Zaphon, Olympus, Sinai and Zion: The mountain of God (Psalm 48)

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Illustration: Mount Zion

Most people today are aware that the gods of the Greek myths had their palace on Mount Olympus; less well known is Zaphon, the sacred mountain of the Canaanite god Baal-Hadad. The actual Mount Olympus (9,573 feet in height) is in northern Greece at the border of Thessaly and Macedonia; the actual Zaphon (5,807 feet high) is in the northern Syria on the Orontes River. In both cases the mystery and grandeur of a high mountain in the far north seemed appropriate to ancient peoples as the abodes of their gods.

The Israelites also had sacred mountains. The first of these were Mount Sinai, located far to he south. Mount Sinai was not recognized as the home of God but as the mountain to which He had descended in order to meet Moses and give Israel His law. Despite the fact that a pivotal event in Israel’s history had taken place there, later texts, such as the Psalms, pay relatively little attention to Sinai. It does not appear to have been a place of pilgrimage either, although on one occasion Elijah did journey to Sinai in order to encounter God (see 1 Kings 19:8, where Sinai is called Horeb).

Both the psalmist and the Old Testament prophets paid far more attention to Mount Zion. This is somewhat surprising, for, unlike the other mountains mentioned above, Zion is neither remote nor particularly impressive. It constitutes the hilly area of Jerusalem – more specifically, the temple mount. The claim of Psalm 48:2 (“It is beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth. Like the utmost heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion“) would hardly seem accurate with reference to its literal height. This area of Jerusalem sist about 2,000 feet above sea level, and although the views are impressive Zion hardly dominates the area of Judah in the same way Olympus overshadows Greece. Also, unlike the other mountains, it had a large human population and thus none of the remoteness or mystery typically associated with the mountains of the gods.

The term “Zion” in the Old Testament is used as a kind of code word for the coming kingdom of God. Zion was a symbol of God’s domination over the whole earth, as well as the promise of a great future, when the Gentiles would come and submit to Israel’s God (Isaiah 2:2-4). The worship at the temple was a foretaste of that future, when David’s kingdom would extend over all humanity forever. The very presence of Zion in a human city, Jerusalem, was proof that God’s covenant was with people and that, unlike the other gods of the nations, He would indeed dwell among us.


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