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Dinah and Shechem: A Story that Biblical Authors Kept Revising

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Christoph Levin

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Dinah and Shechem: A Story that Biblical Authors Kept Revising

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Dinah and Shechem: A Story that Biblical Authors Kept Revising

Shechem, a local prince, falls in love with Jacob’s daughter Dinah, and her brothers approve of the marriage as long as he is willing to be circumcised. Given Deuteronomy’s prohibition against intermarriage, later scribes revised the story into a slaughter of the natives. This was too harsh for later scribes, who recast the story as brothers avenging their sister’s rape.

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Dinah and Shechem: A Story that Biblical Authors Kept Revising

Dinah’s brothers avenge her honor, (colorized) Matthaeus Merian I (1593-1650). Colonialart.org

The Unspoken Rape and Abduction

After Jacob purchases a plot of land near Shechem (Gen 33:19),[1] the prince, whose name is also Shechem, sees Jacob’s daughter Dinah, after which:

בראשית לד:ב ...וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ.
Gen 34:2 …He (Shechem) took her and raped her, debasing her.[2]

Finding himself still infatuated with the girl, Shechem asks his father to procure the girl for him:

בראשית לד:ד וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁכֶם אֶל חֲמוֹר אָבִיו לֵאמֹר קַח לִי אֶת הַיַּלְדָּה הַזֹּאת לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 34:4 So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl for my wife.”

Shechem speaks as if Dinah is with her family and not a captive in his (Shechem’s) house. This is problematic, because the end of the story, after the brothers have slaughtered all the male inhabitants of the city including Hamor and Shechem, makes it clear she has remained in Shechem’s house the whole time:

בראשית לד:כו ...וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת דִּינָה מִבֵּית שְׁכֶם וַיֵּצֵאוּ.
Gen 34:26 … and they took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away.

Furthermore, when negotiating with the brothers, Shechem’s father Hamor neither acknowledges nor apologizes for his son’s behavior when asking for the girl.

בראשית לד:ח וַיְדַבֵּר חֲמוֹר אִתָּם לֵאמֹר שְׁכֶם בְּנִי חָשְׁקָה נַפְשׁוֹ בְּבִתְּכֶם תְּנוּ נָא אֹתָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 34:8 Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; I pray you, give her to him in marriage.”

This too is in tension with the end of the story: like Shechem, Hamor acts as if Dinah is with her own family. Even stranger, the brothers themselves do not call him out on this, and say nary a word about the abduction and rape.[3]

Adding the Rape

These contradictions suggest that the story has been revised over time. In an older version, Shechem merely sees the girl, who is still in her father’s home, grows fond of her, and decides he wants to marry her.[4] As Lyn Bechtel notes, “Rapists feel hostility and hatred toward their victims, not love,”[5] something we see in the story of Amnon, who throws Tamar out of his home after raping her (2 Sam 13:15).

Yair Zakovitch of Hebrew University agrees that this story has grown over time, and suggests the reason a later scribe revised it in this way:

It seems that the rape element was added because the editor assumed that the brothers must have had a justifiable motive for their deceit and cruelty.[6]

This editor added further references to Dinah’s defilement in the story (in vv. 5, 13, 27), none of which read well in context (see addendum with full reconstruction of layers).[7]

Adding the rape gives the brothers a strong defense against their father, when he rebukes them for slaughtering the inhabitants of Shechem so cavalierly:

בראשית לד:לא וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ.
Gen 34:31 And they said: “How then could he treat our sister like a whore?”

If the older story did not feature a rape, why are the brothers so bloodthirsty and cruel, slaughtering an entire city just because the prince had the gall (chutzpah?) to request the hand of Jacob’s daughter in marriage?! To answer this question, we need to unpack how the Dinah story developed in what I would call, successive Fortschreibungen (updates), meant to solve religious tensions.[8] (Notably, this development does not stop with the Bible; see the postscript.)

