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Throughout his distinguished career, Bill Shea has maintained a strong interest in the Exodus and Conquest, formative experiences for the fledgling nation of Israel. His article on the date of the Exodus (Shea 1982), remains a classic study in this area. I am pleased to offer this modest contribution to a close colleague and friend in the hope that it will enhance our understanding of those momentous events.


Shechem1 is the natural capital of the hill country of central Canaan. It is protected by mountains, has an abundant water supply, and is blessed with wide, fertile fields to the east and west. Alt referred to Shechem as "the uncrowned queen of Palestine" (Wright 1965: 9). Throughout much of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages and into the Iron I period, it was the most powerful city-state in the region. From excavations at the site, we know that Shechem was fortified from ca. 1750 to ca. 1150 BC. The city was strategically situated in a narrow pass between Mt. Gerizim to the south and Mt. Ebal to the north. Because of its geographical situation, Shechem controlled the roads and traffic in the area, both north and south, and east and west (Boling 1982: 247; Dorsey 1987: 69).

The Role of Shechem in Hill Country Politics

Literary and archaeological data alike attest to the importance of the city. In an Egyptian execration text dating to the 19th century (Posner's E6), there is mention of "the ruler of Shechem, Ibish/Abesh-Hadad" (Wilson 1969c: 329, n. 8). Also from the 19th century, from the reign of Sesostris III, comes the Stela of Khu-Sebek which tells of an expedition to Canaan in which the Egyptians "reached a foreign country of which the name was Sekmem...then Sekmem fell, together with the wretched Retenu" (Wilson 1969a: 230). According to Larry Toombs,

These texts indicate that by the mid-19th century Shechem was an important strategic and political center, a leader of resistance against Egyptian expansionist policies and probably the head of a city-state confederacy (1992: 1179; cf. Finkelstein 1994: 173).

The Amarna Letters shed considerable light on political conditions in Canaan in the mid-14th century. From them, we learn that Lab'ayu, the king of Shechem, controlled the central hill country from just north of Jerusalem to Megiddo, and was attempting to expand his holdings (Campbell 1965: 206; Finkelstein 1994: 174). According to the archaeological findings, the 14th century was the high point of Late Bronze Age culture at Shechem (Toombs 1992: 1182).

Toward the end of the 13th century, a number of destructions occurred on he periphery of Shechemite territory which very well may have been the result of the Shechemites once again trying to expand their holdings (Wood 1985: 561-571). This was at the end of the reign of Ramesses II, when Egyptian control of Canaan became lax. The campaign of Ramesses' son Merneptah to Canaan in ca 1210 BC, soon after he took the throne, recorded on the famous Israel Stela, appears to be a reaction to these events. Merneptah says nothing about Shechem; only that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel (Wilson 1969b: 378). From Judges 9, we know that Shechem was an important political center in the mid-12th century, since Gideon's son Abimelech came here to garner support for his ill-fated bid to become ruler of the tribes of Israel.

The epigraphic and archaeological data alike attest to the fact that Shechem was a powerful political center in antiquity, controlling most of the central hill country of Canaan from the 19th to the 12th century BC.

Shechem in the Conquest Narrative

The role of Shechem in the Conquest narrative has been an enigma to generations of Bible scholars. After the Israelites blazed a safe trail to central Canaan by defeating Jericho and Ai, they immediately went 34 km north to convene a covenant ceremony in the area of Shechem (Josh 8:30-35). This journey took them through the heart of the central hill country, territory they had not yet conquered. Significantly, women and children participated in this trek (Josh 8:35). It is obvious that the journey was a peaceful one, not a military expedition. In addition, not only did the Israelites travel through an unconquered area, but this event had previously been commanded by Moses (Josh 8:33; Deut 11:29, 30; 27:4-13). It is clear that the Shechem event was planned well ahead of time­--before the Israelites set foot in the Promised Land and before the first spear was hurled in the land Canaan.

Following the convocation at Shechem, the Israelites were tricked into making a covenant with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9), followed by the southern campaign (Joshua 10). They then went north to battle a coalition of kings at the Waters of Merom and to destroy Hazor (Joshua 11). No campaigns in the central part of the country, the area controlled by Shechem, are mentioned. At the completion of the Conquest, the Israelites once again returned to Shechem for a covenant ceremony as described in Joshua 24. In addition, one final act was carried out at Shechem, which seemed to be the culmination of the Conquest of Canaan:

And Joseph's bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem (Josh 24:32, NIV).

