Do Not Remain Silent! Sexual Violence in Genesis

During the Genesis series I have approached each sermon from a narrative preaching/storytelling perspective. I will continue that today, with some expository comments and statistics at the end. Activities for little kids outside of the Celebration Center were offered for parents concerned about the sermon content (emails and announcements were shared in recent weeks).

Genesis 34:1-7 and 38:1-11

Jacob ran away from home to avoid the wrath of his brother Esau. He settled in the land of his Uncle Laban and fell in love with a woman. Twenty years later, he had two wives and two concubines, who together produced twelve sons, who will become the originators of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Often forgotten, Jacob had a daughter as well: Dinah.

Dinah’s story, such as it is, is contained in Genesis 34. She goes out to visit some women while her brothers are working and her father is home (remember, he was always a homebody). Alone, she is attacked by Shechem, the son of Hamor, the ruler of the territory. It’s important to recall that at this time Jacob and his family are still outsiders in the land of Canaan. Shechem falls in love with his victim and desires to marry her. He goes to his father to make this happen. Earlier generations of Abraham’s family, including Jacob himself, were forbidden from marrying Canaanite women, but after the break between Jacob and Laban, the men will have to find wives from other families. So Hamor travels to meet Jacob and arrange a marriage.

Jacob learns of the rape of his daughter, but says and does nothing. His sons see Hamor on the road to meet their father, and they are filled with rage-- not so much for their sister’s suffering as for their lowered status. Hamor asks the brothers-- he never meets Jacob face to face-- about the possibility of Shechem marrying Dinah, and all of them intermarrying together in the future. The brothers decline, saying the sons of Hamor are not circumcised. So Hamor has all the grown men of his family circumcised. Three days later, while they are still hurting, the sons of Jacob sneak into the camp, kill all the men, rape all the women, kidnap all the children, and plunder all their possessions. Jacob, heartbroken at all of this horror, says to his sons, “You have brought trouble on me by making me odious (“me”-- it is Jacob, after all) to the inhabitants of the land; my numbers are few, and if they attack I shall be destroyed.” Their response: What were we to do? Let Dinah become a whore?

Dinah is a side character in her own traumatic story. She has no voice. After the rape Shechem takes her as a bride without her father’s consent. After the violence inflicted by her brothers she is taken from that place and brought home. She is never heard from again.

Another of Jacob’s sons, Judah, had his own family. His son Er married Tamar. Er was a cruel, hateful person, so much that God killed him (hey, it’s what the book says; I didn’t write it). Tradition dictated when a brother’s wife was widowed, the next brother should marry her, so Judah instructed Onan to marry Tamar. Onan knew if he had sons with Tamar they would be considered Er’s kids, and so would inherit Judah’s stuff before he did. So he agreed to marry her, but would not have children with her. So God struck him dead (see note above on Er). Now Judah, with one son remaining, is afraid something bad will happen to him as well, so he sends Tamar away to live with her father. Maybe when he’s older the youngest son will marry her. Yeah right.

So Tamar takes matters into her own hands. After Judah’s wife dies she dresses as a prostitute in order to lure Judah to have children with her. He sees her at the city gates but does not recognize her as Tamar. He asks the price for her services (usually a goat), but instead she asks for three things: his signet ring, his belt, and his staff. He gives these to her. He lies with her and she conceives. Later she reappears to Judah, pregnant and unmarried, and he is indignant. He orders her burned to death. She reveals the three items of his in her possession, saying he was the father of her unborn twins. Tamar is the one person in the story who acts after the injustice done to her. Judah admits after the ordeal that Tamar was right to go to her extreme means. And he was wrong to not fulfill his duty to her.

For us to remain silent, to discourage public discussion of such issues, leads to their perpetuation. The more we speak honestly and openly the greater chance the cycle of violence and shame will be broken. It is very likely that many here today have faced or will face sexual violence in their lives. Perhaps because we are discussing this openly they will feel more comfortable speaking out should such horror happen to them.

