Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Parshat VaYishlach

Israel and Shechem – a Varied Relationship

This week's parsha brings two explanations as to how Shechem became a possession of ancient Israel.

"Yaakov came safely [to] the city of Shechem…He encamped near the city. He bought the part of the field where he had pitched his tent from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for a hundred kesitas" (Bereshit 33:18-19). Israel took control of the area peacefully when Yaakov purchased the city from a noble Shechemite family.

However, in the next chapter, we see a different explanation: "Now it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that Yaakov's two sons, Shimon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, each took his sword, and they came upon the city with confidence, and they slew every male. They slew Hamor and his son Shechem with the edge of the sword" (ibid 34:25-26).

Israel became masters of the city through violent conquest, in the aftermath of Shechem's violation of Dinah, Yaakov's daughter.

This was the beginning of Israel's strange relationship with this Canaanite city.

Historically, Shechem was different to other Canaanite cities. Regular Canaanite cities were city states, i.e. they were ruled by a king. Canaan's topography effectively allowed each city to remain self-sufficient and independent from each other. Indeed, Yehoshua conquers 31 kings (see Yehoshua Ch.12) in a tiny country barely the size of New Jersey. Indeed at least eight distinct nations lived in this land. Interestingly enough, Israel was the first nation to unite the land into one country.

However, Shechem's status was different. It was not ruled by a king: "Chamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city, and they spoke to the people of their city, saying, 'These men are peaceful with us'" (ibid 20:21). Note how Shechem and his father Chamor, have to persuade the inhabitants of Shechem to accept the agreement they had made with Yaakov's sons. Shechem might have been a leader of Shechem but he did not have ultimate power.

Interestingly enough, Shechem does not appear in the list of cities that Yehoshua captured. In fact, no conquest of Shechem is ever noted. Yehoshua even took all the people to make a covenant there (Yehoshua 8:30-35), and yet he does not fight with it. Moreover, from the Sefer Shoftim, it is clear that the people of Shechem were Israelite citizens, even though they were not Israelites.

There, Gaal Ben Eved inadvertently causes an uprising against Avimelech, Gidon's son and Israel's leader, saying: "'Who is Avimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? is not he the son of Yerubbaal (Gidon)? … serve the men of Chamor the father of Shechem" (Shoftim 9:28). From this source it is clear that the inhabitants of Shechem were clearly descendents of Shechem's original inhabitants, and yet they were Israelite citizens.

How did this happen? It is unclear. I would like to suggest two possible explanations that are linked..

Firstly, we have already seen how Israel in Yaakov's day became the legal masters of Shechem. It is possible therefore, that Shechem already saw itself as loyal servants of Israel at the time of Yehoshua's conquest, and hence, there was no need to conquer it.

Secondly, I would like to suggest that the Shechemites were part of the Givon alliance, the people who tricked Israel into making a non-aggression pact: "The men of Israel said unto the Hivites…" (Yehoshua 9:7). The Givonites were Hivites. So was Shechem: "Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her" (Bereshit 34:2).

Simon and Levi tricked Shechem and took advantage of them. The Hivites then turned the tables and tricked Israel by making a treaty with Yehoshua. These people then caused havoc in Israel during the period of the Judges.

Perhaps the seeds to this incident were planted in this week's parsha.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlah entitled: Reuven and Bilha" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat VaYishlach entitled "Struggling with the Present", appears at:

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