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Tragedy at Shechem
Genesis Chapter 34, verses 1 through 4
Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and violated her. His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her. And Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as my wife.”
We like to think of the autumn years of a believer’s life as golden ones—basking in the love of a devoted family, seeing the blessed fruits of Christ-centered child training. The record of Jacob’s later years, however, is stained by a series of family tragedies, the first of which is recorded in chapter 34. In the hand of a gracious Father these tragedies were again a discipline for Jacob, reminding him of his former character as “heel-grabber,” leading him to pray to God to keep him from surrendering to his sinful nature and lapsing into his old ways.
If an estimated ten years had elapsed since Jacob had returned from Haran, his daughter Dinah may have been at least 16. Perhaps she was invited by one of her Canaanite friends to meet some Canaanite girls her age or to attend some Canaanite festival. During her visit she was raped by the son of the chief of the Hivites, a Canaanite tribe. The father, incidentally, was the man from whom Jacob had earlier purchased the piece of property on which he was living.
His son Shechem, who had grown up in a culture of sexual permissiveness and perversion, wasn’t able to distinguish love from lust. The Hebrew verb describes his act as an act of violence, of humiliating another person. Shechem viewed the sexual act as a conquest, which is understandable when we remember he was a heathen. It’s only God who can teach us that love is an unselfish emotion that seeks primarily the welfare of the beloved. “God so loved the world that he gave,” not “grabbed.”
Genesis Chapter 34, verses 5 through 7
When Jacob heard that his daughter Dinah had been defiled, his sons were in the fields with his livestock; so he kept quiet about it until they came home.
Then Shechem’s father Hamor went out to talk with Jacob. Now Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened. They were filled with grief and fury, because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done.
Perhaps Jacob first became aware that something had happened to Dinah when she didn’t return home that evening. It seems that since young Shechem had secured his father’s permission to marry Dinah he took her to his home. Jacob remained silent about the matter until his sons returned from the range with the cattle. Was it because of his age (probably well over a hundred by this time) that he decided to discuss the matter with Dinah’s brothers first, before taking decisive action? He would know, of course, that Leah’s other children would feel a special responsibility to stand up for the rights of their sister. Or was Jacob gradually relinquishing the leadership of the family to his sons? Would he have acted more decisively if it had been Rachel’s daughter instead of Leah’s who had been attacked? Jacob’s behavior leaves us with some unanswered questions.
The brothers’ initial reaction upon hearing what had happened to their sister strikes us as commendable. They were sad over what had happened, and they were angry. It is to their credit that they recognized Jacob as a patriarch and his family as very special to God. (By contrast, Esau had not shown that awareness when he entered a marital alliance with two Canaanite women.) “We are the covenant people,” the brothers seemed to be saying. “God has set us apart as the people of the promise. For Shechem to have violated a woman of the covenant family shows no respect for God’s great promise.” And they were right. God equated contempt for his special people with contempt for him.
Genesis Chapter 34, verses 8 through 12
But Hamor said to them, “My son Shechem has his heart set on your daughter. Please give her to him as his wife. Intermarry with us; give us your daughters and take our daughters for yourselves. You can settle among us; the land is open to you. Live in it, trade in it, and acquire property in it.”
Then Shechem said to Dinah’s father and brothers, “Let me find favor in your eyes, and I will give you whatever you ask. Make the price for the bride and the gift I am to bring as great as you like, and I’ll pay whatever you ask me. Only give me the girl as my wife.”
When Hamor, the tribal chief, came with his son to visit Jacob to try to arrange for the marriage, he could sense the brothers’ anger, so he made a very generous offer to try to pacify them. He knew, of course, that he was speaking to men who were aliens and who did not enjoy the same rights Canaanite citizens enjoyed. If Hamor’s offer was made sincerely (and in the light of verse 23 one must question that), he offered Jacob’s family privileges that resident aliens did not normally enjoy: the right to settle in the land, the right to intermarry with the Canaanites, the right to acquire property, and the right to transact business. These were major concessions the father was offering.
