The non-obvious message

If all goes as planned, I’ll be worshiping with friends at a church up north on Sunday, and continuing the message series there in Genesis. The day’s text is chapter 34 & 35, a section which, upon first glance, is not likely to preach well. Gen 34 concerns the violation of Dinah, and the response of her brothers Simeon and Levi. Chapter 35 takes Jacob back to Bethel, reports the deaths of Rachel and Isaac, and reunites Jacob with his brother to mourn the passing of their father. Chapters like these are easy to skip, even in series preaching.

And maybe that’s OK. Maybe in a day of limited attention spans and the yearning for action or beauty, such texts are best skimmed, or seen as opening acts for better bands. Maybe they should be relegated to visiting preachers.

Still… Paul’s perspective nudges me when I come to passages like these: “everything written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Then there is this comment, also potent, especially given that Moses, widely acknowledged as the likely writer of Genesis, was a priest: “the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth, people should seek instruction” (Malachi 2:7). Both of these remarks push me toward the text rather than away from it. They make me wonder what value lies there, rather than question whether they have any worth.

Of course, one danger is that the commentator will import meaning, will find in the text something that suits the moment, or settles well into the saddle of some hobby horse. So I want to move in slowly, keeping open to how this text would take hold of me, and then, of us.

One early possibility: these middle chapters of Genesis peel back layers of gleaming memory from the patriarchs, to show what turmoil churned among people in whom God was at work. The immediate response might be to judge them for short-comings, but a longer view makes space for other reactions. For instance, upon finding such patently awful family patterns, the NT drumbeat of peace and reconciliation takes on new force.

Setting turbulence such as we encounter in Gen 34 & 35 in the larger context of God’s intention to break down barriers, to promote peace, to announce and deliver the means by which relationships can be restored is a little like frying bacon. To do it well, one must hover over the cast iron pan, where hot grease will spatter–but in the end, there’s bacon. Similarly, Genesis heads into the snarl of interpersonal fragmentation–but lies along a continuum which offers better news. To hear that God has, wants, and offers a different possibility? Yes, please: pile it on.

This is not to excuse those who set Dinah afloat on a pond like a duck decoy in order to pick off what the bait draws. Indeed, these brothers who scheme with their sister will later sell their brother for peanuts, apparently still captivated by the calculus of winning at another’s expense. Nor is it to miss the emotion of Jacob as he watches his beloved Rachel die, or stands next to his previously estranged brother, wondering at the strange alchemy of death to dissolve conflict, if only for a time. Genesis exposes us to the harsh consequences of indifference toward the defenseless, to the stab of loss and regret. All of these–and more–are products of fractured relationships. Each of them occurs when shalom is shattered, or downgraded, or exchanged for some other desire.

So the hope to which Paul refers upon commending OT stories and texts like Genesis 34 & 35 had better be substantial. Otherwise, these tales will only make us embarrassed or judgemental. And if it is–if hope is what we truly can find upon probing such agony and ignominy–then our own situation might just be bearable. For we are not much different from Simeon, Levi or Jacob: we take advantage, win at the expense of others, do not compute the cost of our speech or choices or yearnings. And for us, as for them in some manner, the message is plain if we will stop to listen: there is a way to peace, a path blazed by one eager to eat the wrongs and initiate reconciliation.

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