Base Text: A Local Aristocrat Marries Jacob’s Daughter

The story began with a brief account of how a local aristocrat was so besotted with Jacob’s daughter, that he even agreed to have himself circumcised in order to get her brothers to agree to let him marry her:

בראשית לד:א וַתֵּצֵא דִינָה בַּת לֵאָה אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב לִרְאוֹת בִּבְנוֹת הָאָרֶץ. לד:ב וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר // נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ //. לד:ג וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת הַנַּעֲרָ // לד:ד וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁכֶם אֶל חֲמוֹר אָבִיו לֵאמֹר קַח לִי אֶת הַיַּלְדָּה הַזֹּאת לְאִשָּׁה. //
Gen 34:1 Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. 34:2 When Shechem son of Hamor // prince of the land, saw her // 34:3 his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the maiden. // 34:4 So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl for my wife.” //
לד:ז וּבְנֵי יַעֲקֹב בָּאוּ מִן הַשָּׂדֶה // לד:ח וַיְדַבֵּר חֲמוֹר אִתָּם לֵאמֹר שְׁכֶם בְּנִי חָשְׁקָה נַפְשׁוֹ בְּבִתְּכֶם תְּנוּ נָא אֹתָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה. // לד:יג וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב אֶת שְׁכֶם וְאֶת חֲמוֹר אָבִיו // לד:יד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵיהֶם לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲשׂוֹת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לָתֵת אֶת אֲחֹתֵנוּ לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לוֹ עָרְלָה כִּי חֶרְפָּה הִוא לָנוּ. לד:טו אַךְ בְּזֹאת נֵאוֹת לָכֶם אִם תִּהְיוּ כָמֹנוּ לְהִמֹּל לָכֶם כָּל זָכָר. לד:יט וְלֹא אֵחַר הַנַּעַר לַעֲשׂוֹת הַדָּבָר כִּי חָפֵץ בְּבַת יַעֲקֹב וְהוּא נִכְבָּד מִכֹּל בֵּית אָבִיו.
34:7 When the sons of Jacob came in from the field // 34:8 Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; I pray you, give her to him in marriage.” // 34:13 The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor // 34:14 and said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for it is a disgrace to us. 34:15 However, on this condition will we consent to you: that you will become as we are ‘to be circumcised, every male among you’ (Gen 17:10).” // 34:19 And the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he had delight in Jacob’s daughter. He was the most honored of all his family.

As soon as he catches sight of Dinah, Shechem’s “soul was drawn” to her. The phrase דבק בְּ- “he was drawn to her” is used in the story of Adam and Eve to explain why men leave their families to join their wives:

בראשית ב:כד עַל כֵּן יַעֲזָב אִישׁ אֶת אָבִיו וְאֶת אִמּוֹ וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד.
Gen 2:24 Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.[9]

This literary connection implies that Shechem will be willing to leave his family of origin, and become a Jew.[10] Instead of naming a bride price, Jacob’s sons assert a fundamental impediment: they are forbidden to marry their sister to an uncircumcised man.[11] To make the point, the brothers quote God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 17, that all males in the covenantal family must be circumcised. Shechem is not to be deterred, however, and he at once has himself circumcised, removing the literal and figurative impediment, and allowing for the marriage to proceed.

The narrative ends with satisfaction in how this prominent local prince joined the Jewish people. We can see similar pride in the conversion of a highly placed outsider, such as in the report about the Aramean general Naaman in Kings (2 Kgs 5:15­–19a) and, in later Jewish literature, in Josephus’ account (Ant. Jud. 10:17–96) on how the royal house of Adiabene converted to Judaism in the first century C.E.[12]

As John Colenso suggested more than a century ago, the basic narrative “seems to have described a peaceful intermarriage between the Israelites and Shechemites, on condition of the latter being circumcised.”[13] In this paradigm, Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, stands for the Jewish girl as such. Her groom is named after the city of Shechem and represents the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land.

First Revision: The Whole City of Shechem Converts to Judaism

The original story is content with just Shechem being circumcised, but a later scribe was bothered by the tension between the quoted verse, stating that “every male among you should be circumcised” and the conclusion of the story, which has only Shechem himself circumcised. Thus, the story was revised to be about how the entire city converted to Judaism.

Hamor makes the opening bid, suggesting that if they agree to the marriage, the bride’s family should feel free to live among them:

בראשית לד:י וְהָאָרֶץ תִּהְיֶה לִפְנֵיכֶם שְׁבוּ וּסְחָרוּהָ וְהֵאָחֲזוּ בָּהּ.
Gen 34:10 The land shall be open before you; dwell and trade in it, and get property in it.

Hamor repeats the gesture of Abimelech, king of Gerar, to Abraham:

בראשית כ:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ הִנֵּה אַרְצִי לְפָנֶיךָ בַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ שֵׁב.
Gen 20:15 And Abimelech said, “Here, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.”

