Shechem is not a place that many of us think much of, but for centuries it was more significant than even Jerusalem.
Today, Shechem is a couple of miles from the West Bank town of Nablus. A week before I wrote this article, two Palestinians were killed there at Joseph’s Tomb. In biblical times too, Shechem was a place of conflict. Yet more important than the conflict is that Shechem is a place of covenant and of choice.
When Abram entered Canaan for the first time, Shechem is the first place he stops, at the oak of Moreh. We’re told, somewhat ominously, that ‘at that time the Canaanites were in the land’ (Genesis 12:5-6). That potential conflict spills over two generations later in Jacob’s day. Although Jacob came peacefully to Shechem (Genesis 33:18), the local prince violates Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and in one of the more violent Old Testament passages, the entire city is destroyed by Jacob’s sons (Genesis 34).
But worse is to come during the time of the Judges. Abimelech, one of the sons of Gideon, returns to his hometown of Shechem to encourage the leaders to rebel against his brothers (Judges 9:1-3). He’s crowned as king at the very oak where Abram stopped (9:6). But three years later, ‘the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech’ (9:23). Abimelech got wind of their deceit and ambushed them (9:24). Seeing the people coming out of Shechem, he ‘captured the city and killed the people who were in it’ (9:42-45).
We’ve seen already that when Abram arrived in Canaan, he stopped at Shechem at the oaks of Moreh. It’s there that the Lord appears to Abram and makes a covenant with him, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’ (Genesis 12:5-7). Biblical history has a habit of repeating itself, so it’s no surprise that centuries later, Shechem and the oaks of Moreh become a place of covenant renewal after Joshua leads the tribes into the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 11:29-31, 29:1-25; Joshua 8:30-35).
Joseph’s descendants also remember Shechem as a place of covenant. While in Egypt, Joseph had made his sons swear they would bury him in the Promised Land (Genesis 50:25), and it was at Shechem that they fulfilled that promise (Joshua 24:32, Acts 7:15-16).
But because Shechem is a place of conflict and covenant, it’s also where choices are made.
It was Abram’s grandson, Jacob, who first bought the land of Shechem (Genesis 33:18-20). There, Jacob called the people to ‘put away the foreign gods that are among you’ so they buried their household gods, treating them as ‘dead’ under that same tree where Abram had earlier stood (Genesis 35:2-4). Instead they choose to follow the Lord by building an altar called, ‘God, the God of Israel/Jacob’ (Genesis 33:18-20).
We’ve already seen that for Moses and Joshua, Shechem was a place of covenant renewal. But making a covenant involves making a choice. Shechem stands at the end of a narrow pass between two mountains – Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 11:29-31). Moses commanded half the tribes to stand on Mount Gerizim and shout blessings, while the other half stood on Mount Ebal and shouted curses (Deuteronomy 27:11-13). The nation would enjoy the blessings if they chose the Lord and life. But if they rejected the Lord, and chose disobedience and death, they would receive the curses. As they shouted from the mountains, all twelve tribes would have been looking down on Shechem in the valley below. Just as Jacob chose between the Canaanite gods and the Lord, now the whole nation must choose who they would serve (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
So at the end of Joshua’s life, he gathers all the tribes back to Shechem (Joshua 24:1) and reminds them of God’s dealings with his people. In this further renewal of the covenant, and with strong echoes of Jacob’s call, Joshua calls the people to ‘put away the gods that your fathers served’ and ‘choose this day whom you will serve’ (Joshua 24:14-15). To mark their choice, he sets up a memorial stone next to Abram’s tree (Joshua 24:25-26).
Shechem’s reputation as a place where Israel had to choose between right and wrong continued into the monarchical period. Following the death of Solomon, Solomon’s son Rehoboam goes to Shechem to be crowned king (1 Kings 12:1), just as Abimelech had been earlier. But Jeroboam, a wealthy landowner who had revolted against Solomon, returned from exile in Egypt in an attempt to seize the throne. It was therefore at Shechem that Israel chose between these two rival kings. There, the ten northern tribes chose to follow Jeroboam. He led them away from the worship of God, and into the worship of the golden calves. Ultimately, the result of their disobedience was destruction at the hand of the Assyrians, as those on the northern mountain of Ebal predicted as they shouted their curses over the city at Joshua’s command. The two southern tribes chose life, preferring to follow Rehoboam and worship God in Jerusalem.
Conflict, covenant and choosing Christ
Jeroboam built up Shechem and turned it into his capital (1 Kings 12:25). Following the invasion by the Assyrians, Jeroboam’s northern kingdom of Israel was eventually to became Samaria. Mount Gerizim, which overlooks Shechem, became a holy mountain for the Samaritans, which it remains to this day.
And it was at Shechem where all these threads were tied together by Jesus Christ. On a journey to Galilee, he passed through Samaria and came to a town ‘near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph’ (John 4:5) – in other words, to Shechem, the place that Jacob bought and where Joseph was buried. In John’s gospel, the town is called Sychar – the city of Shechem had been destroyed by the Romans 100 years earlier, and Sychar was likely a small village built from its ruins. (Jacob’s well is just 400 yards from Shechem.)
The age-old association of Shechem as a place of conflict is made clear in the story, as the Samaritan woman says, ‘“How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)’ But like Jacob, Jesus has come peacefully to just outside the city. It’s here, too, on the slopes of Mount Gerizim, that Jesus talks about the new covenant that will not be tied to geography, but to spirituality (John 4:21-24).
Jesus’ presence means that the Samaritan woman, and indeed the occupants of the town, must now choose between blessings and curses. Just as Joshua commanded, ‘Choose life!’ (Deuteronomy 30:19, Joshua 8:33-35), his namesake, Jesus, offers living water, that wells up to eternal life. But while Joshua offered the law as the giver of life, Jesus himself is the life-giver.
So just as Joseph buried his household gods under the tree at Shechem, and chose to follow the Lord, so the Samaritan woman and her townsfolk left behind their old life and chose to follow Jesus (John 4:39-41).
Thus the promise given to Abram’s offspring was fulfilled – not because of settlement or geography, but because the inhabitants of Sychar/Shechem had chosen to follow the Lord and worship him in spirit and truth. In so doing, they put an end to the conflict, choosing to become Abram’s descendants (Romans 9:6-8) and part of the covenant.