The “Why” Series (by Dr. Kyle Keimer)
This blog series focuses on five biblical sites and considers, why this site? Why was the specific site important? Why was the site important to the biblical author(s) and/or their audience? And, why, or does the site’s significance continue until today? The sites that will be highlighted included: Jerusalem, Shechem, Bethlehem, Capernaum, and Megiddo. Each has a story to tell for us today. As we listen to these stories, it is my hope that we will peek into the mindset, the worldview, and the lived experience of biblical authors and audiences, and that we will better understand our own place in these stories.
Jerusalem – Part 1
The first site we want to consider is a big one—Jerusalem. Not big in size, mind you, but big in idea and imagination. Jerusalem was never one of the largest sites in antiquity. Even at its pinnacle as the capital of the Kingdom of Judah, Jerusalem, which reached about 150 acres in size in the late 8th c. BC, paled in comparison with other major capital cities such as the contemporary Neo-Assyrian capital of Nineveh (1875 acres; even in the 1st c. AD when Jerusalem was its largest in size until modern times, it covered an area of just over 300 acres). But Jerusalem was mighty in the minds of Judahites/Jews, became mighty in the minds of Christians, and ultimately became mighty for Muslims as well. Why did this happen?
Let’s step back for a moment and consider Jerusalem’s geographic setting because this will help us to understand why this site has become one of the most sought-after sites in the world. Jerusalem is in the mountains. In a basin. The closest international trade route is about 20 miles away. Jerusalem offers no strategic viewsheds or control of routes. There are no major rivers or water sources near the site. It has but one natural spring that puts out enough water to support a couple thousand people. There are no natural resources the site can exploit. At the local level, the watershed route that runs N-S through the mountains in which Jerusalem is located runs about a mile west of the site, and if terraced, the rocky slopes on which the site is built, and which surround the site can be utilized to grow olives and some grapes. Flat open land for fields is limited, though the area just west of Jerusalem could be utilized, as could the region of Bethlehem (we’ll talk about this site in another blog post) about 5-6 miles to the south.
The size of Jerusalem fluctuated over time. It reached its two largest sizes in the days of king Hezekiah (late 8th c. BC) and again in the 1st c. AD.
So, perhaps you’re thinking, “wait a second,” nothing we’ve seen so far would lend itself to explaining why Jerusalem is so important or even why it became King David’s capital, remaining the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judah until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. And we would be right to think this. But let’s look closer.
Jerusalem was occupied in the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2900 BC), though there are indications that people were in the area even earlier. The small site of Jerusalem in the Early Bronze Age was no doubt due to the presence of the spring there (now known as the Gihon Spring). We have little evidence the site grew much for about a millennium. Then, in the Middle Bronze Age (MB; ca. 1800 BC), Jerusalem appears to have become one of a handful of sites in the mountains—along with Hebron and Shechem—that was an autonomous kingdom. Each of these three sites was located near water sources and each saw the construction of monumental fortifications, but none became very large, relatively speaking. We know little about Jerusalem in the subsequent Late Bronze Age (LB; ca. 1500-1187/1150 BC) except that it likely continued to utilize the monumental fortifications from the MB, and that it is listed as a small kingdom in the Amarna Letters (which are a set of letters between Pharaohs Amenhotep III and Akhenaten/Amenhotep IV and local Canaanite rulers, ca. 1340-1300 BC).
After the Egyptian New Kingdom dissolved and withdrew from controlling Canaan around 1130 BC, local Canaanite rulers jockeyed for power, and again, the sites of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Shechem appear to have been the main settlements in the mountains because each had a water source, albeit small. This Iron Age I period, as it is known, gets us to King David. But before we really delve into how he single-handedly transforms the significance of a small, backwater mountain polity, we need to remember that there is nothing particularly significant about Jerusalem in its first 2000 years of occupation. It may have been a seat of local power, but there were numerous other seats of local power. None of those has become one of the most sought-after cities in the world. So, what happens to Jerusalem?
In the late 11th century BC (ca. 1020 give or take a couple decades), a young musician/warrior by the name of David rose to power in his local tribe of Judah. Ultimately, the elders of this tribe crowned him king (2 Sam 2:4; this was after God himself had sent the prophet Samuel to secretly anoint this lad as the “king” of Israel (1 Sam 16:13)—I’ll explain why I put the term “king” in quotes when we get to the future blog series on King David). David made the site of Hebron his first capital, and he reigned from this site for 7 ½ years (2 Sam 2:11). All during this time David was competing with more northerly tribes, which had aligned themselves with the household of the recently deceased King Saul, and which were referring to themselves as “Israel” (2 Sam 3:1) Eventually, the elders of the tribes of Israel switched allegiance and declared David as their king (2 Sam 5:3). Herein grows the seed of Jerusalem’s significance.
An example of an Amarna Letter, and a reconstruction of Jerusalem’s Middle Bronze Age fortifications around the Gihon Spring.