Tragedy at Shechem

Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they digged down a wall. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.—Genesis 49:5-7

Verse by verse study in Genesis 34

Because Jewish genealogies followed the male line of descent, the female children of a family were often not recorded. The mention of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, is an exception to this rule and does not imply that Jacob did not have other daughters by either of his wives or their handmaids.

The narrative itself is a rather unseemly one. It is a tale of intrigue and violence that does no credit to the house of Jacob. Our theme text may be suggestive of the thought that the account was inserted to explain the omission of land inheritance to the tribes of Simeon and Levi.

Illegitimate Love—Verses 1 through 4

And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her. And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel. And Shechem spake unto his father Hamor, saying, Get me this damsel to wife.

Leah, the mother of Dinah, gave birth to her after producing her sixth son, Zebulon (Genesis 30:20,21). She was probably between 13 and 16 at the time of this incident. Jacob and his family had been living in the area of Shechem for some eleven years by this time. Although the command to be separate from the nations around them was not given until the days of Moses (1 Kings 8:53), nevertheless the command of circumcision (Genesis 17:11) implied this restriction.

The Hivites were of Cannanite descent (Genesis 10:17), and therefore one of the nations which were to be driven from the land. Though they were not listed among the ten tribes to be dispossessed by Israel in Genesis 15:19-21, the fact that they were from Canaan implied their inclusion in this list. In any case, they are mentioned in the list of tribes to be conquered west of the Jordan river (Joshua 3:10).

It should be noted that Shechem did not seek out Dinah. She went, of her own volition, from the family compound out to view "the daughters of the land." Josephus writes, "Now as the Shechemites were keeping a festival Dinah, who was the only daughter of Jacob, went into the city to see the finery of the women of that country" (Ant., 1, 21, 1). If true, the implication is that Dinah wanted to observe, and probably copy, the custom of her neighbors. This is a lesson for all true followers of God. Any attempt to observe and perhaps copy the customs of the land leads the true Christian into danger. "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" (Romans 12:2). Samuel Butler has phrased it well, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, but the unreasonable man tries to adapt the world to him—therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man."

Although Shechem greatly erred in his sexual advances on Dinah, the narrative indicates that he developed a true affection for her. He shows honorable intentions in desiring to form a true marriage with her. God’s law forbidding marriages with Gentiles had not yet been given and, as far as we know, her twelve brothers married Gentile wives as well. The Hebrew verb translated "clave" is the same used in Genesis 2:24, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." It describes that true relationship which a husband and wife should properly feel for each other, desiring to be united to each other spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.

Reactions—Verses 5 through 7

And Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter: now his sons were with his cattle in the field: and Jacob held his peace until they were come. And Hamor the father of Shechem went out unto Jacob to commune with him. And the sons of Jacob came out of the field when they heard it: and the men were grieved, and they were very wroth, because he had wrought folly in Israel in lying with Jacob’s daughter; which thing ought not to be done.

There is a marked contrast between Jacob’s reaction and that of his sons. While their grief found vent in anger, Jacob held his peace. Maturity has the patience to consider a matter well before rashly planning revenge in a fit of anger.

The mention of "the sons of Jacob" without singling out Simeon and Levi suggests that all of the sons, or at least the majority of them, were involved with the plot for vengeance. In asimilar vein, we find all of the brothers plotting against Joseph, though there were voices, such as Reuben’s, which argued for restraint. Joseph’s later choice of Simeon (Genesis 42:24) to be the one held prisoner suggests that he might have been the ringleader in the plot to kill Joseph (Genesis 37:20).

An interesting sidelight is that verse 7 is the first biblical reference to Israel as the nameof a tribe, rather than just a personal name for Jacob. It indicates that it was only afew years after Jacob was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28) that the newly-acquired name was taken as the tribal title. This also indicates that the brothers did not take the rape of Dinah as a personal sin against her, but one against the entire tribe.

The Marriage Proposal—Verses 8 to 12

And Hamor communed with them, saying, The soul of my son Shechem longeth for your daughter: I pray you give her him to wife. And make ye marriages with us, and give your daughters unto us, and take our daughters unto you. And ye shall dwell with us: and the land shall be before you; dwell and trade ye therein, and get you possessions therein. And Shechem said unto her father and unto her brethren, Let me find grace in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me I will give. Ask me never so much dowry and gift, and I will give according as ye shall say unto me: but give me the damsel to wife.

Following the custom of that time, Hamor, the father of Shechem, sought to arrange the marriage. However, breaking with custom, Hamor makes the proposition to Dinah’s brothers instead of to Jacob, her father. This is in marked contrast with verse six where he confesses the transgression of his son directly to Jacob. It was this decision that led to the tragedy which would follow. Anger, even righteous indignation, forms a poor base for rational decisions to reconcile crises.

