The City Concept in the Hebrew Bible

Some of the longstanding general assumptions about urban space in the Hebrew Bible should be reconsidered (Vermeulen 2020). The most important one is perhaps the idea that the biblical city is female.

See Also: Conceptualizing Biblical Cities: A Stylistic Study (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

By Karolien Vermeulen
FWO Postdoctoral Fellow
Institute of Jewish Studies
University of Antwerp
October 2020

The Hebrew Bible is a story about cities. It is even, as Robert Carroll has argued, perhaps a story about just one city: Jerusalem (2001: 56–57). All appearances of other urban places, including so-called enemy cities, could be considered representations of this single space, the city of God. It goes without saying that biblical scholarship has paid ample attention to cities, particularly Jerusalem. Traditionally, such studies can be classified as either historical-archaeological or literary-theological in nature. In other words, the first group focuses on the material city – locating the urban places mentioned in the biblical text to reconstruct their lives based on their material remains. As can be seen in other areas of scholarship, such research has shifted from studying the leading male elite to including the life of marginalized groups, such as children, women, or slaves. The second group of studies concentrates on the imaginary city of the text. They consider, for example, Jerusalem’s role in the prophecy of Isaiah. Or they look at urban space as both the scenic background and a foregrounded character in a text such as Psalm 137 in which Babylon is both the location of the singers and the personified city which the singers curse.

Both approaches to biblical cities have their merits, with many insightful studies produced over the years. More recently, the adoption of critical spatiality, a social-scientific framework, has raised a renewed interest in urban spaces and space in general in biblical studies. In this framework, many scholars have seen a way to bridge the gap between the world outside of the text and the one created within that text. The edited book series Constructions of Space and the volume Biblical Imagination (2002) illustrate well how critical spatiality has offered biblical scholars a new and more integrated way to look at biblical space. Informed by the city’s physical features (Firstspace) as well as its literary imagination (Secondspace), the city’s functionality forms the focus of attention (Thirdspace). As with any other new approach, these studies have their critics, most notably among scholars studying the text as a document with a value of its own – regardless of historical connections and references to real space and events. According to them, critical-spatial analyses downplay the text’s qualities. They treat ambiguity and tensions, considered inherent values of the text and part of the reader’s experience by these critics, as problems to be solved. Of course, the opponents also advocate for a reappreciation of space in Bible reading, just like their critical-spatially inspired colleagues, but they look for their answers elsewhere. They turn, for example, to psychogeography and concepts such as Baudelaire’s flâneur or modernist thinkers such as Walter Benjamin (e.g., Mills 2012; Meredith 2013). 

What all these studies show is that the city in the Hebrew Bible is a complex given. It is both place and character, background and foreground, real and unreal, concept and manifestation. It is precisely this variety of roles that has led to the city’s appearance in separate subdisciplines and its treatment from various methodological angles (e.g., Galambush 1993; Sals 2004; Maier 2008; Pioske 2015; Aitken and Marlow 2018). Nevertheless, there is something that unites all these approaches: the human being who produced both the material cities and the stories about them in the biblical text. Even though that person is an abstraction to us today, we know they shared our cognitive faculties, experienced the world through their human, mortal body, and expressed their thoughts, feelings, and dreams with language. As a result, the city in the Hebrew Bible may be far more familiar and accessible to modern readers than assumed. Consider the following example as an illustration.

          1 By the rivers of Babylon,

             there we sat,

             sat and wept,

            as we thought of Zion

           6 let my tongue stick to my palate

             if I cease to think of you,

             if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory

             even at my happiest hour.

         8 Fair [daughter] Babylon, you predator,

           a blessing on him who repays you in kind

          what you have inflicted on us;

      9 a blessing on him who seizes your babies

        and dashes them against the rocks!

                   —Psalm 137 (JPS)


Psalm 137 features two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem/Zion. Throughout the psalm, different images are used for both spaces, framing the overall argument. These images underlying the specific words of the text are called conceptual metaphors. They are a means of understanding one thing – in this case, the city – in terms of another thing (Lakoff and Johnson 2003/1980). For example, Babylon is initially conceived as a container in which the Israelites sit and weep. Zion, on the contrary, is a person and/or a memory ­and thus an abstract object­­ – that can be remembered. Note that the text does not literally say that Babylon is a container or Jerusalem is a person. Rather the expressions in the text draw upon the just-mentioned ideas. This is precisely the power of conceptual metaphors – that one single image such as the city is a person can come in a plethora of textual manifestations.

At the end of the psalm, the imagery has changed. Babylon is now clearly personified as a vulnerable and daring daughter. Furthermore, she is identified as a destroyer – or the one to be destroyed, depending on the reading of the Hebrew. In that case, the image is not necessarily gendered. This also holds true for the remainder of the verse where the city will be paid back for what it has done. In verse 9, the personification is again gendered when the daughter of verse 8 has turned into a mother. Her children, the inhabitants, and the future city they stand for will be killed. What remains is the earlier Zion memory, unpalpable but real, nevertheless. Lost is the material Babylon of the beginning and the personified enemy of the last verses. Whereas Babylon’s fate is rather gruesome, Zion’s is presented as being better than utmost joy (v. 6). 

