Geography of the Sacred

The other week, in the post exploring the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, a theme that came up a couple times was sacred geography. There are ancient traditions in the Near East associating the wild and mountainous regions of the south and southwest — Midian, Horeb, and Sinai — with the dwelling place of God. To again quote Thomas B. Dozeman, these lands comprised a “fantastic geography, meaning locations of mystery at the edges of everyday human experience, where unexpected events occur.” And indeed, it is in these stretches of wilderness that Moses meets YHWH in the burning bush, where he meets God in the thick cloud and receives the Ten Commandments, and where Elijah later meets YHWH after fleeing Jezebel.

These stories of dramatic encounters with God in the mountain wastelands of the south and west represent a counter-current to the dominant tradition of the royal histories in the Bible that insist God be met in the Temple on Zion in Jerusalem. Indeed, if you take the texts of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings at face value, the centralization of worship in Jerusalem was an important part of God’s plan, a symbol that Israel has taken possession of the Promised Land (see, for example, Deut. 12.10-11).

While those of us with deep roots in a cosmic, universal monotheism may not think much of this question (for God is, after all, both everywhere and beyond all senses of time and place), this was clearly a matter of great importance at the time. And, in some important ways, it means so today, though more symbolically than literally. To the perennial question of “Athens or Jerusalem?” — philosophy or Gospel — it may be wise to add “Horeb or Zion?” Do we encounter God in the wilderness or the temple? In the uncontrolled wild or in the established ritual of the official cult?

With both of these questions, I think the healthiest approach is to see them as polarities we can play with rather than either-or propositions. Jerusalem needs some Athens in order to translate the experience of God into human language and concepts. But as we’ve seen throughout this series, this is a fool’s errand, necessary as it may be. Similarly, we need the structure of collective rituals and observances in order to be community together, but no structure or ritual can contain or prescribe the experience and knowledge of God, who is, after all, a self-sustaining Fire, a Whirlwind, and a Cloud of Unknowing.

All this is also true of our lives and of the heart. We need to be able to meet and experience God in the every-day-ness of our lives, the temples we build of habit and routine. And yet, God can never be domesticated. As important as it is to meet God in the “civilized” regions of our lives, we also need to be able to experience God in the unexpected, the shocking and the whimsical, in life’s wonderful surprises and shocking reversals of fortune.

And our hearts too contain both the familiar and easy places and wild and untamed regions, our very own “fantastic geography,” those “locations of mystery at the edges of everyday human experience, where unexpected events occur.” All must be places where we can meet God.

Horeb and Zion may always exist in tension with each other. And that’s okay. We can integrate those different expectations of how we might meet God without conflating them. We can experience God on a mountain hike and in Sunday worship. We can affirm that God is known yet unknowable. We can speak of God while recognizing our need to unsay everything we’ve said. We can meet God in the everyday and the mundane and affirm knowing God also in the untamed wilds of life and the heart. Our God is domestic but never domesticated, present in the every-day but never tamed.

Otherwise, God wouldn’t be, well, God. Infinite is, after all, infinite.

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