The final part of the phrase recalls how Pharaoh granted the Israelites rights to settle in Egypt,

בראשית מז:כז וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן וַיֵּאָחֲזוּ בָהּ...
Gen 47:27 Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it

The brothers up the ante, suggesting that they and the Shechemites join and become one people:

בראשית לד:טז // וְיָשַׁבְנוּ אִתְּכֶם וְהָיִינוּ לְעַם אֶחָד. לד:יז וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֵלֵינוּ לְהִמּוֹל וְלָקַחְנוּ אֶת בִּתֵּנוּ וְהָלָכְנוּ.
Gen 34:16 // Then we will dwell with you and become one people. 34:17 But if you will not listen to us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter, and we will be gone.”[14]

Like the author of the core story, the redactor here calls the reader’s attention to the verse in the Adam and Eve story. This time, it isn’t just the man and woman, Shechem and Dinah, who become one flesh, but the Israelites and Shechemites as a whole.[15]

Note again how in this early layer, Dinah is at home with her family and not with Shechem. Otherwise, the brothers’ threatening bravado here would constitute an absurdity. The ultimatum proves to be unnecessary. Hamor and Shechem immediately accept the condition.

לד:יח וַיִּיטְבוּ דִבְרֵיהֶם בְּעֵינֵי חֲמוֹר וּבְעֵינֵי שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר.
34:18 Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem.

Hamor returns to the city and convinces the people that joining with this family is a good idea for the people as a whole. As Benno Jacob notes, “Dinah is not mentioned at all.”[16] They thus all agree to be circumcised (vv. 20–22, 24) and thus effectively turn Shechem into an Israelite city.[17]

A Tweaking: Shechem Follows the Jewish Wedding Customs.

Building on this same overall positive story, another editor added some small tweaks. First, he was bothered by the absence of the bride, so he added that Shechem met her beforehand and וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לֵב הַנַּעֲרָ “he spoke to the maiden’s heart,” i.e., he appealed to her will.[18]

Second, he was bothered by the absence of Jacob in the negotiations, so he added:

בראשית לד:ו וַיֵּצֵא חֲמוֹר אֲבִי שְׁכֶם אֶל יַעֲקֹב לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ.
Gen 34:6 And Hamor the father of Shechem went out to Jacob to speak with him.

Finally, as it is only appropriate that the bride’s father pay the bride price, he added this into Shechem’s speech:

בראשית לד:יא וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁכֶם אֶל אָבִיה וְאֶל אַחֶיהָ אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם וַאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלַי אֶתֵּן. לד:יב הַרְבּוּ עָלַי מְאֹד מֹהַר וּמַתָּן וְאֶתְּנָה כַּאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָי וּתְנוּ לִי אֶת הַנַּעֲרָ לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 34:11 Shechem also said to her father and to her brothers, “Let me find favor in your eyes, and whatever you say to me I will give. 34:12 Ask of me ever so much as marriage present [and bridal gift],[19] and I will give according as you say to me; only give me the maiden to be my wife.”

Note here that Shechem even uses the phrase אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם “Let me find favor in your eyes,” the very phrase used by Jacob when urging Esau to accept his propitiatory gift (Gen 33:15). Thus Shechem, even before his circumcision, already speaks and acts like a good Jew.

Negative Revision: The City of Shechem is Conquered.

The idea that the natives of the land could become Israelites just by circumcising themselves contradicted the doctrine that Israelites were entirely descendants of the patriarch Jacob, and that they slaughtered the Canaanites entirely upon entering the land (Josh 6–11). If, as this story narrates, the sons of Jacob joined together with the Shechemites and became one people, would that not mean that their descendants, the Israelites/Judeans of later times, were themselves partly descended from the inhabitants of the land, i.e., the Canaanites? This, a later scribe believed, was out of the question.[20]

In this revision, the sons of Jacob invoke the commandment of circumcision as an entry point into the people of Israel only בְּמִרְמָה “deceitfully,” in order to make it possible for them to destroy the Shechemites, who outnumbered them.[21] The ruse works: The day after next, the men lie in wound fever after the circumcision, and become easy victims:

בראשית לד:כה וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיוֹתָם כֹּאֲבִים וַיִּקְחוּ שְׁנֵי בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אֲחֵי דִינָה אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ וַיָּבֹאוּ עַל הָעִיר בֶּטַח וַיַּהַרְגוּ כָּל זָכָר. לד:כו // וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת דִּינָה מִבֵּית שְׁכֶם וַיֵּצֵאוּ.
Gen 34:25 On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came upon the city unawares, and killed all the males. 34:26 // And they took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away.

