ABSTRACT

The term makom in Hebrew may be translated, in deceptively simple fashion, as “place.” As in English, the word has both concrete and abstract significance, and may also be used metaphorically, as in “to know one’s place,” in a social, relational sense. Yet Hebrew usages of makom potentially bear another, more hidden burden, due to a special meaning of the term in Jewish tradition, where makom is also used as a synonym for God. This usage originates in a midrashic gloss on the book of Genesis: “Why is the Holy One, blessed be he, called Makom? Because he is the place of the world” (Genesis Rabbah 68: 8). Perhaps the rabbis who produced this text felt themselves to be in some sort of exile, and therefore invested space with transcendence, and God with the materiality of place.1 This midrash refers specifically to the use of the term makom in the Jacob story, itself a classic tale of wandering. Jacob’s journey from place to place, from Paddan Aram (28: 5) through Beer Sheva and Haran (28: 10), into the land of bnei kedem (literally, sons of the East) (29: 1) and eventually back home through Machanayim (32: 3), is itself an attempt to find his own place, in social and familiar terms. His journey, of course, echoes that of his grandfather Abraham, who inaugurated the national drama with God’s command to “go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (12: 1). This process of identity formation occurs in relation to movement toward and from particular locations. At the beginning of his travels, Jacob “came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night. … Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place” (28: 11). The dense, repetitive patterning of the word makom (three times in a short, fifteen-word verse) alerts the reader that a moment of divine revelation approaches. In the very next verse, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven, and of God “standing beside him,” announcing the terms of the covenantal promise with Jacob, his ancestors, and his descendants. When Jacob awakes, he again notes the sacred quality of makom: ‘“Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God’” (28: 16-17). And so Jacob names the place “Bethel” (Bet-El), literally, “house of God,” the place where God is housed. Another well-known example of makom marking an important moment of interaction, even

relative intimacy, with God is found in Genesis 22, the akeda or Binding of Isaac, where Abraham is called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac as a sign of loyalty to God. The term makom appears twice near the beginning of this tersely told narrative, as Abraham approaches Mount Moriah and in both instances refers to the particular “place of which God has told him” (verses

3 and 9). Makom here signifies the proximity of God to man, unlike the term shamayim (heavens), which indicates God’s remoteness or remove.2 Makom indicates both the biblical topographyin this case, the heights-as well the presence (or absence) of the divinity. The idea of makom in these foundational biblical passages suggests an intermediary location between heaven and earth, between transcendence and the earthly profane, one in which God potentially “stands beside” human beings. Those events connected with makom are crucial moments of discovery, both for the biblical protagonist and the larger, national drama they represent.3