Shekhem and his city were deserving of death either for the original taking of Dinah or for their later refusal to abide by their deal with Yaakov's sons.
Complicit in the Original Sin
Since the entire city had participated, to varying degrees, in the taking of Dinah, all deserved capital punishment.
- "Abducting" Dinah was a capital crime – Rambam, Abarbanel, and Or HaChayyim maintain that the act of taking Dinah against her will fell under the category of "theft" which is a capital crime under the Noachide laws.3
- Rape was punishable by death – The Tosafist commentary, on the other hand, apparently assumes that it is justified to punish rape with death, even though neither Noachide nor Torah law does so.4
- Intermarriage – In contrast, according to Jubilees and many of the classical sources, Shimon and Levi were less bothered by the actual act of rape and more by the potential for intermarriage.
- Condoning the act – Ibn Kaspi and Abarbanel assert that the people of Shekhem did not protest the taking of Dinah, and as such were complicit in the act.5 Rambam adds that, in not prosecuting Shekhem, they violated the Noachide law to institute legal procedures, which is itself punishable by death.6
- Actively took Dinah – Or HaChayyim asserts that the people of the city actively participated in the taking of Dinah, thereby transgressing the Noachide law regarding theft.7
- Joined in the sexual assault – The Tosafist commentary goes even a step further to suggest that Dinah was raped by the other men of Shekhem as well.8
- Shame into fighting – Abarbanel raises the possibility that the brothers never meant for the Shekhemites to circumcise themselves. Their speech was rather intended to shame and rile Shekhem and Chamor into fighting against them, enabling them to take revenge.9
- Trick to enable the killing – Or HaChayyim alternatively posits that the brothers hoped to convince Shekhem and his city to circumcise themselves so that they could kill them while they were weak.10 One might suggest that the duplicity of their words is not considered problematic since the ends justified the means.
- Prevent reneging on the deal – Abarbanel asserts that the real trickery lay in the intentional ambiguity of the brothers' words. Although they implied otherwise, they never actually agreed to let Shekhem marry Dinah.11 Thus, in the end, no one could argue that did not keep their end of the bargain.
- Hashem assented – Abarbanel suggests that Hashem agreed with the brothers' actions, as evidenced by the fact that He put fear into the surrounding cities and protected Yaakov's family.
- Hashem rewarded – Many of the classical sources suggest that the act was explicitly sanctioned by Hashem, who might have even have put the thought into their heads.14 Jubilees further asserts that the brothers were "written for a blessing" for their act. Soon after, Levi15 was rewarded with the priesthood.16
- Negotiate together – Abarbanel and Or HaChayyim do not actively differentiate between the brothers' role in the negotiations, suggesting that all might have participated. Abarbanel does, though, present Shimon and Levi as acting alone in killing the people.
- Shimon and Levi did not negotiate – Theodotus and the Testament of Levi, though, suggest that, in their zealousness, Shimon and Levi completely opposed the negotiations.17 Thus, according to these sources, it is possible that the other brothers were sincere in their offering of Dinah in marriage. Shimon and Levi, though, thought that circumcision alone should not permit intermarriage, and it was to prevent this (rather than avenge the rape) that they massacred the city.
Reneged on the Deal
The Shekhemites did not uphold their part of the bargain with the brothers, but rather changed the terms, thus inviting and justifying the brothers' vengeance.
- No –This position might assert that Shekhem did not deserve death for ravishing Dinah, since rape is not a capital crime according to the Torah. Rather, the rapist must compensate the father of the victim and then marry the woman.18 Thus, it is not for the rape itself that Shekhem (and his city) were killed but rather for their later actions.
- Yes – According to the Ma'asei Hashem and HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, though, both Yaakov and sons thought it just to kill Shekhem for the "lawless atrocity" which he committed.
- Regretted leaving idolatry – According to the Rosh, Hadar Zekeinim, and HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, the condition regarding circumcision included a rejection of idolatry.19 After circumcising, though, the people regretted changing their faith,20 and according to Sefer HaYashar, they even planned to kill Yaakov and sons in a show of loyalty to their original beliefs.