In the book of Judges, the description of the city as “unaware” or “safe” (בֶּטַח) is used to describe the situation of the people of Laish before they were destroyed by the Danites:

שופטים יח:כז... וַיָּבֹאוּ עַל לַיִשׁ עַל עַם שֹׁקֵט וּבֹטֵחַ וַיַּכּוּ אוֹתָם לְפִי חָרֶב וְאֶת הָעִיר שָׂרְפוּ בָאֵשׁ.
Judg 18:27 …They came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city.[22]

The idea is that the city of Shechem was destroyed as other cities were during the conquest of the land.[23]

The statement that they took Dinah and left is a subtle and astute reinterpretation of the brothers’ threat (part of an earlier layer) that

בראשית לד:יז וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֵלֵינוּ לְהִמּוֹל וְלָקַחְנוּ אֶת בִּתֵּנוּ וְהָלָכְנוּ.
Gen 34:17 But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and go.

That they do end up carrying out the threat implies, if indirectly, that perhaps “every male” of the Shechemites did not really circumcise themselves after all. This would ameliorate the harshness of the act of killing a whole city that just converted to Judaism, but calling this act into question and implying that the city did not act forthrightly.

Jacob’s Response

Jacob responds directly and immediately[24] to this reckless killing of natives:

בראשית לד:ל וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל לֵוִי עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי.
Gen 34:30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my house.”

Jacob considers the price that rigorous action can cost an oppressed minority. The danger he describes reflects the situation of the Jewish Diaspora, or, translated into history, the situation of the Israelites in Egypt and when immigrating to the Promised Land. One lived as a minority, מְתֵי מִסְפָּר “few in number,”[25] among a majority with whom one avoided confrontation as much as possible.[26]

Should the inhabitants of the land unite against Jacob (see Josh 10:5; Judg 6:33; 1 Sam 13:5), it would spell the end for his house, as if a dynasty were being wiped out. Jacob’s fear is well placed, and the problem is solved only through divine intervention:

בראשית לה:ה ...וַיְהִי חִתַּת אֱלֹהִים עַל הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם וְלֹא רָדְפוּ אַחֲרֵי בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב.
Gen 35:5 …A terror from God fell upon the cities that were round about them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.

This layer of the story is thus ambivalent about the brothers: Their promise to allow intermarriage here was never meant seriously, which is a plus, but their tricking of the natives is reckless and endangers the future of Israel. When it comes time to bless his sons, he curses these two for what they did:

בראשית מט:ה שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. מט:ו בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. מט:ז אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
Gen 49:5 Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 49:6 May I never come into their council; may I not be joined to their company, for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen. 49:7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.

Reading this curse, which was likely composed with the Dinah story in mind, we see that Jacob remains angry about the slaughter until the end of his life.

Defending the Brothers with the Conquest Law

An even later scribe, bothered by the brutality the brothers show with their trick, uses the laws of Deuteronomy to defend their actions. First, he adds that Shechem was Hivite (v. 2), and thus subject to extermination by the laws of war in Deuteronomy 20.[27] Second, he has Hamor offer an open invitation to mixed marriage: וְהִתְחַתְּנוּ אֹתָנוּ בְּנֹתֵיכֶם תִּתְּנוּ־לָנוּ וְאֶת־בְּנֹתֵינוּ תִּקְחוּ לָכֶם “Make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves” (v. 9), repeated twice more in the story (vv. 16, 21).

These two details are meant to demonstrate that any such alliance with Shechem would violate the commands of Deuteronomy:

דברים ז:א כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ וְנָשַׁל גּוֹיִם רַבִּים מִפָּנֶיךָ הַחִתִּי וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי שִׁבְעָה גוֹיִם רַבִּים וַעֲצוּמִים מִמֶּךָּ. ז:ב וּנְתָנָם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ וְהִכִּיתָם הַחֲרֵם תַּחֲרִים אֹתָם לֹא תִכְרֹת לָהֶם בְּרִית וְלֹא תְחָנֵּם.
Deut 7:1 When YHWH your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you—7:2 and YHWH your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter.
ז:ג וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן בָּם בִּתְּךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ לֹא תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ.
7:3 You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.

Furthermore, according to Deuteronomy 20:17, the Hivites are to be killed, and under no circumstances may the Israelites join with them in marriage.

