Cities, Sinners, and Sufferers: The Connection between Geography and Image-Bearers in Scripture

An overlooked yet intriguing aspect of theological anthropology, especially as expressed in the Old Testament, is the persistent yet seemingly odd identification of human beings with non-human geographical entities. For example, some scholars have pointed out that the plea to “do good to Zion…; build up the walls of Jerusalem” in Psalm 51, far from being a late, priestly touchup to the otherwise non-sacral Weltanschauung of the text, is rather a tacit and emphatic assertion by David the author of his intimate relationship to the Holy City. Their fates are tied together to the point of being blurred. Another example is the city-lament imagery and language found in Lamentations: the manifest misery and shame of Jerusalemites in the face of Babylonian aggression becomes seamlessly transformed by the author into the pain, lament, and mockery of the very city itself, as enemies pass by, shaking their heads and hissing.

These examples are barely the tip of the iceberg. There are a surprising number of places in the Old Testament where people (whether individuals or groups) are described in certain ways, and then a geographic entity is described in essentially (or exactly) the same ways, seemingly out of a concern to show that the two are inextricably related. Often the geographic entity is Jerusalem (or Zion), though at other times it might be a portion of ground, or the land of Israel as a whole.

While some scholars have gazed at this topic as from afar, to a large extent it remains terra incognita. Thus, the purpose of this paper is simply to explore this under-studied phenomenon by describing it, citing sufficient clear examples of it, providing a basic taxonomy for it, and suggesting a rationale for it. Examples will be drawn mainly from the Prophets and Psalms—the poetic texts where such metaphorical expression naturally finds a home. While the phenomenon is largely absent from the New Testament—at least explicitly—mention will be made of at least one such connection: the mockery of Christ on the cross, which certain Gospel writers seem to cast in words originally applied to Old Testament Jerusalem.

While any conclusions must be tentative, especially regarding the ultimate reason for the phenomenon, nevertheless it deserves a place in robust discussion of theological anthropology.

Should the paper not find a home in the proposed section, I would be grateful if you could pass it on to a different section where it might be more appropriate.

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