Torah Portion Vayishlach
Genesis 32:3 - 36:43
This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with a short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.
In Vayishlach, we will discuss how being Israel means to wrestle with man and God. We will connect that with the difficult story of Dinah and Shechem
This is the eighth portion in the Haftarah cycle where we will be discussing Obadiah's prophecies against Edom.
In Vayishlach, we will look at the connections between Jacob return from exile and crossing the Jordan river to those of Israel and those of the prophesied greater Exodus.
The Politics of Sex
Genesis 32:3 - 36:43
The story of Dinah's rape is one that arouses passion in us. A young, innocent woman goes out to spend a day with some other girls and ends up being violently raped. Then, instead of defending her, her father is silent and it is up to her two older brothers to kill the rapist along with all the men of his city. But the Biblical narrative casts a negative light upon the actions of Simon and Levi in this story and then later on when Jacob is on his deathbed. What is going on here? Was Jacob right for considering the Shechemites offer or were the two brother right for slaughtering the Shechemites? What was really at stake here in the story?
As usual, there is much more going on in this story than the modern reader usually comprehends without familiarizing themselves with ancient culture. First we must investigate exactly what the texts states transpired between Shechem and Dinah because in one sentence our English translation claims she was violently raped and the very next states "he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her." Shechem's father then attempts to bargain for her hand in marriage...hardly the thing you would expect if she had just been violently raped. The problem lies in our translator's misunderstanding of ancient Near Eastern legal terminology. The Hebrew word translated as "by force" in the NASB is ye'anne which is a word used to describe relationships in the Bible. It is used to describe the manner in which Sarah treated Hagar as well as how the Egyptians treated Israelite slaves. Its meaning is to treat improperly in a degrading manner by disregarding the proper manner in which they deserve to be treated due to their status. It is to shame the person without just cause. What Shechem did to Dinah brought shame to her and degraded her in the eyes of all of the public. Why? Because it was not considered proper for an unmarried young woman to engage in sexual intercourse. The only women who committed such acts of indecency were prostitutes. We have a term similar to this concept in today's world: statutory rape. Although this concept is falling out of practice due to America's recent decline into acceptance of immorality, there still exists the idea that girls below a certain age are not free to make their own choice to engage in sexual activity and it is up to the parents and society to protect these young women. In the ancient Near Eastern culture, this concept extended to any woman who had not yet been married must be protected. That Dinah was a young girl is evident by the fact that Shechem refers to her as a yaldah ("young girl") which indicates she would have been between 12-16 years old. Shechem seduced Dinah and committed statutory rape and it was the fact that he had not first married her before engaging in sexual intercourse with her which brought shame and disgrace upon her. Had this been a violent rape, the language used would be different as we can see in the narrative of the rape Tamar by Amnon (2 Samuel 13).
This act of shaming was not limited to Dinah however. The fact that Jacob and his sons were unable to prevent such a seduction showed weakness of the family and thus brought shame upon the entire household. Sex had political significance because men's honor can be challenged by engaging in improper sexual liaisons with the women under their protection. Matthews and Levinson state, "[b]y sleeping with her, Shechem was acting as if she had no family to protect, guard and marry her. As the brothers say, 'should our sister be treated as a whore'? He disgraced her, and through her, her whole family." The fact that she is no longer a virgin also reduces the bride price which would be given for her and could potentially make her unmarriable, in which case she would either be dependent upon her father for financial support for the rest of her life, or she would have to resort to the dishonorable lifestyle of prostitution. Thus a man may seduce a virgin in order to shame her father into reducing the bride price he asks for her. This is deceitful and dishonest and thus the Torah makes a provision that if a man seduces a young woman not his wife, then he must pay a large bride price regardless of whether or not the father decides to allow her to marry him. Shechem himself appears to be genuine in his love for the girl rather than using sex for political manipulation since he offers to pay a very high bridal payment and included a bonus gift (Gen 34:11-12). Shechem's father, Hamor, appears to have ulterior motives however. Marriages in the ancient Near East were often for the purpose of securing political alliances between powerful households and Hamor views the potential marriage in this light. The men of Shechem were willing to undergo the painful and potentially dangerous medical procedure of circumcision because of the great financial benefit that they will enjoy if Jacob's family is united with Shechem's. Yet regardless of Shechem and Hamor's intentions, the fact remains that Dinah has been shamed and through her the entire clan of Israel has been shamed and this must be dealt with.
There are two possible ways that the shame of Dinah's statutory rape could be dealt with: repentance & reparation or vengeance. If Shechem makes reparation for his actions of shaming Dinah (which is an act of repentance), he can restore her honor and thus restore the honor to the whole household. Shechem attempts this by offering to pay whatever bride price Jacob will demand of him. Had Jacob accepted this offer Dinah would have married Shechem, thus restoring her honorable status; she would no longer carry the stigma associated with a woman who had engaged in premarital sexual relations. Simeon and Levi however were more concerned with the honor of the household. They rejected the reparation and instead sought to restore the household's honor through vengeance. Shechem had shown their weakness by sleeping with their sister whom they should have protected and so they would reciprocate by slaughtering all the men of the city including Shechem to show that they were in fact not weak. Continuing the pattern of deception from their father, they set in motion a plan that will allow them to overpower the men of Shechem while they are in a position of helplessness.
This situation presents us with a very difficult challenge. If the family allows Dinah to marry Shechem they still end up showing weakness that Shechem was able to politically overpower them. By sleeping with Dinah in an uncircumcised state, Shechem has ritually defiled her. There is also the problem of assimilation with the Canaanites which would lead to the loss of their possessions as well as coming into covenant with pagan gods. Esau had just caused much grief within the family by marrying Canaanite women. Yet even in light of these problems, Jacob appears to have been willing to suffer these problems in order to restore the honor of his daughter Dinah. Simon and Levi's alternative may appeal to our religious zeal to stand up for one of God's covenant people, yet it too is filled with problems. By slaughtering Shechem the brothers have compensated for their weakness in failing to protect their sister, yet it does nothing to change the fact that she now lives with the shame of no longer being a virgin. They also compromise an important cultural value, honest negotiation, in order to gain the upper hand in battle, leaving themselves untrustworthy. Lastly, the two brothers devalue the sign of the covenant, circumcision, by using it in a deceitful plot and as a tool to commit murder. This story does not present us with a righteous path that should be taken, instead it presents us with a situation similar to many that we face in life where no matter which way we choose things are not going to be ideal. The true lesson we should walk away with is to contemplate where our source of honor comes from. Must we take matters into our own hands with retaliation when we are shamed or should we allow YHWH to defend our honor? Our Master Yeshua once said if someone assaults your honor by slapping your right cheek, you should not retaliate with violence but instead turn the other cheek. Let's let YHWH defend our honor!
 Genesis 34:3 NASB.
 Matthews & Levinson, Gender and Law, 87.
 Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem, 161.
 Matthews & Levinson, Gender and Law, 89.
 ibid, 85.
 Exodus 22:16-17.
 Genesis 34:13, timme is used throughout Leviticus to indicate a state of ritual impurity and defilement.
 Matthews & Levinson, Gender and Law, 91.
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