Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Atrocities

We are reading through Genesis in the mornings. A few days ago we arrived at the account of the rape and mass murder in Shechem, in chaps 33 and 34. I wondered aloud how many people ever preached on it - and then remembered that I had. I dug up the notes, and here they are, rewritten in places, but substantially as preached in Haywards Heath on 25.1.93. Some of it seems resonant today. And if it seems packed with material and LONG - I guess it was! And pleased be warned: these themes are genuinely shocking and unpleasant,  and may be very disturbing to some.  

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Genesis 33:12 - 34:31

1     The Bible deals with atrocities

The Bible speaks into the real world - not a cosseted, comfortable, cotton-wool protected world. This is not fairy tale stuff - or at least not the stuff of sanitised, Ladybird book fairy tales. 

At the time these horrible events took place, Dinah was somewhere between 7 and teens in age. A young girl - perhaps only 12 years old or less. 

That, tragically, is the real world. A 12 year old was raped on Thursday night in Stockport. Young teenagers have been among those raped systematically in the struggles in Bosnia.
The Bible talks about things like that. It speaks into a world which may seem far from Haywards Heath, but which is real enough. 

Shechem was not a very big place - but I guess we will not be far out if we imagine around 100 bodies piled in and around its houses.

That is the real world.

This week they dug up more bodies of massacre victims in Bosnia. Over the last weeks we have heard of murders and massacres, deaths by famine or disaster all over the world.

The Bible talks about things like that.

A Bible with these bits removed is not the whole counsel of God. 
A Bible with these bits removed is not God's message to a sinful world. 
A Bible with these bits removed is a fairy tale. 
A Bible with these bits removed cuts no ice in the real world.

One reason why Christians have made and are making so little impact is that we have seen fit to censor the Bible. We have emasculated the whole counsel of God. We have left out the nasty bits. We have cut off God's message from the world we live in. We have doctored it for nice people. Ultimately we have even grown embarrassed about the idea of judgement and hell, and we have therefore weakened the message of the cross. Our task is not simply to  "Tell them of God's love" but to be real. 

Censoring the Bible does not work. Let's leave these bits in. We think too much of protecting our children - or not embarrassing ourselves. We don't think enough about preparing them to live for God in a terrible world.

2     God's people are affected by atrocities

Dinah was of Jacob's family. She was part of God's people. She was raped.

Such things happen to God's people. Such things happen to christians. We are not immune. We are not guaranteed an easy ride.

We must be careful not to give the impression that we are. "Jesus will take care of me." As a child would read it, in the straight-forward sense, that is a confusing and dangerous half truth.

We believe in God's constant care and watchfulness over us. We give thanks for every token and example of that care - and some examples are amazing. But we know that his way for us is perfect and he will not cease to care and watch over us, even if he sees fit to lead us through atrocities, persecutions or death. Hebrews 11 makes quite clear that faith can lead to... and through... death at sword point and worse. 

Yes, Jesus takes care of me - but that doesn't mean that I will not die in a road accident today. We must never give children the impression that it does mean that. 

3     God's people commit atrocities

The supreme ugliness of this passage is that it is the people of God who commit the worst crime in it. The rape of a member of Jacob's family is horrible, a vile crime, but it then becomes the prelude and excuse for what is to follow, as committed by his family. 

Dinah is raped. She is, from our perspective, just a child. The crime against her is wicked and inexcusable. But there is even worse to come. I know it is pretty horrible to speak of degrees in such things, but if comparisons can be made at all, this awful event is not even the "worst rape" in the Bible. Dinah escapes with her life, and with Shechem wanting her as his wife. In the story of Amnon and Tamar his "love" immediately turned to hatred after the event. In the sickening story of the Levite's concubine in Judges, she lost her life after a whole night of systematic gang rape and abuse. By comparison, if such can be permitted, Dinah's awful experience is less. 

What follows is the destruction of a whole community, the innocent along with the guilty. The men are slaughtered; women and children enslaved. The property - even on dead bodies - is plundered. It is one of the most sickening episodes in scripture.

