Parshat Vayishlach: Making Choices, Facing Consequences

Out went Dinah the daughter of Leah whom she bore to Jacob, to see the girls of the land. Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, Prince of the Land, saw her. He took her and lay with her and degraded her.” (Genesis 34: 1-3)

The story about Dinah catches us unprepared. Jacob has just arrived in Shechem intact (shalem) and pitched his tent with an air of permanence. He has survived the terrifying reunion with Esau, emerging somewhat scathed but triumphant from the encounter with the angel. God has blessed him with 4 wives, 11 sons, 1 daughter and great wealth. He has finally broken from the clutches of Laban. He has returned back to the land of his forefathers. We are lulled into a sense of complacency.

Night Out Bar RestaurantA young girl goes out to meet the daughters of the land. And why shouldn’t she? The Abarbanel shows understanding of a young girl alone in a house of boys. “…[she] only wanted to see the daughters of the land, not the men of the city and not the sons of the city but the daughters, in other words to see the girls and what they wore and their jewelry since in the house of Jacob there were no young girls except for herself, and she wanted to learn from the other girls, in the manner of the virgins and this was permitted…”

Out went Dinah. It is the only active thing Dinah does in the entire chapter. She is only mimicking her parents. Her father Jacob went out before her. Her mother Leah also went out to meet her father in the field and invite him into her tent. Abarbanel praises her for being both like mother and father and mirroring the modest nature of both parents – a mother who went out for the sake of heaven and a father who sat in the tent.

And yet what terror, what fear that word holds when we think of a young girl – described in the chapter as both נערה – maiden – or as ילדה – girl going out unprotected, unchaperoned. It is little wonder that the prince of the land – Shechem sees her and desires her and takes her. Who is there to educate her and inform her of a young girl’s vulnerability and desirability as she approaches womanhood?

Dina and Shechem

Does Shechem assault her? The text does not actually support that reading although it is the traditional one. In order to clarify what might have happened we have to look at other similar stories and how the verbs “לקח” (lakach) and “ענה” (innah) are used elsewhere.

The Brown Driver and Briggs dictionary notes that the verb לקח – “take” when used to describe the relationship of a man and woman most often refers to marriage. Examples are Adam taking Eve, Abram taking Sarai, Jacob taking Rachel and Leah and so on. In other words, when Shechem sees Dinah he seemingly intends to take her as wife.

The root verb innah – commonly translated here as violated her is used inaccurately to reflect the translator’s interpretation. JPS more accurately translates it as “humbled” which seems to better reflect the overall usage of the word. Innah appears some 12 times in the Tanach in the context of a sexual relationship and does not inherently reflect a forced nature; all citations however, do reflect something illicit and by its nature, an illicit sexual relationship carries with it a sense of shame.

The impropriety is clear. Shechem took the daughter of Jacob who was tribally off limits. In other words, without the seduction and loss of virginity, Shechem would never have been considered a potential marriage partner for Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Noteworthy is the description of Shechem’s response to the sexual relationship:

“His heart cleaved to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl and spoke to her heart,” which is reminiscent of the Torah’s injunction that upon marriage “therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh.” He “spoke to her heart”, a term which only appears eight times in the Bible. Tikva Frymer Kensky in Reading Women of the Bible notes that the one speaking to the heart has the superior position: Joseph to his brothers (Genesis 50:21), Boaz to Ruth (Ruth 2:13), God to Israel as husband to wife (Hos. 2:16). The superior offers assurance to the insecure and eight times, the passage implies, the speaking is successful even when the positive response is not recorded. Shechem may have rushed the “becoming one flesh” but he intends to cleave to her in holy matrimony. As the story continues he turns to his father to negotiate a large bride price so that he can marry Dinah.

Seduction or Rape?

In fact, when we look at the verses in Exodus 22: 15-16 on seduction, Shechem comes to mind: If a man shall seduce a virgin who was not betrothed and lie with her, he shall provide her with a marriage contract as his wife. If her father refuses to give her to him, he shall weigh out silver according to the dowry (mohar) of the virgins.

The Ramban in Exodus 22:15-16 uses a verse from our story: “And Shekhem said..,Multiply upon me greatly ‘mohar’ and gift to explain the mohar that appears in the Biblical laws regarding the seducer. Shekhem teaches us the custom of a man giving gifts to his betrothed and the Torah uses those gifts of an example of a man’s culpability and responsibility in the case of seduction. Shechem, although Dinah is no longer a virgin is willing to give much mohar and many gifts to marry the young girl he seduced. The Torah, suggests the Ramban, builds on the example of Shechem to fine the seducer who has spoiled the young woman’s reputation in the eyes of young men, thus implying that Shechem seduced rather than raped Dinah.