Plunder and War Laws

The scribe further adds how after slaughtering the males, the Israelites plundered the city:

בראשית לד:כז בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב בָּאוּ עַל הַחֲלָלִים וַיָּבֹזּוּ הָעִיר // לד:כח אֶת צֹאנָם וְאֶת בְּקָרָם וְאֶת חֲמֹרֵיהֶּם וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר וְאֶת אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׂדֶה לָקָחוּ. לד:כט וְאֶת כָּל חֵילָם וְאֶת כָּל טַפָּם וְאֶת נְשֵׁיהֶם שָׁבוּ וַיָּבֹזּוּ וְאֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּבָּיִת.
Gen 34:27 And the sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city // 34:28 they took their flocks and their herds, their asses, and whatever was in the city and in the field; 34:29 all their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey.

The combination of these two factors points to another law in Deuteronomy, the proper treatment of foreign cities with whom the Israelites are at war:

דברים כ:יג וּנְתָנָהּ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְהִכִּיתָ אֶת כָּל זְכוּרָהּ לְפִי חָרֶב. כ:יד רַק הַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְהַבְּהֵמָה וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בָעִיר כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ תָּבֹז לָךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת שְׁלַל אֹיְבֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָךְ.
Deut 20:13 and when YHWH your God delivers it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 20:14 You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, the livestock, and everything in the town—all its spoil—and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy, which YHWH your God gives you.

In this sense, the brothers’ actions are merely a fulfillment of Deuteronomic law.[28] It may have been risky but was a fulfillment of divine command. The plunder also works tit-for-tat against what Hamor says earlier (also from this layer) to his people, that if they agree to circumcise, they will succeed in appropriating all of the Israelites’ possessions (v. 23).

The Rape Revision

It was at this point in the development of the story that a scribe, feeling that even the invocation of Deuteronomy was insufficient, decided to add the casus belli: the uncircumcised Shechem had raped Dinah, defiling her and by extension Jacob’s whole family, and was holding her by force in his home. For any reader feeling that Deuteronomy’s theology of conquest and hatred of Canaanites was insufficient, here was a viscerally more satisfying defense.

An Unending Attempt to Solve a Core Tension

The specific tension driving the continuous updates (Fortschreibungen) of the story is that between circumcision as the defining act to make someone Jewish (Gen 17:10) and the blanket prohibition against intermarriage with “Canaanite” locals (Deut 7:3). At the heart of this tension is a fundamental problem that Judaism is defined both ethnically, by ancestry, and religiously, by Torah observance. This is, indeed, the crux of the Dinah story: the inhabitants of Shechem have become Jews religiously through circumcision, but are exterminated by Simeon and Levi because they are not ethnic Jews.[29]

The earlier layers (1–3) are comfortable with conversion through circumcision, and do not end with killing but with marriage. The next two layers, in contrast, see the inhabitants as essentially outsiders, and the circumcision as a farce, and thus reinterpret the circumcision requirement as a ruse, adding the slaughter and plunder of the inhabitants as a fulfillment of God’s command to remove the natives. The final redaction, uncomfortable with the blanket rejection of conversion, and the slaughter of people who accepted circumcision and ostensibly converted, invents the rape to justify the slaughter as really an act of vengeance.

Postscript

It Didn’t Stop with the Torah

The interpretation of the Book of Genesis continued after the book took its current form, with interpreters. But while early interpretations entered into what became the biblical text, later interpretations took the form of rewritten biblical texts or midrashic expositions.

Weren’t They Circumcised Though?

As the idea that gentile men can convert to Judaism through circumcision solidified in the Hellenistic Period, the problem with what Simeon and Levi did became starker: Were they not murdering members of God’s people?!

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (second century B.C.E.), makes this problem explicit in the Testament of Levi (6:3–8):

“I took counsel with my father and with my brother Reuben to tell the sons of Hamor to be circumcised, for I was full of zeal because of the abomination they had committed against my sister. And I killed Shechem first, and Simeon killed Hamor. After that, when the brothers came, they smote the city with the edge of the sword. And the father heard it, and was wroth, and was grieved, because they had received circumcision, and afterward suffered death. And with the blessings he overlooked us.”[30]

Jacob, thus, is not upset because of fear of reprisals, but because by circumcising, the Shechemites were now Jews, and should not be killed. At the same time, the text softens Jacob’s punishment of the brothers: he did not curse them, Levi said, but merely didn’t bless them.