The would-be bridegroom entered the conversation at this point: “About the bride-price. Make it as high as you like, and I’ll pay it.” Shechem’s willingness to pay whatever price they would name for their sister had precisely the opposite effect on the brothers from what he had hoped. His offer to pay her price signaled to the brothers that he was treating their sister like a prostitute (verse 31).
Genesis Chapter 34, verses 13 though 17
Because their sister Dinah had been defiled, Jacob’s sons replied deceitfully as they spoke to Shechem and his father Hamor. They said to them, “We can’t do such a thing; we can’t give our sister to a man who is not circumcised. That would be a disgrace to us. 15We will give our consent to you on one condition only: that you become like us by circumcising all your males. Then we will give you our daughters and take your daughters for ourselves. We’ll settle among you and become one people with you. But if you will not agree to be circumcised, we’ll take our sister and go.”
“Jacob’s sons replied deceitfully.” They owed the truth to the people in whose land they were guests. Instead they pretended to be considering the marriage proposal, when in fact they had already decided in favor of revenge. The message they gave Shechem was this: “We’d be willing to give our sister to you in marriage except that it’s against our religion to give her to an uncircumcised man.”
By dragging the matter of circumcision into the conversation, the brothers were treating flippantly the special covenant sign God had given his people several generations earlier. Like applying water in Baptism and like eating bread and drinking wine in the Lord’s Supper, the act of circumcision had no special value in and of itself. God had given circumcision to his people as a seal of the righteousness that comes through faith. For the Shechemites to receive the badge of the covenant in their bodies without faith in Israel’s God would make a mockery of God’s covenant as well as of the covenant sign, and Jacob’s sons knew that. “But if you will not agree to be circumcised, we’ll come to your home, take our sister (by force, if necessary), and leave this area of the country, where we’ve been so humiliated.”
Genesis Chapter 34, verses 18 through 24
Their proposal seemed good to Hamor and his son Shechem. The young man, who was the most honored of all his father’s household, lost no time in doing what they said, because he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter. So Hamor and his son Shechem went to the gate of their city to speak to their fellow townsmen. “These men are friendly toward us,” they said. “Let them live in our land and trade in it: the land has plenty of room for them. We can marry their daughters and they can marry ours. But the men will consent to live with us as one people only on the condition that our males be circumcised, as they themselves are. Won’t their livestock, their property and all their other animals become ours? So let us give our consent to them, and they will settle among us.”
All the men who went out of the city gate agreed with Hamor and his son Shechem, and every male in the city was circumcised.
To agree to respect the religious scruples of Dinah’s family was really no big deal for these religiously indifferent Canaanites. Shechem had the operation performed on himself without delay.
Father and son next appeared in the gate of the city, the official meeting place where the city’s business was transacted, to try to persuade their fellow townsmen to agree to the demands of Dinah’s brothers. They offered
• “The members of Jacob’s family are peaceably inclined toward us.”
• “The land is big enough. There’s room for their family.”
• “They are very well-to-do, and if we let them transact business, we stand to benefit. Their wealth—large herds and flocks—will become ours. Submitting to their religious scruples is really a small price to pay for what we stand
It becomes clear that Jacob’s sons were not the only ones who were dealing deceitfully here. Hamor and Shechem were actually not offering the unusual privileges to Jacob’s family that they claimed to be offering. Instead they intended to swallow up this family, to incorporate them into their Canaanite society and ultimately gain possession of their flocks.
Their arguments persuaded the men of the town. Since Hamor was a tribal official and since his son was held in high respect, the townsmen consented to have themselves circumcised.
Genesis Chapter 34, verses 25 through 31
Three days later, while all of them were still in pain, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and attacked the unsuspecting city, killing every male. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword and took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left. The sons of Jacob came upon the dead bodies and looted the city where their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and donkeys and everything else of theirs in the city and out in the fields. They carried off all their wealth and all their women and children, taking as plunder everything in the houses.
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “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.”
But they replied, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”
Three days later the treachery of the brothers became apparent to all. While the Shechemites were incapacitated and unable to defend themselves, Simeon and Levi, two of Leah’s other children, full brothers of Dinah, took swords and killed the men of Shechem.
