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The Israelites could have simply refused the Hivites' suggestion that the tribes be combined, demanded Dinah back, and made other plans to exact justice from the Hivite prince, Shechem. Why did they agree instead?

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The brothers (no spokesman is named) begin with perfect honesty: Dinah has been violated; the Lord commands that our daughters marry only circumcised men. Then begins the lie: if the Shechemites will circumcise themselves, then the two clans will intermarry and “become one people.” (Gen 34:16) The lie is that the brothers have no intention whatsoever to do this.

Now, a first-time reader who missed the word “deceitfully” might think nothing amiss at this point in the story. But with this one word, our author plainly asserts that the Israelites are making this offer dishonestly, hiding their true intentions and, it seems, the suppressing their anger.

So why do they not simply refuse the Hivites? The narrative itself makes this clear enough: if the men of the city of Shechem do go ahead and circumcise themselves, they will wound themselves and then the brothers can more safely rescue Dinah; and some might have harbored an intention to take their revenge at least upon Shechem.

Now, let us be very clear. The Israelites were fully aware that they could not intermarry with the Hivites. Abraham, whose story must have been well known to the brothers, was told that the Canaanites would all in time be extirpated from the land. The sign of circumcision marked the descendants of Abraham as separate from the people among whom they lived. Joining with them would be disgraceful for that reason alone.

This too was the attitude of Abraham, Rebekah, and Isaac, as we can see from several supporting verses, as Matthew Henry well points out:

  • Abraham instructs his main servant, who goes to Haran to fetch a wife for Isaac, “And I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell.” (Gen 24:3)
  • The wife that servant found, Rebekah, later tells Isaac, “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth, such as these which are of the daughters of the land, what good shall my life do me?” (27:46)
  • Finally, as if to underscore his wife’s attitude, Isaac instructs Jacob, “Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan.” (28:1)

Thus, while Jacob’s parents and grandfather do not specifically cite the signs given by the Lord, they seem to have taken it to heart. But note that the Israelites have no intention whatever of intermarrying with the Hivites: they are being deceptive about something quite serious. Why?

Well, first we should discuss who actually deceived the Hivites. Why would the brothers other than Simeon and Levi endorse a deception if they were not prepared to act on it? There are two possibilities.

  1. The Israelites all actually plotted their revenge in advance.
  2. Either Simeon or Levi was the spokesman, and while that pair plotted their revenge, the rest of the family thought the pair were being sincere, and actually went along with the stated plan.

But the second of these possibilities is very implausible. If two of the brothers were murderously angry, the others would be at least angry enough to explicitly reject the offer of marriage; and, for reasons just stated, they would probably all be disgusted at the notion that they combine their clans. Indeed, it is hard to see how one or two brothers could speak deceitfully without all the rest, and Jacob as well, partaking in the lie. And if they did, why would they, except to rescue Dinah and perhaps to revenge themselves on this arrogant, disgusting prince?

This does not require that they be prepared to murder all the men of the place, however; that need not have been a part of the general plot to deceive the Hivites. Perhaps it was not even Simeon’s and Levi’s original intention.

But there is another possibility. As Allen P. Ross says in the Bible Knowledge Commentary, perhaps the Israelites “assumed that Shechem and Hamor would never consent to their males being circumcised as a condition for intermarriage.” That seems very plausible.

There is one last aspect of this topic that needs explaining. What would be the ostensible reason why Jacob’s sons would propose that the Hivites of Shechem be circumcised? In other words, how might Jacob's sons go about explaining their request to the Hivites? In short, circumcision is essential to being one of the tribe of Israel: “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.” (Gen 17:14) On this basis, a man could become a naturalized (i.e., “proselyte”) Israelite through circumcision: “And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee..let all his males be circumcised...; and he shall be as one that is born in the land” (Ex 12:48).

Thus, though the latter law was not yet established, Jacob’s sons correctly inferred something like it from the covenant already in place. And this made the deception a serious act of wrongdoing, one that it is extremely unlikely the Lord would have approved.

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It didn't go very well for Simeon and Levi in Jakob's testament, Genesis 49:5-7.

The blame was put on the two tribes, not all of the tribes of Israel.

The event left hardly a trace other than in Jakob's testament and negative history: Simeon got a remote area that disappeared from history and Levi got nothing.

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