Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yishlah 5766/ December 17, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




Dinah in Shechem or, the Trials of Assimilation


Menaham Ben-Yashar


Department of Bible


The Dinah affair is the first major saga in Jacob’s household after his return to the land of Canaan.   It is also the first story that deals specifically with Jacob’s children, with a generation almost all of whom were born in exile, in a foreign land, in the household of Laban in Haran.

The transition from individual patriarchs to a large clan entails a certain challenge:  how is the family to grow and become numerous without assimilating into the Canaanite population living in the land?  The Dinah affair and the story of Judah and Tamar in chapter 38 deal with assimilation.  So too does the isolated remark in the list of genealogies:   “and Saul the son of a Canaanite woman” (Gen. 46:10).  The Joseph story marks the solution to the problem, for Abraham had been told in the Covenant of the Pieces (Gen. 15:13-15) that his offspring would go down to Egypt, where they would live in exile, oppressed and enslaved, and there they would not be able to become assimilated.  Afterwards they would return to the land of Canaan as a mighty people, capable of conquering the land and populating it.

Permanent Residents

The last few verses of chapter 33 foretell the disaster that will happen in chapter 34.  As Jacob approached the border of Canaan, after having been delivered from Esau, he built himself a house and stalls (sukkot) (Gen. 33:17), things which characterize permanent settlement, in contrast to Abraham and Isaac who lived the nomadic life of shepherds, roaming the land to its length and width (Gen. 13:14-17).  What caused Jacob to delay [1] his return to his father’s house (actually, tent)?   Did he think that perhaps the time had come to begin taking possession of the land?   Or did he simply wish to have some respite after his hardships in Laban’s house and after his encounter with his brother Esau?

A second characteristic of permanent settlement was the purchase of a plot of land near the city of Shechem.  Again, Abraham and Isaac lived a nomadic life and had not purchased land, save for a burial place (ch. 27) which would give their offspring, enslaved in Egypt, a tie to the patriarchal burial place in the land of Canaan. [2]

Living on that plot of land leads to the tragedy that follows:  the family has to do with the neighbors, the daughter goes to befriend the local girls of the land, and this foreign girl with no rights falls easy prey to the prince, son of the ruler of the city.  This marks the beginning of assimilation; and as is the way with a process, first it begins with forced acts imposed by the majority and then continues with actions freely taken by the minority, as in Judah’s marriage to the daughter of Shua.

Hence the fury felt by Dinah’s brothers over their sister having been abducted and abused:  it was both a humiliating act by outsiders, and an affront to the family honor, as well as a violation of the principle of not meddling with a local population; all this was in addition to the violence with which their sister was attacked.



Playing Politics

Jacob’s family, however, could not imagine that the father (Hamor) was as wily as his son was lustful; the father artfully presented his son’s misdeed as a political issue, and proposed a diplomatic marriage between the son of the local potentate and the daughter of the wealthy and respectable head of clan. If all went right, this marriage would be a favorable precedent for amalgamation of the two populations and for  accommodation between the farmers of Shechem and the shepherds of Jacob’s household, to their mutual benefit.

Using negative psychology, the sons of Jacob chose to overcome the threat of acculturation with the native population precisely by accepting the proposal to assimilate, but adding the condition that the men be circumcised – a hurdle that would cause the deal to fall through.   When Jacob’s sons made this condition, “speaking with guile” (Gen. 34:13), in their father’s presence and perhaps even with his consent, they probably did not intend from the outset to kill all the males in the city.  They may have thought that the men of the city would not accept this condition, and so the deal would not go through, and Dinah would be released and returned home. [3]   The condition that they be circumcised was designed to be helpful to them even if the men of Shechem did agree to it, because if the lustful prince himself were circumcised, he would not be able in the meantime to continue defiling Dinah – in the meantime, that is, until some other solution be found.  It appears that Jacob’s sons were considering a violent solution only in the eventuality that the men of Shechem would indeed agree to be circumcised.

Dilplomatic Negotiations

And that is just what happened.   The ruler of the land again showed surprising diplomatic acumen, and presented the terms of the proposed treaty to both sides in such a way that each side thought it was the main party to benefit from the partnership. [4]   The advantage of the treaty for Jacob’s family was clear:  from the status of aliens devoid of all rights, as the Dinah affair proved them to be, they would become citizens. As for his own people, Hamor summarized the deal to the men of Shechem as follows:  “Their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours” (Gen. 34:23), [5] if only the people of Shechem fulfill the trivial request, “that all our males become circumcised as they are circumcised” (Gen. 34:22).   “As they are circumcised” explains the reason for this stipulation – this is the price to be paid for all the benefit that the partnership holds for the people of Shechem.   This statement is also phrased in such a way as to belittle the price of the partnership:   look, they successfully undergo this procedure, and they are strong and healthy, so it is not such a terrible thing to do.  The fear that they would lose their ethnic distinction (circumcised vs. uncircumcised) Hamor eliminated by having himself circumcised first, “Now he was the most respected in his father’s house” (Gen. 34:19). [6]   However, the only thing Hamor did not tell his loyal subjects was the real motivation to enter into the deal: the carnal lust of the prince, and the material lust of the city folk, together with concession out of foolhardiness, led to their bitter end.

