The story of the capture and rape of Dina (Genesis 34) is troubling, to say the least. The reaction of her brothers compounds the situation, when they deceive the people of Shechem, and then kill Dina’s captors, along with the entire city, and plunder the spoils beyond that. It is not surprising that biblical commentators have questioned the moral fiber of Jacob’s sons — and even condemned them for it. Other commentators have, however, justified and even praised the brothers’ actions, though that seems shocking.
While it is easy to understand how the killings are morally reprehensible, there are those who do condone them. They suggest that perhaps the brothers had no other way to retrieve Dina from Shechem, given an understanding that the townspeople rallied to protect their leader. According to this interpretation, Simon and Levi were acting violently, yes, but their violent act was one of self-defense.
Another interpretation presents the entire town as complicit with the kidnapping and rape — perhaps even taking part in the abuse — to the extent that there was no untainted court of law to adjudicate the case. If so, the massacre may be understood to have been a preemptive strike — to ensure that the townspeople would not be able to take revenge on Dina’s brothers the moment they rescued her.
But Jacob the Patriarch admonishes the brothers, his sons, and declares that their brutality endangered the entire family: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land… my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed” (Genesis 34:30).
Jacob notably appears to have been more concerned with the fear of retaliation than he is with the moral question, but he distances himself from them with his rebuke, even many years later, on his death bed, when he also curses their anger: “Simeon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry, they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel (Gen. 49: 5-7).
Yet, Torah usually indicates displeasure by either explicit condemnation or through punishment, neither of which occurs here. Furthermore, both Shimon and Levi retain their status as (future) tribes with Levi becoming the “chosen one of God,” with priests and spiritual leaders as descendants, and Shimon’s offspring becoming the teachers of future generations.
The commentators grapple with this ambiguity, in their efforts to make sense of the biblical narrative. Targum Yonatan, for example, contends that the rape of Dina was egregious enough to warrant the response by her family. Had there been no reaction, all (including future readers) would have been troubled by her family’s docile lack of commensurate response.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch takes this idea a step further, arguing that Shechem chose Dina because he believed nobody would care to defend her, coming from Jacob’s camp, and his heinous act would have no repercussions for him. This arrogant cruelty, therefore, would have influenced Dina’s brothers. Were they to have remained passive, Shechem and his ilk might have taken even more liberties with the girls and women of Jacob’s camp. They could not risk that outcome.
Another commentator, Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, explains that Jacob’s sons had set out to defend the dignity of their father’s household, and they were willing to kill or be killed to insure that the terrible disgrace of their sister’s rape did not stand. Their moral stance, according to this view, is, of course, unimpugnable.
Given that these rationales for the brothers’ violence are potentially disturbing, the implications and, for that matter, practical applications (if there are any) of the approach demand consideration. Several events of the modern era seem to attest to the sagacity of the interpretive stream that allows for them.
The Holocaust, for example, is treated by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as a watershed event, in his famous essay, “Kol Dodi Dofek” (The Voice of My Beloved Knocks). He describes how, in contemporary times, God figuratively “knocks” on the door of the Jewish people, to indicate His return from a long exile. Rabbi Soloveitchik observes: “For the first time in the history of our exile, Divine Providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking, is not hefker!”
Isn’t this the position of Simon and Levi, so many years earlier? If we don’t defend ourselves, who will? Thus, the Jewish nation has the moral responsibility and right to defend itself, regardless of the world’s condemnation, if it comes.
Shaul Tchernichovsky, writing in Tel Aviv in 1936, applies the strength of Simon and Levi to the not-yet-Israeli pioneers. He rewrites Jacob’s assessment of the incident, as found in his blessing to his sons at the end of his life (and at the end of Genesis). Tchernichovsky recasts the curse in Jacob’s words as a blessing: “Shimon and Levi are brothers, noble is their sword coming from Greece… Blessed [in contrast to the biblical “cursed”] be their anger, for it is strong…. May there be many like them in Israel and in all of the Diaspora. May God bless their might and be happy with their actions.” Where Jacob seems to want to reduce the show of physical force, Tchernichovsky seems to want more of them.
But even Jacob’s original words entrench the strength of Simon and Levi among the Jewish people, given the dispersal of these two tribes (for Simon in the division of land; in Levi, by removing them from the land altogether) among the other tribes. On the one hand, their zeal is thereby diluted amongst the other tribes. On the other hand, as the Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) posits, dispersing the descendants of Simon and Levi among the other tribes means that each locale is populated by at least some who have the courage and ability to stand up and be counted, if the need arises.
In truth, there is no need for all these explanations because the answer appears in the text itself, when Simon and Levi brazenly respond to their father: “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?”
With that the story ends.
Perhaps Jacob and his sons disagreed fundamentally. Recall that Jacob’s own brother had sought the patriarch in his wrath; did that experience drive this father’s commitment to showing restraint, to be an ambassador of peace? His sons instead pursued action. To prevent the debasement of the family, indeed the fledgling nation, they perceived bold and violent steps to be required. And indeed, their preemptive strike reminded all that their group of people should not be trifled with.
For Shimon and Levi, it was a time for war. They acted on the courage of their convictions that right should triumph. In history, others have done the same: President Truman, in his decision to drop the atomic bomb – thereby ending the carnage of World War II; or, in the early days of the State of Israel, Ariel Sharon and the retaliatory attacks on Arab settlements by his legendary Brigade 101, which quickly quelled the deadly Arab marauders. For all that these instances wrought devastation for some, the motive for them was not the offensive of conquest or vengeance, but defense: deterrence, and lasting peace.
Simon and Levi saw their killing acts as necessary, in order to prevent future atrocities. For them, anything less, a more moderate response, would have meant tolerating Shechem’s turning their sister Dina into a harlot.