The symbolism of the four cardinal directions

What biblical symbolism is associated with the four cardinal directions?

Cardinal compass points in the Bible are rich in meaning. Knowing their symbolism can help interpret some biblical passages. We often orient ourselves by facing north. In the ancient world the point of orientation was east. The east was before them, the west behind, the south to the right, and the north to the left. The future wasn’t in front, but behind, that is to say invisible.

1. The East: The importance of the east as the main point of orientation may be related to the rising of the sun and its importance in the religions of the ancient Near East. In the Bible its symbolism emerges for the first time in Genesis. The Garden of Eden was placed in the East (chap. 2:8), and its entrance faced the east (chap. 3:24). After sinning, Adam and Eve left the garden and went toward the east (chap. 3:24). This eastward movement continued with Cain (chap. 4:16) and culminated in the movement of the human race toward the east (chap. 11:2-4).

Within this context the east is symbolically ambivalent. The garden placed there symbolized safety and security. After sin, when it was the direction of the exile, it represented a condition of alienation from God. It was also the place of the wilderness, from which destructive winds came, threatening life (Ps. 48:7; Eze. 27:26). To the prophets the east was a symbol of Babylonian exile and the saving presence of God. He traveled to Babylon and ultimately redeemed His people (Eze. 10:18, 19; 11:22, 23). The east became a place where God intervened on behalf of His people, bringing them salvation (cf. Rev. 16:12).

2. The West: The west symbolizes both negative and positive elements. To the west of the land was the sea, representing evil and death (Dan. 7:2, 3). In fact, the term “sea” often referred to the west (Num. 3:23). It is also the place of darkness because that’s where the sun sets (Ps. 104:19, 20).

The positive meaning is its association with the Israelite tabernacle/Temple. Although it faced east, access to it required movement toward the west. In that sense the west pointed toward restored unity with God; a return to the Garden of Eden. When the Israelites traveled to and worshipped in the Temple they faced the west and had the rising sun behind them. This movement to the west began with Abram, who left the east and went to Canaan in the west in obedience to God (Gen. 11:31). It is a symbol of divine blessing. Once the exiles were liberated from their enemies in the east, they traveled west, to the land of Israel. In that journey, the Lord Himself traveled with them (Eze. 43:2-5).

3. The North: Bible students have suggested that the north is a symbol of the permanent or the eternal, perhaps because the polar stars were permanently visible in the sky. It is the place of God’s celestial dwelling (Isa. 14:13) and from which His glory descends (Job 37:22) with blessings or judgments (Eze. 1:4). He is the true King of the North.

But the north—represented by the left hand—is also a symbol of disaster. The enemy of God’s people came from the north (Jer. 1:14, 15; Eze. 38:6), bringing destruction. In a sense, the enemy was the false king of the north who tried to usurp God’s role and is finally destroyed by the Lord (Zeph. 2:12; Dan. 11:21-45).

4. The South: The south is primarily a negative symbol. But the fact that it is represented by the right hand makes it also a positive one. It is negative because to the south of Israel was the wilderness, a region where life does not prosper (Isa. 30:6). To the south was Egypt, which opposed God’s power and oppressed His people. But the south was also the place where the Lord appeared to Moses, went with Him to Egypt, liberated His people, and appeared to them on Mount Sinai (e.g., Deut. 33:2).

The ambivalent nature of the symbols of the four cardinal directions seems based on the fact that evil was perceived to be present everywhere and that God’s saving presence was always accessible to His people from any corner of the world (Ps. 139:7-12). In a sense they pointed beyond the points of the compass to the cosmic conflict between good and evil.