We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. From The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, page 1
The Red Tent is a wonderful novel by Anita Diamant which imagines Dinah’s story rather differently to the text we are given in Genesis 34.
There is a problem with the story of Dinah. We hear about an horrific crime committed against her, but the difficulty is that as everything is told from the point of view of either the accused (Shechem), or the accusers (her brothers), it’s hard to know the truth of the matter. She doesn’t get to say a word.
It’s a gruesome tale and needs a trigger warning as it contains a rape.
Dinah was the only daughter of Jacob and Leah and so we know that she had six brothers and six half-brothers. The story we are told in Genesis 34 is that Dinah went to visit the local women and whilst there she encountered the son of the local ruler called Shechem.
[he] saw her, he took her and raped herGenesis 34. 2
This is a despicable crime and we deplore any violence towards women of this kind, whether happening now or thousands of years ago in the ancient world.
Shechem then ‘falls in love’ with Dinah, ‘speaks tenderly to her’, and asks his father Hamor if he can marry her. At that time it was unheard for women from the Abrahamic tribes to intermarry with local people, and so this was a bold request.
Hamor went to speak with Jacob to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage for his son but at this point her brothers turned up, hear what had happened and fly into a rage.
They were filled with grief and fury, because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing that should not be done.Genesis 34. 7
Shechem and Hamor pleaded with Jacob and offered a dowry for Dinah’s hand in marriage. But the brothers refused. This time their refusal was because Shechem was ‘uncircumcised’ and therefore considered unclean. They claimed that the marriage would be ‘a disgrace to us’.
They hatched a plan. They tell Shechem that the marriage (and other marriages between the Israelites and the locals) can go ahead only if all the men in their community are circumcised.
And Shechem agrees to this, and in fact does so with gusto:
the young man.. lost no time in doing what they said, because he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter.Genesis 24. 19
And all the men get circumcised. Imagine what that must have been like. Imagine the groans of pain emanating from every household as all the men nurse their tender nether regions!
Three days later Simeon and Levi, two of the brothers, take matters into their own hands. Whilst all the Canaanite men were in pain they went into the town and attacked them, killing them all and looting from their homes. It’s another terrible crime.
Shechem and Hamor are murdered, and Dinah is ‘rescued’.
What is so brilliant about Anita Diamond’s book ‘The Red Tent’ is that she imagines this story differently. She imagines that Dinah falls in love with Shechem, sleeps with him and then hopes to marry him. Dinah pleads with her father that the marriage might go ahead, and encourages Shechem and the Canaanites to be circumcised as she shares her faith. Her brothers are so blinded by their rage, pride and assumptions about their sister – she couldn’t possibly have willingly have had sex with an outsider, it therefore must have been forced – that they don’t listen to her and carry out a terrible atrocity against her will.
Was Dinah a woman who was raped and held against her will? Or was she a woman who loved someone who her family disapproved of and paid a terrible price?
We can never know for sure. Without the voice of the woman in the story being heard we are only getting half the truth, which isn’t truth at all.
It's a wonder that any mother ever called a daughter Dinah again. But some did. Maybe you guessed that there was more to me than the voiceless cipher in the text. Maybe you heard it in the music of my name: the first vowel high and clear, as when a mother calls to her child at dusk; the second sound soft, for whispering secrets on pillows. Dee-nah. The Red Tent, Anita Diamant
Refection and Prayer
This is a difficult passage to reflect on, but sometimes we need to focus prayerfully on the darkness in our world. We remember all women (and men) who have suffered from sexual violence and rape. We also remember women who are prevented from marrying the people they love by their family members, and recall that ‘honour killings’ are sadly still going on every day in our world. And we remember all those whose voices aren’t heard and whose stories will never be told.
Let us pray for light in the darkness.
Eternal Light, shine into our hearts,
Eternal Goodness, deliver us from evil,
Eternal Power, be our support,
Eternal Wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance,
Eternal Pity, have mercy upon us;
that with all our heart and mind and soul and strength
we may seek thy face and be brought by thine infinite mercy
to thy holy presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
A prayer of Alciun of York, 735-804