Windows on the Word



Guidance for the Journey (N292)


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.”

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.

Hebrew Nugget 223: Lessons from the School of the Desert


This week we begin the book of Exodus and the Torah portion, Sh’mot (שְׁמוֹת ), which means ‘names’. This is the 2nd word in the Biblical Hebrew text which begins: וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת <- (v’eh-leh sh’mot) – translated as, “and these are the names”. Sh’mot (“names”) is also the Hebrew name of the book of Exodus.  Chapter’s 1-2 let us know that hundreds of years (430 of them) have passed since the closing events of Genesis 50. Also, we are introduced to Moses and his younger years.  When Moses kills the Egyptian in ch. 2, he forever leaves his life of grandeur in Egypt (as Pharaoh’s daughter’s son) and flees to the land of Midian to become a humble shepherd. Here he lives for 40 years.

Where God Spoke to Moses

A few years ago, I took a class on Bible geography with Dr. Jonathan Lipnick of eTeacher and He taught us a very important observation, “The physical setting of the Bible plays a major role the theology of the Bible.  To understand the God of the Hebrew Bible, you must understand the place (ie, Israel!) where He has that relationship with His people. The Bible would not be the book we know if it were situated anywhere else.”

Exodus 3:1-2 gives us the geographical setting for the passage under consideration: “Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”  Notice I highlighted the phrase, “backside of the desert”. The Hebrew word translated as ‘desert’ is מִּדְבָּר (mid-bar) and means exactly that – ‘desert’. If you have ever visited Israel and gone to my favorite places – the Judean Wilderness or the Negev, then that is the mid-bar. (Although Moses is not in Israel at this time, but in Midian.)

The desert is in general a still and quiet place.  I love the desert and love to visit desert places.  Many prophets received revelations from God while in the desert (among them, Moses, David and the apostle Paul).  It is not that God is more real in the desert than in other places, because God is everywhere present.  It is just that we are so easily distracted from knowing God due to the many distractions of life.  In the desert, we detach from the noisiness of everyday life that demand our attention and can focus on God.  It is then that God can speak to our heart. I think it is most important that Moses was not just in the desert, but in “the backside of the desert” when God gave Him this revelation. God wanted Moses in a place where He had his undivided attention before He revealed to him His most important name!

What God Spoke to Moses

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was the Chief Rabbi of the UK from 2001 – 2013, wrote that Moses asked God two questions at the ‘burning bush’: Who am I? and Who are you?  God’s answer to the second question is worth close examination. In Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses, 

אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה – transliterated as Eh-he-yeh asher eh-he-yeh. The word that is repeated twice, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה (eh-he-yeh) is the future tense form of the verb ‘be’ – (ie, “I will be”). So literally the phrase is, “I will be what I will be.”  In the AV this phrase is translated as, “I AM THAT I AM”. However, the reader must remember that in Hebrew, the verb ‘be’ does not have a present tense form – only future and past. Therefore there is no way to say, ‘I am’ or ‘he is’ or ‘we are’.  You can say ‘I was’ or ‘he will be’.  Also, there are NO CAPITAL letters in Hebrew so all capitalization in English translations is added by the translators. Capitalization does not exist in the original Hebrew text.

The following concept is very important. The root of the verb that is repeated twice in the Hebrew text, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה, is היה (Strong’s #1961) – the verb ‘to be’. Now, look how similar the Hebrew letters are for the verb ‘be’ (היה) to the letters in God’s covenantal name – יְהוָֹה (also known as the tetragramaton – a Latin phrase meaning “the four letters”). The Hebrew word for the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’ is basically derived from God’s name!  Thus etymologically, we see that all existence is derived from God! God does not officially introduce the name יְהוָֹה to Moses until Exodus 6:3, although Moses has used it many times already in Exodus and in Genesis (remember that he wrote these books). 

Rabbi Sacks reminds us that God really never answered Moses’ first question as to why He had chosen him.  However God did assure Moses of success.  Rabbi Sacks explains God’s viewpoint this way, “You [Moses] will succeed because I am not asking you to do it alone. I am not really asking you to do it at all. I will be doing it for you. I want you to be My representative, My mouthpiece, My emissary and My voice.”  He goes on to say, “In the Tanakh as a whole, the people who turn out to be the most worthy are the ones who deny they are worthy at all. … The heroes of the Bible are not figures from Greek or any other kind of mythology. They are not people possessed of a sense of destiny, determined from an early age to achieve fame. They were people who doubted their own abilities. There were times when they felt like giving up. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah reached points of such despair that they prayed to die. They became heroes against their will. There was work to be done – God told them so – and they did it. It is almost as if a sense of smallness is a sign of greatness.” To this great insight, I simply say, ‘amen’.

There are so many great applications from this passage that just “fall out” if we are faithful to study out the details of history, culture, geography and language.  The inductive method of Bible study will always give the best grasp of the Bible truths.

There are many qualities of the desert that God can create in our life regardless of where we live geographically, and one of them is that of ‘limited resources’. God often puts His servants into ‘desert situations’ regardless of where they are living to teach them the same principles that He taught Moses, and the children of Israel and David and Paul. So if we find ourselves in a desert of God’s making, let us not fret, but rather rejoice that God is wanting to speak to us and give us a deeper view of Himself and so He is sending us to the school of the desert.

Nugget 211: The Babel at Babel


Genesis chapter 10 is the famous “Table of Nations”. Dr. William Albright, the “father” of Biblical archaeology and longtime Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem in the 1920s and 1930s, said of this passage, “It stands absolutely alone in ancient literature, without a remote parallel, even among the Greeks … The Table of Nations remains an astonishingly accurate document.”  This amazing ‘Table of Nations’ is where Babel (Hebrew: בָּבֶל – bah-vel) is first mentioned as being built by Nimrod grandson of Ham: “And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. … And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.” (Genesis 10:8, 10) The name ‘Nimrod’ (Hebrew: נִמְרֹד ) carries the meaning of ‘rebellion’ or ‘to rebel’ and since Nimrod built the kingdom of Babel, we know these seeds of rebellion were in its founder. This rebellion against God culminated in the actual ‘tower of Babel’ spoken of in Genesis 11. (more…)

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