Justice in the biblical story of Dinah

The story about Dinah catches us unprepared. We are lulled into a sense of complacency that this family has come home to settle and all is well.

Wheat Field in Israel (photo credit: EDI ISRAEL/FLASH90)
Wheat Field in Israel
(photo credit: EDI ISRAEL/FLASH90)

“Out went Dinah the daughter of Leah whom she bore to Jacob, to see the girls of the land. Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, Prince of the Land, saw her. He took her and lay with her and degraded her.” (Genesis 32: 1-3)

The story about Dinah catches us unprepared. Jacob has arrived in Shechem intact (shalem) and pitched his tent with an air of permanence. He has finally broken from the clutches of Laban. He has emerged somewhat scathed but triumphant from the encounter with the angel and survived the terrifying reunion with Esau. God has blessed him with four wives, eleven sons, one daughter and great wealth. He has returned back to the land of his forefathers.

We are lulled into a sense of complacency that this family has come home to settle and all is well.

Our story begins with a young girl going out to meet the daughters of the land. And why shouldn’t she? While some midrashim criticize her for walking about outside of the home, the Abarbanel shows understanding of a girl alone in a house of boys. “… [she] only wanted to see the daughters of the land, not the men of the city and not the sons of the city but the daughters, in other words to see the girls and what they wore and their jewelry since in the house of Jacob there were no young girls except for herself, and she wanted to learn from the other girls, in the manner of the virgins and this was permitted...”

‘Tomb of Joseph at Shechem’ by David Roberts, 1839. This colored lithograph provided by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division in Washington shows two men at the entrance to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Tomb of Joseph at Shechem’ by David Roberts, 1839. This colored lithograph provided by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division in Washington shows two men at the entrance to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Out went Dinah. It is the one active thing Dinah does in the entire chapter and in essence, she is mimicking her parents. Her father Jacob went out before her. Her mother Leah also went out to meet her father in the field and invite him into her tent. Abarbanel praises her for being both like mother and father and mirroring the modest nature of both parents – a mother who went out for the sake of heaven and a father who sat in the tent. And yet what terror that word holds when we think of Dinah – described in the chapter as both ha’ra’an, maiden, or as ha’dli, young girl – going out unprotected and alone. How did this happen? Where are her brothers and father to ensure her protection?

Certainly as the story unfolds they play an active role in protesting her disgrace but might it have been prevented altogether? Abarbanel is so bothered by this breach in protocol that he comments that the daughter of Jacob could not have gone out alone and in the moment, Shechem pushed them aside.

Immediately after going out, she is seen by Shechem, the local prince, who takes her, lays with her and degrades her. The question of Dinah’s consent, so central to modern discourse on rape and women’s rights in general, is entirely ignored in the Biblical text. Her voice is completely silent. The repercussions in the story are about her father and mostly her brothers. While the story is ostensibly about her, she is completely silent.

Was justice served in any way? Shechem does everything that was asked of him. He agrees to be circumcised. He agrees to a significant bride price and monetary gifts. He is adamantly and repeatedly in favor of making Dinah his wife. In fact, he follows the Torah’s instructions in both Exodus 22 and Deuteronomy 22 regarding a man who seduces or rapes a virgin, respectively. Some commentaries even consider the mohar (bride price) he offers Jacob to be an early source for ketuba (marriage contract)! At this point, it seems certain that elevating Dinah’s status to Shechem’s wife is the appropriate and necessary step towards rectifying this situation.

The response of both Jacob and the brothers is disproportionate. Jacob is silent, leaving his sons to conduct the (deceptive) negotiations normally conducted by a father. In contrast, the language of her brothers is of anger over her defilement and the “outrage done against Israel.” Yet, at no point is Dinah consulted. This stands in stark contrast to Rebecca, also a young maiden, who is asked by her father and brother if she wants to return with Abraham’s servant to Canaan. Furthermore, Dinah is left in Shechem’s house as the story unfolds. The men do not negotiate her return although Shechem and Hamor prove to be pliant and willing to accede to all requests.

Taking advantage of their weakened state after circumcision, Shimon and Levi slaughter all of the men of the town, including Shechem, and the rest of the brothers join them to pillage the city, taking livestock and possessions as well as, somewhat incongruously, the women and children into captivity. Shimon and Levi, after being accosted by their father for causing him trouble with the local inhabitants, respond: “Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?” This final line of the chapter seems particularly ironic. On one hand they (at least) do not blame Dinah for her degradation. However, Shechem was not treating her as a harlot but as an intended bride! A harlot does not receive a mohar. A man does not speak to the heart of a harlot and cleave to her, using language reminiscent of the Torah’s injunction that upon marriage “therefore shall a man cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh.” Her brothers’ rash conduct ends all future hope for marriage, children and a family.

What happens to Dinah? In the Biblical text, we do not hear of her again except as a name on a list of Jacob’s descendants as the family travels to Egypt. The midrash however, bothered by the absence of narrative, fills in the gaps with three different endings for Dinah.

In one, Dinah is so ashamed that she refuses to leave Shechem’s home until her brother Shimon offers to marry her (in the greater midrashic tradition, each brother married one of the twin sisters born with each birth). She then bears him a child named Saul, son of the Canaanite, hinting to her previous act of laying with a Canaanite man. In another midrashic narrative, Dinah marries Job after her rescue by Shimon and Levi and bears him a total of 14 sons and 6 daughters. Finally, there is a wonderful midrashic narrative that tells the story of a baby girl illegitimately born to Dinah. The baby is left at the gates of Egypt with a gold amulet placed around her neck by grandfather Jacob telling the story of her ancestry. In a twist of fate, Potiphera the Egyptian priest hears the baby’s cries and takes her home. Years later, the foundling baby becomes Joseph’s wife.

These midrashim help bring closure to Dinah’s tragic story. In particular, pairing her story with Ausnat gives her continuity and reentry into the family history through an incident that almost caused her complete eradication from the narrative. 

The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.