What had started out as righteous anger over a sexual attack on their sister degenerated into a bloodbath. And after the grim and bloody business was over, it seems the other sons of Jacob also indulged their sinful natures by
plundering the dead bodies and taking the women and children as slaves.
What a dreadful example for God’s people to set before the Canaanites! The brothers’ vengeance brought little honor to God and to his covenant and, indeed, may have hardened the Canaanites in their unbelief.
In view of that, it’s difficult to appreciate Jacob’s reaction. As he delivered a rebuke (a very mild one) to his sons, he spoke only of the consequences the family could now expect to receive from other Canaanite tribes. What Jacob owed his sons was the full rebuke of God’s law on their
bloodthirstiness, cruelty, and greed, but that he withheld.
In fairness two things should be added. When later on his deathbed Jacob spoke his parting words to his 12 sons, he expressed his horror to Simeon and Levi over the moral depravity of their deed and let them know what the consequences would be for them (Chapter 49, verses 5 through 7). And let it not be forgotten that Moses, the man through whom the Holy Spirit recorded this narrative, was himself a descendant of Levi. He surely did not hesitate to describe the sin of his ancestor in all of its ugliness and depravity.
In this chapter and in ones to follow the reader will note a lack of spirituality among the sons of Jacob, a spiritual insensitivity that does not bode well for the future. When people who call themselves God’s people fail to act like God’s salt, God’s yeast, what can be expected of the society in which they live?
Chapter 34 sounds remarkably contemporary. Like Jacob, you and I live not in a nice, neat world but in a disorderly world, a world in rebellion against God. We see evidence of this rebellion all about us. What is most distressing, however, is to see evidences of this rebellion among those who claim to be members of the family of God. In a world like this, a world with an easy conscience about sin, the church of God must rebuke sin and reaffirm that to abuse God’s grace is to invite God’s condemnation.
But that isn’t the whole story. This world is not only Satan’s playpen but the workshop of our God. In his Son, Jesus Christ, he met the problem of sin head-on. And through the message of his law, God is ceaselessly at work restraining the evil power within us that strives to dominate our hearts and lives. And through the message of his love, he assures us that even when we fall—through stubbornness or through weakness—he is able to overrule evil and force it to serve his good purpose. God will be glorified—whether in judgment or in mercy.
Covenant renewal at Bethel
Genesis Chapter 35, verses 1 through 5
Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”
So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. Then they set out, and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.
One would think that after the tension and trauma of his 20-year stay in Haran, Jacob would have headed straight for Bethel after meeting Esau. Bethel was that special place where the Lord had appeared to Jacob when he was fleeing from Esau and where God had assured him, “I will protect you, and I will bless you.” At that time Jacob had been so impressed by God’s goodness that he vowed, “Lord, if you bring me back to this land, I’ll establish a sanctuary here at Bethel.”
But what had happened since then? It’s difficult to escape the impression that Jacob had been dragging his feet. After saying good-bye to Esau, Jacob spent time at Succoth, east of the Jordan, enough time to build a house there. Then after a while, he moved across the Jordan to Shechem, purchased some land and lived there. It was at Shechem that the tragedy described in the previous chapter occurred. If we may judge from the age of Jacob’s children, it seems he spent something like ten years in Succoth and Shechem.
Why did he stay in the area around Shechem? Surely Jacob knew that his testimony to the true God had been blunted by the activities of his children. In that neighborhood Jacob’s usefulness to God must have been severely limited. Why hadn’t he returned to Bethel earlier to fulfill his vow?
We don’t know. It’s not likely he had forgotten his vow. It’s difficult to review the facts as the Bible reports them without seeing evidence of spiritual decline in Jacob.
Perhaps he realized that fulfilling his vow at Bethel would call for a pretty thorough religious reformation in his household. Perhaps Jacob’s delay stemmed from a misguided deference to his wives, who seem to have brought elements of pagan worship along with them from Haran (Chapter 31, verse 19). The Shechemite women who had joined Jacob’s household (Chapter 34, verse 29) may also have brought their paraphernalia of idolatry along.
