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Angry and Indignant
Levi, Simeon & Jacob’s Sons as Moral Exemplars in Genesis 34
Please note, the story of Genesis 34 is a story of sexual violence and potentially upsetting to some readers. But there are other readers who don’t get upset at all about this kind of violent sin, and it is to them that I primarily write.
Simeon and Levi, along with the rest of their brothers, get a pretty bad rap from readers of Genesis 34. They are described as overzealous, vengeful, and bloodthirsty, and in an ironic twist, Jacob is described by many interpreters as prudent and wise. These assessments, in my judgment, do not follow from a close reading of the text in its original context. And with grave consequence: dispassionate inaction in the face of grave injustice is upheld as virtue.
It seems as if readers react to the story as an event and base their evaluations on the events in themselves. E.g.,
A man rapes a woman, and then the entire male population of their village are killed, and all of the women and children captured.
As an event, and absent considerations of literary context, authorial intent, original audience, yes, Jacob’s sons would appear guilty of gross injustice. (Please note, I am also overlooking egregious readings that believe Dina was seductive or responsible in any way; that’s a serious problem for another time).
However, we as 21st century readers are not responding to bare historical events. We have been given a carefully crafted narrative which was written down and delivered in a particular period in redemptive history. I take for granted that Moses wrote the stories of Genesis with the primary purpose of providing encouragement, support, and challenge for the people of Israel to follow Yahweh’s call to take possession of the land of Canaan. Within that context, certain elements of the narrative in Genesis 34 take on a different light:
First, Moses gives a divinely inspired evaluation of Schechem’s sexually assaulting Dinah: “because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done” (34:7). As is typical of Hebrew narrative, Moses usually does the “showing” rather than the “telling” in Genesis; the reader is left to infer moral judgments of the characters. When there are breaks in the normal pattern and a narrator slips in third-person evaluations, they stand out. Moses is helping his hearers/readers know how to read this particular story. This judgment in v. 7 is a clue that the reader should feel more sympathetic to Jacob’s sons than to Jacob (certainly not Shechem or Hamor).
Second, the reason why v. 7 is such a clue comes from the original audience. The people of Israel were given repeated commands and exhortations to avoid sexual relations and marriages with the peoples of Canaan, as well sexual violations of various kinds, including rape (cf Ex. 34:11-16; Deut. 7, 22:13-30). Based on those passages, the Israelites could have been expected to draw the inference for themselves that Moses spells out.
Third, the way in which Moses narrates the actions of Simeon and Levi is very intentional. He uses words and phrases that draw parallels between this story and God’s command for Israel to wage holy war. Consider these connections:
A. The people of Shechem are Hivites, and Moses has Jacob refer specifically to the Canaanites and the Perizzites, when he could have just said “the inhabitants of the land.” In Deut. 20:17 (one among many others), Moses instructs Israel to “devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded”.
B. Notice too that Jacob’s speech at the end in v. 30 sounds a lot like the fear Israel had and which Moses addressed in Deuteronomy 7:17-18, “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’ you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt.”
C. Plundering and killing the males with the sword have clear echoes in Numbers and Deuteronomy. For example, Deut. 20:13-14, “And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.”
These parallels are not accidental. Moses would rightly expect Israel to see that God had not sanctioned Simeon and Levi’s killing or the plundering that all of the brothers did, nor the way in which they abused the sign of the covenant. Nevertheless, the similarities surely speak to Israel’s calling from God to dispossess the wicked people of Canaan.
As such, although we should not condone the methods Simeon and Levi use in executing justice, I believe it is wrong to conclude, as some commentators do, that Jacob and Jacob’s sons were both “equidistant from true justice.”1 Rather, I concur with Joy Schroeder’s explanation of Luther’s view on this story:
“Luther felt that justice was carried out when Shechem and his people were killed by Dinah’s brothers...Though Luther believed that the sons of Jacob sinned by killing the Shechemites, nevertheless it was the “secret judgment and wrath of God” that permitted the massacre. Because of his belief that God can use the unjust to exact divine vengeance, Luther is able to hold together two apparently contradictory propositions, namely, that the brothers of Dinah acted unjustly by slaughtering the Shechemites, and that the Shechemites were justly punished.”2
We miss the point of this story if we read it and say no characters are worth imitating, as might be the case with, say, the birth of Jacob’s children in Genesis 29-30. The story of the rape of Dinah is really the story of the response of Jacob’s sons to that evil in light of the lack of response by Jacob himself.
