The Israelite Conquest of Jerusalem in the Bible: When and Who?
On June 7th 1967, the Israeli army captured the old city of Jerusalem, wresting it from the hands of the Jordanians. The commander of the 55th brigade (paratroopers), Lt. Gen. Mordechai “Motta” Gur, famously declared on the radio, “הר הבית בידינו” (the Temple Mount is in our hands). The sequence of these events, who said what and who did what, have been recorded in history and are relatively clear. This contrasts sharply with the sequence of events that led up to Jerusalem becoming an Israelite or Judahite city in the first place. In fact, the Bible offers multiple, contradictory accounts of how this came about.
1. King David
The best-known account of how Jerusalem, or “the City of David,” became Israelite takes place seven and a half years into David’s reign, during which time Hebron had functioned as his capital.
שמואל ב ה:ו וַיֵּלֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ וַאֲנָשָׁיו יְרוּשָׁלִַם אֶל הַיְבֻסִי יוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ וַיֹּאמֶר לְדָוִד לֵאמֹר לֹא תָבוֹא הֵנָּה כִּי אִם הֱסִירְךָ הַעִוְרִים וְהַפִּסְחִים לֵאמֹר לֹא יָבוֹא דָוִד הֵנָּה: ה:ז וַיִּלְכֹּד דָּוִד אֵת מְצֻדַת צִיּוֹן הִיא עִיר דָּוִד: ה:ח וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כָּל מַכֵּה יְבֻסִי וְיִגַּע בַּצִּנּוֹר וְאֶת הַפִּסְחִים וְאֶת הַעִוְרִים שנאו שְׂנֻאֵי נֶפֶשׁ דָּוִד עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ עִוֵּר וּפִסֵּחַ לֹא יָבוֹא אֶל הַבָּיִת: ה:ט וַיֵּשֶׁב דָּוִד בַּמְּצֻדָה וַיִּקְרָא לָהּ עִיר דָּוִד וַיִּבֶן דָּוִד סָבִיב מִן הַמִּלּוֹא וָבָיְתָה:
2 Sam 5:6 The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”– thinking, “David cannot come in here.” 5:7 Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. 5:8 David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” 5:9 David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. (NRSV)
According to the timeline here, before King David conquered the city, it was settled by Jebusites, a group unknown from any ancient Near Eastern sources—and according to the Bible, one of the last remaining Canaanite enclaves among the dominant Israelites and Judahites. The city itself seems to have been called Yerushalayim, a name well-known from both earlier Egyptian and Akkadian sources. The larger city, according to these verses, contained a stronghold referred to as Tziyon (Zion), which David renames “The City of David.” In other words, according to the Bible the City of David is a small section of Jerusalem, not a synonymous term for it.
David in Jerusalem as a Child
Yet the idea that Jerusalem was in the hands of the Jebusites until King David conquered it when he was 37 years old is inconsistent with other biblical texts—even texts about the life of David found elsewhere in Samuel. In 1 Samuel 17, the story of David and Goliath, David is a lad sent to the battlefront by his father to bring food to his older brothers in the army. Goliath, a Philistine man of gigantic proportions, issues a challenge that he will face any Israelite soldier, in “man-to-man” combat, but no Israelites come forward. David offers to fight Goliath, and ends up killing him with a slingshot blow to the head. Then David takes Goliath’s own sword and cuts off his head. Following this:
שמואל א יז:נד וַיִּקַּח דָּוִד אֶת רֹאשׁ הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי וַיְבִאֵהוּ יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְאֶת כֵּלָיו שָׂם בְּאָהֳלוֹ:
1 Sam 17:54 David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; and he put his armor in his tent.
The author of this verse thinks that Jerusalem was already Israelite in the time of King Saul. As we will see, some traditions assume Jerusalem had been Israelite even well before Saul.
After Joshua defeats Jericho and Ai, and makes a peace treaty with the Gibeonite cities, Adoni-Tzedek, king of Jerusalem, contacts four other southern Canaanite city states and suggests a joint attack on the Gibeonites, for making a pact with the invaders (Josh 10). The Gibeonites send a message to Joshua asking for help, and he marches all night to meet the foe, whom he crushes with the help of miraculous divine interventions—hailstones from the sky and the stopping of the sun.
Although Jerusalem is not explicitly mentioned in the list of cities destroyed during the cleanup operation, the ending of the chapter makes it clear that Joshua conquered the entire region, which would have included Jerusalem:
יהושע י:מ וַיַּכֶּה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ הָהָר וְהַנֶּגֶב וְהַשְּׁפֵלָה וְהָאֲשֵׁדוֹת וְאֵת כָּל מַלְכֵיהֶם לֹא הִשְׁאִיר שָׂרִיד וְאֵת כָּל הַנְּשָׁמָה הֶחֱרִים כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: י:מא וַיַּכֵּם יְהוֹשֻׁעַ מִקָּדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ וְעַד עַזָּה וְאֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן וְעַד גִּבְעוֹן:י:מב וְאֵת כָּל הַמְּלָכִים הָאֵלֶּה וְאֶת אַרְצָם לָכַד יְהוֹשֻׁעַ פַּעַם אֶחָת כִּי יְ-הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נִלְחָם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל:
Josh 10:40 So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as YHWH God of Israel commanded. 10:41 And Joshua defeated them from Kadesh-barnea to Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon. 10:42 Joshua took all these kings and their land at one time, because YHWH God of Israel fought for Israel.
