The drama unfolds in a mountain pass near Shechem, a city that is already ancient and venerated for its association with events in the lives of the patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob. Joshua has led the children of Israel across the Jordan River, and the 12 tribes are now ready to ratify a covenant establishing them as a loosely confederated nation.
Arrayed on the flanks of the mountain pass-with Mt. Gerizim to the southeast and Mt. Ebal to the northwest—are delegates from the 12 tribes of Israel—six tribes on one mountain, six on the other. They await the words of their priests. Standing in the valley around the Holy Ark, which contains the stones engraved with the Ten Commandments, the priests turn at a signal and face Mt. Gerizim. Loudly they invoke the blessing: “Blessed is the man who does not make a graven image,” and the six tribes on Mt. Gerizim respond as one, “Amen.” Then the priests turn and face Mt. Ebal and recite: “Cursed is the man who makes a graven image ….” “Amen” echoes across the pass from the six tribes on Mt. Ebal. And so it continues until the priests have intoned the 12 blessings and 12 curses and the tribes of Israel have responded “Amen.” By this covenantal ceremony, the 12 tribes become the nation of Israel. (See Deuteronomy 27:11–26; also Joshua 24:25.)
Exactly what happened at Shechem during this ceremony in about 1200 B.C.E.,a when the tribes emerged as a new nation under God, cannot be verified outside the Bible. The physical surroundings, however, match the biblical description of the events, and against this backdrop one can, even today, imagine the extraordinary convocation that occurred there.
Shechem lies near a major east-west pass that cuts through the massive north-south central uplands that form the backbone of ancient Canaan. This upland, from the Negev in the south to the Zebulun Valley in the north, is about 100 miles long and about 30 miles wide. The southern half of the upland consists of a partly dissected plateau, called, throughout most of history, “the hills of Judah.” The northern half of the upland—the region where Shechem is located—is physically more complex, more broken open into separate hills and valleys. Other geographic names have been used to describe this northern area: the hill country of Israel (Joshua 11:16) and the hill country of Samaria (Amos 3:9). During the period of the Judges, however, these uplands were called “the hills of Ephraim,” after the name of the tribe of Israel to which it was allotted (Joshua 17:15).
The east-west pass through the hills of Ephraim near Shechem is about five miles long and, at its narrowest, perhaps no more than a hundred yards wide. The city of Shechem, however, is not located in the middle of this pass (where the modern city of Nablus is now sited), but rather toward the eastern end, at an intersection with the road leading north from Hebron and Jerusalem. At Shechem, this north-south road joins up with the road through the pass between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. Then one branch of the road continues northward on toward the Galilee, and another turns eastward, down to a ford across the Jordan River. The eastern branch then leads to Gilead, on the eastern side of the Jordan, and north from there to Damascus.
Ancient Shechem is surrounded by a flat valley, sufficiently watered to provide an agricultural base for city life. To the northwest of Shechem, the slopes steepen rapidly to form a scarp that rises to a peak almost 1,500 feet above the valley. This scarp exposes barren rock except for some deeply rooted trees and tenacious brush. To the southwest of the city lies another, not quite so imposing, scarp. Its peak is some 100 feet lower, and it is surrounded by softer contours and a greater abundance of vegetation. These two scarps define and constrict the east-west pass through the hills of Ephraim. The twin peaks are called Mt. Ebal to the northwest (elevation 3,083 feet) 039and Mt. Gerizim to the southeast (elevation 2,980 feet). Still bearing their ancient names today, these mountains were referred to as the mountains of the blessing and the curse when Moses spoke to the Israelites about what God expected from them after their forthcoming entry into the Promised Land:
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal” (Deuteronomy 11:26–29).
Moses dies, but the Israelites, led by about Joshua, cross the Jordan into the land that their will be theirs. Joshua builds
“an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, and on Mt. Ebal … an altar of unhewn stone … And there, on the stones, he inscribed a copy of the Teaching that Moses a written for the Israelites” (Joshua 8:30–32).
