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Biblical People

Biblical People: Levi (1)

Levi is the third son of Jacob and Leah. Scripture shares only one story about Levi, an account of something he and his brother Simeon do. Their younger sister Dinah, who we’ll cover in a few chapters, is raped by Shechem, who then wants to marry her.

When Jacob hears of this, he does nothing, for his sons are out in the fields. However, when news of the tragedy reaches the boys, they rush home and pretend to go along with Shechem’s request to wed their sister.

But they insist he undergo circumcision first, along with everyone in the city. The men agree, assuming this will allow them to intermarry with Jacob’s family and acquire all their livestock and property.

As the men in town recover from their circumcisions, Levi and Simeon attack them, slaughtering every man to avenge their sister’s defilement. Then the other brothers loot the town and carry off the wealth, women, and children.

Although Jacob criticizes Simeon and Levi for their excessive reaction—and the subsequent risk to the entire family should neighboring towns take revenge—the brothers feel justified in avenging their sister’s dishonor, despite the risk of retaliation.

Dinah’s rape is a serious assault which deserves punishment, but killing the perpetrator and all the men who live in the city is an excessive response, one that far outweighs the crime.

Several centuries later, when Moses gives the people the Law, he says retribution should be an eye for an eye (Exodus 21:23–25). This command is not an encouragement to seek revenge, but a call to avoid excessive retaliation. It’s a directive of moderation.

Clearly Levi and Simeon’s response to Dinah’s rape was excessive and uncalled for. But they didn’t have God’s Law to guide them; they only had their own sense of justice.

Still, Jacob remembers what his two sons did, and on his deathbed he criticizes the violence they committed. So should we.

Yet despite what Levi did, God sets apart his descendants to serve him in the temple. From among his clan, Aaron and his offspring will serve as priests.

How do we respond when we encounter injustice? Do we react at all, or do we overreach with an excessive response? 

[Read Levi’s story in Genesis 29:34; 34:24–31; and 49:5–7. Discover more in Numbers 26:59.]


Learn about more biblical characters in Old Testament Sinners and Saints, available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover. Get your copy today.

A lifelong student of the Bible, Peter DeHaan, PhD, wrote the 1,000-page website ABibleADay.com to encourage people to explore the Bible. His main blog and many books urge Christians to push past the status quo and reconsider how they practice their faith in every area of their lives.