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Places Matter. Or Where art Thou?

Michael Hardt

From Truth & Testimony 2010

God's word abounds with references to places such as towns, villages, mountains, valleys, rivers and countries. More often than not places are connected with a specific spiritual meaning or a set of moral principles. This is borne out by the sort of things that happened in those places, the people who lived in them, and the experiences they went through. The principle that places have meanings is further confirmed by the fact that, in many cases, they received their name as a result of a special event that happened, and often these names are translated explicitly as part of the Biblical record (e.g. ‘Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull': Mark 15:22). Often the meaning of a place name provides a key that helps unlock the instruction connected with a story that occurs there. This study of place names is by no means a mere academic exercise but poses a real challenge to believers today: the ‘place' we occupy (not geographically but spiritually) is of vital importance in our personal lives as well as in our lives together as Christians.

A few examples will provide ample confirmation. In the beginning, God places man in the garden of Eden (‘delight'). But man sinned and, instinctively, felt the need to hide from God, so that God had to ask, ‘Where art thou?' and man was barred from Eden . A little later the first murder occurs and Cain, in an attitude of rebellion against God, goes ‘out from the presence of Jehovah' to dwell in the land of Nod (‘vagrancy'). Once away from God, he builds a city (to be as comfortable as possible despite the curse and being without God) and calls it Enoch after the name of his own son: a memorial to self at a distance from God.

But after the flood God calls Abraham out of Ur in Chaldea, the seat of idolatry, to go to the land of Canaan , speaking of the blessings God wants to give. Temporarily, Abraham goes to Egypt (the world) but is restored to the land by God's grace and soon found in Hebron (‘seat of association') where he builds an altar to the Lord. Lot chooses the plains of Jordan and — what lack of spiritual insight — likens them to both Egypt and the garden of the Lord. He settles in Sodom , the place of moral corruption, becomes a captive, loses all and ends up living in a cave in Zoar . Abraham, on the other hand, after freeing Lot, is strengthened by Melchisedec, the king of Salem (‘peace').

Tracing the history of the patriarchs, we find other significant places. Just think of Hagar's experience when she meets God at Beerlahairoi (‘the well of the God who reveals himself'). Then, in connection with Abraham and Isaac, we find Moriah and Jehovah-Jireh (‘God will provide', Gen. 22) and Jacob's discovery of Bethel (‘house of God'), the place of the presence of the Lord (Gen. 28 and 35), not to speak of Galeed (‘heap of testimony'), Mahanaim (‘double camp' or ‘two camps'), and Jabbok (‘pouring forth').

As a result of the sin of Jacob's sons, Israel ends up in Egypt , the place of the slavery of the world, but is redeemed and delivered by God. Then the experience in the wilderness follows: a place without human resources where we learn what is in our own hearts, and in God's. During this journey God's people reach many significant places (Elim , Mara , Sinai , the plains of Moab, and so on). But God had better things in mind for His people: the land with the grapes of Eshcol (‘cluster'). So they have to cross Jordan (the river of death) to enter the land, a picture of heavenly places (Eph. 1:3, etc.). But sadly, two and a half tribes prefer the ‘other side of Jordan', the land of Gilead , which is ‘a place for cattle', in other words earthly prosperity.

If Israel 's conquests are to be successful, they must start from Gilgal (‘rolling away'), the place of the judgment of the flesh. Then they can conquer Jericho, the city of the curse and seat of the enemy's power. But without self-judgment, and with unjudged evil in their midst, even Ai (‘heap of rubbish') is too strong.

Within the land God then chooses a place where He is pleased to let His name dwell , the place of worship according to His mind (see Matt. 18:20 for the New Testament equivalent). But, sadly, Jeroboam decides it is ‘too much' to go up to Jerusalem . The alternatives he proposes are poor ones indeed: golden calves in Bethel and Dan . Bethel , the ‘house of God', is turned into ‘ Beth-Aven ' the house of vanity, that is idols.

But even in difficult times there have been faithful people who stood their ground. Remarkably it was when all the people had fled that David's mighty man Shamma ‘stood in the midst of the lentil plot and delivered it'. Then think of Naboth who was offered a supposedly ‘better vineyard' by king Ahab but knew better than to accept it: ‘Jehovah forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to thee!'

But general decline ensued. Finally, the last two tribes are deported to Babylon , the place of confusion and idolatry. The whole point of the book of Ezra is the significance of this city and Babylon . The challenging question of King Cyrus was: ‘Whosoever … [would] go up to Jerusalem , which is in Judah , and build the house of Jehovah the God of Israel '. God's house could only be in God's place. In his grace, God restored a remnant to the land and the altar was set up ‘ in its place ' (Ezra 3:1).

New Testament examples could be added. Just think of the way down to Jericho , or the younger son going to a ‘ country a long way off ' and then ‘ going back '. Then there was Samaria , a place Jews would avoid but a place where the Lord ‘had to go' in His grace. Or think of the contrast between Bethany where He found refreshment and the religious centre, the ‘ camp ' in Jerusalem , where, in the days preceding His crucifixion, He would no longer stay overnight. The Lord introduces the supper in the upper room , prays in Gethsemane (‘oil press') and then lays down His head at the place of places, the cross . But the one who was crucified at Golgotha (‘place of a skull' — the emptiness of man's mind) has gone to prepare a place for us in the Father's house and one day will set foot on the Mount of Olives and set up His kingdom in the world where he had been rejected. Then God's Son, the anointed one, will reign on Mount Zion .

This small sample of places may suffice to demonstrate that many places in the Bible are pregnant with meaning, each deserving an in-depth study. Many others could be added, for instance the mountains of Scripture and its valleys and the interesting lessons connected with them .

But let us challenge ourselves: where are we both personally and collectively? And this question concerns both the principles we subscribe to and the condition of our souls. Are we satisfied with an earthly Christianity ( Gilead ) or do we go in for the land — where Christ is seated and we, as risen, in Him? Do we steer clear of Sodom and a role in its gates, and do we know the joy of fellowship in Hebron ? Are we seeking relief in Moab (as in Ruth 1)? If we return we will find that it is harvest time in Bethlehem (‘house of bread'). Are we mixed up with religious confusion ( Babylon ) or have we found the place that God has chosen to let His name dwell there, the place of gathering around, and ‘unto', Christ? This is not a matter of ‘ this mountain or that mountain ' but a spiritual place where worship in spirit and in truth is known and practiced (John 4:21–24).