SIMEON – LEVI: Partners In Crime
The twelve sons of the aged patriarch had arrayed themselves about his deathbed, most probably in the order of their births. Jacob had issued to Reuben his portion, i.e., because of Reuben’s sin he would forfeit the double blessing of the firstborn (Gen. 49:34). Without hesitation Jacob then proceeded to the next two sons – Simeon and Levi.
“Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. O my soul, come not thou into their secret, unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:5-7).
Simeon was the second son born to Jacob and Leah. The name Simeon (or Shimon) is related to the Hebrew word for hear. Leah named him this because of her hope expressed at his birth in Genesis 29:33, “And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said, Because the Lord hath heard that I was hated, he hath therefore given me this son also: and she called his name Simeon.”
Levi was the third son born to Jacob and Leah. The name Levi means joined and was given to him also because of Leah’s hope expressed at his birth in Genesis 29:34, “And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said, Now this time will my husband become attached unto [be joined unto] me, because I have borne him three sons: therefore was his name called Levi.” The brothers must have grown up together, not only close in age but also in interests. Jacob began his prophecy about them by reminding them of their closeness, “Simeon and Levi are brethren . . . (v. 5). Since all of the boys mentioned in this chapter were brothers, something more must be meant by this term. Simeon and Levi were not just biological brothers — they were brothers in their outlook and interests. They were brothers by joining together in common actions. Perhaps a better word to describe their relationship would be partners — in this case partners in crime.
The particular crime to which Jacob referred is recounted in Genesis 34:1-31, and can be summarized as follows. Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah and thus sister of Simeon and Levi, was seduced by Shechem, son of Hamor, a prominent Canaanite prince. Afterward, Shechem expressed a desire to his father to have Dinah as his wife. Hamor approached her father Jacob with the request that Jacob give Dinah to his son as his wife, also suggesting that both groups be willing to intermarry one with the other. Her brothers, however, were furious that their sister had been defiled in this manner. Simeon and Levi then conspired to trick Hamor and Shechem by a diabolically clever ruse. They reminded the Canaanites that they could never give their daughters to uncircumcised men. However, they continued, if the men of their city would become circumcised, “Then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people” (v. 16). Shechem quickly agreed to what he considered a small price to pay for Dinah, whom he evidently sincerely loved. He and his father also convinced the other men of their city to be circumcised as well. They agreed to the operation, confident that this would enable them to share in common their respective daughters, animals, and possessions. On the third day “. . . when they were sore. . . “ (v. 25), the sinister nature of the plot was revealed. Simeon and Levi, with swords in hand, suddenly came into the city and viciously slaughtered all the males, who were unable to adequately defend themselves. They plundered the city and took the wives and children captive. When Jacob heard about the vicious deed, he cried out to Simeon and Levi, “. . . Ye have troubled me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house” (v. 30).
It was now over forty years later when Jacob confronted Simeon and Levi about their partnership in crime. He separated himself completely from their scheme, “O my soul, come not thou into their secret [plot] . . .” (49:6). He further described the insidious nature of their deed. “. . . they digged down a wall” (v. 6, KJV) can also be translated, they hamstrung oxen, which further elaborates the cruelty of the crime. Their fierce anger and cruel wrath (v. 7) was inconsistent with their position as the sons of Israel, “the prince with God.” While every sensitive soul can sympathize with the brothers’ outrage over their sister’s disgrace, no one can deny that they went far beyond even “vigilante” justice in the cruel vengeance they enacted on the men of Shechem.
What a tragic example of acting under the impulse of an uncontrolled rage! How many achievements for God can be destroyed through the violent outburst of an ungoverned temper. Solomon warns us, “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls” (Prov. 25:28). In his excellent book, The History of Joseph, George Lawson writes, “In the heat of passion a man is not his own master, he is the slave of an infernal lust. He is worse than a madman, because he has no more command of himself than a madman, and what understanding is left to him only serves to fit him for doing the greater mischief.” How desperately we need that character trait called temperance, or self-control, which is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23).
Because of their misdeeds, Jacob pronounces the following prophecy on the descendants of Simeon and Levi, “. . . I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (v. 7b). The pronouncement is simple: neither Simeon nor Levi will possess their own separate portion of the Promised Land. When the tribes settle in the land, each will be allotted a separate inheritance. Simeon and Levi, however, will be scattered throughout the tribal portions.
The way in which this prophecy was fulfilled in the history of the tribes of Simeon and Levi is a remarkable evidence of the accuracy of Bible prophecy. The Book of Joshua, chapters 1-12, describes the initial conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelite forces. Joshua 13-21 records the division of the land among the victorious tribes. A special arrangement, however, was made for the tribes of Simeon and Levi. Simeon’s portion is described in Joshua 19:1-9. “And the second lot came forth to Simeon, even for the tribe of the children of Simeon according to their families; and their inheritance was within the inheritance of the children of Judah” (Josh. 19:1). Then follows mention of seventeen cities and their surrounding villages that would belong to Simeon (Josh. 19:2-8). Finally, we read, “Out of the portion of the children of Judah was the inheritance of the children of Simeon; for the portion of the children of Judah was too much for them. Therefore the children of Simeon had their inheritance within the inheritance of them” (Josh. 19:9). Judah’s portion was the southernmost of all the tribes. The area of Judah stretched from the Mediterranean on the west to the Dead Sea on the east, and from below Jerusalem on the north to below Beersheba in the south. The cities within Judah that were assigned to Simeon were all in the arid and barren area known as the Negev — a most inhospitable area for cultivation and the settled life. This divided existence, without a centralized tribal organization, was an apt fulfillment of Jacob’s words, “. . . I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (49:7b).