Jacob’s sons were right to hate the evil which Shechem perpetrated, and they were right to desire justice for the harm Dinah endured. The fact that they went way overboard without seeking God’s guidance is, at least as framed by Moses, more due to the inaction of Jacob. First, Jacob settled in and made himself too comfortable with the pagan people (Gen. 33:17-20). Then he let his daughter, who was probably only 11 or 12, wander off without protection (Gen. 34:1). Then he remained silent in the face of heinous evil. After we learn in v. 5 that Jacob “held his peace”, his name is used 4x to designate the “sons of Jacob”, emphasizing that the sons acted because Jacob their father did not. When Jacob finally returns to the scene, we learn that his guiding light was “me, myself, and I” (notice the 7 first-person pronouns in v. 30).
This is a much more natural reading of Jacob’s speech in Genesis 34, contrary to commentators who awkwardly try to uphold Jacob’s virtue.3 But Jacob was really acting out of his character which, despite growth in grace, could still be incredibly self-centered.
Jacob’s sons were not so blinded by self-centered fear. Although they didn’t fear God enough to seek his council, they feared him enough to name Shechem’s evil for what it was. Calling things by their right name is, as Luther reminds us, the proper activity of gospel theologians.4 I would add that gospel theologians also image God in right emotional responses to injustice, such as we see in the Psalms and echoed in Romans 12:9, “Abhor what is evil.” In this respect, Jacob’s sons were actually closer to justice than Jacob.
Seen in this way, Genesis 34 teaches us that God’s people do 3 things when they are on mission:
They hate injustice (like Jacob’s sons hated the sexual violence of Shechem);
They fight for the purity and protection of God’s people (unlike Jacob passively avoided his duty); and
They submit their plans for justice to God’s revealed will (unlike Jacob’s sons who abused God’s covenant sign to enact vengeance).
Like Jacob, sometimes God’s appointed leaders can’t see past their self-interest long enough to have a properly strong and vengeful hatred of evil done to those in their care. When that happens, we need other Christian brothers to rise up and become “indignant and very angry” when “outrageous things” are done in the Church. If there was more righteous indignation and anger, perhaps we would see more justice for the vulnerable and oppressed. Yes, we need to be able to regulate our anger and examine it for sinful desires, but that is why Psalm 139:23-24 follows 139:19-22. When we submit our thoughts and ways to God, we can be led “in the way everlasting,” which includes hatred of evil. As Trevor Laurence put it, “One must love rightly in order to hate rightly, but there are times when one must hate truly in order to love fully.”
Quote from Psalm 139
 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!  They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain.  Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.  Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Recommended Reading , who is reviewing The Emotions of God by David Lamb and writes that “Anger at evil is good and righteous and works to end injustices. Anger is not in the fruit of the Spirit but perhaps it lurks behind them in some ways as a deep reaction to the manifestations of the flesh.”
Cursing with God: The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer, by Trevor Laurence.
What do you feel when you read Genesis 34:2? “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.” I ask this more for my male readers. If you can read that text with little to no emotional response (which I admit I’m also able to do), can you ask yourself, why? Could you pray Psalm 139:24 as a prayer of self-examination for the “grievous way” of a lack of proper hatred of evil?
Derek Kidner. Genesis. IVP Academic, 1967.
Joy A. Schroeder. “The Rape of Dinah: Luther’s Interpretation of a Biblical Narrative.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 28, no. 3, 1997, pp. 775–91. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2542991.
Calvin, for example, asked why Jacob was “not rather angry at [his sons’] cruelty?” and explained Jacob’s speech in v. 30 like this: “stricken at their recent crime, he suited miswords to their state of mind.” It’s not entirely clear to me, but it seems Calvin approves Jacob’s response as an indirect attempt at frightening his sons into repentance. Something like, “Me and all our family could have died! How could you be so thoughtless?”