“Girl on Fire”

dinah

The story of Dinah from Genesis 34 in Lego form.  See the whole story here.

So I missed ringing in the New Year last night by one minute because I was in the midst of finishing Anita Diamant’s beautiful and eye-opening book, The Red Tent.  This book was originally recommended to me by my best friend, Jennifer (THANK YOU!), but I only got around to reading it recently because it fit into my current passion, which is the women of the Bible.

The Red Tent focuses on Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, whose ‘story’ is found in Genesis 34.  I’d read the story before, but never had I imagined the myriad of ways the text could be interpreted.  The gist of the story is that Dinah is raped by a man named Shechem, who then tries to marry her.  Jacob permits it so long as the man and all those from his city are circumcised.  He agrees, and while he and the men of the city are recovering, Jacob’s sons ransack the city, killing every man in their wake.  My feelings about it, up until reading The Red Tent, were rather pedestrian: Dinah’s honour was rightfully avenged, albeit in a rather gruesome and over-the-top manner.

Diamant turns this narrative completely on its head and the result is awe-inspiring.

I don’t want to give anything away, but when I finished the book, I was annoyed at myself.  I loved the book, but it reminded me how, despite my feminism, I’d read Dinah’s story from Genesis completely through a patriarchal lens.  I’d always thought Dinah’s value as a marriageable woman in her culture was no doubt lessened because her rape meant she was no longer a virgin, and that maybe there was some sort of custom that allowed her family to avenge her lost honour.

So I went back and reread Genesis 34.  In the Bible, Dinah is silent.  This should have been my first clue that there was probably more to the story than meets the eye.  Then I noticed the contradictions between verses 2 and 3.  First, it says that Shechem saw Dinah, then “took her and raped her.”  That seems self-explanatory.  But then it says, “His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her.”  I’d never thought about this before; I just assumed that Shechem became obsessed with Dinah.  In Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible, Lyn Bechtel argues that Dinah was not actually raped – it was “an illicit sexual liasion in which there was mutual consent” (75 – and yes, the academic in me requires actual page citations).  She notes that the Hebrew word used in the text is akin to ‘shame,’ and that the affair was shameful because Shechem and Dinah were not from the same cultural group (ibid).  While I agree that was probably the major issue, another one might have been that Dinah’s virginity was probably bound to her father and her probable desire to control her own sexuality was shameful in its own right.  But that’s my own opinion.

Through Dinah’s eyes, the story is even more unsettling than it appears at first glance.  What did Dinah think of these events?  Obviously she had no say.  Maybe she loved Shechem.  Or maybe she just wanted to hook up with someone.  Regardless, the men in her life controlled her, and her silence in the biblical text is deafening.  But thanks to Anita Diamant, I have a whole new perspective on the story, one that will inform all of my future readings of the women of the Bible.

Another great fictional interpretation of a well-known female Bible character is Trudy J. Morgan-Cole’s Esther: A Story of Courage.

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