Skipping the Circumcision—The Book of Jubilees, from about the same period, takes the opposite strategy and skips the motif of circumcision altogether in its retelling:

Jub 30:2 …Jacob’s daughter Dinah was taken by force to the house of Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of the land. He lay with her and defiled her. Now she was a small girl, twelve years of age. 30:3 He begged her father and her brothers that she be given to him as wife. Jacob and his sons were angry with the Shechemites because they had defiled their sister Dinah. They spoke deceptively with them, acted in a crafty way toward them, and deceived them. 30:4 Simeon and Levi entered Shechem unexpectedly, and effected a punishment on all the Shechemites. They killed every man whom they found in it. They left absolutely no one in it. They killed everyone in a painful way because they had violated their sister Dinah.[31]

Jubilees continues by stating that this should serve as a lesson to gentiles not to rape Jewish girls, and also to Jews, not to allow their daughters to marry gentiles. In fact, in the next verses, Jubilees go so far as to suggest that Levi inherits the priesthood because of his zealous deeds here.

Two centuries or so later, Josephus also eliminates the circumcision element of the story altogether in his retelling (Ant. Jud. 1.337–340). He too focuses on the rape. It is ironic that the earliest layer of the story—the circumcision of Shechem—is eliminated in favor the latest element, the rape.

What Happens to Dinah? Was She Pregnant?

Once the rape element was added, readers began to wonder what happened to Dinah and whether she had conceived a child from the rape, and if so what happened to it. Later interpretation offers a few possibilities:

Simeon Marries Her—In Genesis Rabbah (§80), Rav Huna identifies her as the unnamed Canaanite wife of Simeon and mother Shaul (Gen 46:10). Simeon would not have had intercourse with his sister, of course, given the prohibition in Leviticus 18:9 and 20:17. Shechem had fathered Shaul when he raped Dinah.[32]

Mother of Asenath—According to Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (§38) Jacob had expelled his granddaughter Asenath from his house,[33] since her father was a Hivite and she was conceived in rape. But the angel Michael brought her to Egypt, where she was adopted by Potiphera, priest of On (Gen 41:45), whose wife was barren. This gives Joseph a Jewish wife, and, more importantly, Ephraim and Manasseh, a Jewish mother.

Job’s Wife—The Talmud (b. Baba Batra 15b), discusses at length whether Job was a Jew, but asserts that his wife certainly was, since he had married Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. The keyword נְבָלָה “outrage” serve as a bridge between these two stories. When Job reproaches his wife, “You speak as one of the outrageous woman (הַנְּבָלוֹת) would speak” (Job 2:10), he was referring to Gen 34:7: “He had wrought outrage (נְבָלָה) in Israel.”

Judith: An Anti-Dinah

A final strategy was to correct the story by writing a parallel narrative, Judith, which takes a different course. Like Dinah, Judith, the Jewess (this is the meaning of her name) attracts the attentions of a powerful gentile man, but unlike Dinah, she is able to escape defilement (Jdt 13:16) and makes the ruse her own. With her own hand she executes judgement on the enemies of God’s people (a literary parallel to the Yael story in Judges 4). To justify herself, she invokes the rape of Dinah in her prayer (Jdt 9:2–4).

Appendix

Redactional Layers

Bold=core text (Shechem is circumcised and marries Dinah)

Red=first revision (city’s conversion, following the circumcision commandment)

Blue=second revision (Jewish marriage customs implemented)

Underline=third revision (circumcision becomes a ruse)

Italics=fourth revision (following Deut law regarding relationship to non-Jews)

Light gray=final revision (the rape as justification for the city’s destruction)