Hamor’s proposition contained five enticements: 1) intermingling of the two tribes through marital alliances; 2) a treaty of peaceful co-existence; 3) mutual trade agreements; 4) rights of land possession in his territory; and 5) a dowry of the amount to be set by Dinah’s family.

Peaceful co-existence was already a reality and had been for many years. The city of Shechem was Abraham’s first dwelling place in Canaan (Genesis 12:6). Jacob had probably lived here for nearly eleven years before the incident with Dinah. There is no indication of animosity between the two clans. Rights of ownership were also a reality. Jacob had already purchased a plot of ground from Hamor for his homestead and erected an altar dedicated to "El-elohe-israel," meaning The Lord, the God of Israel (Genesis 33:19,20). There is no conflict between this text and that in Acts 7:16 which states that it was Abraham who made the purchase. In that New Testament text, the name Abraham is used, as is that of Hamor, in an idiomatic sense, meaning the clan or tribe, of Abraham and Hamor (United Bible Societies Handbook on Acts 7:16). The recognition of the validity of this purchase is attested by the fact that it is uncontested hundreds of years later when the bones of Joseph are laid to rest in a tomb at this site (Joshua 24:32).

Mutual trade agreements were a rich incentive. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has this to say about the location of the city of Shechem: "It lay in the pass which cuts through Mts. Ephraim, Ebal and Gerizim, guarding it on the North and South respectively. Along this line runs the great road which from time immemorial has formed the easiest and the quickest means of communication between the East of the Jordan and the sea. It must have been a place of strength from antiquity." It must have therefore been an important stop for the great trade caravans between the Orient and both the Mediterranean seaports and prosperous Egypt.

The Hebrew words mohar (Strong’s 4119, dowry) and mattah (Strong’s 4976, gift) are distinct. The gift was given to the bride while the dowry was given to the family. The dowry may have been related to the later custom to purchase wives (Exodus 22:16,17). In any case, the offer of Hamor was without limitation and to be determined by the family. He was not bargaining for the lowest price.

A Deceitful Answer—Verses 13 through 17

And the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor his father deceitfully, and said, because he had defiled Dinah their sister: And they said unto them, We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one that is uncircumcised; for that were a reproach unto us: But in this will we consent unto you: If ye will be as we be, that every male of you be circumcised; Then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people. But if ye will not hearken unto us, to be circumcised; then will we take our daughter, and we will be gone.

As a personal decision, circumcision may have been merely a hygienic process; but as a required rite, it was a token of covenant relationship with God (Genesis 17:10,11). A resident alien in Israel was circumcised and thus received the benefits of Hebrew citizenship (Exodus 12:48). Circumcision was practiced in Egypt before it became a Jewish ritual (Microsoft Toolworks Encyclopedia). "Apparently circumcision in the case of the Hebrews was prohibited during the Egyptian period—circumcision being a distinctive mark of the ruling race" (International Standard Bible Encyclo-pedia). However, in the Bible it is treated in the Hebrew sense of a covenant relationship with God. In this narrative the requirement for circumcision was a tactic of deception to place the dwellers of Shechem in a weakened physical condition and thus easier to conquer in battle.

The insistence on the outward symbol of circumcision finds an analogy in the New Testament where the Judaizers in the newly-founded Christian church insisted on circumcision as a pre-condition for acceptance of the Gentiles into their midst. As forced circumcision weak-ened the Shechemites, so forced circumcision spiritually weakened the faith of the Gentiles in the early church, placing outward form above true conversion and circumcision of the heart.

The threat of the brothers to remove themselves from the land if the situation was not resolved, proved to be a true threat, for in the beginning of the next chapter we see God directing the family to move from Shechem to the area of Bethel, some 19 miles to the south.

Acceptance of the Terms—Verses 18 to 23

And their words pleased Hamor, and Shechem Hamor’s son. And the young man deferred not to do the thing, because he had delight in Jacob’s daughter: and he was more honorable than all the house of his father. And Hamor and Shechem his son came unto the gate of their city, and communed with the men of their city, saying, These men are peaceable with us; therefore let them dwell in the land, and trade therein; for the land, behold, it is large enough for them; let us take their daughters to us for wives, and let us give them our daughters. Only herein will the men consent unto us for to dwell with us, to be one people, if every male among us be circumcised, as they are circumcised. Shall not their cattle and their substance and every beast of theirs be ours? only let us consent unto them, and they will dwell with us.

The terms are acceptable to Shechem because "he was more honorable than all the house of his father." Now the problem remained to convince his clan members to accept these terms. He summons the men to the gate, where city decisions were made, and suggests four distinct advantages to the alliance. First, there would be a pact of peace between the traders of Shechem and the herdsman of Israel; second, it would assure a profitable trade arrangement; third, it would provide a larger pool for the selection of marital mates; and, finally, he suggests that in time the trade arrangements would cause the resources of Israel to fall into the hands of the Shechemites.

While the final bait was debatable, such an offer would make it more palatable for the male residents of the city to submit to the painful rites of adult circumcision. The argument is reminiscent of the one Haman made to King Ahasuerus in order to secure permission to kill all the Jews. After listing his logical arguments, he offers the prospect of financial enrichment. "If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries" (Esther 3:9).

Few temptations are as powerful as financial ones. One of the strongest desires of mankind is the feeling of security and power which comes from the possession of great wealth. Christians face this in the temptations to involve themselves with the affairs of business more than inthe affairs of God. Yet Jesus’ advice was simple and to the point, "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). Truly, "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10, ASV).

Treachery—Verses 24 to 29

And unto Hamor and unto Shechem his son hearkened all that went out of the gate of his city; and every male was circumcised, all that went out of the gate of his city. And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males. And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went out. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister. They took their sheep, and their oxen, and their asses, and that which was in the city, and that which was in the field, And all their wealth, and all their little ones, and their wives took they captive, and spoiled even all that was in the house.

The arguments of Hamor and Shechem were persuasive. The adult males consented to circumcision. Authorities state that adult circumcision leaves one in a weakened condition for up to three months, but that the fever tends to top out on the third day. Whereas the other brothers of Dinah seemed content to live with the agreement, Simeon and Levi took advantage of the weakened condition of the city and slew Hamor and Shechem. It should be noted that, as in the case of Joseph, Reuben, the first-born son of Leah, was not a ringleader in the crime.

After all the males were killed, the other sons of Jacob joined in the looting that followed. Even though they may have held back from the slaughter, greed compelled them to take advantage of the situation and reap the rewards of victory.

The fact that Dinah was found in the house of Shechem implies that the agreement to the pact of circumcision was considered as a formal acceptance of the marriage. Oriental custom considers a marital contract to be binding from the time of engagement, though cohabi-tation was to await the final marriage ceremony.

The Aftermath—Verses 30 and 31

And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, Ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with an harlot?

Jacob recognized the deed as shame-worthy. The Ca-naanites, as relatives of the slain Hivites, and the Perizzites, as neighbors, might well seek revenge as well as feel justified in considering the Israelites as potential threats to their well-being. Therefore a direct result of the tragedy at Shechem was the relocating of Jacob’s family to Bethel (Genesis 35:1).

The two brothers, Simeon and Levi, were unrepentant. They maintained their contention that the slaughter was for the maintenance of the family honor.

Jacob, however, never forgot the incident and he penalized these two sons in his dying blessing of his children by depriving them of an inheritance in the promised land. "Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they digged down a wall. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel" (Genesis 49:5-7).

Jacob’s dying condemnation contains an enigmatic phrase, "in their self-will they digged down a wall." Following the better manuscripts, most versions indicate that the crime was not the destruction of a wall, but the hamstringing of an ox. This results from the textual reading of the Hebrew word for ox, showr, (Strong’s 7794) instead of the similar word for wall, shuwr (Strong’s 7791). However, even this seems inconsistent since Genesis 34:28 states that the Israelites took the cattle to themselves and would hardly want to harm animals which would contribute to their own wealth.

Adam Clarke suggests a plausible answer: "They murdered a prince—Hamor, the father of Shechem. Instead of showr (Heb. 7794), which we have translated a wall, and others an ox, I read sar (Heb. 8269), a prince, which makes a consistent sense (see Kennicott’s first Dissertation, p. 66)."

As a result, Jacob prophesies they would receive no inheritance but be scattered in Israel. The destinies of these two tribes, however, were quite diverse. Levi became a dominant tribe, fathering the priesthood of Israel, while Simeon was relegated to selected cities in the tribal inheritance of Judah (Joshua 19:1). Since both brothers were equally guilty in the slaughter, there must be a reason for their different destinies. Whereas the tribal members of Simeon did nothing to atone for the crime of their father, the tribe of Levi, in singular loyalty, stood by Moses’ side when the rest of Israel bowed to the golden calf. They responded to Moses’ ringing inquiry, "Who is on the Lord’s side?" (Exodus 32:26-28).

It has always been a truism that God hears the repentant heart, even to the third and fourth generation. What a final lesson for each of us! If we have, in rashness, done that which is wrong, or violent, or self-willed, a full return to the Lord will bring a compensating blessing. Let us each seek to be as the descendants of Levi, not as the descendants of Simeon.