For perhaps understandable reasons, I feel very strongly when I have to come across the Bible’s stories of rape and incest in the course of my Bible study. Yesterday, in my class on the Pentateuch, I had to teach the story of the rape of Dinah, which deals with a lot of the problems that are faced in sin, repentance, and the problem of vengeance. Even though this is a difficult subject for me to talk about, there are important lessons, and it is my hope that by wrestling openly with such difficulties that I may have a better understanding of the applicability of the lessons of this story to my own life, and be able to help others as well. So, with that said, let us look at the story of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, and examine it and the serious issues it addresses one by one, passage by passage.
Genesis 34:1-4 tells the story of the rape of Dinah and how the criticism of Shechem for his rape is moderated by the description of his love: “Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her and lay with her, and violated her. His soul was strongly attracted to Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman, and spoke kindly to the young woman. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this young woman as a wife.”
Genesis 34 sets up what amounts to a date rape situation, one that manages to express the horror of rape without painting the rapist as a horrible and worthless villain. Dinah appears to have been the only girl in her family, with eleven (soon to be twelve) brothers, but no other young women to confide in or to spend time with. So, as may be expected, she hung out with the neighborhood girls of the city where her family was living at the time, as girls are wont to do. Because Canaan was a wicked land, the young men of that country had not grown up with the proper understanding of how to treat a lady, which put her in harm’s way.
Shechem is portrayed as a prince, probably with a fair sense of entitlement about women, and he was probably used to loose women himself who had low moral standards. Like many young men, he had strong feelings for a young woman and did not respect her boundaries or her refusals, and had sex with Dinah without her consent. The Bible, it should be noted, does not shrink from the severity of this crime or its horrible consequences. However, while admitting the seriousness of the crime the Bible also does not paint Shechem as a cold-blooded rapist, but rather as a genuine and honorable gentleman, who genuinely loved and cared for Dinah and wanted to marry her, possibly because she was the first good girl he had ever come across in his life in Canaan.
Genesis 34:5-12 shows how Shechem, despite the severity of his crime, tries to make things right with the girl’s family, showing his honor and his willingness to openly own up to his mistakes: “And Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter. Now his sons were with his livestock in the field; so Jacob held his peace until they came. Then Hamor the father of Shechem went out to Jacob to speak with him. And the sons of Jacob came in from the field when they heard it; and the men were grieved and very angry, because he had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, a thing which ought not to be done. But Hamor spoke with them, saying, “The soul of my son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him as a wife. And make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters to yourselves. So you shall dwell with us, and the land shall be before you. Dwell and trade in it, and acquire possessions for yourself in it.” Then Shechem said to her father and her brothers, “Let me find favor in your eyes, and whatever you say to me I will give. Ask me ever so much dowry and gift, and I will give according to what you say to me; but give me the young woman as a wife.”
As I mentioned earlier, the Bible nowhere excuses away the sin of Shechem. What he did was disgraceful and inexcusable. Nonetheless, as we are all given to make mistakes, sometimes very serious ones, we need to be merciful and forgiving to others. When someone commits a horrible sin that does not mean that such a person is despicable and without worth as a human being. One has to address the consequences of the sin and forgive and try to make things right as best as we can. Shechem, to his credit, was willing to pay any dowry required by Dinah’s father to make things right. Such a willingness expresses both his honor in desiring to square accounts and own up to his sin, as well as the genuineness of his love and concern for Dinah. While neither of these excuse his sin, they allow us to view him as a repentant sinner rather than as a hardened and presumptuous one.
However, not everyone saw it that way. While Jacob held his peace, seeking to see what kind of young man Shechem was, Jacob’s sons were incensed. They specifically came in from the field because of their anger and vengeful feelings against what Shechem had done. They were already putting themselves in the frame of mind to be a lynch mob to avenge the honor of their sister, rather than to humbly and mercifully deal with the repentant sinner who stood in front of them. They let their righteous indignation blind them to the moral complexity of Shechem’s sincerity and willingness to own up to his horrible sin, which ought to have led them to respond sincerely to him. But, sadly, that was not the case.
