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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Post-exilic Jerusalem

On the other hand, we find especially in prophetic literature a recurring insistence on a future purge of Jerusalem of all foreign elements who have brought pollution into the city. In the days to come, Jerusalem will be inhabited exclusively by people of pure Israelite stock. They will worship in its Temple the one God, the God of Israel. This trend also makes itself strongly felt in postexilic historiography, and it would appear that it is intended to balance the opposite trend, which had prevailed in pre-exilic Israel, as exemplified in early biblical historiography.

In both instances a realistic historical concern seems to be at work, namely, the endeavor to cope with the actual situation and the problems inherent in it. Monarchic Israel, represented by the metropolis Jerusalem, settled with a numerous minority of foreigners, could conceive of no better way of handling the resulting situation than by absorbing those foreigners into Israelite society.

The postexilic community of returnees from the Exile, a mere remnant of the once vigorous nation of early monarchic times, outnumbered many times over by the local population they encountered there, felt forced to segregate themselves from "the peoples of the land" in order to maintain their identity. Jerusalem, purified and holy, thus became the quintessence of a recessionist ideology, which shrank from any contact with those who had not gone through the purifying smelting furnace of the Exile.

Pre-exilic prophecy, indeed, had castigated Jerusalem, its kings, and its inhabitants, because "they abound in customs of the aliens" (Isaiah 2:6). Alliance with foreigners, and with foreign rulers, spelled catastrophe (Isaiah 7:4- 9). Dissociation from other nations was considered the only way of preserving the metropolis and the nation of Israel from disaster.

At the same time, prophecy viewed Jerusalem as the future center of an organized worldwide assembly of nations. In the days to come, Mount Zion, standing for Jerusalem as a whole, will become the goal of pilgrims from all nations: "At that time, they shall call Jerusalem 'Throne of the Lord,' and all nations shall assemble there, in the name of the Lord, at Jerusalem" (Jeremiah 3:17; cf. Isaiah 2:2; 60; Micah 4:2). Punishment will be meted out to all peoples on earth that will not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, Lord of Hosts (Zechariah 14: 17).

From City to Symbol

One is inclined to find here an expression of the significance of Jerusalem at its very peak: the city being raised from the status of the capital of the Israelite kingdom to that of the metropolis of the inhabited ecumene [world]. The vision of Jerusalem as metropolis of the world included, indeed, a portrayal of the future fate of all nations. But first and foremost, it presents Jerusalem as holding promise for every Jew, whether inhabitant of the land of Israel or exiled in a foreign country. The city is expected to become a place of worship for every individual human being, Jew and non-Jew alike. The gloriously humanistic role to be played by the future Jerusalem fired the imagination of early Christian writers who perceived in it the apex of the spiritual development of Israel, crystallized in this noble image of the holy city.

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Shemaryahu Talmon

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.