Small details matter in the Bible. They often tell the story that’s under the story, or draw out a minor aspect or theme in a greater whole.
One of the details that can often matter is what a scholar might call cosmic geography. Which is the idea that some of the geographical references in the Bible—perhaps even all of them—map onto the symbolic map of the world and so carry some theological significance.
As an example, the garden planted in Eden where the man and the woman are made and live is in the east of Eden. When, after they are cursed, Adam and Eve leave the garden and Eden, they leave to the east.
In cosmic geography to travel eastwards is to move away from the presence of God and to travel westwards is to move towards the presence of God, because it is to journey away from or into Eden and therefore the heavenly temple that the garden was a pattern of. We might infer that Adam & Eve’s successful journey out of the garden as King & Queen of the world would have been westward, into the land of Eden and up the mountain the rivers flow from—which we would infer from the way mountains are employed through the rest of the Bible means straight into the arms of God.
We could overread this fairly easily. Firstly, we should check that inferring a theological edge to a direction actually adds to our reading of the text in a way supported by this passage and more broadly by the rest of the scriptures. Secondly, we should never conflate cosmic geography with actual geography: moving westward indicating moving towards God says nothing about either what we call “western civilisation” or what lies on the west of maps as we draw them.
Everywhere can be west if you shift your frame of reference, and Eden lay—depending on which reconstruction you like—somewhere in the triangle made by the Persian Gulf, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea. We’re talking direction when we say west, not destination.
Broadly speaking, to walk towards the east is to go into exile, and to walk towards the west is to go on exodus: to return to the land gifted by God.
There are some interesting exceptions to this—note that the plague of locusts is brought by an east wind (Exodus 10) and blown away by a west wind, which sounds like the same thing until we remember that we name winds by where they blow from, so an east wind blows east to west. The clue here is that the west wind blows the locusts into the Red Sea, east of Egypt.
Calamity generally comes with the east wind—from the east—and it is with an east wind that God parts the Red Sea to allow the Hebrews to cross, calling back to the wind that parts the waters in Genesis 1 to create the world.
We see this in the design of the Temple and Tabernacle, with the most holy place on the westmost edge of the structure. Oddly, traditional church design is the other way around, entering in the west with worship facing east—ostensibly to greet the returning Christ as he arrives with the dawn, but intriguingly this means we enter worship in exile and leave in exodus.
Which is fruitful for worship at least, we enter through doors painted red like the blood of Christ, drenched in our sin and trudging away from God, we encounter God in word & worship, eat of God in communion, and leave journeying back to the promised land. God meets us in our exile and turns us around.
Why do we care? Here’s a small thing I think is noteworthy, thinking about those winds in the book of Exodus—calamity drives them (symbolically) westward, as it comes with an east wind. Suffering leads to Exodus, judgement drives us towards God. Afterall, the return of Christ is from east to west like the Sun.
We could quibble lots of things about that statement, it needs all sorts of qualifiers. We probably want to add the word “can” in there somewhere, or “is purposed to,” or something like that. We might want to raise some ethical objections to the very idea. We might want to assert that this hasn’t been our experience. If you’re like me perhaps you just want to howl with the ragged sound of a thousand petty injustices and great calamities that have befallen you, for nothing about this is better than it could have been otherwise.
Please do that, dear friends, for the scriptures call us to. But it doesn’t make my statement false.
Here’s how to read it positively: every single act of God has a purpose. To drive his people on their eastward meanderings, on their navel-gazing, self-centred, self-aggrandising quest for dominance, to drive them to turn around, to repent, and instead travel towards a garden where our needs are catered for at the expense of our wants.
Which is to say, God is pursuing you, like an east wind.
I’m always struck by Psalm 23; who isn’t? A promise of pasture that provides need, without want. A promise of a table richly laid despite our enemies, of paradise in the midst of a valley of death. Of the now and the not yet. And then, right at the end, a suggestion that “goodness and mercy” will “follow” us all the days of our lives.
It always struck me as a bit twee. When the desolation strikes, I find myself wondering where all this goodness is? How is this merciful? Until we look at the word “follow.” I’ve pictured cutesy things skipping along behind.
The word means pursue. Or even harass. I wish we translated it like that. This is a commitment by the Lord of Hosts to chase you down and do you good. To commit every resource of heaven to a single-minded pursuit of getting you to the garden of delight. To chase after you, overtake you, conquer and capture you, and then do you good, and be merciful to you.
God will pursue you, like an east wind. Which, strange as it sounds, is good news.
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