“The Rape of Dinah” is the dramatic heading given to Genesis 34 in many Christian and some Jewish sources. However, Torah scrolls don’t come with chapter headings (or chapters, for that matter). On the contrary, a close reading of the text tells us that the Shakespearean text that should be coming to mind as we read the passage in this week’s portion of Vayishlach is not The Rape of Lucrece but Romeo and Juliet.

Let’s take the term used in modern Hebrew for rape, oness. As far back as the Mishna (Ketubot ch. 3-4), oness meant compulsion, including but not limited to sexual intercourse without consent. However, this is not a word extant in the Hebrew of the Torah or the Prophets.

So what does the text say? Genesis 34:1-3 reads:

 ותצא דינה בת לאה אשר ילדה ליעקב לראות בבנות הארץ

Dinah daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see among the daughters of the land.
וירא אתה שכם בן חמור החוי נשיא הארץ ויקח אתה וישכב אתה ויענה

Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, slept with her and debased her.
ותדבק נפשו בדינה בת יעקב ויאהב את הנער וידבר על לב הנער

His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman, and he spoke tenderly to her.

Let’s examine these verses. Dinah is active in the verse, passive in the second (and thereafter), but does that mean that she is a victim? She goes out “to see among the daughters (bivnot) of the land,” and she is, in fact, seen. What happens next?

Some are chilled by “and he took her,” but this is the standard terminology for taking a mate. Of Isaac we read (24:67), “And he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.” Shechem may reverse the order, but he takes Dinah, loves her and wants to marry her in 34:4ff.

What about “slept with her”? Some point to the fact that the preposition used is “otah” rather than “imah,” indicating that Dinah was an object in this encounter. However, the two terms are used interchangeably, most notably perhaps in the case of the sota, the woman suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:13, 19). She has to swear that no man has slept with her (otah) willingly. 

This brings us to the third term, “debased her.” Many point to the passage of rape in Deuteronomy 22; verse 29 tells us that the rapist must pay the price “because he debased her (innah).” However, only five verses earlier, the Torah sets down the death penalty for willing adulterers: “the young woman because she did not cry out in the town, and the man because he debased another man’s wife.” So, while innui may be applied to rape, it is not a positive indication of it. After all, the Torah uses the same term for what Sarah does to Hagar (Gen. 16:6), as well as what the former’s descendants will undergo in the latter’s homeland (ibid. 15:13). On Yom Kippur, innui is what we are supposed to do to ourselves (Lev. 23:27-32), and the ani is a base person, in the original sense of the word: a person of humble origin or station.

Now we may understand the reaction of Shechem, his father and the people of their town. They do not expect retaliation because this is not a case of abduction and rape; it is a tryst which has become something more. This is why we find Shechem offering mohar (dowry), a term which only appears in one other place in the Torah: concerning the seduction of a virgin (Ex. 22:15-16). Indeed, though Dinah’s brothers view it as “an abomination (nevala) in Israel to sleep with Jacob’s daughter” and Jacob himself (as well as the third-person narrator) view it as defilement (tuma), the term innui is never mentioned again in the passage. On the contrary, Simeon and Levi are concerned that their sister will be regarded as a whore!

Rather, in order to find cases of biblical rape, we need to use keywords, those which serve the same role as oness in Mishnaic Hebrew. And we find them quite easily: the roots hazak (to grab) and tafas (to seize). We find them, invariably, in cases of forcible sexual encounters: the theoretical rapes of a virgin (Deut. 22:28), a betrothed girl (ibid. v. 25) or a married woman (Num. 5:13). We find it in actual cases: the concubine of Gibeah (Judges 19:25) and Tamar, daughter of King David (II Samuel 13:11, 14).

In fact, in the case of Tamar, we find exactly what we would expect: she pleads with her brother, Amnon, not to commit such an abominable act, but he overpowers her. Then, once he has committed his act of sexual violence, he casts her into the street.

So why does Dinah get the headlines? Partly, it’s because her story is in the Torah, so we read it annually (in the pre-Hanukka doldrums). More than that, I think there is a deeper psychological reason. If we make Dinah the prototypical rape victim, it puts our minds at ease: the pure Jewish girl is kidnapped by the vicious heathen. It’s the classic stranger-danger narrative. The case of Tamar is much more disturbing: she is raped by her own (step? half?) brother; in two-thirds of rapes, the attacker is an acquaintance or intimate. The greater peril is from within our communities, as crusading Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg revealed this week in a shocking article, “The Child-Rape Assembly Line.”

Why is it that we are all too willing to speak out for Dinah, but not for Tamar?