In this post, ESR Professor of Old Testament Nancy R. Bowen shares a reflection on the interpretation of the Biblical figure of Dinah through history and its continuing relevance today:
I have been rethinking the story of Dinah in Genesis 34. Feminist interpretation is focused on the question, “Was Dinah raped or not?” At the moment the debate is at an impasse. I am not attempting to resolve the debate, but rather to consider whether there are other questions feminists should ask with regard to Dinah’s story.
I started thinking about this in the aftermath of the tragic killing of nine African Americans in Charleston, SC (June 17, 2015). A relative of one of the survivors recounted that the shooter had told her that the reason he was killing them was because “you rape our women…” The day before (June 16, 2015), in his speech announcing his candidacy for President of the US, Donald Trump announced he would build a wall along the US/Mexican border to keep out “Mexican rapists.”
It turns out that the trope of “you rape our women” has a long, sordid past in U.S. history. The accusation of rape was used as the justification for lynching in the Southern states during the post-reconstruction era (1880-1920). Lynching was justified as as the “desperate effort of Southerners to protect their women from black monsters.” Ida B. Wells, an African American reporter, demonstrably proved this accusation was false and racist. Using police reports in the Chicago Tribune, Wells documented that of 504 men who were lynched between 1896-1900, only 96 were charged with rape (19%). Although black men who were lynched were described as “moral monsters,” they were also lynched for reasons as varied as “unknown offense,” “mistaken identity,” and “resisting arrest.” As Wells wrote, “This record, easily within the reach of every one who wants it, makes inexcusable the statement and cruelly unwarranted the assumption that negroes are lynched only because of their assaults upon womanhood.” Upon analyzing the records she concludes that the real causes for most lynchings is “contempt for law and race prejudice.” In other words, the accusation that black men raped white women was used to cover up that they were lynched for economic, political, and ideological reasons, namely, to ensure the uncontested authority of the while male ruling class.1
Ita Sheres, an Israeli author, explores the intersections of rape and politics in her book, Dinah’s Rebellion: A Biblical Parable for Our Time. For her, the story of Dinah functions as a parable of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Perhaps a better comparison might be that present day realities mirror the dynamics of Dinah’s story. Palestinians are portrayed as “brutal, wild, alien invaders.” The most horrifying violent acts that occur in Occupied Territories involve vengeances on behalf of women and/or girls who seem to be in danger. Settlers are known to fabricate situations that demand immediate and violent action in response. The message is that settlers attack only because of the assaults on women.2 To paraphrase Wells, “Nobody believes this threadbare lie.” As with lynching we see that the accusation of harm to an Israeli woman, whether there is any actual harm or not, combined with racist views of Palestinians, leads to a violent response. As with lynching, the stated motive of “honor” and need to protect their women from these "monsters" covers up the reality that the real reason for lethal violence against Palestinians is the ideology of extreme nationalism and struggle for territory.
Here in the U.S. we are again hearing that lethal violence against “others” is justified in order to protect our women. First we should note the racist overtones. The implication is that the women who need protecting are white and the “rapists” are men of color. Second, the accusation of rape is presented as a sufficient motivation, regardless of any actual threat to women. Third, we should ask, what is the real motivation for threats against non-white men?
Even feminist commentators recognize that Dinah’s story in Gen 34 is not really about Dinah. The result of the alleged rape (“should our sister be treated like a whore?”) leads to the killing of all the males of Shechem, the plunder of everything in the city, including women and children, and though a gap in the text, the probable rape of the Shechemite women. Whether or not Dinah was raped might actually be a moot point. The point is the accusation of rape, which, as history demonstrates, is a demonstrably false and racist premise. Perhaps what feminists should also be asking is why we allow women’s bodies to be used as the pretext for violence without our permission? White women participated in and gave moral support to lynchings. There are white women today screaming, “Build that wall!” Especially in this time in the US white feminists need to critically examine ways in which we might continue to perpetuate the rhetoric of “they rape our women.” If I (speaking as a white feminist) am not protesting loudly against this rhetoric, then I’m a racist feminist.
If the dynamics of Dinah’s story continue to echo through history even to the present day, the question becomes, can we prevent history from repeating itself? Sheres writes, “It is possible to alleviate the lot of the powerless and excluded by first recognizing each other’s humanity and by deemphasizing exclusion and separation.” If the story of Dinah is to be a parable for our day, then let this be its lesson.
1 Quotes from Ida B. Wells-Bammett, “Lynching and the Excuse For It,” (from The Independent, May 16, 1901).
2 Ita Sheres, Dinah's Rebellion: A Biblical Parable for Our Time (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 101-123).
Nancy is an ordained minister and author of Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Ezekiel (2010). She earned a B.A. from the University of California in 1978; an M. Div. from the School of Theology at Claremont in 1985; and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1994. She joined the faculty of ESR in 1991.