This chapter is commonly entitled “The Rape of Dinah.” It is a difficult story to study not only because of the subject matter, but because of the historical/cultural context that is virtually impossible for a 21st Century reader to comprehend, and because its events can be understood in more than one way. The title itself may be a misnomer as not everyone agrees that a rape even takes place. And the actions of the people in the story range from blameworthy to strange to incomprehensible depending on the interpretation of the initial act. We know that whatever takes place, this chapter is recorded for our benefit or otherwise it wouldn’t be in Genesis. Why it’s here and what it tells us are difficult to grasp, however. At the end of the day the main thrust of the story is likely not the rape but the reaction to it; and the application may be that even though God saves a man and changes him, He doesn’t necessarily remove all the ramifications of his earlier life.
To better understand this story, it pays to review the last three verses of Chapter 33. There it says that Jacob and his family came to the city of Shechem and camped before the city. Once he camped, Jacob bought a piece of land from the hand of the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and built an altar. It seems, therefore, that this land is where Jacob plans to stay for some time; and though we have no way of knowing how long he’s been here when the events of this chapter take place, we know he’s already had interaction with Hamor’s family and very likely already knows the man who instigates everything that happens – Shechem.
We don’t know how old Dinah is at this time, but since her age is never mentioned as an issue in regard to Shechem’s actions, it seems reasonable to assume she is of marrying age. This makes her around 13-15 years old (unbelievably young in our culture but ready for marriage in Jacob’s). Dinah is Leah’s youngest child, born shortly before Rachel bore Joseph (30:21-24). Remember that Leah has six sons and one daughter. Dinah is Jacob’s only daughter, or at least the only one mentioned.
Verse 1 says that Dinah goes out to visit the daughters of the land. There is no way to know if this is dangerous behavior since she seems to be alone or if it’s completely acceptable. Since the text is silent, there’s no apparent reason to assume Dinah is either naïve or rebellious in going. We also don’t know if this is the first time she does this.
While she is away from Jacob’s camp, Shechem – the prince of the land and son of Hamor – sees her, takes her, and lies with her. And possibly lies with her by force.
After he has sex with her, he speaks tenderly to her because he is deeply attracted to her and loves her. His soul clings to her and he speaks to her heart (alternate translation of verse 3). He then goes to his father and tells him, “Get me this young girl for a wife.” [Interesting to consider her reaction to his tenderness – remember that she’s Leah’s daughter and she’s grown up watching her mother be the unloved wife and watching her father very obviously favor her aunt – as a child of Leah she’s likely not heard a lot of tenderness from her father either – might Shechem’s words to her take on more significance in light of her situation at home?]
This is where Shechem’s actions are really hard to understand. The Hebrew in verse 2 actually says that he lies with her and humbles her. It is not entirely clear if this means he rapes her or simply has consensual sex with her that – because she is unmarried (and unbetrothed) – leaves her humbled and defiled. Most English translations imply or state that he rapes her – and this seems to go along better with the description of seeing her and taking/seizing her.
But if this is the case, what do we do with Shechem’s response to her in verse 3? It seems very strange for a man who has just raped a girl to then feel love for her and speak tenderly to her. The reaction we would expect from him is akin to how Amnon (son of David) responds to Tamar after he lures her to his room and takes her by force. Verse 15 of II Samuel 13 reads: Then Amnon hated her with a very great hatred; for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Get up, go away!” This is a picture of sated lust. Lust always promises more than it delivers, and the man whose lust has been sated typically hates himself and the object of his lust. So for Shechem to love Dinah and speak to her tenderly and even want her for a wife after taking her in a violent fit of lust seems hard to reconcile. Perhaps the best way to summarize this thought is to ask the following – if he loves her, how can he rape her, and if he rapes her, how can he love her? Thus her humbling may be from giving in to his desire before they are properly married (in which case he’s culpable for convincing her to do something she knows is wrong).
The problem with this interpretation, however, is that there isn’t anything in the story that explains Dinah’s complicity. It doesn’t make sense that she goes out one day, runs into a neat guy (albeit one who is the prince of the land), and decides on the spot to sleep with him. For the theory that she gives in rather than is raped to be valid, it pretty much requires that she’s met him before. While this is entirely possible based on what we said above about the final verses of Chapter 33, it still means we have to add to the story.
Ultimately, there’s no way to know for sure. The advantage of ruling out rape, however, is that it makes Jacob’s response easier to understand and makes the presumed point of the chapter – the sinfulness of Simeon and Levi – easier to condemn. However, it very well could be that he does in fact rape her, and his actions afterward and the actions of everyone else in the rest of the story are hard to understand only because the cultural divide between this time and our own is too large to overcome.
