Dedicated to my daughter, Sarah Kass, with special thanks for her invaluable insights into both the story and its subject.
Ever since I was a boy, long before I had a wife and daughters, I have always thought and keenly felt that rape is a capital offense, a crime worse even than murder. For the rapist, says the book of Deuteronomy, “death by stoning.” It has never seemed to me too cruel or excessive a punishment.
No one taught me to feel this way; indeed, I am sure I never discussed such topics with anyone until well after I was a family man. Though it seems incredible in these shameless times, nice people 40 or even 30 years ago did not talk much about sex in any form, let alone chatter away in lurid detail about rape, incest, or sodomy. A certain decorousness prevailed, both in deed and in speech, at the center of which was a high regard for womanly modesty, itself an inarticulate yet profound tribute to the awesome procreative power central to the silent mystery of womanliness. Paradoxically, the very sense of shame that inhibited explicit speech about sex silently taught us the enormity of the crime of rape.
What exactly is the crime, and why is it so heinous? According to Blackstone’s Commentaries, rape is defined as “carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will.” Thus, the crime against the woman has three elements: sexual intercourse; the use (or threat) of force; her unwillingness. Accordingly, there are three coincident “offenses”: one against her specifically female sexual nature; one against her bodily integrity; one against her will. Traditionally, our understanding of the crime focused largely on the first. Rape, though it involves the use of force and is always against the will, is not—either in common law or in common sense—just a special case of assault and battery. It is a sexual crime, a violation of a woman’s sexual (and therefore generative) nature. The purity of woman’s sexual being—and, therewith, also the purity of marriage and the clarity of lineage—was the primary concern of the law, as it was of sexual morality in general.
In Roman law, according to Blackstone,
stealing a woman from her parents or guardians, and debauching her, is equally penal by the emperor’s edict, whether she consent or is forced. . . . And this, in order to take away from women every opportunity of offending in this way; whom the Roman law supposes never to go astray, without the seduction and arts of the other sex; and therefore by restraining and making so highly penal the solicitations of the men, they meant to secure effectually the honor of the women.
It was English common law that introduced an emphasis on lack of consent, yet not because it came to regard rape as a crime against the will, but for reasons of fairness and prudence:
But our English law does not entertain quite such sublime ideas of the honor of either sex, as to lay the blame of a mutual fault on one of the transgressors only: and therefore, makes it a necessary ingredient in the crime of rape, that it must be against the woman’s will.
And whereas the Roman law did not recognize the rape of a prostitute or common harlot, “not allowing any punishment for violating the chastity of her, who hath indeed no chastity at all, or at least hath no regard to it,” the law of England—still concerned with chastity but more willing to allow for personal reform—“holds it to be felony to force even a concubine or harlot; because the woman may have forsaken that unlawful course of life.”
By contrast, today’s discussions of rape, largely led by feminist critics of this allegedly patriarchal tradition of law and sexual morality, focus almost exclusively on the absence of the woman’s clear consent. Rape is regarded primarily as a violation of the will, not a violation of womanliness. To be sure, we still distinguish rape from other forms of unconsented touching. But since the entire view of relations between the sexes is increasingly seen solely through the lens of power, rape is viewed merely as a most egregious example of the generalized male tendency to dominate and violate women. It follows that the remedy is female empowerment rather than womanly shame and gentlemanly respect; karate lessons and campaigns to “take back the night” rather than a restoration of a proper regard for the deeper meanings of sexuality, love, and intimacy. The empowered woman can have it all: sexual freedom without any risks or dangers. From men she no longer wants or needs the righteous indignation and the courage that will defend a lady’s (or a sister’s or a daughter’s) honor, but simply a willingness to let “no” mean “no.”
What should thoughtful students of human affairs, both male and female, think about this new dispensation? Does it properly understand the meaning of rape? Does it offer an effective strategy to prevent it? Does it properly understand the meaning of our sexuality? Does it counsel well about how we should educate and care for daughters and sisters in these matters? To help us consider these questions, let us examine one of our tradition’s oldest stories about rape and about fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters: the biblical tale of the rape of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah.
The story of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) is remarkable in many ways, and not only because (as the commentator in the Soncino edition of the Pentateuch remarks) it is “an exception to the series of peaceful scenes from patriarchal life and character—a tale of dishonor, wild revenge, and indiscriminate slaughter.” It is one of the few stories in Genesis about a woman, and the only one about a daughter and a sister. Only in this story can we see how the founders of Israel regard and treat a daughter: for Dinah is the only daughter born to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Only in this story can we see how young Israelites regard and treat a sister: for Dinah has brothers galore who unite to defend her honor. Indeed, the brothers’ response comprises nearly the whole of the tale; the bulk of the account reports how they plot and execute revenge on the entire manhood of the city of Shechem. By thus exploring relations between the Israelites and their neighbors—including prospects for peaceful coexistence or enmity, for separateness or intermarriage—the story also raises questions regarding the chances for the long-term survival and integrity of the people of the covenant.
Why are all these matters presented in one story? Why make the one tale about daughters the story of a rape? Why merge the personal story of a rape with the political question of foreign relations? Is the story of the rape merely incidental, serving mainly as a vehicle for launching (and exploring) the political confrontation between Israel and its neighbors? Are relations among nations best explored by considering controversies over women? Or, conversely, does the political context of the story illuminate also the very meaning of rape? Could it be that rape, though a horrible personal crime, is finally intelligible only culturally and politically? Can one best read the character of a people in how they respond to rape in particular and to the dignity of women in general? Does this story point to the distinctive view of woman that will come to characterize the way of Israel?
