61. Genesis 34:1-31

III.  D. 2. continued

To begin the discussion of the massacre at Shechem, let’s put the event in its starkest terms. God was not simply silent about the massacre, He was supportive. As they moved on to Bethel, God caused the fear of them to fall on the whole neighborhood: the surrounding cities were all afraid they might be attacked next. If God was offended at what they had done, why did He respond this way? God’s policy, ever since He had called Abram, was to support the family regardless of what they did, whether He condoned their actions or not. When Abram and Isaac lied about their wives, when Jacob deceived his brother, when Jacob’s household kept their idols, every time God had turned a blind eye to any wrong that they did. He never corrected or rebuked or punished them, but instead He cushioned them against some of the immediate and natural consequences of their actions. And He did all of this even when their deeds were ultimately abominable to Him. His protection of them after the massacre at Shechem was just a continuation of His previous policy, so we must examine God’s larger policy toward His people in order to understand this event.

We must broaden the discussion to the larger problem of revelation. When God chose Abram and his future descendants His purpose was to reveal Himself cumulatively and in some detail over a long period of time. It is reasonable to think that correcting their behavior would be a natural part of that revelation. But in revelation, as in any communication, there is a correct order to how information is presented. Restricting our attention to Genesis alone, we might conclude mistakenly that God approved of the massacre. Having the rest of the Scripture we know that God did not approve of massacres and did intend to correct their behavior. It would seem then that God thought it was premature to make a point of the immorality of this violence. But how could it possibly be premature to rebuke murder? This question really has to do with discerning the central and ultimate point of the revelation; we must look behind the event.

To those who think the primary purpose of the revelation is to tell us the difference between good and evil, commanding us to be good and threatening us if we are bad, the massacre of Shechem is a stumbling block. From such an assumption, we can only conclude either that somehow the massacre of the entire city of Shechem was morally acceptable, or else that God Most High and His Messiah disagreed on the question. There are plenty of people who have unwittingly fallen into each error, and there may be some who have contrived to fall into both errors at once.

The first error amounts to this: the Bible teaches that it is good to do bad things to bad people, that when we do bad things to bad people we are not really being bad because they are bad and we are good, but when they do the same bad things to us they really are being bad because they are bad and we are good. In other words, this error is the same as thinking that the Bible teaches moral relativism, a conclusion that most of the people who fall into this error wish to avoid.

The second error imagines the Bible presenting us with a God whose character and moral standards change over the years, either because the “God of the Old Testament” is a different God from His Messiah, with a sort of Divine Multiple Personality Disorder; or else because God made a mistake in Genesis that He later discovered and corrected; or else that He is an old ditherer, like the Canaanite god El, probably slept through the massacre and couldn’t make up His mind what to do about it. It is one of the ironies of biblical theology that taking the events of the Bible as paradigms for moral behavior leads inevitably either to moral relativism or to  compromising God’s character. We only get away with such non-sense because we are not accustomed to following our beliefs through to their conclusions.

The belief that the primary purpose of the revelation is to make a statement about good and evil, to discourage evil deeds and encourage good deeds, is simply wrong. We gained the knowledge of good and evil at the Fall; we don’t need to be told what is good or what is bad. We know enough of good and evil already for our own consciences to condemn us; we don’t need the details. God did not spend all of that time and energy writing the Scripture to give us lessons with tidy morals, as if He were writing Sunday School curricula. Instead the primary purpose of the revelation is to reveal grace as the foundation of all contact between humans and God, grace as the foundation of all interactions between humans, grace as the link that holds all things in creation together, grace at the source of all hope for the future. Grace is such an impossibly alien concept to our nature that it took all those thousands of years of revelation and we still barely get it.

The first step in explaining grace was to give some clear cut examples of what grace means in its starkest terms, in which His people commit atrocities, offenses which were repulsive to Him and to us, and His kindness to them in the face of those atrocities. When He picked the chosen people He was looking for a family that could be counted on to make all the mistakes in the Book, whose founding members would nearly all have been condemned to death by the Law that was to come, and who would inevitably be guilty of the most heinous of crimes. In other words, any family would do. He was looking for the worst of sinners so that He could be gracious to them so that no one would ever think he was too evil for God to save. The book of Genesis picks out the events it does to emphasize this supremely important fact: that His love and commitment had absolutely nothing to do with anything they did or did not do. That this point would be missed and misunderstood by every generation from Moses onward, including our own, only shows how necessary it was to emphasize the point.

Hence, I suggest, God ignored the immorality and the scummy ethics of the patriarchs and their families because He felt that we could not understand the call to holiness until we had some inkling of the power of grace. He was right, of course. He did not hurry on to the commandments and the law. He took the whole book of Genesis so as not to slide past the grace, so we could get a good long drink before we hit the desert.

All the same, it was rather hard on the Canaanites in Shechem. What about God’s grace to those people? It wasn’t very fair to them, was it? It certainly looks as though God played favorites, and this is the second difficulty of the passage; it is especially difficult for modern people. We live in a culture that has elevated tolerance to the level of the ultimate virtue. There is a modern idea that all people are God’s children equally, that God playing favorites is unthinkable. From such a viewpoint, much of the biblical story is repulsive. God, the One in the Bible, is in big trouble with respect to public opinion in our culture. So is this a problem with Him, or is it just a matter of putting the right spin on things, or is the problem with us and our standards?

It seems to me that the Bible would answer that there are two causes of God’s bad reputation in the modern world, due to this passage and many others like it. One cause is that revelation is hard. Its subject matter is difficult; God is intrinsically more complicated than nuclear physics and we insist on making Him a sort of divine tautology. If He is not as simple as 2+2=4, we lose all patience and refuse to go on to the spiritual equivalent of algebra. The revelation is too big for us to take in one bite or to summarize in one aphorism, and it had to be given piecemeal over many millennia and mainly in cultural contexts very different from ours. By isolating one event from the totality of revelation we will invariably misunderstand. Sound bites distort, and so does quoting a verse out of context, or letting the meaning of a passage get away from the Scripture itself. We cannot fully understand the massacre of Shechem until we understand the letter to the Romans, and we cannot understand the letter to the Romans without meditating on the meaning of Shechem.

But the second cause of God’s low rating in our culture is that we use the wrong standards for judging Him. We are historical imperialists, as if we had arrived at the final perfection of society and could rightly demand all previous history, and even God Himself, to meet our standards. We are quite willing to reveal to God what He should have said rather than trying to hear what He actually did say. To the modern person, so tolerant of everything but God, I insist that the Bible asserts both that all people are God’s children ultimately and essentially (like we want it to), and simultaneously that some people are more particularly God’s children than others (unlike what we want). God is both inclusive and exclusive and we will not fully or truly understand God without keeping both ideas in our minds at once.

If we ignore the exclusivity of God because it is culturally offensive, if we ignore the bias God shows toward His people and against others, then we will fail to appreciate the possibility of intimacy with God, an intimacy that is so deep as to be automatically private and exclusive. On the other hand, if we ignore the inclusivity of God because it is theologically offensive, then we will fail to appreciate the true character of God as the Creator and Lover of all things, and we will fail to recognize our neighbors when He includes them in our lives. Admittedly it is difficult to hold on to both ideas at once, but that is the nature of truth.

The men of Shechem who were murdered by Simeon and Levi were behaving more honorably, more justly than Simeon and Levi, and God loved them. There is no statement in this text that God loved the men of Shechem but we know He did because of later testimony in the Scripture that God is love, that He loved and loves the world. We might prefer more compelling evidence of it in the immediate context, and we might prefer that His love for people be a bit more safe. But the way He is is the way He is and we have to cope with Him as He actually is and not with Him as we wish He were.

The Bible does not give a complete resolution of exclusivity with inclusivity and we must each of us choose how we will respond to God’s silence on the contrast. We can turn away from God in disgust that He could stand by in silence as Simeon and Levi murdered so many people; it is reasonable, ignoring that we are condemning God for the same crime we have committed and for which He did not condemn us. Or we can use the passage to justify our own hatred and violence; also reasonable if we ignore the fact that we aren’t the creator and center and judge of all things. God does not make it easy for us. But the most reasonable course is to admit that we do not understand why God did what He did and why He didn’t say what He didn’t say, but we trust Him nonetheless. That is faith.

God is the One who ultimately chose to include this story in the Bible. His honesty about the massacre might be called obsessive. He wants us to know what He did even if it casts Him in a bad light. And He did not tell us everything, even the just causes – if there are any – that might make it easier for us to believe Him. It is important, before you decide whether to turn away from God or to misuse the Scripture to justify your own evil heart, that you should at least be clear that not all of the story has been told here. The Shechemites got a bad deal and they are dead, but death is not the end of the story. They are not merely gone, and the most important part of their story is yet to be told.

Whether we like it or not – and admittedly there is not much to like about it – the Scripture leaves us with the promise that all the loose ends will be tied up after the world is ended and we are all finished with our lives. It is a frustrating answer, but it is also a reasonable answer: we are in the middle of a play speaking our few lines, but the meaning of the few lines we have will only be clear when the play is over and we can all get off the stage and see the whole story from beginning to end. So we are presented with the necessity of choosing whether to trust God or not, whether to trust Him despite the evidence that tends to incriminate Him, whether to throw in our lot with the very One who may be the biggest Scam Artist of all time and who even has the gall to tell us the story of His scurrilous background while asking for our trust. But He does not, He will not ever, make it easy for us.

The closer we are to the heart of God the angrier we can allow ourselves to be, the louder we can argue. Why did God have this event recorded at all, why include it in the revelation? Didn’t He ever hear of pleading the Fifth Amendment, of refusing to testify when the evidence would tend to incriminate Him? Why deliberately make it so hard for us to trust Him, to love Him, if that is what He really wants? Why give us a part of the picture that only makes us hesitate and doubt? His revelation may be a gradual one, but it pulls no punches. He put the account of the massacre at Shechem into the Scripture, and when we read it, it is like meeting an angel in a dark place who picks a fight and throws us to the ground and hopes and hopes and hopes we will fight back.

 

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