Sunday, January 17, 2021

Too Clever For Their Own Good

Far too often the mere existence of a biblical record of how fallible, sinful men behave is taken as evidence of what God prefers.

That’s a mistake, whether it is done by unbelievers attacking the character of God and the morality of his instructions, or by believers looking to the frequently sub-optimal choices of Old Testament patriarchs for their standards of acceptable Christian behavior.

We can and should learn moral lessons from history, of course, but it is foolish to go beyond what is actually written. When we do, we are often being too clever for our own good.

The internet commentary on Genesis 34 is as contradictory as it is extensive. In this rather notorious chapter, Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, is abducted and raped by the prince of a Canaanite family, and Jacob’s sons avenge the family name with disproportionate zeal, first by tricking the Shechemites into circumcising themselves and then by murdering all the men of the city while they are recovering. It’s an ugly chapter in Israel’s history.

New Standards in Questionable Behavior

It is early days for the people of God, but most readers are still a little shocked by the actions of Jacob’s sons in this chapter of Genesis. And while the account of their brutal revenge gets most of the attention, it definitely doesn’t mean that nothing else wrong occurred in the chapter. It is not hard to point to any number of morally dubious actions. Most modern readers ask variations of the same questions, things like:

  • Why was Dinah going out to see the women of the land? Prurient interests? Parental neglect? Neither of the above? How much responsibility did she bear for what happened? (I know we are never supposed to ask that last question where rape is concerned, but trust me, it gets asked.)
  • Why did Jacob initially keep quiet about the rape? Was it cowardice, or did he have a plan of his own brewing?
  • What did the Shechemites really intend in attempting to assimilate the family of Jacob? They asked, “Will not their livestock, their property and all their beasts be ours?” That sort of question might lead the suspicious among us to wonder how long Jacob’s family would have survived their stay in Shechem. Then again, perhaps this is the sort of thing one might expect from Canaanites.
  • Does Canaanite self-interest and plotting really justify their massacre? Likewise, does a single rape, however horrible, justify the plundering of an entire city?

The answers to these questions and others form the bulk of most modern inquiries. But these are really side issues. The answers all require more than a little speculation. Most importantly, the writer of Genesis has not felt it necessary to comment on them. He declines to cater to our curiosity.

In fact, none of these issues seems to be the primary emphasis of the Holy Spirit in this chapter.

Only Two Acts

Even though there is much distasteful to be found here, the chapter contains only two unambiguously critical editorial comments from its inspired writer:

1.  “He had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.”  The writer notes that Shechem’s action was a major violation, though it may have been common practice in Canaan:

  • It was bad because it was non-consensual (“he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her”). That statement alone makes it clear that while Dinah may have been intrigued by the Hivite women and unwise to visit them alone, she got considerably more than she bargained for. She was not seduced but taken by force.
  • It was bad because it was outside of a marriage relationship (“Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah”). Whatever Shechem’s relatives thought about the morality of his behavior, the writer of Genesis characterizes his act as “defiling”. It damaged Dinah’s future marriage prospects, it was taken as a grave insult to her family, and worse.
  • It was bad because it could have led to Jacob’s family intermarrying with pagans (“Make marriages with us. Give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves”). Abraham’s rejection of a bride for Isaac from the Canaanites around him and Rebecca’s visceral loathing for Hittite women both anticipate God’s command to Israel in the Law forbidding intermarriage with the native peoples of the land they were to inherit. Whether or not Jacob ever contemplated bending on this issue after the rape, it is evident that it was Abraham and Rebecca who were on the right side of it.

2.  Jacob’s sons acted “deceitfully”.  The writer of Genesis tells us “The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully.” Deceit is never praised in the Bible. Frequently, as in the case of Jacob’s deception of his father, even the historical accounts hint that deceitful behavior almost inevitably leads to unexpected and unpleasant consequences of one sort or another. Still, it is evident that many of God’s people have unwisely engaged in it. Nevertheless, by characterizing a statement as “deceitful”, scripture is clearly condemning it.

