Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shechem and the Boys

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant spends about half of the book enlarging, expanding, and zooming in on the lives and histories of Jacob's family through the lens of Dinah, the daughter of Leah, mentioned first in verse 21 of chapter 30 in Genesis. As you read Diamant's book, it is important to remember that it is a work of fiction -- and I say that for two reasons. Fiction is a funny creature - it is ficticious, or made up, so in that way it is not a true story - it is not based entirely in fact. On the other hand, many truths are revealed in books of fiction. One can learn about forgiveness, redemption, loyalty, love, and character among many traits by reading and analyzing characters in a work of fiction.

Diamant takes many liberties with the biblical story of Dinah and invents true-to-life characters whose personalities and mannerisms are rarely and barely hinted at in the Bible. This is a good thing and a bad thing all at once. It is hard for me to imagine what these people might have been like, to remember that they were indeed human, with bodies and emotions and lots of time on their hands for eating, resting, working, etc. They weren't just begetting all the time, and books like The Red Tent remind me of that and help me to imagine life with Jacob's family. On the other hand, sometimes, when I read books like this, I need to be careful that I don't take that person's particular perspective as "the way it was" -- this is one person's interpretation which is influenced by her research, experience, and imagination.

--PLOT RUINER COMING UP: If you haven't read the book, you probably don't want to read any further yet--

So when we turn to the story of Dinah in the Bible and there's nothing said about Dinah's having been completely and utterly attracted to Shechem and instead, there's defilement, rape, and whoredom mentioned but nothing from Dinah's feelings, our self-evaluation of the text needs to come on (if you are the sort of person that is affected by books in this way). Is it possible that Dinah loved Shechem? Sure. Is it also possible that Dinah was raped? Yes. Beyond all of these questions, though, is the heart of the matter -- is it right to avenge rape by the massive slaughter of innocent people after having made an agreement to "right the wrong" that was done?

I don't need to go into details about what happened in Shechem, I'll just summarize. Refer to Genesis 34 for the full story. Hamor, Shechem's father, goes to Jacob and bargains for Dinah's hand in marriage. Jacob and his sons tell Hamor that he and his entire community have to be circumcised according to the custom of Jacob's family, and they agree. After all of the men in the city are circumcised and only two days into healing, Simeon and Levi sneak in to the city and kill Shechem, Hamor, and all of the men in the city, looting the houses and seizing flocks, taking the women and children. It's a horrible picture to imagine. Jacob scolds Simeon and Levi, saying, "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." In response, the boys say, "Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?"

I have been rolling this story over and over in my head the last few weeks. Why is this horrible, horrible account in the Bible? What are we to learn about our human nature by this story? And what do we learn about God through this account? The Bible is filled with stories like these -- passages where God's chosen people do horrendous acts, and sometimes, it's hard to tell what the ruling is on the thing. For me this is one of those times. Who is "right" in their actions here - Jacob, who condemns the boys for their actions in the town because it was a politically uncool move, or Simeon and Levi who wanted to avenge their sister?

I did a search on this and found a fascinating analysis of this text on the website of Bar-Ilan University, located in Ramat Gan, Israel. The site is a project posting lectures on the weekly readings from the Torah. Check this out:

Simeon and Levi were well aware that they were about to spill innocent blood but they found a justification and ... permissibility because of their desire to take revenge. It follows that all the commentators whom we cited raise the same astounding point: One cannot explain away the massacre with the simplistic claim that "Simeon and Levi were barbarians". Quite the contrary, they were religious, intelligent, and knowledgeable in the Torah. The lesson is that even such people are liable, by virtue of excuses ..., to sink to a level where they are capable of wiping out an entire city without sensing that they committed a moral crime of the worst order. (Italics mine)

Wow. Can you feel the weight of that? I am sitting here, considering all of the ways throughout history we have justified moral crimes by claiming them in the name of Jesus. My heart is heavy with it. And then I turn to my own self. "So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" says Paul to the church at Corinth. What have I done that was hateful, sinful, hurtful, in justification for some harm done to me? What laws and rules have I lassoed and claimed unforgiveable, worthy of my revenge? ("Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." Romans 12:19... which originates in Deuteronomy 32:35.)

