Shechem was an important city in ancient Palestine. It was named (Heb. š ekem, shoulders) because of its position in the valley between the "shoulders" of Mt. Ebal to the north and Mt. Gerizim to the south. It has been identified as Tell Balâṭah, east of Nablus and partially covered to the south by the modern Arab village of Balâṭah. Between 1913 and 1934, five expeditions of German archeologists dug at the site; their work was corrected and completed by five American expeditions between 1956 and 1964 under the direction of G. E. Wright. Although the archeological findings, Biblical testimony, and pertinent extra-Biblical texts do not always clearly agree with one another, they have shed sufficient light on each other to afford a substantially reliable history of this Canaanite-Israelite city.
Early History. The site bears scattered evidence of encampments in the Chalcolithic Period (c. 4000 b.c.), but the first real building activity dates from the Early Middle Bronze Period (c. 1800 b.c.) and was perhaps the work of the amorrites, whose great migrations are generally assigned to the latter period. Two Egyptian texts from this time are the earliest extra-Biblical references to Shechem, and they suggest that the city was even then a center of opposition to Egypt.
The Hyksos Period in its earliest phase (1750–1650 b.c.) has revealed a large wall separating the acropolis from the lower city, and also a courtyard structure similar to a Hittite courtyard temple. This apparently sacred area was abandoned for a time (perhaps because of a wave of later Hyksos invaders, known as the Hurrians or Horrites) and, in the Hyksos Period in its later phase (1650–1550 b.c.), was covered with an artificial mound upon which a mighty temple-fortress was built. The city fortifications were expanded to the north, and a new city wall was constructed, with two gates built into it on the northwest and the east; this latter gate was destroyed three times within the 50 years that marked the end of the Shechem of the Hyksos and Middle Bronze Period. This destruction is usually attributed to the Egyptian reconquest of Canaan. The next extra-Biblical witnesses to Shechem picture its king as a vassal of Egypt: in letters found at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt Lab’ayu, King of Shechem, protests to the Pharaoh against the charge that he is in league with the marauding bands of the Habiri (possibly including the hebrews) who had been causing great disturbance in Canaan (Late Bronze Period, c. 1375 b.c.).
Patriarchal Period. The Israelite traditions of the Patriarchs refer to the Shechem of the Early Middle Bronze Period, but their historical value is very difficult to assess. Several of them give the impression of a peaceful settlement in and around the city. Abraham's first stop in Canaan is at the sanctuary (māqôm ) of Shechem, by the sacred terebinth, where God appears to him. He builds an altar there and then passes on to build an altar near Bethel (Gn 12.6–8). Jacob also comes to Shechem, where he buys land near the city from the "sons of Hemor." There he erects a memorial pillar (or perhaps an altar). After burying the family idols under the sacred terebinth, he commands that his family perform rites of purification in preparation for the journey to Bethel, where he then constructs an altar to God (Gn 33.18–20; 35.1–5). Later, Jacob sends Joseph to visit his brothers who are pasturing their flocks at Shechem (Gn 37.12–14). There is much in these traditions, however, that seems to reflect later history. The building of a sanctuary by the patriarchs seems to be a later justification for Israelite worship at a formerly Canaanite shrine. The journey from Shechem to Bethel, especially in the Jacob narrative, has the characteristics of a pilgrimage, which may reflect a later transfer of the ark from Shechem to Bethel (note the "great fear" in Gn 35.5, like the terror in the ranks of Israel's enemies when the ark was carried into battle). Jacob's renunciation of idolatry may reflect the later covenant ritual performed by Joshua at Shechem (Jos 24.15). Joseph's visit to Shechem, as well as the entire tradition of a peaceful settlement at Shechem, seems to reflect the arrival of the Josephite tribes Ephraim and Manasseh under Joshua, who was able to take possession of Shechem without a notable struggle.
Such an interpretation is further urged by the very ancient pre-Mosaic tradition of a violent capture of Shechem by the tribes of Simeon and Levi (Gn 34.1–31), achieved through a treachery that was later held to be the cause of their dissolution (Gn 49.5–7). This tradition concerning a pact made with Shechem, the son of Hemor (Heb. ḥāmôr ), as well as the tradition of Jacob's purchase of land from the sons of Hemor (Gn 33.19), may well point to covenants between the Israelites and an Amorrite-Horrite population of Shechem. The Amorrites and Horrites (not always clearly distinguished in the Biblical traditions, and sometimes confused also with the Hevites) are known to have included the slaughter of an ass as part of their covenant ritual. Since ḥāmôr is the Hebrew word for ass, the original sense of "sons of Hemor" may well be "sons of the Ass Covenant." That Shechem was known as such a covenant center is indicated also by the name of the city's god Baal-berith (Lord of the Covenant: Jgs 9.4). Since the Hurrians formed part of the later Hyksos migration, it seems that these traditions concerning the sons of Hemor have preserved elements from Israel's first contacts with the native population of Shechem. It is impossible to determine historically the origins of the Simeon-Levi tradition, nor can one refer the archeological data to a particular event in the scriptural traditions with any certitude; still, the Simeon-Levi tradition may illumine the historical background of the expanded fortifications at Shechem during the Hyksos Period, and perhaps even the destruction of the city at the end of this period, while others see it as reflecting the later unrest of the Tell el-Amarna Period. In either case, the tradition may partially explain how a previous Israelite occupation of Shechem prepared the way for joshua, son of nun, to gain peaceful control of the city.
Period of Joshua and the Judges. After the Hyksos Period, Shechem went into decline. There was some reconstruction, however. A new temple, with much slighter walls, was built on the site of the former great temple, and a large memorial stone (maṣṣēbâ ) was set at its entrance. Also, the East Gate was refortified, although the city defenses were now much weaker than before. The layers at the area of the East Gate make it clear that the transition from Late Bronze to Early Iron (c. 1200 b.c.) was made peacefully. There is no clear evidence of a destruction of the temple throughout the Iron I Period even into the period of the divided monarchy, although several pits dug into the temple site in the 8th century b.c. contained debris from a great fire.
The Biblical testimony agrees with the archeological in suggesting Joshua's peaceful acquisition of the city. Nowhere is Shechem listed among the cities conquered by Israel. The ancient tradition of the Shechem covenant (Jos 24.1–28) suggests rather that the immigrating Josephite tribes settled peacefully with the former inhabitants of the city (Jos 24.15; Gn 48.22, where memories of past struggles are combined with the peaceful acquisition by the Josephite tribes). Some regard this tradition as the basis for an ancient covenant feast at Shechem. In its present position, it forms a second conclusion to the book of Joshua, and seemingly also a conclusion to a postexilic Deuteronomic edition of the hexateuch. The content of the treaty, as well as the ritual followed, are noticeably absent from the text, but are possibly contained in the code of the book of the covenant (Ex 20.22–33) and the Sinai ritual of Ex 34.3–8, both the code and the ritual having been transposed to an ancient Sinai context by the deuteronomists lest they detract from the later Deuteronomic material. Sometime after the occupation of Shechem by the Josephite tribes, a site there became known as the tomb of Joseph (Jos 24.32). As a shrine, Shechem was now gradually eclipsed by Siloe.
The rise and fall of Abimelech (Jgs 9.1–57) centers around Shechem. He was crowned king at the terebinth (9.6), surely to be linked with the sacred tree in the Abraham, Jacob, and Joshua stories, and perhaps identical with the "Terebinth of the Diviners" (where oracles were received) in Jgs 9.37. The Beth-Mello (House of the Filling) of this story (9.6) is most likely the acropolis of the city, which had been filled in with earth and separated by a wall from the lower city. Magdal-Shechem (Fortress of Sichem, 9.48) may be the same area, but is more likely the temple-fortress itself, also called the Temple of Baalberith (9.46). The debris piled into the pits later dug into the temple area is thought to date from Abimelech's destruction of the temple (9.49), but there is no clear evidence of a destruction of the temple itself in the Early Iron Age. The topography of Shechem in the Abimelech narrative would also correspond well to that of a much earlier date, as would the mention of the "men of Hemor" (9.28). Perhaps the Abimelech story has its roots in the turbulent Hyksos Period and only secondarily has been inserted into the lists of the Judges.
Monarchical Period and Final Stages. That Shechem was still relatively important is clear: David could rejoice in possessing it [Ps 59 (60).8—an ancient oracle quoted in a postexilic Psalm]; Roboam came here to be crowned (1 Kgs 12.1); after the kingdom was divided, Jeroboam made Shechem his capital for a time (1 Kgs 12.25). As a shrine, however, Shechem was now still further eclipsed by Bethel. It appears to have remained an important administrative center, however, as a Samaria ostracon indicates, and as may be reflected in the construction of a granary upon the former temple site. A clear division between upper and lower class dwellings appears, the former having suffered more serious damage in the Assyrian conquest (c. 724 b.c.).
Shechem remained very sparsely inhabited and for a time was totally abandoned until the Hellenistic rebirth of the city in the 4th century b.c. It seems to have been rebuilt by the Samaritans, who were no longer able to settle in thoroughly paganized Samaria, and who then sought refuge in the city beneath their mighty temple on Mt. Garizim. The Jewish high priest John Hyrcanus devastated the city in 127 b.c., though it lingered on for a few years afterward. In the Roman Period, New Testament sichar was most likely on this site.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 2204–08. e. f. campbell, jr. and j. f. ross, "The Excavation of Sichem and the Biblical Tradition," The Biblical Archaeologist (New Haven 1938–) 26:2–27. j. l'hour, "L'Alliance de Sichem," Revue biblique (Paris 1892–) 69:5–36, 161–184, 350–368.
[p. j. kearney]