Jacob and his ever-growing family had bought a field near the city of Shechem, and Jacob had begun to settle his family there for a season. I picture them setting up shop a bit like the Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie. Jacob had even gone so far as to erect an altar to the Lord there in the land near Shechem. So they were becoming semi-permanent in this neck of the woods. And therefore, one day young Dinah decided to go out and make friends with her new neighbors; to “visit the daughters of the land” (v.1). But, as she made her way through that neighboring town of Shechem, the young prince of that place (who was also named Shechem, either after an ancestor, or after his hometown) took a liking to her. In fact, the young man Shechem took such a liking to Dinah that he evidently cornered her in some secluded place and “lay with her by force” (v.2).
Now those words just roll off the page, for most of us, without any emotion. But just bring it into the 21st century, and place Dinah in your hometown … and giver her your last name. Imagine Dinah was your little sister, or your daughter, or your granddaughter, or your wife, or even your fellow church member. What kinds of thoughts would go through your mind? I’ll bet you might have a few moments (you men especially) where you, like Simeon (vv.18-24), wanted to emasculate the guy who did it. You might even think murderous thoughts, just like Simeon and his brother Levi (vv.25-31). I suppose that I might if something like this happened to one of my girls … or to any one of the other little girls in our church. But would it be right? Is revenge, in an instance like this one, right?
John Grisham movingly dealt with this question in his novel-turned-movie, A Time to Kill (set in Mississippi, by the way). Is it right to take justice into your own hands? Should that jury have freed Carl Lee? Our emotions often side with the dad who’s out to defend the honor of his little girl … and perhaps also with the brothers, in Genesis 34, out to defend the honor of their little sister. Our emotions side with a William Wallace who (at least in the movie) picks off the cruel English one-by-one for the way they had murdered his wife and pillaged his country.
But where do we draw the line? Well, since the law of our land does not permit honor killings and revenge motivated crimes (as much as we might sometimes understand the avenger’s motive and emotion) … we must draw the line where the law of the land draws it. But what about in our hearts? When is it right to pray, with David, that God would break our enemies’ teeth and shatter them against the rocks; and when does that kind of thinking (and potentially acting) go too far?
Well, Simeon is a good test case for us. His father was decidedly angry with his sons for what they had done (see 34.30 and 49.5-7). But why? Was he opposed to the death penalty in a case like that of his daughter’s? I doubt it. God would later implement the death penalty for cases of rape (see Deuteronomy 22.25-26).
Was he upset, more precisely, because his sons took the death penalty into their own hands? We don’t know. But there was, at the time, no civil government like we know today; no government official who might lay down the law in a case like this one. So I doubt that was Jacob’s primary qualm.
So why was Jacob so upset with his boys? Surely he was just as grieved about Dinah as his sons were … probably more so. But what he says to them, in Genesis 49.5-7 is instructive. He distances himself from their actions precisely because of their “cruelty”. It was not just that Simeon and Levi wanted justice … they wanted bloody revenge. And so they not only singled out Shechem for punishment … but his entire village. And they did not merely calmly execute their version of justice, but they deceived and humiliated the men whom they intended to kill before they actually did the killing. And then they looted the village and took captive all the widows and orphans whom they had just created.
So was Simeon a hero who honored his sister and fought to defend his family? Or was he a bloodthirsty animal, overgrown with cruelty and even greed? Was he a Braveheart, or a cruel soul? Clearly the latter. And he is, therefore, a proverb for us. Is there a place for the avenging of wrongdoing? Is there room to be angry when someone destroys or defiles another human being? Absolutely! We saw this recently in a sermon on Psalm 52. There’s not only a place for righteous anger, but a necessity. And yet we must “be angry and sin not” (Ephesians 4.26). We must not let righteous anger turn into bloodthirsty cruelty. We must not carry our desire for justice too far. And ultimately, we must allow our God to be the one to take matters into his hands. “Vengeance is Mine” says the Lord.
And thank God that, for those of us who, just as much as Shechem, deserve to die for our sins ... He has poured out that vengeance on the head of a willing scapegoat, the Lord Jesus.