Shechem in the Old Testament

Shechem (shoulder, or upper part of the back just below the neck); explained as if the town were on the shoulder of the heights dividing the waters that flow toward the Mediterranean on the W. and to the Jordan on the E.; or on a shoulder or ridge connected with Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. Also called SICHEM, SYCHEM, and SYCHAR (John 4:5; Josh. 20:7; Judg. 9:9; 1 Kings 12:25).

Mount Gerizim is close by (Judg. 9:7) on the southern side, Mount Ebal on the northern side. These hills at the base are but 500 yards apart. Vespasian named it Neapolis; coins are extant with its name "Flavia Neapolis"; now Nablus by corruption.

The situation is lovely; the valley runs W. with a soil of rich, black, vegetable mold, watered by fountains, sending forth numerous streams flowing W.; orchards of fruit, olive groves, gardens of vegetables, and verdure on all sides delight the eye. On the E. of Gerizim and Ebal the flue plain of Mukhna stretches from N. to S.

Here first in Canaan God appeared to Abraham (Gen. 12:6), and here he pitched his tent and built an altar under the oak or terebinth (not "plain") of Moreh; here too Jacob re-entered the promised land (Gen. 33:18,19), and "bought a parcel of a field where he had spread his tent," from the children of Hamor, Shechem's father, and bequeathed it subsequently to Joseph (Gen. 48:22; Josh. 24:32; John 4:5); a dwelling place, whereas Abraham's only purchase was a burial place. It lay in the rich plain of the Mukhna, and its value was increased by the well Jacob dug there.

Joshua made "Shechem in Mount Ephraim" one of the six cities of refuge (Josh. 20:7). The suburbs in our Lord's days reached nearer the entrance of the valley between Gerizim and Ebal than now; for the narrative in John 4:30,35, implies that the people could be seen as they came from the town toward Jesus at the well, whereas Nablus now is more than a mile distant, and cannot be seen from that point. Josephus (B. J. 3:7, section 32) says that more than 10,000 of the inhabitants were once destroyed by the Romans, implying a much larger town and population than at present.

Under Abraham's oak at Shechem Jacob buried the family idols and amulets (Gen. 35:1-4). Probably too "the strange gods" or "the gods of the stranger" were those carried away by Jacob's sons from Shechem among the spoils (Gen. 35:2; 34:26-29). The charge to "be clean and change garments" may have respect to the recent slaughter of the Shechemites, which polluted those who took part in it (Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences). Shechem was for a time Ephraim's civil capital. as Shiloh was its religious capital (Judg. 9:2; 21:19; Josh. 24:1,25,26; 1 Kings 12:1).

At the same "memorial terebinth" at Shechem the Shechemites made Abimelech king (Judg. 9:6). Jotham's parable as to the trees, the vine, the fig, and the bramble, were most appropriate to the scenery; contrast the shadow of the bramble which would rather scratch than shelter, with Isa. 32:2. Abimelech destroyed Shechem and sowed it with salt (Judg. 9:45). From Gerizim the blessings, and from Ebal the curses, were read (Josh. 8:33-35). At Shechem Joshua gave his farewell charge (Josh. 24:1-25).

Joseph was buried there (Josh. 24:32; Acts 7:16). At Shechem Rehoboam was made king by Israel (1 Kings 12:1); he desired to conciliate the haughty Ephraimites by being crowned there. Here, through his ill advised obstinacy, the Israelites revolted to Jeroboam, who made Shechem his capital. Mediaeval writers (Palestine Exploration Quarterly Statement, Jan. 1878, p. 27,28) placed the Dan and Bethel of Jeroboam's calves on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim.

