Scripture’s narrative writing omits many details modern readers expect to find. But leaving out so much, the authors heighten the significance of the details they do include. This way of writing gives the Bible a dense, intricate complexity.
This complexity extends beyond individual stories to the sequence of stories that span entire books. The arrangement of stories the authors include communicates just as much as the individual stories themselves. But, when we read Scripture from chapter to chapter or heading to heading without stepping back to view them together, we can miss part of what the author’s intended to teach.
The sequence of stories about Jacob’s wrestling match with God, his family’s resettlement in his homeland, and God confirming Jacob’s name change to Israel prove a good example. These stories span from Genesis 32 to 35.
The night before Jacob reunites with his brother Esau, whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years, whom he had tricked out of his birthright, and from whom he had stolen his blessing, he finds himself alone. After sending his family, his servants, and all of his possessions across the river, during the night, a man comes and wrestles with him. As they strive together, the mysterious man touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of place. Yet, Jacob continues to wrestle with the man, neither of them getting the upper hand.
As the sun rises, the man tells Jacob to let him leave. Jacob recognizes the man is actually God. He says he’ll only let him go after he blesses him. God blesses Jacob by giving him a new name, “Israel” because he has wrestled with God and man and prevailed. Jacob limps across the river, having “defeated” God.
After Jacob peacefully reunites with Esau, he settles near the city of Shechem. Then we read these disturbing words:
"Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her. And his soul was drawn to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, ‘Get me this girl for my wife.’ Now Jacob heard that [Shechem] had defiled his daughter Dinah. But his sons were with his livestock in the field, so Jacob held his peace until they came" (Gen 34:1–5).
Shechem displays nothing less than psychopathic behavior in the opening verses of chapter 34. He rapes Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, and humiliates her. But then, after shaming Dinah, Shechem then claims to love her. This dude is off balance.
We’re told that Jacob holds his peace to wait for his sons to come home. Except Jacob remains silent through nearly the rest of the story. His sons do all the talking and take all the action.
"The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully because he had defiled their sister Dinah. They said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us. Only on this condition will we agree with you—that you will become as we are by every male among you being circumcised” (Gen 34:8–15).
Hamor and Shechem agree. And what’s more, they succeed in convincing the men of the city to get circumcised too. But, Simeon and Levi (Dinah’s full-blooded brothers) somewhere along the way hatch a plan to irreversibly humiliate Shechem, his family, and his whole city.
"On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males. They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and went away. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the city, because they had defiled their sister. They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and plundered" (Gen 34:25–29).
After all of that, we get Jacob’s first words of this whole story.
"Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, 'You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household'" (Gen 34:30).
Finally! Jacob speaks. And, when he does his concern is not for Dinah, his humiliated daughter, but for himself! He uses eight first-person pronouns. He has nothing to say about Dinah and the shame she faces. Instead, he only complains about the situation Simeon and Levi have put him in.
What then does this sequence of stories teach us? It teaches us a pertinent lesson about the Christian life.
Despite Jacob’s massive failure here, in the next story, Genesis 35:1–15, God confirms Jacob’s name change from the previous story. “Wait…what now? You mean this self-centered, self-absorbed guy still gets to be God’s chosen dude? How is that possible? What did I miss?”
That reaction is understandable. So what then does this sequence of stories teach us?
It teaches us a pertinent lesson about the Christian life. Jacob had wrestled with God (and won!). God blessed him and changed his name. He had safely returned to his homeland with his family and was at peace with his enemy, Esau. Yet, in a moment of abject immorality and injustice perpetrated against his own daughter, all he could think about was himself. Despite all he had witnessed God do for him and give him, he still trusted in himself more than God.
But God didn’t call Jacob because he would be an example of great faith and trust. It was quite the opposite. God called Jacob to demonstrate his own faithfulness in the face of Jacob’s faithlessness.
In the moments when we despair of our inability to walk in the faith without limping, the cross of Christ is placed before our eyes.
This is us. We are Jacob. We limp along in our faith just as he did. We never fully trust God in this life. Even as baptized believers, we are still fallen creatures. Our sinful nature will always compel us to rely on ourselves, despite the mounting evidence of God’s work in our lives. Yet, when we fail, God is still true to his word. He still fulfills his promises.
In the moments when we despair of our inability to walk in the faith without limping, the cross of Christ is placed before our eyes. It is there where God demonstrated his steadfast love for us. Christ came before we had our act together knowing full well that we would never be able to get it together. God does not remove himself from us because of our sin. He is there in the midst of it, proclaiming to us that we are freely forgiven on account of Christ.