Lekh Lekah: Entering the Land

Abram entered the land and stopped at Shechem, the central city that controls the north.

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Daniel Pinner,

D. Pinner
D. Pinner

Jewish history in the Land of Israel begins in Parashat Lekh Lekha, when “HaShem said to Abram: Go for yourself from your country, from your homeland, and from your father’s house, to the Land which I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation… So they left to go to the Land of Canaan, and they came to the Land of Canaan. Abram passed through the Land until the place of Shechem, until the Plain of Moreh; and the Canaanite was then in the Land” (Genesis 12:1-6).

Two questions arise from this. The first is: Why is it important for us to know that the first place that Abram came to was Shechem? And second: What is the connection between Abram’s coming to Shechem and the fact that “the Canaanite was then in the Land”?

Various commentators have offered various explanations why the first place that Abram settled in was Shechem.

Rashi explains: “‘Until the place of Shechem’ – to pray for the sons of Jacob who would one day come to fight against Shechem [Genesis 34]. ‘The Plain of Moreh’ – this is Shechem; He showed him Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, where Israel were to receive the Oath of the Torah”. Rashi is referring here to the blessings and curses which the Levites were to declaim to the nation as reward and punishment when they would return from Egyptian exile more than four centuries later (Deuteronomy 11:29, 27:11-26, Joshua 8:30-35).

Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) explains: “‘Until the place of Shechem’ – meaning until the border of Shechem. Perhaps these are the places which a person encounters upon entering the Land of Canaan when coming from Haran: he came ‘until the place of Shechem’ and settled there, and afterwards ‘until the Plain of Moreh’. And on a deeper level, because he foresaw prophetically that in Shechem Dinah would be abused and that Jacob’s sons would take revenge on the men of Shechem, so he prayed there to G-d that He would save them from the surrounding cities… ‘Until the Plain of Moreh’ – he saw that there Israel would accept the Torah on themselves, to uphold it with its blessings and its curses…and he prayed for them to G-d that He would guide their hearts to the good”.

The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Efrayim, Luntchitz, Lvov [Lemberg], and Prague, 1550-1619) expounds: “‘Until the place of Shechem, until the Plain of Moreh’ – He showed him the acceptance of the Torah and the oath which was to be on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal”.

Rabbi Meir Kahane (Hy”d) gave a humorous twist, though conveying an intensely serious message. Speaking on the Knesset podium on 24th Adar 5746 (5th March ‘86) when Shimon Peres was prime minister, he expounded: “‘Abram passed through the Land until the place of Shechem…and the Canaanite was then in the Land’. The question must be asked: What connection is there between the second part of this verse – ‘and the Canaanite was then in the Land’ – and the beginning of the verse which tells us of Abraham our father settling in Shechem? Members of Knesset: the answer is simple. How could Abraham, a Jew, succeed in settling in Shechem? How come they allowed a Jew to live in Shechem? – Only because ‘the Canaanite was then in the Land’. Because had Shimon Peres been in Shechem, had he been Prime Minister then, he would never have allowed any Jew at all – not Abraham our father and not any other Jew – to live there!”.

In fact, it is no idle triviality that the very first place that Abram encamped in Israel was Shechem. The geography and the topography of Israel are such that Shechem is a central location, controlling half of the north of the country. Shechem sits astride the mountain range which stretches from the Galilee in the north to Beer Sheva in the south, with Jerusalem about half way along it. And from the plain of Shechem, the natural paths descend through the hills of Samaria westwards to the Coastal Plain and eastwards to the Jordan Valley.

The city of Shechem is therefore a strategically crucial point, controlling the roads in all four directions. Thus when Jacob returned to the Land of Israel after his 34-year exile, the first place in which he established for himself a permanent place of residence and where he bought himself a parcel of land was Shechem (Genesis 33:18-19).

This also explains why, after Shimon and Levi massacred the men of Shechem and subdued the entire city in retaliation for having raped their sister Dinah (34:2-29), “there was fear of G-d upon the surrounding cities, and they did not pursue Jacob’s sons” (35:5). In simple strategic terms, the sons of Israel had conquered and subjugated Shechem and the north of Israel was under their control.

This surely was one of the reasons that Moshe, in his last days in this world, enjoined the nation that as soon as they would enter the Land of Israel shortly after his death, they were to assemble on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, the two mountains flanking Shechem, there to hear the Levites, standing in the valley of Shechem, proclaim the blessings for obeying the Torah and the curses for disobeying it (Deuteronomy 11:29-30, 27:4-26). Guaranteeing that the nation would begin the conquest of its Land in Shechem was a strategically sound battle-plan.

We jump ahead 476 years after the death of Moshe, to the death of King Solomon, when King Solomon’s son Rechavam (Rehoboam) was crowned as king of Israel in Shechem (1 Kings 12:1). It is puzzling, as the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, Romania, France, and Ukraine, 1809-1879) points out, that his coronation should be in Shechem and not in Jerusalem, the royal city. The Malbim, the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235), and the Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, France, 1288–1344) all suggest that he chose Shechem because it is in the territory of the Tribe of Ephraim, the tribe of Yaravam (Jeroboam), who was Rechavam’s rival for the kingship.

Sure enough, when the new, young and inexperienced King Rechavam refused to lighten the burden of the nation, the northern Tribes simply seceded from the kingdom, and crowned Yaravam as their king. And one of his first acts was to build up the city of Shechem, which became the capital of Israel (1 Kings 12:25). Again, his strategy was sound: by fortifying Shechem, King Yaravam ensured the security and military defence of the northern kingdom of Israel.

Some two centuries later, the senescent kingdom of Israel was facing repeated attacks and invasions from Assyria. The king of Israel, Pekah son of Remaliah, found his kingdom militarily threatened by Assyria to the north (roughly corresponding to present-day eastern Turkey). Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, invaded and conquered large parts of the territory of Naphtali, the eastern Galilee region, north-west of the Kinneret (2 Kings 15:29).

Nevertheless Israel held out until the next and last king, Hoshea, who forged a military alliance with Egypt. However the king of Assyria, Shalmaneser, was more than a match for this Israelite-Egyptian alliance – particularly as Egypt proved to be a very unreliable ally. (Some things in the Middle East never change.)

The fighting between Israel and Assyria continued for some years. And as soon as Assyria conquered Shechem, they defeated Israel; with Assyrian control over Shechem came Assyrian control over the whole of the kingdom of Israel.

Once again, Shechem proved to be the most strategically important point in the country: conquering Shechem meant conquering Israel.

We again jump ahead a few centuries, to the year 167 B.C.E., to the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt against the Syrian-Greek Empire. The first clash Matityahu and his sons against the local Greek garrison occurred in Modi’in, between Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport. But immediately, the Maccabees moved northwards to the area around Gophna, where the Samarian hill country afforded them shelter for training and ideal terrain for unconventional guerrilla attacks against Greek occupation forces.

Within a year, the battle-ground had expanded to large parts of Samaria; in 166 B.C.E. Judah and his forces ambushed the vastly superior Seleucid force commanded by Apollonius in the narrow defile of Mount Levonah (present-day Ma’aleh Levonah), 18 km (11 miles) south of Shechem (in the plain facing the modern town of Eli, 20 minutes’ drive north of Migron). Apollonius was killed, his force was destroyed, and all their materiel was requisitioned by Maccabean forces.

This was the Maccabees’ first major strategic (as against tactical) victory, and Judah pressed his advantage to the full by advancing northwards to Shechem. In the battles that followed in the ensuing decades until the final Maccabean victory, Shechem again proved to be the pivotal strategic point in the north of Israel.

And over the millennia this remained constant. The Romans, the Sassanid Persians in 614, the Byzantines in 628, the Arab Moslems a decade later, the Seljuk Turks three and a half centuries later, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks, the British – all would discover that conquering Shechem militarily meant controlling the north of Israel.

Most recently, when Israel captured Shechem on the evening of the second day of the Six Day War, the entire Jordanian front throughout Samaria collapsed the following morning. And when, a few hours later, Israel captured Jerusalem, the war with Jordan was over.

Once again, Shechem proved itself as the single most important strategic spot in the north of Israel. Capturing Shechem meant controlling the whole of the north of Israel.

And now we return to Abraham our father who entered the Land of Israel some 3,750 years ago at G-d’s command, and began his sojourning by “pass[ing] through the Land until the place of Shechem…and the Canaanite was then in the Land”.

Both Rashi and the Malbim understand the phrase “…and the Canaanite was then in the Land” to mean that the Canaanites were then in the process of conquering the Land. The Land had been given to Shem and certain of his descendants, and Canaan was the grandson of Ham who began to invade and conquer the Land from its previous inhabitants.

And it was during that time that Abram arrived with “Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all the property that they had acquired, and all the souls they had made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5), meaning all the people whom they had converted to belief in the One true G-d (Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Targum Yerushalmi, Rashi, Sanhedrin 99b, Sifrei Devarim 32, Bereishit Rabbah 84:4 et. al.).

That is to say – this was the beginning of a religious and nationalist struggle between Abram, his beliefs, his household, and his G-d against the Canaanites and their beliefs and their gods.

As a strategist, then, Abram began by conquering Shechem and building an altar to HaShem there (Genesis 12:7). Only after securing Shechem did he spread out across the Land, southwards to the mountain east of Bet El and thence steadily southwards (vs. 8-9) – exactly as his grandson would do, and exactly as his descendants would do upon returning from Egypt almost half a millennium later.