Let us further compare our story to the instances of rape that appear elsewhere in the Torah: In Deuteronomy 22, 25-29 there are two descriptions of rape – one of a betrothed and one of an unengaged young woman:

But if it is in the field that the man will find the betrothed girl and the man will SEIZE her and lie with her, only the man who lies with her shall die…If a man finds a virgin maiden who was not betrothed and TAKES HOLD OF HER and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give the father of the girl fifty silver and she shall become his wife because he has humbled her (innah), he cannot divorce her all his life.”

In both of these scenarios, the physical violence, capitalized for emphasis, is central.

In the tragic story of Amnon and Tamar, the violence is palpable: II Samuel 13: “…He overpowered her, he humbled her and lay with her”. As Frymer Kensky in writes: “Word order counts. In rape, the word innah comes before the words “lay with”; in other forms of illicit sexual relations, innah comes after “lay with”. There is a reason for this difference in word order. In rape abuse starts the moment force begins long before the actual sex. In other illicit sexual encounters, the act of relations may not be abusive even if after the fact there is a sense of degradation.” In our story, Dinah is degraded when she wakes up in the morning to discover that her innocence is gone. Her life will never be the same.

The traditional reading of the story has largely been to blame Dinah for going out promiscuously. Rashi, going in that direction writes: “Daughter of Leah – And not the daughter of Jacob? But because she went out she is called the daughter of Leah for she [Leah] was the gadabout (the one who goes out) as it says “Leah went out to meet him” (Genesis 30:16) Of her they coined the aphorism, “Like mother, like daughter” (Ezekiel 16 44)”

Rashi’s criticism of Dinah’s is tied to his criticism of Leah meeting Jacob in the field after purchasing an extra night with her husband through the sale mandrakes. Promiscuity breeds promiscuity. Dinah’s brazen action caused the shame of violation which spurred Levi and Shimon to take the law into their own hands and avenge the honor of Israel.


According to some interpretations, Levi and Shimon are justified by heaven despite the fact that Jacob strongly condemns them both in this parshat and before he dies. In Bereishit Rabbah 80.12, R. Judah B. Simon says about their actions: The vat was muddied and we have purified it…”

Rambam writes: “How are they [the nations of the world] commanded concerning justice? They are obligated to establish judges in every region to judge concerning these [other] six commandments, and to exhort the people. A non-Jew who transgresses one of these seven commandments is to be put to death by the sword. For this reason all the men of Shechem were deserving of death, for Shechem kidnapped Dina and they saw and they knew of it, but they did not judge them. A non-Jew may be put to death by [the word of] a single witness and by [the verdict of] a single judge, without [the need for] forewarning, and by relatives.” (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:14)

Was justice served in any way? Shechem did everything that was expected of him – he agreed to be circumcised. He agreed to the bride price. He was adamantly in favour of making her his wife. The language of her brothers is anger over her defilement. When they come to kill Shechem and Hamor and take Dinah out of their house, we cannot help but wonder what did Dinah want? We cannot know. Her father remains silent in his anger. Her brothers do not talk to her and act violently against an entire city on her behalf.

The last line of the chapter is “Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?” But a harlot is not marriageable. A harlot does not receive a mohar. A man does not speak to the heart of a harlot. Midrashic interpretation aside, her brothers’ rash conduct ends all future hope for marriage, children and a family.

Which Way Will You Choose?If we read the story as a seduction rather than as a rape, Dinah is less a victim and rather a young woman who made a poor choice for which she paid dearly for the rest of her life. Her humiliation is the beginning and the end of the rest of her life. In a moment of unbridled passion, Shechem takes what is not his but repents for his untoward and illicit act by trying to right the wrong. It is not enough. He will fall at the sword of Dinah’s brothers, and in fact, his moment of weakness will cost his father and all of the townspeople their lives.

Shimon and Levi do not emerge unscathed. After being cursed by their father, Levi will only recover in the wake of the golden calf when his descendants join forces with Moshe to kill truly in the name of God and Shimon will never recover; eventually his tribe will be swallowed up into Judah’s territory and he will disappear.

This chapter teaches us a strong message about choices that we make as individuals and the unpleasant truth that sometimes consequences continue to shadow us long after the deed is behind us.

Rabbanit Nechama Goldman-BarashRabbanit Nechama Goldman-Barash, a member of Beit Hillel, is the Rachelle Isserow Scholar in the five year Hilchata program at Matan. A graduate of the Advanced Talmud Institute at Matan (a three year intensive program for Talmud study), she teaches rabbinic text and contemporary halacha at Pardes, Matan and various post-high school gap year programs. Nechama is a Yoetzet Halacha and also teaches couples before marriage about the relevant laws and practices and gives community classes on Judaism and sexuality.

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