Sunday, January 27, 2019

Injustice for Dinah and Tamar (Gen 34, 38)

Mixed in with the stories of the patriarchs and their wives in Genesis, there are two interludes where the main characters are women with injustice done to them by men. Dinah's story involves rape, romance, and murder. Tamar's story features a series of bad marriages, prostitution, and a death sentence. They are vivid stories, and their main female characters present a contrast in ways of approaching life as a woman that is much more stark than the pretty/plain contrast we saw between Rachel and Leah. I think this contrast is an interesting way to look at their stories, so I'm going to write about them together.

So far, Genesis has featured many stories where women are fairly bold: speaking, acting, influencing their husbands and the action. They talk to God, and he often talks to them. Tamar fits this mold, except that she does not interact with God. But Dinah is different in every way. Dinah is Leah's last child, the only daughter born to Jacob. The meaning of her name is not given in the text, but it means "judged," which turns out to be a bit prophetic, as we will see.

Dinah, being a girl, would not grow up to found one of the tribes of Israel, like her brothers. But you can imagine that as the baby sister, she might have been doted on. That her brothers love her fiercely and feel possessive of her becomes evident as the story unfolds.

Almost all we know about Dinah's life takes place in one tragic episode. In her story, Dinah takes only one mild action, visiting some young women who lived nearby. The rest of the developments happen to her. On her visit, a local prince, Shechem, sees her and "seized and raped her." This is described as a violent crime, not a romantic interlude. But in the next sentence Shechem "fell in love with her, and he tried to win her affection with tender words." He is completely serious and tells his father to get involved so that he can marry Dinah. How must Dinah have experienced this? I think it is extremely hard to read. Shechem's affection (*after the RAPE*) seems genuine and strong. Dinah must have initially been terrified and violated, but did she change in her feelings? We cannot know. Dinah does not contribute to the movement of the story here, she is just raped, and then pursued for marriage.

Shechem approaches Jacob and Dinah's brothers (Leah's other sons) to ask for her hand. But the wedding negotiations appear to be between Dinah's brothers, and Shechem's father rather than between Jacob and Shechem's father. Shechem begs to marry Dinah, offering anything they will ask of him. Jacob's brothers respond, "deceitfully, "says verse 13. They pretend they will allow Shechem to marry Dinah, if he and all of his clan will be circumcised. Shechem, the text says here, is a highly respected member of his family. He presents the proposal to the leaders at the town gate and they accept in basically good faith, though they do have a motive of completely mixing with Jacob's family so that "all their livestock and possessions will be ours." Maybe this was just a motivation for accepting the terms and joining with the wealthy Israelites. But either way they are as good as their word, and all the men are circumcised in preparation for the marriage.

At this vulnerable moment for the men of Shechem's town,  Simeon and Levi fall upon them and murder every man in the town. They take Dinah from Shechem's house, and return to their camp. Then the rest of Jacob's sons arrive and plunder the the town, taking all the riches and even "their little children and wives . . . as captives." Ugh.

Jacob is furious with Levi and Simeon when he finds out, mostly because of his fear of repercussions for himself and his family. He is worried that the other nearby people will join together to crush them after such horrendous behavior, which seems reasonable. They prepare to leave town, and God tells them to go to Bethel to meet with him. From his reaction, it looks like Jacob was not in on the planned massacre. He was part of the meeting where the terms were agreed on, though he did not set them. Was he in approval of the match?

We never hear Dinah's reaction to all of this. But however she felt about the marriage, the murders were probably devastating to her. If she really hated Shechem, she may have been glad to be free of him. But two considerations make me think she might not have been. First of all, he seems to really treasure her approaching the marriage. If it was genuine and not obsessive, a human response to that kind of love just might be forgiveness and acceptance? The second is that however she felt toward Shechem, after having been publicly acknowledged as a rape victim, any more marriage prospects for her must have been difficult to come by in that society. With no husband and no children, Dinah's ability to achieve honor and advancement would have been really limited. I'm sure she was taken care of within Jacob's wealthy household. But when his descendants are listed as they depart for Egypt at the end of Genesis, where her brothers are listed along with their wives, children, and in some cases grandchildren, Dinah is just Dinah.

Tamar's injustice is different. It develops much more slowly, and though it does also involve headline-worthy sexual scandal in the end, she is the one who commits it, in order to take care of herself, where Dinah is on the receiving end, and suffers for what happens to her.

