(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.
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? Surely 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.
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 commit vengeance. After they have massacred the men of Shekhem and enslaved the women, their father finally speaks up.
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)
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. God also fails to reward Shekhem for turning away from evil and trying to do 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 out 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 it becomes easier to choose evil 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, set our immediate feelings aside, consider the moral implications of each option, and do the right thing.