The Significance of Shechem
In Hebrew shechem means “shoulder,” an apt description of the town’s location in the narrow valley between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, approximately 40 miles (65 km.) north of Jerusalem.
Today the world calls it Nablus, a Palestinian Authority city in the so-called West Bank and destined to become Judenrein, “clean of Jews,” in a future Palestinian state.
But Shechem was once a very Jewish city; and it was no accident that in his farewell to his people, an aged Joshua gathered the Israelites there to beg them to follow God (Josh. 24).
Joshua took Israel back to its roots, physically as well as historically, in a powerful object lesson to reinforce the nation’s ties to generations past and all God had done.
Scholars Carl Keil and Franz Delitzsch noted the magnitude of this meeting: “For this solemn act he [Joshua] did not choose Shiloh, the site of the national sanctuary,…but Shechem, a place which was sanctified as no other was for such a purpose as this by the most sacred reminiscences from the times of the patriarchs.”1
Why was Shechem so important? Because it was there that Moses, many years earlier, had told the Jewish people,
This day thou art become the people of the LORD thy God. . . . These shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people,…and these shall stand upon Mount Ebal to curse (Dt. 27:9, 12–13).
Thus Joshua brought them back to the very spot where God had warned them to obey or be chastened.
Even more important, said Keil and Delitzsch, Shechem was where Abraham received the first promise from God (Gen. 12:6–7) and where Jacob settled after returning from Mesopotamia; “and it was here that he purified his house from the strange gods, burying all their idols under the oak” (Gen. 35:2, 4).2
Through Joshua, God brought Israel back to its beginnings. He recounted Abraham crossing “from the other side of the river [Euphrates]” (Josh. 24:3) hundreds of years earlier and arriving in Canaan. And as God promised, He multiplied Abraham’s seed and gave him a son, Isaac. Later God gave Jacob’s brother, Esau, Mt. Seir; “but Jacob and his children went down into Egypt” (v. 4).
Then came Moses and the miraculous Exodus, which Joshua had experienced firsthand. He reminded them of the unbelievable military victories God gave their forefathers and how God gave them cities they did not build and “vineyards and olive yards which ye planted not” (v. 13).
And it was outside Shechem where the Jewish nation then buried the bones of the patriarch Joseph, within the boundaries of the land God had promised to the children of Israel, “in a plot of ground which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for an hundred pieces of silver” (Josh. 24:32).
Today the spot is known in Hebrew as Kever Yosef, “Joseph’s Tomb.” It is a Jewish holy site and Yeshiva (Jewish school) that thousands of Jewish people visited each year.
In October 2000 the Palestinians destroyed it, set it on fire, and built a mosque in its place.
- C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 226.