Houses Oriented towards God in the East
Introduction: Orientation towards the East
A thorough examination of various structures in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah reveals a strong tendency to orient the doorways of their houses to the east. North and south orientation is also represented though less frequently, but the west is almost completely avoided. Only 10% of all examined structures were oriented to northwest, west, and southwest (most of them in one, exceptional site).
Not for Practical Considerations
Climatic and functional considerations cannot account for the phenomenon.
- Light – North gets the least amount of direct sunlight (in the Northern Hemisphere), so if lighting was the main consideration, this should be the most underrepresented direction.
- Temperature – Similarly, a north-south axis would be used if temperature was a deciding factor. Houses would be oriented to the south if heat was desired (e.g., in northern, cold regions) and to the north if heat was undesired (e.g., in the hotter regions, including the Middle East).
- Wind – In the Middle East, the western wind – breeze – is typically something pleasant to which people look forward. In contrast, the hot, eastern wind, sharqiyya or khamsin, is considered something to be avoided. Thus, wind factors would favor a western orientation of houses, and not vice versa.
Moreover, the tendency to direct doorways of structures to the east and avoid the west influenced not only dwellings but also city gates (which would not be influenced by climatic considerations), and even had an impact on Iron Age urban planning.
If not a result of functional considerations, what could account for the easterly orientation of structures and settlements in Iron Age Israel?
Cosmological Considerations: Toward Sunrise
Many ethnographic studies have demonstrated the strong influence that cosmological principles can have on the planning of buildings. In many cases across the globe, the preferred direction is indeed, east.
The most obvious reason for the strong tendency to favor an eastern orientation is that this is the direction of sunrise, which commonly symbolizes beginning or renewal (day, life, birth, start, etc.). This preference stands, in many instances, in contrast with the west, the direction of sunset, which symbolizes the end (of the day, of life [death], etc.).
In the cosmology of the Toraja people (of Indonesia) for example, the east “is the direction of life, the rising sun, deities, and life-affirming rituals.” The Nuer of Sudan “associate the passage from birth to death with the movement of the sun across the sky.” They call “the west the side of death, the east the side of life,” and have the same verb for “both ‘to bury’ and ‘to set’ (the sun).”
For the ancient Egyptians, too, the west was the direction of the dead. These are but a few examples out of dozens. It is possible that the Iron Age Israelites were also influenced by such a cosmology but in this case, certain biblical clues point us in a slightly different direction.
The Hebrew Names of Directions
Language can reveal a great deal about a society’s cognition. In Biblical Hebrew, the words qedem and aḥor mean both “forward/front and behind/back” as well as “east and west.”
אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי וַתָּשֶׁת עָלַי כַּפֶּכָה.
You hedge me before and behind; You lay Your hand upon me.
הֵן קֶדֶם אֶהֱלֹךְ וְאֵינֶנּוּ וְאָחוֹר וְלֹא אָבִין לוֹ.
But if I go East/forward — He is not there; West/behind — I still do not perceive Him;
אֲרָם מִקֶּדֶם וּפְלִשְׁתִּים מֵאָחוֹר
Aram from the east/front And Philistia from the west/back
In other words, when thinking about directions, the Israelites imagined themselves facing east with the west behind them. This spatial orientation affected to some extent also the Israelite terms for south and north; the south is sometimes equated with right (ימין), and in some instances even the north is associated with left (שמאל) (cf., the Arabic šimāl). As Avraham Malamat phrased it: “The early Israelite ego faced east.”
West as an Inauspicious Direction
While אחור/behind is a common word for west, the commonest term for this direction in Biblical Hebrew is yam, literary “Sea,” referring to the Mediterranean Sea, which is the most conspicuous element in this direction. In ancient Israelite thinking, yam represented the forces of chaos, sometimes personified in the Leviathan or other legendary creatures. Part of God’s job as creator and sustainer was to control these forces:
בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִפְקֹד יְ-הוָה בְּחַרְבוֹ הַקָּשָׁה וְהַגְּדוֹלָה וְהַחֲזָקָה עַל לִוְיָתָן נָחָשׁ בָּרִחַ וְעַל לִוְיָתָן נָחָשׁ עֲקַלָּתוֹן וְהָרַג אֶת הַתַּנִּין אֲשֶׁר בַּיָּם.
In that day YHWH will punish, With His great, cruel, mighty sword Leviathan the Elusive Serpent — Leviathan the Twisting Serpent; He will slay the Dragon of the sea.
אַתָּה פוֹרַרְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ יָם שִׁבַּרְתָּ רָאשֵׁי תַנִּינִים עַל הַמָּיִם. אַתָּה רִצַּצְתָּ רָאשֵׁי לִוְיָתָן תִּתְּנֶנּוּ מַאֲכָל לְעָם לְצִיִּים
It was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters. It was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan, who left him as food for the denizens of the desert;
בְּכֹחוֹ רָגַע הַיָּם וּבִתְבוּנָתוֹ מָחַץ רָהַב.
