Some of us can recall associations or environments which led us down the proverbial slippery slope into immoral behaviours. Their influence may have been inconspicuous initially, but on reflection, you can trace several regrettable choices you made to particular associations or environments. It’s a maxim as old as time that “Bad company corrupts good morals” [1 Corinthians 15:33]. But often, many of us think we’re exceptions to that rule, so we knowingly expose ourselves to bad influences and eventually pay the price. Some fail to curate the influential voices in their lives in pursuit of other priorities and only realise the damage caused when it’s too late. Scripture says: “We shouldn’t be deceived” about the impact of the conscious and unconscious influences in our lives. Our environment matters, as do the people around us. It’s foolhardy not to be intentional about choosing both.
An episode in the life of Jacob provides an example of what can happen if one chooses to settle with the wrong company or environment. Jacob notoriously deceived his father to steal his brother’s blessing. His brother, Esau, was so furious he vowed to kill Jacob. So, Jacob fled his homeland to live with his maternal uncle, Laban. However, Laban cheated and treated Jacob awfully for about 20 years until God instructed Jacob to return home. When Jacob got to the land, he came face-to-face with his brother, Esau. His brother warmly received him, although Jacob anticipated the opposite. Probably mistrusting Esau’s welcome and invitation to set up camp next to him, Jacob deceived his brother and travelled in a different direction, ending up in Shechem, a Canaanite settlement [Genesis 33].
The Canaanites are notoriously immoral in Scripture. Their abominable customs and behaviours incurred God’s wrath, and He evicted them from Canaan [Genesis 15:16, 1 Kings 21:16]. Repeatedly, God strongly warned His people not to mix with the Canaanites because their immorality would eventually corrupt them and lead Israel into unrighteousness [Leviticus 18:24-25, Deuteronomy 7:2-5]. Jacob paid a painful price for setting up camp in Shechem. First, his daughter, Dinah, became acquainted with the women from Shechem. One day as she went to meet up with them, she was sexually assaulted and humiliated by the prince of the land who was infatuated with her [Genesis 34:1-3]. Following the incident, her assailant had the temerity to ask Jacob for her hand in marriage so that Jacob and the Hivites would become allies [Genesis 34:4-12]. Abraham and Isaac deplored such an alliance [Genesis 24:1-4, 28:1]
Dinah’s brothers were understandably angered and appalled by their sister’s defilement. But they deceitfully agreed to the marriage proposal, conned the Hivite men into a vulnerable position, and then proceeded to slaughter them and plunder their homes. It struck me that before this tragedy, there was no suggestion that Jacob’s children were capable of such violence. How much did the environment influence their behaviour? In a notoriously immoral environment, why was Dinah left so exposed by her family? Is it possible that moral laxity had silently crept into Jacob’s home as the influence of the surrounding culture grew stronger? Why did God permit this sordid account in the life of a man He names Himself after to be captured for posterity?
The psalmist says that God orders the steps of the righteous [Psalm 37:23]. Nevertheless, God never compels us to follow His prompting. That’s always our choice. God told Jacob to go back to Canaan [Genesis 31:1-4]. So, I suspect God orchestrated Jacob’s fortuitous encounter with Esau to guide him to a part of the land where he would live among his kindred instead of Canaanites. Had Jacob followed his brother as promised, he would have avoided all the heartache and violence in Shechem. While I can only speculate that Jacob would’ve faired better with Esau, his experiences in Shechem remain instructive for anyone who chooses to heed them [Romans 15:4].
The inconvenient truth is that we’re all influenced by our communities, whether or not we accept it. Neighbours, schools, churches, workplaces, social clubs, etc., influence our paradigms and behaviours. We can limit some of that influence to a degree, but the superior alternative is choosing our associations and where we belong. I appreciate that circumstances beyond our control may restrict our options. However, history is replete with inspiring stories of people who overcame unimaginable situations to achieve great things, which suggests that we don’t have to accept our present limitations. That said, many settle in Shechem out of convenience. They are unwilling to make the requisite sacrifices to move elsewhere. Some secretly enjoy the lifestyle in Shechem, while others have grown to tolerate its culture. So, while they may disagree with the surrounding culture, they aren’t bothered enough to leave.
As I read Dinah’s story, I realised we must all curate the environments and associations that influence us. Handily, Scripture gives us a way to determine if an association is positive or negative by asking a simple question: “Is it hindering or enhancing my relationship with God?” [3 John 1:2]. A wise man limits or eliminates any individuals, associations and environments that aren’t prospering his body and soul simultaneously. Doing so may demand some tough decisions. Nevertheless, the alternative is almost always worse, especially for parents, who also have the enormous responsibility of curating the influences in their children’s lives [Proverbs 22:6, Ephesians 6:4]. That’s one area where prevention is usually better than seeking a cure.
This week, may I suggest reviewing your environment and associations if you haven’t done so recently. Are they drawing you closer to God? If they aren’t, learn from Jacob’s experience and extricate yourself before it’s too late (unless God has sent you there). If you have spiritually edifying voices and godly examples around you, cherish them and avoid Shechem by all righteous means.