Thursday 29 April 2010

The Stain of Sin (Genesis 34)

".. as they heard what had happened ... they were filled with grief and fury" (Genesis 34:7)

The Disgrace of Dinah

Genesis 34 is the account of the rape of Dinah, the teenage daughter of Jacob, also the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Of course, at this point of the biblical narrative, they were the twelve sons of Jacob. The verse above describes their outrage upon hearing what had happened to their sister.

Scholars argue whether the crime constituted rape. Shechem, son of Hamor, the tribal leader of that region in Canaan "saw her, took her, and violated her" (verse 3). This descriptive pairing of "seeing" and "taking" ought to be familiar to the reader of Genesis. We have encountered it at least a couple of times before - Eve "saw" that the fruit in the garden was good and desirable, so she "took" some to eat (Genesis 3:6). The sons of God "saw" that the daughters of man were attractive and "took" them as wives (Genesis 6:2). In each case, desire is followed by decision; impulse justifies intent.

Yet there are the circumstances of the encounter. Verse 1 could be translated - Dinah went out "to be seen" among the women. She was looking to be noticed. And then there is Shechem's subsequent pursuit of Dinah. "..His soul was drawn to (her)... He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her (literally - he spoke to her heart)" (verse 3). The young man doesn't merely display deep affection but also some measure of guilt for his actions. The situation is remarkably similar to modern instances of date rape.

Shechem sends - almost instructs - his father Hamor to acquire Dinah as his wife (verse 4). So Hamor approaches Jacob with the proposal - "Please give her to him to be his wife." (verse 8). But why stop there? "Make marriages with us. Give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves." (verse 9). In fact, think of the possibilities if we became neighbours, business partners - one big happy family! "You shall dwell with us, and the land shall be open to you. Dwell and trade in it, and get property in it" (verse 10).

Motivated by shame and anger, the sons of Jacob deceitfully agree to the Hamor's proposed arrangement; on one condition - that every male in the city be circumcised. Shechem at least was enthusiastic with the idea (!) - "And the young man did not delay to do the thing". Wow, talk about keen! Won over by the prospect of new economic wealth, the whole town joins in the fun by verse 24 - "and every male was circumcised".

The reason for the ruse is clear on the third day when Simeon and Levi, brothers of Dinah, exact their revenge on the entire town, killing every male - including Hamor and Shechem - carrying away their wives, children and livestock.

But by the end of the chapter, it becomes clear that the focus of the story is not on Shechem, though great is his sin, nor even Dinah, though great is her pain and humiliation. Notice that she never gets to say a word. In fact, except for the narrator, she is never even referred to by name.

No, Genesis wants us to see that reaction of Jacob and his sons. It is a remarkable picture the bible paints of how we commonly react to sin, injustice and pain.

The Stain of Sin

To see this, we must notice how peculiar sin is described in this passage. Dinah's rape is described not as a crime nor an act of wickedness, but as a "defilement" (verse 5). The brothers are incensed, yes, but moreover they express a deep sense of shame. Verse 7 say they were angry because Shechem had done an outrageous thing against Israel (which could either mean their people/nation, or more likely their father/family name - still, notice that it's never an offence against their sister). "Such a thing must not be done," they say.

"Defilement" conveys sense of impurity. Something clean that has been made unclean. It is a loaded word that is used regularly in temple worship. Someone who approaches a holy God must be ritually clean. To be defiled is to be stained - stained with sin. It is to be made unfit for the presence of God.

And part of the offence expressed by the sons of Jacob in verse 7 had to do not so much with the fact that their sister had been raped, but that she had been raped by a Canaanite; a non-Jew. Verse 14 reinforces this: giving Dinah in marriage to a foreigner would be a "disgrace". Circumcision was prescribed as the symbolic act of "cutting off" that which was unholy and defiled. Yet Simeon and Levi had a different idea of what needed "cutting off" - they cut down every male in the city in the effort of "redeeming" their sister. Their deep sense of shame and injustice could only be quenched by blood. They certainly couldn't depend on their father, Jacob. He didn't do or say anything. He just kept quiet when he first heard about Dinah (verse 5).

When Jacob finally did speak up it was right at the end, only to betray his selfish insecurities and hurt. "You have brought trouble to me... making me a stink to the inhabitants... my numbers are few... if they gather... against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household" (verse 30).

Jacob and his sons display two radically different approaches to dealing with sin and shame.

One approach is to bury it. That's Jacob. Things are bad, but they could get worse - especially with kids like his. Maybe that's why he kept quiet at first. Some people read this passage and blame him for being a bad father, but in his eyes he's just trying to keep the peace. There's no point going to war against the locals and after all, the offending party were trying to make amends.

Still, his own sons recognise the hypocrisy in dad and decide to take the matter into their own hands. That's the second approach. Anger. Make someone pay. Simeon and Levi are insulted. It's their sister that's been treated like a prostitute (verse 31) - notice they didn't say it was Jacob's daughter that had been wronged. They made it personal. It was their shame; it was their pain - to the point that they were blinded to their sister's pain (having just given her to Shechem as his wife, only to kill her husband three days later).

Two different approaches. And neither of them work. That's the problem with sin. We try to get rid of it, through our efforts and denial, but the stain's still there. It is always there.

Even at the point when Levi and Simeon are hacking away at the townspeople - you would imagine at this point they would have been satisfied! Their wrath quenched. The blood satisfying their thirst for revenge! Yet at this point the narrator paints a very different picture.

"The sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the city, because they had defiled their sister." (verse 27)

Isn't that curious? It's not just Shechem's sin that is in view. Verse 27 says, the whole town - they had been the source of "defilement". The whole city was stained as far as they were concerned. They were trying to deal with one sin, but then it got out of hand. They tried to scrub it off, but it's not just one tiny bit - it's never just one tiny bit - soon it's everywhere and affects everyone.

That's the picture of sin in this passage; that's the story with this family. One horrible sin that just sticks like a bad stain you can't get off not matter how hard you try. But worse, as you do, it just grows and grows. Rape leads to deception leads to murder. Irresponsibility leads to mistrust leads hate.

The Power of the Gospel

Now it is very tempting to conclude by simply pointing to God's justice. If only Simeon and Levi knew of a God who sees all and will judge all, they would not have acted the way they did. If only Jacob had feared such a God, he would have been quicker to recognise the injustice taken against his own daughter. And indeed, the bible does look forward to a time when God will raise the living and the dead to stand before him for all they have said and done both good and bad. Shechem will be there, together with Hamor, Dinah, even Jacob and his sons. In fact, you and I will also be there.

While there is some satisfaction in knowing God's justice will be done and seen to be done on that last day, the bible is much more focussed on a different day - a day 2000 years ago when God's righteousness was revealed. It was revealed at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-22).

For Christians, the certainty of justice lies not simply in the future hope that God will one day deal with all sin and wrongdoing in this world - but in the knowledge that our sins have already been judged through the death of Jesus on the cross. Believers are forgiven, freely and completely.

One of the most powerful images the bible uses to convey this reality of forgiveness and transformation is that of washing.

"But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Cor 6:11)

This verse is taken from a letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth (where he would go on to address sexual sin). It is powerful image isn't it? For so many - for those like Dinah - who might live with the reality of sin, the effects of sin - who try daily to deny the presence of their sin as a coping mechanism like Jacob; who try to resolve the shame of their sin through impulsive action and even more pervasive sinning like Simeon and Levi - isn't this something absolutely refreshing and yet mind-boggling? A gospel which says that in Jesus, God sees you are completely made clean. Not only that pure. More than that - holy! Even more amazingly - accepted and righteous.

Nothing you need to do, nothing you could do. Except trust in Jesus who takes your sin upon himself and receive his righteousness and life from the cross.

Isn't this glorious? That we are washed, sanctified and justified? To be loved and fully accepted by God. Friends, if you are in Jesus, that's exactly what you are.

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