A misunderstanding I had about the Bible for quite a while was that anything written in it - words and deeds - were given the stamp of approval by God. I hadn't read much of the Bible yet, but the parts I had heard were all good rules and guidelines for living, and I thought that's how the whole book was. I didn't read much in the Old Testament. People who know all of this better than I do can correct me if they think I'm wrong, but God does not condone the terrible actions of the characters in his book. They are there to show, first, the depravity of man as perhaps the what-not-to-do case and warnings for us, and also the unfailing love, patience, and mercy possessed by the God of the universe for his people. The saying, "the fact that God did not strike you dead right now is a miracle" is true - God's holiness and justice is married to his incomprehensible grace in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a miracle that Simeon and Levi were not struck dead on the spot. Thank God for his patience with us!

Jacob's boys, Simeon and Levi, don't really live this one down. At the end of Jacob's life, when the father bestows his final blessings on his descendants, he leaves the two with this haunting note: "Simeon and Levi are brothers -- their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel" (Genesis 49:5-7).

Let me not enter into their council, let me not join their assembly, Lord - I do not want to be raging furnace of anger and bitterness, ready to lash out and consume those with whom I come into contact. Keep me from making excuses for my inexcusable actions.

That's it for Dinah, by the way. After Shechem, there isn't another reference to Dinah in Genesis until the end, when the names of Jacob's sons are listed, and Dinah is included -- "These were the sons Leah bore him in Paddan Aran, besides Dinah his daughter..." It's a rare thing for a daughter to show up in genealogy. I think Dinah's story is an essential one, and there is so much more to say or think about with it, but that's where I'll end for now.

Thank God for his mercy and everlasting love and patience!!!

Rachel, Rachel...

Before diving in to the astounding account of the slaughter at Shechem, I want to take a minute to look at the remarkable interactions between Rachel and Leah. I spent a while last time thinking about Leah, feeling for Leah in the situation with Jacob. But I'd like to take a few minutes and consider Rachel. Both women wanted something -- Leah: Jacob's love, and Rachel: children -- and both seem to have been deprived of their desires, at least for a time. Rachel is jealous of her sister's fruitfulness, and Leah is likely jealous of the love that Jacob has for Rachel over her.

Let's consider this childbearing thing a minute: in Genesis 29:31, God's response to the situation is this: "When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren." By the way, "not loved" in the NIV is "hated" in the KJV, and the Strong's concordance goes so far as to say the word was used of one's enemies. Ouch. But enough of Leah for now -- let's compare 29:31 with 30:1 - "When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, 'Give me children or I'll die!'"

I like the way both of these sentences begin similarly: When the LORD saw and When Rachel saw. Isn't is interesting what follows? When God saw what was going on, he opened up Leah's womb. When Rachel saw what was going on, she devised a plan to get what she wanted. She didn't ask God to open her womb. Out of Rachel's jealousy, a plan was made to get Rachel children. This isn't an uncommon practice in the OT - Sarah gave Abraham Hagar, too, and you can go back and see how well that worked out for her! Rachel names her first son by Bilhah "Dan," which means "he has vindicated" -- he has judged her and heard her. The second son by Bilhah is "Naphtali" and about his name, Rachel says, "I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won."

Isn't it fascinating how children and childbearing are used to gain favor? Leah is battling through babies for her husband's love, and Rachel is battling through babies to one-up her sister. Neither woman seems to appreciate what she has.

We are jealous, envious, covetous creatures. Gimme gimme gimme!

Can you see and relate to the journey these women are on? As I mentioned previously through "Leah Considers Mercy," just by the names that Leah gives her children you can see growth; you can see her turning her eyes and her heart from the desire to be loved by her husband to the desire to praise God and live in his blessings. "This time, I will praise the LORD," says Leah in Gen. 29:35. And then she stopped having children.

I wish that was it with Leah. I wish she "learned her lesson" or was able to live in that place of acceptance, feeling that mercy, but once Rachel's maidservant starts having babies and Leah stops, the rivalry on Leah's side kicks into full swing. If Rachel's maidservant can have babies, so can Leah's! Zilpah, go on in with my husband, I want to irritate my sister!

What commences is this family battle to see who can have more babies. One thing I appreciated about The Red Tent was the space between children -- I could feel it a little more. The Bible does not go to great lengths to fill in gaps - it just skips the gaps entirely. Then this one was born, then this one was born, then this one was born... it's crazy! Ah, but there are months, years, that pass, and boy, aren't those months and years long when you are trying to conceive.

