Shechem, also called Sichem, (Hebrew: שְׁכֶם / שְׁכָם, Šəḵem; "Shoulder") was an Israelite city in the tribal area of Ephraim, and the first capital of the Kingdom of Israel. It later became an important center in the life of the Samaritans.
In the Bible, Shechem was the first place where the patriarch Abraham built an altar to God. Jacob too built an altar there, and Joshua later erected a commemorative pillar known as the "stone of witness." Shechem was the site of several important incidents: the "rape" of Dinah and the consequent slaughter of Shechem's residents by the sons of Jacob, a solemn gathering under Joshua to reaffirm God's covenant with Israel, a subsequent destruction by Gideon's son Abimelech, the official installation of Solomon's son Rehoboam as king, and the establishment of the first capital of the break-way northern Kingdom of Israel under King Jeroboam.
Shechem later became an important city of the Samaritans, especially because of its proximity to their temple on Mount Gerizim. It is the traditional location of "Jacob's well," the New Testament site of Jesus' meeting of the "woman at the well." It was destroyed during the time of Vespasian (67 C.E.) and replaced by the nearby Neapolis (today called Nablus), which remained a center of Samaritan life for several centuries.
The ruins of ancient Shechem were rediscovered in 1903, situated at Tel Balatah two kilometers east of the present day Palestinian city of Nablus. Archaeological evidence indicates that Shechem was razed and reconstructed up to 22 times before its final demise in 200. Within the remains of the city can still be found a number of defensive walls and gates, a government house, a residential quarter, and the ruins of a temple dedicated to Zeus by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The majority of the small remnant population of the Samaritans lives in nearby Nablus, especially in homes on Mount Gerizim.
Shechem's position is clearly indicated in the Bible. It lay north of Bethel and Shiloh, on the high road going from Jerusalem to the northern districts (Judges 21:19). It was in the hill country of Ephraim (Joshua 20:7), immediately below Mount Gerizim (Judges 9:6-7). Shechem was a commercial center due to its position in the middle of vital trade routes through the region. It traded in local grapes, olives, wheat, livestock and pottery between the middle Bronze Age and the late Hellenic period (1900-100 B.C.E.).
The old city of Shechem dates back even before biblical times, to an estimated 4,000 years. Before its history as an Israelite city, it had been a Canaanite settlement, mentioned on an Egyptian stele of a noble at the court of Senusret III (c. 1880–1840 B.C.E.).
The Bible (Gen. 34) identifies it as a Hivite town in the time of the patriarchs. In the Amarna Letters of about 1350 B.C.E., Shachmu (Shechem) was the center of a kingdom carved out by the Canaanite warlord Labaya, at the expense of neighboring cities. To accomplish this, King Labaya allegedly recruited mercenaries from among the Habiru. He was accused of capturing cities that were under Egyptian protection. When Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem acted aggressively against his neighbors, he was referred to as "another Labaya." Labaya was the author of three Amarna letters, and his name appears in 11 of the other 382.
Shechem first appears in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 12:6–8, which records how Abraham reached the "great tree of Moreh" at Shechem and offered sacrifice nearby. It is the first Canaanite location mentioned in Abraham's journeys. The name Shechem (Hebrew shékém—'shoulder, saddle') appears to have been suggested by the geographical configuration of the place. At Shechem, Abraham "built an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him... and had given that land to his descendants" (Gen 12:6-7). The Bible states that on this occasion, God confirmed the covenant He had first made with Abraham in Ur, regarding the possession of the land of Canaan.
Jacob came to Shechem following his reunion with Esau after a 21-year exile in Haran. Jacob reportedly bought land there from the sons of Hamor. He, too, set up an altar at Shechem, and called it "El Elohe Israel."
Shechem was also the site of Jacob's daughter Dinah's ill-fated love affair with the son of Hamor, also named Shechem (Gen. 34). The sons of Jacob brutally avenged their sister's "rape" by first demanding that its male citizens be circumcised—to which they agreed—and then massacring the city's inhabitants. Jacob reproved them for this act of vengeance, saying, "You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land." (Gen. 34:30)
In the Book of Deuteronomy, God commands Moses to assemble the Israelites on the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, overlooking Shechem, to declare the "blessings and curses" with which they will be blessed for obedience to God's law and cursed for disobedience to it (Deuteronomy 11:29). This was fulfilled at the time of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua (Joshua 8:34). Shechem itself became a city of refuge and was given to the Kohathite clans of the Levites (Joshua 21:20). At the end of Joshua's life, he once again chose Shechem as a place to assemble the Israelites and call them to recommit themselves to obedience to the Torah. As a witness to the event, Joshua set up a large stone at Shechem's "holy place" (Joshua 24). It was also at Shechem that Joseph's bones, which had been brought back from Egypt, were buried (Joshua 24:32).
During the period of the Judges, Shechem was rescued from the Midianites by Gideon. At this time, he was housed in a temple, described in Judges 9 both as the temple of "El-Berith" and the temple of "Baal Berith." Years before the birth of the future kings Saul and David, Gideon's son Abimelech was crowned king of Israel in Shechem. He reportedly murdered 70 of his own "brothers" in order to solidify his position. A complex series of events ensued, leading to the city's destruction by Abimilech in retaliation for its alleged treachery against him (Judges 9). Here the city still appears to be divided between those loyal to the Israelites and those loyal to the "sons of Hamor." Modern excavations confirm that the city was indeed destroyed around 1100 B.C.E.
Shechem was rebuilt in the tenth century B.C.E. and was apparently the capital of the tribal lands of Ephraim (1 Kings 4). After Solomon's death, "all Israel" came to Shechem for the investiture of Solomon's son Rehoboam. When Rehoboam refused to lighten the burden of forced labor his father had imposed on the northern tribes, the meeting ended in the secession of the ten northern tribes. Fortified by King Jeroboam, Shechem them became the capital of the new Kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12:1; 14:17; 2 Chronicles 10:1). Although Jeroboam had been appointed to be king of Israel by the prophet Ahijah, the biblical writers indicate that he lost his blessing when he decided not to encourage pilgrimages to Jerusalem's temple, but instead established rival centers of worship at Bethel and Dan.
Partly for strategic reasons, but no doubt for economic ones as well, the kings of Israel soon moved the capital farther north to Tirzah, and later on to Samaria. Shechem drops out of the historical record at this point, and we do not hear of it again until after the fall of Jerusalem (587 B.C.E.; Jeremiah 12:5).
However, the events connected with the restoration of the Temple of Jerusalem were to bring it again into prominence. When Ezra and Nehemiah ruled that Jews must divorce their non-Israelite wives, many Jews, both priests and laymen, left Jerusalem and its environs to settle in Shechem. There, they built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim. Thus Shechem became the holy city of the Samaritans. The Samaritans themselves hold that God had always intended Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the high place on which His temple would be built, citing the aforementioned biblical data concerning the ancient sacred events at Shechem and Gerizim.
Tensions between Judea and Samaria intensified after the Maccabeean revolt. Shechem fell about 128 B.C.E. as a result of the military invasion of the Jewish king John Hyrcanus, and its temple was destroyed ("Antiq.," XIII, ix, 1). However, the city remained the main settlement of the Samaritans in classical times, and its temple on Mount Gerizim was reestablished. Like all of Samaria, it was annexed to the Roman province of Syria at the time of the deposition of Archelaus in 6 C.E.
Shechem is also the traditional location of Jacob's well, where—according to the Gospel of John—Jesus famously met with the woman of Samaria and proved to her that he was both a prophet and the Messiah. Some of its inhabitants may have been among the Samaritans who believed in Jesus when he tarried two days in the neighborhood (John 4). The city was certainly visited by the apostles during the evangelizing of the area described in (Acts 8).
Many of the Samaritans of Shechem rose up in arms on Gerizim at the time of a Galilean rebellion in (67 C.E.) during the reign of Vespasian. The city was likely destroyed on that occasion by the Roman commander Petilius Cerealis ("Bell. Jud.," III, vii, 32). A few years after this, a new city, Flavia Neapolis, was built by Vespasian a short distance to the west of the old one. Some 50 years later Hadrian reportedly restored the Samaritan temple of Yahweh on Mount Gerizim and dedicated it to Jupiter (Dion Cass., xv, 12).
Neapolis, like Shechem itself, had a very early Christian community. It was from here that the first Christian apologist, Justin Martyr hailed. Sources also speak of bishops of Neapolis (Labbe, "Conc.," I, 1475, 1488; II, 325). On several occasions the Christians were reportedly persecuted by the Samaritans living there. Later, the tables were turned, and the Christian state deprived the Samaritans of Mount Gerizim by Emperor Zeno. Christians used the location to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Procop., "De edif," v, 7).
After the Muslim conquest (636), Christianity practically disappeared from Nablús (Neapolis), which, however, remained the headquarters of the Samaritan sect and of its high priest until the present day.
Shechem's archaeological site was stumbled upon in 1903 by a German party of archaeologists led by Dr. Hermann Thiersch, at a site known as Tel Balatah, beside the traditional site associated with the tomb of Joseph.
Modern Nablus is a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, with a population of 134,000. It is the capital of the Nablus governorate and a Palestinian commercial and cultural center. Several hundred Samaritans still live in the city of Nablus, many of them on Mount Gerizim.
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