The shift in United States policy concerning the capital of modern Israel has generated a lot of discussion and controversy. Claims abound that Jerusalem has been the undisputed capital of Israel for 3000 years, and that denial of this “fact” distorts history. Below is an excerpt from a book project in progress that presents the uncertain and confusing biblical data about Jerusalem.
The first explicit reference to Jerusalem by name in the Old Testament is in Joshua 10, when its king gathers an alliance to fight against the Israelites and the Gibeonites. Though Joshua wins a famous victory against the five kings in the story, the disposition of the city of Jerusalem after the battle is unclear. The next reference to Jerusalem is in Joshua 12, where it appears within the list of 31 Canaanite cities and kings that Joshua conquered. So, it is not a very illustrious beginning for the great city. It is just one among many. Later in the book of Joshua, however, during the allotment of the land, 15:63 claims that the tribe of Judah did not take Jerusalem. The two major parts of the book of Joshua are not in agreement on this point. A reference to Jerusalem in 18:28 further clouds the issue by reporting that Jerusalem was part of the territory occupied by the tribe of Benjamin. Part of the confusion about Jerusalem in the book of Joshua fits within the pattern of contention that characterizes the whole book. The central contradiction is between 11:23, which claims Joshua took the whole land and apportioned it to the Israelites, and 13:1 which asserts that Joshua died with much of the land still not taken by the Israelites. The dispute about whether Jerusalem was within the inheritance of Judah or Benjamin is somewhat different, but the relationship between these two tribes is confusing in other places as well, such as 1 Kings 12:21-23. To which tribe Jerusalem was apportioned and when it came under Israelite control are both questions about which Old Testament traditions differ? As the tribe of Saul, Benjamin seems central to the northern group of tribes, but when scribes brought the traditions of Saul and David together this identity could have become complicated.
The opening chapter of the book of Judges does not help to clarify the issue. The same Canaanite king mentioned in Joshua 10, Adoni-bezek, seems still to reside in Jerusalem, according to 1:7. Judges 1:8 reports that the people of the tribe Judah took Jerusalem, apparently agreeing with Joshua 12, but Judges 1:21 claims that the Benjaminites failed to drive the Jebusites out of Jerusalem, a statement that conflicts in different ways with two different traditions in Joshua. The dispute over Jerusalem and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin that arose in Joshua persists, and perhaps this is a clue that two different tribes preserved their own traditions about Jerusalem. The writers of books like Joshua, Judges, and Samuel may have struggled to bring these traditions together in their more comprehensive narratives. At the same time, at least two sets of traditions about the occupation of Israel developed, one presenting a quick conquest by Joshua and the other a slow, simmering conflict with the Canaanite inhabitants.
The appearance of Jerusalem in Judges 19 is indirect and odd. In the horrific story of sexual assault and murder the Levite and his concubine choose not to stop and spend the night in Jebus, because it is not an Israelite city, an irony that becomes visible as the narrative progresses. In 19:10, the narrator reminds readers that Jebus and Jerusalem are the same city. The travelers move on to Gibeah for the night instead, where they are attacked and the young woman suffers a brutal gang rape. The story may serve many purposes, but one of them is a polemic concerning the city of Saul (Gibeah) and the city of David (Jerusalem). This is a good indication that a city like Jerusalem can sometimes play something of a character in an ancient story that has little to do with the city’s history.
The identification of Jerusalem as the city of the Jebusites in Judges 19 fits with the preceding account in Judges 1:21 and the next appearance of Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 5, when David and his army attack the Jebusites and take Jerusalem from them. Another pair of competing traditions concerning the founding of Jerusalem consists of the two stories of David taking the city in 2 Samuel 5 and 1 Chronicles11. The traditions in which David takes Jerusalem from the Jebusites after he becomes king are complicated by the report at the end of the David and Goliath story, where 1 Samuel 17:54 reports that David took the head of Goliath with him to Jerusalem. This is long before David captures Jerusalem from the Jebusites. The two reports of that capture present quite different portraits of David. In 1 Samuel 5:6-10, David is the hero of the story. He leads his army against the Jebusites and takes the city: “David occupied the stronghold and named it the city of David” (5:9a). The story contains one bizarre element. In 5:6b the Jebusites taunt David with the line “You will not come in here, even the blind and lame will turn you back.” When David challenges his troops in 5:8 he includes the taunt: “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” The remainder of the verse links this saying of David to the practice, apparently reflected in Leviticus 21:16-23, that the blind and the lame are not permitted in the temple. It is not difficult to see why 1 Chronicles 11:4-9 would remove all of the references to the blind and the lame. The taunt from the Jebusites in 11:9 is merely, “You will not come in here.” The more surprising difference is that another hero of the story emerges. Rather than David, Joab is the hero of the battle, and 11:8 credits Joab with the repairs of the city after the battle. David himself does not name the city in the Chronicles version of the story, but a passive construction reports that “it was called the city of David.” The total effect of the changes presents a less spectacular, but humbler David, one that fits the general trends of the book of Chronicles that cleans up the reputation of the great king. Important questions about the most important place in the Bible persist. Who names a place, and what does the act of naming say about the one who names it, or for whom it is named? How do we understand the acquisition of a place, and how do we speak of those from whom it was taken?
The discussion above offers no clear direction for how we should think about the modern city of Jerusalem, which is geographically different from the ancient city presented in these texts. Little about it is certain or continuous, but that is the primary point. Ancient traditions this murky do not answer modern questions.