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Torah Portion of the Week: An Invisible Protagonist

Parashat Vayishlach.

Simeon and Levi slay Hamor and Shechem, an illustration from the Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah.
Simeon and Levi slay Hamor and Shechem, an illustration from the Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah. Wikimedia Commons

The patriarch Jacob had a daughter, Dinah. Her mother was Leah. We know little about Dinah: Even in the story of which she is the central figure, and which appears in Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), she is silent. Dinah is a victim, the subject of a violent confrontation between men. Indeed, they are the ones who speak and act in this story: On one side, there is Shechem, son of Hamor, a local prince; on the other are Dinah’s brothers, the sons of Jacob.

What precisely happens in this tale is difficult to understand, particularly with respect to Dinah’s place at each stage in the plot. Initially, we learn that Shechem kidnaps and rapes her: “Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force” (Gen. 34:1-2). However, immediately afterward, we read that Shechem desires Dinah: Speaking softly and trying to acquire her in the accepted manner, he asks his father, “Get me this girl as a wife” (Gen. 34:4).

As the text continues, we learn that Simeon and Levi rescue their abducted sister: “They… took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away” (Gen. 34:26). However, in the extensive, diplomatically polite negotiations between Hamor and Jacob’s family regarding the marriage, Shechem’s serious crime and Dinah’s imprisonment in his home are not mentioned, and Dinah’s brothers threaten that if their demands for agreeing to the match are not met, “we will take our daughter and go” (Gen. 34:17). This contradiction compounds the feeling of unevenness and lack of continuity that is so evident in the story, especially in its first verses.

According to Joel S. Baden, author of the book “The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis,” the key to understanding this story involves acknowledgment that there are actually two stories before the reader, not one, the assumption being that a single incident is being recounted in two different ways, both of which made their way into the Torah. As in previous cases where two stories describe the same incident, the editor here had merges two tales into one text in chronological order but has created an imperfect narrative sequence.

In the one tale, attributed to the Yahwist (J) source, Shechem kidnaps Dinah and rapes her. Jacob awaits his sons’ return from the field, updating them on events, and Simeon and Levi, after killing Hamor and Shechem, rescue Dinah. Jacob condemns their act; they reply in a crass manner, as will soon become apparent.

In the second story, attributed to the Elohist (E) source, Shechem falls in love with Dinah, and tells his father Hamor of his desire to marry her. Hamor asks Jacob for Dinah’s hand, promising that the union will help forge peaceful coexistence between both sides. But Jacob’s sons (not only Simeon and Levi) deceive Hamor, making the marriage of Shechem and Dinah conditional upon circumcision of the villagers. When their demand is accepted, Jacob’s sons exploit the weakness of the local men, embarking on a mission of killing and pillage.

In the first tale, Shechem is the villain but it is unclear who the hero is. Simeon and Levi rescue Dinah and Jacob rebukes them: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed” (Gen. 34:30). Jacob is not criticizing the actions of the two brothers on moral grounds; apparently he fears the practical repercussions. In reaction, addressing either Schechem or Jacob (it’s not clear which), Simeon and Levi say angrily: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Gen. 34:31).

On his deathbed, Jacob again reproves them: “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:5-7). Jacob, seeking distance from his sons’ violent nature, has the last word. In contrast, Dinah’s story ends with their thunderous question, which remains unanswered.

The second, Elohist story – the marriage tale – casts the players in a different moral light: Jacob’s sons are the villains, exploiting their situation, acting deceptively and cruelly, while Shechem and his father behave legitimately. The text does not explicitly rebuke Jacob’s sons, but the gravity of their action emerges from its depiction. Unlike Jacob’s sons, Hamor and Shechem are gracious: “Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife” (Gen. 34:12); they naively believe the sincerity of Jacob’s sons: “These people are our friends” (Gen. 34:21).

The means Jacob’s sons use to deceive the villagers is their demand that they circumcise themselves: “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred” (Gen. 34:14-16). After the townsmen agree to adopt the custom (not described here in religious terms), Jacob’s sons exploit the situation to kill and plunder.

What would have happened, however, had Jacob’s sons not acted in a deceitful manner? Had they been sincere, would their proposal have been legitimate? Would the townspeople and the Israelites have become one nation? Apparently not. As with earlier stories in the Torah – Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s family, and Isaac sending Jacob to find a spouse – Dinah’s tale expresses opposition to marriage with the Canaanites, basing this opposition on a story of the patriarchs’ actions.

Nonetheless, Dinah’s story does not represent the Israelites as heroes and the Canaanites as villains, perhaps even the reverse: The villagers are gracious and hospitable, whereas Jacob’s sons sabotage rapprochement without any apparent reason. In this tale, the Israelites’ separation from the Canaanites does not stem from any obvious advantage, and is really not explained. But to guarantee the separation, Jacob’s sons behave treacherously and violently, and the narrator does not justify their actions.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.