Having arrived in Canaan with an intact, distinct household, Israel is in need of a foreign policy towards the neighbors. Now that Jacob has two full wives, two concubines, and eleven sons, the Yahwistic project is able to pursue a wide range of competing hypotheses simultaneously, but this complicates the business of making and keeping promises as a political unit.
The first challenge to this order involves the question of sexual consent and autonomy at multiple levels of abstraction.
Judgment of Shechem
Jacob’s purchase of property in the territory of the city of Shechem was perhaps intended to allow for a combination of autonomy and intercourse with a commercial center. But this quickly leads to a conflict of norms around personal autonomy, sexuality, and marriage.
Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah – and as far as we know, his only daughter, goes out to see the local women, presumably to make friends. Her position is somewhat analogous to Jacob’s own. Jacob, having finally acquired land he owns outright on which to run an independent household, has the opportunity to interact with outside groups as potential peers, rather than adversaries threatening to destroy or engulf him. Dinah has grown up alone for different reasons – surrounded by brothers, with different life and reproductive priorities than her own, in increasingly patriarchal Harran – and may be looking forward to interacting with the free women of Shechem, the first full peers she’s met.
Dinah is noticed by the prince’s son, named Shechem just like his city. Shechem wants Dinah as a mate, so he takes decisive action towards that end.
Shechem takes Dinah to bed, humiliating her. Then, he speaks to her heart from his apparently genuine feeling of attachment to her, and asks his father to obtain her for him as a wife.
Before assessing the extreme response to this attack, it’s worth articulating exactly what makes it a grave offense. Sexual reproduction and pair-bonding are uniquely powerful means of creating permanent alliances.
As a member of Jacob’s household, Dinah has the power to permanently bind his lineal interests with some that of some other family, by mixing her genetic information with theirs and producing offspring. (This would naturally lead to cultural mixing, much as the family connections between the Canaan-based line of Abraham and his relatives in Harran led to substantial cultural cross-pollination.) As Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah is the only chance her household has at combining with a male counterpart. If lineages are to be well-articulated and unambiguous, Dinah only gets one chance at this. Shechem has potentially occupied the sole available place for a male mate to the house of Jacob in this generation.
It’s likely that Dinah’s autonomy has been permanently compromised on a personal level as well. Human beings often bond to people they’ve been physically intimate with; even if they didn’t consent to the intimacy initially, it may change their preferences so that they retroactively consent. This is most true when a child has been produced; rape victims may be nonetheless reluctant to abandon a resulting baby.
The house of Israel is still a small group of strangers in a place full of established powers. If Dinah is under Jacob’s jurisdiction, then Shechem just committed a crime against her and her family. Israel has three choices: retaliate (and enter open conflict with a superior power), submit to Shechem’s dominance overtly, or acknowledge the violation as a legitimate marriage in order to save face. Shechem is counting on Israel determining that the third option is the least bad.
Consider Laban for comparison. Laban’s strategy for merging households was to open with warmth, make a series of deals that put him in an advantageous position, and then unilaterally renegotiate from a position of strength. This included violating Jacob’s sexual autonomy via subterfuge, switching out Laban’s older for his younger daughter. Jacob’s ultimate exit from the arrangement was traumatic, but ultimately straightforward, as his household retained enough autonomous decisionmaking capacity and operational integrity to resolve to leave, and follow that up with actions.
Shechem’s strategy is more brazen than Laban’s: he opens with a forcible violation of boundaries, presenting his counterparties with a fait accompli that would be more expensive than it’s worth to unwind, and acts after the fact to try to smooth things over, repair hurt feelings, and formalize the new arrangement.
Shechem doesn’t seem to think that his behavior is abnormal. Instead, we seem to have a conflict of norms between Shechem and Israel.
Shechem’s implied excuse for his behavior is that he acted impulsively, out of passion. (In some cultures, such as the early American Borderers, the “kidnapping” of brides has been part of normal marriage folkways. In others, it’s normal for powerful men to exploit their position to prey on women within their domain, sometimes with the promise of marriage.) Now, in love, he’s willing to pay the price of his actions, by normalizing the situation with marriage. This style, of taking first and then paying afterwards, privileges those best-positioned to create “facts on the ground,” against those whom they act on.
