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No. 132: On Not Yoking an Ox and an Ass Together

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 132
Copyright (c) 2000 Biblical Horizons
August, 2000

5. Simeon and Levi:

Brothers they destroyed.

They treated violently their circumcised-covenant fellows.

6. "Into their counsel let not my soul enter.

Into their assembly let not my glory join.

For in their anger they killed a man,

And in their pleasure they hamstrung an ox.

7. Cursed is their anger so fierce

And their fury so cruel.

I hereby scatter them in Jacob,

And I hereby disperse them in Israel.

(Genesis 49:5-7)

This translation of Genesis 49:5 builds on Victor Hamilton’s discussion of some of the difficulties in the Hebrew text (The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995]). It involves taking note of some of the ancient translations as well as of the Hebrew text. The Hebrew text by itself does not have the nice parallelism, but makes the same point: "Simeon and Levi — brothers. Articles of violence are their circumcision-knives. "

The Hebrew term translated either "circumcised-covenant fellows" or "circumcision-knives" is obscure, occurring only here in the Hebrew Bible. Several suggestions have been offered, but there is some scholarly consensus that it is built from the word meaning "cut." Thus, some translate it as knives or swords. But since there are other words for knives and swords, the best suggestion seems to be that it refers to those who have been cut, to those who have been cut into the covenant by being cut, to those who have been circumcised. Covenants are "cut" in the Bible, often by cutting an animal; but circumcision is also a covenant that is made by cutting, and since this is what Simeon and Levi in fact did, the cutting here seems to allude at least implicitly to circumcision. Thus, the meaning is either (as above), "Articles of violence are their covenant-cutters"; or, "They violently treated their covenant-cut brothers."

The background for the curse on Simeon and Levi by their father Jacob is found in Genesis 34. There we read that their young sister, Dinah, was seduced (not raped; the Hebrew is not that strong) by Shechem, a prince of the men of Salem, a city later called Shechem – perhaps the same as the Salem of Melchizedek and the later JeruSalem, though perhaps not. (Genesis 33:18 literally reads, "And Jacob came to Salem, the city of Shechem.")

Jacob permitted his grown sons, Simeon and Levi, to deal with the situation, as it was customary for older brothers to negotiate for the marriage of their younger sisters (compare Genesis 24). A study of Genesis 38 will show that Judah had already married and had moved away, for the incident at Salem happened, according to the chronology of Genesis, after Joseph had been sold into Egypt, and Judah married right after that event. Reuben is also not involved in the Salem incident, though why is not clear. It is probable that he also had already married and moved away, following the injunction of Genesis 2:24. The other full brothers of Dinah were not much older than she, so the acting adult brothers on the scene were Simeon and Levi. (Joseph was sold when he was seventeen. Dinah was at least six years younger than Joseph, and thus too young to have been seduced before he departed. Moreover, Jacob was living at Hebron when Joseph was sold, but had moved to Salem by this time.)

The brothers were understandably angry, but Shechem tried to placate them. He pledged his undying love for Dinah, and offered any restitution they desired for his taking advantage of her. The brothers hit upon a plan. They would get Shechem and the men of Salem to circumcise themselves, and then, while they were crippled in pain, fall upon them and kill them all.

The brothers explained to Shechem and to his father Hamor that they could not let their sister marry an uncircumcised man. The city of Salem would have to become circumcised, and thus join with Jacob’s religion. Indeed, Jacob had already been witnessing to these people (Genesis 33:20), so the men of Salem already knew that Jacob advocated a unique God who tolerated no others.

Now of course, the men of Salem might have converted and remained uncircumcised God-fearers, joining Jacob’s religion in this sense; but it was essential to the brothers’ wicked plan that they be wounded, so the demand of circumcision was placed upon them.

It is a testimony to Shechem’s love for Dinah that he was willing to go along with this painful ritual. It is more surprising that the entire city was willing to go along with it. To be sure, Hamor and Shechem presented the deal to the men of Salem in fairly gross terms: "If we join with them and intermarry with them, we will profit financially." Still, we should probably see the work of the Holy Spirit here, in that the whole calling of Abraham was to be a witness to the nations, and circumcision was a sign of that calling. If indeed, as was doubtless the case, some of the men of Salem hoped to take over Jacob’s estate, we know from the preceding story of Laban and Jacob that God would not have allowed that to happen.

Jacob was no doubt pleased. What had started out as a painful and wicked event had turned out to be a doubly-successful evangelistic encounter. Not only were the men of Salem going to convert, but they were going to join the special priestly people as well by being circumcised. We cannot expect pagans to act decently, but if they repent and are willing to join the Kingdom, we must welcome them.

Of course, the brothers horribly perverted the entire event. They massacred the men of Salem and took their wives and children as their own. Jacob commented that they had caused his witness to stink in the nostrils of all the people round about and had destroyed the effectiveness of his covenantal labors.

The murder of the men of Salem was in no way a proper act of vengeance. First of all, only Shechem was guilty. Second, he had repented and had offered appropriate restitution. Third, even if he had not repented, murder was an excessive response, as God makes clear later on in Exodus 22:17 and especially in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, which describes precisely this case.

