Genesis 34

This is one of those chapters in Genesis where one struggles to know what to do with it. After his reunion with Esau, Jacob and his family have moved to Shechem (where he even purchased the land they were using, see 33.19) and Jacob’s daughter from Leah, Dinah, decides to go out and make some friends amongst the locals (verse one; as would any of us, really). No sooner does she do so than the son of the town’s leader – confusingly also named Shechem (his father the chief is called Hamor) – forces her to have sex with him. (This is usually considered a rape, although some scholars think the verb used connotes improper sex – i.e. extramarital – and not necessarily rape; this would justify nothing as far as Dinah is concerned, but verse three and four’s description of Shechem as being “strongly drawn to Dinah”, “in love”, speaking to her “tenderly”, and immediately telling his father to negotiate with Dinah’s father so that he might marry her seem to point towards something other than a heinously simple rape.) Thereafter Hamor approaches Jacob to try and arrange a marriage pact, Jacob’s sons get involved and require all the men of Shechem (the city) to be circumcised before any union could take place – note the outright deception in this, made clear by what follows – and then verse twenty-five states that: “On the third day, when they [the men of Shechem] were in pain [from the procedure], Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males.” This is followed by verse twenty-seven’s: “The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled.” Thus we have a series of absolutely dreadful and atrocious actions: firstly Shechem’s forcing Dinah to have sex (whether technically a rape or not any “by force” (verse two) is abhorrent), Jacob’s sons lie about their motivations for setting city-wide male circumcision as a condition for Dinah to marry Shechem, Simeon and Levi then murder every one of the enfeebled townsmen while their other brothers loot everything, including carrying off the dead men’s wives and children (verse twenty-nine). To the modern mind it is essentially impossible to find any justice in this tale. (Admittedly some contemporary readers might take this story positively, but my arguments with them would be long and probably exasperating.) Let us therefore not try to make excuses for the text and instead attempt to bring out a pair of perspectives from within it.

Firstly and most importantly is Dinah’s herself: Should she have gone out – evidently on her own – to wander about her new place of residence? Well, why not? If she had no reason to worry about her safety then we can hardly blame her, and in fact we probably empathize; I have done exactly this when moving cities. Perhaps the writer of the narrative wished to comment on the dangers of intermingling (a pro “us”/anti-“them” type of message), but in penning the story this way that both comes across and does not: after all, Shechem is described as falling in love with Dinah at first sight, and then for the most part is depicted favorably in how he seeks to marry her and how his father Hamor more or less welcomes Jacob and his family to live in peaceful coexistence. For her side, Dinah is reported to have been residing in Shechem’s house (verse twenty-six: Simeon and Levi take her from there after their rampage); was she being held or was she perhaps staying by choice? If we think in socio-historical terms she may have decided she was better off with Shechem: no longer being a virgin it would have been difficult to find a husband – having been raped would not have changed that – and since the son of the chief was going to such lengths to marry her she might have thought such was her best option. She would probably have been frightened, angry, possibly (tragically) blaming herself, not daring to hope. What is clear is that no one is given as having bothered to consult her, certainly not her hot-headed brothers. This tale – again we remind ourselves that these traditions are not history in our sense of the term, even if they might contain elements of historical realities – comes from a time and culture now far removed, but in trying to think from Dinah’s point of view we can yet learn much.

Secondly there is Jacob: He has only just made peace with his estranged brother (and from how Chapters 32 and 33 are structured we are inclined to read him as being extremely relieved by that), taken his household to settle in an area and committed to it by buying the land, his daughter is then victimized and his sons forthwith take matters into their own hands, kill the local men, most likely enslave the local women and children (“took as captives” is how verse twenty-nine phrases it), and steal everything in sight. Jacob’s remark that they have made him “odious among the inhabitants of the land” (verse thirty) seems like an understatement. He is right to worry about what possible ramifications there may be from the other people who have been living there far longer than Jacob and his household: he is responsible for everyone’s safety. Jacob has not always been presented in the best light by these myths, but the character is a father and any decent father would be incensed by how Dinah was treated, to say the least; even so one would not suppose that this would gravitate him towards wishing death and mayhem on all around, particularly those many people who had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Heartbroken and heavily burdened, who can guess how he would be torn between grief, rage, and worry for his daughter and every other in his care? He may even have believed his sons were genuine in wishing circumcision as an indicator of conversion; yet now we find that we must pause, because this Jacob is a personage in what is mostly (perhaps entirely) fiction, and the truths we learn herein are ethico-spiritual rather than empirical: and this is something to be grateful for. Trying to see from Jacob’s perspective is unnerving, but so too is it instructive. Here, once more, the book shows us its stunning and hidden depths, provocations to be discovered on each revisiting.

No comments: