Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 36 – Dinah

Genesis 34 – Rape and Revenge

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 2, 2006

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. It was certainly a big week in philanthropy in America. I’ve been a fan of Warren Buffet’s for many years, but I have to admit that I was pleasantly shocked by the size of his generosity this week. His comments about inheritance deserve attention as well, particularly in a country that values hard work and independence. In this age of business scandal, government incompetence, and apathy, it is nice to see someone take action instead of making excuses. I would not be surprised if the Buffet and the Gates families achieve their goal of eradicating malaria and bringing the AIDS epidemic under control.


            Speaking of taking action, we should remember the people who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence this week. They were farmers, merchants, lawyers, scholars, and politicians who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of liberty. On Tuesday, we will have our annual observation of Independence Day here at Home Church, and I’ll read the Declaration in its entirety. I’ll also say a few words about the significance of the first Moravian observance of July 4. This week we also remember Jan Hus who burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. Hus was convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church and handed over to the secular authorities to be executed. If you have ever wondered why we need the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion think of the fate of Hus and thousands of others who were executed for opposing the state church.


            They say that the three things you should not discuss in polite company is politics, sex, and religion. We get all three in our lesson for this morning. We have reached chapter 34 of Genesis, and it is not pleasant reading. The story is about Jacob’s daughter Dinah, but we do not really hear from her in this chapter. It is the men who do the talking and acting: Jacob, Simeon, Levi, Shechem, and Hamor. The best-selling novel The Red Tent is a fictionalized account of the story of Dinah that offers her perspective. The novel builds on clues in the biblical text that indicate that this was a more complicated series of events than we might think on first reading.


Shechem:        I will not read the entire passage, since it is rather long. The story begins with Jacob and his household settling in Canaan near the town of Shechem. This was an important Canaanite city that was already old in the time of Jacob. The name probably means shoulder or slope because the city was built on the slope of Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Ebal, north of Judah. Archaeologists in the 20th century discovered the original city and have excavated much of it. For much of its history, Shechem had a temple, and it appears that it was a rival to Jerusalem. Even though Shechem was a powerful city with strong walls, the archaeological record indicates that it was destroyed several times. One of these was described in the Book of Judges (c. 1100) when Abimelech destroyed the city and its temple. 


            It is more likely that the memory of the destructions of Shechem was reshaped to serve the purposes of Genesis. We should not work too hard to make all of the details of the story fit together. In its original form, it was probably used to establish the Israelite claim to the city of Shechem, but the story grew over the years and became part of the Jacob saga. The story as we have it today appears to be the result of many years of reworking. One of the many odd things in this story is that for the negotiations of the marriage contract are made with Dinah’s brothers rather than her father. The original tale probably did not involve Jacob at all. It was originally a story about the tribes of Simeon and Levi who had once attacked the city of Shechem. The rape was used as pretext for assailing the city, much as Menelaus used the abduction of Helen as an excuse to attack the city of Troy.


Read: Gen. 34


Dinah and Shechem: The Bible does not give us the details of Dinah’s visit to Shechem other than to say that she wanted to get to know the Canaanite women. We do not know if she had the expected escorts to protect an unmarried woman or whom she met with. What we are told is that the son of King Hamor raped her. The prince’s name is given as Shechem, which was the name of the city, too. That’s kind of like the major of Atlanta naming his son Atlanta. It could happen, but it sure causes confusion. The ambiguity may have been intentional in the story though, since it the whole city of Shechem pays the penalty for the rape.


            The Hebrew text is clear that Dinah was taken by force by the prince. She was raped. If you prefer the language of Gothic romance novels, you could say that she was ravished by the prince. This is not the easiest topic of conversation for a Sunday morning on the radio, but we cannot omit this in a study of Genesis. This is one of the few rape stories in Scripture, by the way, and it has a long history of interpretation. But it is not an easy story to make sense of. In our society, rape is an act of violence, and the rapist typically hates the woman he has assaulted. Certainly women who have been abused this way hate their rapist. Often women are so damaged by such an assault that their entire lives are affected, and some find it hard ever to trust a man again. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine that rape could end in love and marriage.


            But that is what happens in Gen. 34. Shechem falls in love with Dinah and wants to marry her. And she is willing to marry him. What is going on here? Was it rape or not? We have to be careful here lest we imply that rape is not a bad thing, but there is evidence from many ancient cultures that men were allowed to carry off their future wives by violence. Rather than our courtship rituals or seduction, a man in the ancient world could display his power and authority by seizing a woman to be his wife. This kidnap or capture of a wife was sometimes abetted by the woman herself who wanted to marry a man. This was a way to get around a father who might object to the marriage. It is possible that women were willing to go along with such a violent form of marriage because they knew that worse things were possible.


Rape Law:      The laws ancient Israel accepted the fact that rape was a part of life at that time in a way that it is not in ours. In Exodus (22:16-17) and Deut. (22:28-29) the law states that a man who rapes a virgin must pay her father the expected bride price. More importantly, he must marry her and never divorce her. This sounds like the pinnacle of cruelty to us since it would force a raped woman to marry her attacker, but this was actually an attempt to protect women from violation. A man who violated an unmarried woman would be held responsible for her well-being for the rest of her life.


