Honor and Shame

Torah Reading: Vayishlach (Genesis 32:3-36:43) 
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:38-42
Commentary by Ryan White

The story of Dinah and Shechem often impassions us. A young, innocent woman goes out to spend a day with some local girls and ends up getting raped. Then, instead of defending her, her father is silent and appears to be willing to marry her off to her rapist. Anger ignites in us at Jacob's failure to avenge his daughter and our zeal burns as we hear about how two of her brothers take care of the scum who did this to their sister. The Bible does not agree with this passion, however. At the end of this narrative, Jacob condemns Simeon and Levi's actions and later on Jacob curses them with dispersion within Israel due to their anger (Gen 49:5-7). What is going on here? Were these two brothers not right to stand up for their sister and for the sanctity and honor of their family?

Let's take a step back from our initial emotional response and consider the narrative. First, we must note that Dinah is not a main character in this story. We are not made privy to her thoughts, desires, or words in this whole ordeal. The English translation that Shechem "seized her and lay with her and humiliated her" (ESV) does not well approximate the Hebrew when we understand the culture and context of this passage. Most scholars agree that the passage is about Shechem seducing Dinah. The issue of seizure and humiliation arises because, in that culture, a young woman did not have the right of consent without her father's approval. It is similar today how a 17-year-old woman may have the cognitive ability to consent, but does not yet have the legal age for consent. What happened to Dinah would be best described in today's language as statutory rape. Thus, this act brings up a legal conflict between the family of Dinah and the family of Shechem; here begins a struggle for honor. Shechem has dishonored Jacob and his sons by seducing Dinah without their consent.

Second, the culturally mandated response to such an assault on the family honor is to avenge Dinah. Simeon and Levi plot to do so by employing deceit and using the covenant sign of circumcision as a means of incapacitating not only the offender, but the entire city in order that they may slaughter all the males. Is this really the type of response that God would approve of? In a surprising twist, Shechem actually offers to do what the Torah prescribes for such an offense; to provide an elaborate bride price and to marry the seduced woman (cf. Exodus 22:16-17).

The story ends without declaring the right course of action. Jacob is worried about the inhabitants of the land reciprocating against him to destroy them all while Simeon and Levi are concerned with their family's honor. While our zeal may influence us to agree with the brothers, we must consider the image and character of our God revealed to us in Messiah Yeshua. The slaughter of the Shechemites did nothing to fix Dinah's personal situation, in fact, it possibly made it worse since she is now an unmarried non-virgin (a shameful status in the ancient Near Eastern world). Killing the Shechemites was done solely as an attempt to restore the honor of Jacob's household. Yeshua revealed that the Father's character is one of self-giving love and forgiveness. Rather than retaliate against the social insults like striking of the cheek, Yeshua taught us to turn the other cheek. Unlike the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees 7 who cursed their tormentors while they were being martyred, Yeshua forgave the ones crucifying him. Instead of lashing out at his enemies, he committed himself into God's hands and let God restore his honor via the resurrection.

We are not promised that by accepting Yeshua as our master everything will go right. We are not guaranteed protection against terrible things happening to us in this life. But we are assured that, if we act honorably according to the LORD's standards, He will be faithful and true by resurrecting us into a new body with fully restored honor. Sometimes this means making the hard decisions like Jacob did to not retaliate with violence to a terrible situation. Sometimes this means letting our own honor go in order to restore peace in others' lives.

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