Genesis 34-36, Psalm 12, Matthew 12
Life can be merciless at times
Genesis 34 – 36
Women were chattel and very vulnerable in the ancient Near East. Their situation has not changed greatly in many parts of the world. Rape has become a tool of warfare in recent decades by men who do not deserve the title of human being. It boggles the mind to fathom the evil that men can do to women.
In Genesis 34 we read the story of the rape of Dinah. Stories such as this are always omitted from the readings that churchgoers hear read from the Bible on Sunday morning in church. As a result, we are left with a collection of stories that over a decade or more sometimes seem almost too familiar while never reading stories that mirror the tragedies that fill the morning newspaper.
The truth is that the Bible is full of tragic stories that remind us of the profound shadow side of human reality, our enormous need for a Savior and the depths to which we can sink if we rely solely on the human heart and its pleasures to direct us through life.
In chapter 34 Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, is raped by Hamor, a Hivite and prince of the region. Hamor is smitten, and after taking Dinah by force, he persuades his father, Shechem to visit Jacob and ask tor Dinah’s hand in marriage on behalf of his son.
Here we see that Jacob’s deceitful and shrewd behavior has not been lost on his sons. Stifling their indignation, they listen carefully as Shechem beseeches their father for Dinah’s hand, then they demand that only if Shechem and all of the Hivites become circumcised can Dinah and other daughters of the family be taken in marriage by the Hivites.
An agreement is struck, and on the third day while the Hivites were still recovering, Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, enter the city of the Hivites and kill the men who are recuperating. Their brothers follow behind and plunder the city, taking the women and children captive.
Jacob is horrified. “You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and Perizzites; my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household,” says Jacob, ever the careful calculator and survivor. (Gen. 34:30)
His words and lack of action mirror King David who will follow him, who does nothing after his daughter Tamar has been raped by his son Amnon. (II Samuel 13) It is Tamar’s brother, Absalom, who like Dinah’s brothers, is left to take revenge for the crime that has been committed. In the case of revenging Dinah, however, the Jewish practice of lex talionis or an eye for an eye is not followed. The rape of one woman is punished by the death of many men, the plundering of an entire city and the kidnapping of women and children. Here we see humans acting horribly. How great is our need of God!
Chapter 35 speaks to our contemporary culture where people are often uprooted and have to move from one place to another to continue making a living. God again speaks to Jacob, and commands him to relocate. Jacob can resonate with IBM employees, whose corporate initials were once said to stand for “I’ve Been Moved.”
Oddly, God reappears to Jacob at Paddan-aram and blesses Jacob again. Once again, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. Why does this occur? Is it faulty editing? The latter certainly occurs in various parts of the Bible. Some books of the Bible were composed by more than one author. At least three writers, for example, were said to have written the Book of Isaiah. Sometimes editing is at fault.
The ancient Greek mindset, however, is linear. It constantly sought to find one truth or one way of telling the story. Had an ancient Greek author written this story, then only one of the brief stories of Jacob’s name change would have survived. The ancient Jewish mindset, by contrast, tolerated more diversity. If a story was told in multiple ways, it was enriching to include more than one variation, even if the facts differed. Hence, we find two stories in Genesis 1 and 2 about the creation of Adam and Eve and two stories about the blessing of Jacob and changing of his name in Genesis 32 and 35.
Rachel, whose name means “ewe” and who once was a shepherdess and remains the apple of Jacob’s eye, gives birth again to a son, whom she desires to call “Ben-oni,” meaning “Son of my sorrow,” but Jacob calls him “Benjamin” instead, meaning “Son of my right hand.” Rachel dies while giving birth, but not before bearing Jacob’s twelfth son and completing the lineage from which the 12 tribes of Israel will descend.
A quick verse in Genesis 35:22 informs us that Reuben slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah. It is just one more example of our spiritual forebears behaving badly. Without God’s guiding hand, humans all too often make a mess of things. Even with God’s support, we can easily go astray if we do not maintain a strong life of prayer, study, devotion and service to others.
Perhaps broken-hearted that his fondest love Rachel had died, Israel soon dies. At the age of 180 he drew his last breath and his eldest sons Esau and Jacob buried their father. The age of the Patriarchs was over. A new chapter of salvation history was beginning.
Chapter 36 can be read through quickly. What is significant is to get a gist of some of the names and to recognize the importance of family. My wife, Mims, is from Birmingham, Alabama, and I served my first two churches in Nashville, Tennessee and Richmond, Virginia. Southerners take family very seriously, and generally view a wider group of people as family.
I was born in Detroit and grew up in Cleveland, northern New Jersey and Boston. Northerners tend to view the “nuclear family” of dad, mom and children principally along with grandparents and possibly first cousins, but second and third cousins and fourth-cousins once removed is a focus more commonly found in the southern portions of the United States.
Here we see the vital role of extended family and knowing your family lineage. Part of this was survival in an often brutal and dangerous culture. Time and time again, we will encounter genealogies in the Bible. Only linger as long as you care to when they appear. The key is to remember always that family is vital and one of the most powerful ways in which God works in our lives.
Sometimes everyone seems out to get us, or we feel as though we live in an immoral world. Such is the case in today’s psalm. “Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly.” (Ps. 12:1)
When we begin to perceive the world like this, it is an indication that either a large amount of very negative things have occurred in our life or we have read or heard about many such things, or our own spirit is so weakened and afflicted that all we can see around us appears negative, threatening and wrong. It is easy for us in moments like this to lash out. We seek revenge or want people punished.