Jacob somehow finds out what happened. We’ll discover later that Dinah stays in Shechem’s house (willingly or against her will is impossible to know), so he apparently hears nothing from her. Regardless of how he finds out, however, he decides to keep quiet because his sons are in the fields. He wants to wait until they come in before doing anything. Perhaps he knows he has little power without them.
The sons do come back, and Shechem’s father – Hamor – comes to them and Jacob to ask for Dinah as a wife for his son. Jacob’s sons are grieved and very angry at their sister’s disgrace, but Hamor either ignores or doesn’t notice their reaction (and perhaps they hide their feelings) and tells them Shechem longs for Dinah. He proposes that they enter into an agreement whereby the two groups – Jacob’s family and Hamor’s people – will intermarry and trade. “Thus you shall live with us, and the land shall be open before you; live and trade in it, and acquire property in it.”
Shechem also speaks to Jacob and the sons and tells them he’s willing to pay any bride price for Dinah. All they have to do is name the amount and he’ll pay it. All he wants is Dinah and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get her.
Shechem and Hamor appear to be totally unaware that Shechem’s behavior might have offended Jacob and his sons. Shechem even says, “If I find favor in your sight…” before suggesting a negotiation for a bride price. Either they are incredibly naïve or they’re the worst readers of people in history. It could be that Hamor’s words in verses 8-9 are meant to placate them by assuring them that his son’s intentions are honorable and he really does love Dinah. However, even his words seem small consolation in light of what’s taken place. Perhaps the disconnect stems from the differences between their pagan culture and Jacob’s.
We don’t know what happens to Jacob between verse 11 and verse 13. Hamor and Shechem speak to the sons and to Jacob in vss 8-11, but in verse 13 it says only the sons reply. Since Jacob will later condemn the sons for their actions, it seems that two possibilities for Jacob’s silence are possible. Either he stands by while the sons give their answer to Hamor and Shechem and doesn’t realize what they’re doing, or he removes himself from the negotiations and leaves it all up to the sons. Since they negotiate the bride price for his daughter, it seems odd that he would remove himself from the conversation, but by the same token it seems hard to believe that he would stand and listen silently while they make their demands. Ultimately, there’s no way to know.
It makes sense to again contemplate what happened between Shechem and Dinah as we read about the negotiations between Hamor and Jacob’s family. If Shechem raped her, is it really possible that he and his father would come to the family and benignly ask for her hand in marriage? And do it without expressing remorse or denying/explaining what happened? Here again is where the cultural divide rears its head. The answer to both questions is actually ‘yes.’ The negotiation by itself doesn’t mean he didn’t rape her. In a culture where a woman’s value is almost entirely predicated on marriage and childbearing, her rape doesn’t necessarily disqualify her rapist as a potential husband, since as a result she stands very little chance of marrying anyone else. The Mosaic Law will even address this (Deut 22:28-29 – although it should be read as a deterrent to the behavior). As horrific and incomprehensible as this sounds to us, it is another example of how difficult it is to read this story through 21st Century eyes.
That said, Jacob’s reaction is easier to understand if a rape didn’t take place. If Shechem raped her, it seems reasonable to assume that Jacob wouldn’t be so passive (although perhaps her status as Leah’s daughter plays a part in his reaction?). By the same token, however, the sons’ response may accord more with the rape (although their response may differ from Jacob’s in that Dinah is – for six of them – their full blood sister while to Jacob she’s just Leah’s daughter). Once again, the story proves hard to pin down.
Jacob’s sons reply to Shechem and Hamor in an unexpected way. They don’t ask for a bride price at all. They simply tell the two men that they can’t allow Dinah or any of their women to marry an uncircumcised man. For the marriage to take place and for them to enter into an agreement to intermarry and trade, all the men of Hamor’s city must be circumcised. If Hamor and his men won’t do this, then Jacob’s family will take our daughters and go. The text notes that Jacob’s sons speak with deceit when they make this demand.
Shechem and Hamor like what they hear. Instead of asking for money and property, the sons of Jacob have asked for a medical procedure. It’s certainly not a fun procedure, but it’s doable and it’s understandable. It’s a religious thing for them, and if it’s what’s necessary for Shechem to get Dinah – who he’s delighted with – and for Hamor to have a trade agreement, it’s worth it.
