Dina's Family Ties

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Dina's Family Ties

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



A.                 INTRODUCTION


Our shiur will focus on Bereishit Chapter 34 – the abduction and rape of Dina; and its aftermath, the wholesale slaughter of Shekhem's inhabitants by Shimon and Levi.  The commentators grapple with many difficult questions that this story presents – the morality of Shimon and Levi's act, the disparity between Yaakov's pragmatic scolding at the end of this chapter and his harsh denunciation of their behavior in Chapter 49 when he curses their anger from his deathbed, attempts to explains Yaakov's puzzling silence upon receiving the news, and exegetical analysis of the discrepancies in the conversations between Shekhem and Chamor and the sons of Yaakov versus the presentation made by Shekhem and Chamor to their own people[1].  Even ascertaining the viewpoint of the narrator is difficult, as the text makes no explicit criticism or censure of Shimon and Levi's actions[2].  In this shiur, I would like to address one facet of the story – the effect of Dina's rape upon Yaakov's family dynamics.  Through this approach, we can explain the purpose of the Torah's inclusion of this troublesome episode and show that it serves as a traumatic turning point in Yaakov's fortunes in his attempt to settle Canaan.




Until Dina's rape, Yaakov has been the beneficiary of an amazing series of successes.  Through God's intervention, he has not only managed to escape the clutches of Lavan, but also returned to Canaan a wealthy man.  He has successfully wrestled a man-angel, winning for himself a new blessing and an additional name.  His brother Esav has apparently abandoned his twenty-year old fratricidal grudge. All his tribulations, from childhood rivalries to rivalrous wives to spiritual insecurities appear to be in the past.  With everything settled, all that remains for Yaakov to do is to settle.  Careful not to dwell too close to Esav (despite the latter's urgings), Yaakov instead chooses to dwell, almost carelessly, in the vicinity of the local Canaanites: "And Yaakov came whole to Shekhem, upon arriving in the land of Canaan from Paddan Aram, and Yaakov encamped before the city (literally – "et penei ha-ir"in the face of the city)"[3] (34:18).  Wholeness, however, is a fleeting state; more present in Yaakov's mind than external realities.  While Yaakov erects an altar to "El Elokei Yisrael – God, the God of Israel," the reader wonders when Yaakov will fulfill his vow to return to Beit El to erect an altar there (see his vow upon leaving at 28:22).  The ensuing episode exposes his failure to fulfill his   vow:


And Dina, Leah's daughter, whom she bore to Yaakov, went out to see the daughters of the land.  And Shekhem the son of Chamor the Chivite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, and he laid her and he abased her (34:1-2).


Swiftly, the text literally and grammatically transforms the young Dina from Yaakov's only daughter into an object.  She had gone out "to see the daughters of the land" – and this is not the first time in text that a woman's curiosity to see carries with it sever ramifications (compare "and Chava saw the fruit, that it was a delight to the eyes" 3:6).  She went out to see, but she was seen instead. Upon being seen by Shekhem, Dina's independent personage disappears.  Instead, she appears four times as a female pronoun (object), each connected to the series of Shekhem's brutal actions (saw/took/laid/abased). Only with Shekhem's subsequent discovery of her illustrious family does she regain a small measure of identity[4].


As is the nature of Biblical text, it only describes Dina's actions in going out "to see the daughters of the land," without divulging her intentions.  The Torah is generally not interested in the character's motives, only with their actions and their consequences[5].  Dina's act carried a meaning that she herself was completely unaware.  Until now, Avraham's family has endeavored to avoid contact with the local Canaanites.  They lived a shepherding existence, away from the large urban centers.  Both Avraham and Yitzchak made efforts to ensure that the sons that were to carry on the family traditions found spouses from distant Aram, not from among the local girls.  Now, due to Yaakov's desire to dwell in proximity to the Canaanites, his daughter became the first family member to break the taboo, with disastrous results.   


