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.



    • Thanks for raising this point, Edgar. Indeed, it is a common scholarly theory that the second part of the name "Jerusalem" may have originally referred to Shalim (who was probably at least partly regarded as an embodiment of what is expressed by Hebrew "shalom" and cognate words -- i.e., "peace, wholeness, safety, security..."). In that case, the city's name would have originally meant something likely along the lines of "Shalim founds/establishes" or "foundation/establishment of Shalim."
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  1. In contemporary English we read "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" and think in terms of asking God's protection on the city. But even in older English 'pray' means 'ask.' So when the Hebrew text of Psalm 122:6 says "sha’alu shelom Yerushalayim," “ask for the peace of Jerusalem,” could there be a double meaning? Ask for this peace within yourself, and/or ask that the city be at peace?
    • That is a really interesting question, Daniel. I think your reading is possible -- and probably other possibilities exist as well, as often happens with Biblical Hebrew. The following verses suggest that the primary meaning has to do with peace in Jerusalem itself; however, in my opinion it's always good to ask & think about secondary meanings and overtones as well.

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  2. "Ur" would mean city in Sumerian, to the east, cp. "Urban" in Latin to the west

    Given the antiquity of the site, and its indirect association with Ur of the Chaldees via Abraham, perhaps the meaning is Ur Salem = "city of peace" ?
    • Thanks for this point, Erik. I don't know the ancient languages well enough to answer with any certainty, but I think it is possible that Urusalim could have meant "city of peace/Shalim" (see also my response above to Edgar). Certainly "Jerusalem" has often been interpreted that way in later times. When we talk about very early names like this, much is shrouded in the shadowy dawn of history. Hence my article focuses mainly on how the name would have been interpreted from Biblical Hebrew times on (and in fact only deals with a part of that).
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  3. Shalom,
    I still don't know who was the founder of Jerusalem! Who were the people that lived in it previously before the Jews or Hebrews came to settle. I will google it to see if I can find out. Is there more written about the Melchizedek in any other ancient writings? Who were the Jebusites?
    • Thank you for the comment, Al. Aside from the Biblical texts, I don't think there are other known ancient writings mentioning Melchizedek until the Dead Sea Scrolls (about 2,000 years ago). As for the founding of Jerusalem, matters like this are shrouded in the shadowy dawn of history (as I put it to Erik above). The Jebusites were one of the peoples of Canaan; they may have been related to the Amorites (see Gen. 15:21; Josh. 10:1-5, 15:63, 18:28; Judg. 19:11-12; Ezek. 16:3; etc.). It also seems possible/likely that a different people group lived in Jerusalem prior to the Jebusites.
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