The unanswered question of Genesis 34 is how to respond to evil. Jacob’s family will be the agents of the kingdom of God in years to come, but how should they respond right now when a Canaanite prince rapes Dinah? Injustice remains a relevant question.
Consider how each stake-holder responds. Jacob is silent (34:5). The elders discuss the problem (34:6). Dinah’s livid brothers demand retribution (34:7). The Canaanite’s father suggests a conciliatory approach would benefit Jacob in the long term (34:8-10). The perpetrator hopes to buy his way out of trouble and still get him the girl (34:11-12).
But Jacob’s family cannot intermarry with the Canaanites, since they are to replace them in this land. We’ve heard that message explicitly in each generation: with Abraham (24:3, 37), Isaac (28:1, 6, 8), and now Jacob (34:7, 14).
But what if Canaanites became part of the Abrahamic family? Foreigners could join the Abrahamic covenant by submitting to circumcision (17:10-13). Dinah’s brothers suggest this option, though we’re told it’s a ruse (34:13). The Canaanite prince talks his people into it. His plan is just as devious: to subsume the Abrahamic family’s wealth into their Canaanite culture (34:23).
Genesis 34:25 (ESV)
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.
What do you make of their actions? The narrator simply reports what they did, with no hint of his opinion at this point. Jacob disapproves, but the brothers have the last word:
Genesis 34:30–31 (ESV)
30 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?”
This is such an important question, one that hounds Israel through the generations ahead. They have been charged with “keeping the way of YHWH by doing righteousness and justice” (18:19). So should they teach the nations a lesson when they see unrighteousness and injustice? When they are abused, should they fight back with the ferocity of Simeon and Levi? Or should they heed Jacob’s caution so they are not destroyed?
The ambiguity remains throughout the Old Testament. Under Joshua, the judges, and the earlier kings, Israel regularly attacks the nations to gain and secure its territory. But then Israel is attacked and crushed by wave after wave of nations: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. There is no simplistic answer to the question of how the people of God should respond to abuse and suffering. Our narrator leaves the question unresolved.
The ambiguity remained throughout Israel’s history. Some Jews believed Simeon and Levi were right to stand up for righteousness and teach the gentiles a lesson. Others believed that Jacob was right to hold back as a man of peace (34:21, 30), that the brothers’ outraged reaction was inexcusable.
Christians face the same issue today. Are believers responsible to sort out the injustice and immorality of the cultures we live among? Should we stand up for righteousness and enforce Jesus’ reign? Is that what it means to be his kingdom? The way you answer that question deeply impacts the way you interact with your culture.
We’ll pursue this question further next post, hearing how later generations judged the actions of Simeon and Levi.
What others are saying
Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Tipping the Balance: Sternberg’s Reader and the Rape of Dinah,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110 (1991). 211:
Where Sternberg’s reader sees admirable principles, our reader sees culpable neglect of responsibility. If Simeon and Levi are Sternberg’s heroes, they are certainly not ours.
Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 118–119:
It was Shechem who upset the apple cart. But the brothers’ overreaction made a bad situation worse, as Jacob puts it, ‘you have made me odious to the inhabitants of the land’ (34:30). But by denying the last word to Jacob and ending with the defiant protest, ‘Should he treat our sister as a harlot’, the author prevents moral closure and leaves the reader to ponder what should be done in a situation of competing moral imperatives: is the pursuit of peace or the vindication of a sister more important? We are left to reflect for fifteen long chapters, until Jacob gives his final word in 49:5–7.
Read Genesis 34.