Just when you thought older brothers are overprotective of their younger sisters, Simeon and Levi take matters into their own hands in an unprecedented manner. After Dina, the sister of Simeon and Levi, was taken by Shechem, the verse (Gen. 34:25) relates: “And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon, and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males.” While this public display of might and vengeance is often seen as unwarranted, a subtle hint made by the Text might offer a plausible justification for the brothers’ actions. It is possible that Dina was already betrothed to another man (likely from Jacob’s household), and as a virgin under much of Near Eastern law, the kidnapper of a betrothed virgin is liable to the death penalty.
A precedent for such legal conduct may be found in Hammurabi’s code (c. 1792 BC): “This death penalty was also fixed for such conduct as placed another in danger of death. A specified form of death penalty occurs in the following cases: gibbeting (on the spot where crime was committed) for burglary, later also for encroaching on the king’s highway, for getting a slave-brand obliterated, for procuring husband’s death; burning for incest with own mother, for vestal entering or opening tavern, for theft at fire (on the spot); drowning for adultery, rape of betrothed maiden, bigamy, bad conduct as wife, seduction of daughter-in-law.” Predating Hammurabi’s code, the celebrated Mesopotamian Ur-Nammu law code (c. 2100-2050 BC) has similar penalties for the rape of a betrothed virgin: “If a man violates the right of another and deflowers the virgin wife of a young man, they shall kill that male.” Lastly, the ancient Hittite legal code, The Code of the Nesilim (c. 1650-1500 BC) states: “If a man sleeps with the wife of his brother, while his brother is living, it is a capital crime, he shall die.”
Undoubtedly, further proof is required to demonstrate that Dina was in fact betrothed to another and that the town inhabitants ought to be held responsible for Shechem’s crimes. It is possible that since Shechem was the prince, and his subjects did not prosecute him, he was seen by Simeon and Levi as circumventing the law. From the point of view of the regional residents, since Shechem was royalty, the protective canon of ex non potest peccare would apply. Thus, since Shechem’s subjects would leave him unpunished for his promiscuous conduct, the inhabitants of the land may retaliate against Jacob’s family with violent force in return, in line with their common law doctrine of lex talionis; putting Jacob’s entire family in danger. This leaves Jacob to defenselessly plead (ibid v. 30): “Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, ‘You have brought trouble on me, by making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and my men being few in number, they will gather together against me and attack me and I shall be destroyed, I and my household’.” Simeon and Levi stood up against this injustice and executed the rule of justice properly, by executing him and all those culpable in the crime against Dina. This clarifies why they objected to Jacob’s pacifism by stating (ibid v. 31) “…shall he make our sister as a prostitute?”, since the law does not address the rights and protections of prostitutes. Along these lines, Maimonides postulates (Laws of Kings and Wars: 9 §14): “A gentile who transgresses these seven commands shall be executed by decapitation. For this reason, all the inhabitants of Shechem were liable to die; for Shechem kidnapped, and they observed and were aware of his deeds, but did not judge him.”
And yet, there is room to object the creativity of the above approach, adopting an alternative portrait of Gen. 34. The narrative itself provides all necessary details for the story’s interpretation. Dina had just come of age (v. 4, or 12 years old, as per Jubilees 30:3), therefore, she was not described as betrothed. Shechem offered a dowry to Jacob in exchange to be married to Dina (v. 11-12), and in exchange, Jacob only wanted their males to be circumcised and their people to share the land (v. 15). The people of Ḥamor agreed and were circumcised (v. 24), but Simeon and Levi took advantage of them while they were in their state of pain and healing. In order to avenge their sister’s dignity, they slaughtered the men (v. 25) and stole all of their property (v. 28-29), but why? While the premarital seduction of their sister by an uncircumcised man was seen by the brothers as an affront, the answer lies in verse 31: “And they said [to Jacob]: ‘shall he make our sister as a prostitute’?” It is possible that the brothers stole the property as the dowry for which Jacob never asked. By not paying the dowry to the father-of-the-bride, Dina was being treated with absolute disrespect; like the loose and unregulated trade of the biblical harlot.
While it must be acknowledged that the opening theory stands on a premise that is not explicit in the Text, there is room to show that it is implied. Let verse 2 serve as the first proof for this, as it contains an unconventional phraseology. Unlike consensual unions, where “coming unto” (root BWA. See Gen. 29:23, 30) or “knowing” (root D’AH. See Gen. 4:17, 25, and an interesting note from Rashi on Gen. 18:19) is used, here, lying or shekhiva (root ŠKB) is used. While this root has a very broad range of application and meaning, it is also used to refer to the defilement of a woman’s preexisting union (as in Gen. 35:22, Deu. 28:30). This is further indicated by the verse describing the act as affliction (‘inuy). In his famous commentary to the Pentateuch, Nachmanides (c. 1194-1270 CE) comments on this verse, noting the application of this term as well: “all sexual intercourse by force is referred to as affliction (‘inuy), as in “do not exploit her, for you have afflicted her” (Deu. 21:14) and “and they afflicted the concubine and she died” (Judges 20:5).” Additionally, v. 13 recounts the report of her brothers as describing the act as one of “defilement” (tumma). This root (ṬMA) is broadly used to define a ritually invalid status of an object or person, in the case of relations, to invalidate one to the other (See Num. 5:14, 29). This implies that she became invalidated to another; implying a preexisting union that Dina likely had. And it is with this that the reader may decide on the plausibility of these theories.