They immediately go back to the city and announce that all the men have to be circumcised. Note that Shechem is more respected than all the household of his father (which is an ironic description depending on what happened between him and Dinah). Based on his influence, however, the men agree. They also agree because Hamor tells them they’re going to benefit richly from the agreement. He doesn’t mention that Shechem wants Dinah, but he does tell them that if they intermarry with Jacob’s family they’ll prosper (“Will not their livestock and their property and all their animals be ours?”). Remember that Jacob is VERY rich – it’s likely that this hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention in the city. So while no one is probably excited by the prospect, they agree to the circumcisions – every male in the city – because it sounds like a good deal in the long run.
All the men of the city are circumcised apparently at the same time. On the third day after the circumcision (when apparently the pain and inflammation are the worst and can bring about fever), two sons of Leah (and thus full-blood brothers of Dinah) – Simeon and Levi – come to the city and kill every male in it. They kill every defenseless male including Shechem and Hamor. And they take Dinah out of Shechem’s house and bring her back home (it’s interesting to consider that if Dinah wasn’t raped it means she likely wants to marry Shechem, and the actions of her brothers here are actually tragic for her).
[This is the last time Dinah is mentioned in Genesis. We know nothing more about her. Some rabbinical literature claims she becomes pregnant as a result of her encounter with Shechem and gives birth to a daughter – Asenath – who somehow ends up in Egypt as the adopted daughter of an Egyptian priest and marries Joseph (41:45). Others hold that she is the Canaanite woman mentioned in 46:10 as the mother of Shaul, son of Simeon. In this tradition, Shaul is actually the son of Shechem and Dinah, but he’s listed as Simeon’s son since Simeon takes Dinah into his house. And she’s identified as a Canaanite woman because she bears the child of Shechem. Lastly, some claim that she becomes the wife of Job (whether she’s the one who tells him to curse God and die or is his wife after God restores his fortunes isn’t clear).]
After killing all the males, the two sons – and potentially the other sons of Jacob – loot the city and take all the women and children (presumably to enslave them). They take all their flocks and their herds and their donkeys and everything in the city and everything in the field. They effectively take everything they didn’t ask for as a bride price plus everything else.
Jacob now reenters the story. He expresses his displeasure to Simeon and Levi over their actions. He doesn’t rebuke them because they acted wrongly; he rebukes them because they’ve threatened the family’s safety. He tells them they’ve made Jacob odious among the inhabitants of the land, and the men of the land will now attack them and destroy them. He says his men are few in number and he stands no chance if the men of Canaan band together against him.
Jacob will never forget this. Years from now when he’s on his deathbed he will pronounce blessings on every son. For Simeon and Levi he will curse them because of their violence and tell them they’ll have little to no inheritance in Canaan when the Israelites return (49:5-7). In actual fact, when the land is divided by Joshua, Simeon will receive a limited portion within Judah (Josh 19:1-9) and Levi will be scattered throughout all the tribes (Josh 21). The curse of Jacob will come true.
Simeon and Levi, however, are unrepentant. They simply reply to their father, “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” (this could be another sign she wasn’t raped – their terminology appears to refer to indecent sex rather than violent sex). They don’t feel that what they did was wrong. They avenged their sister’s honor. And even though they massacred an entire city full of innocent men – as only one man defiled their sister – they feel justified because of what he did. And perhaps their reasoning is that if they had killed only Shechem, they would have ended up fighting the whole city anyway because of his place in it. He was the prince of the land; therefore the land had to pay.
The point of the story seems to be the evil actions of Jacob’s sons more than the potentially evil act of Shechem. Whether or not he raped Dinah is secondary to the deceit and violence carried out by Simeon and Levi. Whatever happened to Dinah, they had no right to completely wipe out and loot a city and enslave all the surviving inhabitants. And Jacob is right to be worried about his safety as God will tell him to move and then intercede to protect him (35:5).
The lesson could be that while Jacob is apparently a changed man since his wrestling match with God, his sons are the product of a dysfunctional family and a father who until recently practiced deceit as a matter of course (and it is interesting that most of the problems Jacob will deal with as a result of his sons’ actions come from sons of Leah – Reuben and Judah will join Simeon and Levi as men with issues – perhaps growing up as the secondary sons of the secondary wife causes them to live with a little chip on their shoulders). God changed Jacob but the ramifications of his earlier actions remain. He will never live without his sons bringing him pain (in his old age he will describe his life as unpleasant – 47:9). Ultimately, his sons’ continual mischief is a reminder of his many years of selfish living.