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!!!

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