I was listening to the news on the radio the other day when one of those stories came on. You know the kind, the kind where someone does something utterly heinous to a child and leaves you shaking your head in horror. Some days, I can hear those stories, grieve the sadness, and then go about my day. But other times, the heaviness of the brokenness in Creation crushes me, leaving me gasping for breath, wondering when the Kingdom will come in its fullness.
Too often our preaching neglects this ugly underbelly of existence, particularly the hurts that are almost too painful to speak aloud: abuse, rape, neglect. When us preachers fail to give voice to those deep, ugly sins and hurts, I fear we leave our people and their aches unaddressed, wondering if there truly is a Word from the Lord.
In Genesis 34, we hear one of those ugly stories, one of those painful, uncomfortable biblical narratives that are so troublesome, it doesn’t even make it in the three-year lectionary rotation. Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and is taken advantage of in the worst possible way: rape. And the abuser, one of the locals, acts as abusers often do, proclaiming love and devotion to their victim in an attempt to justify their heinous behavior.
And when dad Jacob, the bearer of God’s good promise, gets word, what does he do? Nothing. Complete passivity. In the face of his daughter’s rape, abuse, and kidnapping, Jacob does nothing.
So, when the brothers get wind of what is happening to their sister, and they scheme and lie and manipulate to exact their vengeance on the perpetrator and his community, a part of your heart, says yes! Get ‘em! That is, until you realize that their great act of devotion to their sister, their great act of warrior faith, is actually a ruse to gain wealth and power.
The story leaves us asking: who are the good guys in this story? And who are the bad guys in this story? What on earth is going on in this, the special family chosen by God to be a light all creation? Why is this even in the Bible? It’s hard to see any Good News in the midst of all this darkness.
THIS IS US.
But let’s get real: this is us. Sin-sick, damaged by our own choices, and damaged by the choices of others, consumed by our own self-interest, our own agenda, our own fear, our own shady motives. We are tangled in the sticky web of sin and death.
We are Jacob. Jacob settled in a pagan land when God had called him homeward. He said no to God’s best and settled for “good enough” because he lacked trust in God’s ability and willingness to keep God’s promise. Saying no to God’s best has consequences for us and those we love, as Jacob’s rebellion had consequenes for Dinah and his sons.
We are Jacob, saying no to God’s best because we’re just not sure we trust that God’s way is the best way, that God’s promise is trustworthy, that God has our, and our family’s, best interest in mind. We are Jacob.
But also, we are the Hivites, the people of the pagan land. The culture of this people was one of taking and acquiring by any means necessary, regardless of the potential consequences for others. I want, therefore I take. “But I love her, I’ll marry her, we’ll be one big happy family, everyone will get rich, it will be awesome.” Behavior justified.
And so too we, consumed by our own wants and agenda, disregard the sanctity of others made in the image of God, and find ourselves justifying, explaining, defending ourselves and our behavior, behavior we know is wrong and runs contrary to God’s good purposes. We are the Hivites.
We are the brothers, Simeon and Levi, the revenge-taking sons. They perceived a wrong, committed against their sister, but it’s not hard to see that their concern was not for their violated and abused sister, but was for their own prospects, their own family honor, their own power in that region, even their own wealth. They act pridefully, arrogantly, deceitfully to achieve their ends. We are the brothers, when we act out of vengeance and self-righteousness.
But perhaps most shocking of all with Simeon and Levi is how they misuse their own faith and faith practice to get what they want. They demand circumcision of the men of the land, the hallmark symbol of their covenant with God, only to take advantage of their post-circumcision vulnerability and attack them while they are recovering. It’s like calling someone who wants to join the family of faith to be baptized, only to drown them in the baptismal water. They abused what was sacred to achieve their own agenda.
We are the brothers. When we cherry-pick Scripture to support our political views, we abuse the sacred. When we use the sacred Word of God, not as an invitation into God’s good story, but as a billy club to get people to act like we think they should, we abuse the sacred. When treat grace as cheap, continuing in sinful patterns that we know perfectly well are wrong and harmful, because "hey, we can always ask for forgiveness, right?", we abuse the sacred. We are the brothers.
We are sinners. Not just ignorant, or silly, or irresponsible. We are sinners, knowingly making choices against God’s desire for us.
But we are not just sinners, we are the sinned against, damaged by the sins of others.
We are Dinah. Oh Dinah, forgotten, neglected, young, curious, wandering where you should not have gone, but how innocent, how childlike in your naiveté.
No curious, immature, unwise wandering into the wrong part of town justifies what happened to her: to be raped and held essentially as prisoner by her abuser. And wounds upon wound, a father’s disregard and self-serving inaction, brothers running not to your rescue but to their own defense and pursuit of wealth. Dinah is used as a pawn, an excuse to justify an attack on the people of the land to gain wealth and power. She is objectified and forgotten.
We are Dinah. Some of us have endured the exact same abuse as Dinah, abused and taken advantage of by stronger, those with power. Some of us have been neglected, forgotten, abandoned, treated as a pawn in someone else’s schemes. We have been wounded by the selfishness of others. We have been cut down by the greediness and insatiable appetites of others.
We are Dinah.
We are sinners, and we are the sinned against, in need of both a rescue and a reckoning.
This chapter leaves us in this dark place. With conflict unresolved. Dinah’s future is destroyed, a city is slaughtered, the violent, vengeful sons of Jacob go unpunished, and passive, untrusting Jacob himself safe, rich, and seemingly untouched. We want an epilogue, an extra chapter untangling all the knots and hurts in this story. But there isn’t one. Where is the Gospel? Is there a Word from the Lord?
WHERE IS THE GOSPEL
Where is the Gospel to us sinners?
And where is the Gospel when we are the sinner against?
For the family of Jacob, the Gospel for both the sinners and the sinned against is this:
Nothing can thwart the good future of God.
Nothing can stop the promise of God.
Nothing can stop the redemptive purposes of God.
THIS IS NOT THE END.
If humankind’s sin, the most abhorrent sins we commit and that are committed against us could stop God’s goodness, the Bible would have ended right here. Genesis 34. “And the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob messed things up so badly that God threw in the towel and left them to their own devices. Good luck. The End.”
Oh but thanks be to God, that’s not the end, is it? It wasn't the end for Jacob’s family. From the point of their brokenness, God would continue to redeem, to act for the good future of both Jacob’s family and the world, ultimately through God coming in the flesh of Jesus, descendant of Abraham, to redeem, heal, forgive, and make new.
And so too, with us, God's love finds us in our various states of disarray and meets us in the exact point of our deepest brokenness, tangled in the sticky web of our sin and rebellion, wounded and maimed by the sins committed against us and draws us up in holy love, forgiving and healing!
Oh what love that frees us from the sticky mess, that binds up our wounds, that calls us forward into new life. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!
THIS IS THE GOSPEL:
There is no sin so vile that God cannot save, no wound so deep that God’s redemptive love cannot heal.
We are the sinner and the sinned against, but there is way forward, for both forgiveness and healing, through the healing, grace-filled love of God who calls us into a new way of being in Him.