This act of burying Joseph in Shechem demonstrates that a peaceful relationship existed between the Israelites and the people of Shechem. Jacob's land at Shechem had been willed to Joseph (Gen 48:22), who presumably passed it on to his eldest son Manasseh. The tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim settled in the area under the jurisdiction of Shechem (Joshua 16, 17), perhaps because of the land ownership there. This once again underlines the cordial relations that existed. In the period of consolidation following the Conquest, the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim did not carry out any military operations within their allotment, but rather against Bethel and other towns at their borders (Judg 1:22-29, 35).

Previously Proposed Solutions

There have been a number of solutions proposed for the unusual relationship that existed between Israel and Shechem. One possibility often suggested is that Josh 8:30-35 and Joshua 24 are simply literary constructs. De Vaux, for example, says that Josh 8:30-35 is a late editorial insertion (1978: 594, 620). This may explain the journeys to Shechem for covenant ceremonies, but it does not explain the lack of military campaigns in the territory of Shechem, or the burial of Joseph there.

Another explanation is that the area of Shechem had already been conquered by the Israelites as described in Genesis 34. Here, we have the account of the slaughter of the men of Shechem by two of Jacob's sons, Simeon and Levi, because of the rape of Dinah, their sister. According to this theory some Israelites settled in Shechem at that time and were still living there at the time of the Conquest (Jack 1925: 151, 152; Campbell and Ross 1963; Boling 1982: 254; Wright 1962: 77; Wright 1965: 20, 21, 135). This proposition is pure speculation, since there is no hint of Israelites living in Shechem between the time of Jacob and the Conquest. According to the biblical record, Jacob's family stayed together and were forced to move to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan.

A third idea is the possibility that Israel conquered Shechem, or Shechem surrendered without resistance, although the event was not recorded in the Bible (Blaike 1893: 202; Kitchen 1966: 71; Davis 1969: 59). Again, because of its importance, if Shechem was defeated by the Israelites, logic dictates that it would have been included in the Conquest narrative.

A fourth prospect, suggested by John Bimson (1981: 211-214), is that Shechem was already destroyed and abandoned before the Israelites arrived. The possibility that this could be the case is dependent upon one's chronology for the Conquest. There are two windows of opportunity for this reconstruction. According to the archaeological findings, Shechem was abandoned in the LB IA period, ca. 1500-1450 BC, following the violent destruction at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Another such abandonment occurred in the Iron I period, after the Abi-melech destruction, 1150-975 BC (Campbell 1993: 1347). Bimson would place the Conquest at the end of the Middle Bronze period and thus postulates that the Israelites visited the ruined site just before the rebuilding of the city in the LB IB period. Such a scenario would work only if his dating of the Conquest is correct. According to biblical chronology, however, we should expect the Conquest to have taken place at the end of the 15th century (Shea 1982: 233), in which case this particular explanation would be ruled out.

The most attractive solution thus far proposed is that the Israelites made a treaty or covenant with Shechem, which is not recorded in the Bible (Anderson 1957: 14; Gray 1967: 94; Bright 1972: 132; Soggin 1972: 229; Wright and Campbell 1988: 461). In the Septuagint, Josh 8:30-35 is placed after Josh 9:2, apparently in an effort to link the journey to Shechem with the Gibeonite covenant. Some have suggested that the covenant with the Gibeonites included Shechem (NIV Study Bible: 302). This is not compatible with historical reality, however, since Shechem was a much more important center than Gibeon and surely would have been mentioned if it were part of a covenant with Israel.

International treaties were of two types. Parity treaties, between equal powers, sought to establish nonaggression between the parties to guarantee the stability of the respective ruling dynasties (Bar-re 1992: 654). Such a treaty does not seem to fit the Israel-Shechem situation, however, since Israel had no political status at the time of the Conquest and could not be considered an equal with a well established, urban-based, power such as Shechem.

The second type, suzerain-vassal treaties, were made between a major power and a lesser power. They served to consolidate the hegemony of the suzerain, with the interests of the vassal being subordinate to those of the suzerain (Barré 1992: 654). Again, this type of treaty does not fit the relationship of Shechem and the Israelites because there is no hint in the biblical record that Israel was a vassal to Shechem.

A New Proposal

As a proposed solution, I suggest a slight variation on the treaty/covenant approach. In view of the power and influence of Shechem, it seems most plausible that Israel came into central Canaan under the patronage of the king of Shechem. Such an arrangement would differ from a covenant or treaty. In a patron-client relationship, the client is under the care and protection of the patron, and in the case of Shechem and Israel, both parties stood to gain by the arrangement. According to this scenario, after Israel had wandered in the Sinai for 40 years, they struck a deal, evidently while Moses was still alive, with the king of Shechem. The terms of the agreement seems to have been that if the Israelites would help expand his holdings north and south, the king of Shechem would allow the Israelite tribes to settle in his domain, most likely in previously unoccupied areas, and in newly-acquired regions. This would have applied only to the hill country, since the Egyptians were firmly in control of the lowland areas along the coast and the inland Jezreel Valley.

One objection to this idea is the strong biblical prohibition against entering into treaties with the inhabitants of the land (Exod 23:32; 34:12, 15; Deut 7:2; Judg 2:2). This prohibition would have to be understood as applying only to the enemies of Israel, i.e. those outside Shechemite dominion. Such a patron-client agreement is reflected in both the biblical narrative and the Amarna letters, written about a half century after the arrival of the Israelites, according to a late-15th century dating of the Conquest.

The Biblical Narrative

First, we note that the entry point of the Israelites in the central hill country was at the southern border of the territory of Shechem, the area of Ai just north of Jerusalem. Secondly, consider the matter of the Gibeonite covenant. Once the Israelites had defeated Ai, and had gone to Shechem for the covenant renewal, the Gibeonites knew that they were next, since Gibeon is located just south of Ai, between Ai and Jerusalem. Following the covenant with Gibeon, the Israelites proceeded to campaign south of Gibeon, to add this area to the hegemony of Shechem. They were not altogether successful in this, as they were unable to take Jerusalem (Josh 15:63; Judg 1:21) and the Shephelah cities of Gath (Josh 11:22; 13:3), Ekron (Josh 13:3; Judg 1:18,19) and Gezer (Josh 16:10; Judg 1:29).

From there, the Israelites proceeded to the area north of the Shechemite domain to defeat a coalition of kings and bring Galilee under the control of Israel/Shechem. Again, there were certain areas that they could not bring under control, namely the Jezreel Valley, including Megiddo (Josh 17:11, 12; Judg 1:11).


The Amarna Letters

The Conquest of Canaan did not end with the covenant ceremony of Joshua 24. The tribes continued the struggle in their individual allotments for many decades, as documented in the book of Judges, and reflected, I believe, in the Amarna Letters (abbreviated as EA plus letter number). The debate over the possible connection between the habiru of the Amarna Letters and the biblical Israelites is well known. The term habiru is a social designation meaning fugitive or refugee, which was in use throughout the ancient Near East for most of the second millennium (Lemche 1992). While every reference to habiru in the Amarna Letters does not necessarily refer to the Israelites, if the Israelites came into the land at the end of the 15th century, as the Bible indicates, and if the Israelites were involved in an armed struggle to gain control of the central hill country, as the Bible also indicates, then at least some of the references to habiru in the areas where the Israelites were active must refer to the Israelites (Merrill 1987: 102-108). Such an assumption correlates quite well with the biblical data and the information gleaned from the Amarna Letters.

A number of the Amarna Letters indicate that the Shechemites were working with the habiru/Israelites to expand their territory. Since Lab'ayu was a third generation ruler (EA 253), there was continuity in leadership from the time of the conquest. This could account for a continuing relationship between the Shechemites and the Israelites/habiru. We have three letters from the king of Shechem (EA 252-254). In one letter, Lab'ayu has a somewhat defiant tone, much different than the letters from the other city states (EA 252; Campbell 1965: 195-196; Hess 1993: 99) This, coupled with the fact that Shechem was fortified during this period, suggests that Shechem was somewhat independent of Egyptian control and was pursuing its own best interests.

The king of Jerusalem complains that Lab'ayu gave the land of Shechem to the habiru (EA 289). The sons of Lab'ayu, and Miliku, king of Gezer, are accused of giving the land of the king (of Egypt) to the habiru (EA 287). The king of Megiddo charges that "two sons of Lab'ayu have indeed given their money to the habiru and to the Suteans in order to wage war against me" (EA 246).(3) Lab'ayu answers the charge that his son was "consorting with the habiru" (EA 254). These allusions suggest a close alliance between Lab'ayu and the habiru (Harrelson 1957: 7, 8; Reviv 1966: 253-255).

A number of the Amarna Letters indicate that, in the mid- 14th century, the habiru and the Shechemites were attempting to subdue areas that the Israelites failed to subdue during the Conquest. The Israelites were able to take most of the south, with the notable exception of Jerusalem and the Shephelah. The king of Jerusalem complained loud and long to the king of Egypt that he was being besieged by Lab'ayu and the habiru. He pleads:

May the king give thought to his land; the land of the king is lost. All of it has attacked me. I am at war as far as the land of Seru and as far as Ginti-kirmil. All the mayors are at peace, but I am at war. I am treated like an habiru, and I do not visit the king, my lord, since I am at war. I am situated like a ship in the midst of the sea. The strong hand of the king took the land of Nahrima and the land of Kasi, but now the habiru have taken the very cities of the king. Not a single mayor remains to the king, my lord ; all are lost. ... If there are no archers this year, all the lands of the King, my lord, are lost (EA 288).

He charges that the sons of Lab'ayu, along with others, are attempting to isolate Jerusalem (EA 289).

The king of Gezer at one time complained about attacks from the habiru and harassment from Lab'ayu, but later seems to have joined forces with Lab'ayu's sons and the habiru. He says that the war against him is severe and he begs the king to "save his land from the power of the habiru" (EA 271) and states that there is "war against me from the mountains" (EA 292) and that the habiru are stronger than him and that he is in danger of being destroyed by the habiru (EA 299).

Suwardata, possibly the king of Gath, another city that the Israelites could not conquer, states that Lab'ayu, who is now dead, used to take his towns (EA 280). He also tells the king of Egypt that he has smitten the habiru that rose up against him, and that he and the king of Jerusalem are at war with the habiru (EA 366).

Turning to the north, the king of Gath-Padella writes that the sons of Lab'ayu are trying to coerce him to revolt:

And thus the two sons of Lab'ayu keep saying to me, "Wage war against the king, your lord, as our father did, when he attacked Sunama, Burquna, and Harabu, and deported the evil ones, lifting up the loyal." He also seized Gittirimmunima, and he cultivated the fields of the king, your lord (EA 250).

The king of Megiddo was also being besieged by the Shechemites and the habiru. He complains:

May the king, my lord, know that since the return to Egypt of the archers, Lab'ayu has waged war against me. We are thus unable to do the harvesting, and we are unable to go out of the city gate because of Lab'ayu. When he learned that archers were not coming out, he immediately determined to take Megiddo. May the king save his city lest Lab'ayu seize it. Look, the city is consumed by pestilence, by... So may the king give a garrison of 100 men to guard his city lest Lab'ayu seize it. Look, Lab'ayu has no other purpose. He seeks simply the seizure of Megiddo (EA 244).

He says he is guarding Megiddo around the clock, because "the warring of the habiru in the land is severe" (EA 243). Finally, as was mentioned earlier, the king of Megiddo states that the two sons of Lab'ayu bribed the habiru to wage war against him (EA 246).


In summary, although I can offer no parallels from the Ancient Near East, a patron-client relationship between Shechem and Israel seems to best fit the epigraphic and archaeological data presently at our disposal. This began at the time of the Conquest, as reflected in the Joshua narrative, and continued to the mid-14th century, as demonstrated by the Amarna Letters, Even as late as the mid-12th century, the Abi-melech episode of Judges 9 shows an ongoing political relationship between the urban center at Shechem and the Israelite tribes. We shall probably never know the full details as to what lay behind this understanding. It seems strange that such a relationship should occur in view of the conflict between these parties in Genesis 34. Of course, that was nearly 500 years earlier according to a biblical chronology and may have been forgotten by the Shechemites. The fact that Jacob's descendants retained rights to land at Shechem may have maintained ties between the two communities. Or, it may be that Shechem was concerned about its own safety in the face of the advancing Israelite tribes. On these matters we can only speculate.

This article first appeared in: The Role of Shechem in the Conquest of Canaan. Pp. 245-56 in To Understand the Scriptures: Essays in Honor of William H. Shea, ed. David Merling. Berrien Springs MI: The Institute of Archaeology/Siegfried H. Horn Archaeological Museum (1997). Posted with permission.


1. This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Near Eastern Archaeological Society, November 19, 1993, at Tysons Comer, VA.

2. In a similar fashion, Israel bypassed the central part of the country in the conquest of Transjordan (Num 21:21-35). It is possible that Shechem controlled this territory as well, since Lab'ayu's son Mut-Bahlu ruled Pella (EA 255, 256).

3. Translations of the Amarna Letters are those of Moran (1992).


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