Whatever Jacob’s reason was, God finally had to appear to him to remind him of the vow he had made. “Go up to Bethel . . . and build an altar there to God.” It wasn’t just that God was insisting on receiving payment of an overdue vow. Thirty years earlier, when Jacob had been running for his life and the Lord had appeared to reassure him, Jacob had been very conscious of the Lord’s great mercy and had vowed to remember that. Since his return to Canaan, however, his memory of God’s grace began to dim. He was taking it for granted. God did not want the record of his love and his promise to Abraham’s descendants to be lost to succeeding generations. He expected better things from the patriarch after whom the promised nation would be named.
In God’s call to him, Jacob heard a call to repentance. There was no way he could return to Bethel and establish a sanctuary to the true God while at the same time tolerating the worship of false gods in his own household. Jacob
therefore gave this order: “Get rid of the foreign gods!”
Those who had idols brought them to him, along with earrings that may have been charms for practicing superstition. Jacob disposed of them permanently. There are many things God will put up with in the human heart, but second place is not one of them. He has made that clear: “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols (Isaiah Chapter 42, verse 8).
The distance from Shechem to Bethel is only 20 miles, but the journey led through Canaanite territory. Since the news of the slaughter at Shechem (Chapter 34, verse 25) had spread and since the Canaanites vastly outnumbered
Jacob’s household, they would gladly have taken revenge for the slaughter of their Shechemite friends. God, therefore, miraculously protected Jacob. “The terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.”
Genesis Chapter 35, verses 6 through 15
Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.
Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Bethel. So it was named Allon Bacuth.
After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.” So he named him Israel.
And God said to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you.” Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him.
Jacob set up a stone pillar at the place where God had talked with him, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it. Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel.
Upon arriving at Bethel, Jacob fulfilled his vow. He found the stone that had been at his head during the solemn night when the Lord appeared to him, which he had upended the following morning to form a monument. That stone became the central stone in an altar Jacob built to God, to give public recognition to the great things God had done for him and his family and would continue to do.
A note is inserted here that Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried at Bethel. We take from this that her mistress, Rebekah, must have died earlier, perhaps while Jacob was still in Haran; after that Deborah apparently made her home with Jacob’s family. Martin Luther had this interesting comment about Deborah: “I imagine her to have been a wise and pious woman, whom the children in the family considered a sort of grandmother. She would have been of great service to Jacob, even giving him advice in time of danger or distress.”
As he had done 30 years earlier, God again appeared to Jacob at Bethel, for two important reasons. God felt it necessary, first, to confirm the name change from Jacob (“the heel-grabber”) to Israel (“the man who fought with
God and overcame”). Jacob’s new name had been dirtied, as it were, during the gory goings-on in Shechem. By failing to rebuke his sons and by ignoring the idolatry practiced in his own household, the patriarch had lapsed back into his old Jacob nature. “But you will no longer be called Jacob,” he now heard God say. That wasn’t his real nature. By restating and ratifying his new name, God was reaffirming the covenant relationship the patriarch had with him. He was announcing, “I have forgiven you.”
God had one more announcement to make at Bethel, and this one was intended not only for Jacob’s ears. He restated the promise he had made 30 years earlier to a lonely, frightened fugitive. Perhaps while the household of Jacob—including the 12 men who would head the tribes of Israel—was joining the patriarch in worship at the brand new altar, they heard the voice of the covenant God announcing: “A nation and a community of nations will come from you. . . . and I will give this land to your descendants after you.” God has always dealt with his people not primarily in terms of command and demand, but in terms of promise.
In addition to building the altar at Bethel, Jacob erected a stone monument to mark the place where God had twice invaded his life and spoken to him. He poured out a thank offering of wine on that monument, and by anointing it with oil, he consecrated the place as a permanent sanctuary, formally dedicated to the God who had appeared to him there. Just as the Lord had seen fit to ratify Jacob’s name change and to restate his great promise, so Jacob
now felt constrained to reaffirm, “This is indeed Bethel [‘the house of God’], where God has appeared in all his saving grace!” (The term El Bethel in verse 7 means “God of Bethel.”)
