Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 2

November 30, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | 1 Comment

(My last post considered how the feelings of Shekhem and Dinah change in the Torah portion Vayishlach. This post considers the decision of Dinah’s brothers in the same story.)

And Jacob came safely from Paddan Aram to the town of Shekhem, which is in the land of Canaan, and he camped in front of the town. (Genesis/Bereishit 33:18)

shekhem (שְׁכֶם)= shoulders; an ancient town; a certain chieftain in that town.

Mt. Gerizim (left) and Mt. Eyval (right)

The city of Shekhem, now part of the modern city of Nablus, sat in a narrow valley between two hills (“shoulders” of land):  Mount Gezerim and Mount Eyval.  Later in the Torah, when the Israelites are about to cross the Jordan, Moses instructs them to perform a ritual on those two hills.  While the Levites recite a list of good deeds that God rewards with blessings, and a list of bad deeds that God punishes with curses, half of the tribes will stand on Mount Gezerim to confirm the blessings, and half on Mount Eyval to confirm the curses.  (Deuteronomy 27:11-14; see my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.)

Thus Shekhem represents a decision point.  North or south?  Good or evil?  Blessing or curse?

Jacob makes the wrong decision when he arrives. He has been returning on the same route he took from Beersheba to Charan 20 years before. Now is supposed to continue south to Beit-El (Bethel), where he promised God that he would build an altar. Then he should travel farther south to Beersheba, where his aged parents are still waiting for him. Instead he stops at the crossroads of Shekhem, unwilling to move or choose. He buys the plot of ground where he is camped.

And Dinah, the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And Shekhem, son of Chamor the Chivvite, a chieftain of the land, saw her, and he took her, and he lay with her, and he violated her. (Genesis/Bereishit 34:1-2)

Shekhem the young chieftain enters the story as a bad guy who rapes a virgin. Then he falls in love with his victim, Dinah. (See my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.) He speaks “upon the heart of the young woman”, reassuring her, changing her feelings about him, persuading her that he will become a good husband. He plans to offer her father exorbitant bride-price so he can marry her and restore her honor. And he asks his own father, Chamor, to come with him to arrange the marriage contract.

Unfortunately, Chamor has another idea. His clan has land; Jacob has lots of livestock. What if they all intermarry, and become one people? The union would benefit both sides. Chamor makes this a stipulation in the marriage negotiation of Shekhem and Dinah.

Jacob does not respond, but his sons pretend to agree to both Dinah’s marriage and the union of the two peoples, provided that all the men of the town circumcise themselves. Chamor goes back and tells his men that this is a way everyone can marry into wealth, acquiring Jacob’s livestock. And the men of Shekhem go for it.

Ruins of stairs and city gate of Shekhem

It was the third day, when they were in pain. And two of the sons of Jacob, Simon and Levi, [full] brothers of Dinah, each took his sword, and they came upon the town without resistance, and they killed all the males. (Genesis 34:25)

They take Dinah, and then some “sons of Jacob”—maybe the same two, maybe others—plunder all the houses and enslave all the women and girls.

They have made Jacob’s decision for him. They could have chosen the good side represented by Mt. Gezerim, and dealt honestly with the citizens of Shekhem. What if Chamor’s offer turned out to be part of God’s plan to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Jacob, and God would bless them if they accepted and converted the Shekhemites to their own religion?  On the other hand, even if Jacob’s sons refuse to intermarry or proselytize, they could still accept a generous bride-price for their sister and try to negotiate a peaceful covenant with the town. This approach would also result in a blessing of prosperity and peace with their new neighbors.

Instead, Jacob’s sons choose the bad side represented by Mt. Eyval, and act  out of unreflective vengeance.

Then Jacob said to Simon and Levi: “You cut me off from the inhabitants of the land, from the Canaanites and Perizzites! And I am few in number, so they will unite against me and strike at me, and I will be exterminated, I and my household!” (Genesis 34:30)

Jacob Burying the Strange Gods,
by Sebastien Bourdon

At that point God tells Jacob to move to Beit-El. Jacob collects everyone’s idols and earrings and buries them at Shekhem, perhaps hoping to win God’s favor that way. Then he abandons the empty town and the land he bought, and flees south.

And they set out, and a horror of God came upon the towns that surrounded them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. (Genesis 35:5)

So God blesses Jacob’s sons even though they choose evil at the decision point of Shekhem. And God looks the other way when the man Shekhem is murdered, even though he has turned away from evil toward good.

Like the book of Job, the story of Dinah in last week’s Torah portion illustrates that we cannot expect to get our just rewards from God in the world. Instead, we are rewarded or punished inside. When we feel anger and hatred but nevertheless choose to do good, our self-control strengthens, and it is easier to choose good in the future.

When we let our bad feelings carry us away, we may momentarily enjoy doing violence, but then choosing good is harder the next time. After committing genocide in the Torah portion Vayishlach, Jacob’s older sons sell their brother Joseph as a slave in next week’s portion, Vayeishev—and they feel guilty the rest of their lives.

May each of us, when we reach a decision point, consult our own knowledge of good and evil, and do the right thing.

1 Comment »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. […] Since Jacob condemns Reuven on the basis of an incident during his lifetime and reported in the bible, the reader expects him to cite another such incident as his reason for criticizing Shimon and Levi.  The closest match is when the two brothers trick the rulers of Shekhem, enter the town as friends, murder the man who raped their sister Dinah, kill all the other men, destroy the town, and carry off the booty.  No doubt some walls fell.  (See my posts Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1 and Part 2.) […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: