The Missed Opportunity for Intermarriage and Conversion in the Story of Dinah
Introduction: Overview of the Story
Shechem, son of Hamor, sees Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, as she is visiting the city. He takes her and, after having intercourse with her, falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Her father and her brothers agree, on condition that Shechem and all the townsmen of Shechem circumcise themselves.
The scene is complicated. Jacob’s sons are “distressed and very angry, because [Shechem] had committed an outrage in Israel (כִּי נְבָלָה עָשָׂה בְיִשְׂרָאֵל) by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing not to be done.” Then they speak “with guile (בְּמִרְמָה) because he had defiled (טִמֵּא) their sister Dinah.” “Outrage in Israel” and the “defiling of daughters” are very loaded terms. The rhetoric adds fuel to the anger and leads the brothers to claim they cannot “give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace (חֶרְפָּה) among us” (Genesis 34: 7-14).
Mixed Messages from the Text
On one hand, the text appears to justify the brothers’ rage against the defiler of their sister. On the other hand, the term “with guile” leads the reader to wonder if the text is hinting at something else. Although the people of Shechem accept the conditions, Simeon and Levi “came upon the city unhindered” because the Shechemites were “in pain” recovering from the operation, and “slew all the males.” The other sons of Jacob then “plundered (ויָּבֹזּוּ) the town, because their sister had been defiled (טִמְּאוּ)” and took all their wealth, all their children, and their wives; all that was in the houses, they took as captives and booty (שָׁבוּ וַיָּבֹזּוּ)” (Genesis 34: 25-29). Once again, we have both the rhetoric of defilement (ט-מ-א) and the action of plundering (ב-ו-ז) — a word with repercussions that echo throughout the Bible.
Finally, in response to this last act of violence, Jacob says, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land” (Gen. 34.30) and the brothers’ reply with a rhetorical question: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Gen. 34.31).
Who Has the Last Word?
The brothers’ reply would seem to trump Jacob’s response for they have the last word in this text. But this is not clear, since Genesis 34 neither explicitly criticizes the brothers for their violent act of revenge nor Jacob for being a silent father. Moreover, another text offers Jacob the last word. On his deathbed, in a passage understood by most exegetes—traditional and modern—to be a commentary on this episode,Jacob says:
Simon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness… When angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce… I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49.5-7).
Thus it would seem that not only is Jacob cursing his sons for what they did in Shechem, but for having “anger so fierce” that they do not know how to control it, with the terrible consequences that resulted from this anger. It is fitting that their punishment will be one of being scattered ואפיצם in Israel.
Looking ahead, Genesis 34 seems to align itself with the law in Deuteronomy (22:28-29) that states that a man must marry the maiden he rapes. Thus, one could argue that Shechem is willing to obey the commonly accepted legal norms and behaves according to these norms in his desire to marry Dinah. The brothers, contrary to Deuteronomy, sin in interfering with Shechem’s obligation to marry Dinah as well as cutting off her only chance of marriage.
Not a Story about Rape but a Polemic against Marrying Non-Israelites
Although the story uses (or appears to use) a case of rape(ויענה) Shechem “takes” Dinah (לקח), the usual term for men taking wives. Moreover, when Shechem offers to marry the girl, he is doing the right thing, and when all the Shechemites offer to circumcise themselves, they are going above and beyond. So why do the brothers react so vehemently to the marriage proposal of Shechem? Why not merge the nations? The answer, I believe, is because the story reflects a polemic against intermarriage. 
Many biblical texts participate in this polemic; one such core text appears in the Book of Deuteronomy, and deals specifically with Canaanites, including Hivites, the tribe of Shechem:
1 When the Lord 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—2 and the Lord 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. 3 You shall not intermarry [Hebrew תתחתן] with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons (Deuteronomy 7:1-3).
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah take this prohibition very seriously, making it a central theme of their nationalist projects. To Ezra, who is of an esteemed priestly descent (acohen), intermarriage defiles, destroying the holiness of the Jews. The holy seed cannot be wasted on outsiders.  Furthermore, in Ezra and Nehemiah, outsiders cannot become insiders through conversion. This, I argue is the view of the brothers in the Dinah story, who will not accept the people of Shechem, even once they are circumcised. To them, a נבלה (outrage) has been committed against Israel (Gen 34: 7) when there is sexual intercourse between an Israelite and an outsider.
Typically, Genesis 34 and 49, and Ezra-Nehemiah are not read in dialogue with one another, since they show little common vocabulary to suggest that one knew the other. Yet some modern literary scholars have suggested a method of reading called intertextuality, where different texts are read in relation to each other even if the author of the later text did not intend to allude to an earlier text (see the addendum).
Option One: Anti-Intermarriage/Conversion Texts
One way of reading the Dinah story in dialogue with Deuteronomy 7 and Ezra-Nehemiah, would be to suggest that Genesis 34, in its absolute approach against exogamy, participates in their polemic against intermarriage. But there are problems with equating the world view of Ezra/Nehemiah with Genesis 34. For example, Ezra’s concern is mainly for the men who have married out and not the women. But here it is Dinah, a daughter/sister who is marrying out. Thus, reading Genesis 34 as part of the Deuteronomy 7, Ezra-Nehemiah complex may not be the best and certainly is not the only option.
