Shechem: Its Archaeological and Contextual Significance

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Excerpt Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well in John 4 is an excellent example of the importance of context in developing a passage. The story takes place near the Old Testament city of Shechem. Shechem is mentioned 60 times in the Old Testament. The city had been abandoned by New Testament times, but Stephen reiterates its importance in his speech in Acts 7:16. A small village, Sychar, was near the ruins of Shechem in New Testament times and is mentioned in the John 4 account (Jn 4:5). Unfortunately, most Bible studies of events at or near Shechem, and commentaries on the Book of John, omit Shechem’s pivotal role in Bible history and how it fit into God’s salvation plan. Continue reading

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This article was first published in the Spring 2005 issue of Bible and Spade.

“If the full meaning of a passage [in the Bible] is to be grasped, the context of the passage needs to be appropriately developed” (Greenwold 2004: 72). In his pithy study of Luke’s Gospel account of Elizabeth and Zachariah, Greenwold gives an example of what he means: “All too often in our church lifetime, we end up being given many theological and doctrinal factual ornaments, but seldom are we shown the tree upon which to hang them. It’s as if we have been handed dozens of pieces to a puzzle, but have never seen what the finished picture on the top of the puzzle box looks like” (2004: 73). I think that Greenwold has it right.

Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well in John 4 is an excellent case in point. The story takes place near the Old Testament city of Shechem. Shechem is mentioned 60 times in the Old Testament. The city had been abandoned by New Testament times, but Stephen reiterates its importance in his speech in Acts 7:16. A small village, Sychar, was near the ruins of Shechem in New Testament times and is mentioned in the John 4 account (Jn 4:5). Unfortunately, most Bible studies of events at or near Shechem, and commentaries on the Book of John, omit Shechem’s pivotal role in Bible history and how it fit into God’s salvation plan.

 

The narrow pass where ancient Shechem is located at the modern city of Nablus, view west. Mt. Gerizim is on the left and Mt. Ebal on the right. Dr. James C. Martin.

Archaeological investigations have corroborated much of what the Bible has to say about Shechem’s physical and cultural aspects. Archaeology has confirmed Shechem’s location, its history, and many Biblical details. In this article I will integrate what archaeology has illuminated about this important place and its geographical importance with a macro look at Shechem’s place in revealing God’s promise and plan to restore believers to Him.1

Map of Shechem area showing the location of Tell Balata (ancient Shechem), Joseph’s tomb and Jacob’s Well. ASOR, 2002.

Location and Exploration

About 30 mi (49 km) north of Jerusalem is a low, 15-acre mound, known as Tell Balata. This nondescript ruin covers what was ancient Shechem. The tell rests in a long, narrow, east-west valley with the two highest mountains in central Palestine towering over it, Mt. Ebal on the north and Mt. Gerizim on the south. The Hebrew word shekem means “back” or “shoulder,” which probably refers to Shechem’s placement between the two mountains. Coming from the south, the major road from Beersheba, Hebron and Jerusalem splits here. One branch goes east, around Mt. Ebal, and provides access to the Jordan Valley and cities like Beth Shan. The western arm leads to the coastal plain and cities to the north such as Samaria and Dothan. Thus, ancient Shechem and its modern counterpart, Nablus, are in a very strategic location along the watershed road between Judah, the Jordan Valley, Transjordan, and the Galilee.2

In 1903, a group of German scholars under the direction of H. Tiersch examined Tell Balata and concluded it was ancient Shechem. Until that time there had been controversy over whether Tell Balata, or the modern city of Nablus nearby, was the location of ancient Shechem. Tiersch’s identification has never been seriously questioned.

E. Sellin led an Austro-German excavation team to Tell Balata in 1913 and 1914. His work was interrupted by World War I. Sellin began work again in 1926 and continued until 1936. Work was resumed in 1956 by an American team under the direction of G. E. Wright and B. W. Anderson. The latest season of excavations at Tell Balata was in 1973 under the direction of W. G. Dever (Campbell 1993: 1347; Seger 1997:21).

