Parshat Vayishlach: The abduction of Dina

“And Dina the daughter of Leya who she had born to Yaakov went out to observe the daughters of the land.” (Beresheit 34:1)

This pasuk begins the Torah’s account of the abduction of Dina – Yaakov’s daughter – by Shechem and her subsequent rescue by her brothers. Although this account is dramatic and engaging, the reason that it is included in the Torah is not completely clear. In general, Sefer Beresheit and Sefer Shemot provide an outline of Hashem’s providence over humanity and Bnai Yisrael. The account of Dina’s abduction and rescue does not seem to conform or be relevant to this theme. In order to understand the reasons for the inclusion of this account in the Torah, let us begin by considering the incident more carefully.

“And they said to them, “We are unable to do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for it is a disgrace to us. But in this manner we can agree to you – if you will be like us, to circumcise every male among you. Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters unto us. And we will dwell with you and be one nation.” (Beresheit 34:14-15)

Dina, Yaakov’s daughter, is abducted and violated by Shechem, who is a prince among his people. Shechem falls in love with Dina, and, accompanied by his father Chamor, he requests of Yaakov and his sons permission to marry her. The brothers respond that they will not allow Dina to marry an uncircumcised person. If Shechem, his father and all of the males of the city will circumcise themselves, then the children of Yaakov will agree to the marriage. Furthermore, they will join with the citizens of the city as one nation.

Shechem, Chamor and the inhabitants of the city agree, and they perform the circumcisions. Three days later, while the men of the city were recovering, Shimon and Leyve, two of Yaakov’s sons, enter the city and kill all of the males. They rescued Dina and eliminated all those who might attempt to oppose their decision.

This incident raises a number of questions. Let’s focus on two of these problems. First, the offer that Yaakov’s sons made to Shechem and Chamor seems somewhat odd. Shechem had kidnapped and raped their sister. Are we to assume that they were willing to allow Shechem – Dina’s assailant – to marry their sister? It is remarkable that they would allow such a union under any circumstances!

Second, whatever their motives, the sons of Yaakov did agree to a bargain. It seems that the conditions of this bargain were met. Shechem, his father and the citizens performed circumcision. Why did Shimon and Leyve kill the males of the city? Why were Yaakov’s sons not satisfied with the response of Shechem, Chamor, and the inhabitants of the city? They had fulfilled the condition demanded by Yaakov’s sons?

“And the sons of Yaakov answered Shechem and Chamor his father with wisdom and they said – because he had defiled Dina their sister.” (Beresheit 34:13)

Sforno answers both of these questions. In order to understand his response, we must begin with the passage above. This pasuk immediately precedes their response. There are two problems with this pasuk. First, the pasuk does not clearly state that the sons of Yaakov answered with wisdom. The term used in the Hebrew text is somewhat ambiguous. In the Hebrew text, the Chumash explains that they responded with mirmah. Rashi – based on Unkelus – translates this term to mean “wisdom.”[1] However, the term mirmah often indicated trickery or deviousness. Sforno and many others seem to suggest that there was an element of deviousness in their response. What was this element of deviousness?

Second, the pasuk is difficult to follow. The pasuk begins by telling us that Yaakov’s sons responded with wisdom or deviousness. Then – before outlining the actual response – the pasuk adds that they were motivated by the consideration that Shechem had defiled their sister. How did this consideration influence and shape their response?

Sforno explains that their primary consideration in formulating their response was Shechem’s violation of their sister. Because of Shechem’s actions, they were completely unwilling to consider a marriage between Shechem and Dina. However, they did not feel that they could reject Shechem’s overtures outright. They concluded that an outright rejection would be dismissed by Shechem and Chamor, and they would merely do as they pleased with Dina. Therefore, Yaakov’s sons decided that they must at least create the appearance of being willing to accept some sort of settlement. But at not point were they actually willing to allow Shechem to marry Dina. This was the element of deviousness in there response. They were not attempting to negotiate a solution that would actually be acceptable to all parties. Instead, they were formulating an offer that they never imagined would be accepted. They assumed that their offer would be rejected and they would then demand Dinah’s return.[2]

To the surprise of Yaakov’s sons, their offer was accepted. This created an unexpected situation. They had never actually considered as an option Dina’s marriage to Shechem. We can now understand their response to this situation. Once it became clear that Shechem would go to remarkable lengths to secure Dina as a wife, they had no choice other than to rescue her through force and eliminate all opposition to their efforts. They entered the city, killed the male inhabitants, and rescued their sister.

