Politics on Facebook
My Facebook news-feed is predictable. _______________ has posts with mocking pictures of President Obama, portraying him as a lying, corrupt, inept yet crafty leader who is destroying the country. _________________ has posts that show the Republicans to be greedy, uncaring, selfish, devilishly clever while at the same time stupid bumblers who are destroying the country.
What both groups of friends and the product of the partisan media machines they are promoting are clean narratives. Our enemies are evil, illogically both bumbling and crafty held back only by the moral clarity of our own positions and our willingness to give ourselves fully to them and convince our neighbors to side with us.
Clean Christian Religious Narratives
Christians are often justly caricatured as doing the same thing. In our religious tribalism we employ Bible stories in our desire for clean narratives making them about our good people against their bad people. Right people do good things and secure for themselves the promised reward. Evil people do evil things and receive their just deserts.
Clean religious narratives are so popular in service of religious tribalism because they are so easily used to justify specific religious behaviors, beliefs and commitments. They also offer the faithful enchanted quid-pro-quos by which these behaviors put God in our debt forcing Him to give us the rescue, security or prosperity we need.
Neither the practice nor the failures of this practice have been lost on the critics of Christianity. They sometimes follow Christians into assuming the Bible gives itself easily to these clean narratives. They also observe, with others, that the religious quid-pro-quos which follow these narratives seldom play out so cleanly in real life.
Clean, Christian religious narratives among Christians too often fuel doubt, despair and unbelief when they are either unable to fulfill the obligations of these clean narratives or do not receive the expected payoff of these narratives in their lives. Christian leaders and institutions who push these clean narratives lose credibility leading some to discard their faith all together.
Real Life is Muddled with Pain and Power
Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis remarks of the story of Dinah’s rape “This narrative will surely not be widely used in theological exposition.” and he is right. I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon on this text. Sermon givers and listeners like clean narratives. The text speaks of the kinds of situations that happen in the real world and the muddled ambiguities that arise. Like many stories on the Bible there are no clear good guys and bad guys in this story, nor is it clear what the righteous out to do if there are any available. The text frustrates anyone looking for cheap moralizing or fast religious application.
Living Amid Layers We Might Not See
The text opens with the only innocent person in the story, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, having recently moved into the area went out to see what the girls of the town were like.
This is no simple stroll to a suburban mall. Dinah’s innocent foray is fraught with risk. The language is of girls, daughters at play, but daughters are children of adults, adults who have place, status and consequence in the broader social web. She is the daughter of an immigrant, an alien in the land and when she leaves the protection of her clan she is vulnerable to other powers that inhabit the land. She goes meet the daughters of the land, children that have a status by virtue of their parents.
Taking and the Taken
The prince of the town, the son of the principal patriarch of the community saw her took her and raped her. It was an act of taking from a status of power. There will be a lot of taking in this story for evil and this is the first action.
Power and status were already introduced to the story by noting the paternal ties of the daughters. Now we note the father of the rapist compared to the status of the father of the victim. This is an act of power against the vulnerable, landed verse alien, male verses female, strong verses weak.
The Bible is hyperlinked and stories are intended to be heard amid other stories.
The reader of the story will remember young Jacob smitten by the beautiful Rachel. Jacob took only a kiss in that moment, and would work fourteen years to secure Rachel. Shechem takes far more from Dinah.
Jacob as a young man was rash and his rash words and actions were taken advantage of by Laban his uncle. How does this inform how he will respond to these events?
Jacob’s sons too will be sexual takers. Judah will take Tamar for sex as a prostitute when he is unwilling to serve her as a giver of children to replace the line of his own sons.
Shechem unlike David’s son Ammon does not despise the girl he rapes, but feels immediately attached to her and wants to keep her as his wife.
There is ambiguity in the story from all sides. There is no word here about what happens to Dinah after the rape. At the end of the story when we see her taken by her brothers back to their home. Dinah in this story has no voice. It seems Dinah was taken and kept and all of the negotiations are undertaken while she is presumably kept by Shechem.
After taking Dinah’s sexual innocence by force Shechem now moves to take her heart by romance. The rest of the story won’t touch on this. It will mostly touch on the male negotiations regarding possession of Dinah and the relationship between landed and alien.
