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Word Play What's in a Word

We don’t know about you, but we love to learn about words – their meanings, their origins, how to use them in conversation. In each issue of Response, we ask a campus expert to explore a word related to the magazine’s theme. This time, an SPU biblical scholar introduces the Hebrew word for “city.”

By Sara Koenig, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies

The Hebrew word for city is עִיר, pronounced “ear.” Some related Hebrew words help us better understand its meaning.

The verb י ָעִיר (ya-iyr) means “to protect” in Job 8:6. In the ancient Near East, a city was often a place of protection, surrounded by a fortified wall. In Leviticus 25:29–31 those walled cities are contrasted with open places, vulnerable to attack. The same verb gets translated as “to rouse, to stir up, to excite” in Deuteronomy 32:11 and Psalm 73:20. Certainly, cities – then and now – are places of excitement.

But cities in the Old Testament are not always painted in a good light. The first city is founded by Cain, the murderer (Genesis 4:17). Human arrogance is exemplified by the people at Babel who wanted to make a name for themselves by building a city (Genesis 11:4). The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are extreme examples of the city as inhospitable, with dire consequences (Genesis 19; Ezekiel 16:46–58).

Then again, the Old Testament gives us another picture of a city when it describes Jerusalem as the city of God,עִיר-ֱאלִהים (iyr elohim, Psalm 46:4). This city is the place of God’s presence, where the forces of chaos are shattered. Isaiah 26 depicts the New Jerusalem, the city that will exist when all others have passed away. It, too, will be a strong city, but its strength comes from God, who established its walls, and its inhabitants will be people of righteousness. Of course, the New Jerusalem, God’s holy city, is also described in Revelation 21:1-27:7. This city is the place where God will heal, restore, and dwell forever with God’s people.