Shechem, Place Of Brit

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Tamar Weissman

Author’s note: When I first penned this article in August, my son was beginning a lengthy stint in Shechem as an IDF officer. He is still there at this agonizing time, protecting the residents of the yishuvim around Shechem, guarding the rare visits to Joseph’s tomb. May Hashem keep him and his soldiers safe from all harm, and in the merit of their steadfast faithfulness, may we all soon see the brit areivut, the covenant of mutuality and unity which bonds together the entire Jewish people, flourish once again in Shechem.

There is perhaps no better prototype of an evocative biblical place than Shechem. It is saturated in biblical history, ripe for association, nearly all of it negative:

Shechem is a place ordained for calamity. In Shechem, they tormented and raped Dinah; in the outskirts of Shechem the brothers sold Joseph; in Shechem the kingdom of the house of David was divided. (Sanhedrin 102a)

The Sages’ ominous list careens from sexual violation to near fratricide to monarchal disintegration; it overwhelms us with the magnitude of just how much disaster was sourced in one place. And yet, as the stories of the Bible unfurl, Shechem seems a place initially designated for covenant, not rupture! Each of Shechem’s tragic stories always starts promisingly:

  • When Jacob settled near Shechem after his long sojourn outside of the land, his daughter Dinah went seeking friendship amongst the Canaanite girls.[1] (Genesis 34:1)
  • The king of Shechem at that time, Hamor, wished to join the two peoples – his Canaanite subjects and Jacob’s clan – together to form one nation, so he acted on Jacob’s sons’ demand that all males in Shechem undergo a brit milah, the circumcision covenant. (Genesis 34:20-24)
  • Joseph tried to reconnect with his estranged brothers in Shechem. (Genesis 37:14)
  • Later on, Rehoboam, son of Solomon, traveled from his capital in Jerusalem up to Shechem to seek accord with a disgruntled northern population. (I Kings 12:1)

For all of the negative associations cataloged above in the Talmud, Shechem is equally evocative of fraternity, and the yearning to find commonality.

The calamities associated with Shechem are all the more shocking because we are oriented to expect the warmth of brit (covenant) there. This is because the Bible’s introduction to the city is so redolent with promise. Shechem was the very first place that Abraham arrived in his destined land; it was the very first place where God ever appeared to him in a vision (Genesis 12:6-7).[2] The patriarch’s encounter with the place was as unforgettable, as everlasting, as the moment when a groom swoops his bride over the threshold of his door. In that formative moment, when dreams and plans materialized into firm reality, when Abraham’s feet were on the good plain between two mountains in the land destined for him, God assured him: To your seed will I give this land. So began the love story between Abraham’s family and the land of Canaan, there in Shechem. And so we are primed to consider Shechem as a special place, a redemptive place.

This is why we are unsurprised when Moses instructed Israel to head to Shechem as soon as they could upon entering the land.[3] There they were to forge a new brit with God,[4] strengthening and redefining the terms of their covenant with the divine. This brit was dangerous, and sublime, and inevitable: it marked an acceptance of mutual responsibility within Israel.

Once (Israel) crossed over the Jordan and enacted the covenant of Blessings and Curses at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, they were from then on liable for each other’s behavior, and would be collectively punished for an individual’s sins, even for those sins committed in private. (Rashi, Sanhedrin 43b)

The landscape around Shechem encouraged brit: two mountains bisected by a plain with the holy ark nestled between them, similar to the halved animals in the brit ben ha-betarim (Covenant of the Pieces) with the divine smoke and fire that passed between them.[5] Staged as redux of Sinai, the tableau around Shechem was deliberately inverted: this time, instead of gazing up at God from the foot of Mt. Sinai, Israel would be divided between the two mountaintops looming over Shechem, half of the tribes on Mt. Gerizim and the other half on Mt. Ebal. From their superior vantage points, Israel would peer down at the Ark of the Covenant set within the ancient, storied city of Shechem. Shechem would serve as their focal point of contemplating the promised land, and their new responsibilities and obligations towards one another, completing the circle that Abraham had begun at the very outset.

When the Sages, therefore, drew up their forbidding list, and characterized Shechem as a place of calamity, they prod us towards a more thorough probing into the erstwhile city of brit. We discover in short order that nearly all of the earnest attempts at connection mentioned above fell short:

  • Dinah is sexually violated by the prince of Shechem. (Genesis 34:2)
  • The circumcision brit undertaken by all of Shechem imploded when Jacob’s sons set upon the recovering residents, brutally slaughtering them all. (Genesis 34:25-29)
  • Joseph’s friendly overtures towards his brothers were rebuffed, and he was only spared from death in Shechem by the brothers’ last-minute decision to sell him as a slave instead. (Genesis 37:18-28)
  • Rehoboam’s harsh ultimatums were rejected by the nation in Shechem, and he fled back to Jerusalem with just a shred of his monarchy still intact. (I Kings 12:16)

A place that seemed to draw out of people a desire for fraternity and interconnectedness consistently ended up perverting those intentions. So many catastrophes happened in Shechem that the city assumed infamy, synonymous with divisiveness and violation in the House of Israel.

There are two additional examples of brit-gone-awry in Shechem that are worth examining. The first is the pagan Ba’al-brit cult, centered in Shechem in the days of Abimelech, son of Gideon. “And it came to pass, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel turned again, and went astray after the ba’alim, and made Ba’al-brit their god” (Judges 8:33).

Ba’al worship was ubiquitous in Canaan, but what was the nature of the specific cult of the Ba’al-brit? The midrash suggests that Ba’al-brit was synonymous with the Philistine cult of Ba’al-zebub:

And they made Ba’al-brit their god: this was the cult of Ba’al-zebub, the god of Ekron. We are to learn from here that each worshiper fashioned an image of the god and kept it in his pocket. Whenever he thought of it, he would take it out, hug it and kiss it. (Shabbat 83b)

These were pocket icons, no larger than a zevuv, a fly.[6] The icon was carried by the worshiper as a talisman, easily available to him at all times for him to embrace, to adore. This made his relationship with his god personal, immediate and always accessible–warm and intimate, unlike cults where the deity was dutifully (and distantly) worshiped only within a temple context. The pocket-icon cult was sanitized in the text as Ba’al-brit, and not the hated and infamous Philistine Ba’al-zebub, to effectively convey the emotional, personal relationship that the worshiper had with his god.

Understood thusly, the Israelites were categorical idolators, worshiping a pagan Philistine deity.[7] Though they had fallen prey to worship of the Canaanite deities ba’al and asherah in the past,[8] the cult of Ba’al-brit marked a particularly low point. It meant that their idolatry wasn’t perfunctory. Now they were emotionally invested in the ba’al, distanced even further from a relationship with God.

In a notable twist, the Talmud Yerushalmi version of the midrash[9] interprets the Ba’al-brit cult to mean something very different for Israel:

Rebbi Ḥuna, Rebbi Ḥama bar Gorion said in the name of Rav: Ba’al was the penis gland the size of a bean, as it says: They selected the Ba’al of circumcision as god. (Y. Shabbat 9:1)

True, it was a Ba’al-zebub-like cult in that each worshiper had his own portable pocket icon. But the icon wasn’t an insect–it was a phallus, specifically a circumcised phallus. It was a ba’al with a brit milah.

Phallic iconography is fundamental to human symbolism, rooted in the most primitive and ancient cults, potent enough of a symbol to endure up through the present.[10] All that was necessary to “Hebraicize” a phallic icon was to circumcise it. The ba’al-brit embodied a naive attempt to honor the covenant with God by a people unable to let go of concrete representations of Divine power. The phallus, primal symbol of fertility, power, and life itself, was taken by the Israelites as an idol that they made their own by whittling down the foreskin. The Israelites carried the symbol of their brit with them wherever they went.

Ba’al-brit was a syncretized cult, merging worship of God with Canaanite ba’al veneration. It suggests a confused Israel, loyal both to their ancestral faith and to the prevalent cultural norms, and so identifying with both, like a contemporary Jew erecting a Christmas tree but topping it with a Magen David.[11]

It is unsurprising, then, that the Ba’al-brit cult is headquartered in Shechem, since it conceptually represented an attempt at harmonizing disparate elements. The Israelite-Shechemites were grasping at ways to connect with God with their portable, mass-produced, brit talismans. Just as with the earlier iteration of milah and Shechem, when all of the local Canaanite males circumcised themselves at the behest of Jacob’s sons as the precondition for joining with the family of Israel, here too the symbol of connectedness and holiness was ruined, perverted to disastrous consequences.

The second, late example of a failed experiment with brit in Shechem that bears note drew its inspiration from one of the most formative events in the lives of Jacob and his clan. After Dinah was raped, and Jacob’s promise to Shechem was violated by his sons who defied him by slaughtering the entire city, Jacob confiscated all of the idols and pagan accoutrements that were still hidden away in his household and interred them there, “underneath the elah tree in Shechem” (Genesis 35:4). Why didn’t he smash them, destroy them? Instead, he buried them. It was as if he wanted to permanently desecrate the foundations of this ruinous city.

A millennium later, in his massive relocation campaign of shifting populations away from their indigenous lands and planting them elsewhere, King Shalmaneser of Assyria transferred foreign peoples to Samaria. There these dislocated populations developed syncretistic cults, blending reverence of imported deities with worship of God. “They feared the Lord, and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations of the countries from which they were carried away” (II Kings 17:33). Eventually they melded into a single faith community called the Samaritans, with a cult centered around Mt. Gerizim.

