Sunday, December 14, 2014

Zion

Beginnings of Modern Zionism

On the 5th of January 1895 at a Paris military school a man is marched out into a courtyard to the roll of a drum. He is wearing his dress uniform and surrounded by guards. He stands calmly and repeats “innocent” and “Vive la France” as his comrade tears from his uniform his medals and rank. They tear his buttons and cuffs and then draw and break his sword. The man's name was Alfred Dreyfus and he stood convicted of espionage for Germany based on falsified evidence. The real culprit had been quickly cleared and evidence was forged framing Dreyfus for the crimes. Dreyfus was a Jew.

Watching the proceedings a young atheist of Jewish heritage looked on and smoldered with anger. Dreyfus had done everything to become French and had served his country well. It was clear to him now that no Jew could ever be just a citizen of any country in Europe, no matter how they might try to assimilate they would always stand apart as an unwanted ethnic group. In that moment the observer knew that they needed Zion again. The man was Theodore Herzl and he would begin a new political movement called Zionism. This movement would gain momentum through the pogroms of Czarist Russia and the Nazi Holocaust eventually forging a new nation and ushering in a massive migration of Jews from all over the world to their ancient homeland to build a Zionist state.

Half a century earlier July 24, 1847, an American pioneer looked over a barren western desert landscape. He had been told nothing could grow there. He had joined and come to lead a religious group that over the last 17 years had been looking for a place to build a city they called Zion. Unlike the Jews, they were not a distinct ethnic group with a common heritage, but they found themselves ostracized due to their adopted beliefs and had been expelled from several attempted settlements. A combination of their unusual beliefs, the harshness of the wilderness and the force of the powerful will of this leader would forge the diverse group of believers into an distinct ethnic group and they would build their own Zion. Looking over the endless sagebrush and enormous lake of salty water he said simply “This is the right place.” His name was Brigham Young.

The Meaning of Zion

From a biblical perspective, the story of Zion begins in 2 Sam 5:7 where we first hear about the Jebusite “stronghold of Zion/מצדת ציון”. The exact meaning of the word is unclear. It seems to be a preexisting name used by the Jebusites and perhaps the name comes from a meaning in the Jebusite language. This would be helpful in deciphering its meaning if anyone knew what a Jebusite was. Outside the Bible we have no evidence in archeology or history of the existence of this civilization. There have been attempts to link them with Hurrian and Hittite cultures but with so little to go on it remains completely speculative. There have been unpersuasive attempts to link the word to the Semitic root s-w-n meaning stronghold, fortress or castle. This is appealing as this is the context in which the word is first introduced and certainly there are examples playing on this meaning. The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew lexicon suggests Jeremiah 4:6 as one example reflecting this use. However the s-w-n root is not used in known Hebrew and this meaning if it was ever actually attached to the word would have survived as a faint cultural memory.

Sometimes freedom from clear meaning can be liberating, leaving new generations to define their own layers of meaning. We have many examples in scripture of loan words used in proper names being assigned creative meanings to explain their significance to a Hebrew audience. Certainly a close reading of the Scriptures show an evolution in meaning for the term. In the early days of Solomon Zion did not include the temple precinct in 1 Kings 8:1. It would later come to explicitly mean the temple as well as an idealized celestial city.

As the imagery of the word evolved, Zion became associated with a mountain and the term mount Zion appears many times, most commonly in Isaiah and Psalms. In the New Testament it shows up in Hebrews 11:22 and Revelation 14:1. It is believed, but is far from certain, that this name became associated with the mount to the north of the temple complex. Certainly by New Testament times any reference to a literal mountain had been swallowed up in a concept of an idealized celestial mountain. Zion had taken on more of a concept than a geography.

Besides imagery of Zion as a stronghold and mountain, writers developed a complex imagery based on similar sounding words. In Hebrew there is a word that sounds and is spelled similarly to Zion and it means “dryness”. At first this may seem like an uninspiring name for a concept of a idealized place of the followers of Yahweh. However it must be remembered that the early Hebrews were a desert people and water was scarce. “Dryness” may have been the best description of their mountain home. In Psalm 137 this play on words is evident as they went to the fertile “land of the two rivers,” the well watered city of Babylon. There in verse 1 “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion (dryness)”. Here the word for rivers is plural, this is uncommon occurring only three times in the Hebrew Bible each time emphasizing an abundance of water, a “strange land” indeed for the children of Israel. For all the talk of “milk and honey,” Zion was a harsh climate that forged a nation of God and not this soft land with its fertile soil.

Building on this same word play, Isaiah prophecies of a future king, the Messiah, in chapter 32. In verse 2 it describes this man who should be “as rivers1 of water in a dry place/Zion”. This beautifully places the King Messiah as the vital source of living water that makes Zion possible. The word for dry place here is spelled identically with he proper name Zion. Vowels were only added to Hebrew in the post biblical period and appear as smaller marks above below and inside the consonantal text. It's only with the inclusion of these vowels that the words can be distinguished as צִיּוֹן tsiyon and צָיוֹן tsayonfor Zion and dryness respectively. This means the choice of translation of this word is dependent on later post biblical traditions. It is probably with this ambiguity in mind that the authors chose the word play allowing the reader to understand either or both meanings.