By contrast, when Jacob was in Harran and saw Rachel, he – in an uncharacteristic fit of impulsiveness – waited for a month, proposed marriage to Rachel when prompted by Laban, and accepted a seven-year delay. Perhaps we are not meant to think of their seven-year contract as normal, but the fact that Laban could even think to propose it suggests a culture of negotiating first, acting later, even between parties with positions as unequal as Jacob’s and Laban’s.
In an act-first culture, Dinah’s putting herself in an unprotected position may have implied some level of consent; in a negotiate-first culture, no such consent is implied. As bad as things had gotten for women in Harran, they could still be sent out on their own as shepherdesses.
Shechem’s father Hamor goes to Jacob to arrange the marriage, and is met by Jacob’s sons, Dinah’s brothers. Hamor proposes a general plan of intermarriage between Shechemites and Israelites, after which Shechem makes a more particular offer to pay whatever bride-price the house of Israel demands.
Jacob remains silent and allows his sons to respond. They counter that their sister must not marry someone uncircumcised. They propose that all the men of Shechem circumcise themselves, to enact Hamor’s plan – otherwise they will leave, taking Dinah with them.
On its surface, they are capitulating, not even mentioning the possibility of retaliation, and giving the town of Shechem the choice between absorbing Israel and parting ways, letting the town’s eponymous scion off the hook for his behavior. Hamor and Shechem return to their city, and urge the citizens to circumcise themselves. They argue that since land is abundant, more people can easily be included in the city of Shechem; if the house of Israel intermarries with the house of Shechem, it will be absorbed, and all the Israelites’ considerable productive assets (people and livestock) will become Shechem’s. The Shechemite men comply, and circumcise themselves.
Immediately before the negotiation, we are told that Jacob’s sons were incensed at Shechem’s behavior, and spoke deceitfully. The nature of that deception will soon be revealed, but Jacob was not in on the scheme. What did he think was going on?
Jacob may have seen his sons’ demand that the Shechemites circumcise themselves as the first step in a campaign for Israel’s cultural dominance over Shechem. Circumcision may have been the beginning of an attempt to correct the disparity in time preference, by putting the Shechemites through a ritual that exposes them to intense pain associated with the immediate sense of reproductive opportunity, in exchange for later mating opportunities.
Alternatively, the plan might have been to trick the Shechemites into circumcising themselves as a form of retaliation, and then simply take Dinah and depart. Jacob’s silence during the negotiations might then have served as a sort of plausible deniability; having agreed to nothing overtly, he could simply overrule his sons.
On the third day after the circumcision, when the men of the city are still incapacitated with pain, two of Jacob’s sons – Simon and Levi – kill every man in the city, take all the Shechemites’ possessions (and their wives and children), and extract Dinah.
Jacob rebukes his sons for this extreme response, saying that they’ve made him stink among the nearby peoples. He points out that his household is not very numerous, and can ill afford conflict with the other inhabitants of Canaan.
While the full group of Jacob’s sons made the offer deceptively, only Simon and Levi seem to have intended a massive retaliatory strike. The other sons appear to have endorsed deception but not violence, and Jacob wasn’t even a party to the deception. Thus, there are potentially three distinct perspectives to account for within the house of Israel: the perspective of Jacob, the perspective of Simon and Levi, and the perspective of Jacob’s other sons.
Why might Simon and Levi have thought such a monstrous response was appropriate? In asymmetric conflicts, the weaker side is often compelled to adopt extreme tactics, regardless of the justice of their cause; many campaigns of guerrilla terrorism are examples of this, as was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Jacob’s household is small compared to the size of the town of Shechem. Given the differing norms around sexual consent and marriage, and absence of any mediating figure, Shechem may not be willing to accept a proportional retaliation; violence against the prince’s son is likely to be seen as a grave offense, and punished severely. And if Jacob’s sons had indicated the intent to retaliate, Shechem might have defended against the strike, also with a superior force. Expressing a serious grievance is evidence of such intent. The logic of asymmetric conflict favors a surprise attack, of sufficient scale to destroy the enemy’s ability to retaliate.
