How did the people of the Bible orient themselves within the “four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12
)? The word “orient” gives the key, pointing us eastward. To orient oneself, the biblical person faced eastward toward the sunrise. Thus in front is east and behind is west, where the sun sets. On the left hand is north and to the right hand is south. In this Israel differed from the Egyptians, who oriented themselves to the south, the source of the Nile River.
Israel combined its sunrise-based system with a geographical viewpoint. Thus west could be referred to as the Sea with reference to the Mediterranean Sea. East could be referred to as the wilderness, and south could be called the Negeb, the dry south country (Genesis 24:62
). The north was designated as the mountains.
Israel lay in the central position between the nations, at the connecting point of three continents via land and water. Israel saw Jerusalem with its Mount Zion as the center of the world (Isaiah 2:2
; Ezekiel 5:5
). As expressed later in the Jewish midrash, “just as the navel is in the center of a person, so is the land of Israel in the middle of the world.” Christians in the first centuries after Christ took over this type of geographical description and made Golgotha, considered the grave of Adam and of Christ, the middle point of the world.
On the other hand, Israel saw itself as a people who dwelled alone (Numbers 23:9
). In a biblical world reaching about 5300 kilometers from Persia in the east to Spain in the west and about 3000 kilometers from Armenia in the north to Yemen in the south, Israel was a small strip of land with geographical unity. The small dimensions of the Promised Land served as a symbol for the people of God who lived in the tension between the breadth of their commission to the end of the earth and the isolation of themselves as strangers belonging to the kingdom of God.
East and West The most important words for east and west are rising and setting, with reference to the sun. Joined together, the two expressions signified the expanse of the world between its most widely-separated points (Psalm 50:1
; Isaiah 45:6
). At times a Babylonian/Assyrian viewpoint describes Palestine as the land of the Amorites, that is the wild west, or the land beyond the river with reference to the Euphrates. From an Israelite perspective, however, the land beyond the river refers to the east, across the Jordan (Joshua 24:2-3
). The great sea of the sun's setting (Joshua 1:4
) or more simply the sea is the west. West can also be called the back side in contrast to the front side (Isaiah 9:12
), where inhabitants of Transjordan, that is the sons of the front side, the east people originated (Genesis 29:1
; Judges 6:3
North and South “From Dan to Beersheba” (2 Samuel 3:10
) describes the stretch of land the tribes of Israel claimed after their entrance into the land. The description ranges from north to south. For the Hebrew language north is the left and south is the right. Benjamin means literally, “son of the right” or “son of the south.” Genesis 35:18
calls them the sons of good fortune since the right was seen as the lucky side.
Teman or the south is a place in Edom. The Negeb, a designation for the southern dry country south of the Judean hills, also stands for the south. Zaphon, the mountain on the northern Syrian Mediterranean Coast, stands for the north. For the Canaanites, Zaphon represented the dwelling place of Baal, while in the Old Testament it is an attribute of the throne of Yahweh (Isaiah 14:13
; Psalm 48:2-3
Some prophets spoke of the enemy from the north, which was called the punishing tool of God on Israel. This was recognized in the appearance of the Babylonians from the north. Compare especially Jeremiah 4-6 .