The following reasons favor this view. (1) The ruins below the western peak of Gerizim are still called Lozeh or Luz, the old name of Bethel; a western spur of Ebal has a site Amad ed Din, (possibly Joshua's altar on Ebal,) bearing traces of the name Dan, and the hill is called Ras el Kady (judgment answering to the meaning of Dan). (2) The Bethel of the calf was close to the palace of Jeroboam who lived in Shechem (Amos 7:13; 1 Kings 12:25). (3) The southern Bethel was in Benjamin (Josh. 18:22) and would hardly have been chosen as a religious center by Jeroboam who was anxious to draw away the people from Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:28). (4) The southern Bethel was taken from Jeroboam by Abijah king of Judah (2 Chr. 13:19), whereas the calf of Bethel was not destroyed but remained standing long after (2 Kings 10:29). (5) The Bethel of the calf is mentioned in connection with Samaria (1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 23:19; Amos 4:1-4; 5:6), and the old prophet at Bethel was of Samaria according to Josephus (2 Kings 23:18). (6) The southern Bethel was the seat of a school of prophets, which is hardly consistent with its being the seat of the calf worship (2 Kings 2:2,3).

The "men from Shechem" (Jer. 41:5) who had paganly "cut themselves," and were slain by Ishmael, were probably of the Babylonian colonists who combined Jehovah worship with their old idolatries. Shechem was the chief Samaritan city from the time of the setting up of the temple on Gerizim down to its destruction in 129 B.C., i.e. for about 200 years.

SYCHAR (which see) is probably a corruption of Shechem; others make it a Jewish alteration, for contempt, from shecher "a lie." Jesus remained at Shechem two days and won many converts, the firstfruits, followed by a full harvest under Philip the evangelist (Acts 8; John 4:35-43).

The population now is about 5,000, of whom 500 are Greek Christians, 150 Samaritans, and a few Jews. The main street runs from E. to W. The houses are of stone, the streets narrow and dark. Eighty springs are within or around Shechem. It is the center of trade between Jaffa and Beirut on one side, and the transjordanic region on the other. It has manufactures of coarse woolen fabrics, delicate silk, camel's hair cloth, and soap. Inscriptions from the Samaritan Pentateuch, of A.D. 529, which had been on the walls of a synagogue, have been found and read.

The well of Jacob lies one mile and a half E. of Shechem beyond the hamlet Balata; beside a mound of ruins with fragments of granite columns on a low hill projecting from Gerizim's base in a N.E. direction, between the plain and the opening of the valley. Formerly a vaulted chamber, ten feet square, with a square hole opening into it, covered over the floor in which was the well's mouth.

Now the vault has in part fallen and covered up the mouth; only a shallow pit remains, half filled with stones and rubbish. The well was 75 feet deep at its last measurement, but 105 at Maundrell's visit in 1697. It is now dry almost always, whereas he found 15 feet of water. Jacob dug it deep into the rocky ground, its position indicating it was dug by one who could not rely for water on the springs so near in the valley (Ain Balata and Defneh), the Canaanites being their owners.

A church was built round it in the fourth century, but was destroyed before the crusades. Eusebius in the early part of the fourth century confirms the traditional site; John 4 accords with it. Jesus in His journey from Jerusalem to Galilee rested at it, while "His disciples were gone away into the city to buy meat"; so the well must have lain before, but at some little distance from, the city. Jesus intended on their return to proceed along the plain toward Galilee, without visiting the city Himself, which agrees with the traditional site.

The so-called "tomb of Joseph," a quarter of a mile N. of the well in the open plain, in the center of the opening between Gerizim and Ebal, is more open to doubt. A small square of high walls surrounds a common tomb, placed diagonally to the walls; a rough pillar altar is at the head, and another at the foot. In the left corner is a vine whose branches "run over the wall" (Gen. 49:22).

Maundrell's description applies better to another tomb named from Joseph at the N.E. foot of Gerizim. However the phrase in Gen. 33:19, "a parcel of a field," Josh. 24:32, favors the site near Jacob's well, bechelqat hasadeh, a smooth lever open cultivated land; in Palestine there is not to be found such a dead level, without the least hollow in a circuit of two hours.


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).