To some extent, Simon and Levi are vindicated strategically as well as tactically – in the house of Israel’s subsequent travels, the other peoples of the land avoid any contact, out of fear. Violence can at least accomplish that much. But they lose the cooperative opportunity Jacob sought in setting up camp near a city.
What might Jacob have thought his sons meant? As mentioned above, Jacob might have interpreted his sons’ offer as a decision to take a calculated risk, accepting more entanglement in exchange for a foothold on Shechemite culture. In the past, Jacob successfully doubled down repeatedly on increased entanglement in the hope of coming out better off at the end; his household recently successfully exited a long struggle against Laban’s household for effective ownership of their portion of shared resources. Jacob won the loyalty of his wives, Laban’s daughters, and even obtained effective control of the household gods.
And what might Jacob’s other sons have meant? Even if we restrict “sons of Jacob” to the pre-mandrake offspring of Leah (and thus Dinah’s most unambiguous near kin), that gives us four senior sons, two of whom – Reuben and Judah – were not involved. While Judah might be excused for his comparative youth, Reuben is the eldest and would have been old enough to fight. Reuben’s past participation in the mandrake intrigue suggests a preference for pursuing his interests through commerce rather than outright violence.
Succession and delegation
One might have thought that as an experienced head of household with a successful track record in such negotiations, Jacob would want to control the outcome of such delicate negotiations. But that way lies the problem of Babel.
An experienced leader can control the actions of subordinates to prevent them from making mistakes, but this comes at the expense of learning. Subordinates are prevented from learning from their mistakes, and thus from acquiring the skills that would allow them to take on more responsibility. In addition, the organization as a whole is prevented from exploring new hypotheses and adding to its institutional knowledge.
Unlike his father and grandfather, Jacob has the ability to explore multiple competing hypotheses directly, in parallel lineages. His sons seem to have come of age early enough to participate in the affairs of the household while Jacob is still active enough to supervise them. So Jacob seems to have elected to manage his household with a light hand, giving feedback afterwards, but allowing his sons to make their own mistakes.
In so doing, Jacob runs up against the opposite problem: the actions of two sons incur risk – moral and material – for the whole household.
Agreeability and Standards
The story of Dinah and Shechem isn’t the first time we’ve seen a city habitually sexually violate strangers. We saw a much milder form of this in Harran (Laban casually substituting his older daughter for Jacob’s intended), and a much more severe form in Sodom (a mob demanding entry to Lot’s home to assault his guests, Yahweh’s messengers).
In all three cases, violence emerges from a conflict between agreeability and standards. Yahweh and Israel both expect their agents to have personal and bodily autonomy at all times. By contrast, the Sodomites seemed to feel entitled to get to know strangers on highly intimate terms, and perhaps legitimately felt aggrieved that these guests in their city were holding out. Likewise, Laban implied that he couldn’t reasonably be expected to abide by a contract with Jacob that flew in the face of the local marriage customs.
Standards and the enforcement thereof are an essential precondition to the sort of efficient, large-scale commerce between strangers required to sustain a complex urbanized economy. But in the absence of strong explicit incentives in that direction, human beings tend to prioritize harmony and conformity instead. To people with a harmonizing modus vivendi, absolute standards can seem like a bizarre external compulsion, like Jacob’s contractual mind did to Laban and Esau. Because of this, people counting on standards to be consistently and fairly enforced, like Dinah and Jacob before her, often find themselves the victims of otherwise-predictable violence by people in a position of sufficient privilege to make it awkward to complain. “What did they expect?”, one might imagine Laban and Shechem to complain.
In the Abrahamic story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Yahweh agreed that the city could be saved if there were ten righteous men within it, and it was only destroyed because no such ten men could be found. Jacob’s household had ten men, potentially enough to save the city of Shechem, but due to a lack of alignment on the standard for right conduct within their group, they were unable to cooperate to save the city, only to destroy it. Accordingly, Jacob’s next priority is to bring his household’s internal standards into greater alignment.
Unification of the name
Having potentially provoked the hostility of the neighboring peoples, Jacob receives word from Elohim that he should get out of town and return to Beth El to erect a proper altar per his promise.
Jacob first instructs the members of his household to purify themselves, change their garments, and put away their old gods. This might be motivated by the disaster at Shechem; to engage in coordinated action, his household must be using a consistent set of operating protocols. Characteristically, Jacob does not destroy the other gods, but caches them under a tree, either in case of future need, or to make it psychologically easier for his people to part with their gods. Perhaps Jacob’s household has acquired the gods of the place they’ve been staying, in which case it is fitting by the standards of the place and time to leave those gods in their place. However, this comparatively gentle rejection of other gods may also have been meant to accommodate Rachel, who had gone to substantial lengths to appropriate her father’s gods.
At Beth-El, Elohim appears to Jacob, reiterates the promise to give him the land promised to his grandfathers and make him a great nation, and once more renames him Israel.
While Abraham and Sarah are referred to exclusively by their new names after their renamings, Jacob’s renaming seems not to stick, despite multiple attempts. In the Dinah story, the name “Israel” is only used once, to describe his household, not him personally. Nor does it seem to adhere to him consistently after this second renaming.
The persistence of Jacob’s old name seems consistent with the transience of his experience of divinity. Abraham’s experience of Yahweh was integrated into his life. His god not only appeared to him in a vivid dream as El Shaddai, but sent angels to unambiguously deliver divine information, and ambiguously manifested himself in that context to dialogue with Abraham.
Jacob’s experience of God is in occasional moments of transcendence, mostly outside of mundane life. He never dialogues with his god, and his intimate encounters with divinity are explainable by mundane means. The first was a dream during a liminal period of isolation where his psychological defenses were relaxed in more ways than one. He was on the run, afraid for his life, and completely isolated. The second was a night-time wrestling match with an ambiguously divine emissary, in another liminal period in which he was on the run and socially disconnected all sides. A night-time encounter, of course, may have some elements of a dream. The third was a recollection of the words of his god, at the same holy site where he had previously dreamt them. And when angels appear to him on other occasions, they mirror the structure of the following mundane events, and may not even represent a separate incident.
Jacob does not lack divine vision, but he treats it as a working hypothesis, not reality. For Jacob, perception, however divinely inspired it might be, is not reality.
Abraham began inside one of the great cities, and took on a high level of risk to make something new. His name was given to him by his family, residents of the northern Mesopotamian city Ur Casdim. His conceptual vocabulary, the names he has for the things in his world, the categories and schemas he can see through, were also given to him by people of that world. To act outside the Mesopotamian paradigm, he had to constantly engage in radical acts of seeing and hearing. The level of psychoticism necessary to do this led Abraham to stake everything – his one legitimate son and heir, at an age where he could hardly expect to produce another – on the Yahwistic project.
Jacob is a third-generation semi-nomad firmly outside the great cities, despite his extended Harranian family connection. He was named by Isaac, who was brought up by Abraham, and his world view reflects this. Instead of acting based on his personal experience of the divine, Jacob validates it against his mundane understanding of how the world works, and imposes an explicit, quantified risk management regime. He makes a conditional offer to tithe, and doesn’t leave Harran until he has more than ten sons, so that even if he should be expected to tithe he’ll have plenty of chances at an heir.
On the whole, while Abraham breaks his world to build a new one, Jacob trusts the schema he already has. He is less inclined to fix it, either because he perceives it as less broken, or because he has a more conservative disposition. Unlike his adventurous brother Esau, Jacob’s natural inclination in childhood was to stay at home – the dweller in tents.
This marks a gradual transition in the Abrahamic project, to a sufficient level of culture that even the leader can to some extent live inside it. Outside of a culture, God is man’s best friend. Inside of a culture, it’s too dark to see. The mind of Jacob interfaces with the mundane world through the lens of the social reality he’s been acculturated to. Israel, supposedly his new name, seems to really be his family‘s new name, or his name as his family’s visionary. The household, not the man, dialogues with God. Jacob is Israel, only insofar as he is the first Israelite.