The account in the Book of Joshua then goes on to describe the ceremony:
“All Israel—stranger and citizen alike—with their elders, officials, and magistrates, stood on either side of the Ark, facing the levitical priests who carried the 040Ark of the Lord’s Covenant. Half of them faced Mount Gerizim and half of them faced Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded them of old, in order to bless the people of Israel. After that, [Joshua] read all the words of the Teaching, the blessing and the curse, just as is written in the Book of the Teaching” (Joshua 8:33–34).
This ceremony, one can imagine, was well orchestrated, probably even in the literal sense, with musical instruments punctuating the ritual and with voices raised in chorus.
Although only curses are listed in Deuteronomy 27:11–26, an old tradition, written into the Talmud,b suggests that each curse was first stated as a blessing. The curses were recorded in the Bible so that they might ring in the people’s ears as a warning.
But this was only part of the covenantal treaty ceremony. We also know that an altar made of unhewn stones was constructed on Mt Ebal.
Controversy still exists as to whether this altar was built on Mt. Ebal, or on Mt. Gerizim.c According to the Masoretic, or traditional Hebrew, text, it was built on Mt. Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:4); but according to the Samaritan text of Deuteronomy, which reflects an independently preserved ancient tradition, the altar was built on Mt. Gerizim.
Who were the Samaritans, and why is there this difference in the text? The Samaritans appeared as a separate religious sect some time after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.d The Samaritans constructed their own temple on Mt. Gerizim on a site that they claim is holy because the altar built by Joshua stood there. The Samaritan version of the Holy Scriptures also designates Mt. Gerizim, and not Jerusalem, as the proper location for the Temple. In fact, the Samaritans incorporated the obligation to worship on Mt. Gerizim as part of their Ten Commandments.
Some scholars believe that the Masoretic text of the Bible (Deuteronomy 27:4) was “corrected” by Jewish scribes who, in a spate of anti-Samaritan sentiment, substituted Mt. Ebal as the site of Joshua’s altar for the original designation of Mt. Gerizim. But, from a geographic perspective, the selection of Mt. Ebal as a site for an altar to celebrate tribal unity is entirely possible. Mt. Ebal has the highest ground in the Ephraim Hills and a commanding view. From the summit, one can see far in all directions. In the words of the famous 19th-century geographer George Adam Smith, from Mt. Ebal, “we feel the size of the Holy land—Hermon and the heights of Judah both within sight, while Jordan is not twenty, nor the coast thirty miles away ….”1 On the other hand, from Mt. Gerizim it is not possible to see very far to the north because the view is blocked by Mt. Ebal.
In that case, why then did the Samaritans choose Mt. Gerizim for the site of their Holy Temple? And why in the traditional text was Mt. Gerizim, rather than Mt. Ebal, selected for the direction of the blessings?
At least two theories have been proposed. In the ceremony of blessings and curses, the Levites who guarded the Ark of the Covenant may have faced, initially, toward the east—the primary direction in biblical tradition, the direction of the rising sun. If so, then the position of honor, for the blessing, would likely be on their right, toward the south—toward Mt. Gerizim. Mt. Ebal, then would be toward their left, to which they would turn for the curses. (In Latin, the word for left is “sinister,” perhaps retaining the association of “left” with “curse.”)e
A second theory suggests that the physical appearance of the mountains was 041decisive. The southern flank of Mt. Ebal, facing Shechem, is parched—virtually barren. It receives the harsh direct rays of the noon sun, and, as a result of underlying rock formations, no springs gush forth to water these slopes. In contrast, the north face of Mt. Gerizim, opposite Shechem, appears green and fertile. This slope is partly shaded, so that moisture is retained longer by its soil. Furthermore, numerous springs issue along the dip of its rock formations, helping to support vegetation.
In the New Testament the ancient rivalry between Jews and Samaritans, concerning the proper location of the Temple, surfaces when Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob near Shechem. Jesus asks the woman to “Give me a drink.” She responds contentiously: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Later in the chapter the Samaritan woman again refers to the rift between Jews and her people when she observes: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but your people claim that the place where men ought to worship God is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). Jesus, in his answer to her, shifts the issue away from location of worship, to concern about the manner of worship: “… real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
Although Shechem was an excellent location to proclaim national unity, it did not, at the time of Joshua, become a capital city or even a religious center. (The Tabernacle containing the tablets of the Law was set up in Shiloh, about 12 miles to the south of Shechem [Joshua 18:1].)
Shechem was not a particularly defensible City. Its position, on a rise at the bottom of a level valley, allowed for only modest natural defenses. In the 16th century B.C.E., about three centuries before the arrival of Joshua, the Canaanites of Shechem built a “cyclopean” wall (made of huge unhewn stones).2 This fortification may have seemed impregnable to them. But Egyptian technology apparently had little difficulty battering down the city gates, for they did so twice during a decade, about 1550–1540 B.C.E.
Like other Canaanite cities, Shechem had within the city a citadel where defenders could hold out after the walls had been breached. A citadel had the defensive advantage of being able to concentrate fire on attackers within a small area from an 042exceptionally strong building. Here a small group of defenders might hope to hold out until the attacking force wearied, or until a relieving force could break the siege. But the citadel of Shechem proved vulnerable.
According to the Bible, Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons, tried to revive within Israel the Canaanite institution of a city-state by having himself proclaimed king of Shechem (Judges 9). (Abimelech’s father, Gideon, had previously refused to accept the role of king, probably because he saw kingship as inconsistent with Israel’s tribal system.) Bloody intrigue and mounting friction soon led to a rebellion against Abimelech’s rule. Abimelech attacked Shechem and destroyed the principal part of the city. Then he turned to the citadel:
“… Abimelech took his ax in hand, cut down a bundle of brushwood, picked it up, put it on his shoulder, and said to his forces, ‘What you have seen me do, hurry and do like wise’ ” (Judges 9:48).
The brush was set up against the citadel and burned. The defenders of the citadel died, possibly from smoke inhalation. Evidence for the destruction of the city of Shechem during the period of Abimelech (c. 1200–1100 B.C.E.) was found by the Drew-McCormick American Archaeological Expedition (1956–1966), led by G. Ernest Wright.
Although Shechem did not become a capital city during the time of the Judges, it nevertheless retained a special status. When Saul became the first king of Israel, he chose Gibeah (Tell el-Full), three miles north of Jerusalem, as his capital. David, who succeeded him, reigned first from Hebron (over the territory of Judah) and then from Jerusalem (over all Israel). Solomon’s capital remained in Jerusalem. After Solomon’s death, Judah and Israel split apart. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, ascended the throne in Jerusalem, but he went to Shechem in an effort to have himself made king over “all Israel.” When the northern tribes demanded a lighter tax burden, Rehoboam, in a callow show of strength, replied: “My father chastised you with whips; but I will use the lash” (1 Kings 12:14). At this, the northern tribes arose as one: “What portion have we in David …. To your tents, O Israel …” (1 Kings 12:16). And so, with this cry of secession, Solomon’s empire collapsed; and the once unified tribes broke up into two, small, rival states.
The northern tribes called themselves the nation of Israel; Israel comprised ten of the original twelve tribes (counting Manasseh and Ephraim, the two half-tribes, separately and including the tribes east of the Jordan). The southern kingdom, with its capital in 043Jerusalem, consisted mainly of the tribe Judah (plus the small tribe of Benjamin) and so adopted Judah as its name. Assyria conquered Israel in 722/721 B.C.E.; Babylonia overran Judah and Jerusalem less than 150 years later.
Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel (928–907 B.C.E.), fortified Shechem as his capital. But perhaps recognized the defensive weakness of this city in a valley, and for this reason he built a place he could retreat to at Penuel, east of the Jordan (1 Kings 12:25). Strangely, Jeroboam never sought to make Shechem a cultic center, despite its patriarchal and covenantal associations, which would seem to make it an excellent alternative to Jerusalem not only as a capital, but also as a central place of worship. Instead, Jeroboam decentralized worship. Major sanctuaries were set up in Bethel, near the southern border of Israel, and in Dan, near its northern border, and smaller sacred places were placed on high hills. Jeroboam hoped to divert pilgrimages away from Jerusalem by establishing convenient local substitutes. His strategy failed.
Even as a seat of government, Shechem was deficient. It lacked an adequate defense, a local base of popular support, broad acceptance by the nation and forward-looking commercial location. For some or all of these reasons, the capital Israel was soon moved from Shechem to Tirzah, and then to Samaria.