“And Yaakov said to Shimon and Leyve, “You have stained me through making me despicable to the people of the land – the Canaanites and the Prezites. And my people are few in number. And they will gather against me and strike me and destroy me and my household.” (Beresheit 34:30)

In our pasuk, Yaakov condemns the actions of his sons. The sons defend their behavior. They argue that they could not allow their sister to be treated as a prostitute. This dispute is difficult to understand. Yaakov was present when the brothers presented their proposal of circumcision. He certainly knew that circumcision would not change the moral character of Shechem, Chamor and their people. He must have suspected that the brothers had some hidden plan. Yet, when this plan was executed Yaakov protested! What was his dispute between Yaakov and his sons?

As explained above, Yaakov and his sons felt that it would be tragic to give Dinah to Shechem. They had never expected this outcome. However, at this point Yaakov and his sons were faced with the consequences of the bargain. Yaakov maintained that they must accept these unfortunate results and give Dinah to Shechem in marriage.

We can now understand the dispute between Yaakov and his sons. According to Sforno Yaakov made two points. He argued that Shimon and Leyve had endangered all of Bnai Yisrael. They were a minority group in the land of Canaan. The other people of the land would identify with the Shechem, Chamor and their people. They would seek to avenge this wrong committed by his sons. Yaakov and his children could not defend themselves from such an attack.

However, this was not Yaakov’s whole argument. Yaakov and his sons had violated their bargain. This disturbed Yaakov. The people of Canaan would conclude that Yaakov and his sons were dishonest. This would reflect poorly on their morality and ultimately on Hashem.

What was the response of Shimon and Leyve? According to Sforno, they disputed both of Yaakov’s arguments. They maintained that the people of Canaan were not so immoral as to condone the behavior of Shechem. They would recognize the right of Yaakov and his sons to rescue Dinah. Finally, they would understand the necessity of using subterfuge. Shechem, Chamor and their people outnumbered Yaakov and his sons. They could not rescue their sister without first disabling her captors. Bnai Yisrael would not be condemned for acting unethically. Neither were they in danger of retribution.[3]

Before returning to our original question, let us summarize the Sforno’s position. Yaakov’s sons never considered as an option allowing a marriage between their sister and Shechem. When confronted with the acquiescence of Shechem, Chamor, and the inhabitants of the city to their offer, they reacted by rescuing Dina by force. Yaakov disapproved. He felt his sons had shamed their family and endangered them. His sons disagreed. They argued that the people of the land would understand and sympathize with their actions.

This incident precedes the Torah’s account of the conflict between Yosef and his brothers. That conflict led to the exile of Bnai Yisrael to Egypt. If we understand Sefer Beresheit as an account of Hashem’s providence over Bnai Yisrael, there is an implied relationship between this incident and the eventual exile of Bnai Yisrael. What is this connection?

Before Bnai Yisrael would be prepared to posses the land of Israel, the family of Yaakov would need to grow into a nation. However, it is difficult for a family to develop into a distinct nation. A single isolated family is subject to tremendous pressure to assimilate into the surrounding nation and culture. Yaakov’s children would be faced with this pressure. How could they resist this pressure to assimilate into the surrounding peoples?

This assimilation could only be avoided if Yaakov’s children would see themselves as separate and different from the surrounding peoples. But the debate that Sforno describes between Yaakov and his children suggests that they did not see themselves as an alien family in the land of Canaan. They believed that the people of Canaan had accepted them as their own and would respect the measures they had taken to protect their interests. Perhaps, this attitude suggests that the environment for assimilation already existed.

This conclusion has important implications. If an environment for assimilation already existed in Canaan, then the family of Yaakov could only develop into the nation of Bnai Yisrael in another land – a land in which they would not be permitted to assimilate. Egypt was such a land. The Egyptians could not accept Bnai Yisrael – even Yosef – as their equals. In the environment of Egypt, assimilation would be impossible.

We can new identify a possible reason for the inclusion of this account in the Torah. These events were relevant to the unfolding of Hashem’s providence. Perhaps, the attitude of Yaakov’s sons to the people of Canaan is one of the factors that dictated that the exile in Egypt was necessary!

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 34:13.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:13.

[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:30-31.