But while Jacob himself is reluctant to break the bounds of his reality, he still contains the seeds of the kind of zealotry needed to rewrite reality around oneself. There is genuine uncertainty about the level of zealotry and violence required to maintain an autonomous perspective. Jacob rebukes Simon and Levi for failing to account for the political realities of his situation, but is unwilling to cut them off. And where Abraham’s psychotic zealotry required him to stake the life of his own son, but did not actually lead to Isaac’s death, Jacob’s more dissociated, reticent attitude towards the divine leads to the slaughter of the entire male population of the city of Shechem.
Changes in the relative status of women, and attitudes towards sex work
Simon and Levi do not accept their father’s rebuke over the massacre of Shechem. They reply, “Shall one deal with our sister like a harlot?” This invites a comparison to the sexual ethics of the prior two generations.
Twice, Abraham and Sarah traveled into the domain of a king who took Sarah to bed, and then – upon discovering that the two were married – paid them to go away in peace. Isaac and Rebekah had a similar incident, although they were unable to preserve the appearance of being siblings for long enough to go through with the deal. While circumstances were different – Abraham and Sarah had no legitimate heir, and badly wanted one – Simon and Levi are implicitly rebuking their own grand- and great-grandparents, implying a change in standards and not just conditions.
Specifically, it seems that the household of Israel is more concerned with paternity certainty and female purity, than the household of Abraham was. While this perhaps corresponds to the declining status of women in Harran, women are still quite involved in the story, even if the text rarely calls our attention to them.
It also seems as though sex relations have become more adversarial. Sarah and Abraham seem to have been able to tacitly assume that they were on the same team under conditions that must have terribly strained this trust (e.g. various attempts to produce an heir through surrogates), and Isaac and Rebecca seem to have begun in a spirit of mutual infatuation, in Jacob’s lifetime Rebecca manipulates Isaac into making the decisions she believes are best, the rivalry between Rachel and Leah implies that they can’t possibly both be completely on Jacob’s side, and Dinah isn’t consulted at all in her story. The more you subjugate someone, the less you can trust them as an equal.
While the women of the family seem to be doing less that directly interacts with the stories of the men, they still seem to be quite active behind the scenes.
During the visit to Beth-El, we are informed that Rebekah’s wet-nurse Deborah dies, and they bury her there under a tree they name the Tree of Weeping (Allon-Bacuth, אלון בכות).
We only heard of Rebekah’s wet-nurse once before; when Rebekah left Harran, her wet-nurse went with her. Now we learn not only Deborah’s name, but that she has been traveling with Jacob. A member of Rebekah’s household, she may have been providing her with intelligence about Jacob’s doings, allowing her to manage or at least keep an eye on things from afar.
The strangest thing about Deborah, though, is that we learn of her whereabouts at the time of her death, but Rebekah’s whereabouts and activities are unknown, her death unreported entirely. We know her only by the light footprint of her wet-nurse in Jacob’s camp. As usual, details about women are in the background. Perhaps they have their own bible that they don’t tell the men about. More likely, if it ever existed, it’s been lost.
The text further seems ambiguous as to whether Deborah is the person who nursed Rebekah, or a servant sent with her to nurse her children, much as Zilpah and Bilhah were sent with Leah and Rachel as potential surrogate mothers. This suggests an alternate reading in which the reference to the person who nursed Jacob is an indirect reference to his mother herself, who traveled incognito with her son on his adventures, secretly advising him on how to deal with her wily brother.
We do, however, have an account of the death of Rachel. Rachel dies in labor as the house of Israel is traveling back from Beth-El to Ephrath. During her labor, she names her second and terminal son Ben Oni (בן עני), meaning “Son of my Trouble,” but Jacob renames him Benjamin (בנימין), “Son of my Right Hand”, a lasting memorial to his intended wife, Rachel, his right hand, his strength. Benjamin is the only son born to Jacob in the land promised him by his god.
Reuben, continuing to play the politics of lineal rivalry, does not let the implied slight to the left-hand line of Leah go unchallenged; he responds by lying with Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. He makes sure to do so under circumstances in which Israel finds out. For the significance of this act, we can look to the story of Ham. When Ham lies with his father’s wife, Noah feels compelled to call out the resulting offspring, Canaan, as beneath his half-brothers Shem and Japheth.
