Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bible commentary: Part 3 of 4 Jacob's children

Here is my commentary, with things that should be noted and understood about Genesis 34.

1. One hothead can cause the destruction of an entire people.

Notice that the Bible records that the offender, Shechem, was “really in love” with Dinah, who he defiled in kidnapping and raping her. So the man who recorded this part of Genesis (all of the first five books are based on the knowledge of Moses, but different scribes have contributed material within the framework of what Moses outlined) takes care not to lose the human element and truth of this incident. Imagine if what would have happened if Shechem had kept it “zipped up,” not defiled Dinah, and instead, sent his father, Hamor, to give the exact same speech that he did give, before it was too late and the damage done. It is quite possible that Jacob and his sons would have agreed to an alliance and intermarriage if the people of Hamor had first converted by being circumcised and worshipping God. Thus, not only might Shechem won Dinah’s affection honorably, but their entire people might have been incorporated into the salvation history of the people of God. Everyone acted “honorably” only after the great dishonor was done and it was too late.

2. Jacob’s role as a patriarch of the worship of the one true God was by no means completed.

This incident occurred very early in the many years of faith formation that Jacob and his sons, especially Joseph, would labor at in service to God. In fact, Jacob’s father Isaac was still alive (Isaac lives to be one hundred and eighty years old), dying only after this incident when Jacob brings his people back to Hebron, where Isaac resided. The entire movement to Egypt due to the years of famine still was in the future. So Jacob and his sons were only starting their service to God and laying the formation of what would become the Israelites. Thus Jacob waited for his sons to come from the fields in order to determine what should be done about the offense to Dinah, as it was not just a personal defilement, but an issue regarding the integrity of the faith going forward. If this had not been dealt with within the context of the still emerging faith of the pre-Israelites, there would have been a risk of intermarriage causing the entire purity of the faith to be compromised before it even solidified. I will blog Genesis 35, which follows up their movements after the incident about Dinah, and demonstrate an explanation of this point further.

3. Jacob’s sons were not only clever in their reply regarding tactics, but they maintained a sin free correct stance.

This is why Jacob’s sons gave the perfect reply when they insisted that every male be circumcised. Yes, the obvious reason was to incapacitate all of the fighting men (since those were the ones who were circumcised, according to the translations of “able-bodied,” not the boy children or non-combatants). But they were able to set this deadly trap yet still speak God honest truth, for the reasons I described above, that no man could intermarry with them and not be of their faith, since they were on the God given mission of forming the proto-Israelite faith that would come to fruition when Moses received the Law from God for the people. So the sons of Jacob spoke wisely that it was their “policy” that there would be no intermarriage unless the pagan tribe “converted.” Again, imagine if only Shechem had asked first, and possibly the tribe had converted sincerely first.

A second point I want to make is from “God’s point of view.” Notice that humans are handling their own matters, in regard to this crime, and God is not telling them what to do. Yet the sons are showing wisdom that they are not even aware of when they insist that all the men be circumcised and thus are converted. It is a common human tragedy that many suffer because of the sin or crime of one or a handful of people, and so the sons planned to slay the soldiers of the town to avenge (and free from being imprisoned) Dinah. But even though the men of the town agreed to be circumcised a bit cynically (desiring the wealth and also because their backs were against the wall regarding their honor), they did agree and that is to their credit. So from God’s point of view the men of the town did do the honorable thing, and that would have weighed in their favor when they reached their personal judgment at the hands of God after their deaths. In other words, if the men had not agreed to be circumcised, and had sided with Shechem keeping Dinah in a dishonorable way, they would have taken on shared guilt and culpability for the sins of Shechem. Thus they died having done the spiritually correct and honorable thing in the eyes of God by having been circumcised. See? This is one of the reasons the Bible is the best of treasures. One can understand much about human nature but also glean much about how God views the events, and the many ways that salvation can come about.

4. Dinah’s two full brothers lead the avenging of their sister.

All of the brothers participate in slaying the soldier s of the town and freeing their sister, but two of her full brothers have the honor of conducting the slaughter of vengeance and freeing Dinah. There is two interesting foreshadowings to glean from this. It is Simeon and Levi that perform the avenging, and Levi will be the patriarch of what will be the priestly tribe, the Levites. There is thus an obvious parallel in defending the purity of their sister and the mission of the priesthood to maintain the purity of the faith. Again, the sons had no way of realizing that at the time, but it shows how God is in control, that the men and women will step forward appropriate to even their still unforeseen vocations. The Levites will be the priests, the ones who can touch the Ark with purity. Thus Levi is one of the brothers who defend the purity of his sister.

