Were Simeon and Levi justified in standing up for righteousness by killing the Canaanite prince who raped their sister, along with all his people? We’re examining how later Jews judged their actions.
The Book of Jubilees is a second century BC retelling of the Genesis story. Its author presented the actions of Simeon and Levi as completely justified. In fact, it argues that the Levites were chosen as the priestly tribe because Levi stood up for righteousness:
Jubilees 30:17-18 See how it was for the Shechemites and their sons, how they were given into the hand of the two children of Jacob and they killed them painfully. And it was a righteousness for them and it was written down for them for righteousness. And the seed of Levi was chosen for the priesthood and levitical (orders) to minister before the Lord always just as we do. And Levi and his sons will be blessed forever because he was zealous to do righteousness and judgment and vengeance against all who rose up against Israel.
The writer of Jubilees found an analogy between the actions of Simeon and Levi and the actions of Phinehas when the Moabites tried to lead the Israelites into idolatry and promiscuity at Peor. God’s anger broke out against Israel, and it was only stemmed when the high priest Phinehas drove a spear through a compromised Israelite and his Moabite partner. Phinehas’ descendants were given the priesthood in perpetuity “because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel” (Numbers 25:13). The high priest normally made atonement via sacrifices, but in an emergency he could make atonement by removing the evil from Israel—with a sword! Psalm 106:31 confirms that when Phineas’ questionable actions were weighed by the divine court, his actions were ruled as just, literally “counted as righteousness.” Jubilees borrows this language and applies it to the actions of Simeon and Levi, right down to asserting that Levi received the priesthood because he was seen to stand for divine justice.
On the other hand, the writer of 4 Maccabees evaluated Levi and Simeon’s actions as irrational, the inexcusable uncontrolled explosion of angry passions. In his view, their father was right to reprimand them:
4 Maccabees 2:19 Why else did Jacob, our most wise father, censure the households of Simeon and Levi for their irrational slaughter of the entire tribe of the Shechemites, saying, “Cursed be their anger”?
For this writer, the older Jacob was infinitely more rational and wise than these young hotheads. He recognizes that while the brothers have the last word in Genesis 34, the narrator actually gives the last word to Jacob who curses their anger instead of giving them his blessing:
Genesis 49:5–7 (ESV)
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. 7 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.
For Jacob, Levi’s and Simeon’s violent actions are unjustified and indefensible. They have no business attacking gentiles to enforce justice. Josephus draws a similar conclusion, describing Jacob as “aghast at the enormity of these acts and indignant at his sons” (Antiquities 1.341). Philo warns that “those who are prepared to avenge themselves on such profane and impure dispositions are Simeon and Levi” (Names 200).
Siding with Jacob, Josephus and Philo find Simeon and Levi’s response completely disproportionate. This is not “life for life” (Exodus 21:23). This is an entire village for one life. It’s similar to Lamech’s evil boast of seventy-sevenfold vengeance, but even worse (Genesis 4:24).
The analogy between Dinah’s brothers and Phineas doesn’t work. Phineas was dealing with a problem within Israel: he was not trying to force the Moabites to live like Israelites. Simeon and Levi’s response is about as logical as the politician from the TV series Yes Minister who says: “Something should be done. This is something. Therefore this should be done.”
Jesus’ attitudes aligned him with Jacob, not Simeon and Levi (compare Matthew 5:38-48). Jesus’ instruction on how we are to be the kingdom of God leaves us vulnerable to abuse and injustice. So when people harm, dishonour, or defile you, how will you respond?
What others are saying
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 633–634:
What begins as a personal tragedy in Jacob’s family (the violation of Dinah) turns into serious jeopardy to the entire covenant promise. This jeopardy is articulated in 34:9–10, where the offer is put forth for Jacob’s family to intermarry with the Hivites and to merge their families and societies. While the short-term gains may be economically and socially attractive, the long-term result would be assimilation of the family of Abraham and the loss of their distinct identity. The covenant hangs in the balance as this proposal is considered. It is unacceptable to say that Simeon and Levi’s massacre of the Shechemites “saves the day,” for they are responding to an entirely different problem, and their solution is entirely unacceptable.
Nevertheless, as it turns out in the providence of God, the reprehensible and inexcusable behavior of Simeon and Levi accomplishes something that was in harmony with God’s will. That is, the horrific behavior of the sons to avenge their family honor results in assimilation being avoided.
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 238:
Jacob now intervenes for the first time and berates Simeon and Levi for recklessly jeopardizing by their actions the very survival of the entire clan. There is no indication as to how Jacob relates to the larger moral issue that innocent people are punished for the crimes of a few. On his deathbed Jacob strongly censures Simeon and Levi for acts of violence and cruelty.
Read Genesis 34.