On a family vacation when our daughter Hannah was 18 months old or so, she wandered off down the beach one day. I had heard horror stories about children wandering off like that and being abducted or walking into the water and being pulled under by the current. We knew about a family who arrived at the beach for their vacation. The beach house had an in-ground pool and as they were unpacking the car, their toddler found it, fell in and drowned. Their car engine was still warm and they were dealing with the tragic loss of a child. So, with that weighing on our minds, Cindy and I did not look at each other and say, “Aw, she’ll come back. Let’s give her 15 minutes and see what happens.” I didn’t say, “Look, I will go looking for Hannah in a minute, but I am right at the good part of this book I am reading, and I can’t put it down.” Nor did I say, “Hey, you go look for her if you want, but I am tired. I have worked hard and have looked forward to this vacation for months; the last thing I want to do is to go sprinting down the beach when the waves are splashing, the gentle breezes are blowing, and the beach chair is calling.” No, I didn’t say any of that. In fact we didn’t speak at all; we looked at each other like people who have lived and loved together for a long time and took off in opposite directions down the beach.
As I was walking and half-running, I did not stop to look at shells. I don’t remember the occasion, since it was more than 30 years ago now, but I am quite certain that had I even seen a perfect shark’s tooth lying in full view, I would not have taken the second away from my search to pick it up. I also did not look out at the porpoises playing in the water or the college kids playing Frisbee or volleyball on the beach. As much as I love to just walk lazily down the beach and feel the sand in my toes, I did not think about that at all. I had one thing on my mind. I was consumed by it. My daughter was gone, and I had to find her.
The single-mindedness of my search was in direct proportion to the value I placed in that for which I was searching. That’s why I really don’t believe that anyone who is half-heartedly “seeking” is going to find anything. The one who has been set upon a quest to find the truth will be focused, intentional, and doggedly determined to find it. He will not be side-tracked, and he will not give up until his journey leads to a relationship with the Lord. God said it himself: “And you will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.”
When our daughter wandered off down the beach, she never found what she was looking for. She didn’t even know what it was. Hannah also had no idea about the dangers all around her as she wandered aimlessly. She was found and brought back home by parents who loved her and went looking for her. If you are seeking truth with all your heart, you will find it. Rather, he will find you. Jesus Christ said, I have “come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
When it comes right down to it, he is the seeker. We are the lost.
I remember it well, one day not long after I was baptized as a child. My mom said after one of my outbursts, “For somebody who just became a Christian, you sure are acting like the devil!” She was right, and really, I don’t think I was a Christian then, because baptism does not a believer make. Jacob had been changed by God, though. He was humbled with a limp, called to a different way of living, and given a new name, “Israel,” after the wrestling match at Peniel. But the reality of his covenant position was clouded by his actions. Israel was living a lot like old Jacob. I can relate.
Jacob should have gone straight back to Bethel as soon as he left Esau, but he took a disastrous detour that resulted in a daughter defiled and a murderous response by Simeon and Levi. God tells Jacob to go to Bethel, and now he obeys. Notice the actions he took for himself and his whole household before they left Shechem. He essentially said to them, “We will leave Shechem, and we will bury Paddan-aram before we go.” He tells his family to put away their foreign gods, purify themselves, and put on new clothes. We are going to Bethel, the place where God met with me and has never left me since then. And we will bury Paddan-aram and everything associated with it first, right down to the garments we wear from there. The whole tribe responds, as people bring their foreign gods and their earrings to him, and Jacob buries them under a terebinth tree outside of Shechem. Was Joshua thinking about this scene when he gathered all of Israel in Shechem years later and says to them, “Put away your foreign gods that are among you and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel”? And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, wrote down the laws and statues for them, “And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.”
The Lord God calls us forward as his children, and he walks with us, but he also tells us to leave behind everything that has kept us from fully obeying him and his word. And we do this together, as a community, like Jacob and Joshua did with the people following them. Maybe that’s why the book of Hebrews says, “Let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” (emphasis mine)
“God appeared to Jacob again” in Bethel and reminded Jacob that he had a new name. Hey, son, remember when we wrestled at Peniel? You lost, but you also won. I broke you in order to bless you. I took away your name in order to give you a new name, a new identity, a new purpose, a new calling.
God says to you and me, “Do you remember when I saved you and you died to your sins and were raised to live again in Christ? I gave you a new name then, ‘child of God.”’ I gave you a new identity: no longer a slave but adopted as a son or daughter in Christ. I gave you a new purpose and a new calling: ‘the life you now live in the flesh you live by faith in the Son of God.’” We may say, but how can we do this, Lord? How can we live in that new identity and for that new purpose?
God told Jacob how when he said, “I am God Almighty.” El Shaddai. I am the God who provides for you in every way. Not just with sunshine and rain and flowers and good food. I provide all that you need to live your new life as a son or daughter and no longer a slave. I am so you can BE!
Do you ever play the “what-if” game? We all do. What if you could suddenly understand your dog? Or what if your mom was a spy? You might want to take a closer look at her right now…But there’s a deadly version that I don’t recommend playing, especially after a tragedy. It can heap shame and guilt on top of the grace the Lord is pouring out to bring you healing. Peter may have played that game for three days after Jesus’ arrest in the garden: what if my sword had been true and I had been able to stop them from taking the Lord? We know how that story ended. Here are some what ifs for the tragic story of Dinah’s rape in Genesis 34.