While Shechem’s speech to Dinah is romance, his speech to his father is more taking. “Take for me the young woman as my wife”.
Notice how the daughter has become a “young woman” by the rape of this young prince. Adulthood in this world is marked by loss.
Notice how this young prince understands the ways of his father. First the prince takes with what is available to him and now he asks his father to take with the power available to him.
Jacob and Yhwh are Silent
Jacob receives the news of Dinah’s rape. Jacob has been an alien in fields before. He was alone in a field when God appeared to him at Bethel. He met his Rachel in a field and in the fields of Laban he paid for his wives and his flocks. Fields have been places of revelation, blessing and labor.
Now in the field with his sons he receives the news of this calamity. Jacob understands what it is to be powerless. He understands what it is to be a victim. When he hears of his daughter’s rape and capture he remains silent. He knows he is without status in this land. His relationships with his kin (Laban and Esau) who under normal circumstances would be the obvious allies against hostile forces are all strained. He has burned the bridges from which traditionally help would come. The LORD has been his only help, but where was the LORD when Shechem was taking Dinah?
The fathers of the daughters, and now the fathers of the sons meet. What began as innocent girls at play has led to clan leaders facing either treaty or war. Jacob and Hamor have struck deals before. Jacob purchased a field to pitch a tent and build an altar. In that case Jacob was coming as the petitioner looking for something. Now Hamor comes looking to deal for Jacob’s daughter, but in these circumstances.
Who is our hero? Jacob, master negotiator, heal grabber, deal twister, but one now renamed at Jabbok as one who wrestles with God and men. How has God changed Jacob? What are the consequences of Jacob’s way of life before?
Notice, Jacob will not speak until the end of the story. We would expect Jacob to lead, to lead in dealing with this family crisis, to lead his sons, to deal once again with a stronger foe, but Jacob is silent.
Jacob’s silence has been taken different ways by readers of the text. Some see him as abdicating responsibility. Others see him as being an older, more mature Jacob. The text lets us form our own conclusions and live within this muddled, ambiguous narrative, nothing clean about it. Why are commentators free to come to their own judgments about Jacob’s behavior? Because Yhwh is also silent in this story. We are left with Jacob to wonder at the value of God’s protective promise.
Why is Jacob silent? Is he waiting for Yhwh to speak?
The Taking Life
While Jacob is silent, his sons are sons of the younger sons of Isaac. They are angry. Their sister has been raped but their family group has been disgraced. They will not be silent.
While Jacob is silent, Hamor makes his appeal to “them”, not Jacob.
Hamor’s appeal is that they all become one family. He’s offering assimilation. Shechem says he’s in love, he’s shown us what he thinks love is. Hamor offers sons to marry Jacob’s daughters and allows Jacob’s sons to TAKE his daughters. Sons are for giving in marriage. Daughters are for taking. Hamor is inviting Israel into the taking life of Shechem.
Now we learn that Shechem himself has come forward, naturally sans Dinah. Hamor and Shechem must indeed feel confident in their military position. They do not fear for their lives before Jacob or his sons. We are invited to read the room as anyone there would. Hamor and Shechem have the power.
Shechem now pleads his own cause. He invites them to name the bride price, anything, just so that he might have Dinah as his wife.
While Jacob remains silent, the sons take up the negotiation, and they take it up as their father might have in his youth.
When you don’t have military power to stand against your foe, you must look for other ways. They now employ a religious vehicle to pursue their vengeful goal. Their religious obligations make them unable to simply assimilate into Hamor’s taking ways. If they wish to become one people the community of Hamor must take upon themselves Abraham’s covenant sign of the LORD’s promise.
What does it mean for Jacob’s sons to use the covenant sign deceitfully, as a manipulative tool by which to take violent revenge upon their enemies? This is something akin to drowning your enemy in the baptismal fount.
It’s also important to note that while Jacob’s sons feel free to use the covenant sign in this way, Hamor and his sons seem to likewise take this religious symbolism lightly. In the selling job that Hamor will do with the rest of the male population religious symbolism seems like a good exchange for access to the wealth of Jacob’s flocks. We are beginning to see that not much more than status and power separate the sons of Hamor from the sons of Jacob.
