ZION AND THE PRESENCE OF GOD
The prophet Isaiah wrote: Now I shall lay a stone in Zion, a granite stone, a precious corner-stone, a firm foundation-stone: no one who relies on this will stumble (Isaiah 28:16 NJB). We recognize the "corner-stone"/ "stumbling stone" as Jesus Christ, but what is the significance of the references to Zion and is there a connection to the Catholic Church? In the experience of the covenant formation between Yahweh and Israel, Mount Sinai was the focus, but when King David conquered Jerusalem in circa 1000 BC and brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, Mount Zion became the focus of liturgical worship as the dwelling place of Yahweh: Look, I and the children whom Yahweh has given me shall become signs and portents in Israel on behalf of Yahweh Sabaoth who dwells on Mount Zion (Isaiah 8:18 NJB).
Unlike Mount Sinai, whose location is uncertain, Zion has been a known location. It is a physical location within the boundaries of the ancient city of Jerusalem. Jewish scholars identify Mount Zion as the hill in Jerusalem between the Tyropoean and Kidron valleys on the eastern side of Jerusalem. This location agrees with the biblical references to Mount Zion as the site of the Temple of Yahweh and is synonymous with Mount Moriah (Moriah is identified as both a land and a mountain in Scripture and is derived from a Hebrew word meaning "vision").(1) However, Christians from the time of the Byzantine period have identified Mount Zion as the hill to the southwest of the Jewish Zion and across the Tyropoean Valley. The Christian identification of the site of Zion is generally considered by some biblical scholars and most archaeologists to be inaccurate.(2)
Perhaps the identification of both sites is correct. Perhaps the original location of Mount Zion not only included today's Temple Mount but the ancient city of King David. At the time David and Solomon resided in Jerusalem (circa 1000 BC - 930 BC), biblical scholars and archaeologists believe the majority of the city occupied a small area to the southeast of the present city where the village of Silwan is located today. However, there is no debate concerning the ancient origin of the place name Jerusalem. This ancient city predates David's conquest, having been continuously inhabited for circa 6,000 years. Pre-Israelite references to this important Canaanite city-state are found in ancient Egyptian texts dating from the 19th-18th centuries BC. References are also found in 14th century BC Egyptian documents known as the Amarna letters where the vassal king of Jerusalem writes to his great lord, the Egyptian Pharaoh. In the Amarna correspondence it is clear that the city called "Urusalim" (Jerusalem) was one of several important city-states in Canaan under Egyptian control.(3)
The first century AD Jewish priest/historian, Flavius Josephus, identified Jerusalem as the site of ancient Salem, the city of God's priest-king Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18).(4) Many biblical scholars believe the origin of the city's name as Jeru-Salem may be related to Abraham's statement that Yahweh "will provide" a sacrifice: Yahweh yi'reh (Genesis 22:8, 14) which was later united with the old name "Salem" to be rendered "Yireh-Salem" or Jerusalem.(5) But the etymology of the place name Zion is allusive. Zion in Hebrew is rendered as siyyon. The etymology of the word is related to the Hebrew root snn, found in the derived form sinna meaning "large shield" or "fortress" and therefore may have referred to the fortress of the Jebusite rulers and later David's fortress within the ancient city of Jerusalem.(6) By the time David conquered the city, it was clear that Jerusalem was associated with both Salem and Zion: In Judah God is known, his name is great in Israel. His abode has been established in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion (Psalms 76:1-3).(7)
Scholars can agree, however, that Zion's theological significance outweighs its actual location. Zion/Moriah is linked to a visionary experience witnessed both by Abraham, the father of the Israelite people, and his descendant the great King David. Both Abraham and David had experiences of the divine in Moriah, the land of "visions." The visionary experiences of both men in the land of Moriah on the mountain of Zion are similar and had an impact on salvation history:
On Zion/Moriah Abraham witnessed the angel of God staying his hand in his attempt to obey the Lord's command to sacrifice his son Isaac. The angel stopped Abraham and pointed out a ram that God intended as the substitute for Isaac's sacrifice (Genesis 22:14). King David also saw the angel of the Lord at the same site when he offered his own life and the prosperity of his family in exchange for God spearing the lives of his people during a deadly plague (1 Chronicles 21:14-17). It is on the site at the summit of Moriah that David is instructed to build Yahweh's altar, and as a sign of its acceptance as the place of worship, Yahweh Himself lights the altar with fire from heaven (2 Samuel 24:16-25; 2 Chronicles 3:1). In both cases the site is identified as Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22:2 and 2 Chronicles 3:1).