Tracing the history of the tribe of Simeon is fairly easy, since there are very few references to the tribe following the conquest. It is interesting to notice how the tribe decreased in number from the beginning of the wilderness wandering to the end of it. In Numbers 1:23 their adult male population is recorded as 59,300, while in Numbers 26:14 (nearly forty years after) it is 22,200. Leon Wood in A Survey of Israel’s History suggests that this great reduction was due to the men of Simeon being heavily involved in the immoral idolatry of Baal-peor recorded in Numbers 25:1-18. The only individual Israelite mentioned in that sin was a Simeonite (Zimri, Num. 25:14). Also, a plague broke out in which 24,000 Israelites died, probably many of them
from the tribe of Simeon (Num. 25:9).
It is difficult to know what exactly happened to Simeon when the kingdom was disrupted into north and south during the reign of Rehoboam, son of Solomon. Certain Israelites, faithful to the Lord God, migrated into Judah at that time (2 Chr. 11:16), some of whom were Simeonites. During the reign of Hezekiah a large group of Simeonites migrated farther south to the land of Edom where they conquered and displaced the Amalekites who dwelt there (1 Chr. 4:38-43). From certain later references it is possible that many Simeonites had also migrated to the Northern Kingdom, for they are mentioned in conjunction with the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (2 Chr. 15:9; 34:6). Whatever be the outcome of the tribe, their small number and few references are again testimony to the truth of Jacobs prophecy, “. . . I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.”
Jewish interpreters have taken notice of the history of Simeon. In Jewish tradition all poor Jews supposedly came from that ill-fated tribe. The way in which Jacob’s prophecy of scattering was fulfilled among the descendants of Levi is even more fascinating. In Numbers 35:1-4 the Lord commanded that the Levites should be given cities instead of a portion of the land. Joshua 21:1-42 records that the Levites were given a total of forty-eight cities with their suburbs. These cities were scattered throughout the territories of the other tribes. Thus Jacob’s prophecy, “. . . I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel,” was literally fulfilled. Although landless as regards their inheritance, the Levites were actually the most privileged of the tribes, for Deuteronomy 10:9 states, “Wherefore Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his brethren; the LORD is his inheritance, according as the Lord thy God promised him.” The Levites were privileged to be the representatives of the other tribes before the Lord. They were given the privilege of bearing the ark and caring for the holy articles of the Tabernacle. From the family of Aaron within Levi came the priests who were privileged to offer the sacrifices of the people. Both priests and Levites were supported by the tithes of the people so that they might be enabled to give their full time to ministering before the Lord (Dt. 18:1-5).
Deuteronomy 33 records the blessings of Moses on the tribes before his death. It is striking to note that whereas Simeon is the only tribe omitted from his blessings, the longest blessing is reserved for Levi (Dt.33:8-11). Notice some of what Moses says of the Levites, “. . . Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one. . . They shall teach Jacob thine ordinances, and Israel thy law . . . ” (vv. 8,10). How is it that the prophecy that proved to be a curse for the Simeonites actually turned into a blessing for the Levites?
The answer to that question is found in Exodus 32. That chapter records the awful sin of the Israelites in worshiping the Lord through a golden calf. This sin was compounded by the fact that it was encouraged by Aaron while his brother Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law from the Lord! When Moses came down the mountain and saw the shameful sight, he shattered the tablets of stone in righteous anger. After personally destroying the calf, he decided that radical surgery had to be performed. The biblical text itself says it best, “And when Moses saw that the people were naked (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies), Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother, that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day” (Ex. 32:25-29).
Formerly the zeal of Levi had resulted in killing the Shechemites — a deed to be deplored by Jacob. At this time, however, the Levites displayed their zeal in obedience to Moses in a righteous cause. For this zeal they were awarded the special place they have enjoyed throughout Jewish history. While reflecting upon this incident later, Moses reminded the people, “At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister unto him, and to bless in his name, unto this day” (Dt. 10:8). The final prophet of the Old Covenant reminds us, “And ye shall know that I have sent this commandment unto you, that my covenant might be with Levi, saith the Lord of hosts. My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear with which he feared me, and was afraid before my name” (Mal. 2:4-5).
Even though today there is no Tabernacle, Temple, sacrifice, or functioning priesthood, the Levites and priests still have certain privileges and responsibilities. The fascinating role that Levi plays in Jewish tradition will be discussed in detail in a subsequent article. Suffice it now to mention that according to Jewish tradition, school teachers come from the tribe of Levi.
No one can deny that Simeon and Levi were zealous, but their zeal was not channeled into godly paths. It is not good enough to just be zealous, even in the Lord’s work. There are those who think that all one needs is activity, devotion, commitment, and sincerity. Such zeal, however, can be misdirected. We need to be reminded of Paul’s earnest remark about his Jewish kinsmen according to the flesh, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:1-2). Paul knew firsthand what it was to have a zeal for God that was counterproductive. He reminds us of his misdirected zeal in this way, “Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath reasons for which he might trust In the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6). Just as Levi redirected his zeal into godly channels, Paul redirected his zeal into his service for the Messiah, whom he had once so zealously opposed.
May we learn from the lessons of Simeon, Levi, and Paul to focus our own zeal on God’s program and not our own.