Located on the banks of the Barada River, Damascus is the capital of modern Syria. In ancient times abundant waters created fertile oases (Weber, 1989), whose most famous export was the wine of Helbon (Ezek. 27.18–19; Millard, 1962). The name Damascus may mean “wine pourer” (Gordon, 1952).

How long the city had existed before its mention in the victory list of Thutmose III (c.1482 bce) is uncertain—archaeological work has been sporadic and unsystematic. After the Amarna Letters, which thrice mention Damascus, there is a long silence until 2 Samuel 8.5–7 notes David's victory over the Aramaeans of Damascus. Rezon recaptured the city from Solomon and proclaimed himself king (1 Kgs. 11.23–25). Thereafter Damascus enjoyed great political power as the capital of Aram, which was the implacable enemy of the northern kingdom of Israel. In the late eighth century BCE the Assyrians reduced Damascus to the status of chief town of a province, a role it retained under the Babylonians in the sixth century.

Damascus recovered much of its former glory in the framework of the Persian empire (Strabo, Geography 16.2.20). The city changed hands repeatedly in the struggles between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, and in the early first century BCE it was occupied by Aretas III of Nabatea and Tiganes of Armenia. In 63 bce Pompey made Damascus part of the Roman province of Syria, whose capital, however, was Antioch-on-the-Orontes. The territory of Damascus extended to the frontier of Sidon (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.153). It was considered a city of the Decapolis (Pliny, Natural History 5.16.74). The absence of coins of Caligula and Claudius confirms Paul's report (2 Cor. 11.32–33) that it came under Nabatean control, probably shortly after the death of Tiberius in 37 ce (Taylor, 1992). Roman coins begin again with Nero.

Herod the Great's donation of a gymnasium to Damascus (Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.422) probably attests a well- established Jewish community (Smallwood, 82), whose origins may go back several centuries. According to Josephus, the Jews in the city were numerous. This is all that can be deduced from his conflicting assertions that 10,500 (The Jewish War 1.599–61) or 18,000 (The Jewish War 7.368) were slaughtered at the beginning of the First Jewish Revolt.

The translation of medinat darmeseq (Genesis Apocryphon, 1QapGen xxii.5) as “the land of Damascus” (Maier, 1960, vol. 1, p. 164) is inadequate; the choice must be between the “province” or “city” of Damascus (Fitzmyer, 1971, p. 169). The same document in writing “as far as Helbon to the north of Damascus” (1QapGen xxii.10) substitutes the well-known Helbon for the unknown Hobah in Genesis 14.15. In these two texts there is no doubt that Damascus is to be understood geographically. Regretfully the same cannot be said of the other references, all of which occur in the medieval manuscripts of the Damascus Document. The sole preserved instance of Damascus in the Qumran fragments is in Damascus Documentb (4Q267 3.iv.8 [= Damascus Document CD-A vii.19]). [See Damascus Document.]

All except two instances in CD-A contain the formula be- ᾽erets dameseq, “in the land of Damascus.” We are told of “the converts of Israel, who left the land of Judah and lived in the land of Damascus” (CD-A vi.5). “The new covenant” was enacted “in the land of Damascus” (CD-A vi.19, 8.21; CD-B xix.34, xx.12). The pattern is broken by the citation of Amos 5.26, in a form that does not agree with the Masoretic Text, “I will deport the Sikkut of your King and the Kiyyum of your images away from my tent to Damascus,” in CD vii.15 (Rabin, 1954, p. 28; cf. Maier, 1960, vol. 1, p. 56), which is followed in the same context by “the star is the Interpreter of the Law who will come to Damascus” (vii.18–19).

When the Damascus Document was first published, its references to Damascus were understood in a straightforward geographical sense, and this meaning is still retained in various reconstructions of Essene history (Davies, 1982, p. 16; Stegemann, 1993, p. 207). Others, however, considered the real Damascus as inappropriate both politically and theologically and argued that Damascus was a symbolic name for Qumran (Jaubert, 1958). R. North made an effort to reconcile these two interpretations by emphasizing land rather than Damascus. He argued that the Nabateans controlled southern Syria and the northern end of the Dead Sea, and that their entire territory could be named after its most important city. Hence Qumran was in the land of Damascus. This hypothesis has neither archaeological nor textual support (de Vaux, 1973, p. 114). [See Nabatean.]

The Qumran interpretation is excluded by Damascus Document, CD-A vi.5, because Qumran is in “the land of Judah.” The Babylonian exile was the most significant exodus from Judah, and it is to this period that we are directed by the historical survey of CD-A ii.18–3.12. In this perspective Damascus would be an allegorical name for the place of captivity (Rabinowitz, 1954, p. 17, note 20b), that is, Babylon (Jaubert, 1958, p. 226; Davies, 1982, p. 122). No convincing objections have been raised against this hypothesis (Murphy-O'Connor, 1985, pp. 224–230). The destination of the Exodus and its coercive nature are confirmed by the way Amos 5.25–27 (“I will take you into exile beyond Damascus”) is cited in CD-A vii.14–15, where “beyond Damascus” becomes simply “Damascus.” The obvious hypothesis that Damascus here was intended to mean Babylon is supported by the way Luke cites the same prophetic text, “I will remove you beyond Babylon” (Acts 7.23).

If Damascus designated the original place of exile in which the Essene movement began, there is no difficulty in its subsequent transferral to Qumran, the place of self-imposed exile, and thus to the community that lived there (cf. Zec. 9.1). This is the sense of Damascus demanded by CD-A vii.18–19. The community expected eschatological figures to appear in its midst (Rule of the Congregation, 1Q28a ii.11–17); note the parallel with the Florilegium (4Q174 11–12), especially in the light of the identification of the community with Jerusalem. [See Florilegium; Jerusalem; and Rule of the Congregation.] The radically divergent interpretations of Micah 1.5–6 in Pesher Micah (1Q14 10.3–6) exclude any possible objection to Damascus having two different symbolic meanings.

[See also Geography in the Documents.]


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Jerome Murphy-O'Connor