It’s not easy. In the Genesis story, Jacob was notably absent from the brothers’ plans. Apparently he was not involved, but is it possible that he did not know what was happening? Yes, it is. In a time when sons would go off for days at a time to pasture and water sheep, he might not have known. Maybe he would have stopped them if he had. After the fact, we read that he was upset with them – but a quick look at the reason for his temper is quite surprising. He was upset because they were a small tribe, and the actions of Simeon and Levi had put the whole family at risk of attack from other tribes. He used the phrase, “You have brought trouble on me by making me a stench to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed.” (Gen 34:30) Where is his protest against breaking a contract with the Hivites, or where is his concern about abusing the rite of circumcision, or how about a question about Dinah, about the safety and well-being of his daughter? None of these were present. He was concerned that the actions of Simeon and Levi would make him “stink” among the neighbors and that put the family at risk of retaliation. While we might appreciate the fact that Jacob needed to be concerned about the safety of his family, he should not have been doing it at Dinah’s expense.
It was only later on his deathbed during his final blessing to his sons (Gen 49) that he finally condemned their actions, saying: “their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed by their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (5-7). Because of their deed, they were to be scattered and would have no land of their own. The tribe of Simeon only survived a few generations and was ultimately absorbed by the tribe of Judah, thereby effectively erasing any trace of Simeon. Levi, on the other hand, became the ancestor of the holy priesthood, but had to always depend on the other tribes for sustenance. Doesn’t this provide a dubious foundation for the Judaic priesthood?
Maybe not. Over time, writers “retold” this story, oftentimes in a vastly different light. In the Apocryphal writings, there is a document known as the Testament of Levi, written between 100BCE and 100CE. In it, Levi tells of a time when he was praying and then fell asleep. He was taken into heaven by an angel, where he was told to take vengeance on the Shechemites for their rape of his sister. Some scholars think the text claims that the angels gave them the weapons to use. Another passage in question seems to suggest that Levi and Simeon were greatly opposed to the idea of having the Hivites circumcised. It was the other brothers who suggested it, based on the idea that there was nothing wrong with intermarriage. In his opposition, Levi becomes a radical believer, one who desperately wanted to maintain the purity of the tribe at all costs. He continued by saying that he was given a vision that instructed him to destroy Hamor and Shechem. He claimed that he and Simeon did just that, and only that. It was the other brothers who reneged on the agreement and killed all the men and sacked the town. Needless to say, his version makes the tribe of Levi well-suited to head up the radical nature of the priesthood. This translation requires, however, that certain words be added to the text.
In the book of Jubilees, their act was not one of revenge but of righteousness. It was precisely because of this act that Levi was granted the priesthood. Neither the Testament of Levi nor Jubilees mentions Simeon as a partner in crime. Nor is any mention of the incident included in the Testament of Simeon. In fact, though Simeon acknowledged that Jacob “rebuked” him, he claimed it involved a future battle that had not yet happened. There was no looking back of any kind, no mention of any past behavior.
In chapter 9: 2-6, Judith lauds Simeon for his role, including his deception. She thinks Simeon and Levi tricked the Shechemites, but then she fully intends to trick Holofernes, so that might not be too surprising.
Aside from their position regarding the actions of Simeon and Levi, scholars are in agreement that regardless of actual events in this story, someone took a lot of trouble to write it for us. That person or persons had a strong theological point to make. Scholars just don’t know what it was. It could have involved teachings on accommodation for the stranger. There are many passages in Exodus, in particular, which talk about treating the stranger with kindness, compassion. Other passages, however, present a totally different point of view. Deuteronomy is notorious for emphasizing the evilness of the people who “worship other gods.” There, the Israelites were forbidden to make treaties with foreigners or intermarry with them. It wasn’t just that their customs and religions were different; they occupied the land promised by God to the Israelites. Eventually, the Israelites would have to defeat and destroy all the nations that stood in the way of having God’s promises fulfilled.
The second purpose of this story might have been to explain how it is that the patriarchal succession fell to the fourth son, Judah. How is it that King David came from the house of Judah and not Reuben, the firstborn, or Simeon or Levi, the second and third born? Reuben probably took himself out of the running when he lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. Maybe Simeon and Levi were passed over because of this incident with the Shechemites.
What is clear, however, is that new times call for new interpretations. What seemed clear-cut in Genesis turned more negotiable in the intertestamental/early church period. Clearly, Judith needed to do something and she had a plan; Simeon’s story provided her with the encouragement to execute that plan. This book was probably written at a time when people were in great fear of losing their independence. Orthodoxy was needed and the end justified the means. That fits in well with the tenor of the Maccabean period. Others think it relates to the early church. Barring new discoveries, these questions will remain.