Israelite Cosmology and the Orientation of Iron Age Houses

Ancient houses reveal how the Israelites saw their world

Looking at the plans of Iron Age settlements excavated in Israel and Judah, Avraham Faust, Professor of Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, noticed an odd pattern: most of the houses were oriented to the east. He had to ask himself: Is there a reason behind this predominant easterly orientation of Iron Age houses?


The Iron Age settlement at Beer-Sheva demonstrates clearly that ancient Israelites preferred their houses oriented to the east. The houses excavated at the site prove the Israelites’ tendency to avoid the unfavorable westerly orientation, as only one in 29 doorways identified in the excavation was built facing west. Avraham Faust argues that Israelite cosmology is responsible for this pattern. Photo: The Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University/Courtesy Ze’ev Herzog.

To make sense of his cursory observation, Faust collected and examined more archaeological documentation of Iron Age settlements and also turned to the Bible to look for possible indications of why the ancient Israelites might have preferred their houses oriented to the east.

Faust summarizes his examination in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, noting that what he found in the Bible confirmed the archaeological evidence on the ground.

So what do archaeology and the Bible tell us about urban planning in ancient Israel? Apparently, ancient Israelites considered the east favorable, hence the prevalent orientation of the Iron Age houses in this direction. West, on the other hand, meant chaos, disorder, and danger in the Israelite cosmology, and was therefore considered inauspicious. And there were practical considerations, too, such as winds. As a result, most of the Iron Age houses excavated in ancient Israel and Judah are oriented with their doorways to the east.

For the nuanced argument and systematic review of the archaeological and Biblical evidence, read the Biblical Views column “Archaeology, Israelite Cosmology and the Bible” by Avraham Faust in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. In this article, Faust reveals the consistency in the orientation of Iron Age houses excavated in Israel and Judah. By considering the possible practical, cosmological, and religious reasons, he concludes that archaeology, cosmology, and the Bible all confirm the overwhelmingly easterly orientation of Iron Age houses in ancient Israel.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Archaeology, Israelite Cosmology and the Bible” by Avraham Faust in the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Four-Room House: Typically Israelite?

Was Biblical Israel an Egalitarian Society?

Ancient Israel Through a Social Scientific Lens

Daily Life in Ancient Israel

Ancient Samaria and Jerusalem

Tel ‘Eton Excavations Reveal Possible Judahite Administrative Center


8 Responses

  1. Barbara Warren says:

    Thoughts on cosmological models: The Temple of Jerusalem faced east. If I recall, there were doors on each side, but only the eastern door was opened, so that the Lord could enter. A bronze cauldron stood in front of the Temple, on the backs of twelve bronze oxen. The rising sun shone over the cauldron to strike the font of the Temple. Inside the Temple, along the walls, were painted the images of the twelve patriarchs of the twelve tribes. (One description says the images of the twelve angels of the twelve tribes.) Oronce Fine, in his 16th century work, points out that east and spring were the attributes of planet Jupiter. Jupiter takes twelve years to perform a revolution, dividing the sky into twelve parts. The Greeks said Jupiter (called Zeus) defeated his father Saturn (called Chronos or Time) and so time should be measured and laid out by Jupiter. And so our clock faces are divided into twelve parts, the year is divided into twelve parts, the sky is divided into twelve parts. The Greeks and Romans worshiped Jupiter as king of the gods, they were polytheistic. The Greeks and Romans worshiped the pantheon of twelve great gods that were assigned to the twelve divisions in the sky, according to Manilius. The late Hebrews were not polytheistic. The Romans called Jupiter, Jove. The Hebrews worshiped JHVH, there are no vowels in Hebrew. The Greeks, the Romans and the Hebrews each felt they had the right view of heaven.

  2. Dee Alberty says:

    Perhaps their homes were oriented this way to mimic the design of the tabernacle/ Temple. Entering their homes (sacred spaces), so their backs would be toward the sun(worship),,,,to be expelled from the Garden (Adam), toward Nod (Cain), exiled from the Land was always to go toward the East.

    1. Dee Alberty says:

      …also, when the glory departed the Temple (Ezekiel 10), it exited toward the East.

  3. wes says:

    All of the above considerations for building doors and windows to the east sound reasonable – and perhaps were applied. But all this so far falls far short of cosmology.

    If we are going to address cosmology, we would have to take into consideration the night sky as well as winds and sunlight. Did Israelites map the night sky? How did they establish their calendar? Did they use both lunar and solar calendars? Did they shift from one to another? Were they influenced by
    what other centers of ancient civilization were doing to tell time based on such means? Did they have explanations for what they saw in the heavens?…

    Furthermore, what was this world to which these people were attached? In Isaiah it is suggested that it was a disk. In Job, perhaps it was set amid a void. In Psalms and Chronicles, it is set on immovable foundations. Elsewhere, it is thought to be surrounded by water which gushed out from all quarters in the time of Noah. …. And yet this is largely an inland people.So far as I can tell, Phoenicians were their access to the sea.

    There are readily available answers to some of these questions, but there is probably more of a story to tell too. For one thing, the names of the months in the Jewish calendar bear great similarities to that of neighboring peoples such as the Babylonians. To some degree this might be due to linguistic roots, but also to adaptation in one way or another. Via Alexandrian conquest of the Persians, the Babylonian astronomical database (derived from their state sponsored observatories) became the heritage of Greeks, especially in Alexandria,but more could be said about how it originated or where it was applied.

    Admittedly, it could also be argued that assuming all these astronomically derived calendar problems on an “Iron Age” people would be burdensome. But at the same time, the notion that the people is “Israelite” also suggests some nascent knowledge fo things beyond agricultural settlement. The notion of cosmology then should be more specifically defined.

    Admittedly astronomy and cosmology are not exactly the same, but they are
    intertwined. So, amid all this, did the people of Judea have any role? How much did they originate, borrow or consume? What evidence is there?

  4. fredb58 says:

    It is probably as simple as “warmth”. I your house front faces East you will get a morning in winter and it will heat up your front door and wall. The desert gets cold.
    AND in the summer the sun is higher – precession is around 23 degrees.
    When I did solar layouts for homes in southern Calif. (in the mountains) i slanted the building 23 degrees. AND a had a 4 foot overhang on the south rooftop.
    In the summer the roof shaded the wall and it was cooler longer–these old Jews were pretty smart weather-wise. They understood their desert very well.
    Fred Barber

  5. Joe Cantello says:

    Maybe these ancient peoples enjoyed seeing the sunrise, which of course, happens in the East.

  6. Jane Rose says:

    The oldest hogans on the Navajo Reservation of the 4 corners United States face east also, as do some of their more recent hogans.

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