This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
As an avid movie-goer, one of the ways Scripture comes alive for me is to picture the stories as if they were scenes and beats from a live-action movie. Granted, Hollywood’s recent cinematic foray into the biblical narrative haven’t been too sincere to the source material. (Seriously, what the heck is this!) But, for me, visualizing the text of Scripture in this manner yields better apprehension. Plus, there are so many amazing texts that would do really well as action/adventure films.
One of my favorite passages comes from 1 Chronicles 11, in which we’re given the list of King David’s “mighty men.” (1 Chr 11:10–47; cf. 2 Sam 23:8–39) As the index continues, listing all the names and recording all their victorious campaigns and conquests, how can you not imagine a movie chronicling the feats of these fearsome warriors? That’d be one killer film, I know that. Others might include the saga of Samson (Jgs 13:1–16:31), the biblical bromance of Nathaniel and David and the subsequent pursuit of David by King Saul (1 Sam 18:1–20:42), the fall of Jericho (Josh 6:1–27), among others. But, perhaps, a lesser known but a nonetheless visually impressive account comes from Genesis 34, and the story of the defiling of Dinah (Jacob’s daughter) and the subsequent retaliation by Simeon and Levi (Jacob’s sons).
Once upon a time…
Our story begins with a prince named Shechem seeing Dinah, Jacob’s daughter through wife Leah (this is important!), and seizing her and laying with her. (Gn 34:1–2) It must be said at the outset that Jacob’s family obviously saw this as rape, and as a massive violation and disgrace to their name. Despite what Shechem wanted to sell the encounter as by speaking “kindly unto the damsel” (Gn 34:3 KJV), Jacob’s sons weren’t buying it. The King James translation notes that Shechem’s actions were a “defilement,” but this doesn’t really do justice to the severity of this scene. Dinah was humiliated, downcast, and afflicted sexually by this entitled prince. This was no meeting of two star-crossed lovers, but an I’ll-fated, lust-filled encounter. Shechem, though, trying to save face, “spoke tenderly to” Dinah, even clamoring to his daddy to make this girl his wife (Gn 34:4) — which was, I guess, Shechem’s way of justifying what he did.
And, so, Hamor, Shechem’s father, goes out to meet Jacob and discuss the terms of the marriage, as was their custom. (Gn 34:6) Jacob’s sons soon hear of the news, of what happened to their sister and of what Hamor was attempting to do, and come running into the meeting place “indignant and very angry.” (Gn 34:7) They were outraged at Shechem and the travesty that had befallen their sister.
Now, it was customary in those days for the entire family to play a role in the approving of a daughter’s or sister’s marriage. Thus, the vehement and vocal expression by Jacob’s sons isn’t so unusual. What should draw your attention, however, is the silence of Jacob. The Bible says, “Jacob held his peace” (Gn 34:5), which might seem like a passing comment but is significant considering the circumstances. One has to wonder if this were a daughter of Rachel, Jacob’s more beloved wife, if he would’ve reacted differently — perhaps even similarly to his sons. Remember, Jacob’s wife Leah was unwanted and, mostly, unloved. Regardless, Jacob stands silently as Hamor offers his proposal for the exchange of Dinah. (Gn 34:8–10) Hamor clearly saw this as a good business opportunity, a chance to get in good trade terms with a wealthy and successful Hebrew. Shechem, likewise, chimes in, reiterating his “love” and desire for Dinah (Gn 34:11–12), offering a very generous bride price and gift, no doubt to reinforce his affections for Jacob’s daughter.
But Jacob’s sons speak up, once again, acting and vocalizing where their father should have. They reject the offer and concoct a fiendish scheme whereby Hamor and his men are weakened. (Gn 34:13–17) Under the guise of normal matrimonial traditions for the time, Jacob’s sons suggest that Hamor and all his men get circumcised, in keeping with the honor of their family. But the nefariousness of this plot will soon be revealed. Their deceit and treachery is just getting started.
The terms are agreed upon. (Gn 34:18–24) Shechem and all the other males are circumcised in exchange for partners and peace between the families. It is noted that they do this without delay, promptly carrying out the circumcision because of their “delight” in Jacob’s daughters. I have no qualms with saying this desire was lust-fueled, and that only. Jacob’s sons aren’t satisfied, though. They weren’t pleased that Shechem and his men had agreed to their brazen stipulations. They cared for nothing but the gratification of their rage. One man had sinned, but the whole company of men, the whole city even, would feel their fury. Jacob’s indifference to Dinah’s plight, as evidenced by his lack of action, undoubtedly encouraged this violent overreaction by Simeon and Levi.
Simeon and Levi lead an assault on the city, acting swiftly and fiercely, slaying all the men and plundering the rest of the city. (Gn 34:25–29) They surely felt more of an intimacy with Dinah than the rest, they being the blood brothers of Dinah, sharing the same mother, Leah. She, of course, was the unloved wife of Jacob (Gn 29:30), which certainly was a factor in Jacob’s idleness. And despite being the only ones mentioned, Simeon and Levi weren’t alone in this attack on Shechem. I believe, though unmentioned, that Reuben, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun accompanied this ambush, they also being Dinah’s full brothers, Leah’s other sons.
Nevertheless, it would appear that Simeon and Levi receive the brunt of the blame for their excessive recklessness and outrage against Shechem and the men of his city. Jacob quickly learns of his sons’ actions, though, reprimanding them, “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land.” (Gn 34:30) The vitriol and violence of his sons resulted in the abhorrence of the entire family by all the neighboring estates. The stench of cruelty lingered with Jacob and his family, causing them to be loathsome in their eyes. And, rightfully so, Jacob’s concern turns to protection: “My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” (Gn 34:30) Laden within this worrisome sentiment of Jacob regarding the safety of his family should someone rise up against them due to his sons’ pillaging is a deep-seated care for his own regard. Right in line with Jacob’s character, his thoughts continuously flow towards himself and how he can escape the next precarious scenario he’s managed to tangle himself in. His concern wasn’t so much for the morality of this massacre, but for the consequences of it.
