For almost two thousand years Jerusalem has had to grapple with a fundamental question: who does the city belong to? Some, including, naturally, its present government, maintain that it belongs to the Jews, others that it belongs to the Palestinians or the international community of Muslims. The Crusaders believed that it belonged to Christendom. No other city on earth has been the subject of such prolonged dispute. Perhaps the question remains unresolved because none of these answers is right?
Ownership is contested because, whenever Jerusalem has changed hands, occupation has been by force rather than by right. The displaced feel resentment, having lived there for generations, long before the immigrants ousted them from their homes. On the other hand, the displaced themselves – considered as a racial group – were not the first to live there. In the absence of an accepted sovereign authority, ownership cannot be decided by title deeds; it has become an argument about history and divine will.
The oldest archaeological remains in Jerusalem date to the Chalcolithic Age, in the 4th millennium. When a city, a permanent walled settlement, was built there is not known. Much later, the name Rusalimum is attested on an Egyptian doll dating to Egypt’s 12th Dynasty: after being so inscribed the doll was smashed in the hope that, with the appropriate incantation, the city itself would be smashed. The 12th Dynasty was about the time of Joseph, great-grandson of Abraham.
The oldest biblical mention occurs in the book of Genesis. Abraham, having rescued his kinsman Lot from a company of armed robbers, is greeted by Melchizedek, king of Salem. We know little about this Melchizedek, only that his name means ‘the King is righteous’ and that as well as the head administrator he was a priest, one who worshipped the Creator of heaven and earth. Since kings in the Ancient Near East always ruled as viceroys of the deity who owned the city, we may say that the first owner of the city was God himself: Melchizedek’s name is a reference to God as righteous. Melchizedek was a type of the Son of God, who would one day rule Jerusalem on behalf of his father.
His name was similar to Adonizedek’s, a Jebusite king of Jerusalem defeated by Joshua in the 15th century BC, so it seems likely that Melchizedek was also a Jebusite. A Jebusite was an inhabitant of ‘Jebus’, an older name for Jerusalem and originally the name of its eponymous Canaanite founder (this was common practice, as in Num 32:42). Their land was part of the territory that God gave to Abraham’s offspring (Gen 15:18-21), particularly referring to his last heir (Gal 3:16), and despite Adonizedek’s defeat, the Israelites were unable to drive the Jebusites out of Jerusalem. Indeed it was still in their hands when David conquered the city in 1006 BC. David included some of them in his administration. Although no longer their own masters, they continued to live in the city and its environs and retained many rights of ownership. Araunah, for example, from whom David bought a threshing floor on Mount Moriah, was a Jebusite, not an Israelite.
Jerusalem was Judah’s capital for 400 years, until 606 BC, when it fell to the Babylonian heir-apparent Nebuchadrezzar. He exacted tribute and deported some of the nobility to Babylon. The Jews were unwilling to accept foreign domination and repeatedly rebelled, so in 586 BC Nebuchadrezzar destroyed the city and deported the population to Babylon, all except for the poorest. There they remained until 536, when a new conqueror, the Persian king Cyrus, invited the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Some took up the invitation; others remained. By the time of Xerxes (486-465 BC) there were Jews all over the Persian empire, from India to Ethiopia.
For some two centuries the Persians controlled the Jerusalem. In 330 BC they were conquered by the Macedonians, under Alexander the Great. After his death, Alexander’s empire was divided among his generals and split into four. Judah was allotted to Seleucus, amongst whose successors the most notorious was Antiochus IV. Dubbing himself ‘Epiphanes’, he regarded himself as God made manifest. Many Jews were disgusted by his Hellenising government and revolted, but they were massacred in their thousands, following which the worship of Yahweh was outlawed and the Temple rededicated to Zeus, supreme god of the Greek pantheon. In a vision given to Daniel during the Babylonian exile, Antiochus’s reign was foreshadowed as the rise of a ‘little horn’ that came out of one of the four kingdoms after the death of Alexander. In remarkable detail his career is also foretold in Daniel 11. The ‘abomination that makes desolate’ was the erection of Zeus’s image in the Holy of Holies.
Antiochus died in 164 BC, on which occasion the Jews achieved a measure of autonomy. In 142 BC, they elected Simon Maccabaeus to be ‘prince and high priest forever, until there should arise a faithful prophet’ (I Maccabees 14:41). He was not of the Davidic line, and perhaps for that reason the title ‘king’ was initially avoided. The new ‘Hasmonean’ dynasty eventually became strong enough to conquer the surrounding lands of Transjordan, Samaria, Galilee and Idumaea (Edom).
In 63 BC Judaea became a protectorate of Rome. While they were still allowed their own kings, the Jews were no longer their own masters and had to pay Rome tribute. They yearned for a Saviour who would restore the nation’s sovereignty. Some hoped that a man called Yeshua (Jesus) would be such a king: he was descended from David and appeared to have the anointing of God. But his first priority was a more fundamental problem: sin, something they shared with their oppressors. He said he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” so that they might truly be the people of God. His own body, a temple of the Holy Spirit, would replace the temple of stone, so that the true worshippers would find their place in him. Some recognised him as their Messiah, most did not. They had him executed. In AD 70, following another revolt and a seven-month siege, Jerusalem was sacked, the national temple demolished, and the few survivors sold into slavery and exiled. More than a million lost their lives.