Which is where we find Rachel in verse 22, "Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb." Can you imagine your sister bearing six children of her own and all that time, nothing. Even if Leah had those babies one after the other, the least amount of time from first to sixth born is five years. Have you known Rachel's impatience, her grief, her envy, her longing, her despair? In those months and years of longing for the desires of your heart, it feels as if God has forgotten you. So much can be accomplished in the waiting, as painful, confusing, and disappointing as it may be. The Lord is doing a work in that time -- for we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Romans 5:3-5).

Those verses from Romans do not necessarily mean that by our suffering, persevering, and character developing that we will get what we wanted at the start. To be remembered by God might not look the way that we had originally planned. Earlier in Romans 5, we are rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God. It isn't the hope for the specifics of our circumstances that is the end result but rather the glorification of God through our circumstances (! - Do you think that's what it is?? I just typed it. I think so, but I'm kind of shocked by it myself!).

I've gone on a long tangent, but before I try to swing it back around, there are two cross-references in my Bible for this verse that I found interesting. The first is Genesis 19:29 in which God remembered Abraham and brought Lot out of the catastrophe that was Sodom and Gomorrah. "God remembered" and seems to extend mercy to Abraham by delivering Lot from the devastation of that city. The second is in 1 Samuel 1:19, "Early the next morning they arose and worshiped the LORD and then went back to their home in Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her." These two scenarios both feature God extending mercy and compassion to the faithful - Abraham in the first and Hannah in the second. The Bible doesn't say anything about what changed in Rachel, or if anything changed in Rachel, but consider this: Rachel had tried to gain boys through her maidservant and then she bargained with Leah over some mandrakes, which was a popular root intended to increase fertility. In spite of her own efforts, Leah had two more sons and then a daughter, named Dinah, and still Rachel bore no children. That's at least two and a half years from mandrake-trade to the birth of Dinah.

When you have tried everything humanly possible to conceive, or to get a job, or to find a spouse, or whatever it is you desire so strongly, and failed to achieve the end results, there are several things that I think happen: we become resigned to our situation. We give in. This can be a positive or a negative thing -- if we are aligning ourselves with God, we succumb to his will in our lives, whatever that may be, and quit trying to force our own ideas or aspirations to occur. If we aren't centered in that way, maybe instead of giving in to God, we just give up. Instead of finding the roadmap of suffering --> perseverance/patience --> character/(a specimen of tried worth) --> hope, our roadmap looks more like suffering --> resignation --> failure --> despair. Hope is the expectation of good. Despair is to be utterly at loss. We just don't know what to do. We're empty. What a contrast!

All of that to say I think that the cross-references to Hannah and Abraham are a hint that maybe God extended mercy to Rachel because she had made the long, arduous journey down the road of suffering and landed in hope. I can be even more confident of this when I read what Rachel named her firstborn son, Joseph, which means "may he add," to which she says, "May the Lord add to me another son." After all that time, all that waiting, do you take her statement as greed or audacious hope? I could be wrong, but I'm gonna go with audacious hope, and give Rachel the benefit of the doubt, Rachel, who is prophesied to weep for her children in Jeremiah 31:15 and referenced again in Matthew 2:18 after the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem. (I had never read the Jeremiah passage, but I highly recommend taking a look at it - Jer. 31:15-20.) Rachel, to whom God says in Jeremiah, "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded... They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future... Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight?..." Ephraim is Rachel's grandson by way of Joseph. Audacious hope extends far beyond our immediate circumstances. Audacious hope is for God's glory.

Whew! Anyone make it through all of that?? ;) I am almost afraid to go back and read what I just wrote for fear it makes absolutely no sense. And I still haven't talked about Shechem! Next post! Watch out - I'm on a Bible-study marathon tonight.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Red Tent: Jacob and His Wives

I was fascinated by the way that Anita Diamant describes the relationship between Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. It was entirely unlike what I'd imagined taking place between them, so I'm looking forward to discussing your reactions to Diamant's account.

The biblical account of Jacob meeting Rachel and Leah begins in Genesis 29 with Jacob's arrival in Haran. He meets several shepherds by a well and then meets Rachel, Laban's daughter, who is a shepherdess. Jacob had been sent by his father, Isaac, to Laban's house in order to take a wife from their people rather than from the Canaanites. When Jacob met Rachel, he "kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. He had told Rachel that he was a relativ of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father" (Gen. 29:12).