            In short, it is possible that Shechem and Dinah were acting according to the customs of the day. This story may not have been about rape as we know it. What is called rape in Genesis 34 may have been less violent and abusive than what we call rape today. It is possible that Dinah was more of a willing participant than is implied in the text. It is her brothers who insist that she had been raped, not her. The reason for bringing this up is that in the rest of the story Shechem is portrayed quite decently. The text says that he loved the girl, spoke tenderly to her, and was willing to make great remarkable sacrifices to marry her. At the end of the story, Dinah’s brothers have to take her from Shechem’s house. The word used there is the same used to describe Shechem’s taking of Dinah. The brothers seized her, apparently against her will. That is not the behavior we expect of a raped woman.  


Marriage:       Without Dinah’s own account, we cannot be sure of what actually happened, but from the story we have we can be sure that Shechem had sex with Dinah before the marriage was properly arranged. As we shall see, this was a problem for the family of Jacob. As often happens in cases like this, it is the father of the boy who tried to make things right. King Hamor, the prince’s father, went to Jacob to explain the situation. Presumably Jacob knew something was up since Dinah had not come home. Hamor’s solution to the problem was the Shechem should marry Dinah. We do not know whether Dinah consented to the marriage or resisted it. Either way, she was no longer a virgin, which would make it hard to marry her to someone else.


            The prince himself spoke to Dinah’s brothers and said that he would pay any price to keep Dinah as a wife. Notice that Hamor and Shechem were bargaining so that Shechem could keep Dinah as a wife. In other words, they were trying to live according to the law as it would be laid down by Moses. The two men went even further and proposed that the Canaanites and Israelites freely intermarry. They should become one family.  


Dinah’s Brothers:      It is strange that the brothers instead of Jacob act as the head of the household in negotiating for the marriage of Dinah. The brothers are clearly upset over the fact that Shechem had sex with Dinah before a marriage was arranged. Shechem “had committed an outrage by lying with Jacob’s daughter;” he had “defiled” Dinah. Years ago, Southerners would say that he had “ruined” Dinah. It is not clear why they were so angry about this since Hamor and Shechem tried to make things right by following law and custom. Most likely the brothers saw the rape not as an attack on Dinah, but as an attack on their power and prestige.


            If you think about the old Spanish code of family honor, you may get a glimpse of the complex and violent dynamics at work here. The brothers were not concerned with justice or with Dinah’s well-being in this matter. In their mind, Shechem had treated her family shamefully. He had trespassed on the brother’s property, honor, and authority. It did not matter if Dinah had been raped or seduced or was a willing accomplice if this affair. The family’s honor had been publicly violated, and the brothers wanted vengeance.


Circumcision:             First the brothers made an outrageous and deceitful demand on Shechem and the people of his city. There could be no intermarriage between the Israelites and the Canaanites unless the Canaanite men were circumcised like the Israelites. There was probably some historical basis to this idea that the Israelites would demand circumcision before marriage. In an earlier lesson we discussed the idea that circumcision may have originally been part of the marriage ritual. By the time that Genesis was written circumcision had become one of the distinguishing marks of Judaism and was used as a way to prevent intermarriage. It is very likely that one purpose of this story at some point in history was to remind Jews that they were not to marry outside of their tribe.


            The brothers went far beyond reason when they demanded that all of the men of the city of Shechem be circumcised. The Canaanite king, Hamor, in turn convinces his people that they should submit to the knife because it was important to establish close ties to their Israelite neighbors. This little story goes to the heart of a three-thousand year old conflict within Judaism. Is it better to remain separate from your neighbors and risk offending them or should you assimilate and became like them? Is it possible to live in peace with those outside of the tribes of Israel or must there be perpetual warfare?


Brutality:        Shechem loved Dinah so much that he had himself circumcised and he insisted that all of his people be circumcised as well. Now that’s love, but it lead to tragedy. Taking the foreskin of their enemies was not enough for Simeon and Levi. They were angry and wanted revenge. The blood spilled in circumcision could not appease their appetite for violence. They were not really concerned about their sister nor did they want justice or peace. While the men of the city were recovering from their medical procedure and making plans for the wedding of the prince, the brothers of Dinah attacked without warning. The city was defenseless as they ravaged it, slaughtering all the men they could find. The story implies that it was just two men who did this, which is ridiculous. Simeon and Levi were clearly leaders of clans at this point, and they attacked with their armed men. Hamor, who had been decent throughout this affair, was put to death along with Shechem. There was no justice, only murder.


            According to Genesis, the other sons of Jacob came to the city and saw what Simeon and Levi had done. They looted the dead bodies, stole the animals, and plundered the city. They even seized the women who were still alive, just as Dinah had been seized. The word used is the same used for Shechem’s seizing of Dinah. In other words, the brothers of Dinah raped the women of Shechem and took their children as slaves. Their only defense for their crimes was that Shechem had treated their sister like a woman for hire rather than the daughter of a sheik.