Aerial view of the ruins of Shechem. On the right is the Middle Bronze fortification wall and in the upper center the “Migdal,” or fortress, temple. Holy Land Satellite Atlas, 1999, p. 100.

Abram at Shechem

The first mention of Shechem in the Bible is Genesis 12:6, when Abram first entered Canaan. It is succinctly described: “Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem.” At that time, God promised Abram, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gn 12:7). The next mention of Shechem is 11 chapters, and about 200 years, later, when the Bible records that Jacob, Abram’s grandson, “camped within sight of the city” (Gn 33:18).

Assuming a conservative dating for the Patriarchal events in the Bible,3 note that Abram camped in Canaan about 2090 BC and there is no mention of a city. However, when Jacob arrived 200 hundred years later, around 1890 BC, the Bible notes that he “camped within sight of the city [Shechem].” In the original Hebrew, the word translated in our English Bible as “city” meant a permanent, walled settlement (Hansen 2003:81, Wood 1999:23). Genesis 34:20 and 24 report that Shechem had a city gate; therefore it was fortified.

Can archaeology clarify if there was or was not a city? Yes. The absence of a “city” and walls at Tell Balata when Abram came through and the existence of a city in the time of Jacob is in complete agreement with what the Bible indicates is Shechem’s early history.

Excavations have revealed that the earliest urbanization at Tell Balata was in MB I (Levels XXII-XXI), about 1900–1750 BC. MB I was when Jacob lived by the city of Shechem. Prior to MB I, in the time of Abram’s visit, archaeology has demonstrated that there was a gap in settlement and an absence of fortification walls. Thus, there was no “city” for Abram to reference, as the Bible correctly infers (Campbell 1993: 1347).

Jacob and Joseph at Shechem

What was the city like when Jacob settled there? Archaeologists have revealed that Tell Balata in MB I had structures with mudbrick walls on stone foundations and they have found an abundance of artifacts typical of domestic living (Toombs 1992: 1179). The Bible records that during Jacob’s stay he purchased land near Shechem. This parcel would become the place where his son, Joseph, would later be entombed (Jos 24:32). The tumultuous Dinah affair also occurred during Jacob’s stay at Shechem. Its aftermath resulted in the murder of Shechem’s male population by two of Jacob’s sons (Gn 33–34). Subsequently, God told Jacob to move to Bethel (Gn 35:1) and then on to Hebron (Gn 35:7).

The next Biblical mention of Shechem is in connection with the story of 17-year-old Joseph, Jacob’s son, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers (Gn 37). In the account, Joseph’s brothers were grazing the family’s flocks near Shechem when Jacob sent Joseph to inquire of them. After looking for them at Shechem, he found them a short distance north at Dothan. There, the brothers conspired to sell Joseph into slavery, setting the stage for the subsequent accounts of Joseph’s rise to power, Jacob and his family moving to Egypt and, later, Israel’s oppression by Egyptian Pharaohs.

The earliest known extra-Biblical written record of Shechem comes from the Middle Bronze period. It is an inscription on a stele (an upright standing stone) of an Egyptian, Khu-Sebek, who was a nobleman in the court of Sesostris III (ca. 1880–1840 BC). It was found in 1901 by the renowned archaeologist J. Garstang at Abydos, Egypt. King Sesostris III became ruler shortly after Jacob was at Shechem, and he was probably the king when Jacob died in Egypt. Khu-Sebek’s stele describes how the king’s army campaigned in a foreign country named Sekmem (Shechem) and how “Sekmem fell” (Toombs 1992: 1179). W. Shea believes that the campaign on Khu-Sebek’s stele is none other than the Egyptians’ account of the military encounters experienced by the entourage accompanying Joseph when Jacob’s embalmed body was brought to Canaan for entombment at Machpelah (Gn 50:12–14) (Shea 1992: 38 ff.).

Khu-Sebek’s stele reveals that as early as the 19th century BC, Shechem was an important strategic location and a place worthy of mention in a notable Egyptian’s biography.

Stela of Khu-Sebek. He is shown seated, accompanied by members of his family, his nurse, and the superintendent of the cabinet. Discovered by British archaeologist John Garstang at Abydos, Egypt, in 1901, the stela is now on display in the museum of the University of Manchester, England. Mike Luddeni.

Joshua at Shechem

A little over 400 years later, God rescued the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and led them through the desert wilderness for 40 years. Near the end of this sojourn, their leader Moses said that once they entered the land God had promised them (at Shechem, see Gn 12:7!), they were to erect an altar on Mt. Ebal (Dt 27:4) and read portions of the Law while the people were assembled before Mounts Ebal and Gerizim (Dt 11:26–30; 27:12, 13).

As I noted above, the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim overlook the valley wherein lay Shechem. The mountains form a natural amphitheater in which the recitation of the Law could easily be heard. Despite the mountains’ heights (Ebal is 3,083 ft [940 m] and Gerizim is 2,890 ft [881 m]), there are many contemporary accounts of people speaking from the slopes of the mountains and being heard in the valley below. Even with the noise of the busy modern city of Nablus, I myself have been in the park at the top of Gerizim and clearly heard the voices of children playing in the Balata refugee camp at Gerizim’s base.

Joshua fulfilled Moses’ instructions and led the people directly to Gerizim and Ebal after defeating the stronghold at Ai (Jos 7–8). Assuming an “early Exodus” date (1446 BC), the Israelite entry into Canaan, after 40 years in the wilderness, was approximately 1406 BC, in the Late Bronze (LB) IB period.4 LB IB corresponds with Tell Balata’s Level XIV (Campbell 1993: 1347; Toombs 1992: 1178). During the 350 years of the previous MB period, the city had been fortified with earthen embankments and cyclopean wall fortifications. However, Shechem was destroyed around 1540 BC. The ferocity of the destruction resulted in debris covering the city up to a depth of 5.25 ft (1.6 m). It is surmised that the Egyptian armies of Ahmose I or Amenhotep I were the aggressors (Toombs 1992: 1182).

About 90 years after that catastrophe the city was rebuilt early in the LB I period, around 1450 BC. Level XIV corresponds to this date and is noted for the reconstruction of the city’s defensive walls, homes, and a well built, fortress-type, temple. This Level XIV occupation was the city at which Joshua and the Israelites arrived to fulfill Moses’ orders to read the Law before Ebal and Gerizim around 1406 BC.

The Book of Joshua makes an interesting observation about that visit:

All Israel, aliens and citizens alike.... were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, facing those who carried it.... There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them (Jos 8:33, 35).

It appears that the crowd who heard the words of the Law that day was composed of both Israelites and native Shechemites (aliens)! The Bible implies that both Shechemites and Israelites co-existed at Shechem. This unusual situation can be further confirmed by the fact that Shechem became one of only three Israelite Cities of Refuge on the west side of the Jordan River, as well as being a city of the Levitical priesthood (Jos 20:7; 21:21). All this occurred even though there is no record in the Bible of it being taken in battle.5

Years later, Joshua again gathered the Israelites at Shechem (Jos 24). He reminded them of God’s promises and how He had fulfilled those promises and delivered them from diversities. Joshua then challenged the people to say whom they would serve and they promised to serve God (Jos 24:14–20). The renewal ceremony between the Israelites and God recognized the promises God made to Abraham (Gn 12:7; 17:7, 8), Jacob, and the people at Sinai through Moses (Ex 24:8).

The next event at Shechem in the Bible was the fulfillment of another promise: the burial of the Patriarch Joseph. Just before his death in Egypt, Joseph asked his brothers to bring his body back to the land “promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” when God delivered them from Egypt (Gn 50:24–25).

And Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. This became the inheritance of Joseph’s descendants (Jos 24:32).

Today, there is a place near Tell Balata venerated by the Jewish and Samaritan faiths as the traditional location of Joseph’s tomb. The shrine marking the tomb, and an associated Jewish school, were reduced to rubble in October 2000 in the wake of the most recent hostilities between the Palestinian Arabs and the State of Israel. Conflicting views have abounded as to whether this was, in fact, Joseph’s final resting place. Unfortunately, no archaeological excavations are known to have taken place at this site that could verify that this was the true location of the tomb of Joseph. Several ancient texts mention the site, but the exact location of Joseph’s tomb is still in question.

The discovery of a LB Egyptian library at Amarna has provided additional insights on the LB period. Letters in the library reveal Egypt’s relationship with Canaan’s rulers in the mid-14th century BC. Some of the letters disclose that the kings of Shechem were independent of Egypt. Further, Shechem’s rulers were criticized by other Canaanite rulers for cooperating with an invading group of desert people called the Habiru. Many conservative evangelical scholars (e.g., Wood 1997; 2003: 269–71) believe the Habiru were the Israelites of the early Judges period. 

Letter from Labayu, king of Shechem, to the king of Egypt, probably Amenhotep III. It is defiant in tone, suggesting Labayu had a measure of independence from Egypt (Hess 1993). The letter, numbered El Amarna 252, is written in Akkadian cuneiform, albeit with Canaanite grammar and syntax, and is on display in the British Museum. Mike Luddeni.

Abimelech at Shechem

Later in Bible history, Abimelech, the son of Gideon’s Shechemite concubine (Jgs 8:31), colluded with some Shechemites to kill 70 of Abimelech’s brothers (Jgs 8:30–31; 9). However, Abimelech’s youngest brother Jotham survived (Jgs 9:5). Jotham climbed to the top of Mt. Gerizim and shouted to the Shechemites below. He foretold the destruction of the men of Shechem by fire (Jgs 9:7–21). Later in the same chapter we read that the people of Shechem rose against Abimelech’s leadership. In response, Abimelech fought against the city and razed it. During the attack the leaders of Shechem tried to save themselves in “the stronghold of the temple of El-berith” (Jgs 9:46). The story continues:

He [Abimelech] took an ax and cut off some branches, which he lifted to his shoulders. He ordered the men with him, “Quick! Do what you have seen me do!” So all the men cut branches and followed Abimelech. They piled them against the stronghold and set it on fire over the people inside. So all the people in the tower of Shechem, about a thousand men and women, also died (Jgs 9:48–49).

Archaeologists (e.g., E. Campbell, B. Mazar, G. E. Wright and L. Stager) refer to the “tower of Shechem” as “the Tower (migdal) Temple or Fortress-Temple” of Shechem (Campbell 1993: 1348, Stager 2003: 26 and 68 note 1). Stager recently reexamined the work of Wright who, in 1926, excavated a large building that has been reported to be this Fortress-Temple (Stager 2003). Stager’s conclusions are that this Temple, “Temple 1, ” was, in fact, the migdal referred to in Judges 9. It is the largest such Canaanite structure found in Israel and was 70 ft (21 m) wide, 86 ft (26 m) long with stone foundation walls 17 ft (5.1 m) thick. The foundation supported a multistory mudbrick and timber temple with an entrance flanked by two large towers. Stager hypothesized that the courtyard of this temple could have been where Joshua “took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD” (Jos 24:26).

Stager (2003: 68) places the destruction of the Fortress-Temple around 1100 BC. So does Seger (1997: 22), who correlates the destruction debris found at Level XI as being from the Iron IA period. Campbell (1993: 1347) states that there was a “significant” destruction “around 1100 BCE” and guardedly concludes, “connecting Level XI with the story underlying Judges 9 is plausible” (1993: 1352).