It was the fulfilment of God’s wrath on the Jews. Many of them were themselves crucified. From henceforth, Jerusalem was ruled by, and mostly populated by, peoples of Gentile origin – whether pagan, Muslim or Christian.
In AD 395 the Roman Empire split into a western block centred on Rome and an eastern block centred on Constantinople, later known as Byzantium. From then on Jerusalem was part of the eastern block. In 637 it was conquered by Arab armies united by the new religion of Islam. With Arabia under their control, they went on to conquer, within five years, the entire Middle East, from Egypt to Mesopotamia. The iconic ‘Dome of the Rock’, erected on the site of the former Jewish Temple and possibly the very rock that Araunah used as a threshing floor, was completed in 691. The Al-Aqsa mosque, completed in 709, provided a place for the worship of Allah on the precinct opposite. Nothing more forcefully concretised the claim that Jerusalem now belonged to Muslims.
In the 8th to 11th centuries the Muslim empire looked to expand still further, with attacks on Spain, France, Constantinople and Central Asia. It also underwent a number of dynastic upheavals, as the Umayyad caliphs were replaced by the Abassids, and the Abassids by the Fatimids in the south and Seljuks in the north. From their base in Anatolia (Turkey) the Seljuks created an empire stretching all the way to Hindu Kush. Much diminished and fearful for its survival, the Byzantine empire besought the Pope for military help. Eventually a Crusade was mounted to drive the infidels out of the Holy Land. There were several such crusades, the most successful and bloody being the first. In 1099 Jerusalem came under European rule. Nearly all its inhabitants, tens of thousands, were massacred. In the following century Saladin reunited the empires of Egypt and Syria and founded the Ayyubid dynasty, retaking the city for Islam in 1187. He showed more mercy to the inhabitants than the Crusaders did. The new settlers included a number of Jews.
In 1219 Jerusalem’s walls, only recently rebuilt, were destroyed, in order to render the city indefensible should the Crusaders recapture it. The city was to remain unwalled for over three hundred years, when the present walls were built. From 1250 Jerusalem was ruled by the Egyptians.
In 1453 Ottoman Turkey captured Constantinople, so that this last remnant of the Byzantine Empire became the beginnings of the Ottoman. At its maximum extent, it encompassed the coastlands of North Africa, the coastlands of Eastern Europe, the whole of Turkey, Mesopotamia and most of Persia. In 1517 Jerusalem also submitted. The city remained in Muslim hands until 1917, though a small Jewish community was also allowed to live there. At that time Europe was mired in war, the Ottomans siding with Germany and Austria-Hungary. On 9 December 1917 the British Army captured Jerusalem.
In 1922 the newly formed League of Nations confirmed Britain as Palestine’s governing authority until such time as its people could govern themselves. Spurred by pogroms in Eastern Europe, many Jews were agitating to be given Palestine as their homeland. With Britain sympathetic, Jewish immigration began to accelerate, particularly after the Second World War, and tension between the indigenous and immigrant populations intensified. In 1947 the United Nations (successor to the League of Nations) approved a plan for the partitioning of Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish, with Jerusalem under international administration. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, Arab leaders rejected it. Civil war erupted. The following year, as the British Mandate was about to expire, David Ben-Gurion, head of the World Zionist Organization, announced the establishment of the State of Israel. Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq invaded the country to prevent this but were eventually beaten back. In addition to the territory allocated in the United Nations resolution, Israel also took over 60% of the proposed Arab state. Jerusalem, however, was divided, with its western half under Israeli control and its eastern half in Jordanian hands. Arabs and Jews again went to war in 1967, when Israel captured East Jerusalem. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, the times when David’s city would be ruled by Gentiles had come to an end.
Jesus instructed his disciples: “Do not make any oath, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.” The Great King was God himself (Ps 48), and the city belonged to him. He would one day reign from Jerusalem over all the nations of the earth.
that the mountain of the house of Yahweh
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills.
All the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For the law shall issue out of Zion,
and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given.
Sovereignty will be upon his shoulder,
and he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his sovereignty and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and uphold it
with justice and righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
We know that those days are not far off, not only because Jesus says that he is coming soon, but because the times of Gentile rule of the city are now over. Before then, difficult times are prophesied, for both Jew and Gentile. This is what God says through the prophet Zechariah concerning Jerusalem:
Thus declares Yahweh, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth, and formed the spirit of man within him: “Behold, I am about to make Jerusalem a cup of staggering to all the surrounding peoples. Judah as well as Jerusalem will come under siege. On that day I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples. All who lift it will surely hurt themselves, and all the nations of the earth will gather against it. On that day, declares Yahweh, I will strike every horse with panic, and its rider with madness.”
The Jewish people in the land of Israel will be under siege – a re-run of the Roman siege in AD 70. Jerusalem will be captured, its houses plundered and its women raped. For forty-two months it will be given over to the nations once more, and half the population will be forced to leave the city. Only after these things have taken place will the Lord appear from heaven and fight against the nations gathered against him.