And again, in all of this, Jacob is silent, and so is Yhwh.
The Wrath of the Sons of Leah
The deal is cut and the men are sore. While they are made helpless by the covenant aspired self-inflicted wounds on the instrument of violence used against Dinah, Levi and Simeon take up not their penis but their swords.
They take the lives of the men of the city and then they take everything else the city had. At the taking of their sister Dinah, they have now taken all the flocks, all the daughters and all the women of the city as their own. Levi and Simeon seem to be effective heirs of Lamech but with a Jacob twist. Shechem had no justification for the taking of Dinah but his lust. Levi and Simeon now use Dinah to justify their taking of all the women of Hamor and Shechem.
This taking of the city of Shechem in some ways is connected to the taking of Jericho. Jericho likewise had “a prostitute” within her who is saved by Israel, but in that case Israel was not permitted to profit from divinely commanded razing of the city. This act is is not justice but revenge. There has been no “eye for an eye”, it was a city for one daughter. Levi and Simeon begin embracing the banner of victimhood, but conclude embracing the conqueror’s flag surrounded by the widows and orphans of the men they killed as their newfound slaves.
Now for the first time in the story Jacob speaks and it is of course not a happy word. What happy would could be found in this compounding tragedy?
Jacob understands this taking in the light of their larger vulnerability in the land. The slaughter of the men of Shechem and the enslavement of the women and orphans will be viewed by even the pagan Canaanites as an over-the-top response for the rape of one girl. The taking of Dinah, the weak among the strong is something that all would accept should not have happened, but this taking is not uncommon and there are established remedies for these unfortunate circumstances. The remedies which adults like Hamor and Jacob could negotiate, yet Jacob’s complaint against his sons does not mourn the violation of justice, just practicality. Jacob isn’t so concerned that they have done wrong, just that their wrong has made the family vulnerable. Jacob’s concern in that way isn’t really much different from Hamor’s as he sought out Jacob to resolve the rape of Dinah.
Simeon and Levi reply, and theirs too is self-justifying speech. “Should we treat our sister as a common prostitute?” It’s too convenient a question for the context.
Judah will quite literally treat a wronged daughter-in-law as common prostitute. Simeon and Levi will likely treat the wives of Shechem’s city as slaves and prostitutes.
Simeon and Levi’s question attempts to turn this atrocity into a clean narrative. The treatment of their sister justifies any slaughter of the enemy. As always, however, slaughter comes first, self-justifying speeches follow.
There is no response to their self-justifying question. Jacob is silent. Yhwh is silent. All that could be heard would be the cries of the widows and orphans of the community of Hamor and Shechem and the sounds of their plundered flocks.
The text is of course written years after the incidents and the place is simply known as Shechem. Places are named for the significant people and events that make them memorable. Shechem is named after a slaughtered rapist. Welcome to life on broken planet earth.
Chopping up the Bible in to clean chapters sometimes helps us shape our clean narratives. In this case the chapters do us a disservice.
This tragic story is bookended by two points of worship. Shechem is Jacob’s first place of dwelling in the promised land and his first purchase of property is made from Hamor. After Jacob purchased land he erected an altar and declared, as promised before at Bethel, that God would be the God of Israel. He both embraces God and his new name at the same time and memorializes the occasion with an altar.
Simeon and Levi will follow by memorializing their settlement in the land with the destruction of a Canaanite city. Again, pre-echoes of Jericho abound.
The clean narrative of Jacob’s conversion, of accepting God’s embrace crumbles before it starts. Jacob is to be a blessing to the world but at this point all he seems able to do is be a curse to those who curse him.
The story opens with Jacob at the altar professing God to be the God of Israel, the story closes with God telling him to leave. Jacob has become a stench to the land of Shechem, he must leave at once and abandon the land he purchased. He must go back to Bethel and build a new altar and start once again.
Why does Yhwh speak again to Jacob? Hasn’t Jacob and his family disqualified themselves from the blessing? Jacob has failed as a father. His family have outdone the inhabitants of the land in wickedness. Now, even after the miraculous rescues from Laban and Esau Jacob and family appear as faithless and mercenary as anyone else, yet Yhwh calls still.
