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Where is God’s Dwelling Place?

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”1

Where Does God Dwell?

Jacob woke up from his dream. He had travelled a long way from Beersheba where his father Isaac and mother Rebecca and their family lived. He was running away from the wrath of his brother Esau, whose blessings he had mischievously received from their father. As he journeyed Yahweh caught up with him! In his dream, according to Genesis 28, Jacob saw a stairway that rose to the heavens from the earth. On top of the stairway was the Lord who promised to bless Jacob and his descendants. Angels moved up and down—between the earth and the heavens on the stairway. The dream, which ended quite abruptly left him with a crucial a realization—that the place he had randomly chosen for a night’s sleep and, in fact entire area called Luz, was the abode of God. Jacob thus remarked, “surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

Each time I read this story the question which comes to mind is, “Where is the dwelling place of God?” This is not a simple question. It is profound as it is perennial. Theologically, it points to the nature of God—God’s transcendence, immanence and omnipresence. It raises questions such as, “Is God present in all places at all times?” “How do we know this?” Additionally, it raises socio-ethical questions such as, “Does God favor some individuals or communities more than others?” These questions are important especially in the face of growing political, social and religious nativism and exclusivism of our times. My purpose here, however, is not to answer these questions. Rather, using Jacob’s experience at Bethel as a starting point, I seek to draw attention to God’s nature as a universal God whose presence and power is known and experienced both locally and globally among all peoples.

God’s Dwelling Places in the Bible

Let us for a moment consider a few references to where the bible mentions as physical and metaphysical dwelling places of God. Among these are (a) the tabernacle Moses was instructed to build [Exodus 25:8–9] (b) Solomon’s Temple [1 Kings 7–9] (c)Christ, the Son of God incarnate [John 1:14] (d) The Church and the Individual Christian [1 Corinthians 3:16–17] (e) The New Jerusalem—among God’s people [Rev. 21:3]. Largely, these references point to the immanence of God, that is, God as manifested among humans and confined to particular spaces.

Nonetheless, conversations between God and biblical characters such as Moses, David and Solomon, point to the transcendent nature of God. 2 Samuel 7, for instance, records an interesting story about David’s attempt to build a temple for God. David argues that as king he lived in a palace of cedar wood. He thus considered it inappropriate for the ark of God to be housed in a tent. Behind David’s reasoning was the notion that Yahweh dwells (or must dwell) in a particular place. He therefore sought to provide such a place in the form of a temple where the Hebrew people could gather for worship. Though not stated, one might wonder if David’s desire was to get God a little more confined and controlled – as the temple was to be the cultic center for his kingdom.

Yahweh’s response to David’s request spoken through prophet Nathan who had earlier okayed the proposed project is telling:

Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.2

Solomon who later built the first temple seem to have been aware that God is not to be confined to a particularly place – particularly one constructed by humanity. At the dedication of the temple he wondered, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”3

God’s Dwelling Among Humanity

Growing up in Ghana West Africa, I learned very early in life that God was everywhere—in persons, in homes, in families, in the forests, in the sea etc. The presence of God was pervasive and real to me though there no visible temples or shrines for the worship of God. God’s nature was reflected in the honorific names such as oboadee, he who created the thing (creator) and brekyi’hun’ade, the omniscient one.4

The day to day living of ordinary people—farmers, traders, fathers, mothers etc. revealed an anthropocentric ontology that recognizes the existence of God as creator and lord over spirits, human beings, animals, plants and other living things essential elements who are essential part of creation. This ontology was revealed through rituals, myths, proverbs, names, music and art work etc. Proverbs such as (a) “If you want to speak to God, speak to the wind” and (b) “If you flee from God, you are still under him” revealed a belief in God who was boundless. I also learned that community was key to enhancing God’s dwelling among humanity. Not only must a person live in such a way that he or she promotes a harmonious relationship between himself/ herself and God, s/he must also be concerned about his or her relationship with the spirits, with his or her family, neighbors, animals, plants and other inanimate things.

