Good and bad from the same clay

Simeon and Levi are brothers;
Their swords are implements of violence.
Let my soul not enter into their council;
Let not my glory be united with their assembly;
Because in their anger they slew men,
And in their self-will they lamed oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce;
And their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will disperse them in Jacob,
And scatter them in Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

With these words, Jacob cursed his sons for their treacherous assault on the Canaanite city of Shechem in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah. When the rapist, Shechem, prince of the city, requested her hand in marriage, Levi and Simeon insisted that all inhabitants of Shechem must first be circumcised. Convinced, the citizens of Shechem submitted to the procedure and then, “on the third day, when they were in pain… two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came upon the city unawares, and killed every male” (Genesis 34).

And Jacob cursed Simeon and Levi for their wrath, for it was cruel.

It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it. […]

Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies—then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.'” So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord—for every man has been against his son and against his brother—in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.” (Exodus 32:19-20, 25-29)

And God blessed Levi for their wrath, for it was righteous.

It appears the Levites were a people prone to wrath. The two major scenes in which Levi (as a man and then as a tribe) plays a starring role both feature massacres in response to evil. In both situations, Levi takes the initiative, stepping forward from the crowd–from among his brothers to avenge their sister, from among the other tribes to avenge their God–to deal violence as punishment for heinous wrongdoing. Not everyone has the courage, the strength, and the fierceness for such a role. In fact, most don’t. Levi did.

In Genesis, Levi earns a curse by responding to evil with an unjust and cruel violence, a violence few others would have dared. In Exodus, Levi’s curse is transformed to blessing by responding to evil with a righteous, obedient violence, a violence few others would have dared. Both the sin and the resulting curse, and the virtue and the resulting blessing, were the fruit of a unique personality trait: a willingness, even an inclination, to respond to evil with violence–a trait which was in itself neither virtuous nor vicious. When driven by sinful human motivations, it turned to sin. When submitted to divine authority, it turned to righteousness.

The story of Levi reminded me of Dr. Wendy Mogel’s observation in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,

I begin by telling these audiences, “Think of your child’s worst trait. The little habit or attitude that really gets on your nerves. Or bring the medium-sized habit that your child’s teacher keeps bringing up at parent conferences. Or the really big one that wakes you up at three in the morning with frightening visions of your little guy all grown up and living alone in an apartment in West Hollywood, plotting a shooting spree at the post office…

Good. Now you’re one step of ahead of where you were a moment ago, because now you know your child’s greatest strength. It’s hidden in his worst quality, just waiting to be let out.”

Dr. Mogel’s point is that a child’s strongest traits provide the raw material for his or her greatest virtues–if properly tended. The parent’s job is to patiently work to transform bossiness into leadership, recklessness into courage, nosiness into concern for others, hyperactivity into creativity, talkativeness into eloquence, quietness into a listening ear. Of course, the talkative child also needs to learn to be quiet when appropriate, the quiet child needs encouragement to speak up at the right time, and so on, but wise parents learn the shape of their child’s soul and work with the grain, not against it. The answer to a Levi’s strength is not to hope for atrophy, but to teach him to put on the full armor of God before going to war.

So it is for each of us. No matter our condition, all we can do at any given moment is take our whole selves and lay them before the Father, ready at that moment to be used in whatever way He sees fit. Like Levi, our only concern is that, when the call is raised “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me,” we come, yielding whatever may be in us to be used by the One who does all things well. Whatever past sin might have flowed from a particular facet of our personality, only one question matters now: Whose is it? So long as it is utterly submitted to God, to be used, cultivated, changed, or even destroyed, as He sees fit, no evil can result; and perhaps great good, unexpected good, a blessing bestowed in place of a curse.

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