Dina, quiet star of a disturbing Biblical story. A teaching story, with lessons for our time, too.
Dina: An Ancient Torah Story
Dina goes out to see her girlfriends (Gen. 34:1). Maybe they’re at a bar in town. Or a party tent in the countryside. With music, dancing, and lots to drink.
Shechem sees her (Gen. 34:2). Maybe from across the room. He’s entranced, can’t stop watching her. He follows her outside. Throws his arms around her, kisses her, can’t stop himself.
He lies with her, he pressures her into it (Gen 34:2). Maybe, afterwards, his everyday mind returns. He looks at Dina. She is still beautiful, interesting.
He is drawn to her, body and soul. He loves her (Gen. 34:3). Maybe a few days pass. He can’t stop thinking about her. So he makes sure their paths cross again.
He speaks to the young woman’s heart (Gen 34:3). “Your eyes, your laugh, your quick wit!” he says. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I’m so sorry about the other night. I hope you’ll see me again.” Maybe he tells his father he met someone. His father asks for the details. Then frowns and chastises: “That’s not how it’s done! Marriage first, sex afterwards. Show some respect for women! For family and tradition!”
Shechem says to his father: then arrange my marriage to this girl (Gen 34:4)!
Hamor, father of Shechem, approaches Jacob, father of Dina. Confesses his son’s love. Proposes a treaty between two distinguished families (Gen. 34:6, 8-10). Shechem offers to pay any dowry requested (Gen 34:11-12).
But it is too late. Dina’s brothers Shimon and Levi have already heard about the assault. And they have decided to strike back. “Our family practices male circumcision,” they say. “All we request is that the men of your family follow suit” (Gen. 34:13-17).
Shechem, Hamor and their entire town agree. Why? Because love, marriage, and treaties are good. And they want to see Shechem happy (Gen. 34:19-24).
So the men of the city have their surgeries. Three days later, Dina’s brothers murder them. Plunder their city. Steal their animals. Enslave their women (Gen. 34:25-29).
Dina’s father is furious. “You’ve made us shameful, hated, and vulnerable!” (Gen. 34:30)
The brothers shrug. They can play the honour/shame culture card too. “Should they treat our sister like a whore?” (Gen. 34:31)
Dina: A Modern Teaching Story
Wow! Dina doesn’t protect herself. Shechem takes advantage. Hamor and Jacob try to negotiate a settlement. Shimon and Levi punish innocents. Lives and reputations are ruined.
Ohr Hachayyim, 17th century Moroccan scholar, highlights three male perspectives at odds with one another.
Shechem breaks no laws. He might be a boor, but he isn’t a criminal.
Fathers Jacob and Hamor respect social formality. If a good person asks nicely for your daughter’s hand in marriage, you say “yes.” Sure, disorderly sex happens. But orderly ritual can set things right. Especially if it includes a nice cash settlement.
Brothers Shimon and Levi hear that Shechem abused their sister. But, he broke no laws. No judge could punish him or protect his victim. So, the brothers use their own method: Abuse our sister and we will ruin you.
Sound familiar? A vulgar man behaves crudely towards women. He crosses social boundaries, but breaks no laws. Women and their supporters complain. His lawyers try to settle; maybe they succeed. But the public hears. Angrily they shout, “Everyone should know! You deserve to be ruined!” Why? Because shame is the only tool they have to protect women.
But Ramban, 13th century Spanish scholar, has no sympathy for people like Shimon and Levi. Maybe they hope to protect the family. But their method is irrational. Hate and violence shape it. An impulse to destroy animates it.
Does this, too, sound familiar? Rival political factions look for opportunities to destroy one another. They hear an accusation of sexual harassment. And try to use it as a wrecking ball.
Dina’s Silence: Questions for Women Today
You know what else sounds familiar? Dina’s silence. Does she forgive Shechem? Do his words reach her heart? Does she love him? Does her father consult her before accepting Shechem’s proposal? Do her brothers ask her opinion before murdering her fiancé? Do the murders traumatize her? Does she hate her brothers? Or is she grateful to them? Does she feel vindicated by the ruin of Shechem’s community?
We’ll never find out. Torah doesn’t tell us. Not by accident, or through unreflective patriarchal storytelling. But deliberately. Because the erasure of women’s voices is part of the story.
Do women today want our complaints hijacked by political factions? So that some harassers are punished and others rewarded? Are financial settlements helpful to us? Do we get to decide what counts as an apology, or do we let pundits decide for us? Do we want to see strict, easily demonstrable legal definitions of consent — like signing a marriage license? Is deterrence through shame helpful — or is that a slippery slope toward the shaming of women?
We need time to talk about these questions. But is anyone listening — really listening? Or are our political factions — our brothers Shimon and Levi — quickly making their own plans? To achieve their own ends, not ours?