Looking back at that period of my life and the Western World I live in today, I cannot but wonder what it means that God dwells among humanity. Statements and attitudes of political and religious leaders, reflect an understanding of God as a localized or nationalized deity whose favor abounds for some (often the rich and powerful) and not others. It is as if God dwells more among some people by virtue of where they live, where they were born, the color of their skin and/or the nature of their culture. Unfortunately, many Christians and churches cannot be absolved from such parochial thinking. It is for this reason that in spite of the diversity within our societies, churches remain so racialized.

With its rampant atrocities perpetrated by terror groups such as ISIS; the devaluation of human lives as seen through the killings of both civilians and law enforcement officers; wars and violence, and the presence of bigotry, racism, homophobia and violence which are frugally offered and voraciously consumed (particularly on social media)—it is clear that Jacob’s realization that God is a Spirit whose presence is revealed in all places at all times is yet to take root in our world.

What can we Learn?

Several lessons may be drawn from Jacob’s’ experience but for our purpose, the following will suffice.

God’s Dwelling is not only Local, but also Global.

God is everywhere—in the heavens and also on earth; in one’s hometown and also abroad. This is an important lesson Jacob learned. God was in Beersheba as well as in Luz (Bethel). Possibly prior to this experience he might have notionally believed that God was omnipresent, transcendent and also immanent as many of us do. But what seemed to have surprised him the most was the fact that Yahweh would meet him miles away from home, away from the shrines where he worshipped. God meets us wherever God chooses. Despite this widely held belief among many Christians and indeed among adherents of many other world religions, there is always the tendency to “box up” God, that is, confine God to a place, a race or ethnicity, a nation or a religion. This tension between “localizing” and “globalizing” God is a perennial issue that is seen in the bible.

Place Matters, yet not Determinative of God’s Presence

Place has always been considered vital in the revelation and worship of God. Several places in the Bible we read stories of God’s encounter with persons he calls at specific places, particularly elevated ones. Moses for instance first met Yahweh at Horeb, (the mountain of God) (Exodus 3) and later received the Decalogue on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). Elijah is also said to have been instructed by Yahweh to go to Mount Horeb, where Yahweh was going to pass (1 kings 19) The importance of place is thus related to connections with God or deities and accounts for the distinctions that are often made between sacred and secular places. These have often created the impression that the sacredness of God is confined to specific geographical spaces. Even though it is true that places of worship such as temples, shrines, churches, synagogues are sacred because they are places where worshippers encounter the divine, it is also true that places that are often considered mundane like parks, community centers, libraries, bus stops etc. are potential places for divine presence and revelation. It takes the revelation of God’s presence to realize that your local coffee shop, barber shop or classroom is also a sacred place—a place where God dwells and ready to meet with you and others.

God Calls Us to Infuse Every Place with Sacredness.

Jacob’s realization of God’s presence was also a call to action. It was a call to (a) bring attention to the sacredness of God in and beyond Luz (b) and to pass on this sense of sacredness to future generations. Jacob thus turned his “pillow” of stone into a memorial “pillar.” By erecting a memorial and renaming Luz as Bethel, he changed the identity of the place from ordinary to sacred. Bethel became an important place for the worship of Yahweh. The memorial, among other things, was to serve as a pointer to the presence and providence of God. For us who have had serious encounters with God—who have realized the sacredness of God in the place where we live, we are called to spread the word—God is everywhere; God dwells among humanity both locally and globally.


1. Genesis 28: 16 NIV

2. 2 Samuel 7:5b–6.

3. 1 Kings 8:27 NIV.

4. J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God (London & Redhill: Lutterworth Press, 1944) 55.

By Rev. Moses Biney
The Rev. Dr. Moses O. Biney is Assistant Professor of Religion and Society, and Research Director for the Center for the Study and Practice of Urban Religion at New York Theological Seminary. He is also the Interim Pastor for Bethel Presbyterian Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Biney is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary where he earned both the Th. M. and the Ph. D in Social Ethics. He has served on the faculty of the University of Ghana and as an adjunct professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Dr. Biney’s research and teaching interests include the religions of Africa and the African Diaspora, religion and transnationalism, religion and culture, and congregational studies. He is the author of From Africa to America: Religion and Adaptation among Ghanaian Immigrants in New York.