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Michael Gowen

Simeon and Levi - Violence

Simeon and Levi are lessons to us when we are tempted to use violence - physical or verbal – to bring about what we desire (or, worse still, what we think God desires).

Photo: Anton Repponen (Unsplash, CC)

The appearance of Islamic State (Daesh) on the world scene has given rise to much discussion about the relationship between religion and violence.

Islam was born in a world of violent conflict between the various tribes on the Arabian Peninsula, and that violent backcloth comes through in a reading of the Quran. The concept of jihad, or struggle, striving, is deeply rooted in the religion, though there is much discussion among Islamic scholars on the extent to which this struggle is military or spiritual.

Christianity too was born in a society where violence was part of everyday life. The Roman occupiers of Israel in the 1st century were not noted for the gentleness and kindness, and a patchwork of armed guerrilla groups had arisen among the Jews with the aim of driving out the Romans. One of Jesus’ chosen apostles had even been a member of such a group, hence his name: Simon the Zealot.

The founder of Christianity, Jesus, was also part of this 1st century society where violence was endemic; but he refused to assimilate those values to himself. He had spent three years of public ministry challenging the social and religious values of his society, so much so that matters had reached the point where the religio-political authorities were sending an armed detachment to arrest him. At this point he faced a clear choice: It could be his big opportunity to launch the armed struggle which many of his supporters were wanting; or he could take another path.

Peter, still steeped in the values of his society, was quite clear about his choice. He quickly got out his sword and crashed it down on the skull of the nearest person – which happened to be the high priest’s servant –  narrowly missing his head and cutting off his ear. Jesus, however, had made a different choice. “Put your sword back in its place,” he told Peter, “for all those who draw the sword will die by the sword.” The disciples could not cope with this choice, and they all deserted him and fled, as we read in Matthew 26.

Simeon and Levi, the second and third sons of Jacob, like Jesus and his disciples, grew up in a society where violence was accepted at levels which we would not tolerate today. They too had to choose how to respond to violence. When their sister Dinah was raped by the son of the local ruler, who then wanted to marry her, they tricked the local people into being circumcised as a condition of giving their sister to the young man in marriage. But they never had any intention of doing this. And three days later, while all the men were still in pain from the circumcision, they took their swords and attacked the unsuspecting city, killing every male. You can read about this in Genesis 34.

Jacob, their father, was worried about this provoking an attack from other tribes in the area; but the two brothers were totally unrepentant. They even enlisted the help of their other brothers to seize all the possessions of the city, together with the women and children, and carry them off as plunder. As it turned out, there was no adverse reaction from the tribes around - maybe they never got to hear about it. News travelled slowly in those days. So, there were no consequences from their violence - or were there?

Many years later, shortly before his death, Jacob gathered his 12 sons together to bless them. How exciting! What was their father going to prophesy over them from the Lord? This was an event not to be missed! Well, after speaking about Reuben, his firstborn, he turned to his second and third sons: “Simeon and Levi are brothers - their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter into their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7).

Their unwarranted violence - against both human beings and animals, note - had not been forgotten by God, nor by Jacob. By God’s grace they did not die a violent death, and their tribes continued for many years - even today there are Jews who trace their ancestry back to Levi. But the consequences of their violence were long-lasting. Just as Jacob prophesied, both of their tribes were scattered throughout Israel. If you look at a map of the division of the 12 tribes, you will not find Levi anywhere, because they received no tribal inheritance of territory (Joshua 13:14, 33). Nor will you find Simeon, as they seem to have maintained a semi-nomadic existence in the territory of the tribe of Judah.

Simeon and Levi are lessons to us when we are tempted to use violence - physical or verbal – to bring about what we desire (or, worse still, what we think God desires). Much discredit has been brought upon Islam recently through the violence and brutality of Islamic State, just as much discredit has been brought on Christianity through the violence of the Crusades almost a millennium ago. Indeed, they are still a major stumbling block preventing many Muslims from considering the claims of Jesus Christ. Instead, we are told, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have; but do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). If we desire the Lord to be near, then let our gentleness be evident to everybody (Philippians 4:5).




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