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Giving Voice to Dinah

Dinah's Story Depicts Male-Dominated Biblical Narrative

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One of the most apt historical criticisms of The Holy Bible is the way it fails to chronicle women's lives, abilities and viewpoints with the same effort it puts into men's lives. The story of Dinah in Genesis 34 is one of the best examples of this male-dominated narrative.

A Young Woman at the Mercy of Men

Dinah's story actually starts in Genesis 30:21, which tells of her birth to Jacob and his first wife, Leah. Dinah reappears in Genesis 34, a chapter that early versions of the Bible titled "the rape of Dinah." Ironically, Dinah never speaks for herself in this significant episode of her life.

In brief, Jacob and his family are encamped in Canaan near the city of Shechem. By now having reached puberty, teen-aged Dinah understandably wants to see something of the world. While visiting the city, she is "defiled" or "outraged" by the prince of the land, also called Shechem, who is the son of Hamor the Hivite. Although scripture says Prince Shechem is eager to marry Dinah, her brothers Simeon and Levi are enraged at the way their sister has been treated. They convince their father, Jacob, to exact a high "bride price," or dowry. They tell Hamor and Shechem that it is against their religion to allow their women to marry men who are not circumcised, i.e., converts to the religion of Abraham.

Because Shechem is in love with Dinah, he, his father, and eventually all the men of the city agree to this extreme measure. However, circumcision turns out to be a trap devised by Simeon and Levi to incapacitate the Shechemites. Genesis 34 says they, and possibly more of Dinah's brothers, attack the city, kill all the men, rescue their sister and despoil the town. Jacob is horrified and frightened, fearing that other Canaanites sympathetic with the people of Shechem will rise against his tribe in retaliation. How Dinah feels at the murder of her betrothed, who by this time may even have been her husband, is never mentioned.

Rabbinical Interpretations Vary on Dinah's Story

According to the entry on Dinah at Jewish Encyclopedia.com, later sources blame Dinah for this episode, citing her curiosity about life in the city as a sin since it exposed her to risk of rape. She's also condemned in other rabbinical interpretations of scripture known as midrash because she didn't want to leave her prince, Shechem. This earns Dinah the nickname of "the Canaanite woman." A text of Jewish myth and mysticism, The Testament of the Patriarchs, justifies the anger of Dinah's brothers by saying that an angel instructed Levi to take revenge on Shechem for the rape of Dinah.

A more critical view of Dinah's story holds the tale may be not historical at all. Instead, some Jewish scholars think Dinah's story is an allegory that symbolizes the way Israelite men conducted feuds against neighboring tribes or clans that raped or abducted their women. This reflection of ancient customs makes the story valuable, according to Jewish historians.

Dinah's Story Redeemed with a Feminist Slant

In 1997, novelist Anita Diamant re-imagined Dinah's story in her book, The Red Tent, a New York Times best-seller. In this novel, Dinah is the first-person narrator, and her encounter with Shechem is not rape but consensual sex in anticipation of marriage. Dinah willingly marries the Canaanite prince and is horrified and grieved by her brothers' vengeful actions. She flees to Egypt to bear Shechem's son and is reunited with her brother Joseph, now Egypt's prime minister.

The Red Tent became a worldwide phenomenon embraced by women who longed for a more positive view of women in the Bible. Although entirely fiction, Diamant said she wrote the novel with attention to the history of the era, around 1600 B.C., particularly in terms of what could be discerned about the lives of ancient women. The "red tent" of the title refers to a practice common to tribes of the ancient Near East, in which menstruating women or women giving birth lived in such a tent along with their co-wives, sisters, daughters and mothers.

In a question-and-answer on her website, Diamant cites work by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who links the biblical law that keeps a mother separate from the tribe for 60 days upon the birth of daughter as a sign that it is a sacred act for a woman to bear to another potential birth-giver. A subsequent work of non-fiction, Inside the Red Tent by Baptist scholar Sandra Hack Polaski, examines Diamant's novel in light of both biblical story and ancient history, particularly the difficulties of finding historical documentation for women's lives.

Diamant's novel and Polaski's non-fiction work are completely extra-biblical, and yet their readers believe that they give voice to a female character whom the Bible never allows to speak for herself.

Dinah Sources

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