Jacob’s sons repudiate any notions that they acted out-of-hand. Despite their father’s chastisement, Simeon and Levi counter that they were merely upholding and fighting for honor and integrity of their name. “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” they snarl. (Gn 34:31) Notice that they refer to Dinah as their sister, not his daughter — the implication being, again, that because of Jacob’s lack of concern, they felt responsible and and accountable to take matters into their own hands. We should also note that this whole saga is just another indication of the overall dysfunction of Jacob’s family. This is further corroborated in a few chapters when we’re given the account of Jacob’s sons selling their brother Joseph into slavery and lying to hide their actions. (Gn 37:12–36)
Genesis 34, however, ends on a strange note. Similar to Jonah’s prophecy, whose last line is question (Jon 4:11), Jacob’s sons ask their father, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Gen 34:31) It’s a logical query, and, to our more human notions of justice, we’d ask the same thing. In what world should this happen and the perpetrator get away with it? In what court should the victim remain violated and the malefactor remain unaffected? Despite the jarring nature of this whole saga, from the indifference of Jacob to the violence of Simeon and Levi, the vengeance on display merely points us to a better avenger to come, One who would perfectly balance love and justice, grace and truth.
Law and disorder.
Throughout the story, it’s very evident that man doesn’t do justice very well. Notwithstanding your spiritual state, whether saved or unsaved, true justice remains an enigma. Despite being obsessed with laws, rules, fairness, and reciprocity, we still haven’t mastered impartiality. We’re addicted to shows like Law & Order, NCIS, and the like, because we like seeing swift, unflinching justice being dealt to those who we deem deserve it. Genesis 34 plays out like something you might see on a show like that, with a bad circumstance driving people to the limits of morality and resulting in even more bloodshed. This is a continual plot point Hollywood puts stock in. How many movies have you seen in the last 5 years that have dealt with some sort of story of retribution? Too many to count, most likely. The most recent for me, though, is 2015’s The Revenant. Despite my adoration for the film as a whole, this film is proof positive that we don’t understand justice.
For those that are unfamiliar with the story, The Revenant is the film adaptation of the story of Hugh Glass, a hero of early American folklore. Many of the details surrounding his life are so legendary, they’re surely just that, legends. However, what is known about Glass is that he was an expert tracker and fur trader who traversed over 200 miles in the South Dakotan tundra after being left for dead after a near-death encounter with a grizzly bear.
In Alejandro Iñárritu’s retelling of these events, Glass is motivated by pure rage. After being mauled by the bear, Glass lays helplessly as he watches his son murdered by his archenemy, Fitzgerald — who, then, proceeds to try and bury Glass alive. Not the best of mornings. Yet, this sparks a vengeful fury in Glass as he spends the rest of the film on a warpath with Fitzgerald as his target. And this is why you should always take those “Based on a True Story” blurbs at the beginning of movies with a heavy dose of salt. According to the historical accounts, Glass never watched his son’s murder because he never had one. Furthermore, vengeance didn’t win out, forgiveness did. Upon finding Fitzgerald, Glass spared his life, only asking for him to return his stolen rifle.
Fury and forgiveness.
Like Genesis 34, the telling and retelling of the Hugh Glass mythos is further proof that we don’t understand justice. By not comprehending justice, we fail to realize the gravity of forgiveness. Horatia Harrod writing for The Telegraph goes so far to say that the real story is “something of a disappointment” because of Glass’s forgiveness. When wrath wins out over absolution, you know the gospel’s been lost.
We don’t get justice. For all our obsession with fairness, we don’t know how to be fair. Like everything else, we mess up justice when we try and take it into our own hands. God’s rule is that vengeance and recompense is his. (Dt 32:35; Nah 1:2; Rom 12:19) Earthly justice hits both ends of the spectrum, with us either taking matters into our own hands or sitting on our hands. We’re not given authority for vengeance because we’ll just screw it up, either going too far or not doing anything at all. We get more outraged over red cups than than the rampant social and racial unrest that’s eroding the world’s preeminent nation. We let petty trivialities outweigh our concern for eternity.
Likewise, in the modern retelling of The Revenant, as in Genesis 34, justice for us often results in bloodshed — fairness is equated with punishment. Yet, the promise of The Revenant and the hope of Genesis 34 is that one day, the true Revenant will come, not bent on wrath but on absolution. The Gospel of John says that our Lord Jesus would come “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14) A better arbiter would come and dwell among us, being the perfect embodiment of God’s righteousness and mercy, both of which would flow seamlessly and simultaneously.
Jesus is our true and better Revenant, returning not with fury but with forgiveness. The Father watches his Son’s murder and the appeasement of wrath is settled, not kindled. Jesus came to bear the brunt of what we deserved: righteous, unsullied justice. He came to be your death and resurrection.
Oh, the unspeakable greatness of that exchange — the Sinless One is condemned, and he who is guilty goes free; the Blessing bears the curse, and the cursed is brought into blessing; the Life dies, and the dead live; the Glory is whelmed in darkness, and he who knew nothing but confusion of face is clothed with glory.1
That’s the difference between derelict and divine justice — the latter is tinged with the grace of the gospel and the former is laced with the malice of the law. Divine revenge smells a lot like redemption. This doesn’t seem like “justice” to us, it feels like freedom, like grace. And it should. Because it is.
Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, quoted in Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Great Reformation in Europe, edited by Laird Simons (Philadelphia: Wm. Flint & Co., 1870), 378.