Baasha, the third king of Israel (906–883 B.C.E.), probably moved the capital Tirzah after he usurped the throne from Jeroboam’s heir (1 Kings 15:33 Tirzah was located about seven miles northeast of Shechem. The ancient city has been identified with Tell el-Farah (north). It lies near a plentiful spring at an important junction on the road northward from Shechem. From here the road branches off either to the Galilee, or southeastward along the Wadi Farah to the Jordan River.
Baasha established is capital in Tirzah after ruthlessly killing Jeroboam’s heir Nadab and the rest of his family. This act of assassination could not have made him popular among the elders of Shechem, and it may have led to Baasha’s move to Tirzah—reinforced by the fact that he came from a more northern tribe, Issachar. Excavations at Tirzah have uncovered spacious houses from the eighth century and the remnants of a palace that apparently remained unfinished. Evidently the city was once so attractive that it became symbol of beauty—so much so, that a bridegroom might say to his bride: “Thou are beautiful, my dearest, as Tirzah …” (Song of Songs 6:4).
Omri, the sixth king of Israel (c. 882–871 B.C.E.), retained Tirzah as his capital for six years, but then decided to move to a site more in keeping with his political and commercial ambitions. The nation of Israel was bordered, at this time, by four states: of Judah to the south, Phoenicia to the north, Aram-Damascus to the northeast and Moab to the southeast. Omri wanted to secure and enlarge his frontier by a series of adroit to political moves. After a half-century of intermittent warfare between Israel and Judah, Omri decided it was time to establish peaceful coexistence. This enabled him reassert domination over Moab and near establish commercial ties with Phoenicia. With sections of both the international coastal highwayf and the King’s Highway the (see map, above) within Israel’s territory, Israel could capitalize on the overland caravan trade.
It was only fitting that Omri should seek to move his capital to a location where he could oversee trade along the international roadways and on the sea, while at the same time maintaining contact with the lateral road to Shechem and the Jordan. He found a site some six miles northeast of Shechem, on the western divide of the Ephraim Hills. This site attracted Omri for other reasons as well. As a former general, he recognized clearly the value of its natural defenses. This site is on a hill, very steep on three sides, that has its summit about 300 feet above the surrounding flat fields. Even the ridge that leads to this outlying hill has a natural dip before the rise.
The hill was bought for two talents of silver from a person called Shemer (1 Kings 16:24). The city built on this hill in 876 B.C.E. was called “Shomron” in Hebrew (“Samaria” in English translation), after its the former owner. In 25 B.C.E., Herod rebuilt the city and called it “Sebaste”—also the modern name for this place. Although remains of an Early Bronze Age village (c. 3100–2100 B.C.E.) have been uncovered at 044this site, it was evidently unoccupied in Omri’s time.
Omri built his “new town” well. The summit was leveled to bedrock, and a citadel containing the palace complex was constructed there with great skill. Some 2,800 years later, it is still possible for visitors to see, intact, part of the lower courses of this citadel wall.
Samaria was capable of withstanding a long siege, but was also easily visible from nearby hills of higher elevation. A small enemy force could keep it under tight observation and prevent it from being secretly replenished with food. The enemy also had a clear view of the city and could note day-to-day signs of deterioration. In 722/721 B.C.E., Samaria was taken by the Assyrians after a three-year siege (2 Kings 18:9–10). With the downfall of Samaria the kingdom of Israel ceased to exist. About 150 years later, in 587 B.C.E., the kingdom of Judah was also destroyed—by the Babylonians.
None of the three capitals of the Kingdom of Israel—not Shechem, nor Tirzah, nor Samaria—managed to survive as a city into modern times. Today Shechem (
The drama unfolds in a mountain pass near Shechem, a city that is already ancient and venerated for its association with events in the lives of the patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob. Joshua has led the children of Israel across the Jordan River, and the 12 tribes are now ready to ratify a covenant establishing them as a loosely confederated nation. Arrayed on the flanks of the mountain pass-with Mt. Gerizim to the southeast and Mt. Ebal to the northwest—are delegates from the 12 tribes of Israel—six tribes on one mountain, six on the other. They await the words of […]