City of Zion

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


We often hear Jerusalem referred to as "Zion." How did that come to be and what does it mean? Also, who are the "daughters of Zion"? 


The word "Zion" is used over 150 times in the Bible. That's a lot. Some scholars think the word is derived from a Hebrew root tsahah, which means "to be dry." Others think it is from tsiwwah, which means "to set up." Still others think it comes from tsin, which means "to protect." The corresponding Arabic word is cihw, which refers to a "ridge of a mountain" or a "citadel." That seems to be the favorite since the word is first found in reference to the stronghold of the Jebusites that was captured by David. 

So who were the Jebusites? According to Genesis 10, they were a Canaanite tribe that lived there hundreds of years before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. They are listed on the Table of Nations just prior to the Amorites. Some think they were an offshoot of the Amorites; others see more affinities with Hurrian tribes. Some scholars have suggested that Melchizedek might have been a Jebusite. He shows up in Genesis 14:18-20 bringing bread and wine to Abram after he returned from rescuing Lot. This is a highly influential moment for Abram. Scholars have long speculated on the meaning of his name. Melek means "my king" and zedek could mean "righteous." His very name, then, would mean "my king is righteous." Of course, it could also refer to a deity (like Zedek) who apparently was the main god of the Jebusites. Then it would mean, "My king is Zedek." None of this can be known for certain. Melchizedek is described as the king of Salem (generally thought to be Jerusalem) and priest of El Elyon (translated as "Most High God," generally thought to be the God of the Old Testament).

Though there are some dissenters, most scholars agree on the location of Zion, which was probably on the southeastern hill of Jerusalem. Apparently, this citadel was close to the only known spring, which would have made it a prime location. Furthermore, some ancient nation built an aqueduct from this spring into the heart of the city. During a siege, then, the inhabitants would have had a water supply unbeknownst to their opponents. This was already in place at the time of David. When the Jebusites taunted him that even the blind and the lame could defend their city, David promised that whoever managed to scale this aqueduct would be given the position of commander-in-chief (KJV 2 Sam 5:6-10). Since Joab was his commander, it stands to reason that he must have been the one to figure it out. As a city, Zion was easily defendable since it stood on a rocky plateau and was surrounded on three sides by steep valleys. The ridge has been excavated and found to be roughly 4,500 feet in circumference, which was typical of ancient fortified towns. Excavation has also revealed an ancient settlement whose rock cuttings and pottery pre-date the time of David by many centuries. In fact, it is one of the earliest known settlements.

Not all Jebusites were hostile towards David. One, Araunah, sold the land just outside the city (for a hefty price) to David for his altar. That was also the future site of the temple. Some think he might have been instrumental in helping David enter the city, but this is sheer speculation based primarily on the fact that he was not killed during the takeover and was allowed to keep his property until he was ready to sell. For whatever reason, it seems as though he and David were friends. Eventually, the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the City of David. There it remained until Solomon built the temple on the eastern ridge. Thereafter, the term "Zion" was extended to include the temple site. Pre-exilic prophets would refer to "Mount Zion" as the place where God dwelled (See Isa. 4:5; 8:18; Jer. 31:6; Micah 4:7).

During the captivity, the people of Jerusalem were called "Daughters of Zion." But, Zion as a place still referred to the Temple Mount. Nonetheless, Micah would write that in the latter days, "out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (4:1-2). Even Jesus would make reference to the Daughter of Zion in one of his references to Scripture (see Matt 21:4). In Romans (11:25-26), Paul said the Messiah would come out of Zion. By this time in the New Testament, Zion and Jerusalem were both rather symbolic and used to indicate God's future rule on earth. 

Obviously, the meaning of Zion has changed during its 3,000 year history. In the beginning, it was a physical place; later, it had a spiritual and messianic connotation. In the beginning, it referred to one city that David conquered to benefit his people; later, it would include a spiritual benefit for all people. At first, it was the name of a city; later, it would include the whole idea of God's sovereignty on earth. Zion embraces thoughts of salvation, fulfillment, and holiness.

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