OLD TESTAMENT ESSAYS
Five Towns of Israel: Bethel, Gilgal, Hebron, Shechem and Shiloh
(21 May 1983)
by Christopher C. Warren, M.A.(Oxon)
Bethel is located 12 miles north of Jerusalem and is today known as Tell Beitin. Although traces of earlier occupation have been cound, the city seems to have been established in the Middle Bronze Age. During this period, Abram camped to the east of Bethel, where he built an altar to Yahweh (Gen.12:8). After his visit to Egypt, he returned to this site (Gen.13:3). For Jacob, Bethel was the starting-point of his realisation of Elohim (God), who is for him "Elohim (God) of Bethel" (Gen.31:13; 35:7). As a result of his vision of Elohim (God) he named the place "House of El (God)" (Heb. beth-el) and set up a pillar (Gen.18:11-22). He was summoned to Bethel on his return from Harran, and both built an altar and set up a pillar, reiterating the name he had given before (Gen.35:1-15). The ancient name of Bethel was Luz (Canaanite for 'fertility') and is mentioned in connection with the "shoulder of Luz" (Josh.18:13, RSV).
At the beginning of the late Bronze Age a strong city wall was built, and a prosperous period with well-built houses and Egyptian luxuries ensued. The gradual decline which followed was ended by a violent destruction of the city, and burnt débris lying 5 feet deep in places. On the evidence of the potsherds found in this d'ebris and of the differenr cultural nature of the following settlement, this destruction is assigned to the Israelite invasion in the latter part of the 13th century B.C. (Josh.12:16; Judg.1:22-26). Bethel was allotted to the Joseph tribes (specifically Ephraim) who captured it (1 Chr.7:28), and bordered the territory of Benjamin (Josh.18:13). The Israelites soon resettled the town, calling it by the name Jacob had given to the scene of his vision instead of Luz (Judg.1:23). When it was necessary for Israel to punish Benjamin, the people sought advice on the conduct of the battle and worshipped at Bethel "for the ark...was there" (Judg.20:18-28; 21:1-4). It was a sanctuary too in the time of Samuel, who visited it annually (1 Sam.7:16; 10:3). The material remains of this period indicate an unsophisticated and insecure community. The settlement was twice burnt, possibly by the Philistines.
Under the early monarchy the city prospered, presently becoming the centre of Jeroboam's rival cult, condemned by a man of Elohim (God) from Judah (1 Ki.12:28-13:32).
Gilgal is a name that can mean 'circle' (of stones) or 'rolling', from the Hebrew gagal, 'to roll'. In its latter meaning the najme Gilgal was used by Yahweh through Joshua to serve as a reminder to Israel of their deliverance from Egypt when they were circumcised there: "This day have I rolled away (galloti) the reproach of Egypt from off you" (Josh.5:9).
Gilgal was located between Jericho and the river Jirdan though its exact site is uncertain. It became Israel's base of operations after crossing the Jordan river (Josh.4:19), and was the focus of a series of events during the conquest: twelve commemorative stones were set up when Israel pitched camp there (Josh.4:20); the new generation grown up in the wilderness were circumcised there (Josh.4:20); the first Passover in Canaan was held there (Josh.5:9-10) and the manna ceased (Josh.5:11-12). From Gilgal, Joshua led forth Israel against Jericho (Josh.6:11,14ff), and conducted his southern campaign )Josh.10), after receiving the artful Gibeionite envoys (Josh.9:6), and there becan to allot tribal territories (Josh.14:6). Gilgal thus became at once a reminder of Yahweh's past deliverance from Egypt, a token of rpesent victory under His guidance, and saw the promise of inheritance yet to be gained.
In latter days Yahweh's angel went up from Hilgal to Bochim in judgment against forgetful Israel (Judg.2:1); thence Ehud returned to slay a Moabite king for Israel's deliverance (Judg.3:19). Samuel used to visit Gilgal on circuit (1 Sam.7:16); there Saul's kingdom was confirmed after the Ammonite emergency with joyful sacrifices (1 Sam.11:14-15; cp. 10:8) But thereafter, Saul offered precipitate sacrifice (1 Sam.13:8-14), and it was at Gilgal that Samuel and Saul parted for ever after Saul's disobedience in the Amalekite war (1 Sam.15:12-35). Abter Absalom's abortive revolt, the Judaeans welcomed David back at Gilgal (2 Sam.19:15,40).
Hebron, which in the Hebrew means 'confederacy', and whicb anciently was known as Kiriath-arba, is the highest town in Palestine, 3,400 feet above the level of the Mediterranean, and 19 miles south-west of Jerusalem. The statement that it "was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt" (Num.13:22) probably relates to the 'Era of Tanis' (c.1720 B.C.). Abraham lived in its vicinity for considerable periods; in his days the resident population ("the people of the land") were "sons of Heth" (Hittites), from whom Abraham bought the field of Machpelah with its cave to be a family burying-ground (Gen.23). There he and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were buried (Gen.49:31; 50:13). According to Josephus (Antiquities ii.8.2), the sons of Jacob, with the exception of Joseph, were buried there too. The traditional site of the Patriarch's sepulchre lies within the great Haram el-Hajîl, the 'Enclosure of the Friend' (i.e. Abraham, cp. Is.41:8), with its Herodian masonry. During the Israelites' wilderness wandering the twelve spies send out to report on the land of Canaan explored, explored the region of Hebron; at that time it was populated by the "children of Anak" (Num.13:22,28,33). After Israel's entry into Canaan, Hoham, king of Hebron, joined the anti-Gibeonite coalition led by Adonisedek, king of Jebus (Jerusalem), and was killed by Joshua (Josh.14:12ff; 15:13ff; Judg.1:10,20). Hebron itself and the surrounding territory were conquered from the Anakim by caleb and given to him as a family possession (Josh.10:1-27). In hebron David was anointed king of Judah (2 Sam.2:4) and two years later king of Israel too (2 Sam.5:3); it remained his capital for 7½ years. it was here too, later in his reign, that Absalom raised the standard of rebellion against him (2 Sam.15:7ff). It was fortified by Rehoboam (2 Chr.11:10).
Shechem was an important town in central Palestine with a long history and many historical associations. Normally it appears in the Bible as "Shechem" (Pentateuch AV), but also as Sichem (Gen.12:6, AV) and twice as Sychem (Ac.7:16, AV). It was situated in the hill country of Ephraim (Josh.20:7), in the neighbourhood of Mount Gerizim (Judg.9:7). The original site is today represented by Tell Balata, which lies at the east end of the valley running between Mount Ebal on the north and Miunt Gerizim on the south, about 31 miles north of Jerusalem and 5½ miles south-east of Samaria.
Shechem (Sichem) is the first Palestinian site mentioned in Genesis. Abram encamped there at the "oak of Moreh" (Gen.12:6, RSV). The "Canaanite was then in the land" but Yahweh revealed Himself to Abram and renewed His covenant promise. Abram thereupon built an altar to Yahweh (Gen.12:7).
Abram's grandson, Jacob, on his return from Harran, came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, and pitched his tent (Gen.33:18-19) on a parcel of ground which he bought from Hamor, the Hivite prince of the region (Gen.33:18-19; 34:2). When Shechem, the son of Hamor, defiled Dinah, Simeon and Levi killed the men of the region (Gen.34:25-26), and the other sons of Jacob pillaged the town (vv.27-29), though Jacob condemned the action (Gen.34:30; 49:5-7).
Here Jacob buried the "strange gods" under the oak (Gen.35:1-4), and raised an altar to El-Elohe-Yisra'el (*God, the God of Israel - Gen.33:20). Joseph later sought his brothers near the rich pasture lands round Shechem (Gen.37:12ff).
In the 15th century B.C. the town fell into the hands of the Habiru as we learn from the Tell el-Amarna letters. The name probably occurs earlier in Egyptian records dating back to the 19th-18th centuries B.C.
After the Israelite conquest of Palestine Joshua called for a renewal of the covenant at Shechem. Various features of the typical covenant pattern well known in the East, 1500-700 B.C, may be idnetified in Joshua 8:30-35. Before his death, Joshua gathered the elders again to Shechem, reiterated the covenant, and received the oath of allegiance to Yahweh, the King (Josh.24). Many modern scholars see in these assemblies a string suggestion of an amphictyonic league centred at Shechem.
The boundary between Ephraim and Manasseh passed near the town (Josh.17:7), which was one of the cities of refuge, and a levitical city assigned to the Kohathite Levites (Josh.20:7; 21:21; 1 Chr.6:67). The town lay in Ephraim (1 Chr.7:28). Here the Israelites buried the bones of Joseph which they had brought from Egypt (Gen.1:25; Josh.24:32).
In the time of the judges, Shechem was still a centre of Canaanite worship and the temple of Baal-berith ('the lord of the covenant') features in the story of Gideon's son Abimelech (Judg.9:4), whose mother was a Shechemite woman. Abimelech persuaded the men of the city to make him king (Judg.9:6; cp. 8:22-23). He proceeded to slay the royal seed, but not Jotham, one son who escaped the bloody purge, spoke a parable about the trees as he stood on Mount Gerizim (Judg.9:8-15), appealing to the citizens of Shechem to forsake Abimelech. This they did after three years (vv.22-23), but Abimelech destroyed Shechem (v.45) and then attacked the stronghold of the temple of Baal-berith and burned it over the heads of those who sought refuge there (vv.46-49).
After Solomon's death the assembly of Israel rejected Rehoboam at Shechem and made Jeroboam king (1 Ki.12:1-19; 2 Chr.10:1-11). Jeroboam restored the town and made it is capital for a time (1 Ki.12:25), but later moved the capital to Penuel, and then to Tizrah. The town declined in importance thereafter, but continued its existence long after the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.
Shiloh is, according to Judg.21:19, situated on the north side of Bethel, which identifies it with modern Seilun. Archaeological excavations suggest that it was destroyed about 1050 B.C. and left desolate for many centuries until recoccupied in Hellenistic times.
It was at Shiloh that the tent of meeting was set up in the early days of the conquest (Josh.18:1), and it was the principal sanctuary of the Israelites during the time of the judges (Judg.18:31). It was the site of the local annual festival of dancing in the vineyards, perhaps the Feast of Ingathering, which once provided the men of Benjamin with an opportunity to seize maidens for wives (Judg.21:19ff), and this festival probably developed into the annual pilgrimage in which Samuel's parents were later to take part (1 Sam.1:3). By the time of Eli and his sons the tent of Joshua had been replaced by a temple with a door and door-posts (1 Sam.1:9). Although Scripture does not refer directly to its destruction the archaeological evidence fits in well with the references to Shiloh as an example of Yahweh's judgment upon His peoples' wickedness (Ps.78:60; Jer.12,14; 26:6,9). On the other hand, Ahijah, the Shilonite, is mentioned in 1 Ki.11:29 & 14:2, and other inhabitants of Shiloh in Jer.41:5. Some limited habitation must have continued after 1050 B.C, but the priesthood transferred to Nob (1 Sam.22:11; cp. 14:3) and Sholoh ceased to be a religious centre.
"Shiloh" is also used as a term for the Messiah in Gen.49:10 although the New Testament nowhere recognises it as a prophecy.
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