The story which provokes these questions does not explicitly answer them. In the book of Genesis, the author does not go in for direct moralizing; the voice of the (textual) narrator rarely pronounces judgment. (One exception: “Thus did Esau despise his birthright.”) And we must not accept as authoritative a judgment rendered by any one character, no matter how worthy. The stories are supposed to speak for themselves; they “teach,” but not directly or didactically. Thus they invite thought and require interpretation and judgment. Their meaning must be sought in light of the textual context and the special circumstances in which the characters find themselves, and we must be careful not to project onto the text our current prejudices: things which strike us as harsh or immoral may not in fact be so, at least under the circumstances. At the same time, necessity does not simply justify: even where circumstances require harsh or cruel conduct, that conduct is not simply accepted. Throughout Genesis, the moral ambiguity of human actions—and its lasting effects—is vividly portrayed, rarely more powerfully than in the present tale.
Our story interrupts a series of remarkable successes for the house of Jacob. Returning to Canaan from Paddan-Aram after having made peace with Laban, his household intact and rich in cattle, Jacob has just achieved two great triumphs: he has successfully wrestled the man-angel, winning a blessing and gaining a new name; and he has accomplished a peaceful reunion with his brother Esau, who (it seems to us) was willing to abandon a twenty-year-old grudge. Made wiser, through his adventures, regarding the ways of man and God, and reminded by his limp of his encounter with the divine, Jacob appears ready to settle down and to allow his now swollen tribe to cross the threshold into nationhood. He builds a house in Succoth, the first immobile dwelling of the patriarchs. He makes booths for his cattle. He then buys land from the ruler of Shechem, the first purchase of land other than the cave which Abraham had purchased for the limited purpose of burial. Jacob establishes himself in the promised land.
Though his conduct is certainly understandable, hindsight reveals it to be unwise. Very likely, Jacob’s successes have gone to his head. His conflicts with Laban are past; he has escaped a fratricidal encounter with Esau; his rivalrous wives are not making trouble; his beloved Rachel has at last borne a son; he has returned to Canaan a prosperous man. He thinks everything is now settled, so he settles. He deliberately encamps “before the city”—literally in-the-face-of the city—of Shechem, a move that we readers should regard with apprehension, given what we have learned about the character of cities. Jacob does not return to Beth-El (cf. 28:20-22; 31:13), from whence he left promising to return, and to which God will send him in the sequel; instead, he takes up a place among—in the face of—the nations of Canaan.
Upon purchasing the land he erects there an altar which he calls El-Elohe-Israel, “God, the God of Israel.” Pious readers may take this to be Jacob’s profession of monotheism and his faith in the one true God; but, in the context, it could rather express an anxious appeal to his own personal deity (for “Israel” here means only Jacob), a deity whose assistance he will need now that he is settling among strangers, people with different ways and other gods.1 In the immediate sequel, an unexpected encounter with these Canaanite neighbors straightaway upsets the peace and exposes the foolishness—or at least the insufficiency—of Jacob’s plans.
Dinah initiates the encounter: “And Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.” This is all that Dinah did, and all we know about it. Yet it is not difficult to understand her intentions and to guess at her motives. One daughter among eleven sons, she may well have been lonely and eager for female company; it is the daughters of the land she goes out to see. Alternatively, she may have been curious, attracted not by similarity but by difference, the difference between “the daughter of Leah” and “the daughters of the land”; this would not be the first time in Genesis that we meet a woman who is curious and who finds “outside” matters attractive, “a delight to the eyes” (cf. 3:6).
It seems that Dinah does not go merely to see, in detached beholding, but rather to visit: in Hebrew idiom, “to see, to look upon” means “to make friendship with.” Perhaps she wishes to join with the daughters in matters of seeing: to see “and be seen” adds the Samaritan text. For how else might a single young woman, living at home in a houseful of men, ever come to the notice of prospective suitors? Her mother,2 after all, could have taught her, from painful experience, what it meant to be passed over and unloved. And from her father’s less than equal regard for her mother and his clear preference for the more beautiful Rachel, Dinah might well have concluded that it is only good looks and being seen that truly count.
The text leaves Dinah’s motives unclear, as motives often are in such matters. But, more likely, the text is not interested in motives, but rather in the action itself and its meaning. For Dinah’s deed has a meaning quite apart from her intention, a meaning of which she was likely entirely innocent. Whatever her motive, she did indeed “go out” and she did indeed go “to see.” She left the home—and the customs and ways—of her mother and father, under the aegis of El-Elohe-Israel, and went out into alien territory. She went out alone, without security, perhaps even without permission. She went to town, to the city, never—not even today—a safe place for an innocent, attractive, unprotected, and vulnerable young woman. And, willy-nilly, in going to see she would necessarily look upon—and be initiated into—ways that were not her own, as happens to every young person who goes abroad (or even off to college) “to see for myself.” Actions taken in innocence are often far from innocent.
