The oak tree of Shechem


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SEE, PEOPLE ARE COMING down from the center of the land, and another company is coming from the Diviners' Terebinth Tree."

Judges 9:37

Though two thousand years had passed since Adam and Eve had tended the Garden of Eden, and untold millions had been born and died, barely a handful had ever known the true God. With Abram and Sarah, the time had come for God to set in motion a process that would forever change that situation, relatively speaking, creating a people fit to be called His own. God initiated this momentous new phase with a disarmingly unrevealing act. He gave order to Abram and Sarah to get up and go, promising them great things if they obeyed:

Now the Lord. said to Abram: "Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you." Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, as far as the terebinth [oak] tree of Moreh (Gen. 12:1,6).

Shechem and its tree were destined to play a vital role in God's dealings with Abram and his descendants. The story of Shechem, its oak, and of incident after incident played out in their shadow exposes the vital organs of God-man covenant relationships to view, showing clearly the key to covenantal success. Sadly, failure more than success makes the lesson.

The oak tree is special; definitely not your average, every day agglomeration of trunk, branches and tracery covered with green leafy bits. For the time being let us simply note its importance, as revealed by the meaning of 'Moreh' which, translated, means teacher. The most reputable conservative commentary available today on Genesis says that it "suggests a place where divine oracles could be obtained" (Wenham 1987, p. 279).

At the end of his life, Joshua called for Israel to assemble at Shechem. The solemnity of the occasion cannot be expressed better than by its simple yet inspired biblical description:

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and called for the elders of Israel, for their heads, for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God (Josh. 24:1).

Joshua recounted God's faithfulness from the time of Abram's calling until He gave them the Promised Land. He solemnly impressed on them the importance of keeping faithfulness with God and his covenant. The following statement captures the sum and substance of the gathering's purpose:

Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! (24:14)

The phrase "sincerity and truth" is translated "sincerity and faithfulness" in the RSV. The real meaning of the phrase is best expressed by NIV's "with all faithfulness". Joshua told them that they must, in observing the covenant made with God, honor it with fullness of faithfulness. The people responded, equally solemnly, that they would do so:

We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God (24:18).

God was their God because He had promised to be the God of Abram's seed. They ratified the covenant with shouted professions of faithfulness. Little did they realize that the charge of faithfulness they accepted would later turn into a charge against them. When all was over, Joshua,

. took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord (24:26).

Eight hundred years had elapsed since Abram first built an altar under the Shechem oak tree. Could this possibly be the same tree? It's doubtful, though oaks can live for many hundreds of years. But its proximity to the "sanctuary of the Lord", which was probably the altars built by Abram and Jacob, indicates it was now taken to be the official substitute.

Can we not picture Joshua pointing to the altars and the tree, can we not hear him rehearsing their stories? Can we not imagine him pointing to the ground, declaring "somewhere down there are the pagan gods your father Jacob buried; do the same, bury your false gods, and serve the one true God only." The stone was to witness to their promise to be true. On that day, under Abram's tree of promise, Israel ratified her covenant with God, the covenant she had made at Sinai about one hundred years earlier.

At Shechem God began to unveil His special covenant with Abram and his descendants, and it was there that Abram responded with believing commitment. Jacob, on the other hand, proved his lack of commitment to God at Shechem by lingering there instead of going on to Bethel to pay his vows, with disastrous results. But the crisis had a silver lining, as it appears to have brought Jacob to genuine spiritual conversion and faithfulness to God, demonstrated by burying his household idols in the very patch of Promised Land soil where Abram first worshiped God.

The oak tree at Shechem tells us more than meets the eye about God's covenantal dealings with Israel and, ultimately, all mankind.

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