Preaching Dinah’s Silence

A few months ago we were preaching the life of Jacob in my local church, and I was given Gen. 35; as I came to prepare, I noticed that our preaching plan skipped over Gen. 34. On one level, no problem: in dealing with big chunks of Scripture we often do that; on another, though, I was uncomfortable. I’ve commented before in public about my concern over preachers – including me – silently passing over the several narratives of sexual violence that Scripture records; in view of this, I did not feel able to pass from Gen. 33 to Gen. 35 and silently ignore Dinah’s experience of rape, and the bizarre and violent events that followed. I read these texts again in my personal devotions this week, recalled struggling with how to preach them, and reflected on how current they are just now.

Dinah is raped by Shechem; Jacob, her father, does not care (the text powerfully locates this in part in the disfunction of Jacob’s family: ‘Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob…’ (1) – the description distances Dinah from Jacob by recalling Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah); her brothers, by contrast are incensed. Shechem, the rapist, wants to make things right by marrying her, and his father tries to arrange that. Dinah’s brothers use this desire to construct a trap, and then we are presented with the comically grotesque image of the men of Shechem trying, and of course failing, to fight whilst just-circumcised. Jacob laments the vengeance in the end, because it has disturbed his plans to settle by the city.

As I say, my first decision was that I had to face this text; not for the first time in preaching, I found that my insistence on treating a text left me with a problem. How should we – how should I, as a man – preach this strange story? If all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, &c., how is this God-breathed Scripture in any way useful?

Rightly or wrongly I found the clue in Gen.. 33:18-20. Jacob camped in sight of the city, and bought the piece of land where he pitched his tent. It sounds innocent enough, but the cities of Canaan have not had a good press so far in Genesis. Abraham walked away from the cities on the plain, and saw them destroyed by fire because there were not ten righteous people amongst them; Isaac would not take a wife from the people of the land – and was disgusted when Esau did (twice). In Gen. 35:1, when it seems Jacob’s story is getting back on track, it is with God’s command to go to Bethel, a place in the wilderness. Camping in sight of the city was not a good move.

And so I read Gen. 34 as a narrative of what happens when God’s people compromise on the holy demand to be separate; that demand can be, and often has been, misread, of course, but it is there and serious; there are cultural patterns that are so distorted that it is impossible to live well within them. Jacob’s compromise, camping in sight of the city, implicates him and his family in cultural patterns that are inevitably destructive. Dinah, tragically, is the one who suffers most from this.

For me, the most striking thing about Gen. 34 is Dinah’s silence. She is raped; her father chooses to do nothing (5); her brothers are outraged, and plan revenge; the rapist proposes to marry her; his father seeks to smooth things over. She is raped, and a bunch of men talk about how to deal with it. What did Dinah feel? Was she longing for revenge, prepared to marry Shechem, wanting only to come home quietly? Men speak and argue about her and around her, but her voice is conspicuously silent.

The Bible is unremittingly honest about what Yeats called ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ (‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ – originally in Last Poems (1939), but variously anthologised). Human beings are, and so human culture is, warped, broken, and sinful. By camping in sight of the city, Jacob enters this culture, and he, and his family, become entangled in its warped threads. One of the fundamental breaks in human culture is patriarchy – a part of the first curse (Gen. 3:16), and a seemingly-unremitting distortion of human life ever since. Dinah is raped, and then a bunch of men try to work out how to turn this event to their various advantages; her voice is just ignored. The story has happened ten thousand thousand times through history; as I say, the Bible is unremittingly honest. Historical or not, Dinah’s story seems true to anyone with eyes open to reality…

…and so to how current Dinah’s story is. This last week, I have crossed the Atlantic twice; my grasp on the UK news has therefore been less strong than normal, but the big stories were there, the biggest perhaps being the story of a grandee of one of our major political parties, accused of sexual assault by a number of women, found by an investigation to have acted in perhaps inappropriate, but not necessarily abusive, ways; the party leader demanded he apologise; he refused; various men on each side briefed…

…I heard only Dinah’s silence. The story, as it was reported in the several online news services I follow, had passed the women by; it was about men trying to negotiate advantage out of the political aftermath. It was Dinah’s story, her silent witness to the deep brokenness of patriarchy more eloquent than any of the various political claims made in her name.

(I know, of course, that the voices of the various women involved can be heard; I reflect simply on how the narrative played out across headlines and op-eds of, as I say, several news sources that I heard. Having preached recently on Dinah’s silence, that was all I heard.)

What would a holy solution look like? One part, I am sure, of the witness of Gen. 34 is that if you choose to camp within sight of the city, there are no holy options left. But there are less unholy options. Listen to Dinah’s silenced voice; ask her what an acceptable solution in her eyes might be; privilege the voice of the abused woman, not the voices of the men seeking advantage from her story; build a politics where her voice can be heard more loudly than their voices…

…because ‘politics’ is only the way we order the ‘polis’, the city; it will be distorted and brutal when we camp in sight of the wrong city, but the order we should be seeking is only and ever that of the City of God.

5 Comments

  1. Ellidh
    Jan 22, 2014

    Hey Steve,
    Thanks very much for this. Back in my lovely St Andrews days, this was what I wrote my dissertation on, the title was ‘Finding a voice for Dinah’, although 10,000 words and 6 years later, I still don’t really have an answer. I wrote a blog (http://ellidhcook.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/on-feminine-fridays-dinah/) about it a couple of years ago, talking about the sadness of her silence and a friend left me this comment:

    “Amazing though isn’t it that her great great great (lots of greats) nephew also knew what it was to be humiliated and ‘was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
    he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth’.
    Through Him both her and our wounds are healed.”

    It’s not an answer exactly, but for now I think it’s the best we’ve got – and I find it a pretty good comfort while I wait.

  2. Laura
    Jan 22, 2014

    Thanks for this Steve. I’d been wondering the same about the handling of the Rennard material but had not made the link to Dinah and the polis. Much appreciated and welcome back to Blighty!

  3. Edward Pillar
    Jan 22, 2014

    Steve, great piece – really thought provoking. In listening to ‘Dinah’s silenced voice’ I’m struck by the complicity of the men in the story who should have done better – not camping close to the city, protecting the women, standing up for her honour… etc. What of ‘silenced Dinah’s’ today? Perhaps the point for us in the story is stepping back and acknowledging that well before Dinah is raped poor decisions are made by those who should know better. Perhaps short term strategic goals have been prioritised over the right, more difficult, ‘annoying’ decisions… I’ll ponder on…

  4. Bev Murrill
    Jan 22, 2014

    Thanks for this strong and salient piece, Steve.

    I have always found it ugly that in the telling of this story, any suffering seems completely irrelevant and any dishonour is to the family name, rather than the girl herself. Even her brothers’ vicious actions seem to stem from frustration at their father’s inaction.

    In our terms, we are so thankful that the heart of God is raising the profile of these issues that are so profoundly damaging to women. Many women and men are rising to demand not only that Dinah is no longer silent, but also that such commodification of women is no longer acceptable.

  5. John Coffey
    Jan 22, 2014

    Steve – there’s some great stuff on Dinah and similar narratives in John Thompson’s Reading the Bible with the Dead. He points out that Christian commentators down the centuries have wrestled with these stories rather than setting them aside.

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