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 2

 
 

We looked last week at Jerusalem’s physical setting and its early history. While it was a site of localized power in the Bronze Age, there was nothing special about the site. As with the Late Bronze Age, we know little about Jerusalem in the Iron Age I (ca. 1185-980 BC) except that there was a “fortress” there according to 2 Sam 5:7. Archaeology has revealed a large complex consisting of a monumental building situated atop a massive stone rampart, though the nature and specific date of both these features is debated (some archaeologists say the building is the “fortress of Zion,” taken by David in the Iron I, others date it later in the 10th century BC). Regardless, Jerusalem up to the time of David (late-11th c. to early 10th c. BC) was not very large or populous. Still, it held potential that David seized upon.

 

If you recall from last week, David initially made the site of Hebron his capital, but Hebron is situated too far south to adequately administer the entire Central Hill Country, which runs from the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley to the northern edge of the Beersheba basin. A new, more centralized capital was needed if David was to make all the tribes over which he reigned feel secure and represented. No site in the tribal territory of Judah would likely accomplish this. Similarly problematic would be ruling over Israel and Judah from the site of Shechem in the north, even though this site already held a storied placed in Israel’s experience; it was too far north for the tribe of Judah to feel secure and represented. Thus, a site in the tribal territory of Benjamin, which was centrally located in the Central Hill Country, seemed ideal. Jerusalem fit this geographic and tribal bill. Not only was Jerusalem centrally located and in the tribal territory of Benjamin, but it was also a known seat of previous power. Moreover, choosing a site in the territory of Benjamin as David’s capital was an explicit statement that Saul’s house no longer held power, even amongst its home tribe and in its tribal territory.

 

Additional benefits that Jerusalem had over Hebron include: 1) it was easier to access the Coastal Plain and the international trade taking place there; 2) the territory of Benjamin was the only place in which travel could be conducted both north-south through the Central Hill Country, and east-west. At nowhere in the territories of Judah, Ephraim, or Manasseh could east-west travel be conducted easily, if at all, due to the natural topography. It was the decision to make Jerusalem the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah that led to it becoming larger than life. Even after David’s son Solomon died and his kingdom was split in two, the southern kingdom of Judah retained Jerusalem as its capital. It held this status until the kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

 

Significantly, over the span of time from Solomon (d. c.930 BC) until 586 BC, Jerusalem was not destroyed (there is an episode in which a portion of the city wall was torn down, but the city remained intact (2 Kgs 14:13)). Such a long period without destruction is unheard of in the ancient Near East; in the minds of ancient Judahites there was something special about Jerusalem. A belief arose that Jerusalem was inviolable—it could not be conquered (this belief is part of a larger phenomenon known as “Zion Theology” amongst scholars).

 

 

A belief arose that Jerusalem was inviolable—it could not be conquered

Top: Reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple (10th c. BC)

Bottom: Reconstruction of Herod’s Temple (1st c. AD)

Map of Jerusalem's size in different periods
Jerusalem through the ages

What made Jerusalem inviolable? The Temple of Yahweh, built by Solomon (on the location where David erected an altar following an encounter with the angel of the Lord). Jerusalem, it was believed, was God’s chosen city, and therefore, no human agent could conquer it. This idea of Jerusalem being inviolable led to Judahites taking license and living in whatever manner they wanted. The prophet Jeremiah gave stern warning that this perceived idea of Jerusalem’s inviolable status was man-made and foolish (Jer 7). Shortly after this warning, the city, Yahweh’s temple, the Davidic line, and even the kingdom of Judah were destroyed by the Babylonians. Still, this only added to the allure of Jerusalem. In Exilic and Post-Exilic writings (e.g., Ezekiel, Nehemiah, Malachi; those biblical books written after 586 BC), Jerusalem is the longed-for hometown that represents the presence of Yahweh. It is the place from which a renewed Davidic line will reign in fulfillment of God’s promise to David in 2 Sam 7. It is the place that the rebuilt temple of Yahweh is constructed in 520-515 BC. And it is the place from which Yahweh will re-create order in the world.

