The “Why” Series (by Dr. Kyle Keimer)
This blog series focuses on five biblical sites and considers, why this site? Why was the specific site important? Why was the site important to the biblical author(s) and/or their audience? And, why, or does the site’s significance continue until today? The sites that will be highlighted included: Jerusalem, Shechem, Bethlehem, Capernaum, and Megiddo. Each has a story to tell for us today. As we listen to these stories, it is my hope that we will peek into the mindset, the worldview, and the lived experience of biblical authors and audiences, and that we will better understand our own place in these stories.
In this next installment of the “Why” series we turn to the site of Shechem. Shechem features in several biblical texts and is a great example of what theologian Walter Brueggemann refers to as a “storied place.” The first mention of Shechem appears already in Genesis in the days of Abraham (Gen 12:6). Abraham, listening to God’s call, set out from the site of Haran (in what is today southern Turkey) and he came to the land that God showed him—which happened to be Canaan. The first site that Abraham visited upon entering Canaan is none other than Shechem. Here God tells Abraham (he is actually still named “Abram” at this point in the story) that he will give the land to Abraham’s offspring, which prompts Abraham to set up an altar (Gen 12:7). These two brief verses are the the beginning of Shechem’s story; one that will continue throughout the course of the Old Testament and even into the days of Jesus.
In fact, perhaps it is best to start with a famous saying of Jesus and then go back and look at the history of Shechem to understand how the site became a storied place. In John 4:5-26 we see Jesus interacting with a woman in Jacob’s field (see Gen 33:18-19), near a well outside Shechem. In verse 20 she says to Jesus: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain [Mt. Gerizim], but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus responds: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (vv.21-24).
Gen 12:6-7 are the the beginning of Shechem’s story; one that will continue throughout the course of the Old Testament and even into the days of Jesus.
Top: Map showing Shechem’s location relative to Jerusalem
Bottom: Icon of Jesus and the Samaritan woman
Instead of addressing the two options with which the woman presents him, Jesus offers a third by saying, really, neither of the other two is right. There’s going to be a time when God isn’t worshiped only on Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Moriah (which was equated with Jerusalem in Jesus’ day even though the specific mountain in the land of Moriah from Gen 22:2 is not originally identified as such); neither Jew nor Samaritan will have a monopoly on access to God.
Now, what lies behind this woman’s question? This is where the “story” of Shechem comes in. Let us remember that the woman in John 4 was a Samaritan. The Samaritans have their origin all the way back in the eighth century BC when the Assyrian Empire came and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. They deported many of the Israelites to the far reaches of their empire while, at the same time, they brought in people from elsewhere in the empire and settled them in Samaria (this policy was meant to sever people’s ties to their homeland and make them more reliant upon, and more amenable to the Assyrians). We have a telling story about this in 2 Kgs 17:23-41 were some of these newly settled importees are having problems with local lions, who keep attacking them. The importees conclude that they don’t know how to worship the God of the land (i.e., Yahweh), so the Assyrians arrange to send local Israelite priests back to Israel to teach the people how to worship Yahweh correctly. Thus, a new population of Yahweh worshippers is introduced to the land, and this group comes to be known as the Samaritans. Significantly, a small community of Samaritans still exists today, mostly in the region of Nablus/Shechem in the West Bank.
In Jesus’ day there were tensions between the Jews and Samaritans. These tensions, the date of whose origin we cannot pinpoint, were certainly exacerbated when the Samaritans built a rival temple to Yahweh on Mt. Gerizim. This temple was destroyed by the Jewish Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus at the end of the 2nd c. BC, but apparently this did not deter worship of God at the location. In short, the Samaritans of Jesus’ day had appropriated Israelite traditions about the Patriarchs and saw themselves as rightful heirs, along with the Judean Jews, to the biblical tradition. Judean Jews, however, did not share this view and believed that only they, who had gone through the purifying fire of Exile, were the true “Israel.”
Shechem was a central site in Israel’s history, culminating in significance theologically in Jesus’ day, but being of significance at repeated times in Israel’s history.
Top: Aerial view of the Shechem area
Bottom: Plan showing archaeological work at Shechem
Thus, the woman’s statement is charged. But Jesus recognizes both Samaritan and Jewish traditions and appeals to even older traditions to make his point. This brings us back to the Patriarchs. Following Abraham’s visit to Shechem, the site is mentioned next when his grandson Jacob purchases land outside the city (Gen 33:18-19) and then erects an altar that he names “El-Elohe-Israel” (33:20). Next, the mummified bones of Jacob’s son Joseph are buried on this plot (Josh 24:32) – an explicit claim to the land, and an act of remembrance of God’s covenant with Israel (see the work of Matthew Suriano, cited below, for more on this topic).
Shechem is then listed as a city of refuge (Josh 20:7) and a Levitical city (Josh 21:21) before being the site where Joshua gathers the Israelites to renew their covenant with Yahweh (Josh 24). In each of these contexts, Shechem takes on a ritual role, which Jesus was well aware of, and which underlay the Samaritan woman’s statement.
At the end of the 10th c. BC Solomon’s son Rehoboam tries to garner the support of “Israel” (the northern tribes; 1 Kgs 12:1). He fails miserably by making an offensive statement to the tribal elders that conveys how he plans to exploit them. The result is the selection, by the elders of the northern tribes, of Jeroboam son of Nebat as king over a now separate Israelite kingdom. Jeroboam builds Shechem, presumably making it the first capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel.
Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Jeroboam (that’s pretty good alliteration). Jesus knows his history, and each of those figures—along with the charged events tied to each—helped form the backdrop to what Jesus told the Samaritan woman. Shechem was a storied place—a place that was integrated into the story of ancient Israel while at the same time taking on a place of its own in those traditions. From the days of Abraham, it was associated with accessing God. But then again, Jerusalem had an equally distinctive pedigree when it came to this topic. Had Jesus said what he said to the Samaritan woman somewhere else, the historical-theological impact of what he said would have been entirely glossed over at best, or been lost in the worst case. Shechem was a central site in Israel’s history, culminating in significance theologically in Jesus’ day, but being of significance at repeated times in Israel’s history.
Jesus’ words were fulfilled, Shechem—having served its purpose—disappeared from the historical record, being replaced by the Romans’ newly founded city of Neapolis (modern Nablus) a few miles to the west in the late 1st c. AD. And the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed as well. The two places most associated with accessing God were gone by the end of the 1st c. AD. Yet, in their stead, we know that access to God was opened for all through Jesus’ actions. As for Shechem, that storied city, it collected dust until archaeologists excavated it in the 20th century, bringing to light its once glorious past.
2002 The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Suriano, M. J.
2018 A History of Death in the Hebrew Bible. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wright, G. E.
1964 Shechem: The Biography of a Biblical City. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., Ltd.