- Planned to enslave and rob – Yosef HaMekannei, the Ma'asei Hashem, and HaKetav VeHaKabbalah21 point to several changes which Shekhem made when relaying the deal to his subjects,22 all of which made it clear that they were not hoping to live together peacefully, but rather to plunder and subjugate Yaakov's family.
- The Ma'asei Hashem and HaKetav VeHaKabbalah assert that Shekhem's words "מִקְנֵהֶם וְקִנְיָנָם וְכָל בְּהֶמְתָּם הֲלוֹא לָנוּ הֵם" prove that their intentions were to rob.23 As this was Shekhem's motivation, the brothers had no choice but to attack, since "הבא להרגך השכם להרגו".
- Yosef HaMekannei maintains that the new emphasis on Shekhem's actively taking (rather than being given) the Israelite women suggested that they planned to subjugate Yaakov's clan.24
- Most of the brothers sincere – This position might say that only Shimon and Levi spoke insincerely, and that the other brothers did not object to giving Dinah in marriage. Perhaps they even saw this as an opportunity; peacefully becoming "one nation" might have been a first step towards ownership over Canaan.25 If so, any participation of theirs in the later killing was only in response to Shekhem's veering from his part of the bargain.
- Most of the brothers absent – Alternatively, the Ma'asei Hashem implies that only Shimon and Levi were present during the negotiations and the others were totally unaware of their plan. Shimon and Levi themselves, though, were requesting only that Shekhem alone be circumcised so that they could attack him.26 They had not initially meant for the rest of the city to be circumcised or killed.27
Though the people of Shekhem might have been innocent, it was necessary to kill them either to retrieve Dinah and avenge her rape, or to ensure that such an atrocity would never be repeated.
To Retrieve Dinah
The only way to retrieve Dinah from her captors and avenge the rape was to kill those who were protecting Shekhem.
Deterrence for the Future
The brothers were purposefully extreme in their actions so as to instill fear into their enemies and deter them from any future attempts to harm the family.
Shimon and Levi were not justified in their actions and should not have killed the entire city to avenge Dinah's honor.
- Shekhemites wicked – Ramban suggests that the brothers viewed the inhabitants as wicked people whose lives were worthless. They further saw no need to uphold their end of the covenant, since the people of Shekhem had only agreed to it so as to flatter their king, but not because they believed in its terms.44
- Averse to appearing weak – R. Hirsch praises the brother's motives, lauding their recognition that at times one needs resort to the sword, especially when an enemy is taking advantage of what they perceive to be the weak and friendless. He nonetheless, asserts that Shimon and Levi went too far.
- Unbridled anger – According to Shadal and R. Hoffmann, the brothers were simply blinded by their rage at Shekhem's deed, to the point where they were almost not responsible for their actions.
- Hoped Shekhem would refuse – According to Shadal, all the brothers had thought that Shekhem would not agree to the deal, enabling them to retrieve Dinah and leave. When they nonetheless did agree, Shimon and Levi alone were filled with rage and decided to massacre the city.
- If Shekhem accepted, take advantage of weakness – The other commentators, instead, posit that the brothers had thought of several possibilities. Though they hoped that Shekhem would refuse their terms, they figured that if he did not, they would take advantage of the people's weakness to free their sister and maybe to eliminate Shekhem. Only Shimon and Levi, though, had also planned to take the opportunity to kill all the men.45
- Most of brothers sincere – Alternatively, one might suggest that most of the brothers were sincere in their offer, not seeing a problem in the marriage if Shekhem were to circumcise himself. The union of the two clans could have potential benefits and might have been a peaceful alternative to the later military conquest of the land. Only Shimon and Levi spoke in deceit.
- No – Ramban views the deception as problematic. The brothers should not have broken their promise after the Shekhemites kept their side of the bargain, for it was possible that they were sincere and would return to Hashem.
- Yes – R. Hirsch justifies it, given the end goal of saving Dinah. Moreover, he claims that Shekhem himself was not speaking sincerely, as evidenced by the fact that he held negotiations over the marriage without first releasing Dinah.