 

Nearly 500 years of tradition, starting with David’s capture of Jerusalem (2 Sam 5), elevated the site to nearly mythical stature amongst Judahites/Jews. It was a confluence of messianic expectations and the Promise to David in 2 Sam 7 that kept Jerusalem front and center in Jewish minds in the Hellenistic period (332-63 BC). The Hasmonean dynasty in the second and first centuries BC used Jerusalem as their capital as they sought to rebuild a Jewish kingdom on the scale of David and Solomon’s.

 

 

It was the decision to make Jerusalem the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah that led to it becoming larger than life for Israelites, Jews, Christians, and then Muslims.

Top: Church of the  Holy Sepulchre

Bottom: Dome of the Rock

Map of Jerusalem's size in different periods
Jerusalem through the ages

Jewish fervor for Jerusalem continued into the Roman period (63 BC-AD 135). The Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 did little to diminish this fervor, though as it was tempered with a sense of resignation and longing. At the same time, the early Christ-following community distanced itself from other denominations of Judaism over the course of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, but many Jewish-Christians continued to hold Jerusalem as a unique worldly site because of the events of Jesus’ last week. On the one hand, early Christians longed for a Heavenly Kingdom of God, but on the other hand, Jerusalem became the axis mundi, the navel of the earth wherein the divine and the profane were connected.

 

Such a view only snowballed into the Byzantine period (AD 324-638) when Christian pilgrims frequented Jerusalem and the entire landscape of Palastina (as it was then known) was sacralized by the erection of churches commemorating events in Jesus’ life. Jerusalem itself saw not only the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in AD 335, but also the Nea Church (AD 543), which was envisioned as a new, Christian version of Solomon’s Temple. Jerusalem, which was already the most important city in the world for Jews, became so for Christians as well.

 

With the advent of Islam, the early Umayyad Caliphs recognized the importance of Jerusalem and poured money into its development, while at the same time they firmed up traditions about Muhammed’s connection to Jerusalem. It was identified as the location of the furthest mosque (al-Aqsa), from which Muhammed’s night journey occurred (Qur’an 17.1), and ultimately the location of his ascension to Heaven. By the late-7th century AD, now Muslims also laid claim to Jerusalem, its history, and its traditions.

 

So, why Jerusalem? Because this was the site that David chose, at which he encountered the angel of the Lord, at which Solomon built Yahweh’s Temple, at which Jesus’s passion was located, and with which Mohammed’s night journey was associated. Moreover, Jerusalem holds a special eschatological place, connecting the past with the present and the future. But everything started with David’s fortuitous selection of Jerusalem as his capital—a central site of modest proportions and possibilities that grew as an idea in the minds of millions. Today, the result is a city that stands at the heart of all three Abrahamic faiths. Each has carved out a portion of the city as their own through appealing to the past. None will ever give up this claim even though Jerusalem offers no worldly benefits. It is the idea of Jerusalem that has evolved over the millennia, growing as traditions were transferred to the site as if it were the only site in the whole world—Jerusalem is a magnet drawing everything to itself. For so many Jews, Christians, and Muslims this idealized Jerusalem is too important to let go of, for if it were, it would be the first time since before the days of David that Jerusalem was just a city instead of the city.

 

 

Going Deeper

There are many great resources for delving into Jerusalem’s past, its archaeology, and the ideologies that surround it. Here are just a few:

 

 

Mourad, M., Suleiman A.; Koltun-Fromm, N.; and Der Matossian, B., eds.
2019    Routledge Handbook on Jerusalem. London and New York: Routledge.
 
Bahat, D.
2011    The Carta Jerusalem Atlas. 3rd Updated and Expanded Edition. Jerusalem: Carta.
 
Cline, E. H.
2004    Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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