Situated in the center of Israel, the city of Nablus has been famous for its exotic soap for more than 1,000 years. Nablusi soap is manufactured from virgin olive oil, water and a sodium extract from the Barilla plant, and it was once exported across the Arab world and Europe.
But soap is not the only ancient gem in the city. Situated 2.5 kilometers east of central Nablus, nestled inconspicuously among shops, markets and garages, the Tel Balata Archaeological Park contains the ruins of one of biblical Israel’s earliest and most important cities.
Tel Balata is the Arabic name for the ancient city of Shechem. Situated some 50 kilometers (30 miles) directly north of Jerusalem, Shechem is mentioned 60 times in the Bible. This city was the location of numerous biblical events, including Abraham’s first campsite in Canaan, Simeon and Levi’s attack on the city, Joshua’s construction of an altar, Abimelech’s wicked judgeship, Jeroboam’s early reign, and Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman.
Shechem is situated in the narrow valley separating Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, two of the largest mountains in Samaria. This valley was a principal highway for merchants and travelers moving between northern and southern Israel. Shechem’s situation on this crucial trade artery gave it prominence.
The city also had an abundance of water, thanks to numerous natural springs and a high, stable water table, which made digging new wells easy. The most famous of these is Jacob’s Well, mentioned in John’s gospel account and situated just a few hundred yards east of Shechem. Between the plentiful supply of water and abundance of fertile valley soils, the land around Shechem was ideal for sustaining livestock and growing food (Genesis 37:12-14). The city’s strategic situation and physical wealth made it, in the words of Prof. Baruch Halpern, the “natural seat of government for the region north of Jerusalem” (Anchor Bible Dictionary).
The Bible has much to say about Shechem. But what does archaeology tell us?
Shechem features prominently in the biblical account of the patriarchs. Genesis 12 records that when Abram first arrived in Canaan, sometime in the early 19th century b.c.e., he “passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth [tree] of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land” (verse 6). Shechem was a Canaanite city at this time. Its abundant water supply and lush fields provided sustenance for Abram’s livestock and large entourage.
We don’t know exactly how long Abram stayed in Shechem, but the Bible records that the patriarchs had an obvious affection for the city and region. In Shechem, God expounded on His promises to Abram. In verse 7, God told Abram, “Unto thy seed will I give this land.” The patriarch showed his gratitude by building an altar to God, the first-recorded altar built by Abram in Canaan.
The city of Shechem is featured some decades later, when Abraham’s grandson Jacob returns from Northern Mesopotamia to settle in Canaan. Genesis 33 says that Jacob purchased land from Hamor, the king of Shechem, and lived in peace with the community. In chapter 34, Jacob’s peaceful coexistence with the people of Shechem ends following an incident between his daughter Dinah and “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land” (verse 2). Shechem fornicated with Dinah, became infatuated with her, and asked Jacob for her hand in marriage. Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, promised their sister to Shechem, but only if the men of Shechem (the city) agreed to be circumcised. Hamor and Shechem agreed to the terms and subjected their men to the procedure. But it was all a ruse. Simeon and Levi took advantage of the incapacitated men and invaded Shechem.
This harrowing incident marred relations between Jacob’s family and the people of Shechem. “Ye have troubled me,” Jacob said, in a rebuke of his sons, “to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land …” (verse 30). Jacob and his family were forced to relocate to Bethel. Before leaving, however, Jacob purged his household of pagan idols—burying them under the terebinth tree of Shechem.
Jacob and his family moved away but continued to farm their land in Shechem. Genesis 37 records the account of Joseph being sent to check on his half-brothers, who were in Shechem. Young Joseph was near this location when he was sold by his brothers into slavery. Nearly three centuries later, Joseph’s preserved body would return to Canaan with the Israelites and be buried in Shechem (Joshua 24:32).
The ruins of this ancient city were first exposed in 1903 by German historian Hermann Thiersch. Following an intuition that Tel Balata was Shechem, Thiersch uncovered on the west side of the tel “a piece of ‘cyclopean’ wall.” After discovering these ruins, Thiersch wrote, “All historical conditions are satisfied completely by this point.” Based on the wall and the position of the tel, Thiersch determined that the site was none other than Shechem.
Thiersch uncovered little of the site himself, but his conclusion spurred subsequent excavations by German archaeologist Ernst Sellin in 1913 and 1914, and then again from 1926 to 1936. Sellin’s archaeological reports are few—in part, due to his Berlin home being bombed in 1943—and what is left is not well organized, to the point where “one can do very little with his reports” (Shechem: The Biography of a Biblical City, George E. Wright). Nonetheless, Sellin uncovered much of the cities’ fortifications and the foundation of a huge temple. Sellin also discovered a few Israelite and Canaanite artifacts, which reinforced the conclusion that the site was Shechem.