Combining this meaning of Zion as “dryness,” the concept of Mount Zion, and the concept of Zion as a defense, Isaiah uses another play on words. Mount Horeb was one of the names given for the mountain where Moses received the covenant between God and Israel. Horeb means “heat” in Hebrew. In Isaiah 252 Isaiah speaks of a future state where Yahweh has destroyed the enemies of Israel leaving their cities as a heap, while the poor are sheltered. Then in verse 5 Isaiah uses a short parallelism:

a. As the heat in a dry place 
    b. Thou shalt bring down the noise of strangers
a'. The heat with the shadow of a cloud
    b'. The singing of the tyrants shall be brought low

“Heat in a dry place” here could just as easily be translated as “Horeb in Zion” playing on the names of both these mountains3. This is reinforced in the second half were Horeb again appears and references the “shadow of cloud” which was part of the manifestation of the divine presence at Horeb. The imagery is also reinforced as verses 6 and 7 both refer to “in this mountain” as it describes blessings and then again in verse 10 as it describes punishments. The scriptures describe Mount Horeb as a fearful place that burned with fire and smoke. In the presence of this majesty the boastful cries of the powerful fall silent. It is this same refining heat that purifies the righteous and destroys the wicked.

To complete our tour of meanings for Zion it is needed to examine one more word play. There is another word with identical spelling except again for the later added vowel markers, צִיּוּן tsiyun. This word means a sign post or marker. You can find it used in Ezekiel 39:15 rendered “sign” and 2 Kings 23:17 rendered “title”. The third and only other place this word occurs is in Jeremiah 31:21. Here the word ציון tsiyun is used in parallel with the word תמרורים tamrurim which KJV badly renders “high heaps”. This word tamrurim is actually disputed in meaning with some suggesting it means a standard or marker and thus has a similar meaning to tsiyun and others arguing that it has the meaning of the related word tamar, “Palm tree” or perhaps palm tree like posts. Putting this verse in context it is discussing the lost kingdom of Ephraim and its eventual restoration. Then this verse directed at the future restored ephraim could be rendered as such:

Set thee up Zions
Make thee standards
set thine heart to the course
the road you went forth
turn virgin of Israel
turn unto these your cities

The explicit reference to Ephraim building cities at the end of the verse seems to strengthen the idea of the wordplay on Zion. The plural suggests that there would be many cities of Zion built by Ephraim. The idea of Zion as a sign or standard or ensign to the nations as explained in Isaiah 18 and many other scriptures may also be drawing on this meaning.

Joseph's Zion

Joseph Smith would deepen the understanding of Zion for Latter-day Saints. Using imagery from Isaiah he would speak of “stakes of Zion” and under inspiration would reflect the term earlier in history to a city built by the antediluvian patriarch Enoch. Similar to later usage of the term he would suggest the term began as a description of an idealized city defining a meaning to the term as “the pure in heart” and recording haunting phrases such as “Zion is fled.” This idealized city was taken to heaven to return at some future point to reunite with its earthly counterpart he was hoping to build. Lesser known is the story Joseph recorded concerning Melchizedek in JST Genesis 14. While never using the term Zion, Joseph credited the mysterious character of Melchizedek with building a city based on Enoch's Zion that also was taken to heaven. This city of Salem has been associated both within and without LDS circles with Jerusalem, the city commonly associated with the term Zion.

Joseph took his teachings of Zion beyond mere spiritual and other worldly principles. Joseph was interested in building an earthly political Zion. To this end he would gather his people into large settlements, plan and build temples, and organize complex religious and political bodies (such as the council of fifty). His ambitions would be carried on by his successors with greater success. Eventually, the Church of Jesus Christ would refocus its efforts to establishing a more global presense and the political deminsion of Zion would lose emphasis in favor of a more spiritual focus with a global reach.


  1. This is a different word translated as rivers כפלגי kepalgey than Psalm 137 נהרות naharot. The word here means more of canals or streams rather than a full river as in Psalm 137.  

  2. In an odd twist the chapter headers in the LDS edition of Isaiah mention “Mount Zion” even though “Zion” does not occur anywhere in English in the chapter. Admittedly, I don't usually place much value in the chapter headers but here it seems someone realized what was happening in the Hebrew underneath.  

  3. I should note here that some translators read this verse as the “heat” referring to the songs of the wicked that is then softened by the cloud. This can play well against verse 4. Also there is some confusion on whether the word in the last line means “song” or “branch” as both readings are possible due to a similar case of words with same spellings but different meanings. Therefore some translators render this as saying the the branch is withered by the heat placing the heat as I do, representative of Yahweh's power. While this goes nicely with the concept of heat it also weakens the obvious parallel with “noise” from the first half of the verse. My translation/interpretation I think is the best for the overall context of the chapter. Given the nature of Isaiah it is not outside the realm of possibility that the prophet was intentionally using multiple meanings of these words. Basically this footnote acknowledges that this is a difficult verse to render in translation.  

1 comment:

  1. How appropriate then that Brigham Young found a dry place to build Zion after coming from Nauvoo, a city in a river bend.

    This also illuminates Jacob 5 for me when speaking about the poor vs the good spots of ground in the vineyard. The Lord wanted to bring Israel into Canaan not just for their temporal salvation but also for their spiritual, and he seems to be telling us that a harsher kind of land is appropriate for that.

    I don't hear much talk about Zion anymore. I know we aren't expected to gather to one spot anymore, and I see much wisdom in that in regards to spreading the kingdom of God throughout the earth. However, I wonder when and where the city of Zion will finally be built and what will it take to finally prepare the Lord's people to build it?

    ReplyDelete