The purpose of this series, Towns and Cities in the Bible, is to discover the-lesser known locations mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. Places such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho and Nazareth are well-known names, however, there are plenty more that are less common or even non-existent in the contemporary world. The first of these cities I am looking at is Shechem, which was first mentioned in Genesis 12:26: “Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”
Shechem, sometimes known as Sichem, was the first capital city of the Kingdom of Israel. Before the tribes were formed, Shechem was a Canaanite city and is mentioned on clay tablets dating from 1360 BC. It is believed the city was founded in c.2100 BC and was eventually destroyed in 67 AD. Today, the remains of the city can be found in the Palestinian suburb Balata al-Balad.
According to the Book of Judges, Shechem lay on the road going from Jerusalem to the northern districts. Judges 9:6-7 indicates that it was in the vicinity of Mount Gerizim and Joshua 20:7 described Shechem as being “in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah.” Due to its position, Shechem was likely a commercial city situated in the middle of important trade routes. During the Bronze Age, the city would have dealt in grapes, olives, wheat, livestock and pottery.
Early biblical ancestors treated Shechem with respect. In Genesis 12:7, “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspringI will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” This was confirmation of the covenant God had made with Abram (Abraham) earlier in the book.
In Genesis 33, we are told that Jacob “arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, the plot of ground where he pitched his tent.” (33:18-19) Whilst there, he set up an altar called El Elohe Israel, which means Might is the God of Israel. It is believed this is the same piece of land as the location of Jacob’s Well.
Whilst the city was under Canaanite control, the ruler was “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land,” which is perhaps how the city got its name: the City of Shechem. This prince is mentioned in detail during chapter 34 of the Book of Genesis. Titled Dinah and the Shechemites, the passage explains that Shechem raped Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, on a visit to the land. Horrified, her brothers set out to confront the prince who claimed to be in love with their sister. Shechem wished to take Dinah as his wife and the brothers told him he could only do this if all the men in the city were circumcised. This was readily agreed upon, however, whilst the men were recovering, Simeon and Levi attacked the city, killing all the males and taking all the animals.
The Israelites settled in Shechem after their Exodus from Egypt. By this time, many people had gone against God’s wishes, committing a variety of sins. In Joshua 24, the leader of the Israelites assembled the people at Shechem where he made them choose between serving the God of Abraham and serving the false Gods of their ancestors. The Israelites agreed to serve God and Joshua erected a memorial stone in honour of this occasion: “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.” (Joshua 24:27) The stone was placed near an oak tree, which is thought to be the “great tree of Moreh” mentioned in Genesis 12. After this event, the Israelites buried the bones of their ancestor Joseph, which they had carried with them from Egypt. (24:32)
The Book of Judges mentions Shechem several times, for example, it was the home of the concubine who bore Gideon’s son Abimelech (8:31). In the following chapter, Abimelech is made king, which is contested by Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, to no avail. Three years later, the city rose up against the king, however, Abimelech fought back and destroyed Shechem. The city was eventually rebuilt in the 10thcentury BC and became the capital of the new kingdom led by Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.
After this, Shechem appears to lose its importance and is only mentioned in passing in the books of Jeremiah and Hosea:
Shechem is only mentioned a couple of time in the New Testament. Acts 7:16 recalls events of the Old Testament: “Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.” The other mention is contested by some versions of the Bible. In the New Internation Version, we are told: “So [Jesus] came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph.” Other translations state “Shechem” but it is not certain whether Sychar was the same place. Nonetheless, if it is to be believed that Jacob’s well was built in Shechem, this is the location of Jesus’ talk with a Samaritan woman in John 4.
Shechem had eventually become a Samaritan settlement whose main religious centre stood on Mount Gerizim. In AD 6, however, Shechem was annexed to the Roman Province of Syria. Much later, the city was destroyed during the First Jewish-Roman War. The ancient city remained undiscovered until 1903 when a German party of archaeologists identified it.
Today, the ancient city of Shechem is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can be visited by tourists. Whilst no humans live in the city, it has become home to a wide range of wildlife. Just for fun, here are a few of the residents you may see:
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon