Then Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan Aram; and he pitched his tent before the city. And he bought the parcel of land, where he had pitched his tent, from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of money. Then he erected an altar there and called it El Elohe Israel. (Genesis 33:18-20, N.K.J.V.)
The first piece of real estate that Jacob ever legally owned in the land of Canaan was the plot of land he purchased near the city of Shechem. He paid 100 pieces of money for it, which was a sizable amount of money for that day. As evidence of how important the plot was to Jacob, he immediately built a permanent altar there.
While all this sounds fine on the surface, there was an underlying problem with Jacob’s encampment at Shechem. That problem was, there were some false gods (graven images, little idols) within the ranks of the camp. In particular, Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel had stolen her father Laban’s household gods and carried them with her from Laban’s home in Padan Aram to Shechem in Canaan (Genesis 31:19; 30-35). Perhaps other people in the camp had false gods as well. So, even as Jacob built his altar at Shechem, his camp was marked by idolatry.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so surprising, then, when Jacob’s entire family became involved in a grievous incident at Shechem. Dinah, Jacob’s lone daughter, got raped by one of the land’s young nobles, whose name was actually Shechem, and that kick-started a gruesome sequence of events that played out as follows (Genesis 34:1-3):
- Shechem and his father Hamor went to Jacob and his sons in an attempt to get them to agree to let Shechem marry Dinah (34:4-12).
- Jacob’s sons deceitfully agreed to allow not only the marriage but also full intermarrying between the two races of people, but only on the condition that Shechem, Hamor, and all the other men of the city of Shechem submit to circumcision (34:13-17).
- Hamor and Shechem used the promise of potential financial gain from the alliance to convince the other males of the city to agree to be circumcised (34:18-24).
- Three days after the men had all been circumcised, when they were all still in a great deal of pain, Simeon and Levi — Dinah’s two full-fledged brothers — went into the city and murdered Shechem, Hamor, and all the other males (34:25-26).
- Following the massacre, the rest of Jacob’s sons went into the city, completely plundered it, and took the women and children as captives (34:27-29).
In the wake of these events, God appeared to Jacob and instructed him to move to Bethel and build another altar there (Genesis 35:1). Bethel was located some 30 miles south of Shechem and was the place where God had once appeared to Jacob (Genesis 28:10-22). But Jacob did something important before he loaded up camp and headed toward Bethel. Do you know what it was? He collected all the false gods from his household and buried them under a certain tree in Shechem (Genesis 35:2-4).
The teaching from this story is that religion without repentance doesn’t amount to much. At Shechem, Jacob was religious enough to build an altar and name it “El Elohe Israel,” which means “God, the God of Israel.” However, his attempt at worship was severely marred by the fact that he had false gods in his camp. Only when he rounded up those false gods and buried them did the full favor and protection of God come to rest upon him (Genesis 35:5-15):
So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. (Genesis 35:4, N.I.V.)
We should keep this story in mind the next time we find ourselves disappointed that our prayers, Bible study, and church-attendance aren’t producing more of the blessing of God upon our lives. Could it be that our attempts at “religion” are to a large degree being negated by some type of idolatry? Could it be that rather than build an altar, what we really need to do is dig a hole in which to bury our idols?
An idol has been defined as being some type of noun to which you give time, money, and energy that rightly belong to the true and living God. In these modern days, an idol can be a person, a job, an organization, a pursuit, a type of entertainment, or a source of pleasure. Basically, it’s anything or anyone that you place in God’s slot. Metaphorically speaking, Christian, every idol that you have in your life needs to get buried in a hole and left behind as you move on at God’s bidding. These “burials” on your part are the only way to keep your “altars” in full working order, and they are the only way that you can truly live the victorious Christian life.