A Biblical Text of Terror

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43

D'Var Torah By: Ellen M. Umansky, PHD

In the midst of this week’s parashah, most of which focuses on Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan with his wives, maidservants, and children, is a lengthy story about Jacob’s only daughter, Dina (Genesis 34). While Jacob briefly appears in this story, he plays a surprisingly insignificant role. Indeed, after Jacob hears that Dina has been raped by Shechem, a local Hivite prince, he neither tells anyone nor takes any action, choosing to wait until his sons, who are in the fields tending to the livestock, return home (Genesis 34:5). Even when Hamor, Shechem’s father, comes to see Jacob and asks that Jacob agree to let Dina marry his son (who apparently, after defiling Dina, has fallen in love with her), it is not Jacob, but his sons who are now home, who provide Hamor with an answer. They tell him and Shechem that for Dina to marry an uncircumcised man would bring shame upon their family. However, should all male Shechemites (that is, Canaanites living in the city of Shechem) be circumcised, thereby becoming more like the Israelites, there would be no objection to Shechem’s marrying their sister. Indeed, if all Shechemite men were circumcised, Israelite men in general would allow their daughters to marry Shechemites and they would conceivably marry Shechemite women, settling among the Shechemites and becoming one people (Genesis 34:15-16).  

This promise, it turns out, is a trick. Just over two days later, when the Shechemite men are still in great pain from their recent circumcisions (Genesis 34:25) and thus unable to defend themselves, the sons, led by Dina’s full brothers, Simeon and Levi, take brutal revenge against not just Shechem, but all of the Shechemites. They kill Shechem, Hamor, and the rest of the Shechemite men, take the women and children captive, and seize all of their wealth and possessions. When Jacob expresses fear that his life and the lives of members of his household have been endangered by the brothers’ actions, Simeon and Levi’s response can be seen as a rebuke. Suggesting that Jacob should be more concerned about Dina’s social reputation, physical well-being, and perhaps consequent legal status, they rhetorically ask: “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31). 

Genesis 34 can best be described as a “text of terror,” a term coined by Christian feminist theologian, Phyllis Trible, to refer to scriptural narratives in which women suffer as victim (Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Fortress Press, 1984). Many years ago, I wrote a midrash in which I attempted to view Genesis 34 through the eyes of Dina, since even though the biblical text is purportedly about her, she, even more than her father Jacob, is silent. How might she have felt, I wondered, after her rape and Shechem’s ensuing declaration of love? Did Simeon and Levi forcibly remove her from Shechem’s house, as Genesis 34:26 implies or was she relieved to go with them? Did she believe that her brothers’ acts of violence were acts of revenge or, in her mind, was there another motivation? As I wrestled with the biblical text, my answers became clear. My midrash began:

The sun had already set, yet Dina still heard their cries — the women,
crying from pain and humiliation; the children, dazed, afraid to move,
afraid that if they did, they would be raped, like their mothers, or
killed like their fathers. Dina covered her ears and closed her eyes,
wishing she had only imagined the screams of the Canaanites.
(Ellen M. Umansky, “Beyond Androcentrism: Feminist Challenges to Judaism,” Journal of Reform Judaism, Winter, 1990, p. 32)

According to midrashic tradition, Dina herself was to blame. Since God created the first woman from Adam’s rib, a part of his body that was covered, women were to be modest by nature. Thus Dina acted unnaturally by going out, and in so doing, endangered herself. As the fourth century Rabbi Berekiah said in Rabbi Levi’s name: “This may be compared to one who was holding a pound of meat in his hand, and as soon as he exposed it a bird swooped down and snatched it away" (B’reishit Rabbah 80:5). Yet the biblical text itself does not fault Dina for publicly socializing with the Canaanite women. Indeed, as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary notes, the justification that Simeon and Levi give to Jacob for their acts of revenge indicate that in their view, Shechem’s offer of bride money and gifts after he had sexually defiled their sister, maligned her character by implying that she had made herself available to him as a prostitute (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary [NY: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008], n.31, p. 195).           

In my midrash, Dina comes to believe that the real motive of Simeon and Levi for killing the Shechemite men and taking the women and children captive was not to revenge her honor, but to justify their conquering the land of Canaan. Certainly, I think, my interpretation is plausible. Yet like so much else in Genesis 34, Dina’s own understanding of her brothers’ action is unknown. I ended the essay in which my midrash on Dina appeared by maintaining that if:

we are to create, or attempt to create, a non-patriarchal, non-androcentric Judaism — a Judaism in which the experiences of both men and women are seen as central — we Jewish women need to reclaim our voices. In so doing, we need to imagine what our foremothers, like Dina, might have said, if only they had spoken (“Beyond Androcentrism,” p. 33).

Were I to write this essay today, I would emend the last sentence. Dina, of course, did speak. But like so many of our Jewish foremothers, her words sadly were not recorded.

Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university’s Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY. 


Using Our Inheritance to Save and Not Destroy

Daver Acher By: David Ariel-Joel

After raping Dina, Shechem, who was in love with Dina, offered to marry her. Four books later we will find out that Shechem is the paradigm of the biblical law. In Deuteronomy 22:28-29 we read that if a man rapes a virgin he has to marry her and pay 50 shekels to her father. Shechem offers much more than that.

So what does not make sense in the story of Dina?

It’s the argument that Simeon and Levy use, “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31). This argument does not make sense!

The biblical law is that if someone violates a virgin, he should marry her. In biblical times, this law protected women. No man would want to marry a woman who had been violated. She was damaged goods, she would end up in horrible poverty, and she might become a prostitute. Shechem’s offer to marry Dina is the opposite of treating her like a whore: he is acting to protect the maiden he loves and even recruits his entire tribe for the sake of Dina.

So why do Simeon and Levy massacre the people of Shechem?

There was a great ethnic sensitivity among the family members of Abraham. Our ancestors actively avoided marrying Canaanites. Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac, instructing him she could not be from Canaan. Isaac and Rebecca were disappointed when Esau married Canaanite (specifically, Hittite) women, and Rebecca said that if Jacob married a Canaanite (Hittite) she may as well die, for what would her life be worth?.

Simeon and Levy act based on this ethnic sensitivity, barring any possible marriage between our ancestors and the people of the land, the natives.

In the Book of Genesis, a number of cities are destroyed in Canaan, including Sodom, Gomorrah, and Shechem.

Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by God, and Shechem, by the sons of Jacob who massacred its people in cold blood.

Abraham tried to save the people of Sodom, claiming that God should not kill the righteous with the guilty. Abraham believes that a few righteous people justify saving an entire city. Simeon and Levy destroy an entire city because of one evil person who violated their sister. They believe one evil man justifies killing an entire population.

They inherited Abraham’s ethnic sensitivity without Abraham’s moral and ethical standards.

That is a very dangerous inheritance, like that expressed by the “hilltop youth” of the settlements in the occupied territories.

Rabbi David Ariel-Joel is a senior rabbi at The Temple in Louisville, KY.

Reference Materials

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 183–208
Haftarah, Hosea 11:7–12:12
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 349−351; Revised Edition, pp. 241−243