Once upon a time I was a full-time student of theology. I got my degree from the beautiful and beloved University of St Andrews, a place so charming that theologians are referred to as ‘Divines’.
I really enjoyed my degree, but my favourite part was working on my dissertation. For those of you unfamiliar with a dissertation, it’s essentially a final-year project that undergraduates produce. Usually, a student is allowed to choose the subject area that they want to focus on, they’re provided with a member of staff who is familiar with that subject area to be their supervisor, they write a question, and then they write a dissertation (10,000+ words) to answer the question.
A good way to get a final-year student talking is to ask them about their dissertation topic, why they chose it, and what they’ve been learning. Most people can talk for a really long time about their area of interest, and I’m no exception, even 5 years later.
However, the response of those who ask me, once I tell them what I wrote about, is usually something along the lines of, “What? Why?” For my topic was Genesis 34, which tells the story of the rape of Dinah. Not many things make me sadder than those who know the Bible well, but don’t remember who Dinah is, or what happened to her. I realise that that’s fairly standard, because she’s not mentioned very much, but having read and written so much about her I feel weirdly close to her, and it makes me sad that her story passes so many people by. So, for this week’s Feminine Friday I thought that I would like to tell you a bit about her.
Dinah, Genesis tells us, was the daughter of Jacob and his first wife, Leah. She’s the only daughter, amongst 12 sons, and other than her birth, and her rape, there is no other time that she is spoken of.
Daughters weren’t highly valued in the culture to which Dinah belonged. Women, in general, had little value, aside from providing sons, so a daughter was worth something to her own family as she was married off, and then to her husband’s family, as long as she produced sons. It’s pretty depressing to think that that is still the status of lots of women across the world (but that really is a post for another day).
Leah was, of course, Jacob’s ‘unloved’ wife. He wanted to marry her younger and prettier sister, Rachel, but was tricked into marrying Leah by their scheming father, Laban. Eventually he is able to marry Rachel as well, and we’re told, in Genesis 29, that Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah”, but that God, seeing that Leah was unloved, gave her children to bring her some joy. She had six sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun, and then a daughter, Dinah.
When Dinah grows up she gets her second and final mention, in chapter 34. It’s not stated how old she is, but we can guess that she was possibly in her mid-teens, and one day she left her family camp to go out and ‘see the women of the land’. A local prince, Shechem, sees her, grabs her and rapes her. What it says in Hebrew is translated as ‘seized her, lay with her, and humiliated her’, but a more accurate way of reading it would be to say ‘he seized her, lay her, and humiliated her’. Dinah is an object to be used.
After he rapes her Shechem apparently falls for her, and decides that he would like to marry Dinah, so he goes to his father with a demand: “Get me this girl for my wife.” Jacob, her father, agrees, but her brothers, Simeon and Levi, are furious, and hatch a plot to get revenge. They convince Shechem that if he wishes to marry their sister then he, along with all of the other men of his town, must be circumcised first. Shechem agrees, and whilst the men are still recovering, Simeon and Levi come in and massacre the lot of them. Jacob is angry at them for potentially bringing danger to his family; they respond with this delightful query of their father, “Should he be allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”; and we never hear from, or about, Dinah again.
When I wrote about her I was working on the question of taking sides. Throughout Christian history, different commentators and preachers have come up with various different interpretations and thoughts on the chapter: ‘poor Jacob’, ‘poor Simeon & Levi’, and sometimes even ‘poor Shechem’, (which rather beggars belief) and I have had the unfortunate experience of reading many of them, including the horrifying, repeated comment (from women and men) that Dinah was at fault because she ‘went out to see the women of the land’, rather than staying safely at home. A sort of Old Testament version of ‘she was asking to be raped because she was wearing a short skirt’.
The problem, in some ways, with understanding the story, and with taking a side, is that the one character who we never hear speak is Dinah herself.
She doesn’t tell her own story, and she doesn’t utter a word throughout the tale. That is one of the saddest things about the chapter, Dinah remains just an object, with no voice or action of her own. Whilst her rapist, his father, her father, and her brothers act and scheme and plot and kill, she is a powerless pawn, silently passed around.
I’m still thinking about Dinah, and wondering why her story is there, and what we’re supposed to do with it, but in the meantime, though there’s no way to give her a voice, I want to keep remembering her story, and keep praying for those who have stories like hers.
Even though she is silent, they needn’t be.
In summary: thinking about Dinah.