The oak tree of Shechem
SEE, PEOPLE ARE COMING down from the center of the land, and another company is coming from the Diviners' Terebinth Tree.
Though now largely non-arable desert brought to its knees by centuries of agricultural malpractice, fertile Mesopotamia served as the breadbasket for ancient Sumeria. Ur ranked as one of its chiefest cities, and Abram and Sarah, faithful servants of the God of all the earth, numbered amongst its notable citizens.
When, in 1922, Leonard Woolley excavated the ancient city of Ur, he discovered that at the time Abram was living there — about 2000 BC — Ur was a thriving metropolis. He found that Ur's town planners had done their work well, designing a city with an orderly arrangement of streets. Spacious homes with indoor baths abounded. He even found classrooms complete with 'textbooks' on writing and grammar. In sum, the Ur that Abram and Sarah inhabited enjoyed an advanced culture.
The couple from Ur
Though two thousand years had passed since Adam and Eve had tended the Garden of Eden, and untold millions had been born and died, barely a handful had ever known the true God. With Abram and Sarah, the time had come for God to set in motion a process that would forever change that situation, relatively speaking, creating a people fit to be called His own. God initiated this momentous new phase with a disarmingly unrevealing act. He gave order to Abram and Sarah to get up and go, promising them great things if they obeyed:
Now the Lord. said to Abram: "Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1).
God gave command to this faithful couple to depart from their secure, comfortable, cozy existence to venture into what was possibly the great unknown. Society in Canaan was not as advanced as that of Mesopotamia; to move there was undoubtedly viewed as a great step backwards, the sort of thing done only be soldiers of fortune, fugitives from the law, or the slightly deranged.
Shechem and the oak tree
Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, as far as the terebinth [oak] tree of Moreh (Gen. 12:6).
Abram and Sarah set off on the long journey without dithering or dickering. Their route probably took them through Damascus, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee where, two thousand years later, the One to come would teach the crowds, and then on to Shechem, a very important centre in the second millennium BC. There the first stage of their journey came to an end at the great tree of Moreh.
Shechem and its tree were destined to play a vital role in God's dealings with Abram and his descendants. The story of Shechem, its oak, and of incident after incident played out in their shadow exposes the vital organs of God-man covenant relationships to view, showing clearly the key to covenantal success.
Let's now tell the fascinating tale of Shechem and its oak. Shechem, the first city in the Promised Land to be mentioned in the Bible, is located approximately 45 kilometers directly north of Jerusalem. Scholars agree the tree was almost certainly an oak. As if to send up a flare alerting us to its special significance, there, by the tree, three 'firsts' occurred:
The oak tree, as we will see, is special; definitely not your average, every day agglomeration of trunk, branches and tracery covered with green leafy bits. For the time being let us simply note its importance, as revealed by the meaning of 'Moreh' which, translated, means teacher. The most reputable conservative commentary available today on Genesis says that it "suggests a place where divine oracles could be obtained" (Wenham 1987, p. 279). That explanation certainly fits the facts.
Were this episode the only "oak of Shechem" one, we'd quit right now. But let's continue; as the record unfolds over time, Shechem became the venue for more than its share of happenings had chance alone set the rules. Shechem next pops into the record at the return of Abram's grandson, Jacob, after many years in Mesopotamia as Laban's some-time dupe.
Jacob returns from abroad
Jacob, the original composer of "If I Were a Rich Man", forever in his parlor counting out his money, had fled from home to escape death by his brother, Esau, after deceiving his own father Isaac and thereby swindling his brother out of a special powerful blessing. That was on top of an earlier episode in which Jacob had taken advantage of Esau's hunger to snatch his birthright from him. Forty years later, at about the age of ninety, Jacob returned.
His journey home from Mesopotamia was filled with dread over how his brother Esau would receive him. Jacob's relief when Esau embraced him warmly upon meeting again was palpable. After catching up on old times, they parted company again, and that's where Shechem comes into the story:
Then Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan Aram; and he pitched his tent before the city. And he bought the parcel of land, where he had pitched his tent, from the children of Hamor, Shechem's father, for one hundred pieces of money. Then he erected an altar there and called it El Elohe Israel (Gen. 33:18-20).
Though some argue almost persuasively (e.g. Wenham 1994, p. 300) that Shechem here is the name of the crown prince of the area rather than the name of the city to which Jacob came, we believe the evidence shows otherwise. (Wenham is wrong when he says that "nowhere else in the OT is it [salem] used in this way as an adverb qualifying a verb". It is indeed used that way in 1 Samuel 16:4. Also, a study of Joshua 24:32 shows that the land Jacob bought was by Shechem.) But even if their contention is correct, the alternative town that is spoken of (Salem, translated in NKJV as 'safely') was located only three miles from Shechem anyway, and would have come under the city of Shechem's regional control.
Nobody can explain why Jacob chose to settle in Shechem upon his return after a house-building detour in Succoth. Shechem did not lie on the major route from Mesopotamia into the Promised Land, yet it was strategically placed from a trading point of view. Perhaps his reason to settle there was entirely based on mercenary considerations.
What can we deduce from this account with its many salient features? One feature — the purchase of real estate — is most intriguing. Was doing so an act of honoring God by securing the spot where Abram built his altar, or was it an act of disobedience, going contrary to God's will that they live their lives as disenfranchised strangers in the land of promise, as possibly indicated in Genesis 28:4? But let's focus on those items closer to certainties.
To begin with, one cannot help but note Jacob's unhesitating resolve to build an altar in the same place, probably within eyeshot, of grandfather Abram's altar. But even more eye-opening is the unheralded, untrumpeted act of naming the place el Elohe Israel. For the first time, Jacob actually calls the God of creation the God of Israel.
In calling the altar "El, the God of Israel," Jacob acknowledges that the creator God who had changed his name at the Yabbok to Israel was now his God. He had vowed at Bethel that if the Lord brought him back to his father's house in peace, "the Lord will be my God" (1994, p. 301) .
To getter a better grip on what's going on, we really need to fill in some detail about the Bethel deal Wenham refers to here. While fleeing Canaan with his brother Esau in hot pursuit, Jacob had a dream at Bethel in which he saw angels ascending and descending upon a ladder whose top reached up into heaven. Then God Himself appeared at the ladder's apex, and made a number of glowing promises laden with assurances of blessings unrivalled, blessings that would make the biggest prize in lottery's history blanch visibly (28:13-15). Jacob, showing no hint of remorse over his chicanery, responded with unfeigned self-concern laced with a dash of skeptical reserve:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You (Gen. 28:20-22)".
Jacob's vow that God would be his God if He brought him back safely from Mesopotamia needs to be seen in context. First, when God spoke to him from the top rung, He had promised to be with Jacob wherever he went, implying that He, God, would stand ever-watchful over Jacob and his family. On top of that, God had many years earlier made his grandfather Abram the following staggering promise:
Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God (Gen. 17:8).
We are not drawing a long bow here to suggest that Jacob, a 'descendant' of Abram, and thus one of those of whom God was declaring He would be his God, was simply not going to meekly, willy-nilly let God be his God. (Oh, how short-sighted!) He was not going to naively believe God's magnanimous, munificent, magnificent claims. In essence, he was putting God to the test, declaring that if God really wanted to be his deity, then He had better come up with some good reason for it, He had better come up with the goods; Jacob specifically reiterated God's implied promise of a peaceful (safe) return to Canaan.
At the same time, Jacob obligated himself to certain good deeds in return — to build a 'house' out of the pillar he had erected at the same spot, and to commence regular tithing on all his earnings.
Jacob, procrastinator extraordinaire
God fulfilled all his ladder promises, even though only in germ form compared with their long-term outworking, including bringing Jacob and his family safely back to Canaan. Jacob was stuck. Unless he was mad enough to tempt God, he knew he had to fulfill his side of the deal and return to Bethel to build a state-of-the-art altar, implied by his vow to build a 'house' there, and to start tithing. But Jacob was Jacob. Instead of going on to Bethel to fulfill his obligations, he dragged his feet at Shechem.
That God was displeased is made evident by what followed, adding yet another arrow to our Shechem-thesis quiver to be revealed soon.
Calamity at Shechem
The next episode must surely go down in history's log book of treachery as a classic. Jacob's daughter, Dinah, went gallivanting around the district with the result that someone ended up with her in the kitchen where things got a little out of hand. His name happened to be Shechem, crown prince of the district. When they heard about it, Dinah's brothers were so incensed they hatched a diabolical plot. Feigning friendship, they offered Shechem Dinah's hand in marriage on one condition — that every male in town be circumcised. Shechem agreed. On the third day after the mass operation, when all the patients were in the direst of discomfort, Dinah's two brothers Simeon and Levi strapped on their keenly-honed swords, entered town, and pierced every grown male through virtually without resistance.
Jacob was flabbergasted, angry, and smitten with terror, expecting reprisals from all quarters. God took advantage of his vulnerability under such duress, ordering him to go to Bethel and fulfill his vows:
Then God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother" (Gen. 35:1).
He went, and did it. But the Shechem story is nowhere near ended. Let us continue.
If trees could talk
Before Jacob's caravan departed Shechem for Bethel, another remarkable event occurred:
So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; then let us arise and go up to Bethel, that I may make there an altar to the God who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone." So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem (Gen. 35:2-4).
One strongly feels that this oak tree was not just any old tree, the use of the definite article suggesting such a conclusion. What other inference does the inspired text want us to draw than that it was the same one under which Abram built his altar, probably where Jacob had also erected his own? So at the very spot where Abram had demonstrated his conviction that God would one day faithfully fulfill His covenant promises, where Jacob himself first called God his God at the dedication of his altar, Jacob buried all remnants of pagan influence among them.
Now there would have been untold thousands, if not millions of oak trees in Canaan where they could have buried their household idols. But no.
Dem bones, dem bones
In an easily-overlooked verse, Joseph commanded his great-great-grandsons that they ensure his wish to have his bones returned to the Promised Land be permanently perpetuated until the day of Israel's departure from Egypt, as prophesied, should come:
Then Joseph took an oath from the children of Israel, saying, "God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here" (Gen. 50:25).
Only one reason can be seen as lying behind Joseph's wish — the covenant promises of God that Israel would inherit the Promised Land. Joseph wished to lie in death among his own descendants. He obviously believed in God's faithfulness to those promises without reservation.
Where were his bones eventually stowed when his descendants finally inherited the Promised Land?
The bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel had brought up out of Egypt, they buried at Shechem, in the plot of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem (Josh. 24:32).
One could take the stance that the only reason his bones found their final resting place in Shechem was that it lay in the territory Joseph's descendants occupied. Maybe. However, lots of other cities and towns lay in their territory. Why Shechem? One could, of course, ascribe the location to the normal human tendency to hallow places where important events had occurred, such as Shechem. Indeed, quite possible. But as we will see, the deed also fits into a matrix of deeds-events having a vital common denominator.
Dem stones, dem stones
Hundreds of years later, Joseph's descendants departed Egypt carrying his bones, in readiness to fulfill the promises God had made to the patriarchs. For forty years they wandered in the Sinai Peninsula. En route, Moses commanded them what they must do when finally they entered the Promised Land. The account is given in chapters 27 and 28 of Deuteronomy. The vital points are contained in 27:2-13:
And it shall be, on the day when you cross over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, that you shall set up for yourselves large stones. You shall write on them all the words of this law. Therefore it shall be, when you have crossed over the Jordan, that on Mount Ebal you shall set up these stones. and you shall whitewash them with lime. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Take heed and listen, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Therefore you shall obey the voice of the Lord your God, and observe His commandments and His statutes which I command you today." And Moses commanded the people on the same day, saying, "These shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people, when you have crossed over the Jordan. and these shall stand on Mount Ebal to curse.
The law of God lay at the heart of the Sinaitic covenant inasmuch as it outlined in detail the terms of the covenant the people had to observe. As becomes clear in both Deuteronomy and later in the book of Joshua where the fulfillment is spoken of (8:30-35), between Ebal and Gerizim the people ratified the covenant made with God at Sinai. An altar of huge stones with the law of God inscribed on them was erected on Ebal, Shechem's sentinel mount, as a token of that covenantal commitment.
Now. Guess where Mounts Ebal and Gerizim are located. They are the hills in whose valley Shechem lay! The vibrating, thundering chorus of millions of voices shouting 'Amen' in unison to the terms of the covenant, from hill to hill, echoed powerfully in the streets of Shechem below; nothing like it has ever been seen (better, heard) again in all history.
Covenant ratified — yet again
At the end of his life, Joshua called for Israel to assemble again — at Shechem. The solemnity of the occasion cannot be expressed better than by its simple yet inspired biblical description:
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and called for the elders of Israel, for their heads, for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God (Josh. 24:1).
Joshua recounted God's faithfulness from the time of Abram's calling until He gave them the Promised Land. He solemnly impressed on them the importance of keeping faithfulness with God and his covenant. The following statement captures the sum and substance of the gathering's purpose:
Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! (24:14)
The phrase "sincerity and truth" is translated "sincerity and faithfulness" in the RSV. The real meaning of the phrase is best expressed by NIV's "with all faithfulness". Joshua told them that they must, in observing the covenant made with God, honor it with fullness of faithfulness. The people responded, equally solemnly, that they would do so:
We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God (24:18).
God was their God because He had promised to be the God of Abram's seed. They ratified the covenant with shouted professions of faithfulness. Little did they realize that the charge of faithfulness they accepted would later turn into a charge against them. When all was over, Joshua,
… took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord (24:26).
Eight hundred years had elapsed since Abram first built an altar under the Shechem oak tree. Could this possibly be the same tree?
Can we not picture Joshua pointing to the altars and the tree, can we not hear him rehearsing their stories? Can we not imagine him pointing to the ground, declaring "somewhere down there are the pagan gods your father Jacob buried; do the same, bury your false gods, and serve the one true God only." The stone was to witness to their promise to be true. On that day, under Abram's tree of promise, Israel ratified her covenant with God, the covenant she had made at Sinai about one hundred years earlier.
The charge against
About three hundred years later, a staggering event occurred in Shechem, one which gave the lie to the people's profession made at that city in Joshua's day that they and their descendants would forever be faithful.
God was king
From the very outset, God was king over Israel. The clearest exposition of this truth is found in 1 Samuel 12:12:
And when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, "No, but a king shall reign over us," when the Lord your God was your king.
This truth received little in the way of enunciation in the Law simply because every moment of Israel's history renders it obvious. He created her as a people. He delivered them from annihilation in Egypt. Israel's covenant with God amounts to nothing less than a suzerainty treaty that finds its meaning only when made between a great king and subject peoples. His regal reign over Israel is evident in such passages as Exodus 15:18, Numbers 23:21; 24:7, Deuteronomy 17:14 and 33:5. But Israel rejected God in the days of Samuel, the last of the judges:
And the Lord said to Samuel, "Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them" (1 Sam. 8:7).
Such treason would ipso facto amount to rejection of the Sinai tic covenant whose central stipulation entailed loyalty to God. Nevertheless, God in His mercy did not call it quits right then. He endured hundreds of years of more active rejection of His proprietary rights over Israel before He brought into play the covenant sanctions of cursing as rehearsed at Shechem.
Significantly, this official rejection of God's rule was preceded hundreds of years earlier by an abortive popular uprising against God, and guess where its locus was — yes, Shechem. This earlier act of treason set the scene for the later. The key player was a man by the name of Abimelech, whose father was the well-known judge Gideon, of fleece-and-dew fame.
The book of Judges recounts how the people had approached Gideon, after God had used him to save Israel from Midianite oppression, and pleaded with him to be their king. Note his response, showing faithfulness to Israel's covenant with God:
Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, "Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian." But Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you" (Judg. 8:22-23).
A greater contrast between father and son has rarely been witnessed in history as that between Gideon and Abimelech. Shortly after his father died, Abimelech went into treachery mode. Like the consummate politician he was, he lobbied hard in his town of Shechem (yes, that's right) to gain support. Feeling he had it, he murdered all seventy of his own brothers, barring one who escaped, on one rock in one day! Immediately,
… all the men of Shechem gathered together, all of Beth Millo, and they went and made Abimelech king beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem (Judg. 9:6).
Did you catch that? If you did, it probably caught your breath. At the very spot where, under the very tree where (Hamilton, p. 377), next to the very pillar where, three hundred years earlier, all Israel had sworn faithfulness to God and His covenant, where one thousand years earlier God first made the covenantal promises to Abram, where Jacob later buried the vestiges of his false gods, the populace of Shechem declared that a mere, evil man, was now their king. God, they proclaimed, was no longer even a puppet ruler.
The outcome was utter disaster, perhaps even greater than that which had occurred in the same city hundreds of years earlier when Simeon and Levi slaughtered the entire male population.
Why did this disaster occur? Listen carefully to what Jotham, Abimelech's lone surviving brother, had to say to the citizens of Shechem days before the massacre:
Now therefore, if you acted in good faith and honor when you made Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done to him as his deeds deserved. if you then have acted in good faith and honor with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you (Judg. 9:16-19).
Twice in one short diatribe Jotham tells the people to judge themselves, whether or not they have acted in 'good faith and honor'. This phrase begs to be noted, for it is identical to that which Joshua used by the oak at Shechem in charging the people to serve God faithfully, a charge which the people accepted enthusiastically. Here, in exactly the same spot, the people cast aside their ancestors' voluble promises to serve God loyally and launched on a course of rebellion. These facts must not pass unnoticed. They provide a key to the proper understanding of biblical history, and of the meaning of covenants in particular.
Interpreting the story
What appears to be the three-stranded tip of a golden thread waves beckoningly around right from the beginning of the Shechem account. All three 'firsts' — a theophany, a pronouncement and an altar — share one common denominator, God's promises to Abram. One might wonder how Abram's building of an altar fits in with those promises. As soon as one starts looking for meanings to actions, the art of interpretation is called for. But Wenham doesn't blush at all in interpreting Abram's act:
Abram built an altar to show that he believed the promise of the land. In building it, he symbolically demonstrated his conviction that one day it would belong to his descendants (1987, p. 280).
Let us state right here the conclusion come to after studying the various clues relating to Shechem and its oak tree: Shechem serves as a mechanism for concentrating the theme of covenantal faithfulness to a sharp focal resolution. Topical connections are so strong that we can be confident God intends us to see an umbilical link between them all.
At Shechem God began to unveil His special covenant with Abram and his descendants, and it was there that Abram responded with believing commitment. Jacob, on the other hand, proved his lack of commitment to God at Shechem by lingering there instead of going on to Bethel to pay his vows, with disastrous results. But the crisis had a silver lining, as it appears to have brought Jacob to genuine spiritual conversion and faithfulness to God, demonstrated by burying his household idols in the very patch of Promised Land soil where Abram first worshiped God.
One could ascribe the act of Simeon and Levi in destroying Shechem as showing loyalty to the covenant promises. For if the marriage had gone ahead, it would have been the thin edge of the wedge. Israel was to preserve an unmixed blood line. Had intermarriage occurred, the very fulfillment of the promises that Abram's seed would inherit the land would be jeopardized. Thus, Simeon and Levi could well have done the "right thing". Wenham says,
… the narrative hints at the multidimensional aspects of conduct, at the mixed motives that make it impossible either to condemn any of the actors absolutely or to exonerate them entirely (p. 317).
Covenantal promises first given to Abram at Shechem, first acknowledged then fully committed to by Jacob at Shechem, guarded by Simeon and Levi at Shechem, possibly symbolized by Joseph's bones at Shechem, were twice ratified in Joshua's time, in modified form, by Israel at Shechem, where the emphasis was placed on 'fullness of faithfulness'. Shechem was also where Joshua placed the massive, covenantal 'law stones' as God had commanded.
Hundreds of years later, the citizens of Shechem discarded every vestige of loyalty to the covenant and embarked on a course of treachery, rejecting God as king in preference for a wicked blob of Abimelech flesh.
Further, after the death of King Solomon, the epochal split of the one kingdom of Israel into two separate kingdoms occurred when the people turned, admittedly under provocation, against the legitimate Davidic successor and followed the upstart usurper Jeroboam (see 1 Kings 12:1-19). The event occurred at Shechem, which also became Jeroboam's first capital.
All these facts underscore as plainly as can be imagined the very essence of covenantal relationships. Though the form of the covenants God made with Israel may have imitated standard ancient practice, the Bible's repeated Shechem incidents highlight the heart and core of healthy relationships between God and man — mutually-observed faithfulness — as well as its opposite, perfidious unfaithfulness.
The Shechem type teaches what it is that keeps a covenant robust and healthy; the glue that holds two parties together in covenantal bliss consists of the vital attribute of faithfulness. Without faithfulness on the part of both parties, covenants are ultimately doomed.
References and notes
Hamilton 1990 The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: Genesis 1-17 , Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids
Wenham 1987 Word Biblical Commentary-Genesis 1-15 , Word Publishing, Milton Keynes
Wenham 1994 Word Biblical Commentary-Genesis 16-50 , Word Books, Dallas
Dawn to Dusk publications
The topic of covenants is dealt with at length in "Shechem to Calvary"
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