Shechem was not one of the Lord's people. Levi and Simeon were. 

Sadly, this was not the last time that God's covenant people sinned against him by saying or doing atrocious things against other human beings.

From the Crusades to Northern Ireland, from Luther's antisemitism to the mutual slaughter in Rwanda (which occurred after this sermon was preached. Ed.) people who claim to believe in Jesus have said and done things which have led, directly or indirectly to slaughter.  

4     What leads to atrocities?

We can highlight two factors here, though it is by no means a full list.

a     Sinful anger and vengefulness

We can see that working itself out through the story in various ways:

i     It was unfair

The reaction was out of proportion

ii    It was treacherous

They pretended to make a treaty with the people of Shechem. They broke it.

iii   It was blasphemous

They used the sign of God's gracious covenant as a tool for treachery. They divorced the sign from its meaning. Then they used the sign to kill.
It would be like saying, "We won't join you unless you are baptised." And then drowning them in the river.

iv    It was premature 

cf. 15:16 The day would come when their descendants would be called by God to deal with the people of this land. It is not that he doesn't see crimes like this rape and plan judgement. He does - but that day was not yet.

Beware of vengeance in your heart. Beware of anger welling up and controlling you. Beware of a sinful hatred which calls itself "righteous anger."

Beware of a desire for "Justice" which actually goes beyond justice.

Beware of ever making your Christian convictions a cover for hate.

Beware of being quicker with justice than God himself. It is his to avenge. He has said he will do it. Do you not believe that Christ will come, and that all wickedness will be destroyed forever? Wait for him to act.

Stop attacking other people's wicked actions then, and look to the sin in your own thoughts, words and deeds.

b     Weak and Wandering Leadership

Jacob's immature lads, brought up in a climate of jealousy, suspicion and scheming at home were really chips off the old block. It could be argued that their actions could be laid at Jacob's door, for his persistent failings as a father and family leader.

i     Was this a wrong move?

Should Jacob ever have stopped at Shechem as he did? Probably not.

He once again deceived Esau in order to be there.

He had been called to return by the God of Bethel (31:13) and that is where God tells him to go immediately after this incident. (35:1) He is in the wrong place for too long. Like Lot before him, that spells trouble.

How many parents have ended up putting their children into situations of grave temptation because of their own lack of spiritual forethought?

ii    When he should act, there is no move at all!

When trouble starts, what happens to Jacob? He seems to be struck dumb. All the negotiation is left to his sons. Spinelessness seems to have gripped him again. 

His inaction is really wicked, for he is the only person who could have restrained his sons from their plan. He should have negotiated for justice from a position of strength through faith in his God. After all, he has had the experience of the amazing turn-around in his relationship with Esau. God could do that again.

The end result of Jacob's folly and inaction is that the family of promise are once again in peril. (v30) How many times has that happened? How many times has God bailed them out after one of their periodic lapses? This time the people of the whole country - the promised land, remember - have good reason to throw out the people the land has been promised to. Such is sin.

Notice how neither passive inaction or the white heat of vengeance actually brings justice about. Neither is consistent with God's true justice at all.

5     Atrocities are Inexcusable, but not Unforgivable

This event cast a long shadow. Even to his dying day, Jacob could not forget it, and Levi and Simeon lost out because of it. (49:5-7)

But Jacob and his family are not God's people because they deserve to be. They are his people because of his gracious love. And so the Lord comes to Jacob, and gets him back on course again. (35:1) And it is God who deals with the problem of the danger to his chosen people. He bails them out again. (35:5) And Jacob and his people respond to God's love and are renewed spiritually. (35:2-4)

We must be frank and blunt about the sins of God's people. They are tragic, and they cause a lot of trouble. Not least, they bring God and his gospel into disrepute. 

But it isn't sinlessness that makes us the people of God. It is his grace. If we are honest, who among us has not thought of and longed for vengeance at some time - perhaps as terrible a vengeance as that of Levi and Simeon?

Such thoughts and even actions are inexcusable for the believer. But they are not unforgivable. Let us then draw near to him, and receive his forgiveness again.

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I wish I had listened better. 

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