According to the Grayson County Crisis Center,
Nearly 1/3 of American women report being physically or sexually assaulted by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives.
One 1 in 5 adolescent  girls will be physically and/or sexually assaulted in a dating relationship.
70% of children of abused women are also physically abused.
According to the FBI, a woman is beaten in the country every 15 seconds.
A husband or partner murders a woman in Texas every 2.3 days.
Nationally, domestic violence kills over 3,000 women each year.
Nearly, 2,000,000 Texas females have been sexually assaulted.
Only 18% of victims report sexual assault to law enforcement officials.

Now let’s be clear: rape is not sex. Sex is a beautiful, wonderful gift of God between married, and consenting, adults. Rape is violence. Rape occurs in many forms: incest, sexual violence between family members, date rape, sexual assault between a couple; spousal rate, sexual assault between a married couple are a few examples. The worst part of the story has nothing to do with Jacob or his sons. It is easy to forget the victim of the story—Dinah—because the storyteller forgets her. A recent National Crime Panel survey showed that women who scream, run, fight back, etc. rebuff two would-be assailants for every one that succeeds. Rape is the most unreported violent crime due to the stigmas associated with it. Jacob hears of the assault but does nothing. Is our reluctance to tell Dinah’s story, and the stories of other victims, a way of hiding her away? When we refuse to talk about rape, are we perpetuating the shame of the victims?

These are terrible stories, filled with violence, unanswered questions, and no happy ending. No wonder these texts are not included in the lectionary, the assigned texts most churches use every week. This summer many of the stories of Genesis are listed, but not the Dinah and Tamar stories. Too much suffering. Too many difficult issues. An absence of God in both stories. Some here today may well question hearing this in a worship service. But life is never so easy, is it? We could read and study only those verses of the Bible that are comforting, but when we cut and paste the scripture what does that do to its authority? Do we ever get to live our lives exactly as we want to? Are we really ever protected from evil and violence? There are several life lessons all of us can learn from these episodes.

1. Our children watch and learn from us. Jacob did not take women by violence, but he did have multiple wives, only one of which he loved. The other women in his eyes were simply vehicles for producing offspring. Children see how we treat others. When we objectify others made in the image of God, it is often repeated through the generations.
2. The suffering of others can be manipulated for other evil means. Dinah’s brothers take vengeance against Shechem not for Dinah’s honor, but because of their lessened status because of her rape. They respond to violence with murder, rape, kidnapping, and theft. Jesus said, "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Jacob’s silence after learning of the assault enables this behavior.
3. Forgiveness does not come easily, and delaying it leads to more disaster. At the end of his life, Jacob, now named Israel, prays for his twelve sons. Here is what he says to Simeon and Levi, the leaders of the attack against Hamor and his sons:

‘Simeon and Levi are brothers;
   weapons of violence are their swords.
May I never come into their council;
   may I not be joined to their company—
for in their anger they killed men,
   and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
   and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob,
   and scatter them in Israel.

The Dinah story teaches us so much about the reality of rape. We imagine that rapes only happen in dark alleys by strangers, but the reality is that the great majority of sexual assaults are inflicted by people the victims knew well. Most victims tell no one, out of a belief that this is a personal issue. The church’s silence on this issue continues Jacob’s silence in the face of the attack on his daughter. As Bruce Birch has said, “If such stories are read as part of our biblical tradition, similar stories can be faced in our own lives, in the lives of our families and friends, and in the life of our communities.”

Victims of sexual violence speak of having an unclean soul, having difficulty praying or attending church. We tend to think of rape as an act of physical violence only, but the spiritual crisis is just as acute. In fact, thinking from a biblical perspective, there is no division between the physical, emotional, or spiritual in a person. The Hebrew word nefesh speaks to the completeness of the person—the unification of mind, soul, and body. When we are seriously harmed, all of who we are suffers. Even when God appears to be distant and silence in the face of abuse, we believe God is still at work in our lives, bringing healing and restoration. There is a wonderful tradition of lament in the Bible, where the writers share their pain and suffering with God:

“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10)

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2)

Those are all comforting words, not just for victims of sexual violence but for anyone who suffers. But we need to realize that sometimes there are no words to explain our pain and grief, and there are no words that offer immediate comfort. We want to help, but we are powerless. Sometimes all we can do is endure the silence together. But we can not remain silent. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.