Shechem, an ancient Israelite city, is mentioned throughout the historical narratives of the Old Testament. From the patriarch Abraham to the exile of the Northern Kingdom, familiar and significant biblical events center around this city. It functioned as a base for worship (Abraham and Jacob) and as a base for political operations (Abimelech, Jeroboam I).
After entry into the Promised Land, the Israelites came to the place of Shechem to confirm the covenant as Moses had instructed Joshua to do (Deut. 11:29, 27:11-13). They gathered between the two mountains (Joshua 8:33-35), Mt. Ebal (3,077 ft. high) and Mt. Gerizim (2,848 ft. high). Mount Ebal was the mount of cursing because the people on that side responded to that portion of the Law. Mount Gerizim was the mount of blessing because the people on that side responded to the blessing. Mount Gerizim is still designated on modern maps.
The place of Shechem—modern day Nablus—is located in the valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal about 30 miles north of Jerusalem.
Meaning of Shechem in the OT
- proper noun – used as both the name of a person (Genesis 34) and a place.
- primary noun – means “shoulder, shoulder blade, back of the neck, back, upper part of the back;” metaphorically it means “ridge” of a mountain.
Examples of primary noun usage:
1 Samuel 9:2 And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.
Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
For the place named Shechem, the significance of the meaning “shoulder” is to be found in its geographical situation. Located in a valley, the city’s terrain could be thought of as a slope, i.e. shoulder, of the surrounding mountains.
Layout of the Land
Israel’s central mountain region, or hill country, extends all the way down from the mountains of Lebanon in the north. The western terrain rises sharply from the plains to these hills, a notable change for anyone driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The central range of mountains may be divided into sub-sections. From north to south these are Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and the Negev.
Shechem was located in the hill country of Samaria. The Hills of Samaria are also known as “Mount Ephraim,” named after the Israelite tribe that settled in the southern part of the hill country (Joshua 16). Manasseh settled in its northern part (Joshua 17; ½ of Manasseh settled east of the Jordan). Ephraim and Manasseh were both sons of the patriarch Joseph.
When the northern kingdom made its capital in the city of Samaria the region became known as Samaria also. While reading the Bible, keep in mind that Samaria may refer to the city or the region.
Much of this region is today known as the West Bank.
Torah and Historical Narratives
Archaeological evidence suggests that the place of Shechem was settled as early as the 4th millennium B.C. The first permanent settlement of the city would have been around the time when Abraham was there during the first half of the second millennium B.C. The residents, a Hyksos civilization, are the same people who seized and reigned in Egypt between the time of Joseph and Moses.
Shechem was destroyed by the Egyptians around 1550 B.C. when the 18th dynasty of Egypt was regaining control. It was later rebuilt. Archaelogical records show that both the rebuilt shrine and fortress were smaller than the original.
Since the time of the Roman emperor Vespasian (69 A.D. – 79 A.D.), founder of the Flavian dynasty, the place of Shechem was known as Flavia Neapolis.
Neapolis, Greek for “new city,” corresponds to the modern name Nablus, a corruption (non-exact translation) of the Greek name.
When Abraham first set foot in the land he came to the region of Shechem, the heart of the land, and made an altar to the LORD.
Genesis 12:6-7 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
When Jacob (the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham) returned to the land from his mother’s homeland of Paddan-aram, he camped at Shechem. He purchased a piece of land there from Hamor the Hivite, built an altar to the LORD, and named it “God, The God of Israel.”
Genesis 33:18-20 And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. 20 There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.
In Genesis 34, a “prince of the land” named Shechem is introduced. This Shechem rapes Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob. The tribes of Simeon and Levi took revenge on Hamar, Shechem, and all the males of their people.
In the following chapter, God tells Jacob to go to Bethel and make an altar there (Gen. 35:1). Jacob told his household to purify themselves and to get rid of the household gods. The bible notes that Jacob hid these foreign gods under a tree near Shechem.
Genesis 35:4 So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.
