If you pay close attention as you read through the first chunk of Genesis, you will notice a directional movement of people. When Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, they go east (Genesis 3:24). Then Cain wanders east (Genesis 4:16). Later, God brings Noah back west when He reboots humanity. Then in Genesis 11:2 we read, “It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” The “they” here is referencing mankind and Shinar would later be known as Babylon. The Tower of Babel happens immediately after this, which is when the Lord scatters humanity.
Hints in Genesis
The Genesis narrative is hinting at a couple of things. First, people are not spreading over the whole earth. God had commissioned mankind to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Instead, it seems that they move as single herds and clump together. Genesis 11 seems to suggest that “the whole earth” (see verse 1) moved east and settled in Shinar. Humanity was huddling together and, once they invented the brick and were now free from more primitive construction methods, they were going to build a tower up to make a name for themselves rather building out. Mankind had a commission to go into all the world as image bearers of God and they weren’t.
The second hint is that the farther humanity moves away from Eden (and the presence of God) the more defective they become. Sin moves from simple shame and blame, to envy and murder, to a whole united civilization built on the worldview of self-glorification. As humanity moves further away from their founding, their chaos evolves from the naivety of shame, hiding, and blame shifting of Adam and Eve to a whole organized system built upon the moral foundation of sin. The greater the distance mankind traverses, the greater is their amnesia of who they are and what they were created for.
Left behind in the wake of its increasing animality, birthed not from the goodness of God’s creative initiative but from the chaotic and deceptive alternative of Genesis 3, is man’s glory and intrinsic goodness. Humanity has become a food chain in and of itself: the “greatest” on top and the “weakest” at bottom. Paradise has not been lost; It was abandoned and in its void and a cheap knockoff has been offered.
In the midst of this eastern drift, we find one family going against the flow. “Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there” (Genesis 11:31). No reason is given why Terah intended to go to Canaan, west of Ur, but he and his household stop, again for some unexplained reason, and they settle in Haran. The Text seems to think, however, that you need to know that Terah never finished his journey. Jewish scholars have long wondered about the significance of this. Some taught that through Abram’s character and actions, Terah had repented of idolatry and was going to journey to Canaan but wasn’t willing to finish the journey. So, after Abram’s father had passed, Abram fulfills what his father couldn’t complete.
This could be the reason Steven, in Acts 7:2-4, says, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living.” At first glance, it would seem contradictory to the Genesis account since the calling of Abram comes in chapter 12, immediately after the death of his father. However, it is important to remember that chapter 11 of Genesis is a genealogy and not a narrative. Hebrew genealogies often take a detour to provide a splash of color to the black and white repetition. Also, these genealogies often are listed just prior to the stories of the people they are about. For example, Genesis 5 lists the genealogy from Adam to Noah and when it finishes the “story” then back tracks a bit and gives you the context leading into Noah’s story. Genesis 10 lists the “generations of Noah” and finishes with “These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations. These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” (31-32, emphasis mine). However, the very next verse of chapter 11 states, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” Chronological order was not as high of a priority for eastern writers. If you have ever taken a “Life of Christ” class, you know that scholars have been wrestling with the exact chronology of the four Gospels in order to “harmonize” them.
Other Biblical East Metaphors
As the scriptural narrative continues, eastern themes start to evolve. Blowing off the desert, the “east wind” was arid. It came to be known as a metaphor of destruction (Exodus 10:13, Exodus 14:21, Psalm 48:7, Jeremiah 18:17). The “children of the east” became a phrase for the inhabitants east of Palestine. Job was “the greatest of all the children of the east” (Job 1:3). They were known for their wisdom since it is they that Solomon’s wisdom is compared against: “Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east” (1 Kings 4:30). Later, the east would become associated with exile, as it was to the east that the people of God were marched off by the Babylonians, many naked with hooks in their cheeks or noses.
Ezekiel utilizes this theme the most. He, more than any other book, uses the word “east” a disproportional amount. He talks about east in general, the children of the east, the east wind, and the east gate. What is, perhaps, the most intriguing use of east is found near the beginning and near the conclusion. In Ezekiel 10 and 11, the glory of God is seen departing to the east. Before the Shekinah leaves, God explains why the exile has been inflicted and then says, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Though I had removed them far away among the nations and though I had scattered them among the countries, yet I was a sanctuary for them a little while in the countries where they had gone.’ Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, ‘I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries among which you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel'”(Ezekiel 11:16-17). Before God’s glory leaves the Temple, there is the promise that God will gather His people back home from whatever faraway land they may be trapped in and that He will be a sanctuary for them while they are in exile. This word for sanctuary, miqdash, was always used as a synonym of the Temple; God will be their Temple while they are enslaved in a hostile land. “Then the cherubim lifted up their wings with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel hovered over them. The glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood over the mountain which is east of the city” (11:22-23). God’s glory goes east, the same direction of the exiles with Ezekiel.
Then, Ezekiel 43:1-5;
Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing toward the east; and behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the way of the east. And His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory. And it was like the appearance of the vision which I saw, like the vision which I saw when He came to destroy the city. And the visions were like the vision which I saw by the river Chebar; and I fell on my face. And the glory of the Lord came into the house by the way of the gate facing toward the east. And the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the house.
When does this prophetic homecoming of God occur? When God’s people come home. You see, God went with His people to the east. The book of Daniel emphasizes that God’s active presence was with His people, even in the midst of exile. While they sat in the darkness of their prison, at their moment of greatest failure, God was with them. His departure from the Temple came after His hopeful promise to rescue them back and it turns out He was working for them during the entirety of their alienation.
God Goes East
While the east still acts a metaphor of judgement and exile, this story also tells of God’s presence and proactive redemption of His people in the east..all His people, not just the Jews. You see, while God was in the East, Daniel was living a life so unique and absurd that he served as second in command for at least 3 kingdoms while refusing to bow his knee to their gods. He served as witness of His God before many rulers and governors. And Jonah was sent to Nineveh.
Jonah, commissioned by God to go east to Nineveh to proclaim a warning to the people of Nineveh so that they might repent, flees west. God uses his abscondment to convert some pagan sailors while, at the same time, forcibly dragging Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah finally complies, preaches a message of judgement and Nineveh repents. God relents in His destruction and Jonah becomes irate with God. Where do we find Jonah at the end? “Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city” (Jonah 4:5). Jonah, forced to go east so that a foreign city might repent, now sits east of the city waiting…
If we’re honest, you and I still have a group (or groups) of people we view as too far east. We judge for ourselves that they’ve gone too far. After all, they are hostile, corrupt, and deceived. They fail the to hold to our religious creed and statement of belief. They are religious fanatics, heretics, pagans. I find it…humorous then that from the east a group of magi come seeking the King of Jews. Where were the local throngs of Jews bringing their gifts to the young King? No where, save some poor shepherds early on due to angelic invitation.
God is working in the children of east to bring them to Him. Where ever east of God is, God will go. What will we do when they come back home?