Option Two: Pro-Intermarriage/Conversion Texts
What if we were to read Genesis 34 in dialogue with a very different set of biblical texts, ones with a more positive view of the stranger? To be sure, the viewpoint expressed by Deuteronomy, Ezra and Nehemiah is not the only approach to strangers and their status in the Bible. Another stance in the Bible regards outsiders such as Yitro, Tamar, Ruth, Yael, and Rahab positively. According to this view, outsiders can be allies and contribute to the Israelite endeavor. It may even be that these texts are arguing against the Deuteronomy, Ezra and Nehemiah and are overtly or covertly a polemic against those who are overly concerned with the holy seed.
Biblical texts describe a number of the Israelite ancestor figures as “intermarried”, like Judah with Bat-Shua, Joseph with Asenat and Moses with Tzipporah, and there seems to be little controversy about this. Traditionally, these famous intermarriages would be explained as “necessary evils” from a time where there were limited options, but that certainly, as Israel grows into a nation, the ideal is endogamy. But the texts themselves never say or even allude to this, and it seems reasonable to read them as actively advocating exogamy as a legitimate practice, especially if one imagines the non-Israelite partner adopting Israelite practices.
Reading Genesis 34 in conversation with these texts, especially if we read Jacob’s curse of Shimon and Levi as the final word on that story, would suggest that it would have been better had Shechem been permitted to marry Dinah after all.
Rabbinic Attitudes to Genesis 34
Although many read the text of Genesis 34 as part of the more xenophobic tradition of Ezra and Nehemiah, several midrashim choose the other option and paint Simeon and Levi’s act in a negative light. Below are three examples:
- In a commentary related to Jacob’s curses, the midrash (Genesis Rabbah “Vaychi” 98) interprets “in their fanaticism (apam) they killed a man” to refer to people who were ready to convert. Also it interprets “they castrated a bull (shor)” to mean they uprooted a line (shuron) of potential converts. Thus, the midrash has Jacob chastise the brothers for destroying a potential population of converts. I believe that their act was particularly disturbing to the writers of the midrash because the brothers did not trust the sincerity of those who wanted to convert.
- Another commentary (Sechel Tov on Gen 34:8) relates to Hamor’s speech, in which he uses the word ח-ש-ק I (שְׁכֶם בְּנִי חָשְׁקָה נַפְשׁוֹ בְּבִתְּכֶם) when he tries to convince Jacob to let his son Shechem marry Dinah. The author of the midrash, Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo (12th century Italy), notes that the word denotes affection and acquisition, two things which are bound together as one. He then claims that the term “your (plural) daughter” is not addressed to Jacob and his sons, but to Jacob and Leah. In other words, Hamor is attempting to convince Leah to agree to Dinah’s marriage with his son. Thus, there is a suggestion that the match between their children would not have been a bad idea and that there is a genuine desire to be part of the mishpacha coming from Shechem.
- In a harsh text, the Bavli (Sanhedrin 99b) decries those who would keep out potential converts. The example used in this text is not that of Simeon and Levi, but the patriarchs. The text states that because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not accept Timna as a convert, she married the son of Esau and her descendant was Amalek. In other words, they should not have rejected her and because they did so, they created an everlasting enemy for their descendants.
The rabbinic reading brings up a counter-factual possibility: What could have happened if, in the story, the brothers had gone along with the marriage proposal, if, for example, Jacob had been a stronger leader, who could bring his sons to see things in a different light? Instead, the brothers trick Jacob as well, and he is left holding his tongue until his deathbed, when he finally lashes out at his sons and curses them for their folly. But imagine a different story.
Imagine a Torah that, instead of telling about battles and the eventual conquest of the local inhabitants by the Israelites, told us about how the Israelites and the Hivites made peace and lived side by side as neighbors, with most of the locals joining Abraham’s religion as converts. It could have been a lasting, spiritual coup–one that could have served as a model for succeeding generations including our own.
A Note on Methodology: What Is Intertextual Reading?
The methodology I have been using is that of intertextuality, a method that has been used to good effect by the midrash. It is sometimes referred to as inner biblical exegesis, interpretation, or allusion. Benjamin D. Sommer points out the usefulness of an intertextual approach, since it does not have to address the question of which text borrows from which, and what becomes important is the relevance of the reader who sees the parallels in the texts. It is a synchronic approach to text, rather than a diachronic approach.
The concept is usually associated with the early 20th century Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), who was one of the first to introduce the idea that texts are in dialogue with each other. It is important for the reader to note the similarities between two or more texts before hypothesizing an intertextual relationship. Often an intertextual reading can create a new text by the interaction of both texts. In this piece, what I have been arguing is that Genesis 34 can be read in dialogue with other biblical texts, and perhaps that by this interaction we can begin a new dialogue and create a new textual reality.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
November 28, 2014
October 1, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Naomi Graetz taught English (now retired) at Ben-Gurion University and still teaches a course on feminist approaches to Jewish texts in the their Overseas Program. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God, The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder, S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories, and Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating.
Essays on Related Topics: