There are several difficult portions of Scripture throughout the pages of the Old Testament that can only be properly interpreted in light of the covenant promise. Some of the more difficult texts in the Bible are actually found in the book of Genesis–the foundational book of the Covenant of Grace. God is a God of Covenant. He immediately entered into a Covenant of Grace with our first parents after the fall. The first promise of the Covenant, of which all the other promises are a development, is Genesis 3:15. God promised to send a Redeemer, who would descend from a women, in the fullness of time to crush the head of the serpent. The New Testament constantly directs our attention to the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Seed of the woman (born of the virgin Mary), who came to crush the head of Satan at Calvary.
As the covenant promise of God unfolded throughout redemptive history, signs and seals are given to represent the saving work of Jesus Christ. The first ecclesiastical covenant sign and seal was circumcision. This bloody cutting away of the foreskin of the male reproductive organ represented the bloody death of Jesus at the cross, and the fruits of that redemption that He purchased for us (see this post for a biblical theology of circumcision). Circumcision went on the male reproductive organ to show the need for a bloody (i.e. judgment wrought) purification of the corrupt sin nature that was past down generation by generation by means of reproduction. Circumcision was not simply something that made a Jew a Jew. It was a picture of the Gospel. Abraham was the first to have the covenant promises sealed with the sign of circumcision. Abraham was commanded by God to put the sign on his children and taught them the ways of the Lord. He faithfully taught Isaac the meaning of circumcision. Isaac taught Jacob, and Jacob taught his sons.
So, when we come to the somewhat difficult passage concerning Simeon and Levi killing the men of Shechem, after convincing them to be circumcised (Gen. 34), we must read it through the biblical-theological lens of circumcision. Abraham’s great-grandchildren knew exactly what circumcision was. They knew what God had taught their father, grandfather and great grandfather about this sign. They went to the men who had defiled their sister and deceptively convinced them to become covenant members. After giving them the sign of the covenant (while the men of Shechem were healing from the pain of it) they went and slaughtered them. Essentially, Simeon and Levi used the Gospel to destroy their enemies. It would be like convincing your enemy to be baptized and then drowning them in the waters of baptism. It was a disgrace; and contains a serious warning for us. If we take the things of God lightly; use them when our hearts are not right; overlook the gracious nature of them, and seek the destruction of those who have done us harm by them–we act like Simeon and Levi.
I have many times heard well-meaning Christians wish for the destruction of unbelievers. I have even heard some misquote Scripture with the intent of calling judgment down when the grace of God in the Gospel is not being offered. Is this not acting in the same spirit as Simeon and Levi? I realize the tension between what the Bible teaches about our desiring the salvation of the ungodly (what we once were), and rejoicing in the righteous judgment of God against a rebellious and unrepentant world (see the book of Revelation). It seems to me that, in the “already” of the New Covenant, we are to have the same spirit as our Lord Jesus did in the days of His flesh. When James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven on the cities that rejected the Gospel, Jesus told them, “You do not know what spirit you are of; the Son of Man did not come to destroy, but to save lives.” He will destroy on that great day of judgment. He will trample all those who will not repent of their sins in the wine press of His Father’s wrath. But, now is the day of salvation. We, like our Savior, are not to seek the destruction of men, but their salvation. May we learn from the lesson of Simeon and Levi–lest we be seen as brothers of destruction like them.