In case any doubt remains about the status of Jerusalem—whose king started the war in the first place according to Josh 10—chapter 12 makes it clear that the king of Jerusalem was killed and his land included in the division of land among the Israelites.
יהושע יב:ז וְאֵלֶּה מַלְכֵי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן יָמָּה מִבַּעַל גָּד בְּבִקְעַת הַלְּבָנוֹן וְעַד הָהָר הֶחָלָק הָעֹלֶה שֵׂעִירָה וַיִּתְּנָהּ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ לְשִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יְרֻשָּׁה כְּמַחְלְקֹתָם: יב:חבָּהָר וּבַשְּׁפֵלָה וּבָעֲרָבָה וּבָאֲשֵׁדוֹת וּבַמִּדְבָּר וּבַנֶּגֶב הַחִתִּי הָאֱמֹרִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי הַפְּרִזִּי הַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי… יב:י מֶלֶךְ יְרוּשָׁלִַם אֶחָד מֶלֶךְ חֶבְרוֹן אֶחָד…
Josh 12:7The following are the kings of the land whom Joshua and the Israelites defeated on the west side of the Jordan, from Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon to Mount Halak, that rises toward Seir (and Joshua gave [their land] to the tribes of Israel as a possession according to their allotments, 12:8 in the hill country, in the lowland, in the Arabah, in the slopes, in the wilderness, and in the Negeb, the land of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites)… 12:10 the king of Jerusalem one; the king of Hebron one…
The Jebusites of Jerusalem Who Could Not Be Driven Out
This picture of Joshua as the conqueror of Jerusalem is not just contradicted by the tradition of David, but is contradicted in the book of Joshua itself, a book comprised of many sources. In the land-grant section of Joshua (ch. 13-19), the text lists Canaanite enclaves, namely cities that each tribe was unable to conquer. One of those cities, listed in the chapter delimiting Judah’s territory, is Jerusalem:
יהושע טו:סג וְאֶת הַיְבוּסִי יוֹשְׁבֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֹא (יוכלו) [יָכְלוּ] בְנֵי יְהוּדָה לְהוֹרִישָׁם וַיֵּשֶׁב הַיְבוּסִי אֶת בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה בִּירוּשָׁלִַם עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:
Josh 15:63 But the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day.
3. The Tribe of Judah During the Period of the Judges
Yet a third tradition about the conquering of Jerusalem is described in the beginning of the Book of Judges, which begins with a number of conquests by the tribe of Judah. One of the cities they conquer is Jerusalem:
שופטים א:ח וַיִּלָּחֲמוּ בְנֵי יְהוּדָה בִּירוּשָׁלִַם וַיִּלְכְּדוּ אוֹתָהּ וַיַּכּוּהָ לְפִי חָרֶב וְאֶת הָעִיר שִׁלְּחוּ בָאֵשׁ:
Judges 1:8 Then the people of Judah fought against Jerusalem and took it. They put it to the sword and set the city on fire.
Considering the obvious implication of this verse—that before Judah attacks and destroys Jerusalem, it was a Canaanite city. Yet the verses immediately preceding this, which tell the tale of the conquest of Bezek, suggest otherwise:
שופטים א:ו וַיָּנָס אֲדֹנִי בֶזֶק וַיִּרְדְּפוּ אַחֲרָיו וַיֹּאחֲזוּ אֹתוֹ וַיְקַצְּצוּ אֶת בְּהֹנוֹת יָדָיו וְרַגְלָיו:א:ז וַיֹּאמֶר אֲדֹנִי בֶזֶק שִׁבְעִים מְלָכִים בְּהֹנוֹת יְדֵיהֶם וְרַגְלֵיהֶם מְקֻצָּצִים הָיוּ מְלַקְּטִים תַּחַת שֻׁלְחָנִי כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי כֵּן שִׁלַּם לִי אֱלֹהִים וַיְבִיאֻהוּ יְרוּשָׁלִַם וַיָּמָת שָׁם:
Judg 1:6 Adoni-bezek fled; but they pursued him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 1:7Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has paid me back.” They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.
If the Judahites bring Adoni-bezek to Jerusalem to die, this means that Jerusalem was already a Judahite city. This conflicts with the information in the following verse, which suggests that it was conquered only later.
Moreover, only a handful of verses after v. 8, the city seems to be “unconquered” again:
שופטים א:כא וְאֶת הַיְבוּסִי יֹשֵׁב יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֹא הוֹרִישׁוּ בְּנֵי בִנְיָמִן וַיֵּשֶׁב הַיְבוּסִי אֶת בְּנֵי בִנְיָמִן בִּירוּשָׁלִַם עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:
Judg 1:21 But the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day.
