Monday, July 09, 2012

Women of the OT: Dinah

The dramatic story of Dinah is one where hermeneutics will have much to say for our understanding of what really happened. First, let us begin with the narrative as we find it in New Jerusalem Bible translation.

Dinah is the daughter of Jacob. We read in Genesis chapter 34 that Dinah went out to visit some of the women of the region, but the story suddenly takes a dramatic turn as Shechem meets Dinah:

‘Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, headman of the region, saw her, seized her and forced her to sleep with him. He was captivated by Dinah daughter of Jacob; he fell in love with the girl and tried to win her heart.’ (Gn. 34.2-3, NJB)

Shechem then wanted to marry the girl, but as the brothers of Dinah heard of this, they laid plans to betray him, saying that in order to accept the marriage, he and all his men need to be circumcised. On the third day, still suffering from the circumcision, two of the brothers of Dinah, Simeon and Levi, slaughtered all the men in the town, and ‘they took all their children and wives captive and looted everything to be found in the houses’ (Gn 34.29). When Jacob opposed to his sons, seeing that they had jeopardised the relation to the peoples in the region, Simeon and Levi answered: ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’ (v. 31)

The story is often interpreted as being about the relation between Israel and the surrounding peoples, and the Israelites’ attempt to establish social boundaries for marriage. In this view, the main concern in the relation between Shechem and Dinah is more a question of formally social acceptance than of violation. Since sexual intercourse should only find place within the marital bonding, it is shameful for an unmarried woman like Dinah to have sex. We end up with a story about an inner conflict in Israel, where we find on one side those who advocate an inclusive perspective to the surrounding people where mutual respect, cooperation and bonding is advocated (represented by Jacob and Dinah herself -- the fact that Dinah stays in the house of Shechem may indicate that she freely chooses to stay with him (v. 29)). On the other side, we find separatist tendencies which fight against intermarriage by all means, as the dramatic outcome of the story shows.

It may all sound plausible, but the key question remains: What really happened in the first contact between Shechem and Dinah? The interpretation we have presented seems to tone down the violation committed against Dinah to a degree where this is no longer the real issue. Against such an interpretation, Susanne Scholz, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology, US, presents an alternative interpretation with a closer reading of the first verses of chapter 34. Here it is no longer a question of various viewpoints on intermarriage among the Israelites. It is a story about a rape.

In an article called ‘What “Really” Happened to Dinah’ (see link below), Scholz analyses closely the Hebrew language which brings her to a very different way of expressing the original text. Here, we do not find the ambiguity that might be read into the first translation we have looked at. After Shechem has seen Dinah, the story continues:

And he took her, and he laid her, and he raped her,
And he stayed close to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob,
and he lusted after the young woman,
and he tried to soothe her.
(Gn. 34.2-3, translated by Susanne Scholz)

Here, we are confronted with a story of a raw and brutal rape, followed by desire, lust and an attempt at manipulation, where the rapist finally forces her to stay in his house. The following story is then a response to the injustice committed to Dinah, and the radical revenge underlines the severity of the initial crime. Shechem cannot buy his way out of the rape he has committed, and the brothers argue that if they accept the marriage, Dinah will be treated like a whore.

There is no time to go further into the various arguments for the different interpretations. But I believe we should reflect on one aspect that is just as relevant in our contemporary time that it is in this story: it is remarkable to observe how easy we turn our focus from the initial violation that sets of this story, turning the assault into something hardly significant at all. Even in the first translation, an injustice has definitely been committed. Still, we lose sight of the story of Dinah, forgetting what she has gone through, and when we try to bring her back in the front of the narrative, there seems to be many creative arguments opposing to it, both by biblical scholars and by ourselves.

We find the same when it comes to the question of rape in our time. A recently released survey (see link below) reveals dramatic figures: statistics shows that one in 20 women in England and Wales say they have been raped at least once since they were 16. Now, the interesting thing is that this shockingly high number of violation is often met with the question: ‘Yes, but this is surely not only street assaults?’ No, the report shows that most attacks have been carried out in their home by someone they knew. Nearly half of the rapes involved a husband or boyfriend. And so what? A rape is an extreme violation of basic human rights, no matter how, no matter who. There is reason to raise a warning to a tendency which undermines the dignity of the women and of humanity. The narratives of such situations found in story of Dinah may help us to reflect critically on a culture that too easily accepts this kind of injustice in our society.

Susanne Scholz: ‘What “Really” Happened to Dinah’

DailyMail article 7th July 2012: One in 20 women are rape victims


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Br Haavar, for a really thoughtful and relevant post (as is customary for this blog :-).

Rape is such a huge issue to be confronted in our society today. Marital rape has only been illegal in this country since 1991 and too many people still think that being in a relationship with someone somehow 'entitles' them to sex whenever they want.

Thank you for addressing the topic in a reasoned way and showing us how the Old Testament stories apply to us.

9/7/12 4:35 pm  
Blogger Gregory said...

I'm honestly a bit surprised that there are interpretations of this passage that downplay or deny the rape aspect of the story. I'm not usually one to go for a "feminist" reading of Scripture, but Susanne Scholz is absolutely right!

I was wondering why you friars skipped over Rebekah in your treatment of the women of the Bible? I myself derived great meaning from St. Louis de Montfort's allegorical interpretation of that story in his Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and was hoping for an erudite article on the beautiful bride of Isaac in light of the Marian significance, as well as her impact on the Judeo-Christian belief that a bride must freely choose to marry her husband.

12/7/12 5:19 am  

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