Dating Shechem’s destruction to 1100 BC helps confirm the Biblical date of 1406 BC as the beginning of the Conquest in Canaan. To do this, it is necessary to know that immediately after we read in the Bible of Abimelech’s destruction of Shechem, Jephthah, the ninth Judge, appears (Jgs 11, 12). Jephthah was hired by Israelites who lived in Gilead, east of the Jordan River, to confront the Ammonites who had made war on them for 18 years. Jephthah first attempted diplomacy with the Ammonite king. He reminded the Ammonite king that the Israelites had been in the land east of the Jordan River for “300 years” (Jgs 11:21–26). Jephthah, of course, was referring to the time when Moses led the Israelites through that region and defeated numerous kings (Nm 21:21–31).

Thus, if Abimelech destroyed Shechem ca. 1125–1100 BC (Jgs 9), and Abimelech was a contemporary of Jephthah, the Conquest would have occurred about 300 years earlier, in ca. 1400 BC (1100 BC + 300 years = 1400 BC).

Shechem in the Time of the Divided Monarchy

The Bible sheds little light on Shechem’s role during the reigns of Saul, David or Solomon. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, was next in line for the throne. All the Israelites assembled at Shechem to anoint Rehoboam king. Rehoboam, however, acted foolishly by chiding the northern tribes and telling them he would tax them heavily. In defense, the northern tribes retaliated by separating themselves from Rehoboam and the southern kingdom. The northern tribes made Jeroboam I king of their region. The country, formerly unified under David and Solomon, became divided. The northern region and tribes, led by Jeroboam I, was known as Israel. The southern area and tribes, first led by Rehoboam, is referred to as Judah in the Bible.

Levels X and IX at Tell Balata represent the Jeroboam I period and are noted for carefully built houses of selected stones. The discovery of stone foundations for stairs suggests two-story, four-room houses, typical homes of that period (Dever 1994: 80–81). Campbell concludes that Level IX (920–810 BC) has “tangible evidence of Jeroboam I’s rebuilding (1 Kg 12:25) and a return to city status” (1993: 1352–53).

The Assyrian invasion of Israel in 724 BC (2 Kgs 17:5–6) brought another destruction to Shechem. The evidence is in Level VII. Toombs noted that in Level VII the city was “reduced to a heap of ruins, completely covered by debris of fallen brickwork, burned beams and tumbled building stones,” typical examples of Assyrian thoroughness (1992: 1185). In addition to the destruction, the Assyrians placed exiled peoples from other nations into the region around Shechem, a common Assyrian practice (2 Kgs 17:23–24).

These new peoples added Yahweh to their own beliefs (2 Kgs 17:25–30). The new religion mimicked Judaism in many respects and Mt. Gerizim was made the center of its worship. New Testament practitioners of the cult are called “Samaritans,” which also referred to the people who lived in the vicinity (Mt 10:5; Lk 9:52, 10:53; 17:16; Jn 4:7, 9, 22, 39, 40; 8:48; Acts 8:25). A remnant of the ancient Samaritans still lives on Mt. Gerizim and they practice sacrifices there just as they did 2,700 years ago.7

Shechem in the Intertestamental Period

Between the Old and New Testaments, Shechem had a modest recovery and there is an abundance of evidence that excellent buildings were constructed in this, the Hellenistic, period (ca. 330–107 BC). It was during this time that the Samaritans built a large temple and sacrificial platform on Mt. Gerizim, the remains of which were still visible in Jesus’ day (Jn 4:20).

As fighting between the Ptolemies and Seleucids swirled around the country in the intertestamental period, physical decline again took place at Shechem. This decline culminated when the Jewish leader, John Hyrcanus, took advantage of the temporary absence of outside armies and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim (ca. 126 BC). He leveled the city in 107 BC. Shechem never recovered from this destruction and lay in ruins until identified by Tierschin 1901.

