Deconstructing Dena: Genesis 34:1-31

Before the Red Tent...

The Biblical Dena has been the spur for countless contemporary midrashim, including Deena Metzger’s novel What Dinah Thought, an excerpt from which appeared in Lilith in Spring, 1990.  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, with over 1.5 million copies in print, is surely the most widely known re-imagining of Dena’s life.  This novel has spurred both renewed interest in midrash (the reweaving of Bible stories) and some controversy among traditionalists.  The original Bible verses describing Dena are ominous, ugly and bloody.  Now it’s time to ask: Why were they written?

Of all our patriarchs in the Torah- Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—we read the story of only one daughter born to them. That young woman is Dena, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob, the sister of Jacob’s 12 sons, the ancestors of the tribes of Israel. And poor Dena—not only is her story a sad one, but it is X-rated, so rabbis hesitate to give sermons about it.

The story of Dena is brief and brutal. The Torah tells us that one day Dena went out to see the daughters of the land, and a Canaanite prince named She chem saw her, took a fancy to her and raped her. But he then decided that he really loved her, wanted to make the relationship permanent, and appealed to his father Hamor to acquire the girl for him in marriage from Dena’s father Jacob.

Dealing with both Jacob and Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi, She chem and his father Hamor proposed the marriage not only of Dena and She chem, but a wholesale mixing of population between the Canaanites and the Hebrews: Dena’s brothers agree. But there is one catch: they insist that all the males of the tribe must be circumcised before the marriage.

Hamor and She chem acquiesce—after all, She chem is greatly smitten with Dena—and they convince their men to be circumcised. On the third day of the circumcision, when the pain and disability are at their height, brothers Shimon and Levi slay all the residents of the city, including the princes Hamor and Shechem, and they snatch their sister Dena from Shechem’s house.

Jacob disapproves mildly, and not for moral reasons at this point in our text, though he will later rebuke Shimon and Levi. The brothers, for their part, reply, “should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?” End of story.

What could this strange tale have meant in its time? Possibly it is an etiological myth, a story to explain something, like how the leopard got its spots. The story may explain a curious fact about the city of She chem, today called Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank. We know from archeological evidence that Shechem was already settled during the patriarchal times. Yet we have no evidence that it fell when the children of Israel came out of Egyptian captivity and returned to conquer the land of Canaan. Its apparently peaceful conquest has puzzled historians. We know from the verses immediately preceding the story of Dena that Jacob bought a parcel of land in the vicinity from She chem’s father; perhaps the story of Dena and She chem was an explanation for how this area, though originally Canaanite, came under Israelite control.

But today what intrigues us most about the story of Dena is the young woman herself—what we do and do not see of her in the text, how the rabbinic tradition views her, and how we ourselves react to her.

The texts and stories of the Torah suggest that in Biblical times, women were relatively free to come and go. In the Torah, women were shepherdesses who helped with the flocks. In fact, the well, which is at the center of the social activity, is a favorite place for a man in the Bible to meet his beloved. We think immediately of Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, who found their wives-to-be in this very public place.

In other Biblical texts we see that women were in the fields, gleaning sheaves that had been dropped, and that such women, like Ruth, even shared meals with the reapers. We have evidence from the Torah that women helped build the mishkan, the sanctuary in the wilderness, and joined the men to observe festivals and to listen to public proclamations. We also see the relatively unfettered position of women in the text of the literary and historical prophets, which reflect the time after the conquest of the land under Joshua, through the monarchy, until the fall of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E.

According to these texts, women sometimes were included in political organizations, they participated in public celebrations, they were professional wailers at funerals, they ate out at public dinners, and even in exceptional cases, like Deborah, led Israelite troops in battle. Women were apparently both seen and heard.

In a society at the time of the Bible, it would not have been at all extraordinary, or rebellious, or deviant, for a young girl like Dena to go out the daughters of the land, which is how the Torah describes Dena’s behavior Dena was merely young and curious, and not inappropriately exposing herself—any more than other women in the Bible who met their husbands out in the open.

But just look what happens to the story of Dena, and the character of Dena—as Jewish history progresses. Rabbinic texts, written during the Greek and Roman period, reflect the assumption—common during that time period—that women have 122211 to be sequestered, and kept away from men. This was thought to be for their own safety, perhaps, but also so that men could feel secure knowing that their possessions—wives and daughters included—would be under male control.