By His power He stilled the sea; by His skill He struck down Rahab.
In this conception, the sea represents an “Anti-God,” with God responsible for “order” and the sea “chaos.” That the word that is commonly used to designate the west has negative meaning strengthens the view that this direction was not only at the “back” of the Israelite ego, but was also regarded as inauspicious.
Eastern Wind is God’s Wind
The inverse is also true, namely, that the east carries auspicious connotations; various biblical passages betray a world view according to which God resided in the east. For example, Hosea 13:15 refers to the east wind as God’s wind (קָדִים רוּחַ יְ-הוָה), presumably because the wind comes from the place where God dwells (and is sent by him).
In the Exodus story, God uses this easterly wind to force open the Sea of Reeds. The eastern wind opens up the sea not because God needed “hot” wind to dry up the sea, but because, in Israelite cosmology, God resided in the east and hence God’s wind is, by definition, an eastern wind.
Ezekiel’s Temple: God Enters at the East
That God dwells in the east is even more explicit in various passages in Ezekiel 40 – 48, in which Ezekiel describes the Temple in Jerusalem and its courts. Ezekiel describes the Temple courts as having three gates each, the main one in the east, and two others in the south and north. It is striking that no entrance is described in the west.
Perhaps more important is the description of the eastern gates that serve as the main gate through which Ezekiel enters the Temple in his vision (40:6). Later, however, the eastern gate is described as being closed, since this is the gate through which God enters the Temple:
יחזקאל מג:א וַיּוֹלִכֵנִי אֶל הַשָּׁעַר שַׁעַר אֲשֶׁר פֹּנֶה דֶּרֶךְ הַקָּדִים. מג:ב וְהִנֵּה כְּבוֹד אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא מִדֶּרֶךְ הַקָּדִים וְקוֹלוֹ כְּקוֹל מַיִם רַבִּים וְהָאָרֶץ הֵאִירָה מִכְּבֹדוֹ… מג:ד וּכְבוֹד יְ-הוָה בָּא אֶל הַבָּיִת דֶּרֶךְ שַׁעַר אֲשֶׁר פָּנָיו דֶּרֶךְ הַקָּדִים.
Ezek 43:1 Then he led me to a gate, the gate that faced east\forward. 43:2 And there, coming from the east\front with a roar like the roar of mighty waters, was the Presence of the God of Israel, and the earth was lit up by His Presence… 43:4 The Presence of YHWH entered the Temple by the gate that faced eastward\forward.
Later, the eastern gate is described as being closed, since this is the gate through which God enters the Temple:
יחזקאל מד:א וַיָּשֶׁב אֹתִי דֶּרֶךְ שַׁעַר הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הַחִיצוֹן הַפֹּנֶה קָדִים וְהוּא סָגוּר. מד:ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי יְ-הוָה הַשַּׁעַר הַזֶּה סָגוּר יִהְיֶה לֹא יִפָּתֵחַ וְאִישׁ לֹא יָבֹא בוֹ כִּי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא בוֹ וְהָיָה סָגוּר.
Ezek 44:1 Then he led me back to the outer gate of the Sanctuary that faced eastward/forward; it was shut. 44:2And YHWH said to me: This gate is to be kept shut and is not to be opened! No one shall enter by it because YHWH, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore, it shall remain shut.
Topographically, the easiest way to approach the Temple was from the north (or south), but as the northern edge of the Temple Mount was also the northern edge of the city, this was probably out of the question. The only convenient way to approach the Temple from within the city was from the south. In fact, to the east lies the Kidron Valley, which lay outside the city-wall in ancient times and from which it would be very difficult to climb toward the Temple, making it the least ideal spot for a gate. Thus, the choice of the eastern direction for the main entrance in Ezekiel’s vision could have been chosen only for quite specific religious, or more accurately cosmological, reasons. The same is likely true for the complete avoidance of a western gate.
The Confluence of Evidence
Taken as a whole, the biblical description of the Temple gates and God’s wind, the linguistic data from biblical Hebrew terms for directions, and the archaeological data regarding Iron Age dwellings match perfectly. The eastern orientation of the majority of Iron Age structures in ancient Israel seems, therefore, to reflect ancient Israelite notions of cosmology, according to which the east is where God dwells and is an auspicious direction, whereas the west was associated with the forces of chaos and was avoided.
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May 19, 2017
January 16, 2021
Prof. Avraham (Avi) Faust is Professor of archaeology at the Martin (Szusz) department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology Bar-Ilan University and thethe director of its excavations at Tel ‘Eton. He holds a Ph.D. in archaeology from Bar Ilan University. Among his many publications are Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance, The Archaeology of the Israelite Society in the Iron Age II, and Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation.
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