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 (
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.”
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 (
At points, Zion also symbolizes God’s people. The nation of Israel is called “Zion’s children” in
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” (
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” (
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” (