“May the Lord cut off all flattering lips…” (Ps. 12:3) At times, the psalmist is almost comical, but one of the marvelous things is that no writer in the Bible is as emotive and candid. The psalmist often speaks for all of us when we feel let down, unjustly persecuted, betrayed, wounded, angry or afflicted.
After further reflection, the psalmist notes, however, that there is at least one healthy and loving force holding the universe together that is holy and good. “The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in the furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” (Ps. 12:6) We are wise never to base our faith on the actions of humans, but on the steadfast love and promises of God.
In this chapter, Jesus continues to unsettle the Pharisees, who represent a rigid form of religion. Churchgoers and Christians are wise to read these passages carefully. There is a strong tendency among faithful Christians to expect clergy to be the stabilizing force, carrying on ancient traditions and making as few changes as possible. Many Christians like clergy who do not threaten the established order, even if the established order has little or nothing to do with why we are Christians and the mission that God calls us to pursue.
Hence, we find Jesus challenging the norms of behavior by allowing his followers to pluck grains to eat on the Sabbath. He cites the practice of King David, now enshrined as Israel’s greatest king in the annals of Jewish history, as giving precedent for what they are doing, but to no avail. That was David and that was then. This is now and this is Jesus and his followers.
Jesus, however, is making a deeper point here. He is indicating that he is the Messiah, and something greater is present among them than even the Temple in Jerusalem. It is God incarnate walking among them. If his listeners knew to whom they were speaking, they would speak and act in a much different way. Of course, his detractors cannot see this.
Jesus then cleanses a man with a withered hand, yet not before the Pharisees try to entrap him. “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath,” they ask him. (Matt. 12:10) Anytime a religious person is trying to trap another person in leadership, you know that you have a very problematic situation and the spirit of true Christianity is at stake. After Jesus heals the man, his opponents leave, conspiring “to destroy him.” (Matt. 12:14) Surely, their faith is bankrupt, but similar actions in the Church can still be seen today from time to time.
In Matt: 12:15, Jesus continues to heal many persons. This is something that biblical scholars fleetingly pass over. This is not sitting down and having meals or writing sermons. This is healing sick and possibly dying persons. Some of this is the stuff of miracles that only the God incarnate could perform. It is certainly awe-inspiring.
There is no doubt that Jesus knew his Hebrew Scriptures. Here again he quotes the prophet Isaiah, noting, “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.” (Matt. 12:18) This is a slightly altered quotation taken from Isaiah 42:1-4, which was earlier alluded to in Matt. 3:17 at the time of Jesus’s birth.
What is significant here is that God spoke these words, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” at the time when entered the muddy waters of the River Jordan to be baptized by John and to share the full journey of humanity – mud and all. Now, Jesus has appropriated these words for himself and understands his own messianic identity and what his father already knew.
Clearly, Jesus experienced God’s unconditional love. Our greatest gift to our children is to communicate to each of them, “You are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” When this enters the deepest part of their being and defines their self-image, they are free to do wonderful things on earth to serve God and others.
Jesus goes on to heal a demoniac who was blind and mute. Only now, the Pharisees accuse him of being a Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons himself. As my wife often says, “No good deed goes unpunished.” The more Jesus shares love and brings about the Kingdom of Heaven, the forces of evil mount in opposition. It is a clear reminder that the call to serve Jesus does not necessarily bring prosperity, fame or popularity. Rather, it is often a road wrought with challenges and opposition.
Even Jesus seems to lose his patience with the opposition to goodness, healing and love. “You brood of vipers,” he shouts, using the same language that his cousin John the Baptist used when addressing those who came to hear him preach in the desert. (Matt. 3:7) We like our ministers, clergy and fellow Christians to be polite at all times, yet there is a place for true indignation in living the Christian life. To be polite and genteel in the face of evil is to cower before God.
Jesus then alludes to his own death, when he refers to the prophet Jonah spending “three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster.” (Matt. 12:40) So, too, Jesus, the Son of Man, will spend three days and nights in the tomb before being resurrected. Truly, something greater than Solomon is standing before them.
Jesus concludes by noting that his true family is not a family of flesh and blood, but those who follows the will of God. To those who speak often about “the family values of Christianity,” we must be careful not to characterize Christianity in our own contemporary Western vision. It is often something far different. Following God will force us to make hard choices at times that will test our greatest loyalties.
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the Day of Judgment you will have to give an account of every careless word that you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt: 12:34-37)
Try to read the Bible each day as a personal love letter written from God to you. Do not focus too much on what these passages would be saying to your brother-in-law, with whom you may be disgruntled or a colleague at work or a friend at school. What is God saying to you in this passage? This is far more important than asking, “Did Jesus really say this or say it exactly in these words? Is this the correct location of the story or were the facts altered? What matters is that God’s Word has a message for each of us this day that will transform how we live our lives here and now, if only we listen.
Do you believe that God can play an important role in healing our bodies, minds and souls? Do you feel comfortable asking Jesus and God for specific needs in your own life when you pray? When you pray, do you allow time for God to speak as you sit calmly and try to listen as God’s voice speaks within you?
O Holy and Awesome God, our relationship with you mirrors our relationship with those around us. For our relationship with you to be healthy and powerful, it must involve communications in both directions. Help us to be faithful readers of your Word and faithful listeners as we pray to you, that we might listen profoundly both as we read and as we pray, so that you may transform our lives. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie