The Rape of Dinah – Reification of Femininity and Land

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

The story of Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, is one of silence, violence, rape, forced love, abduction and mass murder, lies and truth, words and things. Dinah is, says Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, a young, curious woman, who wanted to visit the women of Shechem, talk to them and interact. From the perspective of a modern reader, the story of Dinah is a typical narrative of gendered movement from “within” (house, tent, tribe, father’s house, etc.) to “without” (the city, the public sphere, a different population, the unwarranted meeting with other women, etc.). Due to the fact that Dinah is presented in Genesis 34 as the “daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob,” Rashi addresses the curious description stating that the “Scripture calls her [thus] … just because she ‘went out'” and thus “she is called Leah’s daughter, since she, too, was fond ‘of going out’ (Genesis Rabbah 80:1), as it is said (30:16) ‘and Leah went out to meet him’. With an allusion to her they formulated the proverb: ‘Like mother, like daughter’.” The expression Rashi uses there is that of יצאנית which is, in its extended sense, a whore – Dinah is woman who wishes to go out, just like her mother, and thus, in a way, as this reading seems to imply, she may have deserved what she got.

But the story of Dinah’s rape is broader and implies not only what I would call a very problematic reification of femininity, but also a pseudo-pagan connection to the land and an obsessive need for ethnic and political uniformity. The connection, I hope, will become clearer here below.

(Gen. 34:1-4) Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force. Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly. So Shechem said to his father Hamor, ‘Get me this girl as a wife.’

The male character in this scene behaves in a way that reminds us of the Fall – Shechem sees Dinah, sees her and takes her like a thing, bites the fruit holding it as a mere object in his hands, ignoring that she is a woman and not a thing, that she is a human being with yearnings and thoughts and needs, and not an inert bulk of femininity. Force is the approach with which the “chief of the country” engages with Dinah’s silence – it is not, as a patriarchal reader would want to argue, a sign of her passiveness, and certainly it cannot be the sign that she is actually happy to be taken (by force) by a powerful and rich man. Shechem’s words of love, spoken to “the maiden tenderly” are, in light of her preceding rape, literally senseless, for they are conceived and formulated as the mono-directional expression of feelings of a violent and powerful man for a silent and weak woman: his words are, in a way, mere objects, and not what should be the mysterious signifiers of love. Perplexed by this statement of the Torah regarding this man’s being strongly drawn to and in love with Dinah, it is extremely difficult for me not to see this “love” as a deformation of the healthy attraction of an individual to another deriving from difference and respect and distance. Shechem wants Dinah, takes her, rapes her, and then loves her as a trophy.

(Gen. 34:5-12) Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home. Then Shechem’s father Hamor came out to Jacob to speak to him. Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing not to be done. And Hamor spoke with them, saying, “My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage. Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves: You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you; settle, move about, and acquire holdings in it.” Then Shechem said to her father and brothers, “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.”

This is a transaction, a series of encounters with which Dinah’s rape and defilement needs to be settled as a source of unbalanced relations between Jacob’s tribe and that of the powerful host, Hamor.

Dinah is silent. Jacob is silent. God is silent.

The talking is done by Shechem, by his father Hamor, and by Jacob’s sons – the process of settlement becomes then the trigger for a broader discussion on the political and ethnic presence of the Israelites in the new hosting context. Intermarriage is accompanied by, or maybe even consolidates, the settling of a group on a specific land – in other words a man’s connection with a woman is the signifier of his connection with the land.

Dinah is silent. Jacob is still silent. And God is still outrageously silent.

The reification of Dinah’s defiled womanhood is brought to an extreme when Hamor offers money in exchange for her – this objectification of her silent and raped suffering, based in a violent merging of the woman’s body and soul, is followed by a disjunction between words and their meaning: lies versus rape, meaningless promises versus the violation of Dinah’s innocent curiosity.

(Gen. 34:13-20) Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor—speaking with guile because he had defiled their sister Dinah — and said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred. But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and go.” Their words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem. And the youth lost no time in doing the thing, for he wanted Jacob’s daughter. Now he was the most respected in his father’s house. So Hamor and his son Shechem went to the public place of their town and spoke to their fellow townsmen, saying, “These people are our friends; let them settle in the land and move about in it, for the land is large enough for them; we will take their daughters to ourselves as wives and give our daughters to them. But only on this condition will the men agree with us to dwell among us and be as one kindred: that all our males become circumcised as they are circumcised. Their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms, so that they will settle among us.” All who went out of the gate of his town heeded Hamor and his son Shechem, and all males, all those who went out of the gate of his town, were circumcised.

Lies. Senseless agreements with a powerful and tyrannical authority, lead to lies. The circumcision of Hamor, Shechem and all male citizens of the city, does not convey a process of conversion, but is merely a lie, an empty signifier of an inexistent meaning. The apparent sign of an agreement between two groups, what should be the sign of a pact between man and God, and which should signify the settling of Jacob and his tribe in a specific geographical area, sealing the formation of “one kindred,” is actually a misshapen sign, a deviation from the semantic connection of a token with its meaning – the circumcision is part of a scheme, a machination for the defeat of Hamor and his son, and to re-establish Dinah’s defiled honor. What Hamor is trying to accomplish is similar, from my perspective, to what Nimrod wished to attain with his tower – a complete unification of diversity under the uniform concept of “one kindred” in one land. And the sons of Jacob, on the other hand, are lost in the abyss separating words from their actual meaning, lost in the meaningless pacts, lost in their father’s silence, lost in what Shakespeare would have called “that glib and oily art.”

What follows in this story is to me the horrific, grotesque and tragic caricature of the angelic visit to Abraham in Genesis 18, as on the third day after the circumcision of Shechem, Hamor and all their men, Simeon and Levi visit them in order to kill them:

(Gen. 34:25-31) On the third day, when they were in pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and asses, all that was inside the town and outside; all their wealth, all their children, and their wives, all that was in the houses, they took as captives and booty. Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” But they answered, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

The defiling reification of Dinah, together with the obsessive dream for national unification and socio-political uniformity, trigger a series of events leading to lies and murder. The brit milah, the circumcision of the foreskin imparted on Abraham and his descendants, is turned into a fictitious sign of unity, as the amorous act of coital encounter between a man and a woman degrades into a rape and an act of possession, and spoken words turn into the beguiling elements used by Dinah’s brothers to fool those who are now enemies worthy of death. While I cannot commend the behavior of Simeon and Levi, it must be noted that Jacob is still silent, that Dinah is still silent, and that God is unacceptably silent. Rape is reifying violence; the obsessive attachment to socio-political uniformity and unity, inevitably degrades into murder; the reification of femininity and the unwanted penetration of Dinah’s innocence, leads to a quasi-phallic punishment with the sword; and what may seem like Jacob’s tacit dream for a quiet coexistence with the Perizzites and the Canaanites, and maybe of some kind of intermarriage with them, lapses into death and destruction.

Should we let femininity be treated as whoredom? Should we Dinah’s silence be treated as an implicit and passive acceptance of her destiny? Should we be treating Dinah as Rashi does, namely as one who likes to go out and thus deserves the punishment of rape? And to make the narrative more clearly connected to our present historical context, should we tacitly stand by the violent and defiling attitude of those who like Hamor and his son Shechem consider land and women in the same way, and thus settle them and possess them and love them with the horribly reifying passion presented in Genesis 34?

Should we interpret God’s silence and our leaders’ silence as the sign that all this violence is actually legitimate?

Should we tacitly accept the reifying rape of the Land by those who merge the sign (Land) with signifier (Divine commandment and holiness), and who thus treat it as a whore?

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.