The Cardinal Directions in Hebrew
And the LORD said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward (צָפֹנָה), and southward(נֶגְבָּה), and eastward (קֵדְמָה), and westward(יָמָּה): For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” – Genesis 13:14-15 Hebrew terms are often very ‘organic’ meaning that they derive from a physical reality. This is especially true of the words for the cardinal directions as we will see in this study. I do believe that Hebrew (or a paleo-Hebrew) was the original language spoken by Adam and Eve so many Hebrew words date back to antiquity.
The Hebrew word translated above as “northward” – צָפֹנָה (tsafonah) derives from Mt. Tsaphon in modern Syria and north of Canaan where Abram was. Although we have no record of Abram visiting Mt. Tsaphon, he probably knew of its location from his travels. The area called ‘Canaan’ to which Abram traveled is much larger than modern Israel and included what is often referred to today as the Levant. The Arabic name for Tsaphon is Jebel Aqra and is located at the border of Syria and Turkey near the mouth of the Orontes River and directly on the Mediterranean Sea.. There is actually a good Wikipedia article here and I quote, “From its importance and its position at the northern end of Canaan, it also became a metonymand later the word for the direction “north” in the Hebrew language.”
A Metonym is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept.” (For example, “the White House” is a metonym referring to the US Government.)
The word ‘southward’ in the verse from Genesis 13:14 is from the Hebrew נֶגְבָּה (negbah). The Negev is the large desert region that lay south of Canaan and is part of modern Israel. Note on the map at left that Beersheba is located in the Negev. The phrase, “Dan to Beersheba” occurs 7 times in the T’nakh referring to the north/south limits of ancient Israel. Today the city of Be’er Sheva, (בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע ) as it is called in Hebrew, is known as the “capital of the Negev”. The southernmost city of modern Israel is Eliat, a resort city on the tip of the Red Sea. However, Eliat was not a city of ancient Israel.
The word ‘westward’ in the verse from Genesis is from the Hebrew word יָמָּה (yamah), and means literally “to the sea”, referring of course, to the Mediterranean Sea. The Hebrew word for “sea” is yam (יָם). In the T’nakh, the Mediterranean Sea is called the “Great Sea” – HaYam HaGadol( הַיָּם הַגָּדוֹל). In Modern Hebrew it is called HaYam HaTikon (הַיָּם הַתִּיכוֹן) meaning the “Middle Sea”.
Finally, the word ‘eastward’ in our verse is from the Hebrew word, קֵדְמָה (kedmah). The root of this word is ק-ד-מ. Many words come from this root. For example, קָדוֻם (kadum) meaning ‘ancient’; הַקְדָמָה (hakdama) meaning ‘preface’; מוֻקְדָם (mukdam) meaning ‘early’. If you think about it, these words have the idea of events in the past. However, there are several words whose meanings have a ‘future’ time element: קָדִימָה (kadima) meaning ‘forward’; קִדְמָה (kidma) meaning ‘progress’; קְידֵם (kidem) meaning ‘promoted’; מִתְקַדֵם (mitkadem) meanng ‘advanced’ and of course, קֵדְמָה (kedma) meaning ‘eastward’ – towards the sunrise and towards the future.
Compass Points in Scripture
The importance of the east as the main point of orientation is probably related to direction of the rising sun. The Garden of Eden was located in the East, “And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden.” (Gen. 2:8). After Adam and Eve’s sin and consequential ejection from Eden, God protected Eden so that they could not enter again and eat of the tree of life in their fallen state: “So he [God] drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:24) We can assume from this verse that the entrance to Eden also faced the East. After murdering his brother, Cain moved ‘east of Eden’: “And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” (Gen. 4:16) The phrase, ‘east of Eden’ often means alienation from God. In Genesis 11, we have the building of the tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar. Gen. 11:2 says, “And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.” Since ‘they journeyed from the east’, we know the builders of Babel (ie, the human race) were moving westward. The tower of Babel is often prophetically linked with Babylon, thus we can assume the early inhabitants of earth lived in the area of Mesopotamia. Somewhere in that general area would be where Eden was located. From Israel, the east was the place where destructive winds originated (Ps. 48:7; Ez. 27:26) To the ancient prophets, the east was a symbol of Babylonian exile.
As already mentioned, from Israel, the west was the location of the Sea which sometimes prophetically represented evil and death (Dan. 7:2, 3). The west was also the place of darkness since obviously the sun sets in the west. (Ps. 104:19-20). However, if we view the west from the total world picture, we must remember that Abram left the east and traveled west to Canaan in obedience to God. (Gen. 11:31) Israel is always the place of blessing.
The north is the place of God’s celestial dwelling (Isa. 14:13; Job 37:22). However, the enemies of Israel also come from the north (see Daniel 10-11). Since the south of Israel was the Negev, a desert without life, it could be thought of as a place with no blessing (Isa. 30:6). However, almost every person that God used in a great way was first sent to the ‘school of the desert’ so it was often used by God to create character in His servants.
How Do You Find Your Way?
We have discussed the cardinal directions and their importance in Scripture. But even if we know our directions, north, south, east and west, we can still get lost. The best way to get to the right place is not with our GPS (which often gets you to the WRONG place), but it is to travel with someone who has been there before and knows the way.
In these trying days, it is often difficult to know the correct path in life. The best way to know is by relying on the Lord. He promises to lead us like a shepherd if we will follow like a sheep!
Is. 30:21 And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.
Psa. 37:23 The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way.
Psa. 25:9 The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way.
Psa. 32:8 I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.
Psa. 78:52 But made his own people to go forth like sheep, and guidedthem in the wilderness like a flock.
Is. 58:11 And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.