Bible Study | March 30, 2016

Standing idly by

In chapter 34 of Genesis there is a terrifying story. Simeon and Levi, two sons of Jacob, killed every male in Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister in that city. Not satisfied, they also dragged into slavery every female in the city.

Jacob scolded his sons for their actions. Admittedly, Jacob’s words sound more like self-pity than moral outrage. He says, “You have brought trouble on me by making me displeasing to folks of this land.” It sounds as though Jacob worried more about what the neighbors would think of him than that the killing and plundering was out of proportion to the crime.

His sons defend their actions, saying, “Should we let our sister be treated as a whore?”

The chapter ends at this point. Jacob offers no response to their question. In fact, throughout the chapter Jacob’s lack of response is shocking. He has no answer, no solution to the violence against his daughter nor to the revenge wreaked by her brothers. And between Jacob’s lack of action and the extreme violence of Simeon and Levi, the question is left hanging in the air: “Should our sister be treated so violently and we do nothing about it?” Should brutality, skullduggery, and mayhem abound and we do nothing about it?

I am disturbed that this story is unfinished. I am not satisfied with either the brothers’ desire for revenge or for Jacob’s willingness to put the crime behind them and move on. Nobody comes out of this story unstained. Who was right and who wrong is left undecided in the text. No answer to the dilemma is given.

Unfinished stories happen with disturbing frequency in scripture. We are presented with moral dilemmas that call for careful exploration and debate. In that process of exploration and debate, we hone our own moral tools as we deal with current problems.

Perhaps the situation in Genesis 34 is one in which there is no perfect course of action. There may be situations in which any response one offers will involve some compromise of a moral principle. But if we look more widely in the scripture, we may find additional insight.

Tucked among a miscellany of Old Testament laws in Leviticus 19 is this line: “You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor.” It is a verse that is especially difficult to translate satisfactorily. Several versions interpret it—rightly, I think—to mean one should not stand idly by when a neighbor is bleeding. Older commentaries often expanded this verse to mean that whether a neighbor is suffering from a physical attack, unjust legal treatment, or any heartfelt pain, one must not stand idly by, but must intervene to help. This is the law that reminded the Good Samaritan of his duty to come to the aid of the man beaten and bloody by the side of the road in the famous parable of Jesus.

Our world has grown small enough that everyone is our neighbor, and some neighbor is always bleeding. It doesn’t allow much time for standing idly by unless we close our eyes and refuse to face the bleeding.

We are told that Jacob “held his peace” when first informed about his daughter, Dinah. And in further discussions with representatives of Shechem, it is not Jacob, but Jacob’s sons who do the talking. Jacob’s only words in this chapter are in his rather mild chastisement near the end. Jacob, it seems, was willing to “stand idly by.” One is reminded that King David, too, was oddly passive when his daughter was raped. In both cases the silence of the father led to a spiral of violence. One could almost imagine that the story of Jacob was shaped as a subtle criticism of King David.

Perhaps this chapter of Genesis is most critical of Jacob’s lack of action and the mildness of his criticism of the action his sons took. At least, for us the message is clear that lack of involvement in another’s suffering is not the way of Christ.

Simeon and Levi may have been appealing to the same motive as the verse in Leviticus, as if to say, “We will not stand idly by while our sister is hurting.” Yet it is hard to see how their “over the top” vengeance did anything positive for their sister or anybody else’s sister.

The heaviest criticism of the action of Simeon and Levi comes toward the end of Genesis. As old Jacob is about to die, he gathers his sons around and leaves each one with a last message. His message for Simeon and Levi is especially harsh: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. May I never come into their council; may I not be joined to their company—for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel!”

So, can one walk a narrow path between passive noninvolvement and violence? Is this what the apostle Paul was aiming for when he said, “Be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26)? Be angry about injustice. Be angry about oppression. Be angry at the cancer attacking your friend. Be angry that neighbors are bleeding in the Middle East and in Africa. Angry enough to get involved. But do not sin. Be, as Jesus once said, “wise as serpents and innocent [harmless] as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.