Each spring, as soon as the ice was off the Pembina River, a group of friends and I would put our canoes in and take a little canoe trip. The point, of course, was that with the spring runoff, the water was flowing quite fast and often over its banks and it made for a fun and fast ride down the river. The enjoyment was going with the flow, not against, it which would have been a lot of work. In fact, whenever I plan a canoe trip, I always try to find out which way the water is flowing so that I don’t have to work as hard. When it comes to canoeing, going with the flow is the best way to go.
When it comes to life, however, that is not the case. Our society often flows in a direction away from God and God has called us to go against the flow. Many of you have probably seen the posters of the “Christian” fish going against the flow. That describes our life.
This morning we will look at three stories in Genesis - one helps us think about the direction of the flow of the surrounding society, the second warns us of the danger of compromising with that surrounding culture and the third encourages us to go against the flow. They are interesting stories, but if we were to make a movie of them, they would probably have to have a restricted label, however, this is the Word of God.
The first story takes place in Genesis 34. Jacob and his family - his four wives, eleven sons and one daughter and all he had - had moved back to the promised land and were living near the city of Shechem.
One day, Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, went out to visit the women of the land. One day when she was visiting, the son of the ruler of the land, whose name was Shechem, saw her and the Bible uses three words to describe that he raped her. Following that, it says that he loved her. When Jacob found out about this, he said nothing until his sons came in from the fields. Shechem and his father, Hamor, came over to Jacob’s place and Shechem asked if he could marry Dinah. Jacob’s sons heard about this and they were very upset at what Shechem had done and so they answered deceitfully and said that the only way they would permit this marriage was if all the men of the city of Shechem would be circumcised. He was so in love with Dinah that he agreed and went back to his people to persuade them that this was a good idea. He convinced them when he said to them, “Won’t their livestock, their property and all their other animals become ours? So let us give our consent to them...” They agreed and on one day, they were all circumcised. Three days later when they were still in pain, Simeon and Levi, who were Dinah’s full brothers, went to the town of Shechem, killed all the men and plundered the city. When they returned home, Jacob was deeply concerned about what they had done and was afraid that other Canaanite people would attack them. The brothers, however, responded by saying, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”
Dinah “went out to visit the women of the land.” What kind of people were they? We have already learned from previous stories that the family of God were not to marry Canaanites. Abraham had warned his servant, in Genesis 24:3, do not get a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites. When Esau married some of the Canaanites, in Genesis 26:34, 35, they were a source of grief to his parents, Isaac and Rebekah. Later when the law was written down, the children of Israel were warned, in Deuteronomy 7:3, 4, “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”
The story of what happened to Dinah reveals that this concern was justified. The action of Shechem is looked at with significant horror. The three words used to describe what Shechem did to her, in verse 2, are that he took her, he lay with her and he humbled or mishandled or afflicted her. After he had done this, he spoke to his father about it, wanting to marry her, and there is no indication that his father thought it was a bad thing. Dinah’s brothers, however, were horrified. Their horror and that of the writer of the Bible is clearly revealed in the way the event is described and reported. In verse 5, the writer says, “his daughter had been defiled.” In verse 7, the brothers are described as being “filled with grief and fury.” Their anger is reported to be because Shechem did “a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter - a thing that should not be done.” Then in verse 13, the explanation of their deceptive talk is justified “because their sister had been defiled.” This is repeated in verse 27 and when they defend their slaughter of the Shechemites to their father in verse 31, they say, - “should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?”
There are some other things which we might note as we try to understand this story. Some might think it honourable that Shechem wanted to make things right by marrying Dinah, but when we read later that the brothers had to remove their sister from his home, we see that after he violated her, he continued to confine her. Although the action of the brothers in killing all of the men of the town was rather violent and hardly justifiable, it seems it may have been the right thing when we consider that Hamor and Shechem were looking to profit from Jacob and would probably not have done so nicely. Although it is hard to accept the violence of the slaughter, the action of the brothers arose out of their zeal for righteousness in the face of a society that was not righteous and this is one of the main points of the story, it reveals the immorality of the culture surrounding Israel.
Like Dinah, there are many ways in which we go out and “visit the people of the land.” We have relationships, business dealings and all kinds of contact with the society around us. We view the media of the culture around us. We vacation and work in it and we attend school and university in it. There are many ways in which it is a good culture and we can relate quite nicely and normally with that culture. But there are also many ways in which we realize that the culture around us holds values that are not the values of righteousness. The discussion of the redefinition of marriage in parliament this week reveals that. The promiscuity which is often viewed in the media reveals it, as does the lack of integrity and the consumerism. Just like the culture surrounding Jacob and his family we also live in a culture which is not morally righteous.
What happens when we live in such a culture? A second story, found in Genesis 38, reveals the danger.
