A Biblical Text of Terror

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In the midst of this week’s parshah is a lengthy story about Jacob’s only daughter, Dina. While Jacob briefly appears in this story, he plays a surprisingly insignificant role. Indeed, after Jacob hears that Dina has been raped by Shechem, a local Hivite prince, he neither tells anyone nor takes any  action, choosing to wait until his sons return home.

Even when Hamor, Shechem’s father, asks that Jacob agree to let Dina marry his son (who apparently, after defiling Dina, has fallen in love with her), it is not Jacob, but his sons who provide Hamor with an answer. They tell him that Dina marrying an uncircumcised man would bring shame upon their family. However, should all male Shechemites (that is, Canaanites living in the city  of Shechem) be circumcised, there would be no objection to Shechem’s marrying their sister. Indeed, if all Shechemite men were circumcised, Israelite men in general would allow their daughters to marry Shechemites and they would conceivably marry Shechemite women.


This promise, it turns out, is a trick. While the Shechemite men are still in great pain from their recent circumcisions and thus unable to defend themselves, the sons take brutal revenge against not just Shechem, but all of the Shechemites.

This section of Genesis can best be described as a “text of terror,” a term coined by Christian feminist theologian Phyllis Trible to refer to scriptural narratives in which women suffer as victims.


According to the ancient midrashic tradition, Dina herself was to blame. Since God created the first woman from Adam’s rib, a part of his body that was covered, women were to be modest by nature. Thus, Dina acted unnaturally by going out and endangering herself.

Yet, the biblical text does not fault Dina for socializing with the Canaanite women. As “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” notes, the justification that the brothers give for their acts of revenge indicate that in their view, Shechem’s offer of bride money and gifts after he had sexually defiled their sister maligned her character by  implying that she had made herself available to him as a prostitute.

In my understanding, Dina comes to believe that the real motive of her brothers for killing the Shechemite men and taking the women and children captive was not to  revenge her honor, but to justify their conquering the land of Canaan. Certainly, I think, my interpretation is plausible. Yet, like so much else in this text, Dina’s own understanding of her brothers’ action is  unknown.

Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

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