The psalm not only presents different conceptualizations for city space but also ingeniously plays them out against each other. As readers, we follow the cues in the text while drawing on our own experience of the world around us. Many of us reside in cities, speaking of them as “I live in New York” (the city is a container) or “the city has been good to me” (the city is a person). In other words, the conceptualizations are not alien to us. However, the precise formulation and words appearing in the biblical text may be completely or surprisingly new to us (Vermeulen 2020).

Not only does the above example show that we know or can know the biblical city far better and more easily than we thought, it also reveals that some of the longstanding general assumptions about urban space in the Hebrew Bible should be reconsidered (Vermeulen 2020). The most important one is perhaps the idea that the biblical city is female. Drawing on grammatical – the Hebrew word for city is feminine, cultic – a statue of a female goddess, and socio-cultural reasons – a patriarchal society, scholars have tried to explain the choice of the female¬ – rather than male or gender-neutral – in the personification of cities. However, the biblical text does not personify urban space as female only. For example, when the book of Joshua describes the conquest of cities, these places are envisioned as opponents against whom one marches, sets up an ambush, and fights (e.g., Josh 8:2). These opponents are not imagined as women. What is more, the biblical text very often imagines the city through other conceptual metaphors different from personifications such as the city is a container or the city is an object. In Jer 51:43, the towns are desolate, containers devoid of people. And in Jeremiah 51:20–23, Babylon is a war club, a tool in the hands of God (Vermeulen 2020).

These different conceptualizations frequently appear together in stories, showing precisely that the biblical authors had a complex understanding of cities that could only be accurately covered with a set of images rather than one single metaphor. The precise image chosen depended on the intended message, the context of the story as well as the circumstances outside of the text-world, and the connotations each of the metaphors could evoke. Looking at this list of criteria, it should come as no surprise that current-day scholars, as well as other readers outside academia, have been particularly drawn to the female images in the biblical text. Gender diversity and equality are important in our world – ideas we see challenged in some of the stories featuring biblical cities. Whereas we are aware of the different socio-cultural setting of the original text, we nevertheless cannot – and to be sure, should not – erase our own individual as well as cultural background when engaging with the biblical text and the cities therein.

Another commonly accepted idea is that the Bible portrays cities negatively. They cheat, lie, and even eat their own children. They are places of sin and idolatry. Again, as with the female image, a few well-told stories have biased the overall picture of the city in the Hebrew Bible. Not all cities are Sodom and Gomorra (e.g., Genesis 18–19) or unfaithful Jerusalem (e.g., Ezekiel 16 and 23). Yet, as human beings, we like and remember the juicy stories better than those that conform to the rules. Or also, the more a conceptual metaphor stands out in a story, the more likely we will pay attention to it. Thanks to the literary craft of authors such as Ezekiel and Nahum we notice the cities. And this is not only the case when they are personified as bad women but also when they are presented as containers full of violence – because that goes beyond the container full of grapes, for example, in our everyday experience, or as powerless lions – because that reverses our reality, or heifers with horns of bronze and hoofs of iron – a mixture of metaphors resulting in an unreal image. Examples can be found in Nah 3:1: “Ah, city of crime, utterly treacherous, full of violence, where killing never stops!” and Nah 2:14: “I will stamp out your killings from the earth.”

Both verses talk about Nineveh, using images of containers and animals, respectively. In Mic 4:13, several metaphors occur in one and the same verse: “Up and thresh, Fair Zion! (the city is a woman) For I will give you horns of iron and provide you with hoofs of bronze (the city is an animal/the city is an object), and you will crush the many peoples. You will devote their riches to the Lord, their wealth to the Lord of all the earth (the city is a person).” Whereas the given examples would still qualify as negative city portrayals, although not negative female pictures, cities appear in many stories as containers of people and goods, the object and result of building activity, shelters, and participants with agency. All these depictions are at least neutral if not wholly positive. In Isa 33:5, God fills Zion with justice and righteousness, while Ezekiel 40–48 describes the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a big container to be filled with people and goods and, of course, God’s temple (Vermeulen 2020).

Finally, scholarship tends to emphasize the uniqueness of Jerusalem in the biblical corpus. Jerusalem is not Babylon or Nineveh; it is the city of God. Another observation regarding Jerusalem’s role is the one mentioned at the beginning that other urban spaces in the biblical text may function as alter egos of God’s city. Both approaches stress the distinctiveness of Jerusalem. However, a closer look at stories featuring cities, be they Jerusalem or other spaces, reveals that as far as the conceptualization of the urban spaces goes, no difference can be found between the various towns. The same set of conceptual metaphors is used for all cities.