One of the sons of Jacob, Judah, left home and went to live in another place. There he met a Canaanite woman, the daughter of Shua, and married her. From everything we have already discovered about marrying a Canaanite woman, we know that this is a sign of trouble.
The story moves quite quickly at this point and we find that his wife had three sons - Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah got a wife for Er whose name was Tamar. But, Er was an evil man. It is interesting to note that in Hebrew Er is evil backwards. Er was his name and he was “ra” or evil. Therefore, God put him to death before they had any children. There was a law that if a man died without having children, his brother should take his wife and have children with her. The first child born would be the heir of the brother. The reason for this was to carry on the family name of the brother. According to this law, which was common in Israel and also in other cultures around, Er’s brother, Onan, took Tamar as his wife. But Onan refused to have children with Tamar because he did not want to give his brother an heir. God saw this evil and also put Onan to death. The third brother, Shelah was too young yet so Judah told Tamar to go to her father’s house and remain a widow there until Shelah grew up. But Judah was afraid that Shelah would also die and so did not give him to Tamar as a husband. Some time later, Tamar realized that Judah was not going to do what he had promised. She found out that Judah was going to another area to shear some sheep and she went into the region dressed as a prostitute instead of a widow. She had a veil on and Judah did not recognize her, but had relations with her. When he did, he offered to pay her one goat. As a pledge of his promise to pay her, he gave her his staff, seal and cord, which was equivalent to giving her his credit card. He left and when he sent the goat, with his friend Hirah, they discovered that she was not there any more and could not collect. This was somewhat embarrassing to Judah, but he did not pursue it and so gave up recovering his property. Some time later, he found out that Tamar was pregnant. In anger, he pronounced the sentence of death on her for committing adultery. When she was being brought out to be killed, she indicated that the person who had made her pregnant was the man who owned the staff, seal and cord, which were, of course, Judah’s. Judah realized his wrong and she was spared. As a result of the relationship between Judah and Tamar, twins were born.
In Genesis 34, we saw that the culture of the Canaanites was not a righteous culture. In this story, we see why it was dangerous to live among them and that is because Jacob’s son, Judah, was compromised by the evil around him.
The evidence of the evil of compromise is seen throughout the story. First of all, there was the problem of marrying a Canaanite. The evil of that is seen in the wickedness of the children born to Judah. Judah’s compromised righteousness is further seen in his faithlessness in failing to fulfil his promise to give Shelah to Tamar. Compromise is also seen in his willingness to have a prostitute. The fact that he sent a friend to make payment shows that he knew that he had done wrong. In the text, there is a distinction between a prostitute and a temple prostitute. To the people of the area, a temple prostitute was a good thing, but a normal prostitute was a wrong thing. The way the story is told, it is clear that to Judah, it made no difference - he was aware that both were wrong, but he used her anyway. When Judah pronounced the death sentence on Tamar, he was as yet unaware that he had also sentenced himself to death because he had been the one to have relations with her. Although Tamar is identified as more righteous, she is also compromised because she used being a prostitute to make her point. She was in effect guilty of adultery. In all of these ways we see that a member of the family of promise was compromised by the culture.
The same thing can happen to us. I sometimes wonder about the extent to which we are compromised by the culture in which we live. Some evidence of it may be that we watch promiscuity on TV and hardly blink an eye. We may not be promiscuous ourselves, but such influence does have its impact on how we think about purity and righteousness. We are also compromised by the culture’s value of wanting more and of putting pleasure as one of our highest values. How dangerous and how serious this matter of being compromised by the culture is! Do we realize how much it has happened or is happening in our life?
There is an interesting side note that we need to realize. What happened between Judah and Tamar was wrong. But when we look further into Scripture, we find that one of the children born out of this union, Perez, was, according to Ruth 4:18-22, an ancestor of David and therefore also of Jesus. There is an encouraging truth. It teaches us once again that mistakes and even sins can be taken by God and redeemed for good and used by him for good. That is not a reason to sin, but a reason to realize that when we sin, it is not hopeless, God can always bring redemption out of the failures of our life.
So what do we do? How do we counter the culture? There was a time when our ancestors thought that by avoiding the culture they would be saved from it. We can see that that did not always work. It is not where our lives are at and it is not what God intends for us to do. Although we recognize the danger of the culture around us, we can’t hide from it. We, also can’t go smashing those who are immoral like Levi and Simeon did. There are great dangers out there for ourselves and for our children. Inevitably we will relate to the culture, we can’t isolate ourselves from it. How will we have victory? There is a third story, in Genesis 39, in which we have an example to follow.
Next week we are going to look at the life of Joseph a little more. In Genesis 37, we have the story of how Joseph was sold by his brothers to some traders. In Genesis 39, we are told that those traders sold Joseph to Potiphar who was the captain of the guard in the court of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.