My second point is that this is a matter of the heart, of filial love, and not just of honor. So many who misunderstand the Bible accuse it of recording a time when women were “chattel.” That is obviously incorrect. Why would Simeon and Levi be the ones who step forward out of those who were all in agreement in order to actually execute the revenge and free Dinah? Simeon is the second son and Levi the third, while Dinah was born after the tenth son Zebulun. So this was not a matter of where the eldest, Reuben, leads the endeavor, or those who were closest in age to Dinah and thus raised with her. All participated in the trap, the planning and the sacking but clearly Simeon and Levi stepped forward on their own accord out of the deepness of their full sibling filial connection to Dinah. Biblical males were not brutes who only cared about honor or dishonor of their own; they cared deeply about their mothers, sisters and daughters. One can surmise from the leadership of Simeon and Levi that they stepped forward in expression of love for their sister, in addition to the outrage that all of the brothers had for how she had been treated. In fact, the last words of Laban, father of Leah and Rachel, to Jacob, before they parted company, was to warn Jacob that God would know even if Laban did not if Jacob mistreated his daughters (Genesis 31:50). So Simeon and Levi leading the slaughter and freeing Dinah is another example of how there is great love within Biblical families, and not the treating of women as “chattel.” One has to think about how different that is today, among modern society, where moderns are often “love and honor deficient” in their views of the members of their own families, all the while saying that women are “liberated.”

5. When there is lust, everyone loses, including the women who enable the men who lust.

Clearly the town was a place where the chief of the region, Shechem, was enabled to do what he felt like, including that rape of Dinah. I’m not saying it was a sinful town, like Sodom and Gomorrah. I am pointing out a subtly that ought to be more obvious than it is. Where was the mother of Shechem, and where were the wives of the town elders? Did none of them think there was something wrong with Shechem raping Dinah and imprisoning her for forced marriage? The Bible does not say and we are left to wonder. But often one can infer the enabling of women “behind the scenes.” If one of the women had spoken up, that would have been recorded, since as I pointed out, care is taken to record that Shechem really did love Dinah. If the mother of Shechem or the wives of the elders had disapproved of what he had done, we probably would have seen some mention of it, as the Bible makes a point of recording the virtuous actions of even the pagan, and even the lowly in station. Yet there is silence, and only the discussion of the men.

So what is the reward of the women who did not speak up to prevent or even behind the scenes discourage the abuse of Dinah? “Then the other sons of Jacob followed up the slaughter and sacked the city in reprisal for their sister Dinah’s defilement. They seized the flocks, herds and asses, whatever was in the city and in the country around. They carried off all their wealth, their women, and their children, and took for loot whatever was in the houses.” Thus the women, those who should have provided some moral compass (and trust me, the mother of the chieftain and wives of the town leaders did plenty of that) saw their husbands slaughtered, lost their homes, their tribe was destroyed, and they and their children were carried off by the sons of Jacob. Women who enable cruelty and defilement of other women, especially toward women who serve God, as did Dinah by virtue of her birth, will pay dearly at some point. And notice that women did not have the opportunity to convert in the sense that they were not circumcised as their victim husbands were. They lacked a grace that the men had to pay the hard way. Hopefully they became pious and raised good children within Jacob’s extended family, but we have no way of knowing today.

6. Jacob wimped out, while Simeon and Levy stood strong.

I am not saying this to be bloodthirsty. I am pointing this out so that one can see that even Biblical Patriarchs sometimes did not measure up to the situation they were faced with. With those lines of rebuke to Simeon and Levy, Jacob is showing his “politician” side rather than his maintenance of purity. He is worried that he and his people will be “hated,” even though his sons had just come from quite a victory. This is the constant balance that all humans have, whether they are secular or religious leaders. Where does one draw the line? If Jacob had taken the easy way out, such as letting the men convert via circumcision, and settling down in that area, intermarrying, leaving Dinah with Shechem, might he not have derailed what was his mission as “Israel?”

