) before their occupants (greater/lesser lights, birds/fish, mammals) on days four through six. Even though humans in this chapter dominate the created earth as Yahweh dominates the universe, the next chapters emphasize the boundaries between human and divine. Thus when Eve and Adam eat the fruit and become “like gods, knowing good and bad” (Gen 3:22), Yahweh separates them physically from the garden of Eden and therefore from his presence, and he reinforces the boundary with a divine guardian. Other similar motifs of boundary maintenance can be found in the coupling of divine males and human females (Gen 6:1-4), which precipitates the flood, and in the building of the city and tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), which God answers by scattering the people across the known earth and mixing their languages.

Moving into the ancestral narratives, the story of the ancestors is the story of place—especially how a small area of the eastern Mediterranean came to be repeatedly promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (for example, Gen 13:14-17, Gen 15:18-21, Gen 26:1-5, Gen 28:13-15, Deut 34:4). This promise in many ways defines the rest of biblical narrative, especially as the Israelites periodically find themselves estranged from the land. To live outside the promised land, be it in Egypt or Babylon, was to exist in a state of unresolved tension. Exile and return are only possible when one starts from the notion of an ideal, central place. If the creation narratives in the beginning of Genesis use space to define the human-God relationship, the ancestral narratives define the people of Israel in relation to the promised land. The dual promise of land and posterity mirrors the fusion of place and people in the Hebrew Bible.

Place of Worship

Scholars have described biblical theology as a tension stretched between two mountains that are also historical places: Sinai and Zion, the mountain of lawgiving and the mountain of the temple. The events at Sinai established for biblical narrators the notions of covenant, prophecy, and law (Exod 19-23), whereas Zion came to represent king, priest, and promise. Linking the two, at least narratively, was the tabernacle (Exod 25-30, Exod 35-40), which made the Sinai experience portable but still exclusive, moving with the Israelites until it was absorbed into the newly built Jerusalem temple (1Kgs 8:1-11). According to Priestly accounts, the tabernacle also served to organize the tribes spatially and therefore to create a social hierarchy with priests maintaining the boundary between Yahweh and the people (Num 2). Similarly, Ezekiel’s vision for the future restoration of Israel starts with the tribes arranged around the temple and flows out from there to the rest of the world (Ezek 40-48, especially Ezek 47-48).

Deuteronomy connects Sinai and Zion by looking forward to the time when Israel would have one place established for the worship of Yahweh, understood implicitly to be the temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy legislates against worship at any other place (Deut 12:1-7) as the singularity of God must be reflected in the singular space of worship (see Deut 6:4). Biblical scholars have suggested that this exclusion of all other places is a response to the notion that there were local manifestations of Yahweh, found for example in inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud that mention a northern Yahweh (“of Samaria”) and a southern Yahweh (“of Teman”). Monotheism went hand in hand with places of worship. And so Deuteronomy and the history based on its laws (Judges through 2 Kings) evaluate Israelite political history based primarily on whether kings promoted the exclusive worship of Yahweh at the temple of Jerusalem. So important was this place in these texts that Solomon’s dedicatory prayer asked that anyone who even prayed in the direction of Jerusalem would be given special attention by Yahweh (1 Kgs 8:30). Jerusalem, with its indwelling God, was for these authors the primary conduit for communication with the divine that continued the traditions of Sinai. Israel’s past (Sinai) and its present and even future (Zion) relationships to God were defined in the Bible by these iconic places.