Three times we are told that God was with Joseph and everything he did prospered and Potiphar was also blessed because God was with him. Soon Joseph was in charge of everything in Potiphar’s house.
It seems that Joseph was, as they say today, “hot.” The text says he was “well-built and handsome.” Potiphar’s wife saw him daily and noticed this and she invited him to sleep with her. In this we see how Joseph faced the pressure of the culture around him. Daily she tried to seduce him. It must have been difficult because as a slave he could not move away. Nevertheless, daily he refused and gave her good reason for refusing.
Finally one day, she was alone in the house with him and was trying to seduce him again. She grabbed his cloak and tried to force him to lie with her, but he left his cloak behind and ran away.
Being rebuffed like that, she became angry and accused him of trying to seduce her. The servants and Potiphar believed her story and Joseph was put in prison. It seems like a bad ending to the story, but next week we will see how God continued to be with Joseph and how the story ends in a victory for God and His people.
If there was anyone who could have succumbed to the culture it was Joseph. He could easily have been angry because it appeared that God had abandoned him when his brothers sold him. He had reason to be bitter because of the hatred of his brothers. He was far from home and who would know how he behaved. Others, like Judah, had compromised much closer to home. However, Joseph shows us that even in the midst of an immoral culture with no surrounding supports, compromise is not inevitable. We have a choice. Joseph made such a choice and his example is an encouragement to us. How did Joseph do it?
The text gives us three reasons why Joseph refused to accommodate to the culture and accommodate to sin. He had obviously reasoned them out and had them deeply in his heart and mind so that when the temptation came, he was ready with answers that were life principles to which he was committed.
The first principle he lived by was to consider how any action would impact himself. His work ethic and indeed his whole lifestyle was one of trustworthiness. Potiphar could always count on him. He knew that if he would break trust just this one time, even to get her off his back, he would destroy a value that was one of the guiding principles of his life. So he said to her in verse 8, “With me in charge, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care.”
What are the principles which govern our life? Have we identified them? If we know them and live by them, they will help us avoid sin of any kind. We will know and understand that violating these principles will compromise our own selves in the deepest way. We will not be true to ourselves.
The second question he would have asked himself was, “what impact will this have on others.” This comes out when he said to her in Genesis 39:9, “you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing…” Clearly such an evil would destroy the relationship between Potiphar and his wife. Likely it wasn’t much of a relationship anyway if she was on the prowl, but that doesn’t change the fact that Joseph was not going to be the one to destroy it further.
What a great question to ask ourselves in any action. It is good to think of how an action will impact us and Joseph did that in the first question. It is excellent to ask the further question of how an action will impact other people around us. When we sin, we never sin only against ourselves. As Christians, in particular, if we are to follow the golden rule of “do to others as you would have them do to you” we will be on solid ground when we ask, “how will my actions impact others.”
The third thing Joseph considered was the implication of his actions on his relationship with God. As he replied to her he said in verse 9, “How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” Although we have a strong sense of God’s forgiveness, we must never presume on that forgiveness. Every sin is a sin against God. It destroys our relationship with God and drives us further from him.
It is interesting that He was open about who he was, his relationship to God and his nationality. When she accused him, she said “that Hebrew.” In being true to his background, it seems that he had been open about his heritage and his spiritual identity. When our children would go to an even at school, we often reminded them, “remember who you are.” Joseph did that, was bold about it and was concerned to maintain his relationship to God and so when faced with temptation, he was confident that he did not want to destroy that relationship.
With this reasoning firmly planted in his heart and mind, Joseph faced the temptation with decisiveness. He did the only thing that makes sense whenever we are faced with temptation. He ran away!
The Bible gives us this advice repeatedly. I Corinthians 6:18 says, “Flee from sexual immorality…” I Timothy 6:11 teaches, “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness…” II Timothy 2:22 instructs, “Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness…”
There are many ways of fleeing from temptation. We can flee by sharing a temptation with a friend and asking them to hold us accountable. We can flee temptation when we know it comes in a certain place by not putting ourselves in that place. We can flee temptation by finding interesting alternatives to cover the times when we are most vulnerable. Whatever method of flight we use, victory over temptation comes when we flee from it.
Living in close connection with a culture that is not living in righteousness is inevitable. We will see immorality, we will be exposed to unrighteousness, we will come face to face with wickedness and we will have to deal with temptation. That is not an option. But compromise to that culture is an option. We do not have to succumb to the wickedness around us.
If, being true to our principles, giving consideration to others and keeping our relationship with God, we flee temptation and sin, we will have victory. May we live by the strength that God supplies and determine, as Joseph did, to live in the victory that will bring honor and glory to God.