But most importantly, the men of Salem had become covenant-brothers of Simeon and Levi, and thus to murder them was to repeat the sin of Cain. Just as Cain was exiled from the land near Eden into a place of wandering, so Jacob cursed Simeon and Levi to he scattered in Israel.

Ox and Ass

This narrative is interesting in another way, for it provides the background for the law forbidding the yoking of ox and ass together (Deuteronomy 22:10). It is well understood that this law forbids any close covenantal joining of believers and unbelievers, including marriage (2 Corinthians 6:14). (For an extended discussion, see my monograph, The Law of Forbidden Mixtures.) It is also well understood that the donkey is an unclean animal, while the ox is a clean animal, and that this symbolism underlies the law.

But why specifically ox and ass? The answer is that Genesis 34 lies behind the phrasing of the law, at least in part. The father of Shechem was Hamor, and Hamor means "donkey, ass." In Genesis 49:6, Jacob says that Simeon and Levi "hamstrung an ox."

Now, this latter statement has occasioned a good deal of comment. Many commentators worry over the fact that nothing about hamstringing animals is recorded in Genesis 34, and it seems strange that Jacob’s sons would do such a thing, since they intended to take over all the animals for themselves. Such an interpretation plainly looks in the wrong direction.

Who, then, was the ox that was crippled? Some have suggested that the ox refers to the men of Salem, as the ox is often a symbol of power and rule. Again, however, the brothers did not merely cripple the Salemites; they annihilated them.

The answer, thus, is that the ox is Jacob. Jacob’s labors, his witness, was hamstrung by the actions of his sons. This is even clearer in Hebrew because of a pregnant pun found by comparing Genesis 49:6 with 34:30:

49:6 hamstring (`aqar) an ox

34:30 you have brought trouble (`akar) on me

Thus, by initially forbidding Shechem to marry Dinah, the brothers were saying that the ox of Jacob could not be yoked with the ass of Salem – unless that ass became an ox by being circumcised.

There are a couple of other interesting byplays in Genesis 34, which appear once we have the matter of ox and ass in view. Notice first of all that when the men of Salem become oxen, by circumcision, their massacre is indeed a kind of very intense hamstringing. Thus, eye for eye, Jacob and his household are hamstrung as a recompense. The men of Salem became unable to act in their historical/cultural situation by being massacred, and Jacob and his household also became unable to act in their situation, and stank in the nostrils of their neighbors.

Second, at another level, the very act of circumcision can be seen as a kind of hamstringing. To hamstring an animal is to cut the tendon in its leg so that it is unable to walk. Circumcision is performed on a part of the body that is also called a leg or foot in Hebrew, as when Isaiah 36:12 refers to urine as "water of the feet." The men of Salem were hamstrung, and thus so was the community of Jacob.

A hamstrung animal is useless, and is killed. There is no point in keeping it alive and feeding it. Similarly, circumcision is a sign of death, but the circumcised (hamstrung) man recovers and enters a new life on the other side of death. The asses of Salem were circumcised, but instead of receiving new life as oxen, they were killed. Thus, the meaning of circumcision was perverted and judgment came upon the house of Jacob, and eventually on the men directly responsible and their households.

The Aftermath

While Levi and Simeon were always scattered in Israel as a result of Jacob’s prophecy, that curse was turned into a blessing for both of them. As regards Simeon, that tribe joined with the tribe of Judah during the conquest (Judges 1:3; Joshua 19:1-9). They were scattered in Judah, and since Judah was more faithful during the Kingdom years than the northern tribes of Israel were, Simeon participated in that blessing.

Levi was also scattered in Israel, but as the priestly tribe within the priestly nation, they lived in special Levitical cities, as well as serving as pastors of local synagogues up until the time of the Babylonian exile. The transformation of Levi’s situation happened at the Golden Calf incident, as recorded in Exodus 32. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and broke the first tablets of the law, he stood in the gate of the camp and called all who were faithful to Yahweh to come and stand with him. Most people did so, and among them were the whole tribe of Levi (Exodus 32:26). Moses instructed the Levites to go through the camp and kill all the men who had not come outside the camp with them. They did so, and killed 3000 men (vv. 27-28).

Then Moses said, "Your hand has been filled today unto Yahweh, because each of you has been against his son and against his brother, so that He bestows a blessing on you today" (v. 29). These are not the actual sons and brothers of the Levites, for all the Levites were on Moses’ side. The sons and brothers here are their relatives by covenant, their circumcision-brothers. What Levi did on this occasion is the same thing he did to the men of Salem, but with an important difference. This time the men Levi slew were apostates from Yahweh, not fresh converts to Yahweh. Old Levi had sinfully "maximized the circumcision" of the men of Salem by killing them; now Levi maximizes the circumcision of their brothers who had forsaken the Lord. Thus, Levi’s action was a strict reversal of his earlier sin.

The filling of the hand refers to ordination, as we see in Leviticus 8:22-29, and means that Levi will assume the role originally possessed by the firstborn sons of Israel redeemed by Yahweh at the original Passover. These sons had served Moses when the covenant was made in Exodus 24, but no longer. Israel had, as a nation, forsaken the Lord, and had died. God was going to resurrect Israel, but with a new group of men as special servants. The exchange of the Levites for the firstborn is recorded in Numbers 3 and Numbers 8:14-19.