As Jewish women living in the Greek/Roman period are cordoned off from men, they are seen as being different, as being separate from and “other than” men. They are seen as temptresses, and they are disparaged.

According to the rabbis, from the time of the turn of the Common Era until modern times—Dena was “gallivanting,” as one midrash puts it. She was not a curious young woman doing what was considered normal. In contemporary idiom, the rabbis might have said, “she was out looking for trouble.”

The rabbis painted Dena as a harlot: she did not just go out to see the daughters of the land, she went out to be seen, to display herself.

According to the ancient rabbinical midrash Tanhuma, the story of Dena is recorded in the Torah to bring to our attention how careful a woman must be about displaying herself in public: Said Rabbi Berekhiah in the name of Rabbi Levi: Dena can be compared to one who was holding a pound of meat in his hand, and as soon a she exposed it, a bird swooped down and snatched it away. (Note the inelegant comparison of Dena with a hunk of meat on display.)

These days we call the attitude of the rabbis “blaming the victim.” It’s the red dress accusation—if the woman hadn’t worn a red dress then she wouldn’t have invited rape. It’s all her fault. Dena brought it all on herself by not staying at home, where good girls belong. As the rabbis commonly quote from Psalms: “All the glory of the King’s daughter is on the inside.” Dena, along with every other “good” Jewish woman, belongs at home.

Before we blame the rabbis, we should remember that this Jewish pattern of confining women parallels societies elsewhere, in particular the Hellenist society in which the rabbis lived and wrote. As scholar Louis M. Epstein asserts in Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948), Greek women were no better off than their Jewish counter parts.

The irony of all this is that perhaps the words of the rabbis describe not the position of women during the rabbinic period, but the role the rabbis wished women would take. Unfortunately, we have little evidence about how Jewish women really lived. We do have epigraphic evidence that suggest that the rabbis may have been prescribing the behavior of Jewish women, and not describing it.

Archeologist have unearthed intriguing evidence of at least one second century C.E. woman, Rufina, who was an archisynagogus, a synagogue president, in Smyrna (now Izmir), in Turkey. A Papyrus from Egypt, dated 171 B.C.E., lists a Jewish woman, Sara, as a party to a business loan transaction. Another Papyrus from about the same time and region lists a woman as owner of cattle, sheep, and goats. A tax register tells us that Jewish women owned land in Hellenistic times. Like Dena, these women were not confined to their homes.

Yet Jewish tradition followed the rabbinic texts, and not ancient customs. Aslate as the 18th Century, Rabbi Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, the greatest scholar of his time and place wrote in his ethical will: Women shall not leave the house except for a very pressing need or the sake of carrying out a holy meritorious mission. Even visits to the synagogue shall be short, for there she sees embroidered garments and the like and is aroused to envy. . . but “All the glory of the King’s daughter is on the inside.” This is the every same phrase used in the midrash to enforce the notion that a woman’s place is in the home. Any woman who ventures out risks the fate of Dena.

So much for the Biblical and rabbinic views of Dena. How do we view her today?

Today, women arc once more free from seclusion. At least in theory, we are more like Dena and her generation than we are like those intervening centuries of rabbinic restriction.

And as we contemporary Jewish women read the sad story of Dena, we are repeatedly struck by one thing. For all that has been said about Dena, and written about her in our tradition, the original Dena in the Bible is completely silent. She never utters a word. We have no record of how she felt. Did she love She chem? Was she relieved when her brothers murdered him, or did she mourn for him the rest of her days? We ask ourselves: How would Dena have written this story?

Of course, we shall never have the answers to these questions. The Torah does not satisfy our curiosity. The real Dena has been sentenced to silence forever.

Unlike those who went before us, Jewish women now have a voice. From now on, it will be our responsibility to tell our own stories, so that future generations will hear us, and get to know us. The kavod—the glory—of the King’s daughter remains on the inside, but now it is on the outside as well, and for living in this time and in this place, we are grateful.  

Rabbi Avis Miller is Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington DC. A version of this was given as a sermon. In honor of her 18th anniversary in the pulpit, Adas Israel will soon publish a collection of Rabbi Miller’s sermons.