What is more, this observation does not only challenge an “us” versus the “other” rhetoric but also offers a new explanation for the absence of this opposition. Rather than that, the similarities are read as one city and its alter ego. For example, Jerusalem and Babylon are conceptualized in the same way because they are both cities (Vermeulen 2020). And to push it even further, the fact that a number of places are imagined through the same set of conceptual metaphors may shed new light on the ongoing discussion about whether a place, such as biblical Jerusalem, would have been a city at all. The historical Jerusalem mentioned in the Hebrew Bible would have been too small and provincial to be classified as a city, as research has shown, but the biblical writers considered the place to be part of the same category of places such as Babylon, Nineveh, and Tyre – locations that, at least in their heyday, were univocally called cities. The same conceptualizations are drawn on for all these places. What is more, the notion of high numbers, as in many inhabitants and considerable geographical size, has a conceptual equivalent in metaphors such as the city is a container (full of people, goods, buildings, etc.) and the city is a height (itself metaphorically representing greatness).

To conclude, the Hebrew Bible is about cities, no doubt. Many of these places have extra-textual equivalents, a fact that has both enriched and complicated research on them. The biblical text may be scarce on physical details of its urban spaces. It may not mention big crowds or precise aerial measurements. It may leave readers hanging as to precise locations and exactly what a city looked like. At the same time, the text provides ample information about the writers’ conceptualizations of cities. Their language reveals what they considered a city to be in terms of a concept. Scholars have been long on the trail of just one of these images, that of the city-as-a-woman, but many other ideas about cities are present in the text. The female city is only one aspect of an urban concept that shows remarkable similarities with city conceptualizations today. Modern readers may be appalled by some of the city stories, but tracing their imagery can assist in understanding that response and in gaining more insight into cities and their appearance in the Hebrew Bible.


Further reading

Aitken, James K., and Hilary F. Marlow, eds. 2018. The City in the Hebrew Bible: Critical, Literary and Exegetical Approaches. LHBOTS 672. London: T&T Clark.

Berquist, Jon L., and Claudia V. Camp, eds. 2007. Constructions of Space I: Theory, Geography, and Narrative. LHBOTS 481. New York: T&T Clark.

———. 2008. Constructions of Space II: The Biblical City and Other Imagined Spaces. LHBOTS 490. New York: T&T Clark.

Carroll, Robert P. 2001. “City of Chaos, City of Stone, City of Flesh: Urbanscapes in Prophetic Discourses.” Pages 45–61 in ‘Every City Shall Be Forsaken’: Urbanism and Prophecy in Ancient Israel and the Near East. Edited by Lester L. Grabbe and Robert D. Haak. JSOTSup 330. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.

Galambush, Julie. 1992. Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife. SBLDS 130. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

George, Mark K., ed. 2013. Constructions of Space IV: Further Developments in Examining Ancient Israel’s Social Space. LHBOTS 569. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.

Gunn, David M., and Paula M. McNutt, eds. 2002. “Imagining” Biblical Worlds: Studies in Spatial, Social and Historical Constructs in Honor of James W. Flanagan. JSOTSup 359. London/New York: Sheffield Academic.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 2003/1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maier, Christl M. 2008. Daughter Zion, Mother Zion: Gender, Space, and the Sacred in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Meredith, Christopher. 2013. Journeys in the Songscape: Space and the Song of Songs. Hebrew Bible Monographs 53. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix.

Mills, Mary E. 2012. Urban Imagination in Biblical Prophecy. LHBOTS 560. New York: Bloomsbury.

Økland, Jorunn, Cornelis de Vos, and Karen J. Wenell, eds. 2016. Constructions

of Space III: Biblical Spatiality and the Sacred. LHBOTS 540. London: T&T Clark.

Pioske, Daniel. 2015. David’s Jerusalem: Between Memory and History. London: Routledge.

Prinsloo, Gert T. M., and Christl M. Maier, eds. 2013. Constructions of Space V: Place, Space and Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean World. LHBOTS 576. New York/London: Bloomsbury.

Sals, Ulrike. 2004. Die Biographie der “Hure Babylon”: Studien zur Intertextualität der Babylon-Texte in der Bibel. FAT 2.6. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Vermeulen, Karolien. 2020. Conceptualizing Biblical Cities: A Stylistic Study. Cham: Palgrave McMillan.

Article Comments

Submitted by Richard Faussette on Thu, 11/05/2020 - 07:24


No mention of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) in a discussion of Biblical cities?
We just got past the flood caused by the "forcible mixing" of the sons of god with the daughters of men (the sons of the gods precluding the endogamy of Men), the destruction of the resulting mongrel progeny and the punishment of the sons of the gods for their forcible transgression of the daughters of men. Now, we come to Babylon and its single language indicating a single people (endogamous) and vast ambitions whose language is "confused." Why might God linguistically fragment an entire city for its endogamy and single language resulting in the mosaic of peoples/languages we see in today's western cities - right after determining that the sons of the gods should be punished until eternity for - preventing - the endogamy of the people of Babylon?


Submitted by Richard Faussette on Thu, 11/05/2020 - 10:58


My comment which ends: the endogamy of the people of Babylon?
Should read: "the endogamy of all Mankind."


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