Shechem in the New Testament Period

Samaritans continued to live in the area during the following years, the Roman period. This is confirmed by the discovery of human burials from the period on the lower slopes of Mt. Ebal (Magen 1993: 1358–59). It is known that Samaritans also made several attempts to renew their cult worship on Mt. Gerizim. The Romans suppressed their efforts and in AD 72 constructed a new city, Flavia-Neapolis, about 1 mi (1.6 km) west of Tell Balata (Magen 2001: 40). This new city is now Nablus, a modern Arab city of about 120,000 people8 whose name is probably a corruption of Roman city, Neapolis.

About 500 yd (460 m) southeast of Tell Balata is an ancient well, venerated to be a well that Jacob, the Patriarch, dug when he lived there. Such a well is not mentioned in the Old Testament. There is a small Arab village, Askar, just north of the well. Most scholars associate Askar with Sychar, the village in John 4 near “Jacob’s well” (Jn 4:6). The authenticity of the well is not only based on its physical identification in John 4, but also on “the fact that all traditions-—Jewish, Samaritan, Christian and Muslim-—support it” (Stefanovic 1992: 608). Several churches in Christian history have been built on the site of the well and today it is located under a recently constructed Greek Orthodox church. Access to the well is gained by going down steps from the apse of the new church.

Jacob’s well as it appeared in the 1870s. In the right background is Mt. Gerizim with the tomb of the Arab sheikh, where the ruins of the Samaritan temple were located in New Testament times, visible at the peak. Todd Bolen.

Jacob’s well, at the base of Mt. Gerizim, is at the junction of the main road leading from Jerusalem in the south. Here, the road splits with the eastern branch going toward the Jordan Valley and the western branch leading to Nablus, and in NT times, Samaria and the Galilee. It is an excellent setting for one of the most important passages in the Bible-—the account of Jesus’ verbal Messianic announcement in the fourth chapter of John. In this passage Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, dialogues with her, and tells her He is the long-awaited Messiah.

Mt. Gerizim (left peak) as seen from Jacob’s well. When the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain,” she was no doubt referring to the ruins of the Samaritan temple on top of Mt. Gerizim. The small structure on the peak marks the location of the ruins of the Samaritan temple that easily could have been seen from Jacob’s well in Jesus’ day. Bryant Wood.

Significance of Shechem in Understanding John 4

This article began by stating that context in reading the Bible was important to full understanding of what the original writers wanted the original hearers/listeners to know. In the case of Shechem, it is clear that the writer of John’s Gospel was appealing to the hearer/reader’s understanding of Shechem’s unique historical and theological context.

First, the author established that the event took place at Sychar (Jn 4:6). By making reference to Jacob he reminded his readers/hearers that this is where Jacob first settled when he returned to the Promised Land from Paddan Aram (Gn 33:18). At this spot Abram received God’s promise that “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gn 12:7). In addition to God’s promise given here to Abram, the writer wanted the hearer/reader to remember that many human agreements were made at Shechem in Bible history. Unfortunately, most were corrupted because of man’s sin. For example, Jacob made a promise to spare Hamor and the Shechemites after Dinah was sexually violated. Jacob’s use of circumcision to confirm the agreement with the Shechemites was the same symbol God had ordained as “the sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Gn 17:11). To seal a human agreement in this manner and have it subsequently abrogated as Jacob’s sons had done (Gn 34), could not have escaped the attention of the original hearers/reader.

Later, we read in the Bible that Jacob did not destroy family idols: rather he simply placed them under a tree near Shechem (Gn 35). This whole account is a testimony to the human condition and our willful tendency not to obey God. Jacob, who even had the privilege of a personal revelation from God, still could not totally eliminate idol worship; he played on the edge and placed the idols under a tree rather than destroying them.

The reader/hearer also should have been reminded that Shechem was near the place where Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and then concocted a lie to explain Joseph’s absence to their father Jacob (Gn 37)—another example of man’s deceit and deception.

