The Biblical Jerusalem

Biblical texts present Jerusalem as a concrete city and also begin to develop it as an abstract symbol.

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The historical Jerusalem of the Hebrew Scriptures symbolizes the orderly civilized life of Israel. Her post-conquest city organization is the opposite pole of the pre-conquest desert culture. Its monarchic regime is set off favorably against the democratic anarchism of the period of the Judges. As we have seen, Mount Zion [in Jerusalem] in many respects is opposed to Mount Sinai [where the Torah was received]. Though Mount Sinai represents the beginning of Israel’s freedom, it also retains as yet the flavor of serfdom in Egyptian bondage, religiously, morally, and politically. Mount Zion and the covenant that God established there with David signify Israel’s sovereignty in its full bloom, in civil and in sacred life. 

Since Jerusalem symbolizes orderly civilized life, her destruction spells anarchy. This thesis is borne out by biblical literature. The prophets invariably present the destruction of Jerusalem as the onset of a new chaos and a society in complete disintegration (for example, Isaiah 3).

A Cosmopolitan City

The basic realism of the biblical concept of Jerusalem is further illustrated by the recording of historical circumstances that less fact-minded writers might well have suppressed. Tradition freely admits that Jerusalem was not an Israelite city originally, that it was inhabited by foreigners even at the height of its occupation by the Israelites, and that it originally had served as a sanctuary of foreign cults and continued to serve as such even under many Israelite rulers.

One is almost inclined to suspect that the biblical historiographers put special emphasis on the fact that Jerusalem always had a mixed population, knit into one social network, without making light of individual or group identities. We are told, for example, that Jebusites, from whom David had captured the city, continued to live in it unmolested side by side with the Israelites. Our sources also report at great length that the royal court literally was ridden with foreign warriors–Keretites, Pelethites, Hittites–and advisers, some of whom rose to prominence in the administrative hierarchy of the realm, as for example some of David’s and Solomon’s ministers. These foreign elements apparently were economically and socially fully integrated and in fact became a main pillar of support of the Davidic dynasty.

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Shemaryahu Talmon is the J. L. Magnes Professor, Emeritus, of the Department of Bible Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He is one of the leading biblical scholars of modern times. Among his many works, he is co-editor of Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text.

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