Rabbinic thought, however, saw in Dina's behavior a personality flaw that she inherited from her mother Leah.  Referring to the text's abnormal description of Dina as "the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Yaakov," Rashi states:


The daughter of Leah – [The Torah calls her thus] and not the daughter of Yaakov?  Rather, because she 'went out' she is described as Leah's daughter, since she too was fond of 'going out' (literally – outgoing) as it is said, "And Leah went out to meet him" (30:16).  Alluding to her, they formulated the maxim: 'Like mother, like daughter.' [Midrash Genesis Rabba 80]


Rashi links Dina's 'going out' to Leah's aggressive 'going out' earlier, when she went to the field to demand a sexual encounter from Yaakov, 'for I have HIRED you' (at the price of her sons mandrakes).  In doing so, he delicately hints towards the unsavory nature of Dina's actions.  The Or Ha-Chayim develops this succinctly; "A daughter of Rachel would never have gone out in this manner"[6].


            The Ramban, however, sees the Torah's identification of Dina as "the daughter of Leah" as a form of literary foreshadowing:


The reason [the Torah identifies Dina as the daughter of Leah] is to state that she was the sister of Shimon and Levi who were zealous for her sake, and avenged her cause.  The Torah mentions in addition that she "was borne to Yaakov," in order to allude to the fact that all of the brothers were zealous for her.


In addressing the differing reactions among the family, we will bear in mind the Ramban's literary approach.




The Torah's description of Yaakov's reaction to the assault is stunning.  Shekhem and Chamor approach, hoping to negotiate the bride-price for Dina's hand in matrimony (albeit while holding Dina captive in the city); while the brothers are shepherding in the field.  In the center of the storm, we know nothing of what Yaakov is thinking, just that "he kept his peace until his sons came home."  The text alludes to his feelings through the introduction of a new word – tee'mei – to contaminate, pollute[7].  As mentioned above, as the beneficiary of a remarkable series of successes, Yaakov may be in a state of astonishment and shock. In all the previous encounters between Jewish women and hostile male captors (Pharoah and Sarah, Avimelekh and Sarah or Rivka), Divine intervention prevented the defilement of the women. Dina, through her suffering, has become "Yaakov's daughter." 


We may also see in Yaakov's silence a sign of strategic thinking.  The Seforno and the Or Ha-Chayim suggest that his silence was a deliberate attempt to 'buy time' until his sons return, so that he could rally and unify his sons together.


The reaction of his sons, however, could not have been more diametrically opposed to his stoicism:


And the sons of Yaakov came in from the field when they heard it; and the men were furious and they were very incensed, for he had done a despicable act in [or against] Israel in laying Yaakov's daughter, and such a thing should not have been done. (34:7)


The text, through the device of narrative monologue, conveys the sense of moral outrage and condemnation that the brothers feel, while cleverly maintaining a sense of ambiguity as to the precise cause of their fury.  Was it the assault upon Dina that provokes them, the violation of the laws of sanctity and marriage (which Shekhem's "rape first, negotiate the terms of the engagement second" approach openly mocks), or the attack upon the family and ethnic honor[8]?  What is noticeable is the brothers' use of the term "ISRAEL" – for the first time, they have adopted their father's name as their own.  The attack on one of their siblings has the consequence of unifying them into a collective, corporate unit.  Previously, the Torah primarily identified them as the sons of their rivalrous mothers.  Their anger has bonded them into "the sons of Yaakov."  The only previous occasion where this unity revealed itself was the covenant of Gal-Ed. Facing his rival Lavan, the Torah describes how Yaakov told "his brothers" to gather stones to build a monument.  Rashi immediately identifies these 'brothers' as Yaakov's children.  Facing the common threat that Lavan posed, they became equals.  


            Upon hearing the proposals presented by Chamor and Shekhem, however, a different picture emerges:


And the sons of Yaakov answered Shekhem and Chamor his father with guile (be-mirma), and they spoke as they did because he had defiled their sister.


