Shechem – The Ancient City
The ancient city of Shechem, located in between the mountains Ebal and Gerzim, near present day Nablus, dates back to about 2000 BC. Because the site is now in the West Bank, few visitors ever come to see this impressive site, and unfortunately it has been neglected and abused. The ancient city at Tel Balatah was a Canaanite city mentioned in several ancient documents, and eventually, it became the first capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel. The Egyptian Execration Texts from the 19th century BC mention several Canaanite cities, including Shechem, attesting to its early existence as also claimed by the Patriarchal narratives in Genesis 12 and Genesis 33.
Shechem was also the site of the Battle of Sekmem around 1870 BC between the Egyptians under Senusret III and the Canaanites. According to Egyptian records, it was an Egyptian victory, though historians are unsure as to the decisiveness of the victory. Shechem was again mentioned as a Canaanite vassal city in the Amarna letters.
Shechem – The Genesis Accounts
The book of Genesis records that Abram and Jacob both visit Shechem at different times in history. In between these visits, Shechem apparently grew and developed substantially. In Genesis 12:6, when Abraham visits Shechem, it is called a place, but when Jacob returns there in Genesis 33:18, around 1700 BC, it is called a city. The text suggests transition from nomadic society to more sedentary society as the Bronze Age progresses, which archaeology demonstrates.
In the initial conquest, the Israelites apparently never had to conquer Shechem, as is evident from the complete lack of any reference to a battle with the people or king of Shechem in the book of Joshua. During the Judges period, the people of Shechem were worshiping Canaanite gods, and the text suggests that Canaanites and Israelites were both living in the city and its immediate area. One of the Amarna Letters states that Labaya, who is referenced in other of the Amarna Letters as leader of the area of Shechem, gave the territory he ruled over to the Habiru. “Milkilu and...the sons of Lab'ayu...have given the land of the king to the Habiru” (EA 287). The Shechem rulers are accused of this other times (EA 246, 254, 289). The Israelites are seen assembling between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerzim, right by the city of Shechem, in Joshua 8, and then later in Joshua 24, all of the Israelites are assembled at Shechem where Joshua makes a covenant with them.
In the Amarna letters, it appears as if Shechem is allied with the Habiru against the other Canaanites. There may have been some type of treaty made during the time of Joshua, which continued on, impacting the situation during the time of the Amarna Letters.
Or, the information in the Amarna Letters reflects the situation with Shechem described in the book of Joshua. The interpretation of this would depend on the dating of the Amarna Letters and the Israelite Conquest.
Shechem – The Standing Stone of Joshua
The large “massebah” or standing stone in front of the Shechem temple is thought by some to be the covenant stone that Joshua erected, before which the Israelites proclaimed their loyalty to Yahweh after the successful conquest of the Promised Land (Joshua 24), as this massebah has stood for thousands of years and is still standing.
In Judges 9, the story of Abimelech contains a number of specifics about the people and city of Shechem. References to the “temple of Baal-Berith [lord of the covenant]” (Judges 9:4), “Beth-Millo [house of the millo/fortress]” (Judges 9:6, 20), “temple of their god” (Judges 9:27), “tower [or fortress] of Shechem” (Judges 9:46, 49) and “temple of El-Berith [god of the covenant]” (Judges 9:46) all appear to be referring to the same large temple found at the acropolis of Shechem. This building, a fortress-temple, is the largest temple yet discovered in Canaan, and was constructed in the 17th century BC. It remained in use until the destruction of the city in the late 12th century BC. Judges 9 says that at Shechem there was a temple, a city gate, and that Abimelech “destroyed the city and scattered salt over it” (Judges 9:45). In excavations at Shechem, a temple was found, city gates were found, and a destruction layer was found. The Iron I city underwent a violent destruction at the time of Abimelech, and the excavators date the destruction to about 1125–1100 BC, in agreement with the Biblical time frame (ca. 1125 BC).
Near the beginning of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Jeroboam established his first capital at Shechem. From this period, a large government warehouse was discovered built over the top of the fortress-temple, and a casemate wall was built around the city.
Shechem – The Woman at the Well
A one or two minute walk from the acropolis of Shechem brings you to Jacob’s Well, now housed inside the Eastern Orthodox church and monastery of Bir Ya’qub (Jacob’s Well). This site is mentioned in John 4:5-6, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and tells her about the living water that He gives. Some believe that this was the original well dug when Jacob camped in front of Shechem. This field and well is not specifically mentioned in the Genesis narrative about Jacob. Although there is currently no evidence of the well being there in the Bronze Age, it is attested by the Gospel of John and by Eusebius in the Onomastikon 164, line 3 (also titled “Concerning the place-names in sacred Scripture”), and the first church was built over the site in the 4th century AD.