Why was Joseph buried in Shechem? (Q&A)

 Q:  I was rather astonished to realize, in reading Joshua 24, that they buried the bones of Joseph in Shechem instead of in the cave of Machpelah, where Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were buried...  Do a word-search on Shechem and you'll find that it is a rather nefarious place. Why did they bury him there?  I was also a little distressed to realize that Stephen, in the book of Acts, says that Abraham bought the land in Shechem, but Moses wrote that it was Jacob that bought land there. –Sarah P.

A:  Welcome to the tension between the north and the south in Israel.  This tension goes all the way back to the division of Saul’s kingdom in the time of David, a division that reemerged when the kingdom was divided again after the death of Solomon.  It then reappears in the time of the New Testament in the tension between the Samaritans in the north and the Judeans in the south.  Among these tensions were some different and conflicting traditions. 

What does this have to do with Shechem?  Let’s begin with the burial place of the twelve patriarchs, the sons of Jacob, one of whom was Joseph.  Acts 7:16 indicates that they were all buried in Shechem:  “And they [the antecedent of “they” is “our fathers” in vs. 15] were removed to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had purchased for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.”*  That the brothers were buried in Shechem certainly makes sense, as the children of Israel under Joshua came into possession of this area before they did of Hebron.  It seems logical that they would bury the others where Joseph was buried (“And they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem,” Joshua 24:32).  However, the Bible only mentions the bones of Joseph being brought along in the Exodus (“And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him,” Exo. 13:19).  Nothing is said, except in the book of Acts, about the burial of his brothers.

* That this does not include Jacob himself is evident from the account of his burial at Hebron (“For [Jacob’s] sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave…opposite Mamre [by Hebron],” Gen. 50:13).

That the brothers were buried at Shechem with Joseph was a long-standing tradition.  In the time of Jerome, the famous church father (4th-5th century AD), the tombs of the twelve patriarchs were still shown in Shechem, and not at Hebron.  However, this claim was disputed by those in the south.  Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that Joseph’s brothers (though not Joseph himself) were buried at Hebron, and implies that this was done before the Exodus (as Acts 7 could also be understood to imply, though with regard to Shechem rather than Hebron):

At length [Joseph’s] brethren died, after they had lived happily in Egypt.  Now the posterity and sons of these men, after some time, carried their bodies, and buried them at Hebron; but as to the bones of Joseph, they carried them into the land of Canaan afterward, when the Hebrews went out of Egypt, for so had Joseph made them promise him. (Antiquities 2.199-200)

This Hebron burial is also mentioned in the intertestamental books of Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. But no evidence is offered to support this claim, nor is there any evidence that their tombs were ever shown to anyone there. So these are clearly conflicting traditions.

But why would any of the brothers, including Joseph himself, be buried at Shechem?  You’re quite right that some disturbing things took place there.  The story of the rape of Dinah and the subsequent murder of the men of Shechem are deeply disturbing events (Gen. 34:2, 25-27).  But that’s not the whole story.  Jacob had bought land there before he built an altar on it (Gen. 33:19-20).  And despite all the bad things that happened, the people of Shechem had made a covenant with the Israelites, a covenant to become “one people” (Gen. 34:22)—a covenant that was never revoked.  This promise of unity became a reality when the sons of Jacob took the wives and children of those who were slain at Shechem, and these people then joined them in their travels (“and they captured and plundered all their wealth and all their little ones and their wives…” Gen. 34:29). This soon made them genetically one people.  And despite the tragic events that had taken place, it seems that the covenantal origins of this relationship were never forgotten. 

This ancestral relationship appeared in a much more positive light in the time of Joshua, when the people of Shechem were bravely resisting the demands of the Egyptian pharaoh and needed the help of the recently arrived Israelites.  We actually have records of the plight of the people of Shechem in the Amarna Letters, written in the time of Joshua.  These letters tell us that the ruler of Shechem was cooperating with the invaders that we know to be the Israelites.  In fact, he “gave the land of Shechem” to them (EA 298).  This explains why, when Joshua divided the land, the “sons of Shechem” were included in the tribal allotment:  they had joined Israel (Josh. 17:2).  Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why the Israelites had no opposition in Shechem and didn’t have to fight to take that area, unlike their experience in the rest of Canaan.* 

* The Gibeonites were another local group that joined Israel, but because they made a covenant under false pretenses (they lied about their true identity and location), they suffered the penalty of being made second-class citizens (Joshua 9).

But why then does Acts 7 say that Abraham bought a tomb at Shechem?  No such thing is mentioned in Genesis.  But the idea does help explain a couple of things in the Bible. (1) As we have just seen, Jacob bought land at Shechem before building his altar there (Gen. 33:19-20).  Wouldn’t it be likely for Abraham to have done the same thing?  (2) There is also the strange inheritance that Jacob gave to Joseph: “And I give you one portion [literally “one shoulder” (or “Shechem”) of land] more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow” (Gen. 48:22).  This military action doesn’t match the massacre connected with Dinah very well, since the land Jacob was living on there at the time had been purchased, not taken.  But it is just possible that at some point he had to defend a piece of land that the family already owned there, tracing back to Abraham, that he joined to the additional land that he bought himself.  This tradition would be more likely to be remembered in the north, and with great pride as it tied them that much more closely to Abraham.

There are also other attempts to answer this question.  But the most likely explanation is that Abraham did in fact buy land in Shechem, though Genesis doesn’t mention it. Here the twelve brothers were buried, as people in the north continued to maintain. Only later, because of tensions between the Judeans and the Samaritans--Shechem being the most important Samaritan city, did those in the south begin to claim that eleven of the brothers were buried at Hebron rather than at Shechem. But the older tradition was never forgotten, and was not contradicted when Stephen mentioned it to the Sanhedrin Council. 

It’s difficult to imagine that Stephen could make an error about such well-known events, events that could so easily be “fact checked,” especially when speaking before the Sanhedrin Council.  Clearly, we are the ones who are missing something here, not him.  Many times, the smallest additional piece of evidence is enough to resolve enigmas like this, as has taken place hundreds of times in the last century.  Perhaps in the future something will be discovered that will help us resolve this one, too.

(For more on this topic, see our Great Discoveries of the Bible Seminar.)



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