Genesis Chapter 35, verses 16 through 22
Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, “Don’t be afraid, for you have another son.” As she breathed her last—for she was dying —she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin.
So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.
Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.
Jacob’s business at Bethel was finished. Now that God had straightened out his thinking and adjusted his priorities, there was one thing on Jacob’s mind—to head south to Hebron to see his father, Isaac. And so he and his household set out on the road that runs along the crest of Canaan’s central ridge.
As they headed south out of Jerusalem toward Bethlehem, Rachel went into labor—difficult and painful labor. To encourage the mother-to-be, the midwife comforted her, “Don’t be afraid; you have another son.” Rachel knew, however,
that she would not live to enjoy her new son and named him Ben-Oni (“the son of my trouble, the son who will cost me my life”). After Rachel’s death, Jacob, unwilling to have his youngest son’s name forever remind him of the
sorrow that accompanied his birth, renamed him Benjamin (“son of my right hand”). Jacob buried Rachel along the road that they were traveling. The pillar he erected to mark her grave was still standing in Moses’ day. Today travelers on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem can still see the traditional site of Kever Rahel (“Rachel’s Tomb”).
There was heartache awaiting Jacob, however, that was even more painful than that caused by Rachel’s death. Reuben, his firstborn, slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine and the maid of Rachel, who had just died. The death of loved ones is something that, ever since the fall, we know we can expect. But Reuben’s behavior was totally unexpected. Besides indicating that he had turned his back on the godly training he had received from his father, besides being a calculated insult to his father (actually a form of incest), with his action Reuben presumed to serve notice that he, the oldest son, was expecting to take over the headship of the family after his father’s death.
At the time this news reached Jacob’s ears, he said nothing to Reuben. He would have something to say about it later, and what he would say would be shattering news for a man who expected to succeed his father as patriarch. When on his deathbed Jacob prophesied the future of his sons, he informed Reuben that with his crude and shameless act of disrespect he had forfeited his right to the privileges of the firstborn (Chapter 49, verse 4). The messianic line would instead pass to Judah, the fourth son (Chapter 49, verse 10). The double share normally received by the firstborn would be received by Joseph (1 Chronicles Chapter 5, verse 1).
Genesis Chapter 35, verses 23 through 29
Jacob had twelve sons:
The sons of Leah:
Reuben the firstborn of Jacob,
Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.
The sons of Rachel:
Joseph and Benjamin.
The sons of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah:
Dan and Naphtali.
The sons of Leah’s maidservant Zilpah:
Gad and Asher.
These were the sons of Jacob, who were born to him in Paddan Aram.
Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron), where Abraham and Isaac had stayed. Isaac lived a hundred and eighty years. Then he breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
When Jacob had left home to flee to Haran, he had been alone; his worldly goods consisted of a shepherd’s staff. What a difference 30 years had made! Moses lists what the blessing of God had made of this solitary traveler.
With the birth of Benjamin, the roster of the 12 tribal heads was complete. The descendants of these dozen men were the tribes that later made up the promised nation of Israel.
Jacob now established his home in Hebron and was able to spend about a dozen years with his father. Isaac died at the age of 180, the oldest of the three patriarchs. We’re told that Esau was present for his father’s funeral. Jacob had undoubtedly notified his brother in Edom when he noticed that their father’s end was drawing near.
The sons buried their father, Isaac, in the tomb at Machpelah, in Hebron (Chapter 49 verse 31), which Abraham had originally purchased. There Abraham had buried Sarah, there Isaac and Ishmael had buried Abraham, and there Isaac had buried Rebekah. Now Isaac’s body would lie there, to give testimony to later generations of Israelites: “I believe God’s promise that my descendants will one day inherit this land. I want my last earthly resting place to be the land I know my descendants will occupy.”
And so the eighth of Moses’ ten minihistories, the account of Isaac, comes to a close. Although not as dominant a character in the history of the Old Testament as his father, Abraham, Isaac expressed his faith in submitting to many trials. Now the son who succeeded him had returned home after years of wandering. God’s intended purpose for Isaac had been carried out.