Father and Sons

The chapter concludes not with cheers of victory, rejoicing in revenge and destruction of the wicked, nor with confession and remorse over the slaughter of a population that did not deserve to die, [7] even if they had been guilty of silent complicity in a disgraceful act. [8]   The dialogue between Jacob and his sons at the end of the story (Gen. 34:30-31) reflects the wavering we ourselves feel when we attempt to sum up what happened. [9]   It appears to be a conversation on different wavelengths:  Jacob, the head of the family and responsible for its survival, makes a pragmatic argument:  “My men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”  The hot-headed youngsters, in contrast, answer him in terms of moral principle:   “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

One need not necessarily see a disparity between the things said by the father and his sons.   The beginning of the father’s remarks – “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land” – has a moral undertone, and the continuation of what he says – “if ... they attack me, ...” – could be taken as the consequence, as a sort of punishment, for the immorality of the massacre.  Also, one can see a pragmatic aspect in the response by Simeon and Levi:   to the father’s argument, that only by being restrained and keeping a low profile can we survive among the local inhabitants, they respond:  in this way we will be humiliated in their eyes and will be fair game for them; indeed, they treated our sister like a whore and will continue to treat us with disregard. [10]   Only if we forcefully avenge every wrong done to us will we be able to live amongst them with honor.

The Torah ostensibly justifies the sons’ argument in the text that follows:  “As they set out, a terror from G-d fell on the cities round about, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob” (Gen. 35:5).  However, had the sons of Jacob not slaughtered all the men of Shechem, would there have been any need for that “terror from G-d”?   Ralbag attempts to condone, or at least comprehend, the massacre as an act of self-defense:   had they let the men of Shechem live, then after recovering from their circumcision they would have pursued the sons of Jacob in order to bring Dinah back to their city and in order to take vengeance on Jacob’s household for the disgrace of tricking them. [11]



Deathbed Rebuke

Close on to the act was not an opportune time for Jacob to reprove his sons: the Talmud teaches that just as a person is commanded to speak out and be heard, so too, one is commanded not to speak when clearly his words will not be heeded. [12]   When their injured sister lay there before their eyes, the brothers were in no state to listen to words of reproof.  In contrast, when their father was on his death-bed they were attuned to hear his words; and it was then that Jacob rebuked the pair of brothers, Simeon and Levi (Gen. 49:5), brothers to Dinah and brothers in sharing the same plan, “for when angry they slay men” (Gen. 49:6) – in Shechem, in fury at Shechem for having mistreated their sister.  But it is also “when pleased,” once their fury had been allayed by revenge and they were in a pacified mood, [13] even then “they maim oxen” [14] and plunder.

Thus, in his parting words to his sons while in exile in Egypt, where his family had gone to prevent becoming assimilated, the elderly father came full circle, speaking of what began in Shechem, when the first threat of assimilation faced them in the land of Canaan.


[1] According to Genesis Rabbah 78.16, cited by Rashi on this verse:   eighteen months.

[2] In the end, the plot of land purchased by Jacob also became a burial ground – for Joseph (Josh. 24:32).  Such is the hand of Providence, but it appears that Jacob did not intend this at the time of purchase.

[3] So Nahmanides on Gen. 34:13, and Ralbag in his seventh moral lesson (“To’elet”) on this week’s reading.  Y. Fleischmann, “Heibetim Hevratiyim u-Mishpatiyim be-Parashat Shechem ve-Dinah [Gen. 34],” Shenaton le-Mikra u-le-Heker ha-Mizrah ha-Kadum 13, Jerusalem 2002, pp. 141-156, is of the opinion that Jacob did not agree to this plan of deceit and, having no choice, agreed to Dinah’s marriage to Shechem, provided he become circumcised, all in order to prevent a dangerous confrontation.  I do not see that this follows from this week’s reading and from Genesis 49:5-7, where Jacob berates the collective and exaggerated violence but does not voice any consent to marriage with a gentile.  See too Judges 21:20-22:   first abduction of the daughters, then a fight with their families, and the way to appeasing them.

[4] Cf. Rashi on Gen. 33:16, 34:21, and Nehamah Leibowitz, Studies in Genesis (Heb.), pp. 265-267.

[5] The irony is that in the end the opposite happened, and all the wealth of the people of Shechem was taken by the sons of Jacob (Gen. 34:28-29).   Genesis Rabbah on our parasha ( 80,8 )expresses this in a saying: “they thought to cheat (Jacob and his sons) and were cheated”.

[6] This is assuming that the verse, “and the youth lost no time in doing the thing” (Gen. 34:19), refers to circumcision, as Abarbanel suggests in his alternative (although in his eyes, primary) explanation of the verse.   The same interpretation is given by Rabbi D. Z. Hoffman, and the same follows from Sforno’s interpretation of the verse. 

[7] Nahmanides (on Gen. 34:13), rejects Maimonides’ opinion (Hilkhot Melakhim 9.14) that the people of Shechem, as descendants of Noah, were subject to death for not having brought the rapist to justice.

[8] Since Shechem saw and took Dinah when she (and he!) had gone out to “visit the daughters of the land” (Gen. 34:1), there had been many witnesses to the abduction.

[9] On the ambivalence in the moral assessment, see G. Sarna, “The Co-Divine Reader:   Religious Responses to an Open Bible,” Nahala 2, 2000, pp. 15-36.

[10] Genesis Rabbah 80, to the end, can be understood as leaning in this direction.

[11] Ralbag, in his commentary on verse 31, assumes that only the youngster, Shechem, deserved to be killed, but then the men of the city would have sought to avenge his death; therefore the brothers took pre-emptive action and killed them all.

[12] Cf. Yevamot 65b and parallel texts.

[13] I have interpreted ratzon, “when pleased,” according to the classic biblical reading of finding favor; ratzon also appears in contraposition to af, “fury,” in Psalms 30:6.

[14] 14