The four directions in ancient Hebrew

by Tuvia Pollack

In Genesis 28:14, God gave Jacob a promise: “You will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

The Hebrew expressions used for the different directions here are “yama, qedma, tsfona, negba.” The “a” in the end of the words is a grammatical suffix indicating direction, i.e. “to the west, to the east,” etc. Without the suffixes, the names of the directions would be “yam, qedem, tsafon, negev.”

In Modern Hebrew, we would rather say “ma’arav, mizrach, tsafon, darom.” You might notice that tsafon is the only direction that stayed the same. Why did the others change?

Well, they didn’t really change. Truth is, the Biblical Hebrew has a number of synonyms for each direction, and the ones we use in Modern Hebrew all appear in the Bible too. Here’s a full list of the different synonyms for each direction:

  • East: Qedem, Mizrach, Motsa
  • West: Yam, Ma’arav, Achor
  • South: Negev, Darom, Teman, Yamin
  • North: Tsafon, Smol

In Deutronomy 3:27, another instance of the four directions are given, with a slightly different choice of the above synonyms. Note that we again add the “a” suffix for direction:
“Go up to the top of Pisgah and lift up your eyes to the west and north and south and east, and see it with your eyes, for you shall not cross over this Jordan.”
The Hebrew here says “yama, tsfona, temana, mizracha.”

Let’s examine these directions, one by one:

East: Qedem, Mizrach, Motsa.
Qedem means “forward” which shows us that people in ancient times would face the rising sun as the default direction, but it also means “ancient.” The question here is what came first – the chicken or the egg. Did qedem first mean “forward,” then applied to the east because of the default direction, and then, because of the ancient kingdoms, Babylon’s tower, Sumeria, etc, it also received the meaning of “ancient”? Or did it initially mean “ancient” and became a name given to a number of ancient kingdoms which were all in the east, then qedem came to mean east, and since people would see the east as the default direction, it became synonymous with “forward”?
There is a third interesting option – maybe Qedem was the name of a very ancient kingdom east of Israel, whose ancient glory spurred myths and stories. This in turn could have tied the word “qedem” both to antiquity and to the direction east. Job 1:3 says that Job was “the greatest of all men of Qedem.” Does that mean “of the east”? Does it mean “of ancient times”? Or does it mean “of the Qedem kingdom”?
The Dead Sea is called the “qadmoni” sea, i.e. the eastern sea (or “the ancient sea”…?) in a few cases. Ezekiel 47:18, Joel 2:20, Zecharia 14:8 are examples of this.
The word we use in Modern Hebrew is “Mizrach” which comes from the Hebrew word for sunrise. The two synonyms often appear together in the Bible, and when they do, the translations often translate “qedem” as “east” and “mizrach” as “towards the sunrise.”
“To the east towards the sunrise” (Joshua 19:12)
“On the east side towards the sunrise” (Numbers 2:3)
The word “motsa” is less common. It means “coming out of” and implies that this is where the sun comes forth, or comes out of. We can see that word being used in Psalm 75:6.
It was a common practice in ancient times that temples, including the temple in Jerusalem, would face east, towards the sunrise. This custom was also adopted by churches. When a church or ancient temple in the Roman Empire faced the correct direction, it was correctly “oriented,” a word that came from the Latin word for east, “orient.”

West: Yam, Ma’arav, Achor
If the default orientation is facing the east, then the west is behind you. And indeed, “achor,” which means behind, is used in the Bible as a synonym to west.
“The Arameans on the east and the Philistines on the west” (Isaiah 9:12) actually says qedem and achor, which could also be translated as the Arameans in front of you and the Philistines behind you. The Mediterranean is also named “acharon,” the last sea, or the sea that is behind. We see that in Deutronomy 11:24 and 34:2.
In both verses above from Genesis and Deutronomy, the direction of west is “yam,” the sea, an Israel-centric expression.
Numbers 3:23 says that they camped “behind the tabernacle westward,” it actually says “achor the tabernacle, yama.”
Numbers 34:6 says “As for the western border, you shall have the Great Sea.” The original here says “As for the yam border, you shall have the Great Yam.”
The word we use in Modern Hebrew, ma’arav, comes from the word from evening, and is again related to the sun’s position. Whenever it is used in the Bible, it is often in contrast with mizrach, east. That is, the rising vrs the setting place of the sun.
“Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the mizrach, and gather you from the ma’arav.” (Isaiah 43:5)
“So they will fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun.” (Isaiah 59:19). Here again, it says ma’arav (the evening direction) and mizrach (the rising of the sun).
Maybe the most beautiful example of east vrs west being used together like this is in Psalm 103:12: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” It was not by chance that King David used the words mizrach and ma’arav. As far as the rising of the sun is from the setting of the sun. That’s the furthest distance imaginable to anyone in ancient times. They never saw anyone travel as far as the sun did every single day. We know today that if we walk to the north, we will eventually start walking south, and vice versa. North and south have meeting points, at the poles. But if you walk to the west, you never start walking east. East and west never meets – that’s how far he has removed our transgressions from us!

