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CHURCH & WORLD: Lessons from Genesis 34


Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. – Genesis 34:1

This was in Canaan, after Jacob left Laban’s household in Aram or Mesopotamia. Without passing judgment on this young woman’s involvement with the women of Canaan, we can certainly observe that her involvement with a young man of Canaan led to disastrous and momentous consequences.

When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and violated her. His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her. And Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as my wife.” – Genesis 34:2-4

Shechem slept with Dinah. He violated her. Was it consensual? Was it rape? We do not know for certain. In either case, He violated her. I had assumed it was rape until I read a novel based on the women in the family of Jacob, The Red Tent, where the author took this as consensual. After looking again at the text, I do not know. It could be either. It does not matter. It was sinful.

It was something Jacob himself would not do when he served Laban seven years for his wife. At the end of the seven years, He went to Laban and said, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her” (Genesis 29:21). Of course, the fact that Jacob was working for his future father-in-law might have restrained him. That was not what restrained Dinah’s half-brother, Joseph, from sleeping with Potipher’s wife when she begged him to come to her bed (Genesis 39:7-12), even though his refusal ultimately meant his imprisonment.

When Jacob heard what had happened, he kept quiet until her brothers came home. When they heard, they were filled with grief. In the meantime, Shechem’s father came to talk marriage of the two young people with Jacob.

He presented Jacob and his sons with a temptation the world presents to the church today:

But Hamor said to them,  “My son Shechem has his heart set on your daughter. Please give her to him as his wife. Intermarry with us; give us your daughters and take our daugters for yourselves. You can settle among us; the land is open to you. Live in it, trade in it, and acquire property in it. – Genesis 34:8-10

In other words, become one with us. Would Jacob have accepted? I do not know. Jacob’s sons, though, were not having any of it – but for the wrong reasons.

Because their sister Dinah had been defiled, Jacob’s sons replied deceitfully as they spoke to Shechem and his father Hamor. They said to them, “We can’t do such a thing; we can’t give our sister to a man who is not circumcised. That would be a disgrace to us. We will give our consent to you on one condition only: that you become like us by circumcising all your males. Then we will give you our daughters, and take your daughters for ourselves. We’ll settle among you and become one people with you. But if you will not agree to be circumcised, we’ll take our sister and go. – Genesis 34:13-17

In speaking deceitfully, they showed that they were their father’s sons. He was deceitful with Laban – and well as earlier with his own father, Isaac, and with his brother, Esau.

Shechem and Hamor believed what the sons of Jacob said. Accordingly, they went back to the people of their city:

“These men are friendly toward us,” they said. “Let them live in our land and trade in it; the land has plenty of room for them. We can marry their daughters and they can marry ours. But the men will consent to live with us as one people only on the condition that our males be circumcised, as they themselves are. Won’t their livestock, their property and all their other animals become ours? So let us give our consent to them, and they will settle among us.” – Genesis 34:21-23

The men of the city agreed, and every male was circumcised.

Three days later, while all of them were still in pain, two of Jacob’s sons,k Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and attacked the unsuspecting city, killing every male. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword and took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left. The sons of Jacob came upon the dead bodies and looted the city where their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and donkeys and everything else of theirs in the city and out in the fields. They carried off all their wealth and all their women and children, taking as plunder everything in the houses. – Genesis 34:25-29

This could make one think of the “honor killings” that some fundamentalists of the Islam faith perform today. In this case, the killing extended to the entire city (or village) of the guilty party. Their excuse for doing this was to ask, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?” (Genesis 34:31) Note, however, that they enriched themselves by this evil deed.

This was not something God had instructed them to do. It was their own idea, born of grief and anger over what had happened to Dinah. I think there was also a bit of pride and arrogance. “How dare they do this to our sister?” Mixed with it was lust for wealth. When Abram rescued Lot after Sodom was defeated by the federation of kings, he salvaged all of the plunder those kings had taken. He returned everything to its owners, except what his retainers had eaten during the rescue. He said, “I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich‘” (Genesis 14:23).

Jacob was horrified. He recognized that, though he was a pilgrim and a stranger in the land, he could not settle in the land – especially not under the conditions created by his sons’ action. He said to them:

You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed. – Genesis 34:30

This is one reason it became necessary for God to send Jacob’s family to a place of safety in Egypt. There they were given the land of Goshen, apart from the main part of Egyptian culture, where they could develop as a nation without the dangers Jacob and his sons encountered when Dinah went out to visit with the women of the land.

What lessons can the church learn from the above?

  1. We are in the world, but not of the world. Though Jacob was living in Canaan, he was not “of” Canaan. His God was not their god. His ways were not their ways. He was a stranger in an alien land. We need to realize that as well. We are not to adopt the habits of the world around us just because we live where we do. Our calling is higher than that. The things that excite the person of the world are not necessarily the things that will excite the citizen of heaven.
  2. We should not expect the world to act like the church. What Shechem did, whether it was rape of a nomad girl or a consensual act with her, was culturally acceptable to him. That he would do this should not be considered strange. If it were consensual, the fault would have been Dinah’s, not Shechem’s. Yet, all of the rage of Jacob’s sons were directed at people who did not know God. Do we act the same way? Do we direct our rage at the habits and customs of the world when our children adopt those behaviors instead of teaching and training our children to behave in a godly way?
  3. They asked the world to “become like us” by being circumcised. They said nothing about what circumcision meant as a sign of the covenant the LORD God made with Abraham. Is this like the mass conversions the Europeans made of the natives in Mexico and South America when they arrived on these shores? What of the heart was involved? Are there some of our practices today that may border on the same thing? Are we more interested in getting people to become like us externally than we are in seeing their hearts change to love and honor our God?
  4. They showed they were becoming like the Canaanites. Many times, the world is bemused by the church – because the church has left its moral moorings and become just like them. Yet, we pretend to be “holier than thou.” Jacob’s sons acted as the Canaanites themselves acted toward one another. There were Canaanites and Perizzites in the land (as well as many other national groups). These groups fought among themselves constantly. Perhaps one reason God sent Abraham to the land of Canaan was this “division” among the people there. Abraham and his family were themselves powerful. As long as the people of the land were divided, they could live there safely. They would lose this safety if the people of the land united against them. When God’s family is divided today, we lose a lot of our cohesion in facing the world. Our position in the world becomes more tenuous. United in Christ and filled with His Spirit, we can stand. Divided, we will fall.
  5. Their action destroyed any chance of being a light to the Canaanites. The mis-behavior of Jacob’s sons erased any possibility God could have used his household as a witness to the people of Canaan. In a similar way, we can nullify our effective witness to the glory and goodness of God by our crass, arrogant attitudes.

This is not a pretty story. It is in the Bible for a reason. Part of the reason is to teach God’s people how not to interact with the people around them. As we read the Old Testament, we need to learn from the examples there – both good and bad. This is not “gospel” – but it is an important part of what God gives for our learning that we might have comfort and hope.

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