Why Mt. Gerizim? Perhaps it was because of the legends of ancient Israel that linked that mountain with blessings, and so the Samaritans, already in the region, chose it for its auspiciousness. But the Sages saw Samaritan worship at Gerizim as a foil for a much deeper, more profound draw to the area. They traced the pull of these relative latecomers not to Gerizim per se, but to what lay at its base.

Rabbi Ishmael ben Rabbi Yose went to the well known Neapolis (the Roman name for Shechem).[12] The Samaritans came to him. He told them, I am seeing you bowing down not to this mountain but to the idols under it, as it is written, he hid them under the terebinth near Shechem (Y. Avodah Zarah 5:4)

(Rabbi Ishmael was saying:) It is clear to me that you are not worshiping the mountain (which the Samaritans hold sacred), but what is interred at its base, namely the idols that Jacob had buried in Shechem. (Pnei Moshe)

The association between Jacob’s time in Shechem and the Samaritan cult is striking. Like the Samaritans, Jacob’s household had also stashed along icons from far-off homelands on their journey to Canaan, preserving relics of old faiths. These he buried in Shechem. For his clan, they were useless baggage. But for future peoples, they would serve as sources of inspiration, part of the deeply-grounded character of the land. Rooted in Shechem is the yearning for connection. At times this manifested with syncretic blending of different faiths, such as with Ba’al-brit and the amalgamated Samaritan cult.

Yet there are other relics buried within Shechem, holy and sacred to this day:

Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the Torah of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under the elah tree, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. And Joshua said to all the people, Behold, this stone shall be a witness to us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord which he spoke to us: it shall be therefore a witness to you, lest you deny your God. (Joshua 24:25-27)

This is the same tree under which Jacob buried his household’s idols. (Radak)

In his final days, Joshua convened all of Israel once again to Shechem to reaffirm their pledge to refrain from worshiping foreign gods. With unmistakable symbolism, he mounted a stone, symbol of the covenant with God, in the very same place that Jacob had interred the family idols, centuries earlier. This is the richest earth to mine possible intent: was the symbolic stone meant to counter the idols? To cancel them? To remind Israel that idolatry dogged them from their very inception as a people, and they must always be on guard against it? We cannot know – we do not even know if Joshua knew of the buried idols! – but we do feel the weight of both of those legacies heavy in a single place.

The stone monument, and the idols of Jacob’s household, are not the only relics buried in Shechem. At the same time that he erected his monument, Joshua also reinterred the bones of the ancestor whose last moments of freedom were spent in Shechem:

The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem. (Joshua 24:32)

Shechem might be a broken place, but it is not beyond redemption, and Joseph is the symbol of that redemption. The one who served the nation as the model of faithfulness, who spent his life seeking out commonality with others, and who eternally permeates Shechem with his very self, can inspire Israel to restore a successful brit.

To assert that Joseph can inspire Israel towards mutuality and successful brit doesn’t seem quite right. After all, Joseph was the brother who shattered the fraternity. He had sojourned to Shechem at Jacob’s behest to mend the frayed ties with his brothers. They wouldn’t have it, and would have killed him (or left him to die) had they not sold him to a passing caravan of Midianites. But in Egypt, first as a slave and then as a virtual king, Joseph realized his vast capacity to connect, to establish relationships, to be productive. These are all powers symbolized by the phallus, linked in the Jewish mystical tradition to Joseph.[13] It was specifically his brit milah that was the key to his success:

His master’s (Potiphar’s) wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, “Sleep with me.” But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (Genesis 39:7-9)

His brothers were dumbfounded when he told them that he was Joseph (they did not believe him). So he showed them his milah, saying “I have only attained my stature by keeping faithful to this.” (Zohar 1:93b)

Resisting Potiphar’s wife proved Joseph’s commitment to the ancestral covenant of the brit milah, of his responsibility to God and to his family.[14] His milah becomes so central to his character that it is the tool through which he expanded to be able to provide for all of Egypt:

Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; whatever he tells you, you shall do.” (Genesis 41:55)

He gave them this order because Joseph had told them to be circumcised. (Rashi)[15]

Understand this: Joseph was the mashbir (the provider) because he kept the covenant of brit milah and didn’t sleep with the gentile woman. They (the Egyptians) would only merit being provided for by Joseph if they themselves were party to that covenant. (Gur Aryeh)

Joseph shared the brit milah with Egypt, bonding with them, emulating his father Jacob’s overtures to pagan Shechem. In Shechem, brit failed. In Egypt, brit succeeded. The openness, connection, vulnerability, and sensitivity symbolized by the Egyptians’ willingness to circumcise themselves at Joseph’s behest brought bounty and blessing to that land. Fated initially for disastrous famine, Egypt instead retained its stature as the breadbasket of the Near East. “All the world came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world” (Genesis 41:57).

Joseph, bound eternally to Shechem through burial, reminds us that though complicated and prone to failure, brit is possible. He modeled how success in finding fellowship with the world was predicated on faithfulness. Joseph’s faithfulness was to God, and to himself as a ben Israel. By maintaining his distinctiveness and remaining true to his covenant with God, he prospered in Egypt, and made all of Egypt prosperous. But Joseph did not belong to Egypt. He belonged to Shechem, his rootedness there reinforcing the hope of Israel that even a place ripe for discord holds potential for harmonious peace.

Brit succeeds when there is faithfulness, and mutuality. Both parties must be confident in who they are, what they stand for, and what they want. Each must be willing to partner with the other without compromising his integrity. Lack of mutuality is what doomed every single overture of brit in Shechem, except for the brit forged between God and Israel when they first entered their land. (That brit of blessings and curses delivered to Israel through her land remains eternal, and we have triumphed and suffered as per its conditions up through the present day.)

The idols that Jacob despised, and the remains of his most beloved son, lie side by side, forever bound up in the roots of this city of contradictions. They are incongruities that together form the nature of a city suspended in the space between expectation and disappointment. One symbolizes the existential failure of trying to connect with the Divine through human artifice; the other, the possibility that the man of faith can sustain a beautiful, mutual relationship with the Other. The earth itself of Shechem bears both impulses; history will decide which will triumph, and how Shechem will ultimately fare.

[1] Hirsch, Genesis 34:1.

[2] See Ramban, Kli Yakar, Malbim, and Ha-Emek Davar on Genesis 12:7.

[3] Deuteronomy 11:29-30, 27:1-26. Only Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, the two mountains which rise over Elon Moreh, are mentioned explicitly. Rashi on Deuteronomy 11:30 links Elon Moreh with Shechem, based on Genesis 12:6 and Sotah 32a. Regarding when exactly the ceremony was held, see Sotah 33b and Sanhedrin 44a.

[4] Deuteronomy 28:69, Mekhilta d-Rabi Yishmael- Mishpatim, Mesechta d-Kaspa- Parashah 20; also Midrash Tannaim- Deuteronomy 23 and Yalkut Shimoni 359.

[5] Yoel Elitzur, Makom Ba-Mikrah, 404-405 (Hebrew). See also Jeremiah 34:18.

[6] According to Tosafot, the icon itself was of a fly.

[7] Interestingly, “Abimelech” is a toponym for Philistine kings (see Rashbam’s comment on Genesis 41:10). Though Gideon’s son Abimelech was clearly an Israelite, he was funded by the Ba’al-zebub Philistine cult (Judges 9:4).

[8] Judges 2:13, 3:7, 6:25-32.

[9] The text quoted is loyal to the Biblical verse “They selected the Ba’al-brit (Ba’al of covenant) as god, but the intent of “brit” is brit milah (Penei Moshe). See also Y. Avodahh Zarah 3:6. See also Ramban’s commentary on B. Shabbat 83b.

[10] Phallic worship was introduced into Israel later on by Maacha, wife of King Rehoboam of Judah and matriarch of Abiyam and Asa. Avodah Zara 44a, quoted by Rashi on I Kings 15:13.

[11] This is not an exact analogy, since such contemporary blending of different faith practices generally expresses a cultural affiliation with different sectors, rather than syncretizing different religious sensibilities. A purer example of such religious syncretism in iconography would be hermanubis, a Greco-Egyptian fusion of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Anubis.

[12] On the identification of Neapolis with Shechem, see Bamidbar Rabbah 23:14 and Pliny’s Natural History, 5:14:18.

[13] Within this tradition, the Divine attributes are linked to the seven seminal biblical archetypes (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David). Joseph is emblematic of yesod (foundation), which has as its physical association the circumcised penis (Patach Eliyahu/Tikkunei Zohar 17a, and Gikatilla, Shaarei Orah, Shaar 2), symbolizing the reliability of the tzaddik, and his faithfulness which supports the entirety of Creation:
The tzaddik is the foundation (Yesod) of the world. (Proverbs 10:25)

[14] He saw the image of his father…and he did not succumb (Sotah 36b), the Sages submit, meaning that at that moment he awakened to who he truly was – that his father lived within him.

[15] See also Bereishit Rabbah 91:5.

Tamar teaches Tanach and Land of Israel studies, and is a licensed tour guide specializing in northern Israel. She is the author of "Tribal Lands: The Twelve Tribes of Israel in their Ancestral Territories," and of the forthcoming "Israel's Adolescence: Essays on the Book of Judges." Tamar and her family live on their farm in Moshav Sde Ilan, her home base for sharing her passion and knowledge of the Galil.