Studying Christian apologetics is one of my pastimes. Part of defending the faith involves knowing how to answer assertions of contradictions in Scripture. The one that takes the cake is Acts 7:16. Norman Geisler in When Critics Ask does not even bother to deal with this verse. But I think Gleason Archer in Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties does a fine job of explaining the text and I will try to expand on his answer in this article. The text of Acts 7:15-16 reads as follows:
“And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.”
Now compare Stephen’s statements with the Old Testament:
Genesis 12:6: “Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”
Genesis 23:16-18: “Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants. So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city.”
Genesis 33:18-19: “And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent.”
Genesis 49:29-31: “Then he [Jacob] commanded them and said to them, ‘I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah- the field and the cave that is in it were bought from the Hittites.'”
Joshua 24:32: “As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.”
Now fill in the blanks based on the Old Testament texts:
Jacob and our fathers were carried back to ________________
and laid in the tomb in Shechem which ________________ had purchased for a sum of money
A. Ephron the Hittite in Machpelah
B. the sons of Hamor in Shechem
If you base your answers solely on the Old Testament, you will choose the opposite answer that Stephen gave in his speech. Stephen said that Abraham bought the field at Shechem from the sons of Hamor when Genesis 33:18-19 says it was Jacob. Also, Jacob was buried at Machpelah, not Shechem, according to Genesis 49:29-31. Most Christians do not see the apparent contradiction here because they have never carefully read the book of Genesis. Most Bible commentaries are worthless here because they don’t know how to explain the text or just admit Stephen was wrong.
I believe the answer to the apparent contradiction is to recognize that Stephen is relying on an unwritten oral tradition that said Abraham originally bought the field in Shechem and Jacob is repurchasing land once owned by Abraham that had fallen into disuse after Abraham left. Genesis 12:6 mentions Abraham dwelling in Shechem as he journeys south and that is when he purchased the land from the ancestors of the sons of Hamor. As a wealthy owner of many oxen and servants (Gen 12:16), he would of needed a place for them to live during his stay in Shechem so it is reasonable to infer that he would of had to purchase land in order for his herds to eat. But why does Stephen mention Abraham instead of Jacob’s purchase which is explicitly mentioned in Scripture? Abraham as the patriarch of the Jewish people is mentioned because of the corporate solidarity that exists between Abraham and Jacob. Abraham is greater than Jacob so just as the greater prophet alone is mentioned when two different ones are cited (Matt 27:9), Abraham as the greater is mentioned instead of his descendant.
Another question is, “Why does Stephen mention Jacob being buried at Shechem when he was buried at Machpelah?” Acts 7:16 says that “they” (plural) were carried, not just Jacob. That would include Joseph who was buried at Shechem according to Joshua 24:32 as well as his descendants who owned the land. “Our fathers” includes Joseph and his descendants and Jacob is mentioned because Stephen is giving a shortened or telescoped version of the events. His listeners knew that Jacob was buried at Machpelah but Stephen does not need to give a detailed account of each Old Testament text on this matter listed above. The emphasis is on Shechem, not Machpelah, because everyone after the Exodus was buried in Shechem and not Machpelah. The significance is that their tomb was purchased by Abraham and this shows that they are connected to Abraham and their faith is the same as that of Abraham in contrast to those who reject the Messiah.