And in fact we do know that Simeon, Levy and the rest of the children of Jacob did the right thing, as recorded in the following chapter of this event, Genesis 35:1-5.

Bethel Revisited. God said to Jacob: “Go up now to Bethel. Settle there and build an altar there to the God who appeared to you while you were fleeing from your brother Esau.” So Jacob told his family and all the others who were with him: “Get rid of the foreign gods that you have among you; then purify yourselves and put on fresh clothes. We are now to go up to Bethel, and I will build an altar to the God who answered me in m hour of distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” They therefore handed over to Jacob all the foreign gods in their possession and also the rings they had in their ears. Then, as they set out, a terror from God fell upon the towns round about, so that no one pursued the sons of Jacob.

So you see that God did not rebuke the sons of Jacob, and not Jacob either. God simply confirmed that he would not have wanted Jacob to settle in that area, as his work lay elsewhere, and God would not have wanted the faith to be put at risk of dilution. This is why God orders Jacob to leave that area and return to Bethel and to build an altar to God, since that is where he must serve the next part of his mission to God. Further, God uses this as a purification opportunity because Jacob is fully aware that some among them had already picked up the use of pagan images and beliefs. Here is the footnote in the Catholic Bible Personal Study Edition:

Foreign gods: pagan images, including household idols that Jacob’s people brought with them from Paddan-aram. Rings: Earrings were often worn as amulets connected with pagan magic.

See, one reason that God kept the ancient Israelites moving is that as is human tendency, they would pick up idolatrous and other pagan worships and customs whenever they “settled down,” as their faith identity was still in the earliest days of formation and there were many temptations around them. In this light you can really see how Simeon, Levy and the other brothers were not being “bloodthirsty,” in the sense that many who do not understand accuse Biblical people of being, but they were maintaining the purity of their devotion to God, resisting as best they could the dilution of pagan influences. This is something, quite honestly, that the Israelites struggled with throughout their history, where even the great King Solomon fell because even as he spoke to God out of one side of his mouth, he married many pagan wives and built idolatrous pagan altars for them in his latter years. So this is why it is crucial that you read events, such as the rape of Dinah and the revenge of Jacob’s sons as much more than an example of “woman as chattel” and “those bloodthirsty times” where “God is so mean.” God let humans discern their way among these tricky and often brutal situations, and then led them toward the light.

Genesis 35: 9-15

On Jacob’s arrival from Paddan-aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him:

“You whose name is Jacob
Shall no longer be called Jacob,
But Israel shall be your name.”
Thus he was named Israel. God also said to him:
“I am God Almighty;
Be fruitful and multiply.
A nation, indeed an assembly of nations,
Shall stem from you,
And kings shall issue from your loins.
The land I once gave
To Abraham and Isaac
I now give to you;
And to your descendants after you
Will I give this land.”

Then God departed from him. On the site where God had spoken with him, Jacob set up a memorial stone, and upon it he made a libation and poured out oil. Jacob named the site Bethel, because God had spoken with him there.

It is during this journey, when they left Bethel and were on their way to Ephrath that Rachel gave birth to Benjamin and died. Also, while they were encamped in that area Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben, lay with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine. This is an important detail because as I’ve often pointed out in my blog, humans are humans and even in very sacred moments they do tend to do things such as this. I’ll discuss this more in future blogging about Jacob and his sons, but just to make one point. The Bible teaches by recording behavior details such as this that humans are multifaceted and complicated, and one cannot be hasty to judgment. If one stopped reading at this point, one might think, “Wow, the oldest son, Reuben is no good, since he slept with Jacob’s concubine.” But if you read the Bible a mere couple of pages later, you will see that it is Reuben who tries to save his brother Joseph’s life when the other brothers want to kill him because of jealousy of his God given dream interpretation skills. One just cannot leap to judgment about who is “moral” and following God’s plan and who is not.

And so Jacob and his family return home.

Genesis 35:27-29 Jacob went home to his father Isaac at Mamre, in Kiriath-arba [that is, Hebron], where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. The lifetime of Isaac was one hundred and eighty years; then he breathed his last. After a full life, he died as an old man and was taken to his kinsmen. His sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Here is another example, by the way, just in closing, of one of the patriarchs who lived an extraordinary number of years due to their sanctity and proximity to the Holy Spirit of God in their life, since that preserves them far beyond the measure of one hundred and twenty years.