The next time the Bible mentions Shechem, it is in connection with Joseph. From the time of Shem until now, there is a chosen line—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—noted by the giving of the birthright. The narrative suggests that Joseph will be the recipient of the birthright, based on both the divine intervention of his conception, and the favoritism shown him by Jacob. Ultimately, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are given the birthright.
Ironically, Jacob sends Joseph to Shechem to check on his older brothers who are tending the flocks. He ultimately finds them in Dothan. Being extremely jealous of Joseph, they sell him into Egyptian slavery.
Genesis 37:12-14 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.
As stated earlier the “Hills of Samaria” are also called the Mount of Ephraim. In Genesis 48, Jacob blesses the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, and takes them as his own sons. In this way, they are counted as 2 of the 12 tribes to receive a portion, i.e. inheritance, in the Promised Land. The Levites were not given a portion of the land since service to God was their inheritance.
Note the phrase “mountain slope” in Genesis 48:22 is translated from the primary noun shechem.
Genesis 48:20-22 So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying, ‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.'”Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. 21 Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. 22 Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.”
As noted earlier “shechem” is the primary noun meaning shoulder or upper back. It is also used to indicate “portion.” The Levitical priests received the shoulder “portion,” as one of the choice pieces from the sacrificial offerings of the people (Deut. 18:1-3).
Though the ESV translates Genesis 48:22 “shechem” as “mountain slope,” other translations render it as “extra portion.” This expands the understanding of the name Shechem since its location was given to the sons of Joseph. Not only is a slope like a shoulder, but it is also a choice piece of land.
NLT Genesis 48:22 And beyond what I have given your brothers, I am giving you an extra portion of the land1 that I took from the Amorites with my sword and bow.”
KJV Genesis 48:22 Moreover I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.
NAS Genesis 48:22 “And I give you one portion more than your brothers, awhich I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow.”
Jacob told Joseph he would receive an extra portion. The blessing (birthright) of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, look forward to this. As Jacob spoke, so it happened in the tribal allotment of the Promised Land following the conquest.
Joshua 17:14,17-18 14 Then the people of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, although I am a numerous people, since all along the LORD has blessed me?” 17 Then Joshua said to the house of Joseph, to Ephraim and Manasseh, “You are a numerous people and have great power. You shall not have one allotment only, 18 but the hill country shall be yours, for though it is a forest, you shall clear it and possess it to its farthest borders. For you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong.”
Another person named Shechem is listed as an ancestor of Manasseh, possibly named after the city.
Numbers 26:31 and of Asriel, the clan of the Asrielites; and of Shechem, the clan of the Shechemites;
Land allotments to the ½ tribe of Manasseh
Joshua 17:2 And allotments were made to the rest of the people of Manasseh by their clans, Abiezer, Helek, Asriel, Shechem, Hepher, and Shemida. These were the male descendants of Manasseh the son of Joseph, by their clans.
Joshua 17:7 The territory of Manasseh reached from Asher to Michmethath, which is east of Shechem. Then the boundary goes along southward to the inhabitants of En-tappuah.
Shechem designated a City of Refuge:
Joshua 20:7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. (See also 1 Chron. 6:67)
The city of Shechem was alloted to the Levites in the land distribution from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Note “with its pasturelands in the hill country of Ephraim.”
Joshua 21:21 To them were given Shechem, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasturelands in the hill country of Ephraim, Gezer with its pasturelands. (See also 1 Chron 7:19, 28)
The tribes renew the covenant. In this covenant renewal, Joshua speaks his most famous words “choose this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15). He also set up a stone of remembrance here.
Joshua 24:1, 25 Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God. 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem.
The bones of Joseph are buried at Shechem, the inheritance of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh.
Joshua 24:32 As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.
Gideon’s concubine lives in Shechem.
Judges 8:31 And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he called his name Abimelech.
Judges 9 narrates the events of Abimelech, the son of Gideon (Jerubaal). Gideon’s concubine, Abimelech’s mother, was from Shechem. The place was destroyed by Abimelech, around 1150 BC.
Judges 9:1 Now Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother’s family…
Shechem was a well-known place. In the account of finding wives for the Benjamites, it is used as a geographical marker.
Judges 21:19 So they said, “Behold, there is the yearly feast of the LORD at Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.”
After the death of Solomon, his son Rehoboam goes to Shechem to be made king. (Apparently this was a go-to place of covenant making.)
1Kings 12:1 Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. (see also 2 Chronicles 10:1)
After Rehoboam’s inauguration, Jeroboam I, the first king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, built Shechem as a provincial capital (1 Kings 12:25), but it was destroyed shortly thereafter by Shishak of Egypt when he raided the area and looted Jerusalem in B.C. 925 (1 Kings 14:25).
Shechem remained an important town in the northern kingdom until it was destroyed by the Assyrians in B.C. 724 at the beginning of the war.
Psalms and Prophets
The Psalms and Prophets have a few references to Shechem. There is too much here to unpack for this post. However, after knowing the history of Shechem, do you see how an allusion to Shechem can say a lot with only one word?
Psalm 60:6 God has spoken in his holiness: “With exultation I will divide up Shechem and portion out the Vale of Succoth.
Psalm 108:7 God has promised in his holiness:1 “With exultation I will divide up Shechem and portion out the Valley of Succoth.
Jeremiah 41:5 eighty men arrived from Shechem and Shiloh and Samaria, with their beards shaved and their clothes torn, and their bodies gashed, bringing grain offerings and incense to present at the temple of the LORD.
Hosea 6:9 As robbers lie in wait for a man, so the priests band together; they murder on the way to Shechem; they commit villainy.
The city lay in ruins until the 4th century B.C. when Alexander the Great built it up and made it a resting camp for his troops.
The Samaritans occupied the area after this. They built their temple by Mount Gerizim, the mount of blessing. It was later destroyed by the Maccabean king John Hyrcanus in approximately 128 B.C. After that the area was sparsely populated by Samaritans.
What was left of Shechem is to be identified with Sychar of John 4:5-7. In Syriac (Sinaitic Syriac Shechim), the name “Sychar” is a corrupted form of “Sychem.” Not all scholars agree with this, but it is supported by archaeological evidence.
Jacob bought Shechem and the sons of Joseph received the land in the tribal allotment of the Promised Land. Joseph’s bones were brought from Egypt and buried in Shechem.
John 4:6 mentions a well that belonged to Jacob. Here Jesus talked with the woman at the well and told her that He was indeed the Messiah.
John 4:5-7 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.17 There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
The site of Shechem was excavated by the Germans in the early 1900’s, and then by the Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The remains of various settlements were uncovered.
The Hyksos city of the first half of the 2nd millennium, approx. 1700 B.C. had a large brick wall about 80 feet wide and 20 feet high all around. The city had a shrine on top of the hill and a courtyard with several connected rooms.
After the destruction in 1550 by the Egyptians, this temple-fortress was rebuilt. The temple structure was 53 feet wide and 41 feet long. It had an open courtyard with an altar and standing stones. This was the sanctuary of Baal-berith in the biblical records.
Judges 8:33 As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god.
Judges 9:2-4 2 “Say in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’ Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.” 3 And his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.” 4 And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him.
Samaritan theology places a great deal of importance on Joshua’s cutting the covenant at Shechem between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Samaritan tradition does not include the subsequent choice of Jerusalem as the holy mount, but retains Mount Gerizim as the proper place for the temple, since it was the historic mount of blessing.
Though Scripture makes clear God chose Mount Zion:
Psalm 78:67 – 72 He rejected the tent of Joseph; he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, 68 but he chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves. 69 He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever. 70 He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; 71 from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance. 72 With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand.
Jeremiah 31:6-7 For there shall be a day when watchmen will call in the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.'” 7 For thus says the LORD: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’
…it is understandable how historical circumstances and prophetic passages promising restoration to the northern kingdom may have shaped Samaritan theology:
Zechariah 10:6-7 “I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the LORD their God and I will answer them. 7 Then Ephraim shall become like a mighty warrior, and their hearts shall be glad as with wine. Their children shall see it and be glad; their hearts shall rejoice in the LORD.
Jesus Talks With a Samaritan Woman
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, the discussion quickly turned to the dispute over which mountain was the holy one, Gerizim or Zion. Jesus’ response was now that He, the Messiah, had come, worship would not be on any mountain, but “in spirit and in truth.”
John 4:9, 19-26:
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” ( For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
As the NT revealed, Christ completely fulfilled the Law, making unnecessary such disputes. Ancient holy places are valuable to many people for many different reasons, but Christian worship is not limited to or centered on any mountain or holy place.
The Gospel Spreads Through Judea and Samaria
In the book of Acts Luke introduces the movement of the Gospel to Samaria with the sermon by Stephen. This young deacon in the early church seems to have been a Samaritan, or at least have come down from the area of Ephraim. A careful study of his sermon shows that its wording and ideas fit the Samaritan Pentateuch more exactly than the Hebrew text. And the theological ideas the sermon included would have struck a nerve with the Samaritans. For example, the intercession of Moses in Exodus is represented by his “standing” before the LORD on behalf of his people. When Stephen saw Jesus “standing” in heaven “at the right hand of God” he was saying that Jesus had replaced Moses as the great intercessor.
Acts 7:15-16 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
Acts 7:55-56 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Psalm 106:23 Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.
Researching a geographical site from the Bible is a GREAT way to study the Bible. Enhancing your mind, and your mind’s eye, with the geography, topography, and history of a biblical place yields invaluable dividends in studying the Bible effectively. Choose a city, region, or specific place, i.e. Jacob’s well, Mount Calvary, and study it throughout the Bible. You will be amazed at how your biblical knowledge, both width and depth, increases.
Knowing the geography, topology, and history of Shechem informs every verse read that refers to Shechem, Samaria, Ephraim, Mount Gerizim, Mount Ebal, Joseph, and Jacob to name only a few. In the historical narratives and prophetic oracles, Ephraim, Joseph, etc. may be used as a designation for the entire Northern Kingdom. Note also that idolatry was normally carried out on hills, mountains, “high places,” and under trees, so Mount Ephraim, depending on context, could have a double nuance.
Until next time:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14
Bonus (Before Homework!)
I ran across this while searching for images of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Look at the image and read the accompanying text. Admittedly, this area looked different from the 1st century A.D., and this circa 1915 photo. Still, it is waaaay before the heavily populated and built up Shechem/Nablus of today. And, well… Goosebumps!
Image and following description from this commons wikimedia web page.
Image Description from historic lecture booklet: “There is a record in the Gospel of John which gives to these twin mountains an interest deeper than any of the Old Testament events, and, for the sake of that story, we look once more at Mount Gerizim from the base of Mount Ebal. Do you see a village yonder, at the foot of Mount Gerizim? That is the modern Askar. the ancient Sychar. Do you perceive beyond it another small enclosure? Within that wall is Jacob’s Well, dug by the ancestor of the Israelite’s thirty-five hundred years ago, and still giving forth its water. Over yonder road, winding around the mountain, walked Jesus and his disciples one morning; and he sat weary beside the well while his disciples came to this village to obtain food for their breakfast. Waiting by the well he met a woman from the neighboring village, bearing her water-jar upon her shoulder; a woman, bright, quick-witted, and of deep, spiritual insight, although her past had been guilty. He saw her traits of mind and heart, and engaged her in conversation, while above them both loomed the summit of Mount Gerizim. That old well is there today, and every traveler receives a drink from its cool depths.”
Read the following passages.
How does geographical and biblical information related to Shechem (Samaria, Jacob, Ephraim, Manasseh, etc.) help in understanding these passages more fully? Leave me a comment.
- Psalm 78:67
- Ezekiel 37:16
- Hosea 6:4
- Hosea 7:8-11
Feature image Creative Commons License. For complete information, click here.
Layout of the Land, Archaeology, and Biblical Observations sections were adapted from “In the Paths of God: A Bible Study Guide for Travels in the Holy Land” by Dr. Allen P. Ross, Professor of OT at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. Ross provides this volume to each person traveling to the Holy Land on one of his Bible Study tours.