Family Honor in Distress


By Naomi Myrvaagnes

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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Jacob has settled down at last. Prosperous in middle age, blessed with four wives and 12 sons, he has escaped from his exploitive father-in-law, made peace with his estranged brother and returned to his native land, the land the Almighty promised to him and his descendants. A herdsman, Jacob has pitched his tents and set up his altar. Nearby, the little city of Shechem buzzes in the Canaanite landscape, urban and alien, a hive of commerce, optimism, foolishness and eros.

Enter Dina, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Dina “went out to see the girls of the land.” As when Eve was so bold as to direct her eye to the Tree, seeing means trouble for a woman. Once outside the house, Dina is in turn “seen” by the young prince of Shechem, who “lies with her.”

Shechem falls in love and proposes marriage. The two terse sentences recounting this sequence of events are fraught with turmoil and ambiguity: Did Shechem rape Dina (lie with her by force, oppress her)? Or did he merely “reduce” her (cause her devaluation as a virgin daughter)?

Linguistically, we don’t know for sure. And the text tells nothing about Dina’s experience of the encounter.

Two of Dina’s full brothers, Simeon and Levi, are enraged by an outsider’s encroachment on their sister. They approach the Shechemites “with guile,” leading them on to undergo mass circumcision on the assurance that it will make the prince’s marriage acceptable to Jacob. Then, while the easygoing “converts” are recovering from surgery, Simeon and Levi massacre them, enslave their women and children, and make off with all their belongings. About this part of the story there is no textual ambiguity.

Dina’s story could have had a happy ending. Shechem, after all, was eager to do the right thing. The prince proposes precisely what the later, normative books of the Torah rule as the correct relief for Dina’s situation: Shechem (if an Israelite) would be expected to marry the girl. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 presents exactly this case, using the very same verb (anah) for what Shechem has done to Dina; the girl will be the man’s wife because “he hath humbled her.” (You break it, you buy it.) He may never divorce her. Moreover, Genesis also uses temeh, “defiled,” as a verb for what Shechem has done (Genesis 34:5). It is identical to the term for ritual impurity, which, Leviticus teaches at length, is reversible through ritual cleansing. Again, the text suggests that help could be on the way.

Thus, the Dina story as it plays out so destructively in Genesis bespeaks a cultural setting outgrown in the Torah itself. And, to its credit, even in this very raw tale of gender and political relationships, the offended brothers’ target of punishment was not their sister, but rather the kin of the male who was perceived to be her violator. Would that women fared so well globally today, when in some societies they still fear death after dishonor.

But problems about the ethical residue of this story persist. Jacob’s complaint to his sons that his peace (“shalem”) in settling near Shechem has been endangered by the massacre is: What will the neighbors think? It’s true that, on his deathbed, much later, in Genesis 49:6, Jacob rails against the character of these violent sons and distances himself from them: “Let me not be counted in their assembly.” Perhaps moral outrage rumbled under his initial comment, as well. But the Dina story ends with an unanswered question, the retort Simon and Levi make to Jacob: “Should our sister be treated as a harlot?” Despite the teachings of Deuteronomy, accommodation and reconciliation, the wedding would be an unthinkable disgrace, they imply. Committing murder (genocide) is not. The Shechemites, it seems, were contemptible for their very willingness to be circumcised; in their pride of ideology, Simeon and Levi could see them only as motivated by political and economic gain, by a spirit of easy compromise inferior to the desire for closeness with God that was the exclusive province of Abraham’s family.

The story is profoundly disturbing. Yes, the proto-Jewish family keeps itself distinct and separate from its neighbors; this is a project of the larger Genesis narrative. But at what cost? Jacob and his sons hold on to the spoils, despite their taint, with no comment from the text.

Life goes on. Levi begets the priests in Israel. Dina, we do not hear of again.

Naomi Myrvaagnes is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center.

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