Site of Biblical Events Unearthed at Shechem
University archaeologists believe they have uncovered the site where in the 19th century before Christ the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob worshipped, where Joshua rallied the tribes of Israel, and where Abimeleeh was crowned as Israel's first king.
At such a sacred site in the old Biblical city of Shechem in Jordan an altar and a sacred oak existed, according to a tradition preserved orally by the Hebrew people for some 1000 years before the Bible was first written down during the 11th century B.C.
The archaeologists--from over a dozen American and foreign institutions--located Shechem's sacred area this summer below the courtyard of the city's temple-fortress. The excavations, which were begun in 1957 and resumed in 1960 and this summer, have provided scholars with the long history of the sacred area.
An Accurate Record
According to G. Ernest Wright of Harvard, who directed the archaeological team, this accurate historical record can be critically compared with the ancient oral traditions. The achievement is similar to the light shed on the Greek legend of Troy by Schliemann's excavations in Asia Minor.
The Drew-McCormick-Harvard expedition at Shechem is the largest archaeological dig in the Holy Land and has become an important site for training graduate students and teachers in Palestinian archaeology.
Shechem was one of the great cities of its area in ancient times; its 4000 years of history now lie buried in a ten-acre mound, or "tell," just east of Nablus in Jordan. When it flourished during ancient Egyptian and Biblical times, it occupied a strategie position at the eastern opening of the pass between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerasim. At the edge of the site is the modern village of Balatah, whose beautiful spring and nearby Jacob's Well once supplied Shechem with water.
Shechem is the first city mentioned in Bible; when Abraham and Jacob visited it, the city was a stronghold of an empire ruled from Egypt. It was during this early era at the very beginning of what is called the "Hyksos" age (13th century B.C.) that Shechem's inhabitants enclosed the sacred place within a large courtyard, with rooms for priests and pilgrims adjoining it. They also erected a fortification wall outside it to put the sacred area within the confines of the city.
Aftre having been rebuilt four times in a century, this structure was abandoned about 1650 B.C., the ruins covered over, and a massive temple-fortress erected--the largest in Palestine. A new 35-foot-high wall was built to protect the temple, and two great city gates constructed. It remained in Egyptian hands for 400 years until the 13th century B.C., when the Israelites under Joshua conquered the land of Palestine.
Throughout this period Shechem was the religious, as well as political, center of north-central Palestine, long before Jerusalem took over that role under King David.
After the death of King Solomon, all Israel assembled at Shochem to make Rohebeam, the son of Solomon, their king. But there the ten tribes of Israel revolted and joined together into the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with Shochem as its first capital.
Rival of Jerusalem
Later during the time of Alexander the Great, the Samaritans, a dissident religious sect, tried to make the city the rival of Jerusalem. (The Samaritans believed that Mt. Gerasim, rather than the sacred hill of Jerusalem, was the mountain where God first entered into covenant agreement with his people.) Shochem's final destruction occurred about 107 B.C., when the Samaritan capital was destroyed by John Hyrcanus, high priest and prince of the Judeans in Jerusalem.
The Old Testament story of the Israelites first began to be written down during the 10th century B.C., though a variety of poems, legal documents, and lists were perhaps written from before this. But the history of the Israelites in the Holy Land began hundreds of years earlier, and the first scribes relied upon oral traditions that had passed down from generation to generation. The tradition of a sacred area, with an altar and a sacred oak, in the city of Shochem begins in Genesis and reappears from time to time in the Old Testament down to the book of Judges.
In Genesis 12, the Lord commands Abraham to go into the land of Canaan "unto the place of Shochem, unto the oak of Moreh" (sacred oak). There, the Lord appears and promises the land to the descendents of Abraham, and Abraham then builds an altar unto the Lord.
Moses Commands People
Deuteronomy 37 relates the farewell of Moses to his people, who are preparing to leave for the land in Jordan promised them by the Lord. Moses commands the people, when they arrive there, to build an altar to the Lord on Mount Ebal, which flanks Shechem, and also to erect on the site plastered stones inscribed with the laws of the covenant.
In the last chapter of the book of Joshua, the leader of the people, now very old, calls all the tribes of Israel to Shochem to renew their covenant with the Lord. Joshua sets beneath the sacred oak a great stone (the sacred Pillar) to serve as a witness of the covenant, "a witness against you, lest you deny your God."
The sacred oak and pillar reappear in Judges 9, which reports the revolution touched off by Abimelech when he established himself as Israel's first king: "And all the men of Shochem assembled themselves together ... and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar that was in Shochem."
The Bible does not say when any of these events in the tradition occurred. But the excavations at Shochem provide a concrete background to the story with approximate dates. These are derived from such evidence as changes that occur in the styles of pottery as the digging goes deeper and deeper.
During the previous season at Shochem, in 1960, the archaeologists reconstructed a portion of the courtyard of the temple and restored the great sacred pillar to the spot where it stood as late as the 12th century B.C. in front of the temple. However there was no reason to believe that this place in the courtyard was the city's earlier sacred area.
Ruins House Shrine
This summer, while excavating below the temple's courtyard, the archaeologists for the first time saw that the ruins there were a building housing an open-air shrine and separated from the rest of the city by an enclosure wall. Along one side was a series of rooms, used perhaps by resident priests, erected in the 13th century B.C. The structure was rebuilt a number of times during the next two centuries, but the open-air shrine and sacred area remained on the same spot, though the floor level was raised with each building period.
At first, the sacred area was outside the city wall. When the enclosure was built, a fortification wall extended the area of the city to the west, but the sacred area remained undisturbed, though now it was inside the city proper.
In addition, when the area was filled about 1600 B.C. and a temple built there, its altar and sacred pillar were carefully placed directly over that same spot where the earlier shrine had stood. At this level the archaeologists also found traces of the great processional road leading from the lower city to the temple.
Altar, Sacred Oak
If the archaeologists' interpretation of the newly-discovered site proves to be correct, then the altar and sacred oak where the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob worshipped could have been there as early as the 19th century B.C.
In reconstructing the history of the sacred area, the archaeologists supplemented their findings with photographs and maps made by earlier expeditions to Shochem by German scientists in the 1920s. These records, presumed to be lost, were found in the files of the German Evangelical Institute. The files had been stored in the basement of the Lutheran Church in Jerusalem