The narrator of Genesis tells the story of Jacob and the Shechemites for two reasons. Partly to remind Israel that they had a history earlier in the land than the conquest, and partly to warn them not to trust Canaanite morality. That Jacob bought land near Shechem (Genesis 33:19) reminds Israel, as had Abraham’s earlier purchase (23:16-20; repeated in 49:30; 50:13), that their people had a legal foothold in the promised land.
A Grim Warning
Canaanite morality comes to the fore, however, through the rape of Dinah. Although Jacob had other daughters (Genesis 37:35), Genesis specifies only Dinah (30:31; 46:15) because only her story is narrated (34:1-26) and the twelve tribes are named for the male patriarchs. The narrator notes that Dinah was spending time with young women her age (34:1). This was probably to let us know that, even by the stricter standards of the ancient Middle East, she did nothing to attract the royal rapist’s attention. Rape should never be blamed on the victim. But even those inclined to cruelly blame some victims would not find reason to blame Dinah.
That Jacob came “in peace” to Shechem (33:18) may mean that God had protected him on his way (from both Laban and Esau). “Peace” often appears with leaving unharmed (e.g., 26:29, 31; 28:21; 44:17). Conversely, it might emphasize that he initially settled in Shechem peacefully. Conflict began there only with Shechem’s rape of his daughter. But once violated, such peace became elusive. Hamor and his son Shechem supposed that all of Jacob’s people were at peace with them (34:21). They were unaware of the plans Simeon and Levi had against them.
Rape was a serious issue in antiquity as it is today (e.g., Deuteronomy 28:30; Judges 19:25; 2 Samuel 13:14). So much so that the law of Moses treated it specifically (Deuteronomy 22:25-29), comparing a rape victim to a murder victim (22:26) and presuming her innocence in the absence of reasons to the contrary (22:27).
Men & Women, Equally Distrustful
While the narrative evokes horror with its depiction of this rape, however (cf. Genesis 34:7, 31), the narrator may be less interested in warning about just one gender than warning about the sexual values of some non-Israelites. A non-Israelite wickedly rapes Jacob’s daughter (34:2). Later, a non-Israelite tries to exploit the enslaved Joseph sexually and then falsely accuses him of raping her (39:7-18). (The writer seems keenly aware that usually society’s power dynamics favor men. But Genesis also depicts women’s influence, sometimes behind the scenes. Thus Rebekah works behind the scenes in favor of Jacob. Sarah urges Abraham to sleep with her servant and later demands the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, backed by God. Leah cuts a deal with Rachel so that Jacob must sleep with her that night; and so forth.)
Shechem, the local prince who also bore the city’s name, was the most honored member of his father’s household. And yet, he raped Jacob’s unsuspecting daughter. Shechem’s evil behavior (34:2) suggests the depraved sexual standards of most of Canaan’s inhabitants. The potential Philistine threats to Rebecca in Genesis 26:10 suggest this as well. Not only were Canaanite men not to be trusted sexually, but Canaanite women were dangerous as well (26:34-35; 27:46; 28:1, 8).
Stereotypes are dangerous, but members of societies often do reflect their societies’ prevailing values. Out of concerns for such values, then, Genesis warns Israelites against liaisons with non-Israelites. For ancient hearers of the Torah, intermarriage with Canaan’s residents was the greatest danger posed by their presence (Deuteronomy 7:3). This was not, however, a matter of ethnicity in any genetic sense. But rather it stemmed from the danger of such unions enticing God’s consecrated people to worship other, false gods (Deuteronomy 7:4). (Thus Ruth, although a Moabitess, becomes part of Israel as she embraces the Israelite people and their God [Ruth 1:16], despite Deuteronomy 23:3.)
The principle today would be avoiding intermarriage with those who reject the values of one’s faith, such as fear of the LORD and the honoring of sexual purity. Because Jesus is the most important person in a genuine believer’s life, the deepest connection comes on the level of our faith. To digress for a moment on a pastoral level, I believe we should show grace and understanding. In some settings I have witnessed, Christian women outnumber Christian men two to one, or men believers outnumber Christian women two to one. But there are definite reasons for these biblical warnings (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:39). There are people who do not share our faith who nevertheless share many of our values and can be respectful toward our faith.
These people are a far cry from characters such as Shechem or Joseph’s accuser. Some are better spouses than those professed Christians who prove abusive, unfaithful, or the like. Those who are respectful to faith are often open to it as well, given good reasons and experiences. But spiritual companionship is also an important element of marriage. Marriage is not the only place where this can be found. But, as the most intimate of relationships, marriage offers a unique opportunity for developing spiritual intimacy. In pastoral situations I have known some who regretted their marriages outside the faith. Once the marriage exists, however, the believer in Christ is obligated to seek to make it work (barring circumstances such as abuse, etc.). Spiritual incompatibility is not grounds for a Christian to dissolve his or her marriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).
But—leaving the digression—what would happen if some Canaanites were prepared to embrace Israel’s faith and values? In Genesis 34, Jacob’s family almost had the chance to find out. Some of Jacob’s sons, however, squander this opportunity, leaving it to Joseph, later in Genesis, to honor Israel’s God among the Gentiles.