Dinah’s Story


The story of Dinah (Genesis chapter 34) starts badly enough: Jacob’s only daughter is seized and raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor. (Hamor is the ruler of a city that, perhaps not coincidentally, bears the same name as his son: Shechem.)


From rape the story then moves to murder. When Hamor approaches Jacob and his sons with a proposal to allow the rapist to marry Dinah, Jacob’s sons pretend to accept the offer, but with one condition: all the males of the city must undergo immediate circumcision. Urged on by the young Shechem (who has in the meantime fallen in love with his victim), the townspeople agree, and the mass circumcision takes place.


On the third day, when the circumcised males are at the height of their pains and presumably unable to properly defend themselves, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, enter the town and kill all the adult males, including Shechem and his father Hamor. Jacob expresses his outrage at this act, but the brothers answer: “Shall we let our sister be treated like a whore?”


Interpreters naturally had to answer the many questions arising from this episode. To begin with, what is it doing in the Torah? Nothing seems to have happened as a result of it: we never hear of Dinah’s fate, nor of that of her baby, if indeed there was one. The brothers’ act of revenge seems not to have led to any counter-attack. If the story is intended to impart some lesson, what is it? Another problem: we are never told whether God approved or disapproved of the mass murder. He is silent throughout. And by the way, the pains of circumcision notwithstanding, how could two men manage to murder the whole male population of a city and emerge unscathed?


One of the earliest recorded interpreters of the story is no stranger to these pages: the author of the book of Jubilees, a Jew who lived sometime around 200 BCE or so. The lesson he found in this narrative is surprising: it was, he believed, a condemnation not of rape but of intermarriage. That Hamor could approach Jacob with the intent of persuading him to marry off his own daughter to a non-Israelite was, in this author’s eyes, nothing short of blasphemous.


So of course the brothers were right to kill Hamor, the would-be negotiator of this intermarriage, along with Shechem, the actual rapist. As for God’s apparent silence throughout, the very fact that two men, Simeon and Levi, succeeded in slaughtering the entire male population of the city single-handed virtually proved that God was on their side, since performing such a feat seemed, whatever the pains of circumcision might have been, virtually impossible without divine help. “The verdict was ordered in heaven against them,” the author of Jubilees writes. “The Lord handed them over to Jacob’s sons, so that they might destroy them at sword-point and exact punishment against them.”


Then we come to the apparent collective punishment: Simeon and Levi killed every adult male in the town. But perhaps this punishment wasn’t collective at all. A verse toward the end of the biblical account says that after Simeon and Levi had finished off all the males, the other brothers despoiled the city, “because they [the inhabitants] had defiled their sister [Dinah].” Ancient interpreters saw in the plural verb “they had defiled” a hint that all the residents of Shechem had somehow aided in the rape (or at least allowed it to take place) and were thus justly punished.


One particular sentence in the narrative seemed to add support to the idea that God was on the brothers’ side. At the time of the rape, Jacob’s sons are off “shepherding in the field,” but when they come home and hear the news, they are furious, “because he [Shechem] had done something outrageous in Israel, to rape Jacob’s daughter, and thus it shall not be done” (Gen 34:7). Who said these last words? They are what literary critics call implied direct speech, giving the sense of the brothers’ reaction—“We can’t let this stand! Such a thing should not be done!”—without actually saying that these were the exact words that they spoke.


But since these words were not explicitly attributed to the brothers, one might argue that in fact they represent an utterance separate from the rest of the sentence. These last words could be seen as God’s own verdict: “Thus it shall not be done [again].” In fact, who but the Maker of all human history could utter such a statement? Here was further evidence that God was on the side of Jacob’s sons.


In short, the author of Jubilees, along with other ancient interpreters from the late biblical period, defended the brothers’ actions wholeheartedly. If these interpreters seem harsh, if not to say bloodthirsty, by modern standards, they at least worried about the fate of the story’s first victim, Dinah herself. One ancient midrash reports that Dinah went on to marry Job, the well known sage whose story is recounted in the biblical book that bears his name. According to the anonymous Book of Biblical Antiquities (written in perhaps the first century CE), it was Dinah who gave birth to all of Job’s ten children, who subsequently died as part of Job’s downfall; then she went on to give birth to another ten children after his fortunes were restored (cf. Job 1:2, 18-19; 42:13). As for the child who had been born as a result of her rape by Shechem, it was a baby girl; she was soon carried by an eagle and brought down to Egypt, where she was adopted by Potiphar, a high Egyptian official. He named her Asenath, and she grew up to become the wife of Jacob’s son Joseph.


Shabbat shalom!

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