South: Negev, Darom, Teman, Yamin
When you are in Israel “towards the Great Sea” will always be to the west, and similarly “towards the Negev” will always be to the south (unless you are in Eilat). The Negev desert takes up two thirds of modern day Israel, but has very sparse population. The word “negev” originally means “parched,” an obvious name for a dry desert.
In Modern Hebrew, we usually say “darom,” a word which means south and is often used in the Bible, with an unclear origin. One theory is that it comes from “dar,” which implies “to live” or “situated” and “rom” which means “high up.” This would be another reference to the sun. The south is the direction in which the sun is the highest in the sky.
Another word for south which is very common in the Bible is teman, as in Deutronomy 3:27, “yama, tsfona, temana, mizracha.” Teman is derived from “yamin” which means right side. This is again based on the default position of facing the east. In Modern Hebrew, Teman is the name of the country Yemen (based on the theory that the name Yemen comes from the Old South Arabian equivalent “ymn”). It is used so often in Hebrew about a southern land, it is often hard for the translators to know whether it’s a specific country which was named Teman by the Israelites, or whether it was just a direction. You may recall we had a similar question about qedem. It could be equivalent to the actual Yemen, but could also be any other southern country. All three expressions are used in one single verse in Ezekiel:
“Son of man, set your face towards Teman, and speak out against the Darom and prophecy against the forest land of the Negev.” (Ezekiel 20:46)
In the verse “The north and the south, you have created them.” (Psalm 89:12) the Hebrew says yamin and tsafon – “right side and north.” A clear indication that yamin is here used as “south.”
It’s a bit harder to know in Isaiah 54:3, “you will spread abroad to the right and to the left” – did they mean right and left, or did they mean south and north? We can’t really know, but since the passage is about possessing nations and resettle cities, it is tempting to interpret it as north and south. We saw in the psalm that yamin was definitely used as “south,” and as we shall see soon, the Hebrew word for left is sometimes used as “north.”

North: Tsafon, Smol
In the promise to Jacob, the north, tsafon, is the only direction whose name corresponds to the Modern Hebrew word. Tsafon means “hidden” as it is the direction in which you will never see the sun. (The authors of the Bible were northern-hemisphere-centric.)
Smol means “left” and is again based on the default direction or being oriented towards the orient (see what I did there?) The Arabic word for north, shamal, comes from the same root. We see “left” used in the sense “north” in Genesis 14:15 – “He pursued them as far as Hobah which is smol of Damascus.”
“…and to the valley of Iphtael northward (tsfona) … then it proceeded on north (smol) to Cabul.” Joshua 19:27.
As we said before, this also calls into question every time people speak of “right and left” in the Bible. Do they always mean right and left, or do they sometimes mean south and north? Genesis 13:9 and 24:49 are two examples of where the translation is ambiguous.

To sum it up, we see three different ways of perceiving the four directions. One is by geographic landmarks based on the land of Israel – yam for west and negev for south. The other is based on “forward, backward, left and right” assuming that you are facing the sunrise. Qedem, achor, smol, teman/yamin. The final one, and this is the only one used in modern Hebrew, is based on where the sun rises, goes in the evening, is high in the sky, or is hidden. Mizrach, ma’arav, darom, tsafon. Often, the Bible will use a mix of these.

In Genesis, the four directions were stated by God to Jacob as “Yama, qedma, tsfona, negba,” and in Deutronomy by God to Moses as “Yama, tsfona, temana, mizracha.” Job uses slightly different language in Job 23:8-9:
“Behold I go qedem but he is not there, and achor but I cannot perceive him. When he acts in the smol, I cannot behold him. He turns on the yamin, I cannot see him.”

Or was Job saying “forward, backward, left and right”…?

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:14 describes that when the High Priest is in the Holy of Holiest he is to sprinkle the blood on the atonement cover “qedma.” To the east? Some translate this as “on the front of the atonement cover,” which could be correct. After all, qedem does also mean forward, or front. But if it really means “east,” then how would it be practically possible? The tabernacle, and later the temple, was facing east, so the High Priest in the Holy of Holiest would stand facing the west, with his back to the east. How could he then sprinkle blood to the east? The only way would be to sprinkle the blood on the atonement cover, and then backwards, to the east, thus creating a straight vertical east-west line of blood. The next sentence says that he shall sprinkle seven times “before the atonement cover,” i.e. a straight horizontal line of blood.

Did the High Priest use the blood of the sacrifice to draw a cross in the Holy of Holiest every Day of Atonement? A cross of blood, which stretches to the north, south, east and west?

It all depends on how we translate “qedma” in that passage, doesn’t it?