Shechem (Joshua 24)

The city of Shechem is perhaps best remembered by Bible readers as the place at which Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi deceitfully carried out a terrible slaughter of the local population to avenge the rape of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34). Shechem is located in the hill country of Ephraim, in a pass with Mount Ebal to the north and Mount Gerizim to the south. Unfortunately, there are many unanswered questions about its history, particularly as it relates to the Bible.

The earliest occupation of Shechem is known to have been during the Chalcolithic period, from approximately 4000-3500 B.C. No occupation levels of the site are apparent at all from the third millennium B.C., although a substantial city did arise there during the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1900-1550 B.C.). This city suffered a calamitous annihilation at the end of this period; a great deal of destruction debris was found at this level. Shechem was again rebuilt during the Late Bronze Age. A large temple found there probably was that of El-Berith, mentioned in Judges 9:46-49, the site at which Abimelech killed about a thousand people. Shechem appears to have been a fairly modest city throughout much of the Iron Age and the postexilic period. 1 Kings 12:25 mentions that Jeroboam made it his residence for a time, and Shechem is also mentioned in Jeremiah 41-8.

The situation of Late Bronze-era Shechem presents the greatest challenges for archaeologists. Many believe that the city was rebuilt in approximately 1450 B.C. (after having been completely destroyed at the end f the Middle Bronze period). A commonly held view is that a people group called Labayu dominated the central hill country, using Schechem as a base during the Late Bronze II Age, from approximately 1400-1300 B.C. (also called the “Amarna Age” because of the Amarna Letters, diplomatic correspondence between Canaan and Egypt from this time period).

A problem here is the Biblical reference to Joshua’s gathering of Israel at Schechem for covenant ceremonies in the vicinity of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim (Joshua 8:30-35, 24:1). An encounter with the city or people of Shechem is never mentioned in this context, although it would have been unavoidable if the site had been occupied by a regional power at that time. Some historians suggests that the Shechemites cooperated with the Israelites, but this is highly unlikely, given God’s stipulation that the Israelites were to exterminate the Canaanites – not to negotiate concessions from them (Deuteronomy 7:12).

The chronology and history of Late Bronze Age Shechem are far from settled matters. The notion that Labayu dominated the hill country from Shechem is speculative. There is also uncertainty about when the first Late Bronze period city at Shechem was actually built. This may have occurred after the conquest; Joshua 8 and 24 appear by their silence to imply that there was no sgnificant Canaanite city there in Joshua’s time. Joshua 24 does mention a place by this name but never alludes to an encounter with Canaanite inhabitants of the city. The Biblical and archaeological evidence for Shechem is difficult to work into a coherent history, and this dilemma is compounded by other issues surrounding the date of the conquest. Researchers are wise, as always, to exercise caution about jumping to conclusions.


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