After a month of staying with and working for Laban, Laban asked Jacob what his wages should be for working for him. Here is the first mention of Leah: "Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, 'I'll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.'... So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her" (Gen. 29: 16-18, 20). The Strong's concordance for "weak" in relation to Leah's eyes comes up as "tender, delicate." I've wondered about the comparison here - the juxtaposition of Leah and Rachel is meant to contrast Rachel's beauty with Leah's "weak eyes" -- my impression has always been that Leah wasn't particularly unattractive, but she dimmed in comparison to Rachel's beauty. What do you think of this verse?

The seven years pass, and Jacob goes to Laban to claim his bride. "But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her... When morning came, there was Leah!" What!?! These few verses in Scripture have always puzzled me -- really, Jacob didn't know that it wasn't Rachel in his tent? It's hard to imagine that this sort of scheme could've been executed without protest from Leah OR Jacob. Anita Diamant reimagines the story and adds in her own version of the festivities, which humanizes the whole scenario for me, except that she veers so far away from the biblical account.

Regardless, here we are with Jacob and an undesired wife. He protests this union with Laban, who says that it is not their custom to marry off the younger daughter before the eldest, but what the heck, work for me for another seven years and I'll give you Rachel, too. To be fair, you can finish out the marriage week with Leah and then take Rachel as your bride, too. The week with Leah ends, and then, "Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah" (Gen. 29:30).

I've tried to imagine what it must have been like to be the unloved wife of Jacob. I think back to junior high and high school, times when I had a crush on the same boy as one of my friends and that friend ended up dating him instead of me, and how sad/jealous/miserable/envious/angry that kind of passive or active rejection made me. And that was only in the days of dating -- how much worse when it happens in marriage. Perhaps the modern-day equivalent of the polygamous marriage is, at the extreme, extramarital affairs, and to a lesser degree yet still harmful, pornography's impact on a relationship. These kinds of distractions and intrusions into the intimacy of marriage destroy a woman's sense of security and sense of self. Oh, Leah.

God's mercy and compassion for Leah is demonstrated in the final verses of Genesis 29, beginning with verse 31, "When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren." In order to imagine what Leah experienced during these years, I wrote a poem that incorporates the assumed meanings of the Hebrew names of her first four sons', Reuben -- "he has seen my misery", Simeon -- "one who hears", Levi -- "attached", and Judah -- "praise".

Leah Considers Mercy
“When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved,
he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.”
- Genesis 29:31

On my knees in the dirt, I begged, Lord
I want to feel his kiss
hear whispers from his lips
but to my sister in law, sister of my blood
he cries, How beautiful you are, my lovely!
Not to me, not from him…
and then one came.
I named him Reuben: He has seen my misery.

I can feel the rolling hills raise up their crops,
tickle lambs’ feet—
years are grains of wheat,
harvests bountifully hollow, fall, frost.
Reuben crawls across the floor, his daddy’s
boy, but the door clicks shut.
I am not loved. The cord is cut
and Simeon: one who hears makes two for mercy.

What does she have, fairer skin? But not two sons
with wild hair, chasing
their father after dinner, waiting
under woolen blankets, sucking thumbs.
Not empty shadows, cold pillows, heavy silence.
My lover is hers—he browses
among lilies—I am not his.
I finger fields of dandelions: this strange abundance.

Reuben and Simeon dart out of the kitchen, call Dad!
when the door opens.
His hands hold them close.
Bread and wine on the table, I’m roasting lamb—
so hungry—eyes water, mouth dry, stomach grows.
Dinner’s ready and I’m famished
but it’s time, Levi: attached.
Three of him and me. Now he will hold me close.

Just like their shepherd father, my boys grow
tall and handsome.
On the run, Reuben
picks daffodils—it is spring and the meadow
is filled with yellow. This afternoon, Simeon drew
a stick woman smiling
and Levi is piling
blocks outside the house. I thought we were through,

but I have a fourth one now. He is here,
suckling at my breast.
For now we are at rest,
just him and me. Jacob, Rachel, and the boys peer
in, wait to see the son who has my eyes
and all his Father’s glory.
I know he’ll have a story
but it’s enough to hear him breathe. I name him Judah: praise.