In the Book of Genesis, the Patriarchs set up altars to Yahweh in several different places where they had experienced Yahweh's presence, but in the formation of the Sinai Covenant worship is limited to the place where Yahweh's holy altar of sacrifice resides: Take heed that you do not offer your burnt offerings at every place that you see; but at the place which the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do all that I am commanding you. [..]. But the holy things which are due from you, and your votive offerings, you shall take, and you shall go to the place which the LORD will choose, and offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of the LORD your God; the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the LORD your God, but the flesh you may eat (Deut. 12:13-14, 26-27: RSV Catholic Edition). Nevertheless, it will be a visionary experience of God's presence which will define the "place which the LORD will choose" from among all the tribes Israel for His house of worship to be established, in the land of Moriah, on the holy Mount of Zion in Jerusalem. It will be on this site where the visionary experiences of both Abraham and David serve as the authorization for the establishment of the Temple where Yahweh will continue to manifest His presence to His people and to fulfill His covenant promises.
What is important about Zion is the revelation of Yahweh; its relevance is not the physical site but the spiritual revelation of God to His covenant people. Zion is the spiritual concept that shapes the identity and the future of the covenant people, for tied with Zion is the divine promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty (2 Samuel 7:12-17; 23:5; 1 Chronicles 17:11-14; 2 Chronicles 13:5; Sirach 45:25) which is fulfilled in Jesus the Christ, the Anointed Prince to whom God will give rule over all the nations of the earth (Daniel 7:13-14). It is Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Messiah, who is the descendant of David and the inheritor of God the Father's Kingdom of Heaven on earth that is the Catholic/universal Church, the New Israel and the new Zion where God is present among His people as the Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 28:20) of the 5th kingdom promised to the prophet Daniel (Daniel 2:44-45). It is this 5th kingdom which is promised to rule all nations of the earth (Daniel 7:13-14), and its king is the stone, untouched by hands that will break away from the mountain of the old Zion to reduce all old kingdoms to powder (Daniel 2:45). It is Jesus of Nazareth who is the promised Davidic king, and He is the "stumbling block" on Zion, the old Zion of the Old Covenant Church, who becomes the "stone which the builders (Old Covenant leadership) rejected" that has become the "cornerstone" upon which the Apostles, led by Christ's vicar St. Peter, will build the foundations of the New Zion which is the promised 5th Kingdom, the New Covenant universal (catholic) Church of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings (Psalm 118:22-24; Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11).
Those who believe in the Resurrected Messiah who serves as the New Covenant High Priest in the heavenly Sanctuary come to the spiritual Zion in the celebration of the Mass. It is the Mass which is now the summit of man's visionary experience in the Most Holy Eucharist where covenant believers come to worship and behold the risen Jesus Christ. The new Zion is the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth established by Christ the King, and it is also the future New Jerusalem that is promised at the end of the age of man when the King comes again in glory. The inspired writer of the Letter to the Hebrews refers to "Zion" as a spiritual metaphor for the promised heavenly "New Jerusalem": But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of anew covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:22-24).
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New Jerusalem Catholic Bible translation.
1. In Genesis 22:2 Yahweh tells Abraham to take Isaac to the "land of Moriah." In 2 Chronicles 3:1 it is recorded that David had his visionary on Mt. Moriah where Solomon built Yahweh's Temple. The Hebrew word moriyyah (Moriah) is believed by many scholars to be related to the verb ra'ah, "to see" and to its derived nouns mar'ah and mar'eh, meaning "sight or vision." These Hebrew words are believed to be the etymology from which the word Moriah is derived, rendering the Hebrew word moriyyah as "vision of Yahweh." See Jon Levenson, Sinai & Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible, pages 94-95.
2. Jon Levenson, Sinai & Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible, page 92.
3. Ibid.; Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, page 751.
4. The Works of Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 6.101 [437:]: But he who first built it was a potent man among the Canaanites, and is on our tongue called [Melchizedech], the Righteous King, for such he really was; on which account he was [there] the first priest of God, and first built a temple [there], and called the city Jerusalem, which was formerly called Salem. Josephus also mentions this connection in Antiquities of the Jews, 7.3.2 ).
5. The letter "J" was not introduced into the alphabet until the Middle Ages; it was the German letter equivalent for "Y."
7. The place name "Jerusalem" is used 760 times in Scripture (Anchor Bible Dictionary, page 1096). "Zion" is not used as a place name as frequently, but it is often used as an appellative for Jerusalem and the covenant people.
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