In his sovereign freedom, God chose to love Jacob, but not Shechem. But why Jacob?
Malachi, and later the apostle Paul, make it plain that Jacob attained salvation because of the brute fact of God’s absolute grace and free choice to do so (Malachi 1:3 and Romans 9:13). If we take Scripture seriously, we realize God had chosen to love Jacob from before the foundation of the world. From the perspective of eternity, Jacob was chosen by God simply because of God’s sovereign grace. Nothing in Jacob attracted God to him and there was no spark of potential goodness in Jacob waiting to be stoked by the living breath of God. God makes it clear that we are born dead in our sins and our free-wills are locked in rebellion-against-God mode. God does not give us a helping hand or a boost of grace to get us going on the right track. He takes a pile of dry, decaying bones and breathes life and soul into them.
Again, from a heavenly, eternity perspective Jacob is chosen because God graciously chooses to choose him. But what about from an earthly, human perspective? Why did Jacob come to faith in God? And why did Shechem the Canaanite (to use one example of a contemporary of Jacob) not come to faith in God?
Another way to phrase the question is: How did Jacob learn about the grace of God? And what did Shechem know of that same grace of God? Without a doubt, Jacob knew the stories of his grandfather Abraham and of the incredible promises God made to Abraham even though he did nothing to deserve them (remember Abraham was a pagan when God called him). His father Isaac surely told him the story of his near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah and how God provided a substitute ram. Jacob would have known countless stories of God’s gracious dealings with his family and he had the benefit of being able to follow in the faith-footsteps of his forefathers. On top of this, Jacob had the near-daily reminder that he had been set apart and specifically called to a life of holiness. Just as his foreskin had been cut off when he was eight years old, so Jacob was to be cutting off sin from his life. Through all these means, or ways, God was communicating His grace to Jacob, and in time Jacob responded in faith (faith graciously given by God of course).
And what about Shechem? As a created being living in God’s good creation, Shechem had no excuse for his unbelief and disobedience. The Apostle Paul clearly states this in the opening chapters of his letter to the Romans. God’s eternal power and divine nature were made plain to Shechem through the creation around him. Shechem rejected this and chose to pursue a life of sin; one which involved the abduction and rape of Dinah.
But what did Shechem know of God’s grace? It is doubtful he heard any of the same stories Jacob did when he was growing up. It is equally doubtful he had any believing forefathers to look up to. While he was circumcised it was days before his death and was done out of a desire for a lover (see Genesis 34). The one encounter he had with the family of God is with Jacob’s sons and instead of speaking of the grace of God they deceived Shechem and later killed him. While Shechem had no excuses for his sin and subsequent judgment, it is not a surprise he never learned of God’s grace, let alone put his faith in God.
Comparing Jacob with Shechem helps us understand at least one dimension of how people come to faith in God. The difference between these two men of old is their proximity to the covenant of grace. Jacob was born and raised in a household of God, but Shechem was not and his only interaction with the family of God was counter-productive to grace. Jacob had access to the means of grace and the story of redemption, but Shechem either knew very little of God’s gracious dealing with men, or nothing at all. Of course, being a member of God’s household and a participant of his covenant is no guarantee of salvation: one only has to look as far as Esau to be reminded of this. But there certainly is a strong correlation between the two.
Now one may ask why Jacob was born into a covenant family and Shechem was not? Well, that goes back to the sovereign grace of God who directs all of history according to his perfect plan and purpose. Soli Deo Gloria.