In 1956, American archaeologists George E. Wright and Bernhard Anderson continued excavations at Shechem. Together, they uncovered destruction layers from the eighth and second centuries b.c.e. They also uncovered a Canaanite glacis (earthen embankment), which led up to the city’s walls and dated to the 17th century b.c.e. Wright directed excavations at the site until 1962. Shechem was again excavated in 1973, this time by the famous American archaeologist Prof. William Dever. Future excavations are planned between Palestinian archaeologists and the University of Leiden, funded by the Dutch government.
Uncovered by Wright, the earliest structures at Shechem have been dated to the Middle Bronze Period, around 1850 to 1750 b.c.e. The exposure of a silo, several small walls, and a few streets from this period indicate Shechem was established as a built-up urban center at the time.
Further archaeological discoveries from the Middle Bronze Age confirm this. In 1901, John Garstang discovered the Stela of Khu-sobek (a military adviser to Sesostris iii) outside of Khu-sobek’s tomb in Abydos, Egypt. Khu-sobek wrote this inscription between 1880 and 1840 b.c.e. The inscription mentions a district named “Sekmem,” where Sesostris iii fought with “Asiatics” (a standard Egyptian name for peoples of the Levant). Archaeologists believe Sekmem is a reference to Shechem.
In the 1920s, French Egyptologist Georges Posener uncovered an Egyptian inscription devoted to a ruler named “Ibish-Hadad of Shechem.” This inscription was found on an execration (curse) tablet, which dates to the mid-19th century b.c.e. and was found in Saqqara, Egypt. These mentions of Shechem from the patriarchal period indicate its significance in the Canaanite period.
Shechem was further fortified around 1750 b.c.e. when a double defensive wall was constructed. By 1700, this massive wall had been bolstered by an earthen embankment. Wright wrote that “the city was provided in the Bronze Age with perhaps the most massive city fortification ever found in the country” (“The First Campaign at Tell Balata”).
Over time, Shechem’s fortifications continued to be strengthened with the addition of further large wall and gate structures. The city had at least two gates: one in the northwest and one in the east. A southern courtyard temple and surrounding buildings were covered with dirt, and a larger temple was constructed on top of this dirt pad.
It appears that around 1550 b.c.e., Shechem was destroyed by Pharaoh Ahmose and his invading Egyptian army. Destruction layers from Ahmose’s campaign are spread throughout Canaan. Wright dated a destruction layer at Shechem to between 1570 and 1545 b.c.e. Though ancient sources mention Megiddo’s destruction by Ahmose, no source mentions the destruction of Shechem. Following its destruction, the city lay dormant for about 100 years.
In his article “Archaeological Sources for the History of Palestine: The Middle Bronze Age—The Zenith of the Urban Canaanite Era,” Professor Dever described Middle Bronze Age Shechem: “They put up enormous earthen embankments that were surrounded by massive walls, thus transforming a low, vulnerable rise in the pass into a seemingly impregnable fortress. …
“[T]here is evidence that town planning was highly centralized and sophisticated. Greater Canaan was no backwater.”
Evidence suggests the mid-15th century b.c.e. marked a new growth period for Shechem. This is when the great fortifications and the southern temple were rebuilt (likely the temple of Baal-Berith mentioned in this location in Judges 9:4, 46). The largest massebah (or “standing stone”) discovered in Israel was unearthed near the altar of this temple. This renaissance in Shechem appears to have been underway around the time of Israel’s conquest of Canaan.
Period of the Conquest
Interestingly, the book of Joshua does not mention the conquest of Shechem, but it does record a number of events occurring in the region. Joshua 8, for example, records Joshua building an altar on Mount Ebal and the Israelites gathering on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim to perform in a giant outdoor musical festival that reiterated God’s promises of blessings or curses (Deuteronomy 11:26-29 and Joshua 8:30-35). And Joshua 24 recounts Joshua taking all of the tribes of Israel to Shechem, where they made a covenant with God. Yet the Bible does not mention anything about the conquest or capture of this city. Why not?
Some scholars believe Shechem remained a Canaanite stronghold. Historian Hanoch Reviv, in an article titled “The Government of Shechem in the El-Amarna Period and in the Days of Abimelech,” wrote that Shechem would “endure as a foreign enclave in the heart of the Israelite settlement.” This begs the question: Why would the Israelites renew their covenant and bury Joseph in a Canaanite city? Joshua 20:7 declares Shechem as one of the six Levitical cities, indicating that it must have been controlled by Israel. What does archaeology suggest happened to Shechem in this period?
