Jerusalem is an ancient city and has been politically and strategically important for millennia. Even today, Jerusalem is the subject of hot debate. When President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem it drew hard criticism from not only Arab nations, but other world powers as well. They were afraid it would destabilize the region.
My intention here is to not provide an exhaustive look into the current political and religious debates but it does beg the question. Why does a relatively small city like Jerusalem spur so much consternation? The simple answer? It is considered a holy city to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. The importance of Jerusalem cannot be divorced from its spiritual significance. And so we begin by looking at how Jerusalem came to fall into the hands of the Israelites, was dubbed “The City of David,” and the ingenious military strategy that made it all possible.
In Genesis 15:18-21, God makes a covenant with Abraham. He carves out a piece of territory and promises to give it to Abraham’s descendants. God would also repeat His covenant to Moses on several occasions (Exodus 3:8, Exodus 3:17, Exodus 13:5, Exodus 23:3, Exodus 33:2, Exodus 34:11). There was one not-so-small problem in the eyes of God’s people. That land was already occupied by several Canaanite tribes, one of them was Biblically known as the Jebusites.1
The Jebusites were a pagan people and to prevent this idolatrous influence from seeping into the tribes of Israel, God ordered His people to “devote them to complete destruction (Deu 20:16-18 ESV).”2 Despite God’s promise that He would go before them, the Israelites hesitated in driving out the Jebusites (and other tribes for that matter).3 They would spend 40 years in the wilderness as a result of their hesitation.
After taking the mantel from Moses, Joshua succeeded in killing one of the Jebusite kings (Joshua 12:8-10), but a remnant of Jebusites would remain in their highly fortified city of Jebus. Through the book of Judges and the reign of Saul, Jebus would remain controlled by the Jebusites. It was approximately 1100 years from the day that God gave his mandate until the Jebusites would be subdued.
Why is this important to the history of Jerusalem? The city of Jebus was the city captured by King David in approximately 1000 BC today known as — you guessed it — Jerusalem.
The Political Context Prior to the Conquest of Jebus (Jerusalem)
David’s rise to the monarchy was not an easy ascension. He was anointed by Samuel and declared king by God in his teens, but would not take his seat on the throne until many years later. His encounter with Goliath thrust him into a military career serving King Saul for a few years and later he would spend his time hiding from Saul as a leader of a band of outlaws for several more. After Saul died, David was anointed by the tribe of Judah to be their king and reigned over Judah from the towns of Hebron for seven and a half years (2 Samuel 2:1-11).
While David ruled over Judah, the other tribes were ruled by Saul’s military commander Abner and his puppet king, Ish-bosheth (Saul’s son). After both Abner and Ish-bosheth were assassinated, the other tribes approached David and asked him to be their king. By this point, David had consolidated power in Judah and subdued surrounding regions. He had proved himself a key and able leader. Approaching David, after their king’s death, appeared to be the practical thing to do.
It is shortly after being anointed King of ALL of Israel, that David sets his eyes on the city of Jebus.
Why David Chose Jebus (Jerusalem) as The Capital
There are four primary reasons and they all have one thing in common. Location, location, location. 4
The rivalry among the tribes could be traced back to the jealousy and contention between Rachel and Leah and the favoritism Jacob (Israel) shows Rachel’s children. You add to that years of tribe affiliation with their own leaders and practices, rivalry is the natural outcome.
We may be the United States of America, but rivalry and contention take center stage during sports and elections. It was no different for the tribes of Israel. And David was no fool.
If David was going to be the King of Israel, he needed to be the king of all. Had he remained at Hebron, an area in Judah, he could be accused of preferring Judah above all the other tribes. No. Hebron would not do.
Jebus was an unconquered morsel sandwiched between the Tribe of Benjamin and the Tribe of Judah. It was in neutral territory with no tribe affiliation. It was perfect.
The Defensible Terrain of Jebus
The city of Jebus was located on the southern slope of Mount Moriah, a north-south stretch of land in what is known today as the Judean mountains. The Kidron Valley on the east and the Central Valley on the west merged south of the city. To the North of the city, the terrain which sloped upward to the summit of Mount Moriah was desolate at the time of the capture of Jebus.
Attacking the city from either the west, east, or south was suicidal. The steep terrain coupled with the high walls of the city would leave an invading party exposed to slingers and archers. It was also well-entrenched in the Hill Country, making it incredibly difficult for more advanced militaries (such as the Philistines) to traverse the expanse with their chariots and siege machinery.
Its weakest side was the north, but it was also a much narrower part of the city. No doubt that when David looked at the terrain, he saw that the city could be expanded northward along the upward slopes to the peak of Mount Moriah. At this point, he might have even been thinking ahead to the construction of the temple. In time, with subsequent kings, that is exactly what happened.
The geographical area that God had slated for Israel, is a landbridge that connects Africa, Europe, and Asia. The strategic importance of that location cannot be overstated. Why is that important from the perspective of David? Because it would mean the area would always be highly coveted by neighboring powers (and still is to this day).
