Jerusalem – early history

Now, the time of Korban Pesach in Yerushalayim, is a good opportunity to investigate a mystery of Yerushalayim that has never been adequately solved. Why did it take so long for Klal Yisroel to destroy the Yevusi enclave in Yerushalayim? Why were the Yevusi allowed to remain there until Dovid conquered their last stronghold four centuries after Yehoshua crossed the Jordan into Eretz Yisroel?


The Torah first mentions Yerushalayim during Avrohom’s 2023/1738 BCE war against the four kings when Malki Tzedek, King of Shalem, greets him with bread and wine (Breishis 14:18). Unkelos translates this as “King of Yerushalayim.” According to the Medrash Rabba (56), because Shem ben Noach called the city Shalem and Avrohom called it Hashem Yireh (ibid 22:14), these two names combined into the name Yerushalayim.

The name Yerushalayim appears in the famous Amarna Letters written a century or two before Yetzias Mitzrayim. Most of them were discovered in 5647/1887 when Egyptians searching for antiques in the ruined city of Amarna dug up hundreds of clay cuneiform tablets recording Paroh’s correspondence with neighboring states. Among them were letters from Abdi-Heba, the King of Yerushalayim. In one of them, Abdi-Heba sends Paroh an emergency appeal for help against his enemies:

“Say to the king [Paroh], my lord: Message of Abdi-Heba, your servant. I fall at the feet of my lord seven times and seven times. Consider the entire affair. Milkilu and Tagi brought troops into Qiltu against me… …May the king know [that] all the lands are at peace [with one another], but I am at war. May the king provide for his land.

“Consider the lands of Gazru (Gezer), Asqaluna (Ashkelon) and Lakisi (Lachish). They have given them [my enemies] food, oil and any other requirement. So may the king provide for archers and send the archers against men that commit crimes against the king, my lord. If this year there are archers, then the lands and the hazzanu (client kings) will belong to the king, my lord. But if there are no archers, then the king will have neither lands nor hazzanu. Consider Jerusalem! This neither my father nor my mother gave to me. The strong hand (arm) of the king gave it to me…. Consider, O king, my lord! I am in the right!….”

Centuries later, Yerushalayim is mentioned explicitly in Tanach when Adoni Tzedek king of Yerushalayim and four other Canaanite kings attack Klal Yisroel, and Yehoshua miraculously stops the sun and moon in their tracks in order to wipe them out (Yehoshua chapter 10).


This is where the mystery begins. Despite the destruction of Adoni Tzedek and his allies, sefer Yehoshua (15:63) tells us later, “The sons of Yehuda could not overcome the Yevusi, the dwellers of Yerushalayim, to inherit it.” What was holding the Jews back from taking Yerushalayim after Adoni Tzedek’s disastrous defeat?

The Sifri (Devorim 12:17) provides an answer: “They could [conquer them], but they were not permitted!” Rashi (based on Chazal) explains that this was because of Avrohom’s oath to Avimelech that he would not be false to his son or grandchild.

But according to this answer, why was Dovid allowed to capture Yerushalayim from the Yevusi four centuries later? Sefer Shmuel II (5:6-10) describes his battle as follows:

“The king and his men went to Yerushalayim to the Yevusi who lived in the land. They spoke to Dovid, saying, ‘You shall not come here unless you remove the blind and the lame,’ thinking, ‘Dovid will not come here.’ Dovid took the Citadel [metzuda] of Tzion, which is the City of Dovid. Dovid said on that day, ‘Whoever strikes the Yevusi and damages the aqueduct, and strikes the lame and the blind (hated by Dovid’s soul) [will be rewarded].’”

Later (Divrei Hayamim I 11:4-9), the Tanach relates how Yoav ben Tzeruya took up Dovid’s challenge, destroyed the lame and the blind, and collected his reward.

Who were these “lame and blind” that bothered Dovid so much? Rashi explains that they were idols upon which the oath Avrohom made to Avimelech was inscribed. The idols were shaped like blind and lame people in mockery of Avrohom’s sons, Yitzchok who was blind, and Yaakov who was lame.

Why was Dovid allowed to conquer the Yevusi despite Avrohom’s oath? Rashi (Shmuel II 5:6) explains that Avrohom had only promised to not harm Avimelech’s grandchildren; since no grandchildren were left by Dovid’s time, he was allowed to throw them out. But if the oath had already expired, why was Dovid so concerned about the idols in the first place? Why did he specially send Yoav to destroy them before taking over the last Yevusi enclave?

Furthermore, according to Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer (chapter 36), Dovid was concerned about a totally different oath that had not yet expired. This Medrash states:

“Three Avos made covenants with non-Jewish people, Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov. Avrohom made a covenant with non-Jewish people when the angels appeared to him. He thought they were human visitors and ran to meet them. He wanted to make them a great feast…. He ran to bring the calf and it fled from him and entered the Machpeilah Cave. He entered after it there and found Adam and Chava lying on their beds asleep with candles lit over them and pleasant incense. Therefore he wanted the Machpeilah Cave as a gravesite.

