A name of Jerusalem (Map 9). The etymology of the Hebrew term is unknown. Perhaps the earliest reference to Zion is the account in 2 Samuel 5 of David's conquest of Jerusalem, then under the control of the Jebusites; v. 7 speaks of “the stronghold of Zion.” This and other texts, as well as recent archaeological research, suggest that Zion was limited originally to the Jebusite fortress located on the crest of a hill at the southeast corner of Jerusalem, also called the Ophel (2 Chron. 27.3; etc.). After his victory, David renamed the stronghold “the city of David” (2 Sam. 5.9). With its physical features and the presence of the fresh‐water spring of Gihon nearby, the site was of strategic importance. The city of Jerusalem soon expanded north along the eastern ridge to include what became the Temple mount, but even then the name Zion could be restricted to the city of David to the south. According to 1 Kings 8.1, at the dedication of the Temple Solomon had the ark of the covenant brought up to the Temple from “the city of David, which is Zion.”
Later, poetry recalled that it was David who had found the ark and brought it to Zion, the place Yahweh desired for “his habitation” (Ps. 132.13). Already in early texts from the book of Psalms, however, Zion refers not to David's city but preeminently to Yahweh's dwelling place, Yahweh's “holy hill” (Ps. 2.6). This extension of the term is probably connected with the transfer of the ark from the city of David to the Temple newly constructed by Solomon. The ark represented the footstool of Yahweh's royal throne, and the Temple enshrining it symbolized the presence of Yahweh as king. In this way the term Zion lost its originally precise geographic designation and came to refer to the Temple area and even to the entire city of Jerusalem (Ps. 76.1–2). In later times the name Zion was erroneously restricted to the western hill, still called Mount Zion, but this was uninhabited until the eighth century BCE (see Jerusalem). But what it lost in geographic precision Zion more than regained in the rich symbolism associated with it.
That symbolism centered on Zion as the dwelling place of Yahweh as king. Since it was viewed as the site of Yahweh's throne, Zion was portrayed as a lofty peak extending into heaven, the point at which heaven and earth meet. Thus, Psalm 48.1–2 depicts Zion as Yahweh's holy mountain “on the heights of Zaphon” (NRSV: “in the far north”). Zaphon was the mountain home of the Canaanite god Baal, and imagery from Canaanite religion is applied to Zion in Psalm 48 and elsewhere. True to its original designation of “stronghold,” but especially because Yahweh reigned there as king, Zion was also a symbol of security. Yahweh was Zion's defender against the threats of kings and nations (e.g., Pss. 46; 48; 76). For that reason Zion was also portrayed as the place of refuge, especially for the poor (Isa 14.32; cf. Ps. 9).
All of this seems to have given rise to a notion of Zion's inviolability, as reflected in Micah 3.9–12 and Jeremiah 7.1–15. According to these prophets, the people of Jerusalem believed the city's security against Assyrian and Babylonian threats to be guaranteed. The book of Isaiah accepts the notion of Zion's inviolability (8.9–10, 16; 17.12–14) but distinguishes between the security promised to Zion and the destruction with which Yahweh threatens Jerusalem (1.21–26; 29.1–8). Zion will endure even beyond Jerusalem's destruction.
After Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 587/586 BCE, hopes for the future were often expressed in terms of the restoration of Zion (Isa. 51.1–6); because of this hope, the modern Zionist movement took the ancient designation as its own. In some texts from the exilic and postexilic periods, Zion/Jerusalem is addressed in royal language common to the Near East (Isa. 45.14–17; 49.22–23; 60.4–7); in others, Zion is portrayed as a mother (Isa. 66.7–11). Occasionally, Zion is identified with the community itself: “saying to Zion, ‘You are my people’ ” (Isa. 51.16). 2 Esdras speaks of Zion in referring to the heavenly Jerusalem that would ultimately replace the earthly one (13.36; cf. Rev. 21.1–17). In Hebrews 12.22, Zion refers to the “new covenant” of Jesus. In all of these diverse ways, Zion is the “city of God” (Ps. 87.3).
Ben C. Ollenburger