While the text continues to identify the brothers as "the sons of Yaakov," we wonder as to Yaakov's continued silence. Is he aware of the stratagem that his children are formulating?  The Ramban suggests the following:


It would appear that they answered with the concurrence of their father and his advice, for they were in his presence, and it was he who understood the answer that they spoke with subtlety.  If so, why was he angry afterwards?  In addition, it is inconceivable that Yaakov would have consented to give his daughter in marriage to a Canaanite who had defiled her.  [If so] Surely all the brothers gave their subtle answer, while Shimon and Levi executed the deed alone, and Yaakov cursed only their anger.  If all the brothers shared responsibility for their response and the plan, why did Yaakov single out Shimon and Levi?  The answer is that the craftiness was their suggestion that every male of the city be circumcised; for they thought the people of the city would not consent to it.  And on the chance that the city's populace would listen to their prince, they will come "on the third day, when they were in pain," and they will take their daughter (Dina) from Shekhem's house. This was the original plan of all of the brothers with Yaakov's acquiescence (and knowledge), but Shimon and Levi wanted to take revenge, and so killed all of the men of the city. (comm. to 34:13) 


            The Ramban presupposes that Yaakov was a willing participant to the deceit of Shekhem and Chamor.  There is a textual issue; however, that suggests a different approach.  Until now, the Torah has identified Dina as the offspring of Leah and Yaakov in the story. We previously saw how the commentators dealt with the unusual identification of Dina as "Leah's daughter."  From this point forward in the text, however, The Torah refers to Dina solely based upon her relation to her siblings.  She becomes "their sister"; they become "Dina's brothers."  Even their statement "we will take our daughter" (v. 19) reflects the extent to which they have assumed Yaakov's place.  To the brothers, Yaakov's silence now signifies something more grievous – it is a sign that his indifference to Dina's fate.  What could lead them to this conclusion?  The Torah alluded to it at the beginning of the story – she is Dina, the daughter of Leah.  Despite the previous demonstration of unity shown towards Lavan, despite their adoption of the corporate identity of Israel, the familial rifts that existed in the previous generation between the sisters have not healed.  The brothers interpret Yaakov's silence as disinterest, and find themselves forced to act in the place of their absent father.  We can then interpret the brothers' response, that 'they answered with guile (be-mirma)' as referring not only to Chamor, but towards Yaakov as well[9].  Paraphrasing the Or Ha-Chayim's statement earlier, we simply have to ask, "Would Yaakov have reacted stoically had Dina been the daughter of Rachel?"  Instinctively we, like the brothers, sense not[10].


D.                YAAKOV'S REACTION


The chasm between Yaakov and his children explodes when Yaakov rebukes his children.  Even at this point in time, Yaakov's decrying that the behavior of his children have made it difficult for him to dwell in harmony with the neighboring peoples demonstrates that he does not comprehend his error in choosing to dwell near Shekhem as opposed to fulfilling his vow and returning to Beit El.  Only the appearance of the Divine command at the beginning of the next chapter allows Yaakov an opportunity to mend his ways.  More significant to the reader is the very self-centered nature of his response:


You have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land … 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)


In one sentence, Yaakov manages to use the first person pronoun eight times!![11]  While he speaks of the personal consequences that he will face, Dina he has apparently forgotten – something that the brothers discern immediately:


As with a harlot should one deal with our sister? (34:31)

They clearly interpret Yaakov's apparent willingness to hand Dina over to Shekhem as a form of unmentionable barter – women are not objects to be traded, neither for currency nor for the promises of peaceful relations.  Ironically, Yaakov acquired his wives through his business dealings with Lavan, a fact noted subtly by Rachel and Leah earlier: "What portion to we have in our father's house? … For we were sold (while subtly not mentioning who was the purchaser). (31:14-15)" Without adopting the brother's point of view or approving of their conduct, the Torah clearly intends for us to sympathize with the sense of injustice that the brothers feel, and to recognize that the brief moments of familial unity that appeared at the end of last week's parasha have not managed to last.  The familial rifts that have sprouted because of Dina's defilement between the sons of Leah and Yaakov will color the rest of the story. 




