Mishpatim in Context: Selling your daughter into slavery? What does Ex 22:16-17 tell us about the “rape” of Dinah in Genesis

mishpatimEdit: This and 34 other really tough questions about the Scriptures are answered in my latest book Context for Adults: Sexuality, Social Identity and Kinship Relations in the Bible, available through Amazon – just click on the purple book on my right hand menu bar.

Well, this is an awkward situation – I just can’t find the book that I am basing this teaching on but I will give it as a reference anyway. I guess it’s time to finish organizing and get the books out of piles in every room of the house. I do not recommend this entire book – when you get anthologies they are a mixed bag, but enough of it is absolutely excellent – especially the chapters that I am going to be pulling from today. I had been wanting to teach on the “rape” of Dinah because of how I was reading the text in light of the Law (both Torah and ANE), for some time, but until I found a scholar who agreed with me I held back.

Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, Bernard M Levinson and Victor H Matthews, Ed. – notably the chapters Virginity in the Bible by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Honor and Shame in Gender Related Legal Situations in the Bible by Victor H Matthews.

First of all, we come to the seemingly disturbing law in Ex 21:7-11 but the situation is not exactly how it appears. All throughout ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) law, we see provisions made for the “selling” of an impoverished girl for the purposes of getting her married off. Stay with me here – it isn’t as terrible as it sounds.

Marriage was a contract in those days – the father of the bride was paid a bride price and he, in turn, provided the girl with a dowry for her protection should she be divorced or widowed. Fathers could not always afford a dowry, and if they were in severe financial straits they might agree to “sell” their young daughter to another family, as a legal daughter, for perhaps half of the typical bride price. This gave him the money to pay off debts, perhaps keeping the entire family from being sold into slavery, or perhaps just from starvation, and gave her new family one of two options:

(1) The new family could thereby obtain a less expensive marriage later on for their son (or the father if he was a widower), without having to pay the full bride price (because she is now legally family), OR

(2) The new family could arrange another marriage for her as though she was their own daughter, while charging the full bride price from her prospective husband’s family, thus turning a profit.

So she was sold, but not for the purposes of being a slave – it was for the purpose of getting her married off honorably. An unmarried poor girl was in danger of oppression in ancient times, and it was incumbent upon the father to see her provided for and in a secure situation before his death. A poor unmarried girl who was orphaned was likely to end up in prostitution.

Now you see the reason why, in verse 7, that she “doesn’t go out the way that male servants do.” It isn’t the same situation at all. If she displeases her new master “who has engaged her to himself,” then he has to allow her father or a close relative to purchase her back for what was paid for her. He can’t sell her away to foreigners as a slave, and he has backed out on their engagement so he has dishonored her. In verse 9, if he has engaged her to his son, he must continue to treat her as though she was his own daughter. If another wife was taken later (which in those days was done in case of barrenness), he still had all of the legal obligations that he would owe to any wife – he still must feed her, protect her, clothe and house her and he must continue to try to give her children – those were the absolute rights of a wife in that culture.

Now, as for Dinah in Genesis 34 – she was not raped. We can discern this from the language used to describe the encounter.

Ex 22:16 If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.

First of all, Dinah did something scandalous and dangerous in ancient times – she went away from her family on her own, exposing the entire clan to risk and shame (starting in verse 1).

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land.

This was incredibly foolhardy for a virtuous young virgin among a strange people. She had lived a sheltered life, always protected by her family. She had undoubtedly never been alone with any man in her life who wasn’t related to her or in servitude to her family.

And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her.

This sounds really worse than it was. In ancient times, if a man spotted a beautiful young virgin unattended – well, it wasn’t much different then than it is now. He didn’t seize her, the same word yikkah, is used for Lamech, the sons of God, Abraham, Nahor and others taking wives.  Shechem seduced Dinah, and as the text will intimate later, they eloped. Humiliated is such a value laden term – really a more ANE way of expressing this would be that he saw her out alone, he charmed her, they eloped and consummated the marriage – thus shaming her before her family. For a young woman to go out alone and elope without the consent of her male relatives was excruciatingly shameful both to herself and her family. That was the culture. Dinah was too young and inexperienced to be out on her own.

And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob. He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl for my wife.” 

This isn’t a cold-blooded, lust-driven rapist – this is a man who speaks kindly to her and is now going to follow ANE law and pay as much of a bride-price as the father wants in order to make things right, knowing that the father has the right to refuse to allow him to keep her. This is the only way to bring honor back into the situation that two young people have messed up – a ransom must be paid to restore the honor of Jacob’s family.

Now Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah. But his sons were with his livestock in the field, so Jacob held his peace until they came. And Hamor the father of Shechem went out to Jacob to speak with him. The sons of Jacob had come in from the field as soon as they heard of it, and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.

“Lying” with is the word sekab and it carries with it no connotations of forced sex. Their sister was seduced, and not raped.

Shechem also said to her father and to her brothers, “Let me find favor in your eyes, and whatever you say to me I will give. Ask me for as great a bride price and gift as you will, and I will give whatever you say to me. Only give me the young woman to be my wife.”

“Let me find favor in your eyes” – this is honor/shame language. Shechem is honoring Jacob by reasserting his control over the situation and acknowledging that Jacob has all the power over his own daughter.

Of course, we know what happened – Levi and Simeon agreed if only the entire clan would become circumcised. Three days later when they were still weak and recovering, they killed all of the men of the village and removed their sister from Shechem’s house (verse 26).

They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the sword and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house and went away


Of course, Jacob was furious! But why? If this had been an actual rape, payment would not be enough. Rape was an incredibly serious crime throughout the ANE – except during times of war (of course Torah expressly forbids wartime rape). Seduction, however, was a crime that both Dinah and Shechem bore the shame of – Shechem for subverting patriarchal authority and Dinah for venturing away from the protection of her family and putting the entire family’s honor at risk. Jacob had the absolute right in the ancient world to control the sexuality of his daughter – a daughter who controlled her own sexuality was acting like a whore, being that whores were the only women in the ancient world (prior to the New Roman Woman) who controlled their own sex lives. And here we see that Dinah was already in Shechem’s home – this wasn’t a girl who was raped and went home crying about it.

This explains why, when Jacob rebuked the brothers, they protested (verse 31):

But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?”

By subverting patriarchal authority and seducing Dinah, Shechem was treating her as though she was a woman who could indeed make her own decisions about her sexuality. He truly was, therefore, in Ancient Near Eastern eyes, treating their sister like a whore.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.



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