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Images of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible

Jerusalem’s many names in the Hebrew Bible–though not all flattering–point to Jerusalem’s unique status.

Jean David

There is an Arabic saying that “the multitude of names proves the excellence of the bearer.” Islamic tradition has adorned Jerusalem with 17 names. Jerusalem’s significance in the Hebrew Bible is clear from the several images used to speak of the city. Though not all are flattering, they do point to Jerusalem’s unique status.

Among the most frequently occurring images of Jerusalem is “the holy mountain.” It appears 25 times in the psalms and several prophetic books (e.g., Ps 48:1; Isa 66:20; Zech 8:3). This image reflects the cultural heritage of the ancient Near East. People believed that their gods lived on mountains. Ps 48:2 identifies Jerusalem’s Mount Zion with Mount Zaphon, claiming Baal’s dwelling for Israel’s God. Related metaphors for Jerusalem include “city of God” (Ps 46:4; Ps 87:3) and “city of the Great King” (Ps 48:2).

Another frequently occurring image speaks of Jerusalem as “daughter Zion.” The origins of this female metaphor are not entirely clear. Still, describing the city as God’s daughter implies familial intimacy.  “Daughter Zion” and its people are often depicted as victorious, secure, and prosperous (e.g., Isa 16:1; Mic 4:13; Zech 2:8). But about half of the occurrences of “daughter Zion” speak of Jerusalem as desolate because of its transgressions (e.g., Isa 1:8; Mic 1:13; Lam 1:6). Jerusalem may be God’s favorite, but that does not exempt it from judgment.

Several other feminine images used for Jerusalem are unflattering, pointing to the people’s infidelity to their God: the adulteress (Isa 1:21; Lam 1:19), the abandoned wife (Isa 49:14), and the prostitute (Jer 13:26-27). Taking these negative feminine images to an extreme, Ezekiel uses the allegories of Jerusalem as a foundling who becomes God’s unfaithful wife (chapter 16) and Jerusalem as one of two promiscuous sisters (chapter 23) to speak of the city’s infidelity.  The description of the women’s fate in these chapters is explicit and crude.  It also obscures the fact that Judah’s problems were largely caused by men: its kings, priests, and wealthy landowners.

Because the Hebrew Bible affirms that judgment is not God’s last word to Judah, more positive feminine images appear as the prophets speak about Jerusalem’s restoration. The city will no longer be called “Forsaken” and “Desolate” but “My Delight” and “Espoused” (Isa 62:4-5). The restored city will be a “mother” to its citizens (Isa 49:18-23; Isa 54:1-3; Isa 66:7-14). The city’s children will be returned to her and they will find comfort in their mother’s care.

An image of Jerusalem unique to the book of Isaiah calls the city “Ariel” (Isa 29:1-2; Isa 29:7). The literal meaning of this word is “lion of God.”  What led the prophet to use this name for Jerusalem is not certain. Ezek 43:15-16 uses the word “ariel” (translated as “altar hearth” in the NRSV) to speak of an altar on which sacrifices are burnt. Isaiah may be implying that Jerusalem will be the setting for the judgment that will come upon the unfaithful.

Both the positive and negative images for Jerusalem underscore the city’s significance for the people of ancient Israel. The most important image of all, however, is Jerusalem as a “holy” city (Isa 48:2; Isa 52:1; Dan 9:24; Neh 11:1, Neh 11:18) or mountain (e.g., Zech 8:3).  Jerusalem has been revered as holy for millennia as a place where people have sought and found their God.

  • Leslie Hoppe

    Leslie J. Hoppe, O.F.M., professor of Old Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union, has written on Jerusalem in the theology of the Old Testament and has been the academic director of CTU’s Israel Study Program, located in Azariah, a village near Jerusalem.