“He told the people of Yevusi that he wanted to buy the Machpeila Cave from them for a good price and with gold and with an eternal document as a gravesite.

But were they Yevusites? Were they not Chittites? Nevertheless, because they lived in the town of Yevus [Yerushalayim], they were called Yevusites.

“The people did not agree. He began to bow and prostrate himself before them…. They said, ‘We know that the Holy One will one day give your seed all these lands. Make with us a covenant by oath that Yisroel will not inherit the town of Yevus except with the agreement of the people of Yevus, and then you may acquire the Machpeilah Cave…..

“What did the people of Yevusi do [afterwards]? They made idolotrous images of copper, put them in the street of the town, and wrote Avrohom’s oath on them. When Yisroel came to the land and wanted to enter the town of Yevusi, they could not enter because of the sight of the covenant of Avrohom’s oath…. And when Dovid became king and wanted to enter the town of Yevusi they did not let him, as it says, ‘They spoke to Dovid, saying, ‘You shall not come here unless you remove the blind and the lame.’ Were not Yisroel like the sand of the sea? However, because of the oath covenant of Avrohom, Dovid saw and went back….

“Dovid said to his men, ‘Whoever goes up first and removes these idols on which the oath-covenant of Avrohom is written will be a made a leader, and Yoav went up first and became a leader…. Afterwards, Dovid acquired the town of Yevusi for Yisroel with an eternal document for an eternal heritage. What did he do? He took fifty shekels from each tribe, which reached a total of 600 shekels, and Dovid gave [them] to Arvona, etc.”

According to this Medrash, Avrohom’s oath to the Yevusi had no time restrictions and was supposed to last forever. So how could removing the lame and blind idols neutralize the oath and allow Dovid to seize their stronghold?


The rest of this Tanna d’Rebbe Eliezer provides an answer to this riddle. The Medrash goes on to describe Yitzchok’s covenant with Avimelech:

“What did Yitzchok do? He took a cubit of the reigns of the donkey he was riding and gave it to [Avimelech] as a sign that there would be an oath-covenant [between them]. When Dovid became king and wanted to enter the land of the Plishtim,

he could not enter… until he took the sign of Yitzchok’s oath-covenant from them as it says (Shemuel II 8:1), “Dovid took the cubit of the reigns from the hand of the Plishtim,” and it says (Shemuel I 7:13), “And the Plishtim were humbled and no longer, etc.”

The Medrash then discusses how Yaakov and Lavan sealed their covenant and oath with a pile of stones.

“When Dovid became king,” the medrash continues, “he wanted to enter the land of Aram and could not because of Yaakov’s covenant, until he broke that pile of stones….”

What is the common denominator of all three cases of the Medrash ? That to destroy the oaths of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, it suffi ced to destroy their physical symbols. What are the halachic parameters of this strange procedure? Since when can an oath be nullified by merely destroying its physical remembrance?

Chazal (see Sota 9b) indicate that Avrohom’s oath with the Plishtim was actually nullified the moment the Plishtim attacked his descendants after their return to Eretz Yisroel, and the same rationale can be applied to Adoni-Tzedek once he and his allies attacked Yehoshua. Once he breached Avrohom’s covenant, the Jews were free to do whatever they pleased against him and his city.

Only one thing bothered Dovid; it would be a chillul Hashem to attack the Plishtim and the Yevusi so long as they still held the tangible signs of these covenants in their hands, and because of this, he was careful to destroy these symbols in advance. Thus he was destroying the remnant of covenants that had in any case lost all their substance.


Now another problem arises at the end of Sefer Shmuel (II chapter 24) when Dovid buys the place of the altar from Aravna the Yevusi. Why was this necessary? Hadn’t Dovid already seized the whole of Yerushalayim from the Yevusi, including this threshing floor?

The Chinuch (mitzvah 284) explains that just as Shlomo refused to use the spoils Dovid had captured in war to build the Bais Hamikdash (see Rashi Melachim I 7:51), so Dovid did not want the Bais Hamikdash built except on land purchased for its full price. Also, buying this land from Aravna enabled all Yisroel to have a portion in it by contributing to its price as Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer said earlier. “Dovid then brought the town of Yevusi for Yisroel with an eternal document forever. What did he do? He took from each tribe fifty shekels, which totals to six hundred shekels, ‘And Dovid gave [the money] to Aravna, etc.’”

In addition, this legal acquisition of the threshing floor removed any future claims of the nations that the Jews have no right to this holy place as Rav Yudan bar Shimon states in Bereishis Rabba (79:7):

“This is one of the three places regarding which the nations of the world cannot oppress Yisroel saying, ‘They are in your hands through thievery!’ They are: the Machpeila Cave, the Temple and Yosef’s tomb… The Temple, as it is written: ‘So Dovid gave to Aravna for the place, etc.’”

If only our enemies would take this message to heart!

Source: Rav Yitzchak Lev, Shiur titled “David’s Census and the Revelation of the Site of the Temple in the Threshing-Floor of Aravna the Yevusi (part I), Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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