The Debasement of Dinah
Too often, what people think they are reading as the plain meaning of the text is actually their unconscious projection of a history of interpretation. This is evident in most interpretations of the famous biblical Dinah story.
In Parashat Vayishlach (Gen 34), Shechem, the son of Hamor king of Shechem, has sexual intercourse with Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Shechem’s father then asks Jacob for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Dinah’s brothers are angry that Shechem sullied (טִמֵּא) their sister, and, through deception, two of Dinah’s brothers, Shimon and Levi, massacre the men of the town and capture the women and children.
The Rape of Dinah?
Many modern biblical translations sub-title this story “The Rape of Dinah.” Building on the assertion that Dinah was raped, feminist literary Bible critics feel the need to voice Dinah’s anger, shame, humiliation, and betrayal, and have produced a mountain of protest literature against the biblical text, the society that produced the text, and the culture that continues to use such a text for spiritual guidance.
For example, in the preface to her book on Genesis 34, Caroline Blythe states that her book is intended to “provide Dinah with a literary voice” based on the accounts of contemporary rape survivors, “while offering a critique of these insidious ‘rape myths’ that continue to cause untold suffering to so many women the world over.”
The narrative, however, never states that Dinah was raped or coerced into sexual intercourse.
ב וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ:
2 Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her. He took her, lay with her, and‘innah-ed her.
That final verb is a difficult one to translate, and is the one that many modern translators render in English with the word “rape.”
The Meaning of ‘innah 1: Amnon and Tamar
The modern concept of rape is an aggressive act characterized by lack of mutual consent. The Bible is familiar with this concept; for example, it explicitly depicts David’s son Amnon raping his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam 13). Tamar’s lack of consent is made clear by her protests, an element absent in the Dinah story:
יב וַתֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ אַל אָחִי֙ אַל תְּעַנֵּ֔נִי כִּ֛י לֹא יֵֽעָשֶׂ֥ה כֵ֖ן בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אַֽל תַּעֲשֵׂ֖ה אֶת הַנְּבָלָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת: יג וַאֲנִ֗י אָ֤נָה אוֹלִיךְ֙ אֶת חֶרְפָּתִ֔י וְאַתָּ֗ה תִּהְיֶ֛ה כְּאַחַ֥ד הַנְּבָלִ֖ים בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל… יד וְלֹ֥א אָבָ֖ה לִשְׁמֹ֣עַ בְּקוֹלָ֑הּ…
12 But she said to him, “Don’t, brother. Don’t ‘innah me. Such things are not done in Israel! Don’t do such a vile thing! 13 Where will I carry my shame? And you, you will be like any of the scoundrels in Israel!…” 14 But he would not listen to her…
The two episodes make use of different wording:
|Shechem and Dinah Story||Amnon and Tamar Story|
|He took her, lay with her, and ‘innah-ed her.||He overpowered her,‘innah-ed her, and lay with her.|
וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ
וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק מִמֶּ֙נָּה֙ וַיְעַנֶּ֔הָ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב אֹתָֽהּ
The fact that the verb ‘innah is found in both cases does not demonstrate that if Tamar is raped, then Dinah must have been raped as well.
The Meaning of ‘innah 2: Contexts in which Sex is not Applicable
This word ‘innah is used in many places throughout the biblical text in ways that cannot be translated as “rape.”
God and Israel
Deuteronomy (8:2) claims that God has Israel wander in the wilderness for forty years in order to ‘innah them and test them:
וְזָכַרְתָּ֣ אֶת כָּל הַדֶּ֗רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹלִֽיכֲךָ֜ יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ זֶ֛ה אַרְבָּעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר לְמַ֨עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֜ לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ לָדַ֜עַת אֶת אֲשֶׁ֧ר בִּֽלְבָבְךָ֛ הֲתִשְׁמֹ֥ר (מצותו) [מִצְוֹתָ֖יו] אִם לֹֽא:
Remember the long way that Yhwh your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might give you hardships and test you, to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.
Clearly, no sexual connotation exists in this verse and refers to giving Israel hardships.
Similarly, when Leviticus describes the purpose or proper practice on the Day of Atonement, three times it makes use of the same phrase, “וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם” (Lev 16:31; 23:27, 32). This phrase means something like, “you shall afflict yourselves;” it describes what Israelites are to do to their inner selves. Like the previous case, no sexual interpretation is possible.
Sarah and Hagar
Genesis 16:6 describes what Sarah does to her maidservant Hagar, in her jealousy that Hagar was pregnant while Sarah was barren:
וַתְּעַנֶּ֣הָ שָׂרַ֔י וַתִּבְרַ֖ח מִפָּנֶֽיהָ:
And Sarai ‘innahed her and she (=Hagar) ran away from her.
There is no indication in the biblical text, in the history of interpretation, or in any translation that Sarah rapes Hagar here.
If this word doesn’t mean “rape” in this story, or in the passages quoted above in this section, then we cannot simply assert that it means rape in explicitly sexual contexts either. In fact, it seems to mean something else.
The Meaning of ‘innah 3: Sex with a Betrothed Maiden
Deuteronomy 22 discusses two cases of sex with a betrothed maiden, one in which the woman is presumed to have consented, and the other in which she is presumed not to have consented.
Deut 22:23 states that if a man has sex with a betrothed virgin in the city, the woman is presumed to have consented and faces the same capital punishment as her lover, because had she cried out in protest someone would have heard her. The verb used to describe the action here is the same as in the Dinah and Tamar stories, שכב (lay with). In the next verse, the law concludes that both the man and the woman must be executed:
…אֶת הַֽנַּעֲרָ֗ עַל דְּבַר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא צָעֲקָ֣ה בָעִ֔יר וְאֶ֨ת הָאִ֔ישׁ עַל דְּבַ֥ר אֲשֶׁר עִנָּ֖ה אֶת אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֵ֑הוּ…
…[T]he woman because she was in the city and no one heard her cry out in protest, and the man on account of the fact that he ‘innah-ed the wife of his neighbor…
If the point of this law is that the woman is presumed to have consented—and thus deserves to be punished, then ‘innah here cannot mean rape.
The law continues (Deut 22:25): if the same offense takes place outside of the city, the betrothed virgin is presumed innocent because no one would have heard her protest, and therefore only the man is executed. From the description here and in contrast with the previous law, this is clearly a case of non-consensual sex, or rape. This is clear not only from the context, but from the use of the verb חזק:
וְהֶחֱזִֽיק־בָּ֥הּ הָאִ֖ישׁ וְשָׁכַ֣ב עִמָּ֑הּ
He seized (or overpowered) her and lay with her.
This same verb (חזק) is used to describe Tamar’s encounter with Amnon, but not that of Shechem with Dinah.
Summary: How to Say “Rape” in Biblical Hebrew
Thus, it seems clear that the biblical expression for rape is ויחזק וישכב, “to overpower and lie with,” not ‘innah.
‘Innah: To Debase
So what does ‘innah mean and what exactly happened to Dinah, as far as the narrator is concerned? Deuteronomy 22 and Genesis 16 suggest that ‘innah denotes a downward movement in a social sense. It means to “debase” or “humiliate,” or to lower a person’s status. This debasement is unrelated to the woman’s consent, and, therefore, not equivalent to our concept of rape.
To be fair, although the text never says that Dinah was forced into having sex, it never says that she engaged in it willingly either. Rather, the narrator is unconcerned with the question of Dinah’s consent; Dinah herself does not speak a single word in the story. Why Dinah’s mindset was not of interest to the author is the question that a feminist social scientist and historian ought to begin investigating about the society of the Bible, rather than read into it what she might project from her own.
Individual vs. Corporate Identity in Ancient Society
The problem with taking a feminist literary approach before determining the historical-contextual meaning of a text is that the text being analyzed is often a chimera. In the case of the Dinah story, I submit that feminist literary analysis projects notions of individualism and bodily autonomy from a 21stcentury North American perspective back onto an ancient Israelite society that seems to have thought very differently about such things.
A historian, however, does not begin with the assumption that ancient societies shared modern conceptions of individualism. In fact, over the years we have amassed abundant evidence that questions this notion. Ancient societies, like the one that produced the Bible, understood people to belong first and foremost to corporate entities – families, clans, and tribes – and not necessarily to themselves. The actions of individuals – women and men – formed part of, and had consequences for, a larger whole.
Dinah was Debased from her Family’s Perspective
In the context of the ancient Near East, the fact that the sexual act took place without her family’s consent to marriage means that Dinah has been debased, whether or not she consented (the narrator never tells us). This debasement is not physical but financial and status related: Her status was lowered from that of a virgin in her father’s house, able to fetch a virgin’s bride-price and be of maximal use to her family’s negotiations for alliances through marriage with other kinship groups, to that of a non-virgin in a stranger’s house, no longer of use to her own kin for political purposes. The fact that Shechem has ‘innah-ed Dinah does not – and cannot – carry with it the psychological and emotional implications for the woman that our notion of rape suggests.
Ancient Ideas about Bodily Autonomy
Thus, despite the protests, outcries, and denigrations of a text that would feature the victimization of Jacob’s daughter, and the sympathy and support of modern feminist literary critics who feel the need to voice Dinah’s anger, shame, humiliation, and betrayal, this story is not about the rape of Dinah at all. It is about the lowering of her social and economic status as she moves from fulfilling the proper role in the proper place (virgin daughter in her father’s house) to a socially ambiguous role with no proper corresponding physical place. Marriage alliances were forged by the family unit and dominated by fathers and brothers for the good of the family, clan, and tribe. These – and not the individual – were the building blocks of ancient Israelite society. The story is about how Jacob’s clan was violated by the Hivites, and how the brothers took revenge for the humiliation of their clan, not for the rape of their sister.
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November 21, 2015
January 12, 2021
Dr. Shawna Dolansky is adjunct research professor in the College of Humanities and Program in Religion at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. She received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Ph.D. in History from the University of California, San Diego program in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. Dolansky is the author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Biblical Perspectives on the Relationship Between Magic and Religion (Pryor Pettengill Press, Eisenbrauns, 2008) and co-author with Richard E. Friedman of The Bible Now (Oxford University Press, 2011).
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