What if Jacob had obeyed God and gone back to Bethel, instead of settling first in Succoth and then in Shechem? What if Jacob had not let his only daughter wander alone in a wicked city? What if Jacob had not been such a passive bystander after his daughter’s assault? What if Jacob had understood the level of his sons’ rage after the assault and had responded strongly to them? We don’t know. Here’s what we do know.
It’s an ugly story, there’s just no way around it, and like so many of the stories we have read in Genesis, there are no real winners. God is the hero of the book but in this story, he is ignored by all.
Dinah was the youngest of Leah’s seven children, and the only girl. Most likely she was a teenager around 15 years old, but we cannot know for sure. She “went out” to see the women of the land, and in doing so Allen Ross says she “loosened the stone for the slide.” In the Old Testament, the wording there for “went out” often refers to making a poor moral choice. But the question is whether Jacob or Leah knew she was wandering in the city. Did she tell them she was going to see the town on her own and Jacob just shrugged? Or did Jacob absolutely forbid it and she did it anyway? Again, we cannot be certain. Leon Morris writes, “Unattached young women were considered fair game in cities of the time, in which promiscuity was not only common but, in fact, a part of the very religious system itself.” Even in the near east today Arab women and Muslim women never go out into public alone. They are always together. It was then and is now a dangerous world for young people, especially young girls, and every parent’s worst nightmare happened to Dinah.
The report of the assault is essential to the story, and Moses makes it clear that it was an assault. Shechem “saw her…seized her…lay with her… humiliated her.” The construction of the phrase, “lay with her” in Hebrew does not include “with,” as it does later when Potiphar’s wife says to Joseph, “lie with me.” There is no indication of consent with Dinah, only force and a violent crime that humiliated this young girl and is one of the most shameful events in the Old Testament. Shechem took advantage of this young woman, and then happily took her to his home. Then what happened?
Moses writes that Shechem “loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her.” What a perversion of what the order of such a relationship is to be! The word of God is clear: A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Shechem forced Dinah to “become one flesh,” a clear violation of the law of God, and then decided that he “loved her,” which was probably nothing more than sensual desire, and began to pursue her as a wife. Young people, be careful not to fall into the trap that has been prevalent since the fall. “Young men use ‘love’ to get intimacy and young women use intimacy to get love” is a cliché for a reason. In the case of Shechem and Dinah, he alone was the guilty party, even though she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His violent demand for immediate gratification would have deadly consequences.
You can read the rest of the story, but the sad truth is that Dinah is never heard from again in the Bible. The “what if” questions are haunting.
Even though we were post-COVID in 2022, the effects of the pandemic continued. One of the results for churches everywhere has been a re-shuffling of the deck, where people have moved around some, but the worst part has been that some cards simply fell out of the deck. I wrote in my journal last February, “Online church can be and is a great blessing to the shut-in, but it can also be a great disincentive as well.” What happens when the shut-in becomes a stay-in? The person who could not get out because of the virus or because of other extenuating circumstances can easily become the person who won’t get out when those circumstances are just a memory. This is what the writer of Hebrews is saying in chapter 10. Verse 25, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” The habit of some has become to not meet together with other believers, and the time when the believers are in the habit of meeting, since Jesus rose from the dead, is the first day of the week. The word there for habit is ethos in the Greek, which literally means custom, usual practice, or manner of living. We are known by and marked by our ethos, the way we customarily live our lives. If we only gather with the saints when it is convenient to do so, then our ethos, our manner of living, is marked by that. But we are invited into the assembling of ourselves together on a weekly basis. That’s why the church was called ekklesia in the New Testament, 115 times. It means “called out,” and the people of God are spiritually and by God’s grace called out of the world and into Christ, into his body, a local fellowship and assembly of believers. That means they are also physically called out of their homes and called into the place where the church is meeting, if they are physically able. We have to be very careful with the habits we create, especially any habit that draws us away from the physical gathering of God’s people.
The writer of Hebrews is concerned about this and wants the people of God to be concerned as well. What should we do? Verse 24: Let us consider one another. The word means to observe, to notice. We love each other and notice when something is wrong, or when someone has been missing the gathering. That’s good, but then we are called to consider “how to stir up one another to love and good works.” The idea there requires a moving towards another intentionally in order to bring them in, draw them back, call them again towards love and good works. And in verse 25, the writer adds, “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
I remember the story of a pastor who visited a church member years ago who had stopped coming. They sat together in the man’s den, just the two of them, and there was a roaring fire in fireplace. The pastor told the man he missed him at church and encouraged him to come back. The man made some excuses as to why he wasn’t coming and ended with, “Pastor, I am doing fine. I’ll come back to church one day but honestly, I can’t really see the need for it sometimes. I still read my Bible, pretty much, and still pray when I think about it.” The pastor nodded and got up from his chair and walked over to the fire. He took the poker from the hearth and reached in with it to pull one of the small logs away from the burning pile of wood. Then he sat down, and the two men watched in silence as the small log that had been separated from the pile of wood smoldered for a few minutes and then went out. The man nodded and said, “Thanks for coming by, pastor. I’ll see you all on Sunday.”