This last Saturday our field study was a survey of Jerusalem’s eastern approaches. The day began at Mt. Scopus, at the location where Vespasian and Pompei commanded their attacks on Jerusalem. Today, it is the location of the Hebrew University where many of my professors teach. It is also home to a wall that is covered with the names of all of the people who have donated one million dollars or more to the Hebrew University. Steven Spielberg is on that list.
The meaning of Zion
At the top of Mt. Scopus, we read Psalm 48. During this reading Dr. Wright addressed a question that has come up many times. What does “zion” mean, and where did the word come from? The answer is “no one knows”. However, there is a mountain in the north which may be seen for a hundred miles in all directions and in ancient texts it is referred to as Mt. Sion. Today it is known as Mt. Hermon. Mt. Sion was a center of the religions, particularly Baal and Asherah worship, of all of the Canaanite people who lived in this land before the Israelites drove them out. It is possible that Psalm 48 is making an analogy to this Mt. Sion, calling the nations and peoples surrounding the Israelites to come and see the city and mountain on which the God of Israel dwells and is worshipped. This Eastern Hill of Jersualem is the new Mt. Sion. In fact, the words sion and zion are spelled differently in Hebrew. The first begins with the letter shin and the latter with the letter tsade. So, it is by no means certain or academically accepted that the Psalmist was making this analogy. However, it is possible. And, as I am discovering, quite a great deal of what we know about biblical history and geography falls into the category of “it’s possible, but not certain”.
Biblical Compass Directions
Following the lesson on Mt. Scopus, we drove across a small saddle to the Mt. of Olives. These two mountains sit next to one another. We left our bus at the front of the Mt. of Olives, which happens to be the East side of the mountain.
Speaking of compass directions, Middle Easterners do not consider themselves Middle Easterners. They were settled here long before there was a European civilization in existence to describe the rest of the world in relation to it.
To the people of the Bible, North was not forward and South was not behind. Rather, East was forward and West was behind. In Hebrew, the words for these two compass orientations are the same as the words for the two directions, forward and behind. Thus, we sat on the forward side of the Mt. of Olives and I was given my first look at the Wilderness and the Senonian chalk which covers it.
The Mt. of Olives
Our next stop was at the end of the road which goes along the top ridge of the Mt. of Olives. This is location is on the “back” of the mountain. This stop has excellent views of the Dome of the Rock, and it is from here that most postcard pictures of the Temple Mount are taken.
Dominus Flevit Church
The Church of All Nations
Our next stop was at the base of the Mt. of Olives, at the Church of All Nations. It is in the courtyard of this church where the ancient olive trees, which were supposedly here at the time of Christ, live. In actuality, they probably were not alive then. It is almost completely impossible for these olive trees to have been here on the night Jesus and his disciples were in Gethsemane. When the Romans sacked and burned the Temple in 70AD, they needed an enormous amount of wood. It is unlikely that there would have been so much as a twig left within a mile of the Temple Mount.
At the base of the Mt. of Olives is the Kidron Valley. This valley runs north-south the length of the city, between the Mt. of Olives on the East, and the Eastern Hill, aka Mt. Zion (the real one), on the West. Here, in the bottom of the Kidron, that cemetery I mentioned earlier, continues. Though, here on the lower slopes of the Kidron are the oldest tombs. The two that are most famous are traditionally known as the tombs of Absalom and Zechariah, from 2 Chronicles 24:20-21. Once again, this is a fallacy of tradition. No one knows who these tombs were really built for. We do know that neither one was built for a devout Jew. The Mishnah says not to build monuments for oneself, but rather to let your deeds be your monuments, by which later generations will remember you. Both of these monuments are rather grandiose.
Last of all we went to the Herodion. Unfortunately, there were some circumstances which prevented us from stopping there (ie, a rock was hurled through our bus window, hitting two of the ladies in our group – they are okay). So, on our speedy way back to Jerusalem and the hospital we drove by the Herodion and I took a couple pictures out the bus window. We are rescheduling our trip to the Herodian for some time in October. When that time comes, I will let you know all about it.