Violence of Israel:     We’ve had nothing quite like this story of the ravishing of Shechem so far in Genesis. It is unlikely that the pillaging of Shechem was actually done during the lifetime of Jacob, but it was certainly done by his descendents. The tribes of Israel plundered Shechem and many other cities during their long history. They made many enemies. In ch. 34, Jacob responds to the violence of his children in words that were intended for Israelites centuries later. The butchery of the tribes of Simeon and Levi was far out of proportion to the offense of Shechem, and it did not bring peace. Their violence had made the family less safe. Jacob told Simeon and Levi that they had made Israel offensive to others nations who could unite and destroy Israel. That happened in 721 BC when the Assyrians took all of the tribes of Israel except Judah and Benjamin into exile. I think that the author of Genesis was warning the Israelites against seeking revenge. He was also warning them against using religion as a pretext or a tool for violence. Such violence only made the Israelites less secure. That is a lesson that we need to ponder in our world today.

Genesis 35      I want to begin the story of Joseph next week, and so we need to be brief in looking at chapter 35 of Genesis. It is basically a collection of vignettes from the life of Jacob that have been stitched together as a type of travelogue for the patriarch. In many ways, the journey describe here repeats the journey of Abraham through the Promised Land back to Paddan-aram. On the way, Jacob visits a number of holy places, especially Bethel.


            There is an interesting change of perspective in this chapter, which may be related to the story of Shechem. In this chapter we have the first indication that Israel should be purified of foreign gods and idols. Jacob even took the earrings out of his servants’ ears and buried them. This iconoclasm is a major feature of the rest of the OT, but this is the first mention of it in Genesis. In many ways chapter 35 foreshadows the later history of Israel, and it is therefore not surprising that Jacob is called Israel by the narrator.


            Two other things in the chapter are worth paying attention to. One is that Rachel dies while giving birth to Benjamin. She named him Ben-Oni, son of my sorrow, with her dying breath. Jacob changed the name to Benjamin, son of my right hand. He was the last born but was the son of his beloved wife. Rachel was buried on the way to Ephrath rather than in the family tomb in Hebron. This marks the beginning of Jacob’s old age and the years of sorrow and grief.


            His sons were the cause of much of his misery. Verse 22 states briefly that Reuben, his first born, had sex with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s wives. Reuben probably did this to assert his authority as head of the clan, but it shamed his father who was still alive. Poignantly, the text says that Jacob knew about it and did nothing.  There is a similar story about one of the sons of King David who usurped his father’s place. Again, the author of Genesis used the figure of Jacob to foreshadow the later history of Israel. The Jacob saga began with conflict between him and his brother. It ends with the violence of his sons toward one another and the world.

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  • Sojourner  On March 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    I truly appreciated your account of Dinah and I was of the persuasion that she did not marry at all and remained childless in the end but your writing could make me think again. One thing to point out however, is that the Bible never uses the word rape in the story.
    On the matter of Reuben, I am very interested on what really happened here.
    I have to disagree with your contention that he did this to assert his authority because in actual fact it did the very opposite — it degraded his whole position and it seems incredable that he could not forsee such an outcome of such action.
    My own perception of the matter here is that Reuben was not chasing a sexual affair with Bilhah at all but rather intended to undermine her position with Jacob. Reading into the story, Reuben was “Mammy’s boy” — all indications are that he was very attached to his mother, Leah. Following Rachael’s untimely death, Leah probably imagined that now Jacob would centre more upon her as she was a woman who longed to be loved but who Jacob did not love wholeheartly.
    (I imagine that Jacob even disliked her somewhat, maybe because she was always nagging about this. The more she nagged the worse the relationship got)
    However, Bilhah turned out to be a better soulmate much to Leah’s bitter disappointment so Reuben went to the “rescue”. He may well have succeded in wrecking Bilhah’s integrity in the sight of his father but he also wrecked his own —- Jacob, even on his deathbed never let him forget it. Reuben’s fallen reputation extended furthur than his father —- his brethern also held him in contempt and he seems to have been something of an outcast among them. (Notably, he was not with them when they conspired to murder Joseph). As an outcast, he had company however: Joseph — albiet for a very different reason but as outcasts often gravitate to one another’s company, I have no doubt that Reuben often cried on his little brother’s shoulder.
    Later in Egypt, Reuben’s conversation, indicates that he is still unaware what really happened back at the pit, and Joseph listening in unawares, now reliases that the bloodthirsty thug and de-facto leader, Simeon, was the instigator of his would-be murder and this is no doubt the reason why Simeon was seized.

  • Tim George  On May 8, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Love and forgiveness go hand in hand. Unless we love as God has commanded us the perpetual cycle of violence will continue. Jesus said in the last days because sin shall be increased, the love of many will wax cold. God is a God of love, and who ever is born of God loves also. As Jesus said love one another as I have loved you.

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