Place and People

Place in the Hebrew Bible is also personal in a literal sense. Israel begins as a person and develops into a people and a land. Subdivisions of the land become defined by personal names: Ephraim, Judah, Benjamin, and so on. Cities are personalized as mothers (2Sam 20:19) and daughters, the most famous of which is Daughter Zion (for example, Ps 9:14). This underscores place in the Bible as a means of organizing society, as we already saw with the tabernacle texts. In fact, the idea in some texts that the people Israel was holy (for example, Lev 19:2, Deut 28:9) also has a spatial component. The verb meaning “to make something holy” or “consecrate” (Hebrew leqaddesh) may have carried a distinct spatial sense rooted in the meaning “to separate, to set apart.” The idea that Israel and its god were holy required a physical, spatial expression of such setting apart, which it found in sacred architecture and geographical borders. The imagined boundaries of the promised land as well as the separate zones of temple holiness, both of which organized society in holy hierarchies, brought this notion to life through spatial means.

Place is crucial in the Hebrew Bible for defining society, divinity, and the relationship between the two. Little wonder then that the status of the Holy Land continues to exist at the heart of the religious identity of millions who claim the Bible as authoritative.

Cory Crawford, "What Is the Function of Place in the Hebrew Bible?", n.p. [cited 22 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/what-is-the-function-of-place-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Cory Crawford

Cory Crawford
Assistant Professor, Ohio University

Cory Crawford is assistant professor of biblical studies in the Department of Classics and World Religions at Ohio University. He has published articles on iconography and sacred space in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Trustworthy; reliable; of texts, the best or most primary edition.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A categorization in which people (or other objects) are ranked relative to each other, some higher and some lower.

Holiness (source, not general concept. Leviticus 17-27, and scattered passages elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Torah), so called because of its author's call that all Israel be holy.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

An Israelite oasis in the Negev Desert, probably used as a way-station on Arabian trade routes during the period of the divided monarchy. The site is significant for an inscription found there dedicated to "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" and depicting a bull-like figure and a tree that many take to be representations of Yahweh and Asherah, respectively.

A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Those who write, speak, or otherwise transmit a story or account.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

The first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, up to the birth of Abraham.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Gen 28:16

16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Exod 20:24

24You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every plac ... View more

1Sam 5:3

3When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him ... View more

Josh 1:1-3

God's Commission to Joshua
1After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' assistant, saying,2“My servant Moses i ... View more

Josh 3:1-17

Israel Crosses the Jordan
1Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan. They camped there bef ... View more

2Sam 15-17

Absalom Usurps the Throne
1After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run ahead of him.2Absalom used to rise early and stand beside t ... View more

Mark 1:4-8

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.5And people from the whole Judean countryside and ... View more

Gen 1-11

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Gen 1-3

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Gen 3:22

22Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of li ... View more

Gen 6:1-4

The Wickedness of Humankind
1When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,2the sons of God saw that they were fair; ... View more

Gen 11:1-9

The Tower of Babel
1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar an ... View more

Gen 13:14-17

14The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward an ... View more

Gen 15:18-21

18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrate ... View more

Gen 26:1-5

Isaac and Abimelech
1Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar, to King Ab ... View more

Gen 28:13-15

13And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and ... View more

Deut 34:4

4The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see i ... View more

Exod 19-23

The Israelites Reach Mount Sinai
1On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness ... View more

Exod 25-30

Offerings for the Tabernacle
1The Lord said to Moses:2Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receiv ... View more

Exod 35-40

Sabbath Regulations
1Moses assembled all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do:2Six da ... View more

1Kgs 8:1-11

Dedication of the Temple
1Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, be ... View more

Num 2

The Order of Encampment and Marching
1The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:2The Israelites shall camp each in their respective regiments, under ensigns by ... View more

Ezek 40-48

The Vision of the New Temple
1In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after t ... View more

Ezek 47-48

Water Flowing from the Temple
1Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the ... View more

Deut 12:1-7

Pagan Shrines to Be Destroyed
1These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has ... View more

Deut 6:4

4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.

2Sam 20:19

19I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel; you seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel; why will you swallow up the heritage of the ... View more

Ps 9:14

14so that I may recount all your praises,
and, in the gates of daughter Zion,
rejoice in your deliverance.

Lev 19:2

2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Deut 28:9

9The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.