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Strange Genesis Stories

Genesis has some peculiar stories. Random stories. Stories that seem to completely interrupt the plot. I'd like to share how two of these stories make much more sense to me after reading John Walton's NIV Application Commentary Genesis. The placement of these stories isn't accidental, and their themes are not disjointed.

Take the rape of Dinah. This story comes towards the end of Jacob's conflict with his brother Esau, which was a result of Jacob stealing Esau's birthright. Jacob has moved back home and after wrestling with God and making peace with Esau, Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped by the Shechemites. When Jacob's oldest sons, Simeon and Levi, hear of this, they slaughter the Shechemites. But what's that got to to do with anything? Does it simply show the sorry state of Jacob's family or explain how third-born Judah became a tribe of leaders and kings? Well, yes, but it does much more.

Backtrack a few chapters to when Jacob is first fleeing his father's house. After his ladder dream, Jacob makes a vow to God, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth." (Genesis 28:20-22)

God comes through. With great wealth Jacob returns to his homeland safely. And what does Jacob do? Nothing. He doesn't fulfill his vow to God. So here we have this story of Dinah inserted into the book. It ends with Jacob scolding his sons for making themselves a stench to the surrounding people. Simeon and Levi respond to their father with a question, "Should he (Shechem) have treated our sister like a prostitute?"

Immediately following this episode, God has to tell Jacob to fulfill his vow by returning to Bethel and building an alter there. Thus, Dinah's story might be seen as God saying, "Jacob, will you use me as a prostitute to get what you want? You are treating me no better than Shechem treated Dinah. Fulfill your vow!" It might also be seen as a future warning to the Israelites post-Exodus to whom this book was first presented. Don't treat God in this way either or worse will befall you than what befell the Shechemites.

How's that for context? God using rape and violence as a warning of what has happened and what will happen. It reminds me of that pictures of a sunken ship from despair.com. The caption reads, "It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others." While we have no way of knowing if Dinah's rape was ONLY used as a warning, it seems the bible is using it primarily in this way. We don't have windows into Dinah, Simeon, or Levi's character development. Certainly this episode altered them in some way too. We do, however, see how it altered Jacob. He moves back to Bethel, gets ride of all his household's foreign gods, and makes an alter to God.

Throughout Genesis God goes to great lengths to make sure his people have a correct view of himself because to assign false traits to God might be equivalent to not worshiping God at all. I think that's why God caused the flood to happen—because people thought God didn't care about justice—and why God scattered the people building the tower of Babel—they believed if they met God's needs, then he wouldn't hurt them.

Let's look at another story, the weird one about Judah's daughter-in-law Tamar. That story is put right into the middle of Joseph's narrative. What gives? Judah has just convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph, but instead to sell him into slavery. His brothers follow his leadership and return home to tell their father, Jacob, that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Before we find out what happens to Joseph in Egypt, we get this strange story about how Judah married a Canaanite woman and had wicked sons through her. Because of their wickedness, God puts them to death, leaving behind Tamar, their widow who has yet to bear children. This is a big deal to anyone reading Genesis because Judah becomes the tribe of leaders and kings. The line mustn't end here. King David and Jesus Christ come from this line, after all.

So Judah promises Tamar to give her his last and youngest son as soon as the boy is of age, but Judah doesn't keep his word. Probably because he's afraid Tamar has been putting death hexes on his sons. So, what does Tamar do but trick her father-in-law into getting herself pregnant: an interesting ruse involving disguises and prostitution. In the end Judah confesses that he's wronged Tamar and that she was more righteous than himself. And that's that.

Aside from this being an interesting insight into Judah's history and Jesus' genealogy, the story proves that Judah has had a change of heart since selling Joseph into slavery. In order for Judah to say that his deceiving, prostituting daughter-in-law is more righteous than himself is to believe himself rather low. Judah is now ready to take the leadership role over his brothers.

The ruse involving Tamar also serves as a foreshadowing of the tests that Joseph will give to his brothers in Egypt to see if they've had a change of heart. In Egypt the brothers don't recognize Joseph, just as Judah didn't recognize Tamar disguised as a prostitute. In Egypt the brothers receive their food without having to pay for it because Joseph puts all their money back in their bags. Judah promises a young goat to Tamar for sleeping with him, but the goat never gets delivered. In Egypt Joseph hides a silver cup in Benjamin's grain bag to identify him as a thief. Similarly, Tamar takes Judah's seal, chord and staff to identify the man who's impregnated her.

Such treatment from Joseph to his brothers was done to see if the brothers had truly changed. Would they willingly sell their brother Benjamin into slavery to save their own necks? No. They wouldn't. In fact Judah would rather sell himself into slavery than give up his brother Benjamin. And Tamar's trick to her father-in-law, shows how Judah is now no longer willing to rob Tamar of the offspring that she desires.

What a web of intricate parallels and character development! And all this time, I'd thought Genesis was just weird and random.

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