Place and the Bible: From the Thesis
“The Bible begins and ends with places—a garden to a gardened city” (Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, xv). Strewn between the beginning and end are stories rooted and guided by place: from walking with God in a place called Eden to expulsion toward the East; from Ur toward the Promised Land of Canaan and into bondage in Egypt in a place named Goshen; wandering in the Wilderness until the day the river Jordan was crossed and the people came to dwell in the Land; being “vomited out” of the Land and becoming a people of exile, a displaced people longing for replacement. Place keeps insisting itself in the opening moments of the New Testament. God appeared incarnate as a body, “and bodies can only exist in place” (ibid, xii). Scripture etches the Messiah’s place in intimate detail: hailing from good-for-nothing Nazarus, birthed in the dirt of Bethlehemian squalor, laid in a food trough for animals. The pulse of Jesus’ ministry throbbed with place. Jesus filled his parables with images of soil, vineyards and Samaritans. Each reference is rife with political, economic, cultural, and theological meaning connected to place. The decisive moment of his life on earth came when Jesus turned toward Jerusalem—the place called Zion that became the city of chaos. Our savior agonized in Gethsemane, was crucified on a hill called the Place of the Skull, was buried in a garden tomb nearby, and ascended to heaven from a mountain called Olivet. The book of Acts lists thirty-two towns and cities by name. The Pauline letters were messages to specific places regarding the particular dynamics of those locations. John directed his revelation to seven cities in Asia Minor and communicated his message by dramatizing iconic places: the Whore City Babylon against the Bride City New Jerusalem.
Why were these records of place so scrupulously preserved? Scripture is incessantly reminding us that life plays out on a physical terrain, that this life is primarily a relational matter of fidelity to God and servanthood toward others, and that if God’s driving passion for shalom is to manifest it can only do so in a place. Allen Pred tells us "places are never ‘finished’ but always ‘becoming.’ Place is ‘what takes place ceaselessly, what contributed to history in a specific context through the creation and utilization of a physical setting.’" Scripture is thus the drama of places in process, ever in the materialistic act of “becoming” closer or farther away from the heart of God as communities perform their values into being. In this sense, the bible uses the character of a place as a society’s ethical barometer and compares its character to the biblical vision of shalom for the community of creation.