This is nearly identical to Joshua 15:63 (referenced above), except that text claims that Jerusalem is in Judahite, not Benjaminite territory.
Gibeah vs. Jebusite Jerusalem in Israelite Polemic
Jebusite Jerusalem is mentioned one more time in Judges, in the final story about the violent and fatal rape of a concubine in the city of Gibeah. In this story, a man and his concubine are returning home and need to stop towards evening. One of the cities in the vicinity is Jerusalem, and the man explains why he does not choose to stop there.
שופטים יט:י וְלֹא אָבָה הָאִישׁ לָלוּן וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיָּבֹא עַד נֹכַח יְבוּס הִיא יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְעִמּוֹ צֶמֶד חֲמוֹרִים חֲבוּשִׁים וּפִילַגְשׁוֹ עִמּוֹ: יט:יא הֵם עִם יְבוּס וְהַיּוֹם רַד מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר הַנַּעַר אֶל אֲדֹנָיו לְכָה נָּא וְנָסוּרָה אֶל עִיר הַיְבוּסִי הַזֹּאת וְנָלִין בָּהּ: יט:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲדֹנָיו לֹא נָסוּר אֶל עִיר נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵנָּה וְעָבַרְנוּ עַד גִּבְעָה:
Judg 19:10 But the man would not spend the night; he got up and departed, and arrived opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). He had with him a couple of saddled donkeys, and his concubine was with him. 19:11 When they were near Jebus, the day was far spent, and the servant said to his master, “Come now, let us turn aside to this city of the Jebusites, and spend the night in it.” 19:12 But his master said to him, “We will not turn aside into a city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel; but we will continue on to Gibeah.”
In this story, Jerusalem is a Jebusite city, yet ironically it would have been the safer choice, since the “real barbarians” are the Benjaminites of Gibeah. As this story marks the end of the book of Judges, and the book of Samuel, which details the accounts of King Saul and King David comes next, the story sets up the reader for the future competition between capitals and kings: Gibeah will be the city of Saul, whereas Jerusalem will be the city of David. As Marc Brettler writes, “It is thus very possible that Judges 19-21 reflects a polemic aimed at anyone who might be tempted to follow the Saulide dynasty at the expense of following the Davidic dynasty.”
This brings us back full circle to the tradition of David as the first Israelite conqueror of Jerusalem. What are we to make of all these traditions? I believe the traditions can best be understood as reflecting ideological rather than historical concerns.
- The King David tradition is likely tied to the claims of the monarchy, i.e., the Davidic line and its supporters wish to emphasize that the Israelite city of Jerusalem was founded by David himself.
- The “Judah” tradition is likely tied to a polemical contest with Benjamin, that seems to have spanned both First and early Second Temple periods, about which tribe was the rightfully dominant tribe. We can see hints of this in the editing of an identical verse referenced above, with the one difference being whether Jerusalem was part of Judahite or Benjaminite territory.
וְאֶת הַיְבוּסִי יוֹשְׁבֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֹא (יוכלו) [יָכְלוּ] בְנֵי יְהוּדָה לְהוֹרִישָׁם וַיֵּשֶׁב הַיְבוּסִי אֶת בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה בִּירוּשָׁלִַם עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:
But the Judahites could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the Judahites in Jerusalem to this day.
וְאֶת הַיְבוּסִי יֹשֵׁב יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֹא הוֹרִישׁוּ בְּנֵי בִנְיָמִן וַיֵּשֶׁב הַיְבוּסִי אֶת בְּנֵי בִנְיָמִן בִּירוּשָׁלִַם עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:
But the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day.
- The “Joshua” tradition is likely part of the ideological stance of the Deuteronomic editor of the book of Joshua, who claims that its hero succeeded in accomplishing everything Moses required, which includes total conquest of all the Canaanites and capturing all the Canaanite cities.
- A fourth tradition, which is implied in a number of verses but never stated may suggest that Jerusalem has always been Israelite, at least as far back as anyone can remember. This may explain why a given author thinks it is obvious that David can bring Goliath’s head back to Jerusalem, or that the Judahites can bring Adoni-Bezek back to Jerusalem – because it is an Israelite town.
History Must Look Elsewhere
Historically speaking, we know that Jerusalem was a Canaanite city during the Amarna period (14th cent B.C.E), as we have letters from Abdi-Heba, king of Jerusalem, to the Pharaoh. We also know, based on material culture, that some time during the 12th-9th centuries, Jerusalem becomes Israelite/Judahite. So who among the Israelites conquered Jerusalem and turned it into an Israelite city? We don’t know, because as is often the case, the Bible has more than one tradition on the subject, and these traditions reflect different ideologies rather than the historical events themselves. For what really happened, we have to look elsewhere.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 1, 2016
November 6, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
Essays on Related Topics: