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 that we see in the division of the kingdom after Solomon and then again later in the tension between the Samaritans in the north and the Jewish people in the south in New Testament times.  Those in the south wanted to ignore the claims of the north and vice versa.  

Let’s begin with the burial place of the twelve patriarchs, the sons of Jacob.  Acts 7:16 seems to indicate that the twelve sons of Jacob were buried at Shechem (the antecedent of “they were removed” in vs. 15 is “our fathers”).  That the brothers were buried at Shechem certainly makes sense, as the children of Israel under Joshua came into possession of this area before they did of Hebron, and it seems logical that they would bury the others where Joseph was buried (Joshua 24:32)—though the Bible only mentions the bones of Joseph being brought along in the Exodus (Exo. 13:19).  Nothing is said, except in this verse, about his brothers. 

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 they (other than Joseph) were buried at Hebron, and implies that this was done before the Exodus (Antiquities 2.8.2 § 199-200, their Hebron burial is also mentioned in Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs), though no evidence is offered to support this claim, or evidence that their tombs were ever shown there. 

“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)

But why would they bury any of them, including Joseph, at Shechem?  While it’s true that there was some serious bad blood between Jacob and his sons and the people of Shechem over the rape of their sister Dinah, that’s not the whole story.  Jacob had bought land there before he built an altar on it (Gen. 33:19).  And despite all that happened, they had still made a covenant with each other, a covenant to become “one people” (Gen. 34:22).  But most important of all, the sons of Jacob took the wives and children of those who were slain by them in Shechem (Gen. 34:29). This made them in fact one people.  And despite the tragic events that took place, it seems that this relationship was never forgotten.  It 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 also tell us that the ruler of Shechem was cooperating with the invaders that we know to be the Israelites, and in fact that 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 understand why the Israelites had no opposition in Shechem, and did not 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 had lied about their true identity and location), they suffered the penalty of being made second-class citizens (Joshua 9).

But why 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 an altar there (Gen. 33:19).  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:  “one shoulder (or literally “Shechem”) more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and my bow” (Gen. 48:22).  Since this does not appear to refer to the massacre connected with Dinah, it’s just possible that he was defending a piece of land that the family already owned there,  tracing back to Abraham, to which he joined 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.

Another possibility is that the passage itself is actually referring to two burial places:  one for Jacob at Hebron (Gen. 50:13) and the other for the brothers at Shechem.  In this case, it would be translated as:  “And Jacob went down to Egypt and died, he and our fathers, and they [referring to both Jacob and the twelve] were transferred to Shechem and [also] placed in the tomb that Abraham bought for a price of silver, besides [that] of the sons of Hamor in Shechem” (Acts 7:15-16).

There are also other attempts to answer this question.  But I think the bottom line is that it’s very 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 may be missing something here, not him.  Many times the smallest additional piece of evidence is enough to resolve these enigmas, 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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