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What Is the Function of Place in the Hebrew Bible?

Place is of central concern in the Hebrew Bible, and biblical authors used place to make sense of the past, present, and future as well as their relationship to God and neighbor.

Heinrich Bünting

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

    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.