Any other week and many of us would likely not identify with Genesis 34, but this week we have been reminded of the grisly nature of humanity. First with the shooting in an Oregon mall that left 3 dead (the gunman and 2 victims) and then on Friday with the 2nd deadliest shooting in US history in Connecticut with 20 children and 6 adults being killed before the assailant committed suicide. This is topped only by the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 where 32 were killed before the gunman took his own life. Situations like this leave us grieving, in disbelief, even wondering why?
I am not going to presume to answer the specific reasons why these tragedies happened this year by these men. The details of the lives these men lived and the struggles they encountered and the actions they undertook will likely fill volumes as psychologist, psychiatrists and social workers argue about the exact reasons that led to each of these incidents. But I do hope that we can look at a similarly tragic story in the book of Genesis this morning and gain a better understanding of why our savior was born nearly 2000 years ago in a town in Bethlehem.
More than likely you have never heard a sermon on Genesis 34 and that is understandable. The very content of the chapter is ‘R’ rated. Rape and mass murder are not typical topics for a Sunday morning worship service. And, if you happen to have heard a sermon on the chapter, you most likely didn’t hear that sermon during Advent. That time of looking backward upon the birth of the Savior and forward to his 2nd coming. But it is precisely because of the very offensive content of the chapter that Genesis 34 is appropriate as an Advent text and as a word from God in the midst of a national tragedy. The chapter leaves us groaning and crying out for something better.
Read Genesis 34 here.
Sin in the World
When we think of Christmas, most of us jump to the nice Hallmark card of the family gathered around the warm glow of the hearth, singing Christmas carols and eating a feast, but that picture really has nothing to do with the very reason why our savior was born into the world. The baby Jesus, Lord of the entire cosmos, was born into this world not to create a sentimental holiday where gifts would be exchanged; rather he was born because there was sin in the land, sin in the family and sin in the people of God. He was incarnated into this world to conquer the very real presence of sin in the world.
Consider with me for a moment, had there been no sin in the world, would there have been a need for a savior? Certainly not. Christmas occurred because of the presence and utter reality of the sin of men, women and children. As the Scriptures declare, (Romans 5:8) But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us but what so many of us forget is that without his birth, there could have been no redemption for the sinner. Christmas is the first step towards the cross and so Christmas bids us to look deeply at the reason why the savior had to come in the first place.
The need for Christmas was, is and always will be the fact that sin exists. Our world is full of sin – innocent children being murdered, angry adults beating each other to a bloody pulp, a husband hitting his wife or child, a gambler spending the food and rent money at the casino, governments equipping one another with arms while people starve, ordinary Joe’s and Josephine’s buying cosmetics, tools and lattes with no thought to the fact that clean water eludes millions and disease and death take the lives of countless people while we indulge ourselves.
Our world is as broken as it was in Abraham’s day. Let me illustrate. One of the first sins we run into in Genesis 34 is the sin of Shechem who forces Dinah to sleep with him, the text leaves us no doubt about the act. This is rape, clear and simple. Sexual contact outside of mutual consent between a man and a woman is sin. And particularly, sexual contact between people of authority and those of less authority is abominable, for the simple question arises, can one in a position of less power really refuse or even grant consent. Shechem’s sin wasn’t merely the rape of this young woman, but it was also his abuse of power, which is implied in the text by his position as the King’s son. Shechem’s sin was allowing his lust to take hold of his body. Shechem’s sin was a failure to love his neighbor, to respect another, to protect those most in need of care – in this case a single, young female. His sin is the desire to buy off the violent deed he committed by “marrying” the girl, whom the brothers clearly declare at the end, “he Should [not] have treated our sister like a prostitute?” (Gen 34:31). [ii]
Then there is the sin of Hamor, Shechem’s father. John Calvin refers to Hamor’s speech to his people in verses 21-23 as the “sin of the politicians”. You will notice that Hamor conveniently omits any mention of the abominable act of his son when trying to get the people to go along with what is needed to avert a war and secure more money. The people are lied to in order to save Shechem’s back. Not to mention Hamor’s sin as a father for failing to train up a son who knows the limits of his power and the limits of love and appropriate behavior. The simple fact is that even in ancient cultures, forceful sexual relations between unmarried people is and has always been universally condemned. Hamor failed as a father to raise up a son and he failed as a father to discipline his son, in fact he and Jacob are very similar in many ways, both passively sitting back and letting their sons determine the future instead of taking the lead and directing their families.