These two acts are the only ones in the chapter upon which the Holy Spirit elects to pass comment in the immediate context. (It is also important to note that because scripture is a unity, the Holy Spirit may elect to editorialize on an Old Testament incident for a very different audience in later writings rather than in the immediate context of the historical event. Such is not the case here, to my knowledge, but both the Lord Jesus and the apostles do this frequently.)

The Emphasis of the Writer

I suspect highlighting the two specific acts of rape and deception with commentary is a very strong hint from the both the writer of Genesis and the Holy Spirit as to what should be most important to the reader. Especially, it is a hint as to what lessons the Spirit of God most wanted to convey to those who first heard or read this Genesis account.

We are wise to note this, and to direct our attention to the two lessons the Holy Spirit makes explicit rather than the many speculative side issues that easily distract the casual reader. Some readers get so caught up in their fantasies that they find themselves contradicting the plain statements of the passage.

An example: the story of Dinah has produced two quite recent and diametrically opposed schools of thought, both of which say considerably more about the undesirable influence the last 50 years of Western society than about the passage itself.

Not Rape at All?

One set of interpreters owes its reading of the passage more to Anita Diamant’s 1997 bestselling novel The Red Tent than to anything in Genesis. Diamant re-imagined the story from Dinah’s perspective as consensual sex in anticipation of marriage rather than rape. Jerry Starling candidly admits Diamant’s novel made him rethink his reading of the Genesis account:

“I had assumed it was rape until I read a novel based on the women in the family of Jacob, The Red Tent, where the author took this as consensual.”

Suffice it to say that when even the novelist herself concedes her story is not intended to faithfully replicate the Genesis narrative, using her fantasy as a basis for reinterpreting the biblical account is more than a little suspect. It ignores God’s plain statement on the matter: “Such a thing must not be done.” The sin was Shechem’s, not Dinah’s. End of story.

Such a reinterpretation is so ingenious that it misses the obvious.

Or Is It Rape Culture?

At the other end of the weirdness spectrum, feminist writer Susanne Scholz accuses other scholars (and perhaps the inspired writer) of “marginalizing the rape”. She makes Dinah the focus of the narrative and thinks translators have minimized her violation and its priority in the passage.

She may be right about the scholarly tendency toward delicacy, but she quickly moves from textual criticism into an all-too-familiar screed about patriarchal oppression and modern “rape culture”:

“In the United States 683,000 women are raped by men every year. Genesis 34 has much to say to this situation, inviting us to a much-needed discussion on rape today. The story ends with a question and so encourages us to release the Bible from the past long gone. We can use this narrative to address the prevalence of rape through the metaphoric language of the Bible. Then the story becomes our own, and we will know what ‘really’ happened to Dinah.”

Genesis 34 “invites” us to nothing of the sort. It is sacred scripture and genuine history, not convenient fodder for Scholz’s political agenda.

To be clear, Scholz doesn’t think anything happened to Dinah (hence the scare quotes above) since she doesn’t believe the Bible narrative in the first place, but she seizes the opportunity to manufacture outrage against men.

Scholz too misses the obvious, but it’s her agenda that gets in the way.

Imagining the Unimaginable

Both Scholz’s and Diamant’s strained and unconvincing rewrites of the chapter would have been unimaginable to most interpreters more than 100 years ago, yet one or the other forms the basis for (or is at least referenced in) much of current evangelical discussion of this chapter.

This is a shame, because whether you elect to turn Dinah into feminist archetype or a sweet young thing in the thrall of infatuation, you’ve still entirely lost the plot. The writer of Genesis was not concerned with advancing the cause of feminism any more than he was with validating the specifically Western preoccupation with romantic love.

If we bother to stop to observe the things the Holy Spirit chooses to comment on, it would seem the chapter is primarily about the evil of taking what belongs to someone else. That something else may be virginity, and it may be revenge.

Things that, like the narrative itself, are not ours to take.

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