Let us also note that Hamor was not as honorable as his son. Hamor’s request to the children of Israel was for them to intermarry with the Canaanites, buy land and property, and to basically assimilate into them. That was not God’s plan or desire, because it was God’s purpose to raise up out of Israel a godly nation to bring judgment on Canaan for their sins when the time came. After all, Canaan was worthy of judgment. If a spoiled but repentant rapist is the most honorable man in his father’s house as a prince of his city, surely the land of Canaan was a deeply wicked one, and it was highly improper for Israel to have desired assimilation into that wicked society, as later happened after the conquest because of the refusal of Israel to carry out the instructions of God.
It was the desire of God for the Israelites to set a godly example for the people around them, to be a model of behavior to bring the Gentiles around them to repentance and obedience. Israel never successfully did that job. That same job has been given to the Church of God, and we do not do a better job at it ourselves. We are not supposed to conform to the world, to assimilate to its ways and its behaviors, many of which are sinful and contrary to God’s laws and ways. We are to be a model of the world, distinct from it, to provide a light in the darkness, rather than to be like the nations around us. All too often our desire for popularity and acceptance leads us to neglect this very serious and difficult responsibility of modeling godly behavior in a wicked world.
Genesis 34:13-17 give the dishonest replies of the children of Jacob to Shechem’s sincere request for a dowry price to make things right between him and Dinah’s family and to allow him to marry Dinah honorably, despite his sin in having raped her: “But the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor his father, and spoke deceitfully, because he had defiled Dinah their sister. And they said to him, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a reproach to us. But on this condition we will consent to you: If you will become as we are, if every male of you is circumcised, then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters to us; and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people. But if you will not heed us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and be gone.”
It is a great shame that the words of the children of Jacob were deceitful, because the conditions that they gave, had they meant them seriously, would be exactly what God would request of Israel and His model for how the world could become filled with obedience. Had the Israelites demanded assimilation of others to God’s ways, then Israel could have grown stronger and converted others into spiritual Israelites who received the blessings and could then serve as a model for other peoples. Being an Israelite has never been a racial matter, but has always been a matter of culture and religious belief, and had the children of Israel actually taken their role in assimilating the world to God’s beliefs seriously, the ancient world would have been a much better place. Obviously, we have the same responsibility as the Church of God today, as it is our job to model God’s ways and provide a safe place for people to assimilate into the culture and worldview and belief system of the Bible from whatever background or history that they come from. We could stand to do that job a lot better ourselves.
Genesis 34:18-24 gives the positive reply of the people of Shechem to the request of Jacob’s sons that the men of the city be circumcised: “And their words pleased Hamor and Shechem, Hamor’s son. So the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he was delighted in Jacob’s daughter. He was more honorable than all the household of his father. And Hamor and Shechem his son came to the gate of their city, and spoke with the men of their city, saying: “These men are at peace with us. Therefore let them dwell in the land and trade in it. For indeed the land is large enough for them. Let them take their daughters to us as wives, and let us give them our daughters. Only on this condition will the men consent to dwell with us, to be one people: if every male among us is circumcised as they are circumcised. Will not their livestock, their property, and every animal of theirs be ours? Only let us consent to them, and they will dwell with us.” And all who went out of the gate of his city heeded Hamor and Shechem his son; every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city.”
It is a cruel irony that while the people of Shechem (and their king) were plotting on how to assimilate the Israelites and take their property, and saying that circumcision was not a big deal because of all that they could gain from Jacob’s family, that Jacob’s sons were not really at peace with the people of Shechem because of what Shechem had done with Dinah. As we will shortly see, all that Hamor promised would happen as far as taking the cattle and wealth of the people of Jacob is exactly what he and his own people lost themselves. Nonetheless, despite this plotting, the people of Shechem were faithful to the covenant that the people of Israel made with them, and they honored the terms of the agreement that Jacob’s sons had set.
And yet, Shechem was the most honorable person in his father’s house. Despite the deceptions of Jacob’s family to avenge their sister’s honor, and despite the machinations of Hamor to steal the wealth of Jacob’s family for himself, Shechem was sincere. As soon as he heard that he needed to be circumcised to marry Dinah, that is what he did. He acted sincerely as a young man in love does, willing to do whatever it takes to win the girl of his dreams. For all of his mistakes, Shechem comes off (along with Jacob) as the most noble of the men in the whole story, which is a very sad statement to make. He was faithful to the covenant he made with the children of Jacob so that he could marry Dinah, and that sincerity and faithfulness must be honored.
Genesis 34:25-31 gives the sad ending to the story of the rape of Dinah, which becomes the rape of Shechem, sadly enough: “Now when it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came boldly upon the city and killed all the males. And they killed Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and went out. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and plundered the city, because their sister had been defiled. They took their sheep, their oxen, and their donkeys, what was in the city and what was in the field, and all their wealth. All their little ones and their wives they took captive; and they plundered even all that was in the houses. Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I.” But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a harlot?”
This chapter is full of all kinds of grim irony. One of the ironies is that the Bible sarcastically describes Simeon and Levi as brave for killing men who were sore from circumcision as adults. Clearly it is not brave to slay men who have been incapacitated in such a fashion, but I suppose we ought to consider it part of the Bible’s dry and understated sense of humor, even in (perhaps especially in) such grim circumstances. Another irony, as talked about before, was the fact that even as the people of Shechem plotted to take all that belonged to Jacob’s family, Jacob’s family took everything from them—the lives of the men, their children and wives, their animals and wealth.
There is another sad irony here I think it necessary to discuss. Jacob’s sons, led by Simeon and Levi, were avenging the honor of their sister who had been traumatically raped by a young man who loved her and committed a horrible sin. In avenging that trauma they inflicted trauma on an entire city of women and children, killing their fathers treacherously and taking them captive for themselves. How many of the women of Shechem were raped by the children of Israel as Dinah had been? The Bible does not say, but vulnerable women and children certainly have never fared very well among vengeful and spiteful and angry people. I speak from personal experience.
This is a big reason why the Bible forbids vigilante justice. When we see ourselves as the avengers of wrongs that are committed against ourselves or against loved ones, we often forget that we are not judge, jury, and executioner, but rather we are sinners too deserving of judgment. The rape of Dinah by Shechem was a horrible sin, but he was a repentant sinner and the children of Jacob should have forgiven him and tried to make the best of a bad situation. Instead, the children of Jacob lied to Shechem and Hamor, made a covenant under false pretenses, and then murdered the men, took the women and children as their own property (as well as their animals), and looted the whole city for themselves. The children of Jacob showed themselves to be far worse sinners than the honorable Shechem. When we see ourselves as avengers of the sins of others, it is easy to forget that we too are sinners and may even be worse sinners than those we condemn and punish.
Sadly, it appears that after Shechem was killed and Dinah was taken back by her vengeful brothers that Dinah never married. The Bible paints a grim picture for the survivors of rape, showing the loneliness and trauma very honestly. While her brothers looted and murdered the city of Shechem and killed her sister’s fiancé, who deeply loved her, it seems that the sons of Jacob cared more about their sister’s honor than they did about her happiness and her need for love and friendship. Sadly, the Bible records no marriage or children for her, only a lonely life traveling with her family, with no close friends to call her own. If only Jacob’s children had thought as much about their sister’s happiness as they did about her virginity.
And Jacob’s children had no respect for Jacob either. When Jacob mildly pointed out that the actions of his sons would lead the other cities of the area to ally together and wipe out his small party, his sons could think of nothing except their sister’s honor. His sons had no compassion, no rational thought process about how their actions would affect their own lives or that of their family. All they thought about was vengeance and their supposedly righteous anger. God is far more merciful to us than we deserve, and tells us that we will be forgiven of our sins to the extent that we are able to forgive others of their sins against us. We all need to remember that.
The story of Dinah, for understandable reasons, is a very difficult one for me personally, and it may be difficult for many others as well. Nonetheless, the lessons of this story are profound. We may be put into danger by our desires to solve the difficulties of our lives, not recognizing that choosing friends poorly can lead to great risk. Additionally, even horrible sinners can be people of genuine love and affection and honor, seeking to make things right even after they have done very wrong. We are not to avenge our own sins or those of others, because we do not have the wisdom to read into the hearts and minds of others and to recognize that there may be genuine repentance and love there, despite what they have done against us. And by avenging ourselves we may prove ourselves to do worse than others have done against us. And that is clearly not acceptable to God.