Likewise, in a culture so concerned with patrilineal family trees, if Reuben’s had a child by Bilhah, this child would be ranked with Jacob’s grandchildren. If Bilhah’s son is ranked with Jacob’s grandchildren, then Bilhah is ranked with Jacob’s children. If Bilhah’s rank is lowered beneath Jacob’s, then it is also lowered beneath Leah’s. And since Bilhah’s maternal status is closely linked to Rachel’s, this implicitly lowers Rachel’s rank in the lineage, asserting the preeminence of the line of Leah over the line of Rachel, adding insult to injury.
No offspring appear to result from the union of Reuben and Bilhah. Jacob, presumably still in mourning, takes no immediate corrective action, not even a rebuke; but he remembers the insult to Rachel.
Signifying the end of Jacob’s story, his twelve sons are enumerated, though the text implies that they were all born to him in Paddan-Aram, where Harran is situated. Isaac then dies, and Jacob returns to bury his father; his brother Esau joins him, the final occasion on which they are recorded to have met: brothers fulfilling their final duty to their father. They seem to have made some effort to share the same space, since we later hear that Esau went back across the Jordan to Edom, since his and Jacob’s households were too large and prosperous to occupy the same territory.
The end of Jacob’s story is end of Esau’s story, signified likewise by the enumeration of his offspring, who end up as chiefs of the land of Edom. At first glance the genealogy is repetitious, an apparent compilation from multiple sources concerned with different aspects of the succession. But taken together, the genealogy delicately reveals some interesting cultural differences between Israelite and Edomite culture. (Esau is identified with Edom.)
One interesting feature of this genealogy is that one of his two Canaanite wives seems to have come from a matrilineal tradition: Oholibamah is described as daughter of Anah, daughter of Zibeon the Hivvite. While the sons of Esau’s other wives Adah (daughter of Elon the Hittite) and Basemath (daughter of Ishmael) are described as Esau’s sons, the sons of Oholibamah are primarily described as her sons, in apparent accordance with Hivvite tradition.
A second irregularity is that Esau’s grandson Korah, son of Eliphaz, son of Esau’s wife Adah, daughter of Elon the Hittite, shares a name with one of Oholibamah’s sons. In addition, while Korah is named among the sons Oholibamah bore Esau alongside Esau’s other sons Jeush and Jaalam, none of them are referred to directly as Esau’s sons; instead, unlike his sons by other wives, they’re referred to as the sons of their mother, not of their father.
We are then given a parallel genealogy of the line of Seir (sharing a name with the most famous mountain in the region, where Esau is said to have dwelt), a Horite, implying that Esau’s progeny coexisted with the native.
Next is a list of the kings of Edom prior to the establishment of kings in Israel. We are told of the fathers of some of them, but none of them appear to be the son of the previous king, in accord with the Edomites’ apparently relaxed attitude towards patrilineal succession. Moreover, their cities of origin differ as well, implying that they may have come from different families altogether. This suggests something more like a loose confederation, or perhaps some other more formal institution, but in any case altogether unlike a patrilineal dynasty, resembling somewhat more the succession in the Israelite era of Judges, in which from time to time a person from one of the tribes of Israel became preeminent over some portion of their informal confederation.
Altogether, the contrast is somewhat unflattering to Israel. While Esau’s start was more wild, the hunter, he was also the elder brother who ultimately repaid his younger brother with the offer of friendship, and was rebuffed. While Simon and Levi massacred the men of Shechem, Esau’s descendants seem to have lived peaceably and stably with their neighbors, occupying positions of comfortable prominence without necessarily dominating those around them.
But Esau’s descendants left no account of their own history for us, no discernible message, lasting legacy, or identifiable perspective. Israel, on the other hand, has not lost the attention of its patron god; its story is still beginning. Its genealogical focus prevents the smoothing out of flaws, and its uncompromising attitude leads to conflict, but both also bring flaws to the surface, enabling intergenerational learning.
Jacob has so far managed to recover from difficulties, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, but in the next generation the tensions in the nascent Israelite nation will lead it far astray from its preferred environment, into the iron furnace of Egypt. What returns will be deeply changed.