We have dealt with the pragmatic, almost utilitarian nature of Yaakov's response.  Without a doubt, someone had to bear in mind that all actions carry consequences with them; and other Canaanite tribes may have chosen to retaliate for the slaughter of their kinsmen.  We cannot pretend, however, that his argument contains any moral response or outrage to the violent slaughter of Shekhem's inhabitants[12] (as opposed to the deathbed rebuke that Yaakov expresses in Chapter 49.  Perhaps, though he would not reveal it to his children, Yaakov secretly approved or at last sympathized with Shimon and Levi's actions.  After all, they showed initiative, cunning, and courage in dealing with the vile Canaanites.  However, suggests Rav Yehuda Shaviv, this failure on Yaakov's part to explicitly denounce their actions may have led to the continued troubles that Yaakov faced with the sale of Yosef.  It is not for naught that the Midrash identifies the brothers that wanted to kill Yosef as Shimon and Levi.  Once violence becomes an acceptable option for dealing with threats, it is only a small step from the slaughter of non-Jews to the attempted murder of fellow Jews.  Fortunately, the other brothers intervened; albeit if only to profit from their brother's blood instead.  Whether or not their feelings of jealousy over Yosef's favorite son status would have existed irrespective of the assault on Dina, one can imagine that had Yaakov actively led the attempt to avenge Dina, the conclusion of Sefer Bereishit would have unfolded quite differently.  


[1]        Interested readers can find several thorough articles on the above-mentioned issues in the Virtual Beit Midrash archives at www.vbm-torah.org.  Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin analyzes the approaches of the Ramban and the Ketav Ve-Kabbala, Rav Amnon Bazak provides an inter-textual reading of the story with Devarim 13, while Rav Tamir Granot attempts to uncover the text's moral stance towards the brothers through a close reading of the text.

[2]        Bring examples of explicit criticism. 

[3]        As we have already seen with Lot in Bereishit 13, dwelling too close to the city in our text carries its own set of perils.  As well, we once again see the appearance of the "face" motif in Yaakov's life – Lavan's face, seeing Esav is equal to the face of God, etc.  However, this time, he has ignored the imperative to live "lifnei Hashem (before Hashem)" for "lifnei ha-ir (before the city)."

[4]        In several places, Nechama Leibowitz dealt with how the Torah used varying epithets to represent differing subjective attitudes of surrounding characters towards the person in question – see her comments about Lot in Bereishit 14, Yishmael in Bereishit 21, or Joseph in Bereishit 37.  ("Joseph and his Brothers," Torah Insights, pg. 172-173,).  In our case, we noted how during the initial stage leading up to and including the rape, Dinah has been literally reduced to an object.  Shekhem's post-coital attraction may be based on his realization that the girl that he has violated in is fact "the daughter of Yaakov" - the daughter of a powerful chieftain, and may provide him with a respectable wife and sizable dowry (see the Seforno ad. loc.).  His subsequent description of Dinah as a "young girl" to his father may be an attempt to minimize her value in his father's eyes, making him more amenable to negotiating with Yaakov for her hand.

[5]        The commentator Erich Auerbach once famously referred to this Biblical tendency as a "text fraught with background" ("Mimeses," 1954).

[6]        We must stress that this is not an attempt to mitigate the responsibility that Shekhem bears for his abduction and assault.  Whatever responsibility Dinah bears for her behavior, the fact that she is the cause of her being seen by Shekhem does not absolve Shekhem of his guilt. 

[7]        This word becomes the leitmotif (key theme) of the book of Vayikra, which delineates varying forms of impurity.  Central to our understanding is the Torah's belief that religious impurity cannot be separated from sexual purity.

[8]        We can suggest that the brothers' angry failure to distinguish between these reasons reflects the deeper possibility that many of these reasons are in fact interrelated, something sensed by the brothers, if not clearly articulated. 

[9]        Textually, we now find Yaakov on the receiving end of an act where children deceive their parents, as opposed to his deception of Yitzchak acquire the blessings before Esav.  Notably, upon discovering Yaakov's trickery, Yitzchak exclaimed that Yaakov came "be-mirma" - with guile (27:42).

[10]       The Torah will in fact validate this assertion.  Later on, when the famine is most severe and supplies are depleted, Yaakov is willing to endanger the lives of the entire family in order to ensure that Benyamin is not placed in harm's way. 

[11]       Twice in its free-standing form (ani), five times as an object suffix, and once as the possessive suffix ('my house').

[12]       We will not enter the discussion among the commentators regarding the morality of Shimon and Levi's acts; just reiterate that Yaakov's response clearly ignores this aspect.