Some biblical stories are easily summed up. Take, for example, “The Rape of Dinah.” Except that it’s barely about Dinah at all.
Yes, the story begins when Dinah “went out to see the daughters of the land” (Genesis 34:1). But the focus immediately moves to the motives and actions of men, as a young prince sees her and “defiles” her. He instantly falls in love with the woman he just raped, and asks his father to negotiate with her father Jacob for her hand in marriage.
Dinah’s brothers are outraged when they hear the news from Jacob, and after wrangling with the princeling and his father over how much Dinah is worth and tricking the men of Shechem into circumcising themselves, they swoop in and murder all the men, plunder the city, and take their wives captive.
Jacob is upset, not because his daughter was raped, but because his son’s actions will most likely cause the other inhabitants of the land to attack him.
And where is God during all of this? Nowhere to be found, except at the beginning of the next chapter, when God tells Jacob to “arise, go up to Beth-El and live there, and make an altar to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother” (Genesis 35:1).
No, I do not think this story is about Dinah getting raped. It is instead a cautionary tale about consorting with the Other. It’s about xenophobia, about fear and anger and not trusting each other. And it seems to me that God encourages this by telling Jacob to come home, since Beth-El literally means house of God.
In fact, God conveniently skips over Dinah’s story entirely, referring only to Jacob’s recent run-in with his brother Esau. It appears that God wants Jacob to end the nearly disastrous experiment of trying to live alongside people who are different, instead of trying to make it work.
I reject that message. I believe that this gigantic world of ours is, in many ways, very small. It is virtually impossible for a community to shut out everyone else. Those that do, gain nothing by their small mindedness.
We live in a global economy, in a world where a wall can’t stop someone from stepping onto an airplane, where millions upon millions of people are leaving their homes and seeking a better life in a completely different culture. A world in which people of different faiths pass each other on the sidewalk every day. A world that I believe is richer for its diversity.
Despite the isolationism implicit in this story, elsewhere the Torah teaches that we are to seek out strangers: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
It takes courage to overcome fear of the unknown, to cross the street and shake hands with a stranger, especially when you are surrounded by people who have a different way of living; whose language, food, religion, and even their clothing is foreign.
But when we cross over the barriers that divide us, we can discover that other people aren’t so different after all. As Erica Brown wrote in an article called Loving the Stranger, “Sometimes, a stranger is just someone you haven’t said hello to yet.”