Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Va-yishlah 5757
Genesis 32:4 - 36:43
November 30, 1996 19 Kislev 5757
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary
At first blush there is nothing redeeming about chapter 34 of Genesis. it is a story of rape and revenge full of deceit and brutality. Jacob has returned to the land of Canaan, found his brother Esau to be without grudge for past slights and settled near the city of Shechem with the intent to stay. While on a visit to the city, Dinah, his one daughter, is abducted and raped by the son of the country's ruler, who then falls in love with her and wishes to marry her.
Without returning Dinah, father and son enter into negotiations with Jacob's sons for her hand, offering a generous financial settlement. Jacob's sons ask only that the males of the city undergo circumcision, for the women of their clan are forbidden to marry anyone uncircumcised. Father and son prevail on their fellow citizens in Shechem with a grand vision of union between natives and foreigners. However, three days after the mass surgery, Simeon and Levi, the second and third sons of Jacob, attack the city, killing its convalescing males and seizing its assets, including women and children. Jacob, who has remained strangely silent till now, is mortified by the ruse, but only for fear of reprisal. He departs quickly, without falling victim to the vengeance of the other Canaanite cities in the area.
The dominant motif of this story pervades the book of Genesis: while Canaan is destined to become the home of Abraham's clan, there should be no intermingling with its inhabitants. The assailant of Dinah "committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob's daughter - a thing not to be done (Genesis 34:7)." The spouses of Isaac and Jacob came from Haran, whence Abraham hailed, and not from Canaan. Under no circumstances was Abraham's chief servant to take Isaac back to Haran, but neither was he to arrange a marriage for him with a native Canaanite woman (Genesis 24:3-8). Similarly, the cardinal difference between Jacob and Esau is that the latter takes his wives from among his immediate neighbors to the dismay of his parents (Genesis 26:34, 36:1), though Genesis preserves another tradition that even Esau heeded the aversion (28:6-9).
And in later books of the Torah, the aversion culminates in the sweeping injunction to cleanse Canaan of all its indigenous population at the time of the conquest, a veritable call for genocide. For example, Moses is instructed by God on the steppes of Moab at the end of the 40-year journey through the wilderness: "When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places (Number 33:51-52)."
In a brilliant article (Prooftexts, January 1990) on chapter 34 of Genesis, Professor Stephen A. Geller of the Seminary has argued forcefully that the Canaanite threat to ancient Israel as imagined by the Bible was an intellectual construct and not a concrete population. "Canaanism" as an idea was construed to be the polar opposite of Israelite monotheism. Whereas the Bible posited a transcendent God without form or gender, "Canaanism" embraced an immanent divinity approachable through child sacrifices, divination and fertility cults. The natural religion of the "Canaanites" especially promoted sexual licentiousness to eliminate the space separating human and divine. In response, ancient Israel transformed circumcision from "a puberty or marriage ritual intended to increase fertility of seed" into a rite of passage at birth "as a 'sign' of the covenantal promise of seed."
Returning to our chapter, Professor Geller writes: "The emblematic rite of circumcision is employed not only for literary effect ('measure for measure') but also to signal the utter religious distinction between Israel and Canaan, focusing on sex. The Shechemites invite Jacob's clan to assimilate through peaceful intercourse, in all senses. To them the demanded ritual still has its older meaning as preparation for marriage. But by using circumcision as a ruse to frustrate that Canaanite enticement, the covenantal author reminds the reader that it is through the Word, not through sex, through transcendence, not immanence, that Israel will take possession of the land."
To this point, I trust that I have made the rape of Dinah at least instructive. It clearly touches on some large issues of biblical theology. But I wish to show also that it exhibits an edifying dimension in the manner in which the story is told. The author drops enough hints here and elsewhere to convey his repugnance at the duplicity and violence of Jacob's sons. Tradition may have imposed on him the choice of subject matter; it could not deny him the freedom to render it with a measure of independence.
First, the narrator tells us at the outset of the plot hatched by Jacob's son that they spoke to the Shechmites "with guile (Genesis 34:13)." Since the story-line would have revealed their true intention soon enough, the elimination of any suspense suggests to me the narrator's note of disapproval.
Second, the sons of Jacob profit handsomely from their dastardly crime, a detail the author would readily have omitted if he meant to exalt the purity of their zeal. Are not female Canaanites as potent a source of religious contamination as males? In the days of Joshua, all plunder of any sort was roundly condemned. Nor would the Jews in Haman's Persia deign to touch the possessions of those Persians whom they killed in self-defense (Esther 9:10,15,16).
Third, the author soon goes on to remind us that sexual perversion is not restricted to the Canaanites. After the death of his beloved Rachel, Jacob is assaulted by the knowledge that Reuben, his first-born, had sexual relations with Bilhah, Rahel's maidservant and Jacob's concubine (Genesis 35:22).
Finally, all moral ambiguity is set aside at the time of Jacob's deathbed testament. The aged patriarch condemns Simeon and Levi with righteous indignation. Their unjustified violence leaves no doubt that they are unsuited for leadership. The narration of chapter 34 thus anticipates the repudiation of chapter 49 in a heartening display of self-criticism.