[This post is only for those who have an interest in biblical things…]
The following is a picture of Shechem. The Palestinians call it Nablus. It is one of my favorite locations in Israel even though I have never been allowed to visit the place.
Try to center the picture on your screen and then take a close look at it. You will notice that the city is in a valley between two hills. Also, note the structure on the top of the left hill.
Typically, Christians come to Israel having a pretty good knowledge of their Bible. But, when a person grows up hearing (or reading) Bible stories, something often happens to those stories which he doesn’t realize. By the time a child is around 6 or 7 years old, his mind is developing the ability to determine what is a “real” story and what is fictional. But, his mind also has the ability to place some stories in between those two categories. This happens to a lot of people who have been raised on the Bible. In other words, he is supposed to believe the Bible is true, but Bible stories are so far beyond his personal experience that he places them in that special category somewhere between “real” and fantasy.
Then he comes to Israel and is amazed to realize that he can visit the places where his Bible stories actually happened. Shechem is one of the most important of those places.
I have never actually visited Shechem because several years ago the Israeli government turned it over to its main population, the Palestinians. But, if we go back 4,000 years, things were very different:
Shechem is the first city in the Promised Land which is mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 12). At that time, Shechem was only a sprawling village owned by one man named Shechem who was the wealthy patriarch of a large, extended Canaanite family. Genesis 12 actually calls this place “the site of Shechem.”
It was in Shechem that God first spoke to Abraham and promised that all the land would one day belong to his extended family. Abraham bought some land from Shechem and built his very first alter there, beginning the first religion based on the concept of a single God who had made everything else. Years later, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (Israel), returned to Shechem where he also bought some land, where he also built an alter, where he dug a well, and where he established a piece of his land to be a burial site for his second youngest son, Joseph. Why just one son? See below.
Later, when Jacob had moved his family south of Shechem, Jacob’s sons took their father’s sheep up to Shechem to find some pastureland. Jacob sent Joseph to Shechem to find out how his brothers were doing. Joseph put on his multi-colored coat and headed for Shechem. When Joseph arrived, the brothers grabbed him and sold him to a traveling caravan bound for Egypt. That was the last time Joseph ever saw the land God had promised to his grandfather, Abraham, until his bones were returned to Shechem to be buried in the plot Abraham had purchased for him so many years earlier. By the way, one of the reasons Jews feel they can claim historical ownership to this whole area is because the bones of Joseph are buried in Shechem. And, this is also why, three years ago, the Palestinians attacked and completely destroyed the 4,000 year old tomb of Joseph.
God had told Moses to do something as soon as he got all the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Joshua was to take them to Shechem and have all 3 million gather in the valley between the two hills (see the picture). Then Joshua would climb the hill on the right (Mt. Ebal). He was to build a monument and write on it all the laws God had given the people. Then he was to divide the people into two groups: one was to face Mt. Ebal and the other group was to face Mt. Gerizim, the hill on the left of the picture. A man standing on the top of Mt. Ebal would read out all the curses of the Law and a man standing on top of Mt. Gerizim would read out all the blessings of the Law and all the people were to say, “Amen.”
Then, just before he died (and after the people had settled the Land), Joshua again gathered everyone to Shechem. Joshua set up a huge stone and asked all the people which God they would serve. They all said, “We will serve the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.” Then, Joshua said to them, “This stone will be a witness to the words you have spoken. You can serve whatever God you like. But, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:25). This huge stone still stands in Shechem today.
Now, what is the significance of the big structure on top of Mt. Gerizim, the hill on the left of the picture?
When the Babylonians overtook Israel and destroyed the Temple, all the leading Jews were sent to Babylon and the Babylonians sent some of their own farmers to live in Israel. These foreigners eventually intermarried with the poorest of the Jews and became known as Samaritans (foreigners who lived in Samaria). The Samaritans took up a form of Judaism which the “true” Jews believed was heresy. That’s why the New Testament says that Jews traveling north or south would go around Shechem, going out of their way not to run into a Samaritan and end up having to speak to him.
The Samaritans’ form of Judaism had some interesting quirks: Since the Samaritans lived in Shechem, they believed that Kings David and Solomon had goofed when they located the original Mt. Moriah (where Abraham went to offer Isaac) in Jerusalem. The Samaritans believed that Mt. Gerizim was the true Mt. Moriah and that it was to Gerizim that Abraham had come to sacrifice Isaac. Therefore, the Temple should have been built on top of Mt. Gerizim.
So, guess what they did? They built their own temple on top of Mt. Gerizim to look like the one in Jerusalem and worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in that temple.
So, when Jesus did the unthinkable: to actually travel through the region of the Samaritans (instead of around it), He was doing something a good Jew just didn’t do. Perhaps Jesus was doing what Jews try to do today: visit Joseph’s tomb. And, since Jacob’s well is only a block from the tomb, Jesus went there for a drink. But, then, He really did something “wrong”: He spoke to one of the Samaritans, and a woman at that!
After some small talk, the woman decided Jesus was a prophet. She said to Him, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain [see the structure on the hilltop in the left of the picture], and you people say that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
Jesus answered her, “Woman, believe me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4).
The Samaritan people still exist today. They have been forced out of Shechem by the Palestinians and have established their homes on Mt. Gerizim. They have a Chief Priest who carries out the Law of Moses, including slaughtering animals and bringing sacrifices. They believe man should still “worship God on this mountain…”
Today, the Israeli government has built a highway that goes around Shechem so you cannot enter the city. Not for religious reasons; but because, if you were to wander into Shechem today (perhaps because it is the most direct route north and south or you are looking for water at Jacob’s well), and it was discovered that you are not Palestinian, you would be killed.
Who knows. When Jesus returns, He might just enter Shechem and sit down at Jacob’s well again…