Jacob Speaks Again
Yhwh’s voice seems to have roused something within Jacob. He professed that God was the God of Israel but we know that he’s been sheltering the idols of Laban and now Shechem. He rises up at this moment and commands his family to divest themselves of all other gods but Yhwh alone. They must have no other gods before Yhwh.
Andy Crouch in his lecture on power notes that idols are the result of human creativity misapplied to human vulnerability. Simeon and Levi (and Rachel and Leah and the rest of the family) have been living this way. Crouch also notes that the Biblical name for making false gods is idolatry, and the name for playing a false god is injustice and that is exactly where we have landed in the story.
Jacob now seeks to make a break from the past. The idols must go. The plunder must go (note the earrings). The whole family must now go to Bethel. They must have one God, one hope, one place to trust because the heal grabbing ways of Jacob has come to full flourishing in the city destroying deception of his sons.
Note, however, that Yhwh doesn’t command Jacob to divert himself of the idols, Jacob does this on his own. Why? Why is this important?
Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude
The emotional sequence of joy found in the Heidelberg Catechism is not always temporally sequential. Jacob’s command to divert his house of idols is an exhibition of gratitude seeking further deliverance.
We have drank fully of our misery in the story of Dinah and the slaughter of Shechem. We have been forced to fully face where our idols lead us. We have had to see that when we play at being a false god we do injustice with whatever power we possess. Jacob has had enough of misery.
Jacob has been camping in the deliverance mode lately. He recognized the deliverance God gave him from Laban. He recognized the deliverance God gave him from Esau. God has even delivered his family bitterly from Hamor but not by any good means. Jacob’s gratitude has expressed itself in formal worship, but now it needs to find expression in obedient devotion.
The burying the gods of Laban and Shechem is done fully and freely. The gods and the plunder they offered are now useless to Jacob. They are stench to him just as they have made Jacob a stench to the rest of the land. Jacob will have no more of it. Yhwh has now become his life and the idols are as worthless rags to be buried so that they can cause no one else to stumble.
Gratitude is the Only Safe, Clean Narrative
Have I just done what I began complaining about with this story?
When we began talking about this text we had to wonder why it was in the Bible. Many commentators in fact see it as disconnected from the rest of Jacob’s story. It is an unclean story in a book we use to mine clean religious stories from. The story repeatedly defies this scrubbing.
God wasn’t finished with Jacob at the Jabbok. God wasn’t finished with Jacob even with his deliverance from Laban and Esau. Jacob needs again to be delivered from himself.
The “clean” narratives we seek usually revolve around our moral or intellectual strength and superiority.
Our clean narratives are all about good people who are mentally or morally strong doing what’s right and saving the day by their mental or moral effort. These strong and moral people chastise and despise the morally and mentally inferior people around them who are endangering the land by destroying the common good. In the clean narrative the strong and moral people take up words or money or power or moral clarity to exorcise the morally inferior people or ideas from the land and by doing so save the land. We all know, however, that both sides consider themselves moral or just or entitled and in the process of struggle people and things are taken and the self-righteousness of both sides is strengthened.
In the self-identified community of the righteous and the strong moral obedience is motivated by duty. Idols must be put away because the commandment dictates this be done.
Yhwh could have commanded Jacob to divest his family of idols but does not. Jacob now divests himself of idols not out of his moral strength and leadership success, but out of his moral failure and leadership catastrophe. Jacob now divests himself of the idols because he is already free of them, not by moral courage, but by the now obvious truth learned by him through misery that they do him no earthly good.
The problem with the clean narratives of the strong and the moral is that we are truly neither. The narratives of the strong and the moral may motivate us to aspire to momentary obedience but when we fail them they will crush us.
Our clean narratives too often become idols themselves. They whisper to us that we will not surely die and they tempt to act like God which was exactly what Simeon and Levi do in this story, the results of which are too often injustice.
Jacob in this story of failure, his and others, instead embraces the misery of his status. He cannot make a way for himself in this land. He embraces the promise of Yhwh that met him at Bethel and now calls him back to Bethel. This God did not come to rescue the strong, but the weak. In that word of rescue amid the failure of Israel Jacob begins to act in obedient gratitude by divesting himself of his idols and the plunder of the violence of his sons.