Places

Zion by Melody Knowles

Although neutral on their face, place names can be loaded with assumptions about power and politics. In contemporary America, city names like “Vail” and “Tijuana” and designations such as “inner city,” “the west,” and “fly-over states” conjure up old prejudices. This is true also in the ancient world, and few place names are as symbolically rich and multifaceted as the city of Zion.

The biblical tradition paints Zion as a Jebusite fortress that King David captured through war (2Sam 5:7; 1Chr 11:5). The ancient king subsequently adopted it as his capital city, and, although he renamed the site “City of David,” the earlier name of Zion lived on as a synonym (1Kgs 8:1-2; 2Chr 5:2). In the Bible, the term most frequently appears in the Psalms to refer to Jerusalem as the city of God. It is the place “which God established forever” (Ps 48:8; see also Ps 87:1) and continues to protect as a “sure defense” (Ps 48:3). In Ps 87 Zion is imaginatively portrayed as the birthplace of all the people, and Israel is called “children of Zion” in Ps 149:2. In the New Testament, the term comes to denote a heavenly city where God and the faithful community will dwell at the end of the age (Heb 12:22; Rev 21).

Is Zion a military fortress, God’s dwelling, or God’s people?

Although originally used by David as a military fortress to protect his palace from invaders, “Zion” came also to refer both to God’s dwelling on earth as well as God’s people. Similar to traditions of other ancient gods, poetic texts in the Hebrew Bible depict God battling the primordial powers of chaos and triumphantly choosing Zion as a place to dwell. In contrast to the historical narratives in the Hebrew Bible, the role of David and Solomon as agents who conquered the city of Zion and built the temple is significantly diminished in the Psalms—it is God who chose Zion (Ps 132:13), God who built the temple in Zion (Ps 78:68-69), and God who rules from Zion as universal king (Ps 99:1-2). As the dwelling place of God on earth (Ps 9:11; Ps 76:2; Isa 8:18), Zion is protected by God from every military advance (Ps 48; Ps 76:3). It is also the place to which the people of the world come to worship and pay homage (Mic 4:1-2) and from where God’s blessing emanates throughout the earth (Ps 128:5; Ps 134:3).

At points, Zion also symbolizes God’s people. The nation of Israel is called “Zion’s children” in Ps 149:2. In an evocative description of Jerusalem’s destruction in Isa 49, Zion speaks out to accuse God of neglect: “The LORD has abandoned me, The LORD has forgotten me” (Isa 49:14). God quickly rebuts Zion’s accusation by asking “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or fail to pity the child of her womb?” (Isa 49:15). And in a striking assurance based on God’s protective power and the strength of natural landscapes, those who trust in God are said to be “like Mount Zion,” that is, secure and everlasting (Ps 125:1).

Is Zion a Woman?

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants are poetically imaged as “Daughter Zion” or “Daughter of Zion.” This imagery is related to the ancient practice of personifying cities as women, with other examples from the Bible including “Daughter Babylon” (Ps 137:8-9; Isa 23:12) and “Daughter Tarsish” (Isa 23:10). Biblical texts poetically extend this imagery so that Zion is at times portrayed not only as daughter, but also as wife and mother.

As “Daughter Zion,” the city and its inhabitants are called to perform the role of leading the community in praise after military victory: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter Zion … for your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious” (Zech 9:9). In the book of Lamentations, she also leads the community in lamenting the city’s military destruction by the hand of God: stretching out her hands she weeps over the defeat of her armies, saying “The LORD has rejected all my warriors in the midst of me; he has proclaimed a time against me to crush my young men” (Lam 1:15-17). At the time of restoration, Daughter Zion again leads the victory celebrations in praise of God’s work: after the divine anger “turned away,” Daughter Zion is instructed to “shout aloud and sing for joy … for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isa 12:1, Isa 12:6; see also Zeph 3:14).

Female imagery for Zion also includes that of mother and wife. In the wake of the coming military destruction of Jerusalem and the land, the prophet Micah depicts Daughter Zion suffering “like a woman in labor” (Mic 4:10). Other references to Zion’s children include Lam 1:5, Lam 1:16. Evocatively, Ps 87 declares that “the LORD loves the gates of Zion” (Ps 87:2; see also Ps 78:68) Zion herself names her intimate relationship to the citizens of the world: “Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia—‘This one was born there’ they say” (Ps 87:4). The Psalm closes with a joyful declaration of Zion’s ongoing role as the source of life: “singers and dances alike say [to Zion], ‘All my springs are in you’” (Ps 87:7).

Melody Knowles, "Zion", n.p. [cited 6 Jun 2020]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/zion

Contributors

Knowles-Melody

Melody Knowles
Vice President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Old Testament, Virginia Theological Seminary

Melody Knowles currently teaches at Virginia Theological Seminary and serves as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Old Testament. Her doctoral dissertation, written at Princeton Theological Seminary under the direction of Choon-Leong Seow, stemmed from her interests in the reworking of historical traditions within the Psalter, women’s use of the Psalms, and the ancient practice of religion. Her published works include Centrality Practiced: Jerusalem in the Religious Practice of Yehud and the Diaspora in the Persian Period (SBL Press, 2006), and Contesting Texts: Jews and Christians in Conversation About the Bible (editor and coauthor along with John Pawlikowski, Esther Menn, and Timothy Sandoval; Fortress Press, 2007). She was also the lead translator of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for the Common English Bible (CEB) and wrote the notes for 1-2 Chronicles in the study edition and the Psalms in the women’s study bible edition of the CEB. She is currently writing a commentary on Ps 107-150 for the Illuminations Commentary Series (Eerdmans) and a monograph on the reception of Ps 132 in communities ranging from the Second Temple period to antebellum America.

