The Sign Is Not Enough
We worked through Genesis 34 on Sunday night, and I tried to draw out a couple themes in the story, one minor and the other major. One thing we didn’t get a chance to talk about is the covenant sign of circumcision. Maybe this is one of the most obvious things in the passage — maybe it’s so obvious that we skip right over it. I’m talking about Simeon and Levi’s misuse of the covenant sign. And “misuse” is an understatement.
What the Covenant Sign Says
Remember back in Genesis 17, back when God made his covenant promise to Abraham, he instituted circumcision as a symbol of the covenant. There are a couple different levels of how that symbolism works:
On one hand, the sign of circumcision is a way to show that Abraham and his offspring do not put any confidence in the flesh. This is one big thing that makes them so different from other nations. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will trust in the name of YHWH our God” (Psalm 20:7). Circumcision is a sign that says that.
On the other hand, circumcision is a sign of hope in the future offspring of Abraham. God promised way back in the beginning to Adam and Eve that a redeemer would come as the offspring of woman (see Genesis 3:15). Then later God told Abraham that through his offspring all the nations of the earth will be blessed (see Genesis 12:1–3). So offspring, progeny, a son — this is central to God’s promise. Hope in a future son characterizes God’s covenant people, and circumcision is a reminder of that.
However — and this is a big however — all the men in Shechem take the covenant sign of circumcision without believing anything it symbolizes.
Shechem’s circumcision does not make him inherit God’s promise to Abraham.
And therefore, at the very least, we learn by Genesis 34, not long after the covenant sign was instituted, that the covenant sign is inadequate.
Bearing the sign doesn’t equate receiving the promise to which it points. The sign simply is not enough.
The Heart Matters
And this is something we see again in Deuteronomy 30:6. Moses says there that one day God is going to circumcise the hearts of his people so that they will love him, which means that God is concerned with the internal realities more than he is the external signs. The sign matters, and there are consequences for not having it, but God mainly wants our hearts. God wants our faith. And the covenant sign is meant to be a sign of that.
The apostle Paul makes the same point in Romans Chapter 2. He says that circumcision is not merely outward and physical, but instead it’s a matter of the heart, by the Spirit (see Romans 2:28–29). And it’s always been that way.
God Gets the Last Say
Perhaps, then, the worse evil in this passage is how Simeon and Levi hack up the meaning of circumcision. Verse 25 is clear that Simeon and Levi’s massacre of Shechem happened when the men were “sore” and felt “secure” — both of which were due to the circumcision. The men of Shechem felt secure because of the deal — the circumcision was supposed to mean the sons of Jacob are on their side; and they felt sore because it was circumcision for adult men with no pain medicine. So while these men were vulnerable, Simeon and Levi seized their swords and killed them all (verse 25).
It all goes back to how they used circumcision in their deceit.
This covenant sign which was supposed to represent hope for Abraham’s offspring that will one day bless the nations, was instead manipulated as a means to destroy the nations.
There’s a lot of bad in this passage, but this ranks up there as the worst. They made the symbol of blessing a weapon for destruction. …
But God gets the last say. That’s what the gospel is. It’s God’s final word to this world of brokenness. And there, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God turned the tables once and for all. In Genesis 34 the symbol of blessing was made a weapon for destruction, but at Golgotha the weapon for torture was made the symbol of hope. The dead-end of darkness became a pathway to light. The robber of life was conquered to become the handmaid of life everlasting.