As published in BAR, November/December 2019
I recently published a book titled Melchizedek, King of Sodom: How Scribes Invented the Biblical Priest-King. A highly technical book, it contains much textual analysis of the Hebrew Bible. It specifically examines Abram’s encounter with Melchizedek and the king of Sodom in Genesis 14, the notoriously difficult-to-translate Psalm 110, and a discussion of the origin of the toponym Mt. Moriah in Genesis 22. Controversially, I argue that Melchizedek was the king of Sodom.
In two of the chapters, however, I found my research leading me to an equally controversial topic involving Jerusalem. As readers of BAR know, anything concerning Jerusalem is bound to incite controversy.
Simply put, contrary to what the Genesis Apocryphon, Josephus, the Aramaic Targums, and other interpretive traditions of the late Second Temple period say, I argue that Shalem (or Salem as it often appears in the Bible) was never an early or alternate name for Jerusalem. That is to say, despite the prevalence of this popular tradition based on the recognizable presence of the syllables “shalem/salem” in the name “Jerusalem,” I suggest that Shalem was never an early name for Jerusalem. And because of this, I contend that prior to the Second Temple period, Shalem was not understood to be Jerusalem.
If Shalem was not Jerusalem, then where was it? My research led me to conclude that Shalem was actually a city in Samaria near Shechem. And here you can see the controversy begin to brew. Not only was Shalem not identified with the ancient capital of Judah, it was actually associated with the capital of its rebellious Israelite rival, Shechem.
I offer archaeological and textual evidence to support this claim. First, I point out that several inscriptions refer to Jerusalem by name prior to the establishment of ancient Israel. An Egyptian execration (curse) text, dating to around 1800 B.C.E., lists Jerusalem’s name as Ru-ša-li-mum. Likewise, multiple Egyptian Amarna letters, dating to about 1400 B.C.E., spell Jerusalem variably as U-ru-ša-lim and U-ru-sa-lim. Thus, it is clear that the “early” name for Jerusalem (Hebrew: ירושלם or Yerushalayim) was still a polysyllabic word much longer than “Shalem.”
Some scholars have countered that the “URU” prefix on these early names, which became the “Yeru-” beginning of Yerushalayim, was simply the vestige of the Akkadian determinative—a symbol used before a personal name to indicate that it was the name of a city and not of a people or deity. The problem with this argument is that the Akkadian determinative prefix “URU” is not affixed directly to the name “Shalem,” but appears in addition to the signs for Ú-Ru-Sa-Lim, rendering a lengthy, polysyllabic name URUÚ-Ru-Sa-Lim. Thus Jerusalem’s name was never simply Shalem; it was always longer.
As far as textual evidence is concerned, I spend much time discussing Psalm 76:1-2 and Genesis 33:18. I translate Psalm 76:2 as, “His tent was in Shalem, but his residence is in Zion,” and argue that the poem is not synonymous parallelism, with Shalem and Zion referring to the same location. Instead, I argue that Psalm 76:2 is a chronological reference to the progress made by the Ark of the Covenant from its northern Samaritan locale in Shiloh near Shalem, where it resided in a tabernacle under the supervision of the priest Eli and his family, to Jerusalem, where it ultimately resided within the Temple. This same chronological relocation of God’s dwelling place is found in Psalm 78:56-68 and Psalm 87:1-2.
I then discuss the explicit claim in Genesis 33:18 that states, “And Jacob came to Shalem, a city (within the jurisdiction) of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan.” I also explain that most subsequent ancient translations of this verse substituted the word “safely” in place of the name “Shalem” in an effort to obscure the reference to Shalem near Shechem—a trend that grew throughout the Jewish interpretative tradition of the Second Temple period.
So, if you are interested in a highly technical discussion of how Shalem came to be associated with Jerusalem in the third century B.C.E., there’s a new book out there for you to read. And I certainly welcome your comments and queries.—B.C.
Dig into more than 9,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast library plus much more with an All-Access pass.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.