The 14th-century b.c.e. Amarna letters—letters from Canaanite leaders to Egypt’s pharaoh, written around the time of Israel’s conquest—may give insight. A king named Labayu of Shechem wrote several of the tablets found at Amarna (EA 252-254). On EA 252, King Labayu defends his inaction against an invading people he identifies as the Habiru. On EA 254, Labayu defends himself against accusations of treason and rebellion before Amenhotep iii. On the relationship between Canaan and Egypt at that time, historian S. Douglas Waterhouse wrote: “As in Joshua’s Canaan, the Amarna texts speak of independent city-states who possess the freedom to form their own alliances and pursue their own local agendas (though they owed nominal allegiance to Egypt)” (“Who Are the Habiru of the Amarna Letters?”).
What was really going on? Why didn’t King Labayu resist the invading Habiru army? Written by Abdi-Heba, the ruler of Jerusalem, Amarna letter EA 289 answers. In this letter, Abdi-Heba demands that the pharaoh send him men as a defensive measure to protect Jerusalem. In describing “all the lands” and towns of Canaan falling to the Habiru, he says, “Are we to act like Labayu when he was giving the land of Shechem to the Habiru?”
This evidence suggests that the Canaanite King Labayu, rather than fight the Hebrews when they invaded the region, surrendered in some sort of agreement. Waterhouse suggests that Israel requisitioned Shechem peacefully.
The archaeology at Tel Balata supports this proposition. “In parallel agreement, the archaeological evidence indicates that the Late Bronze city once ruled by Labayu and his sons never suffered a destruction,” wrote Waterhouse, “but rather experienced a peaceful transition from Labayu’s time to the later Iron Age” (emphasis added).
The Bible does not mention Labayu, perhaps for a good reason. Amarna letters EA 245 and EA 250 show that not long after Labayu surrendered Shechem, and after he made treaties with Gezer and Gath-Carmel, he was killed in mysterious circumstances during his journey to Egypt to give an account of his actions.
With Labayu dead and Shechem firmly in Israelite hands, Joshua allotted it to the tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 17:17-18). The city, which became one of six refuge cities, remained a large and influential city in the region (Joshua 20:7-9).
Shechem features prominently in the account of Abimelech, an illegitimate son of Gideon and a Shechemite woman, leading an uprising in the region. Eventually, Abimelech slaughtered the men of Shechem, razed the city, and then “salted” the ground. (Salting an area was a practice of Baal-worshipers to purify a place of unclean spirits, as attested to by an article in Vetus Testamentum Vol. 3, “The Salting of Shechem,” by A. M. Honeymoon.)
Abimelech reigned in Shechem not as a judge but as king. During his reign, he secured sovereignty over much of Ephraim and Manasseh. Judges 9:6 shows Abimelech was crowned upon the massebah, or standing stone, and verse 4 shows that it was the wealth of the temple of Baal-Berith that funded Abimelech’s mercenary army. For three years, Abimelech reigned over much of Israel (verse 22)—thanks largely to the city’s crucial strategic situation at the center of Israel.
The archaeological record corroborates the story of Abimelech and his destruction of Shechem. Baruch Halpern, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, wrote, “[T]he archaeological record at Shechem dovetails nicely with the story: The site was apparently abandoned after a destruction in the mid-12th century b.c.e.” This fits with the general biblical chronological setting for this event in the time period of the judges. Though the entire city was not razed, verses 46-49 specifically mention Abimelech burning Shechem’s temple. Wright’s excavations discovered signs of burning within the cella (inner chamber) of this temple (“The Excavation of Shechem and the Biblical Tradition,” by Edward Campbell and James Ross).
Shechem’s history did not end with its destruction by Abimelech. Thanks to its dominant geography, it quickly became powerful again. “Shechem must have quickly risen from its ruins,” wrote Siegfried Horn, “for its later history indicates that it had lost little, if any, of its importance” (“Shechem in the Light of Archaeological Evidence”).
Shechem was a prominent city during the period of the united monarchy. 1 Kings 12:1 records that following the death of his father, Solomon, “Rehoboam went to Shechem; for all Israel were come to Shechem to make him king.” The city was important to the northern tribes of Israel, which is why Rehoboam visited. However, it showed that the northern tribes were clinging to the history in their own lands rather than traveling south to Jerusalem. Shechem was a city that was meaningful to Israel long before David chose Jerusalem. Therefore, it is fitting that from Shechem, Israel would deliver Rehoboam an ultimatum and rebel against the “house of David” (verse 19). Israel had once made a covenant in Shechem to follow God (Joshua 24). Now, they were making a covenant here again to follow Jeroboam.
1 Kings 12:25 reaffirms the importance of this city: “Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill-country of Ephraim, and dwelt therein ….” In an article titled “Jeroboam and Shechem,” historian and linguist Dr. Nigel Allan wrote: “Jeroboam’s choice of Shechem for his capital seems an obvious one as it had been the historic capital of the Joseph tribes during the period of judges.”
However, Jeroboam’s stay in this location was short-lived. Allan believes this was because it was a Levitical city. For a breakaway king seeking to establish his own religion, a city full of priests was not an ideal environment. “The new regime was established in a new place free from administrative and religious interference, while the spiritual focal point having been removed from Jerusalem did not return to its former location at Shechem but was sited in the ancient shrines of Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:29), neither of which are recorded as having contained Levitical settlements,” Allan wrote.
Jeroboam’s brief stint in Shechem is also corroborated by archaeology. In an article titled “The Stratification of Tell Balatah (Shechem),” an archaeologist who excavated at Tel Balata, Lawrence Toombs, wrote: “The fortunes of the city improved dramatically when Jeroboam i rebuilt its walls, and made it briefly the capital of the northern kingdom ….” The 1956–1957 excavations at the east gate of the city showed that walls were patched and reinforced around 920 b.c.e. A probe below stones atop the northwestern gate showed similar signs of renewal. The Bible records that Rehoboam sought to attack Jeroboam (2 Chronicles 11), so it makes sense that the northern king would bolster the defenses of his capital. Several buildings also replaced their earthen floors with flagstone floors during this period, perhaps indicating an influx of wealth or prestige. This growth period did not last long though.
The Prophet Hosea indicates that Shechem became a city filled with crime during the period of the Israelite monarchy. While describing the sins of Israel and Judah, Hosea wrote, “And as troops of robbers wait for a man, So doth the company of priests; They murder in the way toward Shechem …” (Hosea 6:9). Shechem was a vital city for traders and those seeking refuge. As a refuge city, Shechem’s function was to protect the citizens of Israel so that the Levites could administer the law; instead, it became a city of crime, corruption and vice.
Little is known of Israelite Shechem following the reign of Jeroboam. The city was destroyed in 724 b.c.e. by Shalmaneser v of Assyria. In an article titled “Three Campaigns at Biblical Shechem,” James Ross and Lawrence Toombs wrote, “The city was virtually abandoned from the time of his invasion until the fourth century (b.c.e.).” The city became inhabited by Samaritans and was eventually partially destroyed by locals, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids and the Maccabees on different occasions. John Hyrcanus captured the city around 128 b.c.e. and destroyed its temples. His sons, Aristobulus and Antigonus, devastated Shechem and sold its inhabitants into slavery at the end of the second century b.c.e.
The area of Shechem is mentioned a few times in the New Testament. In Acts 7:16, Stephen alludes to “Sychem” being the burial location of Jacob and Joseph. John 4:5 describes Jesus traveling through the region of Samaria to an area “which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph” (King James Version). Verse 6 records Jesus interacting with a Samaritan woman while resting at “Jacob’s well.” Since the fourth century c.e., Jacob’s Well—which is situated a short distance from Tel Balata—has been a popular site for Christian pilgrims.
In verse 12, the Samaritan woman refers to Jacob as “our father.” The Samaritans claim to be descendants of Abraham and revere Shechem for its patriarchal history. Archaeological evidence uncovered on Mount Gerizim show that the Samaritans built places of worship and considered it a holy site. Even today, a small group of Samaritans continue to have worship services on Mount Gerizim. And the Samaritans’ second-most holy site is Joseph’s tomb, which is also in Shechem’s vicinity (though the exact location is disputed).
In the Roman period, a new city arose 3 miles west of the ruins of Shechem. It was named Flavia Neapolis by Emperor Vespasian in 72 c.e. In the seventh century c.e., Muslims conquered the city and changed its name to Nablus. Another small village arose on the ruins of Shechem called Balata.
Today, these sites are part of Area A of the West Bank. Nablus is an unstable city, home to a relatively new terrorist group called the Lion’s Den, made up of cross-factional young Palestinian militants. The brewing turmoil in the area will make future excavations at Tel Balata jeopardous.
But it also speaks to the prophetic repetition of history in this storied location.