בראשית לד:א וַתֵּצֵא דִינָה בַּת לֵאָה אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב לִרְאוֹת בִּבְנוֹת הָאָרֶץ. לד:ב וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ. לד:ג וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת הַנַּעֲרָ וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לֵב הַנַּעֲרָ. לד:ד וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁכֶם אֶל חֲמוֹר אָבִיו לֵאמֹר קַח לִי אֶת הַיַּלְדָּה הַזֹּאת לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 34:1 Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. 34:2 When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite prince of the land, saw her, he took her and raped her, debasing her. 34:3 And his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the maiden, and he spoke to the heart of the maiden. 34:4 So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this child for my wife.”
לד:ה וְיַעֲקֹב שָׁמַע כִּי טִמֵּא אֶת דִּינָה בִתּוֹ וּבָנָיו הָיוּ אֶת מִקְנֵהוּ בַּשָּׂדֶה וְהֶחֱרִשׁ יַעֲקֹב עַד בֹּאָם. לד:ו וַיֵּצֵא חֲמוֹר אֲבִי שְׁכֶם אֶל יַעֲקֹב לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ. לד:ז וּבְנֵי יַעֲקֹב בָּאוּ מִן הַשָּׂדֶה כְּשָׁמְעָם וַיִּתְעַצְּבוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים וַיִּחַר לָהֶם מְאֹד כִּי נְבָלָה עָשָׂה בְיִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁכַּב אֶת בַּת יַעֲקֹב וְכֵן לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה. לד:ח וַיְדַבֵּר חֲמוֹר אִתָּם לֵאמֹר שְׁכֶם בְּנִי חָשְׁקָה נַפְשׁוֹ בְּבִתְּכֶם תְּנוּ נָא אֹתָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה. לד:ט וְהִתְחַתְּנוּ אֹתָנוּ בְּנֹתֵיכֶם תִּתְּנוּ לָנוּ וְאֶת בְּנֹתֵינוּ תִּקְחוּ לָכֶם. לד:י וְאִתָּנוּ תֵּשֵׁבוּ וְהָאָרֶץ תִּהְיֶה לִפְנֵיכֶם שְׁבוּ וּסְחָרוּהָ וְהֵאָחֲזוּ בָּהּ. לד:יא וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁכֶם אֶל אָבִיה וְאֶל אַחֶיהָ אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם וַאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלַי אֶתֵּן. לד:יב הַרְבּוּ עָלַי מְאֹד מֹהַר וּמַתָּן וְאֶתְּנָה כַּאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָי וּתְנוּ לִי אֶת הַנַּעֲרָ לְאִשָּׁה.
34:5 Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; his sons were with his cattle in the field, so Jacob held his peace until they came. 34:6 And Hamor the father of Shechem went out to Jacob to speak with him. 34:7 When the sons of Jacob came in from the field when they heard of it; and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had wrought folly in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing ought not to be done. 34:8 Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; I pray you, give her to him in marriage. 34:9 Make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. 34:10 You shall dwell with us. The land shall be open to you; dwell and trade in it, and get property in it. 34:11 Shechem also said to her father and to her brothers, “Let me find favor in your eyes, and whatever you say to me I will give. 34:12 Ask of me ever so much as marriage present [and bridal gift], and I will give according as you say to me; only give me the maiden to be my wife.
לד:יג וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב אֶת שְׁכֶם וְאֶת חֲמוֹר אָבִיו בְּמִרְמָה וַיְדַבֵּרוּ אֲשֶׁר טִמֵּא אֵת דִּינָה אֲחֹתָם. לד:יד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵיהֶם לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲשׂוֹת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לָתֵת אֶת אֲחֹתֵנוּ לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לוֹ עָרְלָה כִּי חֶרְפָּה הִוא לָנוּ. לד:טו אַךְ בְּזֹאת נֵאוֹת לָכֶם אִם תִּהְיוּ כָמֹנוּ לְהִמֹּל לָכֶם כָּל זָכָר. לד:טז וְנָתַנּוּ אֶת בְּנֹתֵינוּ לָכֶם וְאֶת בְּנֹתֵיכֶם נִקַּח לָנוּ וְיָשַׁבְנוּ אִתְּכֶם וְהָיִינוּ לְעַם אֶחָד. לד:יז וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֵלֵינוּ לְהִמּוֹל וְלָקַחְנוּ אֶת בִּתֵּנוּ וְהָלָכְנוּ. לד:יח וַיִּיטְבוּ דִבְרֵיהֶם בְּעֵינֵי חֲמוֹר וּבְעֵינֵי שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר. לד:יט וְלֹא אֵחַר הַנַּעַר לַעֲשׂוֹת הַדָּבָר כִּי חָפֵץ בְּבַת יַעֲקֹב וְהוּא נִכְבָּד מִכֹּל בֵּית אָבִיו.
34:13 The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully and they spoke because he had defiled their sister Dinah. 34:14 and said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised for that would be a reproach to us. 34:15 However, on this condition will we consent to you: that you will become as we are and ‘every male of you be circumcised’ (Gen 17:10). 34:16 Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters to ourselves. And we will dwell with you and become one people. 34:17 But if you will not listen to us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter, and we will be gone.” 34:18 Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem. 34:19 And the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he had delight in Jacob’s daughter. He was the most honored of all his family.