Tamar's story starts out with an honorable arranged marriage to Judah's son Er. This marriage must have been hard for Tamar considering that her husband was "wicked in the Lord's sight," so much so that "the Lord took his life." This direct judgment is pretty rare in the Bible, but it happens twice to Judah's sons, who are Tamar's husbands, in this story. When Er dies, Tamar has not yet accomplished the important work of bearing a child to be Er's heir. Therefore, his brother Onan has a legal duty to marry Tamar, so she can have a son for Er. Onan does marry Tamar, and even sleeps with her, but he wickedly "spills his seed on the ground" so she can't actually have a child. God "considered it evil for Onan to deny a child to his dead brother. So the Lord took Onan's life too." Tamar has really had a poor lot of husbands to deal with at this point.

With his two sons dead, rather than take her in to provide for her as part of his family, Judah sends Tamar back to her parents house to wait until his third son Shelah is old enough to marry her. At this point, Tamar is not doing well in life. She hasn't yet been able to have a son, because two of her husbands were too wicked to live, from God's perspective. She is now back at home and her only hope of a family to be with her for the rest of her life is in Judah's last son. She must have been apprehensive after her marriages to Judah's other sons. Would Shelah be any different? But when he reaches marriageable age, nothing happens. Judah does not look like he plans to even do his legal duty to Tamar by letting her marry him. This is when Tamar springs into action.

When she understands her circumstances, that she will likely be neglected by the father-in-law who has a duty to care for her, she takes her future into her own hands. The text gives us cinematic detail of her changing out of her widow's clothes and putting on a veil to disguise herself. Then Tamar brazenly sits by the road where she knows Judah will be, to present herself to him as a prostitute. She must know Judah, and be fairly sure that this plan will work, to be bold enough to put it into action.

It goes like clockwork. Or as if it were divinely orchestrated? Judah does not recognize Tamar, but does want to have sex with her. She gets his identification markers, apparently as a deposit for the goat he promises as payment. But really of course, she wants these rather than a goat! Judah, embarrassingly, cannot find her later to get them back. She is holding onto them until the key moment when she is found to be pregnant.

At that moment, Judah's great hypocrisy, callousness, and lack of love for his daughter in law is revealed. It's interesting that before he understands what's going on, he has a clue that could have jogged his memory and made him wonder about the timing of everything. Judah was told (it doesn't say who told him), "Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has acted like a prostitute. And now, because of this, she's pregnant!" Did the message bearer know what had happened I wonder? The details in the accusation are perfectly correct, and it's hard to know how anyone else would know about this unless Tamar wanted them to.

Judah, horribly, says "Bring her out and let her be burned!" Apparently this is his public stance on prostitution. But he changes his tune when she sends a message to him  "as they were taking her out to kill her." She has tied the knot in her plan well. She shows Judah his id markers she has been holding onto, and she escapes her sentence when Judah has to acknowledge the truth of his behavior. All the talk of burning is forgotten, and Judah, convicted, now declares, "She is more righteous than I am because I did not arrange for her to marry my son Shelah." In a righteousness contest, most likely neither of these two would be near the top if their particular relationship with each other were considered. However, I do think he's right that Tamar would be ahead.

Judah gives Tamar twin sons, who in true biblical fashion, at their births switch their birth order: one baby's hand comes out first, then the other baby is actually born first. Their names are Perez and Zerah, and they follow Judah immediately in future geneologies, skipping the generation of Er, Onan, and Shelah. I'm not sure what the official geneology protocols are in this kind of situation. Technically of course the boys are Judah's sons, even though Tamar's sons were supposed to count as Er's sons if they had been fathered by one of his brothers. I think it is really interesting that Tamar is one of the only females mentioned in Jesus's geneology in Matthew, perhaps it is because of the tricky nature of the line here. I wouldn't say that that alone counts as an endorsement of Tamar's scheme. But there is another place where we have some interesting commentary on what happens to both Dinah and Tamar.

The final commentary in Jacob's blessings
At the end of Jacob's life, he calls together all his sons to bless them before he dies. We have thought a little about a father's blessing and it's effect before, wondering whether it is meant to actually influence the future, or to rather predict it. In this case Jacob gives us a clear answer for what he means to do. "I will tell you what will happen to each of you in the days to come." He intends these blessings as prophecies, and when he says things like "I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob," it sounds to me like he is really speaking for God, since this is not something an old man at the end of his life will be able to do. He has a message for each of his sons, but I think what he says to his first four are particularly thought-provoking for us.

Reuben is chided " you are as unruly as a flood, and you will be my first no longer. For you went to bed with my wife; you defiled my marriage couch." A sexual sin which is mentioned in one sentence earlier in the text now keeps Reuben from the blessing of his firstborn status. Jacob does seem mainly concerned in this instance with how he has been dishonored in the affair, rather than with the personal sin of Reuben or Bilhah. But still, this is evidence of the importance of sexual and marriage purity in the evaluation of a life. In the Me Too era, this is noteworthy. How many men with illustrious careers have been found in sexual sin, which they try to say doesn't matter when you consider their great contributions to the world? This defense does not hold water for Reuben when Jacob judges him.

