Not Right, But Not Wrong Either

I love the little details you find in the Bible.

Because they sometimes are the most important.

I woke up this morning thinking about the rape of Dinah — the one named daughter of Jacob (he must have had lots and lots and lots, what with two wives and two handmaidens and twelve sons) in the whole of scripture — in Genesis 34. It’s a kind-of gruesome story. The Bible is full of gruesome stories. I think that’s why I like it.

The story begins after Jacob meets his estranged brother Esau, which is right after he wrestles with the mysterious stranger (aka God) at the crossing of the wadi jabbock in Genesis 32.

Jacob has decamped with his entire entourage — wives, concubines, sons, unnamed daughters — near Shechem, now known as Nablus. And so it begins:

1 Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. 2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her. 3 And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob. He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. 4 So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl for my wife.” (Genesis 34:1-4 ESV)

Okay, so let me be clear here, it is quite likely that Dinah was very likely a willing and eager participant in all this. She was not snatched and violated by someone lying in wait in the bushes (you were thinking of Judges 21:20-24). She was a lonely young woman who was looking for some company and maybe even a little fun.

The humiliation here is very likely not Dinah being robbed of purity and her virginity. The humiliation here belongs to the entire clan of Jacob — to the men of the clan of Jacob — who become “indignant and very angry, because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” (Genesis 34:7 ESV)

This is not about the protection of female virtue. It is about the protection of male virtue, of tribal virtue. Dinah might have also been in love with Shechem. But it didn’t matter, because she sought to marry — that’s what a sex act with someone not a prostitute led to — outside the tribe.

More importantly, she sought to marry a Canaanite.

Because marriage is exactly what is proposed. Hamer, the leader of Shechem (and the father of Shechem), goes to Jacob and pleads for his son:

8 But Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him to be his wife. 9 Make marriages with us. Give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. 10 You shall dwell with us, and the land shall be open to you. Dwell and trade in it, and get property in it.” 11 Shechem also said to her father and to her brothers, “Let me find favor in your eyes, and whatever you say to me I will give. 12 Ask me for as great a bride price and gift as you will, and I will give whatever you say to me. Only give me the young woman to be my wife.” (Genesis 34:8-12 ESV)

So Jacob does have a clutch of daughters! (Well, at least Hamor assumes he does.) And he wants Israel and Shechem (the whole people) to intermarry. We know, from what comes later (Deuteronomy 7, Ezra 8-9) that intermarriage, especially with Canaanites, is utterly unacceptable. And so of course the sons of Jacob plot to deceive Shechem — by demanding all the men of Shechem become circumcised.

Shechem agrees. Eagerly. (Some girls are apparently worth this.) And the people of Shechem think they’ve got the upper hand:

So Hamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city and spoke to the men of their city, saying, 21 “These men are at peace with us; let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters as wives, and let us give them our daughters. 22 Only on this condition will the men agree to dwell with us to become one people—when every male among us is circumcised as they are circumcised. 23 Will not their livestock, their property and all their beasts be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will dwell with us.” (Genesis 34:20-23 ESV)

And thus, the deed is done. However, the sons of Israel were biding their time and sharpening their swords:

25 On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males. 26 They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and went away. 27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the city, because they had defiled their sister. 28 They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. 29 All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and plundered. (Genesis 34:25-29 ESV)

And so, Dinah is both avenged, her honor restored, and left without a husband (we never hear of her again). Shechem is depopulated, and the sons of Jacob have profited hugely in their deceitful dealings with the Shechemites. It’s a marvelous deed, no?

30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” 31 But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Genesis 34:30-31 ESV)

What I like about this story it this whole matter is left right at that. Is Jacob wrong? Clearly the people of Shechem thought Israel was weak, and did not expect subterfuge when they — ahem — pruned their johnsons. They expected to inherit all of Israel’s wealth, that it would be theirs for the taking.

Clearly Abraham and Isaac saw themselves as weak enough to have to pass their wives off as their sisters to potentially hostile kings in order to save their lives. Abraham was powerful enough to field an army and rescue his nephew Lot during the war in Genesis 14, but that doesn’t help him later. I suspect Jacob is not wrong when he sees his position as precarious. Especially if his hot-headed sons go around picking fights and massacring people. That will eventually cause trouble.

But the sons aren’t wrong either. Honor was at stake. If a daughter of Jacob could wander off and have a bit of fun — serious or not — with just any Canaanite lad who took a fancy to her (and Shechem son of Hamor fell hard), pretty soon there’d be no Israel to defend, no people to inherit the promise. And no honor left.

This remains morally unresolved. The argument between Jacob and his sons is unfinished, and left for us to ponder. What would you do? The deed also remains done. The massacre and plunder of Shechem is a brilliant bit of defense, a well planned operation that took a possibly numerical enemy by surprise and inflicted a permanent defeat. Smart, this.

Not even the Bible, however, can leave well enough alone.

Remember what I said about small details? Note who led this. Not Reuben, the oldest son of Jacob (who, in one of the Bible’s ickier details, had taken a fancy to one his father’s concubines), or Judah, the one son who truly matters, but Simeon and Levi. And it’s they who do the actual killing, and they who argue with their father. You’d think they be rewarded.

When Jacob is dying, he has a few choice words for his two hot-headed, sword wielding sons:

5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
6 Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.
7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel.
(Genesis 49:5-7 ESV)

And sure enough, Simeon and Levi are the only tribes in Israel that don’t get their own allotments of land. Levi becomes the tribe of the priests, and Simeon gets its chunk of land in the midst of Judah (Joshua 19:1-9). There’s a consequence to Simeon’s and Levi’s actions — they get no real share of their own in the land. (Simeon ends up disappearing into Judah.)

There’s something the Bible does, something the church once understood (but generally doesn’t anymore, because it has become as modern as the world it is in) — that there are costs and consequences to doing the right thing, or even the thing commanded or enjoined by God. It may very well be that Simeon and Levi were right to massacre the men of Shechem, and plunder their city (taking and humiliating, of course, their women). They certainly were clever about it. But there is still a consequence to that act, one their descendants will bear.

In our ideological age, we like virtue. We like innocence. We focus on the identity of the actor rather than the act. We like right and wrong, and an act can only be one or the other. It can never be both. We also believe that right acts should never have consequences — that’s only for sinners, for the guilty. A right act, a good act, never morally taints the actor. “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Guilt and consequence belongs only to the one who has been defeated, captured, or is on the wrong side of power.

But scripture is not so easy. Jacob isn’t wrong, even if his sons aren’t either. And their act — which saved Jacob’s honor and increased his power and wealth, comes with a price. Jacob lays a heavy blessing upon his wayward sons, and they shall be scattered — one tribe to serve all the other tribes as priests, and the other to lose his identity completely and utterly.

And their act, and their anger, saved them from the fate that befell the other sons of Jacob when the Assyrians overran Israel. Even our sins can save us.

One thought on “Not Right, But Not Wrong Either

  1. Yep … profound.

    Jacob vs his sons – reminds me of a quote attributed to physicist Niels Bohr, that the opposite of a small truth is a false statement, but the opposite of a deep truth, when both are contemplated, is also a deep truth. This is shown in a trivial way in proverbs – take care of your pennies and your pounds [Brit cash] will take care of themselves, BUT don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

    The Bible is like a mind-meld with God [Star Trek reference], and sometimes “the details are the most important”. That would have made a better defense of scripture than verbal inerrancy. The Bible as is – with all its manuscripts, languages, translations and constructions. And the Spirit to guide us.

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