This is not to blame the victim: Dinah would be culpable only if these were her intentions or if she went against advice and with foreknowledge of the dangers. If blame is to be meted out, it should go instead to Jacob. For Jacob knows from personal experience what can happen to a man confronted with a beautiful woman: it was he, a stranger in a strange land, who defied men’s customs (at the well) to be alone with Rachel (29:7); it was he who lost his wits and forgot to make a contract with Laban for Rachel, so infatuated was he with her beauty; it was he, lusting or perhaps just drunk on his wedding night, who did not even recognize the substitution of Leah for his beloved Rachel. Shrewd and wise in the ways of the world, Jacob certainly should have taken precautions to instruct and protect his daughter—unless, of course, he was lulled into a false sense of security by his many recent successes and by his peaceful real-estate transactions with the ruling house of the town, or, worse, unless he had not yet learned that and how one must care for daughters. Just as Abraham needed help learning the importance and meaning of “wife”—one cannot innocently pass her off as one’s sister—so Jacob (and, through him, we readers) must learn, painfully, the importance and meaning of “daughter.”
Dinah went out to see the daughters. But it was she who was seen, and not by daughters: “And saw her Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, and he took her and he lay with her and he defiled her.” Dinah was seen by Shechem, the prince of Shechem, the leading young Shechemite, the first and finest young man in the town. The coincidence of the name of man and town announces that this is the paradigmatic encounter between these two “cultures” (much like the story of the sons of God and the daughters of men; 6:2). Without a word, immediately upon seeing Dinah, Shechem took, lay with, and defiled—or “humbled” or “abased” (‘anâh, “to put down, to depress”)—her. He had complete power over her, and he exercised it. About Dinah’s response the text is silent. The brute fact is all we are asked to see: Dinah was raped.
Dinah’s defilement will haunt us throughout; but it makes no difference to Shechem, who now finds that “his soul did cleave to Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and he spoke to the heart of the damsel [na ‘arâh, a girl from infancy to adolescence: damsel, maiden].” We may, if we wish, take at face value Shechem’s professed love for Dinah. But we know how readily some men rationalize their lusts, how a woman they found “good in bed” suddenly seems lovable, how a man sweet-talks a woman into accepting his aggressive advances—even to reassure her, his lust now being sated, after he has raped her. Her abasement means nothing; new love will conquer all. True, she needs comforting; but, says he to himself, speech to the heart will overcome her regret or sorrow.3 Defilement is just a state of mind, alterable by a change of heart. While sweet-talking the damsel, Shechem tells his father to get him this girl for a wife, and his father, the ruling prince Hamor, will oblige.
To defend Shechem’s conduct, the reader can appeal only to cultural relativity. Predatory behavior—“take first, ask later”—seems to be the customary way of the Shechemites; the ruling prince does not upbraid his son for rape. The desire to make an “honest woman” of Dinah, now that he loves her, seems to be all that is needed to make prior abasement and defilement null and void. Woman is for the ravishing.
Not so in the house of Jacob. As Hamor goes out to gain his son’s desire, Jacob hears and concentrates only on his daughter’s defilement (a new word: tâmê, to be foul, contaminated, polluted, unclean). But as his sons are in the field with his cattle, he bides his time, awaiting their return. Jacob’s silence has long puzzled readers, because of what we know of his previous energy, resourcefulness, and shrewdness. Perhaps, Robert Sacks suggests,
Jacob, who dealt successfully with his brother when facing the problems of an earlier generation, decided not to intervene in the present affair. The relation between Israel and its neighbors once a house had been built became the problems of another generation. Therefore he remained silent and waited for Dinah’s brothers to arrive.4
But we must also consider the possibility that Jacob was thoroughly nonplussed, astonished at what had occurred, guilty over his own failure to prevent it, overwhelmed by sadness at the pollution of his household, or unsure of what one must do under such circumstances. No one he knew had faced the question of daughters before.5 Whatever the reason, Jacob holds his peace until the sons return.
What began as an interpersonal matter between a prince and a damsel now quickly becomes a political issue between peoples. But the interests, concerns, and attitudes of the two sides differ sharply. The Hivite ruler and his son are eager to obtain Dinah as Shechem’s wife; Jacob and his sons are preoccupied with her defilement. As soon as they hear the news, Jacob’s sons return from the fields, grieved and very angry, as the narrator reports, “because he had done a vile deed in Israel in lying with Jacob’s daughter which thing ought not to be done” (34:7). Though laws against rape had not yet been explicitly promulgated, not even among the Israelites, the sons intuitively understood it as an immoral, even a heinous, deed. What is more, they took it as an outrage not only against Dinah but against the entire clan and its ways.
Indeed, one might even say that the clan here acts to define itself: we are a community which unites to defend a woman’s honor. This first action of Israel’s (Jacob’s) sons, to avenge a vile deed committed against Israel’s daughter, gives birth to the people of Israel, now defined morally and politically, and no longer merely genealogically and economically. This moral-political unification of an otherwise potentially fractious and rivalrous band of men may be what Jacob shrewdly had in mind when he waited for his sons to return before responding.
Unification in the face of a common enemy is the oldest political story. There are even famous accounts of such political self-definition in defense of women and to avenge a rape. The Trojan war united the Achaians, who fought to avenge the rape of Helen by Paris while he was the guest of her husband Menelaus. But many other cultures do not take rape this seriously.
The ancient Persians, in justifying themselves for their invasion of Greece, blame the war on the Greeks and the revenge they took for Helen. Herodotus presents their reasons:
“It is the work of unjust men, we think, to carry off women at all; but once they have been carried off, to take seriously the avenging of them is the part of fools, as it is the part of sensible men to pay no heed to the matter; clearly, the women would not have been carried off had they no mind to be.” The Persians say that they, for their part, made no account of the women carried off from Asia but that the Greeks, because of a Lacedaemonian woman [i.e., Helen], gathered a great army, came straight to Asia, and destroyed the power of Persia, and from that time forth the Persians regarded the Greek people as their foes.
On closer inspection, the grounds of Greek and Israelite collective action appear to differ significantly. In the Trojan war the crime avenged was understood to be a crime against hosts and hospitality; it is a perversion of hospitality to take the wife of one’s host. In avenging the rape of Dinah, the sons of Israel regard it as a crime against the maiden herself. This concern with the dignity of woman as such—not as the possession of the husband or father—will later become emblematic of Israelite collective self-understanding.
Hamor begins to make his case in strictly personal terms, pleading in the name of love: “The soul of my son longeth for your daughter. I pray you give her unto him to wife” (34:8). But he soon appeals to what he assumes is Israelite self-interest and makes a pitch for thoroughgoing intermarriage. (Hamor would certainly have noticed that Jacob had eleven sons, already or soon to be in need of wives.) Hamor generously invites Jacob to “give your daughters unto us”—if and when and to whom you please—and to “take our daughters unto you”—again, presumably, whomever you please. There is no allusion to compulsion or force; indeed, there is not even a whiff of Hivite taking-as-they-please, let alone taking without prior paternal consent. (Needless to say, for the Canaanites, the consent of the daughter will play no part in arranging marriages.) Appealing still further to self-interest, Hamor proposes that the Israelites may then dwell among his people, trade freely in the land, and gain possessions there.
In short, if they cooperate, the Israelites may get them wives and (other) valuable goods, through free and peaceful trade. At this point, Shechem adds his own personal appeal, promising to pay whatever bride-price is asked, if only they will give him the damsel to wife; he, too, shows no shame or remorse, and makes no mention that he has already taken lustfully by force what he now proposes to buy generously with gifts.
We, fathers of daughters or brothers of sisters, listening to this plea and this proposal—how do we react to such a generous and useful and profitable offer? Shall we be swayed by professions of love and promises of peaceful trade and coexistence? Shall we overlook injustice for the sake of gain, overlook an assault on our daughter (sister) so that we might easily get wives for all of our sons? Or shall we side with the moral indignation of the sons of Israel, who see only the defilement of their sister and who craftily plot revenge?
Outnumbered by the Shechemites, Jacob’s sons have no alternative but to proceed with guile. The device they use is ingenious—not only strategically, but especially morally and symbolically:
We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one that is uncircumcised; for that were a reproach unto us. Only on this condition will we consent unto you: if ye will be as we are, that every male of you be circumcised; then will we give our daughters unto you and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people. But if ye will not hearken unto us, to be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and we will be gone [34:14-17; emphasis added].
The sons ignore the personal side of the request and treat the matter entirely politically. Just as they saw that the crime against Dinah was a crime also against Israel, so they see that the union of man and woman anticipates children and, therefore, the question of perpetuating one’s ways and beliefs. They make explicit the assimilationist meaning that was merely implicit in the Shechemite proposal for intermarriage; for freely to exchange daughters means, culturally, to become one people. The question is, whose ways will the assimilated populace adopt? Shall they still be the people of the covenant, whose sign is marked in the flesh by circumcision? Confronted with this question, the sons of Israel assert and insist upon the difference of their ways, a difference which reminds always of God and His promise to Abraham.
To be sure, the use of circumcision here serves mainly as part of the strategy for revenge. Almost certainly, the sons do not intend to go through with the agreement for intermarriages. Many readers will even blame the sons for their deceit, all the more because it exploits and perhaps abuses for violent purposes the sacred sign of the covenant. Still, the demand for circumcision carries moral meaning on its own, regardless of the deceitful intention and bloody outcome. For it reveals still more deeply the differences between the peoples and their different attitudes toward women and sexuality.
The Israelites are, of course, not the only people who practice male circumcision. But with them, the ritual has a high and special meaning: it is the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham, the founder. A brief backward glance at that story will deepen our understanding of the present one.
The story of God’s new covenant is the immediate sequel to the story of the birth of Ishmael, Abraham’s long-awaited firstborn son, whom Hagar bore when Abraham was eighty-six years old, eleven years after he left Haran in search of God’s rich promise. Now that Abraham has a son, the crucial task of perpetuation begins in earnest. As Ishmael approaches young manhood (age thirteen), God, looking to the future, proposes a new covenant, telling Abraham to “walk before Me and be thou wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between thee and Me, and will multiply thee exceedingly” (17:1-2). The covenant is announced in explicit relation to the theme of procreation and perpetuation.
God’s part of the covenant is very generous and full: He promises Abraham that He will make him exceedingly fruitful, the father of nations and the progenitor of kings; He will make an everlasting covenant with the seed of Abraham to be their God; He will give unto them the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession. As for Abraham (and his seed), the obligation is simple: keeping the covenant simply means remembering it, that is, marking its token or sign in the flesh of every male throughout the generations, by the act of circumcision.
Why circumcision? We can think of many possible reasons, all of them apt. Unlike the rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant with Noah and all life after the Flood, which demanded nothing from man in return, circumcision is an un-natural sign—both artificial and conventional. It is the memorial of an agreement that deems it necessary (hence, conventional); it must be made by man (hence, artificial); yet it is marked in the organ of generation (hence, also natural). The world as given, and life even when secure (“No more floods”), are not yet completed; the best way to live remains hidden and must be revealed by additional human effort, exercised in the face of powerful human drives that lead us astray.
Circumcision emphasizes, even as it also restricts and transcends, the natural and the generative, sanctifying them in the process: under God’s command, men willingly produce in their living and generational flesh the mark of their longing for God, of their desire for His benevolence and care. Though it is the child who bears the mark, the obligation falls rather on the parents; it is a perfect symbol of the relation among the generations, for the deeds of parents are always inscribed, often heritably, into the lives of their children.
The obligation of circumcision calls parents to the parental task. Performed soon after birth, it circumcises their pride, reminding them that children are a gift, for which they are not themselves creatively responsible. More importantly, they are called from the start to assume the obligations of transmission. They are compelled to remember, now when it counts, that they belong to a long line of descent, beginning with Abraham who was called and who sought to walk before God and to be wholehearted. They are reminded that bearing the child is the easy part, that rearing him well is the real vocation. They are summoned to continue the chain by rearing their children looking up to the sacred and the divine, by initiating them into God’s chosen ways. And they are made aware of the consequences for their children—now and hereafter—of a failure to hearken to the call: “And the uncircumcised male . . . that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.” With circumcision, the child, and all his potential future generations, are symbolically offered to the way of God.
But why a rite applicable only to the male children? Because males especially need extra inducements to undertake the parental role. Freed by nature from the consequences of their sexuality, probably both less fitted and less interested by nature than women for the work of nurture and rearing, men need to be acculturated to the work of transmission. Virility and potency are, from the Bible’s point of view, much less important than decency, righteousness, and holiness. The father is re-called to this teaching, and, accordingly, symbolically remakes his son’s masculinity for generations to come. When he comes of age, the son will also come to understand the meaning of the mark of his fathers and their covenant with God; presumably, it will decisively affect how he uses his sexual powers and how he looks on the regenerative and nurturing powers of woman.
Shechem, the rapist, was psychically as well as physically uncircumcised. First, he acted as if his lust entitled him to have his way with Dinah. Afterward, the ground of his claim shifted to his desire, to his longing for her. The generative meaning of sexuality and the attendant reverence owed to womanly shame he understood not at all; much less did he have in mind a right partner for the future work of transmission. And, as we shall see, he will soon lead his entire city into destruction, just so that he can satisfy his heart’s desire. The Shechemites, like Shechem himself, will submit to circumcision, but with no understanding of what it means, in itself and, especially, to the Israelites. Shechemite circumcision turns out to be a parody of the covenant, just as Shechem’s request to be given a bride whom he had already taken and defiled was a parody of a proper marriage proposal.
Hamor and Shechem are well pleased with the proposal of Jacob’s sons, and Shechem hastens to the deed: “And the young man deferred not to do the thing, because he had delight in Jacob’s daughter. And he was honored above all the house of his father” (34:19). But the proposal required that all the men of Shechem submit to circumcision. How could they be persuaded? To win the hearts of their fellow Shechemites, Hamor and Shechem smoothly talk business:
These men are peaceable with us; therefore let them dwell in the land, and trade therein; for, behold, the land is large enough for them; let us take their daughters to us for wives, and let us give them our daughters [34:21; emphasis added].
The appeal begins quietly: the men (i.e., Jacob’s clan) are not warlike or troublesome, and, as there is enough land, let them live here and trade. Even better, we can take their daughters (whomever we like) and we can give them—if and when we like—our daughters; in speaking to their own, Hamor and Shechem cast the liberalities differently from when they spoke to Jacob and his sons. But the cost of this bargain in spousing has yet to be mentioned, and, to pay it, the people will require an even better reward:
Only on this condition will the men consent unto us to dwell with us, to become one people, if every male among us be circumcised, as they are circumcised. Shall not their cattle and their substance and all their beasts be ours? Only let us consent unto them, and they will dwell with us [34:22-23; emphasis added].
The appeal succeeds: every able-bodied man is circumcised, presumably the married as well as the unmarried. Some, perhaps, are tempted by the promise of prospective brides; others—probably the majority—more greedy than lustful, are moved by the promise of capturing through assimilation all of the Israelite wealth and cattle, so confident are they that their superior numbers and ways will prevail. The Shechemites are culturally open to all customs, provided that they increase the gross national product.
As it turns out, their leaders have made false promises, or, at best, have exposed their own deviousness. For, at least for the time being, Jacob and Israel have no marriageable daughters but Dinah, and she is (in many senses) “taken” (note well: she has not been returned to her people, but remains in Shechem’s house). The appeal to gain and greed is perhaps a disingenuous promise to the rabble—hiding from view that only Shechem himself will profit from their acquiescence. Otherwise, if honest, the appeal to the Shechemites betrays a rather sordid view of the entire proposal to “become one people.” In any case, the Shechemites circumcise themselves wholeheartedly for gain, not—as did Abraham—to gain wholeheartedness. What they gain, in fact, is their own death and the ruin of their city.
This is not to justify the excessive harshness of the penalty exacted by Dinah’s (full) brothers, Simeon and Levi, who steal into the city “post-operatively,” while the men are in pain, and slay all the males, and take Dinah from Shechem’s house. But it does suggest the (at least partial) fitness of collective punishment, bearing out the earlier suggestion that Prince Shechem is somehow representative of his entire city—both as paradigm and as head. Here is a nation indifferent to rape and the defilement of women, eager for intermarriage, keen upon gain, coveting both its neighbors’ wives and its neighbors’ cattle—equally regarded as objects for possession. Here is a people that will accept circumcision as a price for profit, to gain a woman or to win a herd of cattle, not as a reminder of the importance of rearing your children in a spirit of reverence. No one is moved by this self-inflicted act on the genitals to reflect—or to suffer pangs of conscience—on the rape or on the proper use of one’s sexuality. No one is moved to feel awe or reverence for the divine. Insufficiently respectful of women, with corruption in their hearts, the Shechemites cannot be kept from being cut off as a people by mere circumcision in the flesh. It is no justification of their slaughterers to say that the Shechemites are not fit to survive.
The slaughter of the entire manhood of Shechem could, in fact, be perhaps defended as a matter of necessity and on grounds of Realpolitik. Limited revenge taken upon the young prince alone would unquestionably have resulted in counter-vengeance: one could hardly expect the Shechemites to regard his killing as just (“once women had been carried off, to take seriously the avenging of them is the part of fools”); and, justice aside, they would certainly have struck back in defense of their own first family. Greatly outnumbered, Jacob’s sons would have stood little chance in an all-out battle; and while the Lord’s intercession might have given them the upper hand, they would have had no good reason to count on divine aid in the fighting. Besides, Dinah, their sister, was still in Shechemite hands. Guile, deception, and stealth, followed by a massive “surgical” strike of “protective reaction,” would be a sound strategy under the circumstances.
Yet it is unlikely that the sons of Jacob are ruled simply by such shrewd and cool calculation. Most likely, they are driven by rage and by the desire to visit the harshest possible punishment on Shechem and his entire kind. They do not cease with killing the men. They spoil the entire city “because they had defiled their sister.” They take everything, both from the city and the fields—flocks, herds, asses, and all their wealth they spoil; all their children and all their wives they take captive. (This last, of course, could be recommended on grounds of policy: to obliterate the possibility of future generations that will come looking for revenge.) Their zeal for revenge knows no limits: the innocent suffer with the guilty. Worse, the avengers profit from their revenge. Even if justified or necessary, the attack reeks of barbaric cruelty. The most Machiavellian of readers experiences the horror of these “necessary” actions.
Jacob, too, is horrified, but for different reasons. The collective action, taken by his sons, has backfired; it has made it impossible for him to settle peacefully in the land as he had planned. Worse, his entire tribe is now at risk; his sons, in their zeal, have failed to consider that there are other Canaanite tribes who will not ignore the slaughter of their kinsmen:
Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land, even unto the Canaanites and the Perizzites, and I being few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and smite me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house [34:30].
Later, at the end of his life, Jacob, in blessing his sons, will heap moral opprobrium and curses upon Simeon and Levi.6 But here, after the deed itself, his concerns are strictly political-prudential, and mainly self-preservative. He is now a pariah and, worse, a likely victim, in the land of his fathers, a land which, the reader knows, was promised to his ancestors and their seed.
But Jacob’s sons have the last word. They reject his rebuke and his utilitarian and survivalist concerns, in the name of morality:
As with a harlot should one deal with our sister [34:31]?
This rhetorical question, especially because it is the story’s last word, reverberates in our minds: “As with a harlot should one deal with our sister?” What does this mean? And why is this the last word?
The word translated “like a harlot” comes from the verb zânâh, from a primitive root meaning “highly fed,” and, therefore, “wanton.” It means “to commit adultery” (especially for the female) or “to play the harlot,” and, in the causative, “to cause to commit fornication” or “to cause to be [or to play] the whore.” But it also easily acquires the (figurative) meaning, “to commit idolatry,” “to whore after false gods,” on the understanding that Israel is betrothed solely to God. Both meanings can be heard in the brothers’ rejoinder to Jacob.
At first glance, the brothers seem to be equating rape with harlotry, or, at least, suggesting that what Shechem did to Dinah might have been overlooked—or at least mitigated—were Dinah a whore. Similar sorts of arguments are, to this day, advanced in defense of accused rapists: “Look how she dresses.” “She sleeps around.” “What was she doing in his apartment, or in that fraternity house?” “She was asking for it.” Even granting their possible relevance, such complaints of “provocation” never constitute an adequate defense for rape—though they might make it more difficult to determine whether what transpired was in fact rape and not, say, seduction. For this reason, we must not construe the “motto” of Jacob’s sons to mean that it would be permissible to rape a harlot. Rather, the sons are asserting that their failure to defend their sister’s honor would be tantamount to regarding her as if she were a harlot. Worse, to practice “turning the other cheek” would mean (tacitly) to share, by acquiescence, in her defilement. The sons see very clearly that in rape—and in indifference to rape—a man, or a community, treats a woman the way a harlot treats herself.
Regardless of their divergent motives, the deeds of rapist and harlot have a convergent inner meaning. Both are without modesty, shame, or sexual self-restraint. Both are indifferent to the generative meaning of (especially female) sexuality, both regard sex purely as a matter of present and private (especially male) gratification. Both are indifferent to the fact that sex points to future generations, those to whom we give life and nurture, paying back, in the only way we can, our debts to our own forebears. Both are especially indifferent to marriage and family, those conventional institutions whose main purpose is to provide a true home for fruitful and generous love and for the proper rearing of children. And both are indifferent to the moral, cultural, and religious beliefs of the sexual partner, so crucial for the preservation of lineage and the perpetuation of one’s ways.
Whether or not they understand fully what they are saying, Jacob’s sons remind Jacob (who had hoped for peaceful coexistence)—as they instruct the reader—that the alternative to defending the virtue of one’s sisters is to abandon them, and all future generations, to the realm of false gods. Rape—like harlotry and the indiscriminate intermarriage proposed by the Shechemites—means the spiritual defilement of an entire people. The defense of chastity and the transmission of holiness are part of a single package.
Fair-minded readers of the story are left with nagging questions. We wonder about the practice of deceit and the merely cunning exploitation of the holy rite of circumcision. We are troubled by the difficulty of practicing proper vengeance, for one may not be able to finish what one has started, or one may, in heat, be led to cruel extremes. We see the terrible dilemmas of settling in a land amid people who are not God-fearing, especially if one has imprudent and zealous offspring. We see how zeal in defense of God’s ways can lead men into war, and how, should they prove successful, the spoils of war can lead them, ironically, away from God’s ways. Yet we are inclined to believe, with Jacob’s sons, that a culture that will make war to defend the virtue of its women, against a culture that dishonors other people’s women, proves itself—by this very fact of fighting—to be not only superior injustice but also more fit to survive and flourish.
It would seem, from the sequel, that God does not disagree. For it is He who has the genuinely last word. Right after the speech of the sons, God speaks to Jacob:
Arise, go up to Beth-El, and dwell there; and make there an altar unto God, Who appeared unto thee when thou didst flee from the face of Esau thy brother [35:1].
Jacob, who had tried to settle permanently in the face of Shechem, is told now to complete his journey. Jacob must return to Beth-El, “the house of God,” where Abraham had built an altar and first called upon the name of the Lord, and where Jacob himself had dreamed his famous dream of the ladder just before his departure into Paddan-Aram. Jacob now understands that he has been called to spiritual repurification. He commands his household and all that are with him to “put away the strange gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; and let us arise, and go up to Beth-El . . .” (35:2-3). He collects and buries the foreign gods and the earrings (probably from the captive Shechemite women and children but also, perhaps, from Rachel), and the entire clan heads off to Beth-El. And as they journey, “a terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob” (35:5).
After Jacob builds the altar at Beth-El, God appears to him again, this time to pronounce His first full divine blessing upon him:
“Thy name is Jacob; thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name”; and He called his name Israel. And God said unto him, “I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; and the land which I gave unto Abraham and Isaac, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed after thee I will give the land” [35:10-12].
Context leads us to suspect that God’s revelation and great benediction—especially for fecundity and posterity—are, in part, a commentary on the Israelites’ demonstrated devotion to the dignity of their daughters. The divine renaming of Jacob now carries also the meaning of the people; it is singularly appropriate that the people are renamed—and morally reborn—after this episode.
Yet despite God’s intervention, we must not conclude that our story has a happy ending. Dinah, though avenged, remains defiled. The sons may have satisfaction, but she has shame. In our focus on the vengeance of the brothers, we run the risk of forgetting the sister, the daughter, the maiden. But one should not mistake silence—neither ours nor the story’s—for indifference. True, we are told absolutely nothing about Dinah’s feelings or thoughts—not about the rape itself, or the aftermath with Shechem and his sweet speeches, or the proposal of marriage, or the bloody slaughter of Shechem and the men of his entire city, not even about her “rescue” by her brothers. We have not one spoken word from her own lips, not before, not after. And we hear no words spoken to her by her father or brothers. In dreadful silence, we can only imagine the terrible consequences for this young maiden—psychic, social, spiritual. As far as we know, she never marries and never bears children. Her name appears only once hereafter in the entire Bible (Genesis 46:15), all alone in the list of names of the household of Jacob who accompanied him on the move to Egypt.7
But do not mistake the reticence: the silence of her shame cries out for our sympathy and searching attention.
Unlike other women we have met in Genesis, Dinah is defined solely by her womanliness. Unlike Sarah who could command her husband, unlike Rebekah, a paragon of tact and prudence,8 unlike the rivalrous sisters Leah and Rachel, each with her own capacity for self-defense, Dinah is, for us, merely a maid—exposed, innocent, vulnerable to male predation. Let us not jump to the wrong conclusion: of course, she has thoughts and feelings, motives and desires; of course, she is a person in her own right. But for present purposes, the biblical author abstracts from her inner life; he wants us to concentrate entirely on the fact that Dinah is a woman, and, more precisely, a young and unmarried woman, and, of course, a daughter. Her womanly ancestors we know mainly as wives and mothers. With Dinah we are compelled to think about maidenhood—and about daughters. How should they comport themselves? And what should we, their fathers and their mothers, teach them in matters of men, sex, and marriage? How should we help them avoid the ever-present dangers of rape, harlotry, intermarriage?
Jacob, it seems, did not understand the need for such education and protection. His mind focused (understandably) on other matters, perhaps reassured regarding his future by his having numerous sons, he failed to see that it is reverent and virtuous daughters who safeguard a nation’s heritage. No daughters, no nation. He might have known better. He himself had been sent to Paddan-Aram to find a wife, so as not to marry a Canaanite woman; from the stellar example of his own mother, he should have known the importance of woman—both to ensure lineage and to foster proper rearing—and taken steps to protect his daughter’s purity. But, though he was in when she went out, he prevented neither her going nor her going alone; he did not even warn her against the dangers. He was, to say the least, insufficiently concerned about her maidenhood—until it was too late.
Yet, with the help of the story, we readers can see the need for a special education and protection of daughters. The circumcision of the males, symbolizing the restraint of male promiscuity and beckoning males to familial responsibility, must have its female counterpart: modesty, caution, refusal, self-reverence, and chastity, all exercised in the service of eventual marriage—love-filled, fruitful, sanctified. This is not, as critics would have it, the infamous double standard. In Israel, it is a single standard, differently applied, as befits the natural differences between men and women.
We Americans, especially the more “enlightened” and emancipated among us, have managed these past three decades to become thoroughly lost in matters sexual. The sexual revolution, made possible by the contraceptive separation of sexual activity from its implicit generative consequences, deliberately sacrificed female virtue on the altar of the god of pleasure now. Not surprisingly, the result was emancipated male predation and exploitation, as men were permitted easy conquests of women without responsibility or lasting intimacy. Unhappy with this outcome, but failing to appreciate its roots in the overthrow of modesty, the liberated women’s movement mounted a moralistic political campaign against the “patriarchy,” seeking power and respect, mistakenly believing that the respect women need as women is based solely on power.
Whatever the benefits in the workplace, the consequences for private life are horrendous. Romance is replaced by relationships; people do not fall in love, they just “come on to” one another—like lice; courtship is nonexistent. Speech is unbelievably crude and explicit, and the greatest heroes of the popular culture, sporting (at best) their underwear on the outside, gyrate obscenely on television. The centuries-old delicate dance of young man and young woman, with its subtle steps and missteps, its whispered secrets and mysterious rhythms, is all but forgotten, replaced if not by explicit crudity then by ideology. Young women, humorless and grim, with jaws clenched and shoulders padded, cut an angry path across the would-be fields of dreams, supported in their demands for empowerment by those oh-so-sensitive males who will defend to the death not a woman’s honor but her need to learn the manly art of self-defense. Many lonely women, more than can safely admit it, secretly hope to meet a gentleman; but the vast majority steadfastly refuse to be ladies—indeed, no longer know what it means. Small wonder, then, so much sexual harassment and even rape. When power becomes the name of the game, the stronger will get his way.
Under such circumstances, one cannot exactly blame women for wanting to learn how to defend themselves against sexual attack. But, addressing the symptom not the cause, the remedies of karate and “take back the night”—and, still more, the shallow beliefs about sexual liberation that support these practices—can only complete the destruction of healthy relations between man and woman. For, truth to tell, the night never did and never can belong to women, except for the infamous women-of-the-night. Only a restoration of sexual self-restraint and sexual self-respect—for both men and women—can reverse our rapid slide toward Shechem. Only a recovery of the deeper understanding of sexuality, accessible to us (among other places) in the stories of the Hebrew Bible, can allow true love and family happiness to flourish.
1 Jacob has forgotten the pillar he had anointed in Beth-El, and his vow that “this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee” (28:22).
2 The 11th-century commentator Rashi here makes much of the connection of Dinah to her mother: “The daughter of Leah—so Scripture calls her; why not the daughter of Jacob? But just because she ‘went out’ she is called Leah's daughter, since she too was fond of ‘going out’ [Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 80], as it is said [30:16], ‘and Leah went out to meet him.’ With an allusion to her they formulated the proverb: ‘Like mother, like daughter.’”
3 Rashi reads similarly: he spoke “words that would appeal to her heart: see how much money your father has lavished for a small plot of field. I will marry you and you will then possess the city and all its fields.”
4 “The Lion and the Ass: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Chapters 31-34),” Interpretation, January 1983.
5 This is not quite true. His father-in-law, Laban, had shown him a certain high-handed way with daughters, substituting the elder, Leah, for the younger, Rachel, in what Jacob thought was his marriage to Rachel. Having lain with Leah, Jacob was then compelled to marry her, and she later bore him Dinah. Jacob, who—according to Laban—had tried to ignore local customs regarding marriageable daughters, was unwittingly and unwillingly trapped into a “shotgun marriage.” The sins of the fathers are sometimes visited also on the daughters.
6 “Simeon and Levi are brethren; weapons of violence their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they houghed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (49: 5-7).
7 Even her mention here in the census is oblique, as if she were only ambiguously present: “These are the sons of Leah whom she bore unto Jacob in Paddan-Aram, and with Dinah his daughter.”
8 See my essay on Rebekah, “A Woman for All Seasons,” COMMENTARY, September 1991.
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