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Genesis: The Story of Dinah

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

As I mentioned at the last lesson, what shortly follows is one of the most disturbing stories in the Hebrew Bible. Before we discuss it, however, Jacob will be reconciled with his brother Esau.

Jacob is now very wealthy and he feels guilty about the way he treated Esau. He's the first character in the Hebrew Bible to be conscience-stricken and he wants to make amends. The problem is he's fearful that Esau may be still nursing a grudge against him and will kill him. So he proceeds cautiously.

Before he patches things up with Esau, however, a mysterious incident takes place in Chapter 32. Jacob has a strange wrestling match with someone described simply as a man but who seems to be a divine being. Jacob would have won the contest, if his opponent hadn't struck him on the hip. The man tells him that henceforth he will be called Israel "for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed." Israel means something like God fights or God-fighter or God rules. We can barely grasp the full implications of this story – who is the "man"? Is he an angel or God in disguise? Or is he, perhaps more plausibly, a demon?. When Jacob asks him his name, the man refuses to give it. What is important is that Jacob is now a changed man as a result of the contest, as indicated by the change of name, similar to Abraham's name change from Abram. The incident is, therefore, a defining moment in his life.

Immediately afterwards, and without any introduction, at the beginning of Chapter 33 Jacob sees Esau coming towards him. He's fearful for his children's sake, because Esau is accompanied by 400 men. He bows seven times to the ground, but Esau runs to meet him, falls on his neck, kisses him, and the two men weep. It's a wonderful reunion. Indeed it's one of the most moving passages in Genesis. For once humans bury the hatchet and behave well. There's a wrinkle, however. Esau wants Jacob to return home with him. Jacob agrees but says he will travel separately. In the event, he heads to Shechem. It seems he doesn't fully trust Esau even now, despite the warmth of their reunion. And in Shechem he purchases a plot of land from the locals to establish his legal entitlement to live there.

Genesis, as I hope I've indicated, is a highly sophisticated work, and one of the devices that it employs is juxtaposition. We've just read a rather uplifting tale of reconciliation; we're about to read a tale that is frankly abhorrent.

A certain Shechem – same name as the city – who is the son of the most powerful man in that city called Hamor – rapes Leah's daughter called Dinah. Shechem loves Dinah, however, and so he asks his father to arrange a marriage with her. Hamor goes to Jacob's sons and makes a very moving appeal. He tells them that Shechem has been totally smitten by Dinah and wants to marry her. If they'll allow this, their two peoples will live in amity t, sharing their land and their property. Shechem also goes to Jacob and says he's prepared to give any price for Dinah – this was a society where the custom of bride price prevailed. Suitors offered money to the father of the girl they wanted to marry. Bride price prevails in a society where there is a shortage of eligible women.

Jacob's sons follow in their father's footsteps. They, like him, are deceivers. They agree to the deal on condition that Hamor and Shechem and all the people living in Shechem consent to undergo circumcision. They do so, and on the third day, when they're still in pain, two of Jacob's sons, Simeon and Levi, "kill all the males", while the rest plunder the city. The author doesn't mince words. He tells us they took all their wealth, all their little ones and wives, and all that was in the houses. This isn't just an act of revenge. It's much, much worse than that. Jacob is outraged but the brothers defend their action in the crudest possible way, saying, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?"

Jacob passes no judgement on their action, though he will do on his deathbed. He decides that they need to head back to the land of Canaan. On the way, Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob's thirteenth son, and shortly after that Isaac dies, "old and full of years".

The story of Dinah is a terrible story. Of course, the brothers are justified in their outrage. Rape is a terrible crime. It is today and it was back then. They are not only defending their sister's honour but also the purity of the Jewish race by their determination not to intermarry with Canaanites. But the fact of the matter is that Shechem and his father do everything they can to make amends, whereas the justice they mete out is hugely disproportionate. They're collectively a bad lot and they will act equally despicably a second time around – this time towards their own flesh and blood, towards their brother Joseph. Joseph's story is the subject of the next lesson.

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Written by

Robert Garland