Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Shechem Abraham Never Knew

Aerial view of the ruins of Tell Balata or ancient Shechem. On the right is the Middle Bronze fortification wall dating to 1500–1200 BC, about 500 years after Abraham. The temple is seen in the upper center. (Holy Land Satellite Atlas, 1999, p. 100.)

Alice C. Linsley

Many of the incongruities of Genesis are contextual; posing a contrast between the earlier context of Abraham and the latter context of the Deuteronomist who narrates Israel's history through Moses. The Deuteronomist stresses rejection of images, exclusive devotion to the God Yahweh, and obedience to his prophet Moses (Deut. 18:18; cf. Mark 6:125; Matt. 16:13-20; John 1:21). The Deuteronomist writes from the context of the Neo-Babylonian Period, about 700-300 BC. This is about 1500 years after the time of Abraham.

The Deuteronomist seeks centralized worship at the Jerusalem temple, and the reshaping of the Passover and Tabernacles into national observances. This perspective does not align with the historical, archaeological, linguistic, and anthropological data concerning Abraham and his Nilo-Saharan ancestors.

The Deuteronomist may be responsible for reporting that Abraham visited a prophet (moreh) at a tree in Shechem. Shechem was the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. That the Deuteronomist is speaking of the remote past is evident in the phrase "at that time..."
Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of the moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him. (Gen. 12:6,7)

In Genesis 12, Shechem is described as a place with a prophet, and prophets sat under trees outside of the urban areas. The moreh who Abraham visited sat under an oak between Ai and Bethel. The tamar palm under which Deborah sat was between Bethel and Ramah (north-south axis). So we may assume that Shechem is a region as well as a city. When Abraham was there it was open land. Yet when Jacob arrived, it is described as a city. We are told that Jacob “camped within sight of the city" (Gen. 33). Either a city appeared within two generations or the description of Shechem as a city is another anachronism of the Deuteronomist, a late hand on the Genesis material.

In Genesis 12 we find language typical of the Deuterononist Historian. The Deuteronomist would have us believe that God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, or at least land that belonged to the Canaanites. Actually, Genesis 12 tells of a promise, not a covenant. God promises to show Abraham a territory which he will possess. The promise involves Abraham becoming a famous man and a being a blessing to many. Shechem is then introduced in Genesis 12:6 as the place where Yahweh said, "I shall give this country to your progeny." Was this a direct communication? Or was the communication made through the moreh at the great tree of Shechem?

In reality, Abraham's land was limited to ancient Edom or what the Greeks called Idumea, meaning land of red people. It extended on a north-south axis between Hebron and Beersheba and on an east-west axis between Ein-Gedi and Gerar. These places are shown on the map below.

Note that Shechem is not in the territory that Abraham controlled and which Isaac inherited. The Deuteronomist attempts to correct this omission. Since Shechem was the first capital of the Northern Kingdom it must also have been part of the covenant. For the Deuteronomist Historian Shechem is the most sacred city of Israel. This is evident in the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges. However, in Genesis, Abraham is associated primarily with the shrine of Mamre, which was near Hebron (Kiriath Arba). Edomites lived in Hebron.

In Jewish tradition, the Hebrew word shékém refers to a shoulder or a saddle of rock. However, the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph pronounced 'Sekem' refers to vitality or life. The area was known for the production of grapes, olives, wheat and for livestock. Genesis 37:12 speaks of Jacob's sons pasturing their flocks at Shechem.

Genesis 33:18 tells of Jacob's arrival in Shechem after his reunion with his older brother Esau, a ruler of Edom. The reunion came after Jacob left Paddan-Aram. There he bought land from the sons of Hamor, who is called "father" of Shechem (Gen. 33:19). This is typical of "sent-away" sons. They left the territories of the ruling son in order to become established as rulers in their own territories. Jacob was sent away to Paddan-Aram, but if he is to be the "father" of Israel a connection must be made between Jacob and Shechem. Thus, the Deuteronomist's vague assertion that "Jacob settled in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan." (Gen. 37:1)

In Genesis 34 we are told Shechem was ruled by a Hivite named Hamor. His son who is named Shechem desired to marry Dinah, one of Jacob's daughters. This affection became the provocation for the murder of the male citizens of the city by two of Jacob's sons, Simeon and Levi. Jacob was displeased by their actions. He tells them, "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed." (Gen. 34:30).

The biblical data makes it evident that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not control the territory of Shechem. Abraham and Isaac may have sojourned there, but they never resided permanently in that region. Jacob's wanderings brought him there for a time, but he never ruled over the territory in which Shechem was a fortified city. Given all that came to pass, Jacob may have been wiser to accept the hospitality of his brother Esau and to have lived in peace in Edom, the ancestral home of his fathers. Edom, after all, is noted in the Bible as a seat of wisdom.

Related reading: How the Deuteronomist Changes the Genesis Narrative; Contextual Incongruities in Genesis

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