Israel Drazin

A ‘new’ look at the biblical Dinah story

Dinah is the only daughter of the patriarch Jacob mentioned in the Torah. Her story is mentioned in Genesis 34. Readers, rabbis, scholars, and laypersons differ in how they interpret the story. Some blame Dina for what transpired. Others criticize her parents for allowing her to wander among evil people. But some people think Dinah and her parents acted properly. Her birth is mentioned in 30:21. No notice is given of other daughters of Jacob in the Bible or why she was called Dinah. The following tells her tale and shows some of the obscure passages. 

  • Dinah is spelled with a final H to correspond to the Hebrew, which needed the similar letter hay. Since ancient Hebrew had no vowels, if Dinah lacked the hay, it would have been read as Din, which in Hebrew means “law.” Even with the hay, the root of Jacob’s daughter’s name is still din, “law, an ironic name for a woman who suffered what many consider an illegal rape.
  • The Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 60, quoted by Rashi, has the legend that Dinah’s mother, Leah, Jacob’s wife, was bothered when she realized she was pregnant with a seventh child. She “knew” that her husband Jacob would have twelve sons. If she bore a son and the two maidservants of Jacob bore him two sons each, her sister Rachel would only have a single son, less than the maids. So she prayed, and the child in her womb turned male to female. Why did some rabbis feel the need to invent this tale? Is it a parable with a lesson?
  • The Torah seems to indicate that Jacob had more than one daughter. Verse 46:15 states Leah’s “sons and daughters,” both plural. So too, does 37:35 have the plural Jacob’s “daughters.” Rashi mentions a rabbi’s opinion that each of Jacob’s sons was born with a twin sister in his commentary to 37:35. Why is only Dinah mentioned? Is this an example of the Torah reflecting the demeaning attitude of men to women in all cultures when the Torah was given to the Jewish people? Is the Torah challenging readers to notice this and treat women properly?
  • Among other legends, Midrash Genesis Rabbah 19:12 imagines that Dinah married the biblical “perfect man” Job after the affair in Genesis 34. Why did a rabbi feel a need to tell this tale? Is it to teach a moral? Is the moral that, assuming Dinah acted improperly, we need to forgive people, including women, and treat them well after they realize their mistakes?
  • Genesis 34 begins by stating, “Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to look at the daughters of the land.” Rashi, basing his view on that of ancient rabbis, criticizes her for doing this.
  • Shechem, a Hivite prince saw her. ”took her, lay with her, and humbled her.” Following the methodology of Rabbi Akiva that the Torah has no repetitions. Genesis Rabbah and Rashi say “lay” is regular sex, and “humbled” indicates another activity, like anal sex or rape. They do not tell which came first nor Dinah’s reaction.
  • The Torah is silent on where Dinah is during the following negotiations. But later, in 34:26, we read that Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house. Was she there voluntarily? Did she leave voluntarily?
  • Despite the interpretation that Shechem acted cruelly during his initial encounter with Dinah, the text does not clearly state this. The text, like every other verse in scripture, is obscure.[1] He may have seduced her, or the two voluntarily engaged in sex.
  • When we are told that the act humbled Dinah, it could mean that she humiliated and demeaned herself by her behavior.
  • Shechem falls in love with Dinah seemingly immediately. Does he do so because of how Dinah acts? Does she show love to Shechem?
  • He “spoke lovingly” to her. He begged his father to arrange his marriage to her. No one asks her opinion now or later. Why does no one speak to her? Why doesn’t the Torah reveal her feelings? Is her feeling irrelevant to the message the Torah wants us to draw from the affair?
  • We are told Jacob heard that “he had defiled his daughter Dinah.” How was she “defiled”?
  • His sons were not at home when Jacob heard, and he was silent until they returned home. Why was he silent? What was he thinking? Why was he silent during the negotiations that followed? The Torah does not say why he did not speak until he criticizes his two sons for their behavior.
  • When the sons returned home, unlike their father, they were not silent. They were “furious.”
  • They said, “he wrought a vile deed in Israel.” This is a seemingly strange remark. The family was not, at this time, the nation of Israel.
  • Shechem’s father begs the family to allow his son to marry Dinah. He offers to ally with Jacob’s family and his people.
  • Shechem joined in the petition.
  • Jacob continued to be silent.
  • The sons agreed to the proposal, including the alliance, on the condition that all males under Shechem’s father circumcise themselves. How and why does circumcision solve the problem of Dinah’s sex and the coalition?
  • Shechem, his father, and all the men under them agree. They circumcise themselves.
  • On the third day following the circumcision, when they were immobilized, Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi from their mother Leah attacked the city and killed every male. Weren’t many of these murdered men innocent? We noted in the past that the Torah usually exaggerates when it states that Moses spoke to “all” the people. Should we understand that they only killed men somehow involved in what they considered an abduction?
  • They took the possessions of the city, all their wealth, all their cattle, their wives, and children. Why did they do this? What did they do to the wives and children?
  • Why did only two brothers act?
  • When Jacob heard what they did, he finally spoke. He complained that he was troubled. He feared that the Canaanites, Perizzites, and others would take revenge for the brothers’ act and destroy his family.
  • Was his reaction after his long silence sensible?
  • Was he acting appropriately by never forgiving them for what they did? He was angry until he died. He cursed the two brothers at the end of his life in Genesis 49:5-7.
  • “And they said, ‘Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?’”
  • Why does the Torah tell us this story? What should we learn from it? One obvious lesson is that we should sensitize ourselves to realize that Bible tales are not simple. They are designed to make us think and improve.
  • It warns readers to teach children to choose friends carefully.
  • Also, be careful. What may appear to be a simple misunderstanding can metastasize and destroy family relationships.
  • And it makes us aware and disturbed by Dinah’s and Jacob’s silences and makes us realize not to be silent about women’s issues and wrongs that occur.

[1] This is the first time that I said that “every” biblical verse is obscure. At this moment, I believe it. I cannot think of a statement that is not subject to interpretation. I think that every biblical statement is designed to make us think and improve ourselves and society.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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