From Genesis 12 to this point, the narrative has displayed the endurance of the lineage promise of the Abrahamic covenant; these chapters answer the question, “How will the covenant-heirs persist in the land of promise—currently inhabited by pagans?” While Jacob and his sons attempted to establish themselves in the land of Canaan, the family of faith capitulated to their pagan neighbors. Yet the covenant promise endured. In the narrative of Genesis 34-36 it is clear that God’s purposes are not thwarted by the sin of His people, nor does He condone selfish moral choices. Our selfish choices—and even what others have done against us—are not outside of God’s governance, and His plans for good in our lives. While bygone sinful actions may cast a long shadow of consequences in one’s life, they may yet experience spiritual warmth as they embrace God’s sovereignty and act faithfully in the moment.

Genesis 34 recounts Dinah’s disposition in Shechem, “she went out to see some of the young women of the area” (v. 1). No sexual assault is ever excusable, but Dinah’s actions may have been more advanced than most translations confer; suffice to say she was fitting in a little too well with pagans. But Schechem’s actions more obviously display moral depravity. While the violation of Dinah is horrific in any culture, Shechem’s proposal of marriage would likewise be disastrous to the covenant family. The intermarriage Shechem proposed would have compromised the covenant God made with Abraham—even if he “loved the young girl and spoke tenderly to her,” (v. 3), urging his father to get her for him as a wife (contra Genesis 24, where Abraham renounced a foreign wife for Isaac).

Dinah’s brothers wished to avenge what Shechem had done to their sister. They thus deceitfully agreed to the Hivite proposition of intermarriage between the two clans. While the pain of circumcision would have been crippling to the adult male Hivites, it would prove to be only a foreshadowing of the murder and plunder that would follow (Gen 34.25-29). Jacob finally entered into a dialog with his sons in Gen 34.30-31 (one wonders of his silence in the bulk of the narrative) recognizing that the actions of his children had caused his situation in the Promised Land to go from bad to worse. Genesis 34 points up the fact that the initial encounter of the covenant family in the covenant land was characterized by violation, deceit, and murder; it is hard to imagine a worse scenario.

Throughout Genesis, God works compatibly with the choices of humanity, causing even the sins of the covenant family to advance His redemptive plan—while never excusing the wicked moral choices of any. This principle is illustrated in Gen 35.1-8. After the failures of the covenant family in the northern part of Canaan, God called Jacob to go south, to the covenant land of Bethel, the place where Jacob had made a vow to God (Gen 28.20-22). Along the way Jacob displayed more zealous spiritual leadership of his home, and God protected Jacob’s household in their journey.

In a superficial reading of Genesis, one may question the contemporary significance of the ‘generation lists.’ However the information in ch 36 details how God’s promises are fulfilled. Initially the emphasis is placed on Esau’s wives: all Canaanite women, those outside the covenant family (vv. 1-3; cf. 26.34-35; 27.46). In light of all that we know about the value placed on purity in the covenant lineage, what do Esau’s actions reveal? He was not the heir of the promise—despite the fact that he prospered, and enjoyed the prophecy that even kings would come from his loins (Gen 36.31). Nonetheless, the point of Genesis 36 is that Esau settled away from the land of promise: “Esau took his wives, sons, daughters, and all the people of his household, as well as his herds, all his livestock, and all the property he had acquired in Canaan; he went to a land away from his bother Jacob…So Esau (that is, Edom) lived in the mountains of Seir” (Gen 36.6, 8). The next thirty-four verses inform the nation of Israel regarding the lineage and origin of their enemies; the descendants of Esau were known as the Edomites, those who opposed the people of Israel when they were traveling toward the Jordan River and their entrance into Canaan—even threatening them with the sword (cf. Num 20.14-21). All of this is in contrast to Jacob, who “lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan” (37.1).

Following these chapters down the storyline of Scripture at least two ideas emerge, one ‘moral’ and the other ‘structural’:

  1. God calls His people to live within pagan culture, but never imitate it. In their initial residence in Canaan the Patriarchal family began to resemble the selfishness of the Canaanites. Both Dinah and her brothers failed to live as the distinct people of promise (Genesis 34). Later the nation of Israel would unfortunately follow suit—with the result that they were removed from Canaan (cf. Deut 4.1-8; 27-30; 2 Kings 17). In the waywardness of the Israelites Paul saw an example to be avoided, and he told the Corinthians that they should beware of thinking that they could enjoy fellowship with Christ while walking hand-in-hand with pagan idolaters (1 Cor 10).
  2. The 12 sons of Jacob provided a structure that would be mirrored in the 12 apostles of Jesus. Most believe that it was not by mere coincidence that the number of New Testament apostles matches that of the sons of Israel; Jesus implemented something ‘new,’ resembling that which was ‘old’ (Gen 35.21-26; cf. Matt 10.1-4; Acts 1.15-26). In the Revelation, John saw both groups as significant for God’s heavenly habitation with His people:

“Then one of the seven angels, who had held the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues, came and spoke with me: ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ He then carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, arrayed with God’s glory. Her radiance was like a very precious stone, like a jasper stone, bright as crystal. The city had a massive high wall, with 12 gates. Twelve angels were at the gates; on the gates, names were inscribed, the names of the 12 tribes of the sons of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, and three gates on the west. The city wall had 12 foundations, and on them were the 12 names of the Lamb’s 12 apostles” (Rev. 21.9-14)


*For a complete list of references, please see