Men, take note of the sin in this story. For not only did Hamor’s sin as a father become evident in his son, but Jacob’s sin as a father is clearly portrayed as well. Where was Jacob when he let his daughter go off alone to visit the women of the land? Why is he allowing his daughter to cavort with these folks without a protector with her to guard her and ensure her safety? What kind of parenting has he provided so that his sons aren’t there to watch over the females in the home and ensure their safety? Why does the Scripture declare “Jacob did nothing about it until [his sons] came home” (Gen 34:5)? Where are the anger, the protection, and the sense of need to comfort his daughter? Or maybe he doesn’t really care for the girl at all, you know, she is the daughter of his unloved wife, Leah. So maybe the sin of his passivity goes so much deeper into a sin of apathy with his family? This girl just is not of consequence when compared to the things Jacob thinks are important, like ensuring economic stability and hereditary perpetuation. Imagine for a moment, a man who doesn’t respond when his daughter is raped and when her brothers go get revenge, his only concern is to declare “I am worried that now I am going to be beaten up by the folks of the land.” (my paraphrase of Gen 34:30 You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed).
That leads us to the sin of the brothers. We are told in the text that there is deceit at work in their words. There is great anger and violent wrath, like what we witnessed twice this week in Oregon and Connecticut. It is okay to be angry at such events – rape, murder, starvation, etc; anyone who isn’t angry at this kind of injustice has something wrong with him or her. But these brothers’ anger went too far. They were intent on meting out justice on their own terms and not just a little justice, but complete justice. They go and slaughter every male in an entire town for the sin of one man and his father. Extreme, to say the least. This is the sin of vengeance, anger, and wrath all rolled in one. I mean, these brothers take the sign of the covenant, circumcision, which is suppose to be a sign of life and blessing under God and they turn it into a sign of death and destruction. In their sin and anger, they breed a form of religion that is destructive to its adherents. They destroy the very message the covenant was meant to proclaim.
And what about the other 10 brothers who loot the city. Their sin is that of accumulating wealth upon the sin of others. They are the opportunistic greedy ones of the story, much like our media and the frenzy to get ratings as stories like this week’s are covered. Surely the brothers had to have had a twinkling in their minds that the slaughter they have stumbled upon was the work of someone in their family, and yet they have no qualms with profiting from it. They are willing to gain, no matter what cost has been incurred and what law has been broken, or even if it is ethical or not.
You see, in this story there is plenty of sin to go around, and if we are honest, the sins in this story – poor parenting, warped sexuality, political jockeying, lying and deceit, the lure of wealth and the desire to judge others and execute judgment didn’t stop in Genesis 34; it affects all of us, but more than that, every one of these things is alive and thriving in our own lives. We are Shechem every time we allow our sexual thoughts to be played out in our minds with someone other than our spouse. We are Jacob when sin no longer arouses a response in us and we no longer care for those who are harmed around us, or whom we should protect.. We are Dinah when the lure of the secular culture invites us to come closer and we find ourselves entangled in its web of destruction.. We are Levi and Simeon every time we hate another and seek to undermine others, or lie to those around us in order to get our revenge. We are the ten brothers and the townsfolk whenever we vote with our pocketbook instead of our conscience, taking what isn’t our, allowing our leaders to manipulate us and letting the situation dictate our response. We are Hamor when we fail to raise children who are respectful, self-controlled and submissive to our parental authority. We are the 10 brothers when we invest in companies that make money doing very unscruptulous things, saying, that is just how money is made. Stories like this last week and like Genesis 34 aren’t just the stories of others, they are our stories. We are the people of these stories and that is why we desperately need a savior.
You see it was precisely because of this story and the millions of other stories played out in the lives of people every day, of every year that we need Christmas. It is because of sin that Christ came into the world 2000 years ago. And just as the sin of one man brought the destruction of death upon all the inhabitants of Shechem, the birth and death of one man, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was destined to bring about life for the world. As the Apostle Paul declared, (Galatians 4:4-5) But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
The Christmas story is the direct response of God to the stories of Genesis 34 that continue to play out over and over in human history. A savior has been born and his name is Christ the Lord. So how can we respond to such a message of sin and tragedy in the world, even in our lives?
First, we can recognize the utter seriousness of sin in our own lives and confess it. None of us are free from the seeds of death, which continue bearing their ugly heads in this world. Given the right situation and the right circumstances, every one of us would commit the most atrocious acts against our fellow humans. The simple fact that we have ever thought about getting revenge, or seeing someone get what they deserve is proof enough. Take time to reflect on your sin, the things you actively do that offend God and destroy others – your words, actions and thoughts – and bring them to God in confession. But also reflect on the things you fail to do, the excuses you make for not caring for others, the justifications you convince yourself of, that give you license to indulge yourself while others suffer. These sins of omission are as heinous in the eyes of God as any sin we commit. Confess them to God; cry out for mercy; ask him to change you.
Second, we recognize the utter seriousness of the sins in our nation and our world. Take an active stance in praying for our nation and world, like the prophets who cried out and lamented the sins of others, praying for revival and redemption. Ask the one who saves people, to save this world. Pray for his Spirit to bring conviction and revival. Pray for chances to speak the gospel and the boldness to proclaim it and then share the message of sin and redemption. Pray for those in authority that we may live godly and peaceful lives.[iii]
But as important as these responses are, each of them simply address the manifestations of sin in our world. None of them deal with the root problem and that is why Christmas is so important.
So in conclusion, this week as you go to work and talk about the tragedy with your coworkers, or friends and as they ask why such things happen especially at Christmas, use the opportunity to remind them that it was precisely because of such things that Christmas had to happen. Christmas is God’s answer to the sin of our world. For in Christmas, God became man so that he could bear our sin upon the cross and prepare his people for the world that is to come. There is a reason that the angels uttered wonderfully encouraging words thousands of years ago, and it was because the power of sin would finally be broken if only people would repent and believe the good news.
Our Savior came into our broken world, a world which tried to kill him many times and finally succeeded. Our Savior came into our broken world, a world stained with war, hatred, injustice, and oppression. Our Savior came into our broken world, a world filled with people like you and I who are no different from the villains of last week’s tragedies. And he came in order to save us. Listen:
(Matthew 1:21) [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord (Luke 2: 10-11). This is the hope of Christmas.
[i] An alternate introduction to the sermon without reference to such an recent national tragedy might be:
Now you are very likely thinking that this has been a random series in Genesis for an Advent season, and you are probably even more disgusted that the week before Christmas, I am going to skip a few chapters of Jacob’s life and preach on the rape of Dinah. That you probably think isn’t very festive for such a time as Christmas. And you may be right from a North American, commercialized view of Christmas, but bear with me a few moments as I explain the progression we have been on this advent season.
On the first week of advent we explore the finding of a bride for Isaac (Genesis24) and compared that to the way that God is searching for a bride Christ. And he isn’t just searching; he will indeed find that bride, in the church whom he was born into the world in order to redeem
Over the past two weeks we have looked at the predestination and election (Genesis 25) of God’s people from among the various characters present. There was Sarah over Hagar, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau and all of these were the result not of something inherit in the person, but on the contrary, those chosen were a mess and yet God picked them by name. “How does this relate to advent?” you may ask. In this, because God called people, he had to finish his work of election by sending a savior to redeem them from this body of death. He called these patriarchs, just as he calls you and me, in order that the world may be blessed (Genesis 27), first through the life of Christ and second through the life of Christ lived out in his body, the church.
And today, we will get the final part of our advent trajectory as we look at the story of a rape and the subsequent murder of an entire city (Genesis 34). And with the risk of giving away the sermon with this spoiler, we will see that humanity, all humanity, even the elect of God, needed a savior because these actions and responses are capable and indeed a very part of everyone of us. It is precisely because of this story of the rape of Dinah that our savior had to be born into the world in order to redeem sinners, and in the words of Paul, “of which I am the greatest.”
[ii] But with all of Shechem’s sin, the text goes to great length to make him appear honorable. It speaks of his love for Dinah no less than 6 times saying “he was drawn to her…he loved her…spoke tenderly to her…his heart was set upon her…I’ll do anything for her…he was delighted with her”All of these words unmistakably portray him in the best light, and with the best of intentions. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that Shechem truly loved Dinah and desired to wed her for all the right reasons, but that doesn’t mitigate against all the sin that was present in his life. Even with the best of intentions, he was a sinner, in need of a savior.
[iii] Additional application points
Third, learn self control and exercise it. Much sin is the result of allowing our passions and lusts to carry us into activity that is unbecoming of God’s people. 1Th. 4:1-6, though speaking specifically of sexual sin and self control, can easily be broadened to include all forms and the need to control our bodies minds, “Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God…Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more…It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him.”
How can we learn self-control? Here are a few ideas about learning to delay your gratifications. When the urge hits you to buy something, commit to waiting for a week until you make the purchase, committing it to prayer. Become a people who live on what you make, cut up those credit cards, learn to be content with what you have instead of needing more. When you are about to speak, imagine Jesus standing beside the person and check your words to see if they are full of grace, love and mercy. If not, don’t say them. Train your mind by memorizing Scripture, even if it is hard for you. Cut out the video games or the lattes for a week each month, etc. Commit to postures of self control. Fasting has historically been one of the great spiritual disciplines to teach people how to have mastery over their flesh. These little things can then grow larger and you can gain control over your body in order to offer it in worship to the Lord.
Fourth, become an emissary of love and peace. Learn forgiveness. Much of the sin in our world could be headed off before it ever manifested itself if we learned to be a people who forgive as our savior has forgiven us. The failure to forgive and release people from our anger and wrath is at the core of much of the world’s problems, from wars to irreconcilable marriage to broken friendships. Forgiveness needs to be practiced, and Christians need to learn how to do it too. I am always amazed at how few adults know how to say “I am sorry for xyz. Will you forgive me for how my sin hurt you?” But even more, I am amazed at how many adults don’t know how to properly respond to that statement. Most won’t even respond, a few will say, “Sure” or “It’s not that big a deal.” Many will lecture your or give you a talking. But few will actually take the time to respond with the words, “I forgive you and release you.”
Imagine the healing that would come in our own hearts and the hearts of others if both sides of the forgiveness equation were practiced. But even if both aren’t practiced, you can practice your side no matter how the other person responds. You can forgive and release even before being asked? You can ask even if the other doesn’t grant. The Scripture instructs us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18).
Fifth, become a people who seek justice and work for reconciliation. There are great systemic problems in our world that need the people of God to address them. Poverty, corruption, human trafficking, the sex trade, the massive number of orphans in our world. All of these and many things like them need the people of God working to address them and create Biblical responses of words and actions that tangibly bring the love of God into our sin stained world. Every vocation needs the light of Christ shining forth in it to address the proclivities of human sin.
[iv] Alternate Ending
This week as you celebrate Christmas with your families don’t just look at the hallmark Jesus lying in a manger all sweet and still. Instead, remember the reason why this Christ had to come into the world all meek and mild. Remember the cost, which the savior would bear. Remember the words the angels spoke, remember them with new vigor and new substance: I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord (Luke 2: 10-11).(Matthew 1:21) [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”