All of these accounts are, in themselves, mini-stories that illustrate the human condition and how incapable we are of making a lasting promise to God. As a result, we are in need of rescue and restoration and only God, with His patience, could develop and execute a plan, seen throughout Bible history, for accomplishing a restoration that did not rely on man’s fallible nature.

Juxtaposed against the human failings, lies and deceits, the hearer/reader’s attention was brought to the fact that Shechem was where God reminded the people that He is faithful. Having given Abram the promise of the land, the Israelites were to remember that promise by going to Shechem, building an altar worshipping and re-reading God’s Law. This would refresh in the minds of the Israelites how God had led them out of bondage as He had promised and into a land He had promised. The rededication ceremony was accomplished and is described in Joshua 8. Following the conquest, Joshua again assembled the people at Shechem where he reviewed God’s promises and Israel’s obligations, eliciting from the people an agreement that they would “serve the Lord our God and obey Him” (Jos 24:24). This promise was another one that was repeatedly broken as revealed in the succeeding books of the Old Testament.

Earlier in Israel’s history Joseph, as he lay dying in Egypt, reminded the people that God would lead them to the land He had promised to Abraham, Isaac and his father Jacob. He asked that when they did return, they “carry my bones up from this place” (Gn 50:25). This was fulfilled in Joshua 24:32 when the body of Joseph was placed in a tomb in Shechem.

The Hebrew hearer/reader would also remember that Shechem became the center for the idolatrous worship practices that occurred following Israel’s capture by the Assyrians. Importing peoples from other lands and exporting Jewish believers, syncretism of pagan beliefs and Jewish practices resulted in a corrupted form of worship that became centered at Shechem and on Mt. Gerizim by people who were known as Samaritans. They chose to be worshippers of other gods despite their earlier promise in Joshua 24.

Ruins of a fifth century AD octagonal church on Mt. Gerizim, view north. The church, dedicated to Mary, was built on top of a temple built by the Samaritans in the late fifth century BC. John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple in the late second century BC. The small domed building at the northeast corner, the tomb of an Arab sheikh, is the structure visible from Jacob’s well in the valley below. IAA.

I believe the author of John wanted the reader and hearer to recognize and associate Shechem with God’s eternal unbroken promises, man’s corrupted state, the need for a Rescuer and how a Rescuer had been promised throughout history. In John 4 the Rescuer is revealed. The Samaritan woman makes known the promise: “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” And the Rescuer, Jesus, replied that the Messiah was at hand: “I Who speak to you am He” (Jn 4:26)!

The Samaritan woman’s response was to immediately run into the village, leaving her water jar behind, and tell everyone that the Rescuer was there. What glorious news! The Samaritans rushed to the well, welcomed Him and exclaimed that Jesus was the Rescuer, “the Savior of the world” (Jn 4:42).

It should challenge us to remember that shortly after Jesus’ declaration that He was Messiah, He would complete the promise and achieve the rescue through His death, burial and ascension. As He prepared His disciples for their duties, He told them that they would be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The story of Shechem and the Samaritan region had come full circle—from the promises to the Patriarchs to fulfillment of salvation as heard by the woman at the well and declared to the disciples.

Now we have the contextual history of Shechem. It is apparent that the original hearer/reader of John’s Gospel fully understood how Shechem had been a focal point of God’s unbroken promises and man’s fallibility. Hopefully, for the reader of this essay, all pieces of the puzzle of Shechem can now be understood and assembled so one can see the finished picture. And what a wonderful picture it is!

Footnotes

1. The author wishes to express his appreciation to Dr. James C. Martin for permission to use the photographs credited to him in this article.
2. For a discussion of geographical criteria that make for strategic locations in ancient Israel, see Hansen 1991.
3. For these dates, see Davis 1975: 29.
4. For a brief discussion of how this date is derived, see Hansen 2003: 80.
5. See Wood 1997 for his explanation of this unusual situation.
6. For a more thorough discussion of the Amarna tablets and the identity of the Habiru, see Archer 1994: 288–95; Wood 1995 and 2003: 269–71.
7. For a description of the modern Samaritans and how they practice Passover, see Bolen 2001.
8. For population statistics, see http://www.pnic.gov.ps/english/geography-Population.html.

Bibliography

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Magen, Itzhak
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2001 The Sacred Precinct on Mount Gerizim. Bible and Spade 14:37–40.

Seger, Joe D.
1997 Shechem. Pp. 19–23 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East 5, ed. Eric M. Myers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shea, William H.
1992 The Burial of Jacob: A New Correlation Between Genesis 50 and an Egyptian Inscription. Archaeology and Biblical Research 5:33–44.

Stager, Lawrence E.
2003 The Shechem Temple where Abimelech Massacred a Thousand. Biblical Archaeological Review 28.4:26–35, 68–69.

Stefanovic, Zdravko
1992 Jacob’s Well. Pp. 608–609 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 3, ed. David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

Toombs, Lawrence E.
1992 Shechem. Pp. 1174–86 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5, ed, David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

Wood, Bryant G.
1995 Reexamining The Late Bronze Era: An Interview with Bryant Wood by Gordon Govier. Bible and Spade 8: 47–53.
1997 The Role of Shechem in the Conquest of Canaan. Pp 245–56 in To Understand the Scriptures: Essays in Honor of William H. Shea, ed. David Merling. Berrien Springs MI: Institute of Archaeology/Siegfried H. Horn Archaeological Museum.
1999 The Search for Joshua’s Ai: Excavations at Kh. el-Maqatir. Bible and Spade 12:21–30.
2003 From Ramesses to Shiloh: Archaeological Discoveries Bearing on the Exodus-Judges Period. Pp. 256–82 in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, eds. David M. Howard, Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti. Grand Rapids MI: Kregel.

 

Comments Comment RSS

7/21/2010 4:29 PM #

Thank you for the excellent narrative regarding Shechem and it's role in biblical history.  This was fascinating to understand the geography, the times and historical significance of Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal.

Many Blessings in Christ,

Jim Christensen

Jim Christensen - 7/21/2010 4:29:41 PM

11/23/2011 5:49 PM #

Thank you for the continuing work on one part of biblical apologeitcs - archaeology

Patrick - 11/23/2011 5:49:55 PM

12/11/2011 4:49 AM #

Thank you so much for the time and effort put into writing this report on shechem.  It was an answer to prayer as I prepared my message to my church in Ireland on the woman at the well.  Blessings, Don

Don Fulton - 12/11/2011 4:49:39 AM

10/22/2012 2:11 AM #

for seven years I have been a voluntary weekly pastor to men in a maximum security prison.  I will be handing fine work out to them with your permission in our class on the book of John.

Please mail me your newsletters.

Terry Olson
206-913-7393

Terry L Olson - 10/22/2012 2:11:58 AM

1/12/2014 8:41 AM #

I have recently returned from a trip to Israel.  I stayed in a hotel on the Nablus Road and spent a lot of my time entering and exiting the old city of Jerusalem through the Shechem Gate also called the Damascus Gate.   I have in the meantime read your inspiring article tracing the Biblical and historical significance of Shechem for which I thank you most sincerely.  As I walked up and down the Nablus Road and through the Shechem Gate I did not realise that I was very likely following on the very path taken by Abraham as he came from Shechem to Mount Moriah in Jerusalem.  I had the privilege of visiting Gulgotha (skull hill); situated just off the Nablus Road; on Mount Moriah where Yeshua the Messiah gave his life as a substitute for many and the nearby Garden Tomb where he was buried and resurrected.

Patrick Geaney - 1/12/2014 8:41:17 AM

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