Commentary on Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43
Dinah is the daughter of Jacob, the father of 12 sons (and thus the 12 tribes) in the ancestor narratives of Genesis. She is born to Leah after Leah has given birth to six sons. Leah names her (Genesis 34:21), as biblical women often did as part of the maternal role. Of Jacob’s daughters (others are noted in Genesis 46:15), only Dinah is mentioned by name.
The story of Dinah (in Parashat Vayishlah) deals with the Israelites’ attempt to establish social boundaries for marriage. It seems to advocate an inclusive perspective (represented by Dinah and Jacob) in which, when mutual respect and honor characterize the relationship, cooperation and bonding (“give and take”) with outsiders (represented by Shechem, Hamor, and the Shechemites) can take place.
The story is set during the ancestral period in the city of Shechem, the geographical center of a movement in which people of diverse backgrounds, customs, and religious beliefs merged to become the community of Israel. Dinah goes out “to visit the women of the region” (the indigenous people, 34:1). The phrase implies an openness to and acceptance of outsiders. Dinah’s subsequent sexual encounter with Shechem, the Hivite prince of the region, is the ultimate symbol of acceptance. And Hamor speaks to Jacob about “giving” his daughter in marriage to Shechem, in the same way that the Jacobites and Shechemites will “give and take” wives, live and trade in the same region, and hold property together peacefully.
But separatist tendencies within Jacob’s community (represented by Simeon, Levi, and the other sons of Jacob) are threatened by this possibility and by Shechem’s relationship with Dinah. They want to resist intermarriage. Their idea of “give and take” is “taking” the sword, killing all the Shechemite males, plundering the city, and taking their wives and children. The story passes “judgment” (the meaning of Dinah’s name) on their friendly attitude.
The story invites two opposing interpretations. The traditional understanding is that Dinah has been raped by Shechem. Her brothers Simeon and Levi retaliate by violently slaying and plundering Shechem, Hamor, and the Shechemite community. But the retaliation puts Jacob’s group in jeopardy by making subsequent social intercourse and peaceful coexistence impossible. Jacob thus reprimands his sons for their behavior.
But concerning the question of whether Dinah has been raped, the final clue comes in the last sentence of the story. Simeon and Levi say, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (34:31). Prostitutes engage in sexual intercourse for financial gain, and their sexual actions involve mutual consent. Rape therefore does not characterize either prostitution or what has happened to Dinah.
Furthermore, one of the purposes of sexual intercourse in the ancient world was to create permanent bonding and obligation; but in prostitution, there is no bonding or obligation. By saying that Dinah has become like a prostitute, Simeon and Levi might be suggesting that, from their perspective, Dinah and Shechem’s intercourse could never lead to bonding and obligation. They are not suggesting that she was raped.
Going to the Text
Upon hearing the news about his daughter, Jacob is at first silent; then he negotiates Dinah’s marriage to Shechem. If Dinah has been raped, Jacob ignores his obligation to protect the women of his household and ignores Dinah’s suffering. This seems peculiar — does it suggest that Dinah was not raped? In the Hebrew Scriptures, rape is generally indicated by a cry for help from the woman (showing lack of consent) and violence on the part of the man (indicating a forcible, hostile act).
But the intercourse of Shechem does not fit this pattern. Genesis 34:2 reports that he sees Dinah, takes her (the Hebrew word for “take” is often used for taking a wife), lies with her (a euphemism for sexual intercourse), and shames her (the NRSV combines the last two verbs, rendering “lay with her by force,” a reading that should be contested).
Then the text (v. 3) provides three expressions of affection: first it says he bonds with her (the NRSV uses “was drawn” to her, but the word bonds more appropriately represents a word used for marital bonding), then that he loves her, and finally that he speaks tenderly to her. From this description Shechem appears to be a man in love, not a man committing an exploitative act of rape. Rapists feel hostility and hatred toward their victims, not closeness and tenderness.
So why does the text include the verb to shame (or to humble, put down), and why does it record that Jacob’s daughter has been “defiled” (Genesis 34:5; compare Genesis 34:13, 27)? Shame, or intense humility, usually relates to failure to live up to societal goals and ideals. Because sexual relations should be part of marital bonding, it is shameful for an unmarried woman like Dinah to have sex. The declaration of love and desire for marriage comes after she and Shechem have sex.
Furthermore, Dinah’s encounter with Shechem makes her “defiled,” a term (Hebrew tm’) indicating here an unacceptable sexual act. The unacceptability of premarital sex in this case is intertwined with the response of Dinah’s brothers, who insist that Shechem’s requested marriage with her would be an unacceptable union.
Ironically, if there is a rape in this story, it is Simeon and Levi who “rape” the people of Shechem’s city. It is their behavior that is violent, hostile, and exploitative. Shechem’s desire for marital bonding stands in tension with Simeon and Levi’s determination that no such liaison take place. The tension between marriage within a group (endogamy) and marriage with outsiders (exogamy) is dramatized in this story of love and violence. The premarital sexual act is the narrative’s representation of the violation of group boundaries. Also, the fact that Shechem figures prominently first as a friend and then as a victim of Jacob’s group may prefigure what another biblical narrative reports — that Shechem is peacefully incorporated into Israel but then is violently destroyed (see Judges 9).
Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.