Simeon and Levi are lumped together and indicted for the violence they inflicted on Shechem and his town. Jacob says he does not want to join in their meetings or be party to their plans, because of their fierce anger and cruel wrath. (Speaking for God here?) Their murderous action is judged harshly here, even though it was retaliatory. In the hindsight of history given in Jacob's blessing, Shechem is remembered as a victim, not a perpetrator. And if Shechem is a victim, Dinah is an ultimate victim, suffering both in her rape, and then in the loss of the hope of a family for herself. Though it is so hard to know what her perspective on it all was, her story ends badly. Dinah was really treated as a pawn by Shechem and then her own brothers. They are cursed for their actions, but Dinah herself bears a lot of the burden of everything that happens. Remember her name means "judged." Two meanings for that could apply to the people who hurt her: Shechem judged by Dinah's angry brothers, and the brothers judged by Jacob.

Having taken in the first three blessings, Judah's comes as a surprise to me. Reuben, Simeon, and Levi are held accountable for their sins, but Judah's treatment of and relationship with Tamar is not mentioned at all. Is this because of the "happy" ending? Judah gets the best, or second best blessing, tied with righteous and faithful Joseph. As the brother's stories play out, we do see Judah taking responsibility as an oldest son in their dealings with Joseph in his high position in Egypt. But Reuben does as well, and it seems, in the balance, that his sexual sin trumps his later good behavior.

If we follow the geneology in Matthew, when Judah blessed his sons at the end of his life, he would have been blessing Perez and Zerah, the sons of Tamar. How should we understand the ethics of what happened between them?? Judah's sin was in leaving Tamar, and his son Er, without any children. When Tamar set up an outside of marriage tryst, which Judah would have had to acknowledge was a sexual sin for him as he committed it, was she coercing him into doing what he should have done? The text says that his wife had already died when he set off on the trip where Tamar met him, but I don't think their family relationship would have allowed them to marry. And after their one meeting, he never has sex with her again. This is a real-world complicated story with real-world complicated characters and motives.

Dinah and Tamar in contrast
A final judgment on Judah and Tamar is difficult, but, let's look at the arcs of Dinah's and Tamar's stories in contrast, because I think that is really interesting.
  • Dinah: Injustice is done to her, she does not act, the people who wrong her are judged, she suffers.
  • Tamar: Injustice is done to her, she takes action in a questionable/sinful way, the person who wronged her is not judged, she escapes her suffering.
The major caveat to the above sketches is that God's justice is not fully administered until then end of each of our lives. We can trust that he provided full perfect justice for Dinah, Simeon and Levi, Shechem, Tamar, and Judah, ultimately. But I think Jacob's prophetic commentary should pique our curiosity about God's mercy for Judah and Tamar. The true answer, by which to set your compass, is that no matter your circumstances, you are not justified in using sinful means to try to make things better for yourself. But I think we see God having mercy on Tamar (and Judah!) in their sin here. I won't go so far as to say he finds no fault with what Tamar did. But her action brings conviction to Judah, children for herself, and no final judgment from Jacob. I will just leave it as a question mark, it would be way off to conclude that God doesn't care about sexual sin. But I do think you see the story showing that Judah's sin of neglecting Tamar is a bigger infraction than hers of ensnaring him for sex.

We've been learning that after the fall, the relationship between men and women is troubled by a power dynamic, where women want to control men, but men are destined to rule over them. The curse leads us to expect to see men exploiting their power over women; and the physical nature of femininity, with women doing the vulnerable work of childbearing, reinforces that. In these two stories, women suffering from lack of power choose two different responses. I'm sure of God's ultimate justice for Dinah, who simply suffered. But we can also see here God's patience with, and activity in, the life of a woman who did not lay by the wayside, but acted to try to bring about justice and regain power for herself.

Also, I don't think we can end our discussion of all this without noticing that none of the characters in these stories invite God into the action. No prayers are even mentioned. God is over all of this as a witness and judge, but he does not intervene, and he is not asked to. How might things have been different??

  • Tamar and Dinah both suffer injustice from men who should have provided for them. Dinah does not act and does not escape her suffering. Tamar does act, in a morally questionable way, and does escape hers, at least in some measure.
  • Continue to notice the centrality of the feminine domains of marriage, sex, and childbearing to the plot of the Bible here.
  • Do you think Dinah forgave and loved Shechem, or would have been happy to be "rescued" and brought back to her father's house?
  • How do we rate the morality of Tamar's scheme with Judah? Do you think Tamar gets completely off the hook? 
  • If women experience injustice from powerful men in our own lives, how should we figure out how far to go to get justice for ourselves? As far as Tamar did? Further than Dinah? Is it different in for different people in different circumstances?

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