By several different names, Shechem was an important city in ancient Israel. In fact, Shechem is quite important today under the name of Nablus in the so-called West Bank. Archaeologists disagree as to the exact location of the ancient city and whether the various cities built there are really different or were really just new manifestations of the same place. It is for them, not us, to have these discussions. But it was and is an important place.
In the book, Birth of The Holy Nation, volume 1, we encounter Shechem as the original settling place of Abram when he first arrived in Canaan. In volume 2, we will spend time there with Jacob and his sons. Still later, when the Israelites had returned from Egypt, they went to a location between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim to renew their allegiance to the law of God. These two mountains just happened to be near Shechem. In the New Testament there was a woman of Samaria who encountered Jesus at a well near Sychar. Sychar was one of the names given to the place of Shechem. It’s interesting that the woman had come to the well of Jacob for water when she encountered Jesus. For this encounter, He had placed himself at a well that had been dug by Jacob the Patriarch centuries earlier.
But, why Shechem? Why did Abram settle there to begin with? Why would Jacob settle there? Such questions don’t mean much to most of us these days, but there may be great significance to those choices. Herein we will examine some practical aspects of these selections. We will also ask some questions concerning potential spiritual significance of these cities.
There seem to have been two main, practical concerns for Abram and Jacob. They are not mentioned in scripture per se, but are generally known in historical terms anyway. The most fundamental of these concerns is trade, particularly trade routes. Even in the earliest times of the settlement of lands, men wanted goods that were hard to come by locally. As the land we call Canaan was becoming settled, the people would organize cities in order to centralize security and trade considerations. It was often true that cities would grow up along coast lines. Coastal areas that had favorable harbors would often be selected because of the ease of use and or defense of the harbor. A similar phenomenon occurred along rivers. Where there were riverine conditions that favored use as a water supply or fishing ground or even ease of agricultural extraction, cities would be formed.
The cities would, of course, become centers of local activities. Governmental entities would be located in the cities. Trade would occur in the cities so that people in the local areas could gain access to goods they themselves might not otherwise have access to. With the passage of time, local demand for locally-produced goods would level out and patterns of economic activity would stabilize. But, suppose other things could be had – things that could not be grown, harvested or produced locally. How could that happen? Well, the cities would continue to be the places people would accumulate produce and other goods, so the cities would be the places people went to acquire things they did not already have. When ports and harbors were incorporated into the cities, it was logical that boats could come and go. When that occurred, “foreign” products could be brought to the ports by boat. Trade in imported and exported products could flourish.
Actually, though, similar patterns could develop in places that were not accessible by water. When men built population centers that were not co-located with operable ports, trade could still happen. One just had to get the products to those places, and do so by some means other than boats. Land-based transportation would be necessary.
Where there is money to be made, men will figure out a way to make it. The fact that people will often like to have products that cannot be locally produced is one of the opportunities that can be developed by someone who can figure out a way to get to those products to bring them to their fellow citizens. For reasons of safety and adequate volumes of goods, land-based trading activities would develop on scales large enough to be economically attractive. From these concerns a phenomenon would arise we commonly call the “caravan.” Basically, the caravan idea would regularize over time. Routes that offered ease of use and reasonable security would become popular. As their use became frequent, other settlements would take place along those routes – places that offered food and lodging and even intermediate trade opportunities. Over time the routes would become so routinely used that we would begin to think of them as “trade routes.”
It turns out that trade routes would also develop in such a way as to provide marine or river-borne traders access to markets that were not located near the water. Men found out early on that water-borne goods could also be carried by land-based traders to more remote places. In other words, as ships became capable, large shipments of goods would arrive in ports and then be transported by land to inland markets. In so doing, return traffic of goods acquired inland could then be brought to port cities for transport over water to foreign ports.
In essence, Shechem was a city that was developed in a place that had water and pasturage. Its particular location made it easier to defend than many other locations nearby would have been. Its particular location made Shechem a place where trade that traveled north and south could benefit from its facilities and markets. Due to certain geographic features, it was also a city that could benefit from trade coming from the east, across the Jordan River. In turn, then, Shechem could operate as a center for moving goods to the western coast.
Besides its defensibility, one of the features that made Shechem a good trading center was that the approach to the city on the eastern side was fairly easy. Over east of the river there was an area determined by the presence of the Jabbock River that made for easy access to the Jordan River, easier than it was in most places to the east. In particular, the relatively gentle approach from the east would make travel much easier for some man who might bring his family and his herds and flocks along with him as he moved to the west across the Jordan. Coming down the Jabbock just made so much more sense than using much more difficult mountain trails found to the north or to the south of the Jabbock. Such a man as Abram or Jacob, coming from the east with large herds and flocks and large numbers of retainers would prefer such a route. Once they had arrived at the river, they would immediately be confronted by the mountains in Canaan. However, geographic features on that side of the river made for a somewhat less rigorous trek up into the mountain country to a very favorably located city called Shechem. It is quite likely the Canaanites built Shechem at that particular location for those reasons and that they enjoyed the trade that ensued as that region developed.
It turns out that travelers to the north and south also found Shechem a useful location. It connected them with such places as Bethel and Hebron for example. Our patriarchs, being wise men, were likely to find such locations desirable because of the access they provided to them. True, these places were not fully developed by the time Abram showed up. It is likely that the presence of such men as the patriarchs in fact facilitated the development of these areas to the benefit of all parties.
By the time Jesus was traveling between Galilee and Judea, these ancient trade routes used by Abraham (Abram) and Jacob were very well developed, and travelers would stop there often to eat and to rest – and in the case of Jesus to minister to local needs.