Did the biblical Jacob purchase Jerusalem, or another city?

As long as one accepts that “spread his tent” equals “encamped,” it seems inevitable to conclude, based on the text, that Jacob purchased Jerusalem.

UNDER HIS vine: View of a field used for growing vines in the Judean Mountains outside Jerusalem. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
UNDER HIS vine: View of a field used for growing vines in the Judean Mountains outside Jerusalem.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
Upon his return to the Promised Land, Jacob acquires a parcel of land. Unlike his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac who endured prolonged disputes over contested wells and territory, Jacob makes his ownership unquestionable by purchasing the property. But what is this territory he bought? The biblical text seems clear. It is Jerusalem!: “And Jacob came to Shalem, the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan Aram, and encamped before the city.”
Shalem is a name for Jerusalem, as evident in the books of Genesis, Joshua and Psalms. Biblical interpreters concur that Shalem is Jerusalem but most of them argue that Shalem here is not a reference to a city that is owned by Shechem but rather a description of Jacob’s state of being - “complete” or “in peace.”
This in my view is a departure from the text (pshat). Rashbam offers a dissenting opinion, arguing that indeed Shalem is a city owned by Shechem, but he claims that this is not “the” Jerusalem but another city that happens to have the same name.
The interpreters’ difficulty in recognizing Jacob’s purchase of Jerusalem is understandable since Shechem is situated kilometers north of Jerusalem, but we know of even broader territorial spheres of Esau, Ishmael and Abimelech.
Hence it is logical that Jerusalem would be the city of Shechem, just as Beersheba is the city of Abimelech.
THE BIBLE describes the transaction: “And he bought the parcel of ground where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred kesitah.”
As long as one accepts that “spread his tent” equals “encamped,” it seems inevitable to conclude, based on the text, that Jacob purchased Jerusalem!
This is further strengthened by what Jacob does there once the acquisition has taken place. He builds a temple to worship God, which we know is a defining characteristic of Jerusalem. “And he erected there an altar and called it El-elohe-Israel,” says the Bible.
Supporting evidence is provided by the treaty that Abraham struck a century earlier with the King of Shalem, who is described as “priest of God”. Hence, in seeking a territory to purchase, it would only seem natural - from a political, practical and theological point of view – that Jacob would purchase Shalem! Indeed, after the purchase, the family of Israel are referred to by the locals as “Shlemim” - i.e. the people of Shalem (“Jerusalemites”).
Moreover, at this juncture there is no indication that there is any additional travel intended, nor any such instruction to Jacob by God.
And so, the epic story that started in Abraham’s Lech Lecha comes to a happy end. Jacob returns home, purchases Jerusalem, his claim is globally recognized and Israel lives in peace under his vine and fig tree. Indeed, Theodor Herzl’s utopia Old New Land could be viewed as a subconscious midrash for Genesis 33:18. Life is so good that Jacob’s daughter Dina feels safe to venture out to spread the light of Zion to the locals.
End of the Old-Land utopia
Dina is kidnapped, and in a brutal retaliatory operation, the sons of Israel massacre the inhabitants of Shechem. This triggers the risk-aversion tendencies of Jacob, evident earlier in his escape from Padan Aram and in his encounter with Esau. He tells his sons, “they will gather themselves together against me and smite me and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.” He decides to leave his newly-purchased property.
After a God-mandated worship at Beit El, he does not return but proceeds toward Hebron where his father Isaac lives, and where there is a history of friendly relations with the locals. Indeed, Hebron, where Abraham purchased a field from Ephron, and Jerusalem, that Jacob purchased from Shechem, are the two documented Israel-owned real estates of the Torah. Hebron would remain the de facto capital of Israel for centuries to come, but it seems that the Children of Israel never forgot Jerusalem.
When King David was inaugurated, he unexpectedly moved the capital from Hebron to Jerusalem! King David “goes there to the Jebusite,” the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The Jebusites then tell him: “You will not come here because you have been removed by the blind and the lame.”
Who those blind and lame were remains a mystery. The common interpretation is that they played a role in “the battle of Jerusalem.” But a textual read could suggest that they are mentioned in the context of negating David’s legal claim to the city.
Is the Jebusites’ reference to the blind and the lame a suggestion that the Shechem atrocities invalidate Jacob’s purchase? Or alternatively, does it indicate that the Israelis turning Shechem into a shelter city for their fugitives gives rise to a symmetric legal claim to turn Jerusalem into a city for the blind and the lame?
We don’t know but can ascertain from both King David’s unexplained decision to set the capital in Jerusalem, and the apparent ease of its capture, that there was a preexisting claim to Jerusalem. Similarly, when David seeks to purchase a threshing floor near the city, the owner offers it for free.
Moreover, the David-Jebus dialogue bares startling resemblance to the diplomatic dialogue between Jephthah, who claimed Israeli ownership of land due to rights obtained centuries prior, and the King of Amnon, who refuted the Israeli claim. (In both cases the international law foreplay was then settled by force.)
Just as Jacob’s tenure in Jerusalem was finite, so was the Israelis’ who were expelled by the Babylonians. Yet the Israelis never forgot Jerusalem, weeping by the rivers of Babylon as they remembered Zion. After returning, they were exiled again by the Romans. It is during this time that the longing for Zion morphed into a cornerstone of rabbinical Judaism (Judaism 2.0), alongside the contradicting principle not to rebel nor attempt to return. This was the operating environment of the interpreters of the Bible.
Resumption of the Old-New-Land utopia
Just as Jacob received a prophetic urge to return, so did Herzl. That night in Padan Aram when Jacob gathered his family to tell them we are coming home is akin to that night in Basel in 1897 when Herzl gathered his nation to tell them the same. One of the attendees, Israel Zangwill, reflected: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the river of Basel, we sat and determined to weep no more!”
The Israelis reclaimed all of Jerusalem in 1967 and turned it – just as Herzl envisioned in Old New Land - into “a home for all the best strivings of the human spirit: for faith, love, knowledge.” For the following 50 years, diplomatic attempts were made to take away Jerusalem, to lame it (divide it) or blind it (make it a “Corpus separatum,” an extraterritorial city).
But in 2017, the US recognized that Jerusalem is indeed the capital of Israel, and subsequently since 2020, the nations of the region have been striking peace treaties with Israel. Nearly 4,000 years after Jacob’s acquisition, his 100 kesitah are now yielding a return on investment of infinity.
The writer is the author of upcoming book, Judaism 3.0. Details and comments: [email protected] For his geopolitical articles: EuropeAndJerusalem.com. For his parasha commentaries: ParashaAndHerzl.com