Jerusalem is one of the most famous places in the entire world. But where does its name come from, and what does it mean? The city itself has existed for about 4,000 years, so it is no surprise that we find multiple names and even multiple meanings linked with this ancient capital. The main Biblical Hebrew name ירושלים (Yerushalayim) “Jerusalem” has equivalents in ancient Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions, which mention Urusalim and Ursalimmu. The later Aramaic form is Yerushelem. The Canaanites apparently used a shorter form of the name, Shalem or Salem.
In Genesis 14:18-20 we read that King Melchizedek of Salem – who was also a “priest” or “servitor-of-the-deity” devoted to אל עליון (El Elyon) “God Supreme” – gave Abram bread and wine and blessed him. In Hebrew the name “Salem” is written שלם (Shalem) and seems related to שלום (shalom) “peace, wholeness.” The Arabic names Sālim and Salām come from the same Semitic root. Though the Bible does not explicitly connect Salem with Jerusalem, a later song does imply this connection: “His tabernacle shall be in Salem, and his den in Zion” (Ps 76:2/3). Intriguingly, another of Israel’s folksongs calls Melchizedek “a servitor-of-the-deity in perpetuity” (Ps 110:4).
By the first century, Jewish traditions clearly associated Salem with Jerusalem and also described Melchizedek as a great and powerful being with supernatural authority. The Dead Sea Scrolls include one text saying that Abram “came to Salem, which is Jerusalem” (1Q20). Another composition in the Qumran library portrays Melchizedek as exercising messianic functions of judgment and salvation (11Q13). The Jewish-Greek author of the Letter to the Hebrews similarly described Melchizedek as an eternal figure “like the Son of God,” translating his name and title as “King of Justice” and “King of Peace” (Heb 7:1-10).
But what about the first part of the name “Jerusalem”? Most researchers believe it comes from the root ירה (yarah), which has the primary meaning of “throw, cast, shoot.” This would make the Hebrew meaning of Yerushalayim something like “thrower/caster of peace/wholeness.” Since the verb also has extended meanings, the name “Jerusalem” could signify “founder/establisher of peace/wholeness” or even “indicator/teacher of peace/wholeness.” In an outstanding example of Biblical Hebrew poetic alliteration and wordplay, another of Israel’s songs urges, שאלו שלום ירושלם (sha’alu shelom Yerushalayim) “ask for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps 122:6). Perhaps this may be understood as an entreaty that Melchizedek’s ancient capital would not “cast away” its peace – as has happened so frequently throughout history – but instead “establish” and “teach” peace and wholeness to itself and to the world.