If David was a strategic thinker, and I believe he was, this would play into his decision making in choosing Jebus (through divine inspiration) as the capital. He may not have understood the expanse of the African, European, nor Asian continents, but he surely understood the threats of his immediate neighbors such as the Philistines and the Ammonites. To be ready for that threat, easy access to transportation routes to deploy his military would be essential.
Transportation routes would also allow for the growth of trade and commerce, necessary for any city to thrive. Jebus lay along an ancient, but well-traveled road called The Way of the Patriarchs (The Ridge Road). This road allowed for travel along the ridges of the central mountain range, running north-south, and connected to the Via Maris (The Way of the Sea), a major international trade route.5 There was a also more direct route to the Via Maris from Jebus via Timnah and Beth-shemesh that cut through the foothills and led towards the Mediterranean sea.
The Via Mari was one of two international trade routes that connected the Israeli land-bridge to Mesopotamia to the north and Egypt to the South. Access to these routes was key for an economically prosperous nation.
(Note the central location of Jebus in the image below.)
Continuous Supply of Water
Siege warfare was common in ancient military conquests. Fortified cities and fortresses would be subdued through military blockades. Even if a city could not be penetrated by softening its defenses, eventually hunger, thirst, and/or disease would drive its inhabitants out.
If a city had a natural supply of water, it would extend the length of time it could survive a siege. Jebus was one of those cities.
The Gihon Spring was located on the northeastern outskirts of the city. It gave Jebus a continuous supply of fresh water which was accessible within the city walls. This was a great asset for any future capital and it would also be the Achilles heel of the Jebusites.
The Military Conquest of Jebus (Jerusalem)
For the same reasons that Jebus was highly desirable, it also made it difficult to conquer. However, David’s solution proved to be the key to penetrating the Jebusite stronghold. The entire military campaign is summarized in five verses. 6
6 And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”–thinking, “David cannot come in here.” 7 Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. 8 And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” 9 And David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. 10 And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.2 Samuel 5:6-10 (ESV)
When David and his men arrived at Jebus, the Jebusites were so confident in their ability to repel David’s forces that they mocked David, claiming that they could defend the city by putting their lame and blind on the wall. Their over-confidence was short-lived.
The Achilles Heel of the Jebusites: The Gihon Spring
David was undeterred by the Jebusite mockery. Either through previous knowledge of the terrain or his keen eye in scouting his surroundings, he became aware of a natural spring that led into the city through a “water shaft.” Some scholars believe that shaft is what is known today as the Warren Shaft. However, there are some archeological debates as to whether the Warren Shaft was there at all during David’s conquest.
The real question is how did David know about a water shaft (whether the Warren Shaft or some other tunnel)? Was it through divine revelation? Did he have some previous intelligence from inhabitants of the city? These are plausible, but there is a strong possibility that it was also an educated guess on his part.
David and his men had spent years living in caves and inhospitable terrain while hiding from Saul’s forces (cave of Adullam, Forest of Hereth, Wilderness of Ziph, Wilderness of Maon, for example). He had also spent time in Ein Gedi (I Samuel 23:29).
Ein Gedi is known for its natural springs formed as part of a karst hydrological system, that is water that flows through a series of naturally made tunnels and caves made by water flowing through the limestone. The caves made great hiding places for David and his men. What would warriors, who have time to kill and are stuck in a cave, do? Probably explore. My guess is that David and his men became very well acquainted with hydrological systems while at Ein Gedi.
The Gihon Spring at the base of Jebus is also part of a karst hydrological system. Once David and his men realized this, they were able to deduce that one of those tunnels led into the city.
The Special Operations Mission That Turned Jebus Into “The City of David”
Because the Biblical text is scarce with details we have to use a little imagination to envision how David’s plan was executed and that is what I do here.
Now that we have a little bit of background, we can form a picture of how exactly David takes the city. Note that most of the narrative below is my own conjecture, but it is based on what we know of ancient warfare, how battles were fought in the Bible, and an understanding of the various Biblical characters involved (and maybe one too many war movies under my belt).
One Possible Scenario on How David’s Military Strategy was Executed
David was a brilliant military strategist. Before the arrival of his main army, he would have sent an advance party of scouts and he himself might have been one of them. The scouts would have searched for weaknesses in Jebus’s fortifications and it is at this point that they probably discovered the access point to the Gihon Springs.
With the necessary intelligence in-hand, David advances his army to an attack position located outside the field of fire from slingers or archers. And yet, he wants his units within visibility of the Jebusite watchmen on the wall. He tests their readiness and unbeknown to the Jebusites, they tip their hand. With their jeers, taunting, and the placement of their handicapped on the wall, David knows they are unprepared for a breach.
The Gihon Springs is the key. If the Jebusites are indeed prepared for a long siege, then they must have continual access to the springs within the city walls. He learned at Ein Gedi that the maze of tunnels can run deep underground and portions would be narrow, claustrophobic, and dark. He could order some of his best men, but since it is potentially a suicide mission, he has a better plan.
David gathers his men and bellows, “Whoever strikes the Jebusites first shall be chief and commander (I Chroniclees 11:6).” He is asking for volunteers and offers a prize too good to refuse.
Joab is not one to ever shy away from danger and believing that command should be his anyway sees this as an opportunity to prove himself once again. He volunteers before anyone else has a chance and his most trusted men agree to go with him.
David and Joab confer on the details of the special ops mission. They agree that if the Jebusites saw Joab approach the Gihon Springs access, they would get wind of David’s plans, and Joab and his men would fall into a trap. The cover of night would be necessary so that Joab and his unit can maneuver into the springs unnoticed.
They also need to agree on a sign for David’s army to begin the main attack. Joab has a simple, but effective idea. When the body of a watchmen falls from the city wall, David would know to begin the assault.
Upon David’s orders, Joab and his men leave their fortified positions and slowly crawl to the access point.
The Gihon Spring proves to be dark and ominous. Joab and his men spend several hours with oil lamps scouting the various tunnels. They find the most viable option but agree that the ascent must be completed in total darkness. They couldn’t risk the light giving away their position once they got close to the exit. Plus, it was impractical to scale the walls while still holding the lamps.
They wait for the first inkling of dawn to begin their ascent. While the cover of darkness was ideal to gain access to the springs, the main army would have difficulty breaching the city at night.7.
One by one, each man scales the walls of the shaft in complete darkness. As a skilled, brilliant and deadly fighter, Joab leads the way. When he reaches the top of the shaft, he slowly emerges and scans the area for possible threats. Most of the city is still asleep and Joab gives the order for his men to follow.
Joab assigns each man a target and the men split up. They were masters at blending in and operating in enemy territory undetected. It was after all that same skilled set that allowed David and Abishai to penetrate Sauls camp and steal Saul’s spear and helmet while he slept. A few Jebusites who are already starting their morning chores see them but are either too busy to look too closely or mistake them for a fellow citizen.
Each man reaches his target. While one of Joab’s men sends a watchman over the wall of the city. Joab positions himself behind the guard at the gates. With a swift move of his sickle sword, the man breathes his last breath.
David sees the man falling from the wall and gives the order. The main force pours in through the gates. The Jebusites never had a chance. The Jebusite king quickly surrenders and David makes a declaration, “This will now be known as The City of David.”8 His men cheered with exhilaration.
David did indeed call Jebus the “City of David” and he proceeded to construct his palace thanks to the generosity of the King of Tyre (2 Samuel 5:10). Joab takes his position as the commander of the King’s army and is tasked with managing repairs to the city (1 Chronicles 11: 8). In addition to the administrative tasks of establishing a new capital, the most significant action that David took immediately following was to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.
For David, the conquest of Jerusalem and the unification of Israel was meaningless without God’s presence. He was known, after all, as a “man after God’s own heart.” Shortly after, God makes a covenant with David per the biblical texts.
And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.'”2 Samuel 7:16 ESV
From a military perspective, the conquest of Jerusalem was the result of “out of the box thinking.” In 1004 BC, Jebus was already an ancient city and had successfully withstood previous attempts. David and his brave men achieved what others had failed to do before. It was a remarkable feat. However, it pales in comparison to what was achieved from a spiritual perspective. It marked Jerusalem as the city of the future King of kings.
Military victories come and go and cities rise and fall, but for the Christian, Jerusalem will last forever.
- Some sources speculate that the original name of Jerusalem was Salem. For a brief discussion on this topic, click here. For a discussion on how the name Jerusalem evolved, click here.
- For many, this is a hard pill to swallow and view it as evidence that the God of the Old Testament is a harsh and angry God. It is also used as fodder for criticisms of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Since this discussion is outside the scope of this article, I want to just provide a brief, albeit incomplete commentary. Textual Biblical evidence shows that God made exceptions for individuals who turned to worship him as the true God (Rahab, for example). Any people could be spared from destruction if they turned away from their pagan worship. Another point to consider is that the primary purpose behind these seemingly harsh judgments was to protect the nation of Israel, and therefore protect the line of the future King that would save all humanity. Had Israel ceased to exist, so would have humanity’s hope for eternal salvation.
- Originally the city of Jerusalem fell within land allotted to Benjamin
- Because this is a blog about the military, campaign, I do not address the underlying spiritual reasons for choosing Jerusalem. However, as a Christian, I would be remiss to at least not mention them in the footnotes. Jerusalem was centrally located, allowing the tribes and foreigners to easily access the temple once it was built. It also a great central location for the eventual spread of the gospel post the resurrection of Jesus. David’s decision was clearly God-inspired.
- Biblical Archeology Website, “Major Trade Routes.” http://www.bibarch.com/ArchaeologicalSites/TradeRoutes.htm
- The campaign as published by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews
- Night military engagements were few and far between in the ancient world and only became popular in modern times with the help of advanced night-vision technology
- Upon David’s conquest, “The City of David,” was only a few acres and comprises only a small fraction of modern-day Jerusalem. With subsequent kings, Jerusalem would expand. References today to the “City of David” refer only to the small portion of David’s initial conquest and the structures that David built during his reign.