Crossing Boulevard

with Beth Nelson


You know those Bibles wherein some of the letters are red? I’m fixing to make one with all the place names highlighted. These names runneth over! They say so much.

Bethel tells on itself. It means “House of God, Gate of Heaven”. It is where Jacob experienced just that—he dreamed there, of a ladder connecting Heaven and earth.

Before Bethesda was a suburb of DC, it meant, in Aramaic, “House of Mercy”. It is where sick people gathered. Near the Sheep Gate there was a pool and five covered porches. They waited for healing there (Jn 5).

And that’s just the letter B. Not even, because Beulah, Beersheba, Bethpage...In this version of the Bible, the whole lot of them will stand out; brown letters, perhaps. We would be nudged to see through the lens of place.

I lack a future with a publishing house. What I have, though, is a kind of super attentiveness when it comes to this moment before us this Sunday. Moses is going to name a place and I am listening. I sense that what he calls the spot matters.

He could have called the spot near the rock at Horeb any number of things. Had there been a contest, the entries would have all been variation on names that the fact that there, God gave water to a thirsty people (v.6). As it is Hebrew Moses uses, we might presume that is exactly the sort of name the place gets.

Except it gets two names: Massah and Meribah (v.7). In Rachel May’s Toponymy Bible—I’m not actually that vain—we’d know to look up the Hebrew. [In the back, of course, and free of other explanatory notes.] Moses calls the area near the rock of Horeb “Proving” and “Strife”. Or, “Testing” and “Contention”.

If we can remember what the place names mean, there’s a chance we can carry with us what happened there. And what happened there tends to tell us about God and ourselves, which is why we read to begin with; the Scriptures, anyway.

In this way, the names “Massah” and “Meribah” become little lighthouses that illumine one part of the channel by which we travel toward a land more promising. After a while, we might take to a richer, deeper, more telling mapping of our lives.

UncategorizedRachel May