The actions of Jacob and his children didn’t always reflect an awareness of any sort of divinity, except perhaps with the assumption that they could do whatever they wanted because their god was better than other gods (which may not actually be any sort of awareness at all). Consider the tale of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, in Genesis 34. Once Jacob and his family were settling into their new stomping grounds, Dinah went out unescorted to meet the other local women. Shechem, the son of the area’s ruler (Hamor) saw Dinah and was instantly smitten, so he took her and slept with her against her will. At least that’s the story recorded in scripture. Jacob’s sons (Dinah’s brothers) were outraged, but they played it cool, deceiving Hamor and Shechem into thinking that they approved of a marriage between Dinah and Shechem. They insisted that all of the men under Hamor’s authority be circumcised before plans could continue, to which Hamor readily agreed. While the men were recovering from the minor surgical operation, Jacob’s sons slaughtered all the men, stole all of their wealth, livestock, women, and children, and considered it justice. Jacob was angry that his reputation in the area was going to take a hit from his sons’ actions, but they showed no remorse.
When people tell stories about events that have happened to them, there’s no way to tell how much of the story is truth and how much is elaboration. Even in this day and age, when two people engage in a moment of passion, they may have completely different accounts of the incident, should the occasion to talk about it arise. If one person winds up feeling shame about the event, or thinks there might be something to gain from playing the victim, the story could easily become radically different from reality. Even in reading the biblical account, it seems that Hamor and Shechem have a completely different understanding of the situation than Dinah’s family. The alleged rapist wants to marry Dinah, Hamor wants to share his land with Jacob’s family, and they are willing to have all of their men undergo circumcision as part of the agreement. It doesn’t seem like the behavior of ruthless criminals.
Rape does happen. And most people would agree that rapists deserve some sort of justice. Even though it may be difficult to get to the truth when there are conflicting accounts, people who have been raped should not have their lives, behavior, or clothing scrutinized merely because they are brave enough to come forward. That being said, it’s important to get as close to the actual truth as one can before meting out justice.
But perhaps evaluating the nature of intimacy between Dinah and Shechem is out of place, considering the culture of the time. If women were considered property, then it wouldn’t really have mattered whether Dinah consented or not, Shechem’s actions would constitute theft. Maybe a closer story in today’s culture would be slightly less emotionally charged than considering one’s only daughter or sister as the victim of a violent sexual crime. That image could understandably provoke a person to violence. So, let’s consider a story about a car.
Imagine you have a classic car parked in a parking lot somewhere. This car is a real beauty, your pride and joy. But when you get back to the car after leaving it alone in the parking lot, you realize that someone has ripped open the steering column, hotwired the car, and taken it for a spin. You are beside yourself with anger and disbelief, when a man approaches and says, “That is a great car. I saw it sitting there and I just had to take it for a test drive. I’d like to buy it from you. Name your price.”
With your best poker face masking your rage toward this man, you say, “Sure, I’d love for you to have this car. But, you and everyone in your neighborhood have to drink a bottle of this delicious wine.” The man agrees, goes back to his neighborhood, and proceeds to get everyone drinking wine. When the neighborhood is recovering from the alcohol, you go on a killing spree, slaughtering everyone in close proximity to this guy like you’re filming a slasher film. Then you steal all of the cars in the neighborhood, as well as any valuable electronic devices, jewelry, cold hard cash, …you get the picture.
Justice? Not by a long shot. Of course, this modernized retelling doesn’t capture all of the nuances of the cultures involved in the original story, but it doesn’t really need to. No matter how you look at the situation, the actions of Jacob’s sons constitute a disproportionate response out of unchecked rage. It’s a pretty impressive feat—killing a community’s men and making off with all the women, children, and valuables—but it’s far from model behavior.
Even as the heroes of their own story, the sons of Jacob come across as barbaric and nearly amoral. Their sister was “defiled” by one man. Their response is to kill an entire city of men and make off with everything and everyone else in the city. And they set the stage for the slaughter by making a mockery out of the sacred sign of a holy pact with God. It may seem clever, but it’s hard to call it just. It would almost seem inhuman if it weren’t so close to some beliefs held by many people in the 21st century. Many people still seem to find the idea of wiping out those who are different so much more compelling than the idea of learning how to find common ground and share the world with fellow inhabitants.
So, if we are not going to emulate over-the-top violence as a reaction to situations and people we don’t like, what is the alternative? There are probably many, and the best among them are going to involve seeing other people as equal partners in creation. People are all valuable and fallible, even the person who looks back at you from the mirror. It isn’t about permissiveness or accepting wrongdoing. Justice still has a place, when it is actually just and stems from the acknowledgement of every person’s inherent value. Every person has that divine essence of truth, beauty, and creativity, but every person doesn’t tap into it equally. So, in a word, we’re talking about forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean eliminating consequences. Forgiveness is simply a word for letting go of the dehumanizing hostility we so often direct at people. There is no honest assessment of spiritual truth that can lead to the conclusion that forgiveness is an inappropriate response. It’s a wonderful image to think that an all-knowing, benevolent god handles all matters of forgiveness, that mercy is ultimately the purview of the Almighty. The concept of a Christ dying for the world’s sins can leave some people with the impression that the issue is handled without them needing to be involved. But the act of forgiveness is our responsibility, regardless of religious persuasion. Moreover, the act of forgiveness itself is healing, not to the one being forgiven, but to the person doing the forgiving.
Forgiveness is crucial to human relationships on every scale. Without it, we are in a perpetual state of war with everyone, including ourselves. There is still a place for justice, and actions have consequences. We don’t have to make those consequences worse for ourselves and others by embracing hatred. It is our responsibility as human beings to act toward one another in a way that honors our mutual value. And when someone makes a misstep on that path, it is our responsibility to forgive. It is one way of recognizing the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within ourselves, to recognize that even in the darkest of circumstances, we are capable of letting go of hatred.