Sin and Slaughter of Shekhem


Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Bereshit 34 recounts Shekhem's rape of Dinah and his ensuing negotiations with Yaakov's family to marry Dinah and fuse their two communities into one nation.  When Dinah's brothers condition this on the circumcision of all males of Shekhem's city,1 Shekhem himself hastens to oblige and persuades his people to follow suit.  Shimon and Levi then take advantage of the post-circumcision infirmity of everyone in the city to slay Shekhem as well as all of his male compatriots, and Yaakov's sons2 proceed to despoil the city.

While the Torah views Shekhem's original act as an outrage (‎"‎נְבָלָה עָשָׂה בְיִשְׂרָאֵל‎"),3 the forceful response of Dinah's brothers also raises significant moral questions.

  • First, according to the Torah, rape of an unmarried woman is not considered to be a capital crime.  Devarim 22 merely obligates a rapist to marry his victim and financially compensate the woman's father, and Shekhem was more than happy to fulfill both of these obligations.4  Given Shekhem's willingness to assume responsibility for his actions, were Shimon and Levi still justified in killing him, or was this an extra-judicial avenging of family honor?
  • Moreover, even if one argues that Shekhem himself deserved to die, on what grounds were all of the other male inhabitants of his city executed?

Who Gets the Last Word?

That Shimon and Levi's actions were not appreciated by their father Yaakov becomes very apparent from the immediate aftermath, when he castigates them using very sharp language:


(ל) וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל לֵוִי עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי.

(30)  And Yaakov said to Shimon and to Levi: "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites, and I am few in number and they will gather against me and strike me and I and my house will be destroyed."

This reprimand, however, criticizes their actions as being only tactically flawed, rather than morally reprehensible, and the story concludes with Shimon and Levi's retort in which they attempt to seize the moral high ground:


(לא) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ.

(31)  And they said: "Should our sister be treated like a harlot?"

It is only in Bereshit 49,5 at the very end of his life, that Yaakov finally weighs in on the morality of the brothers' character and their actions against Shekhem:6


(ה) שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם.  (ו) בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר.  (ז) אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.


Yet, despite Yaakov's outright condemnation, it is specifically the tribe of Levi which is later sanctified to be Hashem's chosen servants and from whom the leadership of the Jewish people emerges at the very beginning of Sefer Shemot.  Might this provide insight into how the Heavenly Court perceived the actions of Shimon and Levi?7  Does the Torah's final verdict on their deeds match Yaakov's evaluation?

Negotiations in Bad Faith?

The negotiations with Chamor and Shekhem (the Chivvites) raise the additional issue of Yaakov's sons' integrity.  The Torah describes the sons of Yaakov as acting "with duplicity" ("בְּמִרְמָה") when proposing that the Chivvites circumcise themselves.8  Can this be condoned as a legitimate strategy to weaken the enemy, or was it a desecration of God's name to resort to such a dishonest ruse?  It is perhaps noteworthy that in Yehoshua 9, when the Children of Israel are tricked by the Chivvite inhabitants of Givon, they nevertheless adhere to the terms of the treaty which they had signed.9

It is not only the sons of Yaakov, however, who may have been negotiating in bad faith.  A close reading and comparison of Chamor's proposals to Yaakov and his sons with the terms he conveys to his own people reveals subtle differences.  These may be attributable to the simple politics of internal consumption,10 but they also may be indicative of more sinister motives and a desire to subjugate Yaakov's family.11  Might this also be a factor influencing and justifying Shimon and Levi's course of action?

To study the views of commentators throughout the ages, continue to Approaches.