*Gender-Based Violence in the Bible, Part I: Jacob's Daughter Dinah

Violence has been part of human history since the beginning of time, long before writing was invented (some five thousand years ago). True, much of antiquity's violence was in warfare, just as it is in the modern period. But gender-based violence has arguably been around for just as long as warfare. In fact, some of the biblical narratives that are set in the earliest periods are about gender-based violence. One such narrative is Dinah's.

Dinah was Jacob's daughter, and her mother was Leah, Jacob's wife (Gen 34:1). Dinah's Aunt Rachel was also married to Jacob (Gen 29:28)....at the same time. Polygyny is well attested in the Bible. Dinah's maternal grandfather was Laban. Laban was the father of both Leah and Rachel. Thus, two sisters were married to the same man at the same time. During her early years, Dinah had always lived on her maternal grandfather's land in the region of Haran, along with her father, her mother, her Aunt Rachel, her mother's maidservant (Zilpah), her Aunt Rachel's maidservant (Bilhah), and all of her own siblings. There was occasionally some family drama, and sometimes it revolved around the woman that Jacob would be having conjugal relations with, be it Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, or Bilhah (e.g., Gen 30).

At one point, serious problems also developed between Dinah's father and her grandfather (and his sons), mostly having to do with family money, especially the livestock. It became severe. So Jacob and his wives and children hastily departed from Haran without so much as letting her Grandpa Laban know (Gen 30-31). Several days later, Dinah's Grandpa Laban arrived in hot pursuit. He was livid. There were some harsh words between Dinah's father and grandfather, but then there was a reconciliation of sorts (Gen 31:25-55). Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Jacob and his father-in-law were seemingly on good terms.

Jacob's clan set out again to travel, heading in the direction of Edom. Jacob's brother Esau lived in the region of Edom. So there were some concerns, especially on the part of Dinah's father Jacob. After all, Dinah's father and Uncle Esau had a serious falling out many years prior, and her Uncle Esau had then vowed to kill Jacob (Gen 27:42). Since Jacob was approaching Edom, he had sent messengers ahead in order to meet his brother Esau and to say that "Jacob has long been with Laban as an alien," a sojourner living in the region of Haran. And Jacob commanded his messengers also to tell Esau that he (Jacob) had "flocks, draft animals, and slaves" (implying that he would be happy to give some to Esau). That is, Jacob was hoping to placate Esau (Jacob must have thought that Esau might still be angry). Jacob's messengers soon returned. They said nothing except that Esau was heading Jacob's way...with four hundred men (Gen 32:5-6). Jacob was terrified. He divided his family, flocks, draft animals, and servants into two groups with the hope that even if Esau slaughtered one group, the other might perhaps survive (Gen 32:7-8). He also prayed and he sent a group of his servants to his brother Esau, bringing gifts (Gen 32:9-21). Soon the two estranged brothers came face to face. But the Bible describes Esau as gracious and kind, a man of forgiveness. No one would die. No harsh words were exchanged. Instead, Jacob and Esau hugged, and kissed, and wept (Gen 33:4-11). Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Dinah's father Jacob and her Uncle Esau were on good terms.

And Jacob's clan set out again to travel. Soon they arrived at the city of Shechem. Dinah's father purchased some property from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. Not long after this, Dinah decided that she wanted to see and talk with some of the local women. Here are the precise words of this passage: "Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had bore to Jacob, set out to see the daughters of the land" (Gen 34:1). But rather than sharing conversation and laughter with young women her age, a violent tragedy befell her. Shechem the son of Hamor, "the prince of the land," saw Dinah and "he took her and he raped her" (Gen 34:1-2).

I have heard some people attempt to suggest that this was consensual sex. It most certainly was not, and the Hebrew used in this passage makes that very clear. Namely, within this text, two verbs are used together (a grammatical usage called hendiadys) to convey the nature of the act, the first is the standard verb for "to lie with" (škb) and the second verb means "to do violence," "to degrade," "to humiliate" (the verb is the piel form of 'nh; just as also in 2 Sam 13:12; Judg 19:24; Lam 5:11). This was not consensual sex. This was rape. The text does state that Shechem "loved her" (Gen 34:3), but that doesn't change the fact that the Hebrew verbs used clearly convey that this was an act of violence and subjugation. Thus, regardless of how Shechem might have framed this in his own mind, the biblical writer says it was rape.

Dinah's father Jacob learned of the rape, and he was disturbed, but held his peace because his sons (and thus his protection) were out in the field. When Jacob's sons returned from the field and learned of the rape, they were indignant. But just as Jacob's sons were coming in from the fields, Shechem's father (Hamor) came to Jacob as well. Hamor was there because he said his son "desired," "was attracted to" (ḥšq) Dinah. Hamor told Dinah's father to set the "bride-price" (Hebrew: mohar) as high as he wished, and he would pay it (it was customary in this time-period for the groom's family to pay the bride's family a "bride-price" as part of the marriage agreement). Hamor's request is horrific (note the response of Dinah's brothers in this regard, therefore), but according to the Pentateuch, a rapist could make such a request (Deuteronomy 22:28-29; Exodus 22:16-17). And Dinah's father Jacob agreed to it, sadly.

In retaliation, two of Dinah's full-blooded brothers (Simeon and Levi) soon attack and kill the Shechemites (who are in pain because they had agreed to be circumcised), including Shechem himself and his father Hamor. Simeon and Levi then take their sister Dinah from Shechem's house (Gen 34:26). According to the narrator, Jacob reprimanded Simeon and Levi for this, because of his fear of retaliation from the Shechemites. Simeon and Levi reply "Should our sister be treated as a whore?" (Gen 34:30-31). Other than a reference in a genealogical list (Gen 46:15), Dinah is never mentioned again. The rest of her life story shall never be known. And in the entire narrative, Dinah's voice is silent. We always hear about her. We never once hear from her.

Antiquity and the Modern Period. Mary Ellsberg and Lori Heise have noted that although in the recent past (e.g., just a few decades ago) violence against women was not the subject of international attention or concern, it has now "come to be recognized as a legitimate human rights issue and as a significant threat to women's health and well-being (Researching Violence against Women, World Health Organization, 2005, 5). The fact that there is now much more focus on gender-based violence is such a good thing, so right, so important. Of course, the witness of Scripture (and this is one of the reasons for recounting Dinah's story here) is that gender-based violence is a very old problem. Someone might retort that there are many problems in the world. Yes, there are. And all of them must be solved. But this article is about gender-based violence against women...and its long history...so let's focus on eradicating gender-based violence in our time. It's the right thing to do.

*This article is the first in a series of articles on gender-based violence in the Bible.