Zion is used in the Bible to refer to Jerusalem most frequently in the Psalms and other poetic texts.

Did you know…?

  • “Zion” can refer to a place (that is, Mount Zion) or a people (that is, the people of God).
  • Certain texts claim that God “loves” Mount Zion (Ps 78:68) and Zion’s gates (Ps 87:2).
  • “Mount Zion” is really just a hill, but since ancient traditions associate the home of gods with mountains, the site’s elevation was enhanced in its title.
  • The Hebrew Bible personifies Zion as a daughter (Zech 9:9; Isa 12:1, Isa 12:6; Zeph 3:14; Lam 2:1) as well as a mother (Mic 4:10; Lam 1:5, Lam 1:16).
  • Zion talks in the Hebrew Bible, accusing God of neglect and excessive punishment (Isa 49:14, Lam 1:15) and declaring her intimate relationship to the citizens of the world: “Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia—‘This one was born there’ they say” (Ps 87:4).
  • That the actual site of Zion has moved throughout time: David’s “City of Zion” was on the lower part of the Eastern Hill, the temple that Solomon built was on the top of Jerusalem’s southeast ridge, and, after the destruction of the city by Romans in 70 CE, Christians identified Zion as a site on the southwest ridge of the city and built there the basilica “Holy Mount Zion, the Mother of All Churches.”

a Canaanite tribe mentioned in the books of Joshua and Samuel

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

2Sam 5:7

7Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David.

1Chr 11:5

5The inhabitants of Jebus said to David, “You will not come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, now the city of David. 

1Kgs 8:1-2

1Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jeru ... View more

Ps 48:8

8As we have heard, so have we seen
in the city of the Lord of hosts,
in the city of our God,
which God establishes forever. 

Ps 87:1

1On the holy mount stands the city he founded;

Ps 48:3

3Within its citadels God
has shown himself a sure defense.

Ps 87

The Joy of Living in Zion
Of the Korahites. A Psalm. A Song.
1On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
2the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the ... View more

Heb 12:22

22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,

Rev 21

The New Heaven and the New Earth
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2A ... View more

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Ps 132:13

13For the Lord has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his habitation:

Ps 78:68-69

68but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves.69He built his sanctuary like the high heavens,
like the earth, which he has founded forever.

Ps 99:1-2

1The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
2The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peo ... View more

Ps 9:11

11Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples.

Ps 76:2

2His abode has been established in Salem,
his dwelling place in Zion.

Isa 8:18

18See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.

Ps 48

The Glory and Strength of Zion
A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites.
1Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain,2beautif ... View more

Mic 4:1-2

1In days to come
the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall st ... View more

Ps 128:5

The Lord bless you from Zion.
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life.


5The Lord bless you from Zion.
May you see the prosperity of ... View more

Ps 134:3

3May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth,
bless you from Zion.

Isa 49

The Servant's Mission
1Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother's wo ... View more

Isa 49:14

14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”

Isa 49:15

15Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.

Ps 125:1

A Song of Ascents.
1Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides forever.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Ps 137:8-9

8O daughter Babylon, you devastator!


Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash th ... View more

Isa 23:12

12He said:
You will exult no longer,
O oppressed virgin daughter Sidon;
rise, cross over to Cyprus—
even there you will have no rest.

Isa 23:10

10Cross over to your own land,
O ships of

 Tarshish;
this is a harbor

 no more.

Zech 9:9

The Coming Ruler of God's People
9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is ... View more

Lam 1:15-17

15The Lord has rejected
all my warriors in the midst of me;
he proclaimed a time against me
to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
the v ... View more

Isa 12:1

1You will say in that day:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.

Isa 12:6

6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal

 Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Zeph 3:14

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!

Mic 4:10

10Writhe and groan,

 O daughter Zion,
like a woman in labor;
for now you shall go forth from the city
and camp in the open country;
you shall go to Babylon.
Th ... View more

Lam 1:5

5Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone awa ... View more

Lam 1:16

16For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevai ... View more

Ps 87

The Joy of Living in Zion
Of the Korahites. A Psalm. A Song.
1On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
2the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the ... View more

Ps 87:2

2the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

Ps 78:68

68but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves.

Ps 87:4

4Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia —
“This one was born there,” they say.

Ps 87:7

 
7Singers and dancers alike say,
“All my springs are in you.”

Ps 78:68

68but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves.

Ps 87:2

2the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

Zech 9:9

The Coming Ruler of God's People
9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is ... View more

Isa 12:1

1You will say in that day:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.

Isa 12:6

6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal

 Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Zeph 3:14

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!

Lam 2:1

God's Warnings Fulfilled
1How the Lord in his anger
has humiliated daughter Zion!
He has thrown down from heaven to earth
the splendor of Israel;
he has not rem ... View more

Mic 4:10

10Writhe and groan,

 O daughter Zion,
like a woman in labor;
for now you shall go forth from the city
and camp in the open country;
you shall go to Babylon.
Th ... View more

Lam 1:5

5Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone awa ... View more

Lam 1:16

16For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevai ... View more

Isa 49:14

14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”

Lam 1:15

5The Lord has rejected
all my warriors in the midst of me;
he proclaimed a time against me
to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
the vi ... View more

Ps 87:4

4Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia —
“This one was born there,” they say.

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