by Ellen Sims
Genesis 33:18-19; 34:1-31
The story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, loses sight of its protagonist almost as soon as she is introduced. Dinah sets out to visit the women of Shechem, but in the next sentence she is deprived of her volition and her body is violated. She disappears from her own story just as it is starting.
It’s true that what happens to her propels the rest of this complex narrative. But after she walks into the city of Shechem, we have no direct, reliable narration about what SHE saw and did and said and thought and felt. Instead, we have men interpreting for us what happened, and they include an alleged rapist protesting his love for her, her inactive father ceding his responsibility to the brothers but blaming them afterward, and then the two brothers with dubious motives who, according to Jacob, made him “odious to the inhabitants of the land” (Genesis 34:30).
Dinah’s fate is never revealed. It’s as if her life ends as the life of Shechem the prince and Shechem the city die. That is, unless you adopt Anita Diamont’s version of the story offered in her novel, The Red Tent. Diamont imagines that Shechem did not rape Dinah but wooed her and won her love. The novel then depicts Dinah’s horror when her lover and every other man in that city were murdered by Dinah’s own brothers. The rape story, according to this modern version, was contrived by Levi and Simeon to justify their assault on an entire city.
So much about this biblical plot is troubling, but the most striking aspect of the Bible’s version is that we lose Dinah in her own story. It begs us to flesh out the story and to locate her as well as ourselves in her story. Are we, like her brothers, itching to rush in as uninformed protectors? Or are we her passive father? Her assailant/lover? Are we Haran, willing to do anything for a son’s happiness? Are we Dinah, the silenced cypher?
No wonder this thin, lopsided tale inspired Anita Diamont to compose a novel from Dinah’s point of view. It is on the first page of that modern novel that a pronunciation of Dinah is suggested, which leads me to pronounce our silent heroine’s name as DEE-nah, not DI-nah. Listen as Dinah, a protagonist in charge of her own life, according to the novel at least, introduces herself as if to one of her descendants:
“We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father, Jacob, and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother. On those rare occasions when I was remembered, it was as a victim. Near the beginning of your holy book, there is a passage that seems to say I was raped and continues with the bloody tale of how my honor was avenged. It’s a wonder that any mother ever called a daughter Dinah again. But some did. Maybe you guessed that there was more to me than the voiceless cipher in the text. Maybe you heard it in the music of my name: the first vowel high and clear, as when a mother calls to her child at dusk; the second sound soft, for whispering secrets on pillows. Dee-nah.” (1)
Anita Diamont is not the only one who has tried to imagine Dinah’s role in her own story as being something more than mere victim of rape or passive pawn in the political machinations of the males. At least one biblical scholar also agrees that Dinah was not actually raped and actually fell in love with Shechem. But this doesn’t mean Dinah fell in love with her rapist. Since there is no specific word in Hebrew for “rape,” the word used in Genesis 34 really means something more general like “shame.” Lyn Bechtel argues that what happened between Dinah and Shechem was consensual but was considered illicit because they were not from the same “group” or tribe. This argument is supported by the last sentence of the story when her brothers Simeon and Levi say, “Has [Shechem] made our sister like a harlot?” Bechtel explains that a harlot is not a rape victim. Dinah has shamed her family not because she was raped but by being intimate with an uncircumcised man from another group—a shameful act of another kind. Hence, her brothers require circumcision of the Shechemites to retroactively right the wrong of her relationship with an uncircumcised man and an outsider. The circumcision of all the men of Shechem rectify that wrong by turning them instantly into members of the Israelite group (2).
But there are other interpretations and other wrongs to account for in this story–including the wrongs to the city of Shechem. At least that’s the case if we resist the idea that Simeon and Levi are the heroes of the story avenging their sister’s rape. And surely their extreme vengeance undercuts any suggestion of heroism, if not for the original readers then at least for readers today.
Even when the brothers say their intentions are to avenge their sister’s honor, the amped up, rash violence of Levi and Simeon’s response indicates no concern for Dinah. Levi and Simeon perhaps use their sister as a means to take over the city Shechem. It’s a power play, not a rescue. The drama around Levi and Simeon’s plot for vengeance has nothing to do with what Dinah wants. She is never consulted.
And the attack is excessive by any standards. Even if we take the story at face value and believe that Dinah was raped, is the murder of all the males in a city a fair response for the actions of one rapist? Does that purge improve her situation in any way? The enforced circumcision was presented as but never intended to be a genuinely religious act. It was instead part of a strategy to take and “rape” a city. We see here the harmful work of patriarchy— not only as it silences the voice of women but also as its control extends politically over another group of people. As often happens, religion (symbolized in this case by the religious rite of circumcision) is used to justify the control of bodies. Religion is also used to colonize and control another people’s resources. It’s an old story: God becomes an excuse for violence and domination. Levi and Simeon use their religion’s requirement for circumcision as a ruse—to weaken an opponent and seize their land.
Who WAS Dinah? That’s the question that propelled novelist Anita Diamont to write a novel. Dinah may seem to be merely an object to be owned and used by men. But we don’t have to be novelists to conclude that Dinah also assumed agency for her life. We are given this one fact about her: After her father bought land just outside the city of Shechem, she ventured into the city to meet “the women of the region.” The narrator doesn’t tell us if that action was considered a bold or improper or even dangerous decision. If it had been considered unwise, the narrator missed the opportunity to point that out. Nor do we know if her decision to pay a respectful visit to the women who already called this place home was appreciated by the Shechemites. What we can say about Dinah, using a neutral evaluation of the only action she takes in this story about her, is that she took initiative. The plot begins with her action, a solo, independent action. But after her one act, her own narrative loses sight of her. She fades away, and men take over her story.
For women, and men as well, a spiritual task for all God’s children is to fully inhabit our own stories, to take charge of the narratives we are living out every day of our lives, and as needed, to re-author our stories in healthy ways, which is an ongoing spiritual project.
We fail to be the persons God calls us to be . . .
when we let the world slap on convenient labels and wrest our stories from us,
when we become cogs of the machine,
when we perpetuate stereotypes,
when we disdain those not in our group,
when we despair and follow a script that writes us out or misrepresents us,
when we give up hope,
when we choose religion over God,
when we march to the mob’s tune rather than dance for God’s glory.
But if we trust in a loving God, follow the compassionate way of Jesus, adhere to the church’s only authentic purpose of bringing release to the captives and sight to the blind and giving ourselves away for Love alone. . . then we will may see the suffering of this world but will use that suffering to plumb to learn a deeper love.
Diamont’s novel imagines that Shechem HAD wooed and wed Dinah, much to her brothers’ disapproval. And after Shechem agreed to his own circumcision and that of all the men of the town, and while all the men and boys were recovering, Dinah wakes one night to her brothers’ swift slaughter of her beloved. Then the entire city erupts in scream after scream after scream as every man and boy is slaughtered — and all the women are covered in the blood of their sons and lovers. Imagine the trauma of knowing your own brothers committed this violence and the decimation of an entire city out of some pathologically patriarchal need to control your body.
That is what the novel The Red Tent dares to imagine. But the most daring act of the storyteller is to imagine a way forward for Dinah, who does survive in the novel–at first, just barely, in her grief. But she does survive, in part because over the years and far away in the land of Egypt, she continues to hear her mother’s voice calling her by her name, rooting her in her story, reminding her of who she was and remains: Dinah.
(1) Diamant, Anita. The Red Tent. New York: Picador USA, 1997.
(2) Bellis, Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Pp. 89-90. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press: 1994.