לד:כ וַיָּבֹא חֲמוֹר וּשְׁכֶם בְּנוֹ אֶל שַׁעַר עִירָם וַיְדַבְּרוּ אֶל אַנְשֵׁי עִירָם לֵאמֹר. לד:כא הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה שְׁלֵמִים הֵם אִתָּנוּ וְיֵשְׁבוּ בָאָרֶץ וְיִסְחֲרוּ אֹתָהּ וְהָאָרֶץ הִנֵּה רַחֲבַת יָדַיִם לִפְנֵיהֶם אֶת בְּנֹתָם נִקַּח לָנוּ לְנָשִׁים וְאֶת בְּנֹתֵינוּ נִתֵּן לָהֶם. לד:כב אַךְ בְּזֹאת יֵאֹתוּ לָנוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים לָשֶׁבֶת אִתָּנוּ לִהְיוֹת לְעַם אֶחָד בְּהִמּוֹל לָנוּ כָּל זָכָר כַּאֲשֶׁר הֵם נִמֹּלִים. לד:כג מִקְנֵהֶם וְקִנְיָנָם וְכָל בְּהֶמְתָּם הֲלוֹא לָנוּ הֵם אַךְ נֵאוֹתָה לָהֶם וְיֵשְׁבוּ אִתָּנוּ. לד:כד וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל חֲמוֹר וְאֶל שְׁכֶם בְּנוֹ כָּל יֹצְאֵי שַׁעַר עִירוֹ וַיִּמֹּלוּ כָּל זָכָר כָּל יֹצְאֵי שַׁעַר עִירוֹ.
34:20 So Hamor and his son Shechem came to the gate of their city and spoke to the men of their city, saying, 34:21 These men are friendly with us; let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough for them. Let us take their daughters in marriage, and let us give them our daughters. 34:22 Only on this condition will the men agree to dwell with us, to become one people: that every male among us be circumcised as they are circumcised. 34:23 Will not their cattle, their property and all their beasts be ours? Only let us agree with them, and they will dwell with us.” 34:24 And all who went out of the gate of his city agreed to Hamor and his son Shechem; and every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city.
לד:כה וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיוֹתָם כֹּאֲבִים וַיִּקְחוּ שְׁנֵי בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אֲחֵי דִינָה אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ וַיָּבֹאוּ עַל הָעִיר בֶּטַח וַיַּהַרְגוּ כָּל זָכָר. לד:כו וְאֶת חֲמוֹר וְאֶת שְׁכֶם בְּנוֹ הָרְגוּ לְפִי חָרֶב וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת דִּינָה מִבֵּית שְׁכֶם וַיֵּצֵאוּ. לד:כז בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב בָּאוּ עַל הַחֲלָלִים וַיָּבֹזּוּ הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר טִמְּאוּ אֲחוֹתָם. לד:כח אֶת צֹאנָם וְאֶת בְּקָרָם וְאֶת חֲמֹרֵיהֶּם וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר וְאֶת אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׂדֶה לָקָחוּ. לד:כט וְאֶת כָּל חֵילָם וְאֶת כָּל טַפָּם וְאֶת נְשֵׁיהֶם שָׁבוּ וַיָּבֹזּוּ וְאֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בַּבָּיִת.
34:25 On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came upon the city unawares, and killed all the males 34:26 They slew Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. 34:27 And the sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city because they had defiled their sister. 34:28 they took their flocks and their herds, their asses, and whatever was in the city and in the field; 34:29 all their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and made their prey.
לד:ל וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל לֵוִי עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי. לד:לא וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ.
34:30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my house.” 34:31 They said, “How then could he treat our sister like a whore?”

Published

December 30, 2022

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Last Updated

June 15, 2024

Footnotes

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Prof. Christoph Levin is Professor (Emeritus) of Old Testament at the University of Munich. He received his Ph.D. and Dr.habil. from Goettingen university, as well as a honorary degree from Helsinki university. Two of his books have been translated into English, Re-reading the Scriptures: Essays on the Literary History of the Old Testament (2015), The Old Testament: A Brief Introduction (2005). In addition, he is the author of Entwurf einer Geschichte Israels (2017), Verheißung und Rechtfertiung (2013), Der Jahwist (1993), Verheißung des neuen Bundes (1985), Der Sturz der Königin Atalja (1982). At present he is preparing a commentary on the book of Genesis (HAT-series, Mohr Siebeck publishers). Levin is corresponding member of the Goettingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities as well as of the Academy of Finland. From 2010 to 2013, he was president of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT).