Good times and bad times at Shechem
What can we learn from history? The Bible says that it was written for our instruction (Rom. 15:4; 1 Tim. 3:16). It gives us examples to follow and examples to avoid (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). And it can give us confidence from God.
The city of Shechem was in a valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim in central Israel, 55 km (35 miles) north of Jerusalem and 11 km (7 miles) southeast of Samaria. It was strategically located on the main road through the central hill country of Palestine “(the way of the Patriarchs”, or “the Ridge route”). But it had no natural defenses and required extensive fortification. Shechem was a very ancient commercial center due to its position in the middle of vital trade routes through the region.
When Abram left his homeland in obedience to God’s command and entered Canaan from Mesopotamia at Shechem he built his first altar in the promised land to offer sacrifices to the Lord. And at Shechem God promised to give the land of Canaan to his descendants (Gen. 12:6-7).
After Abraham’s grandson Jacob spent 20 years in Paddan-Aram, he returned to Canaan and settled near Shechem. He bought a plot of land and later gave it to Joseph. He constructed an altar to worship God. He also dug a well there (Jn. 4:5-6) that can still be seen today.
At Shechem, Dinah (Jacob’s daughter) mingled socially with some pagan women and was raped (Gen. 34). The people of Shechem proposed intermarriage, but this would have resulted on the assimilation of Jacob’s family into the Canaanites. The greatest danger to God’s people is not persecution; it’s assimilation with the ungodly world. But her brothers Simeon and Levi killed all the men in Shechem in revenge.
Then God instructed Jacob to move to Bethel (Gen.35:1). Before they left, Jacob buried all their household idols under the oak tree at Shechem (Gen. 35:2-4). So although they had come back to the land promised to Abraham, at Shechem they still kept the idols which had been brought from Paddan-Aram.
Later Jacob’s descendants moved to Egypt during a famine and eventually escaped slavery in Egypt to return to Canaan under the leadership of Moses.
After the conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, the ceremony declaring God’s blessing and cursing of the Hebrews according to whether they obeyed or disobeyed His commands was done on Mount Gerizim and Mt Ebal in the vicinity of Shechem (Josh. 8:30-35). This included an offering to God and was in obedience to instructions given by God to Moses (Dt. 11:26-32; Ch. 27-28).
In the division and settlement of Canaan, Shechem was a City of Refuge for one accused of manslaughter (Josh. 20:7; 21:21). And it was one of the 48 Levitical cities. Shechem and its surrounding lands were given as a Levitical city to the Kohathites.
At Shechem, Joshua gave his farewell address, the people renewed their covenant with God, and Joseph’s bones that had been brought up from Egypt were buried (Josh. 24). He set up a stone monument under the oak tree and “near the holy place of the Lord” to remind them of what happened there.
Joshua gave them a challenge and a choice, “Now fear the Lord and serve Him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River (Mesopotamia) and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14-15NIV).
Owing to its central position, and being the site of Abraham’s altar, Jacob’s well and Joseph’s tomb, Shechem was destined to play an important part in the history of Israel.
After the death of Joshua, the Hebrews disobeyed God (Jud. 17:6) and they were ruled by judges. Gideon was one of the Hebrew judges. Gideon had many wives and Abimelek was his son to a concubine who was a slave. After Gideon died, Abimelek got men from Shechem to help him kill his 70 brothers and make him king over Shechem (Jud. 9). But after this some of them turned against him and 1,000 people of Shechem perished in a fire lit by Abimelek and his men. So God punished the people of Shechem for their wickedness. A city of refuge should be a safe place, but it wasn’t on this occasion!
Next Israel became a monarchy under the rule of Saul, then David and then Solomon. After the death of Solomon, Israel was divided into two kingdoms. At Shechem the 10 tribes of Israel rebelled and turned against the house of David to follow Jeroboam (1 Ki. 12:16). Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom, fortified Shechem and lived there (1 Ki. 12:25). But after the kings of Israel moved to Tirzah and then to Samaria, Shechem lost its importance. And it declined after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel (722 BC).
After the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC a temple was built on Mt Gerizim and Shechem became the “holy city” of the Samaritans. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Shechem was the main settlement of the Samaritans.
The Bible reports a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. It begins, “So He [Jesus] came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as He was from the journey, sat down by the well” (Jn. 4:5-6). As Jacob’s well was near the site of Shechem, it has been suggested that the town of Sychar was near the site of Shechem.
The archaeological site of Tell Balata has been identified with ancient Shechem.
Lessons for us
We have summarized the history of Shechem over at least 1,900 years as recorded in the Bible. During this time period there were good times and bad times at Shechem.
The good times were:
– God’s promise was given to Abram.
– Abram, Jacob and Joshua worshipped (made offerings) to God.
– Jacob buried their household idols.
– Jacob’s well provided water.
– The Hebrews promised to keep God’s commands.
– It was a City of Refuge.
These remind us of the goodness of God.
The bad times were:
– Before they left for Bethel, Jacob’s household still worshipped idols.
– The rape of Dinah and the revenge killing of all the men in the town. Associated with this was the danger of assimilation with the Canaanites.
– They were punished for their wickedness when 1,000 people perished in a fire.
These remind us of the sinfulness of humanity.
What else reminds you of the goodness of God and the sinfulness of humanity?
What about us? Is our behavior more like the good times or the bad times? What idols stop us worshipping the true God?
We have extra promises from God in the New Testament. But we have the same choice to obey and follow God or not. Let’s serve the Lord like Joshua. And we can choose to learn from biblical history or to ignore it.
Did you know that Jesus Christ is like a City of Refuge? The writer of Hebrew says, “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18ESV). The Cities of Refuge only helped the innocent, but Jesus helps the guilty: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Those who trust and follow Jesus can have peace in a sinful world (Jn. 16:33; 1 Jn. 5:4-5).
Written, January 2023
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho
Rebellion and deception at Samaria
Worshipping God and idols at Bethel
Many battles at Megiddo
Nineveh experieced God’s mercy and justice