Sin and Slaughter of Shekhem

Exegetical Approaches



Exegetes vary in their evaluation of the massacre of Shekhem. They are influenced by textual concerns, their perceptions regarding the severity of the city's crime, and their personal stances on such questions as the validity of collective punishment or acts of deterrence. Many condone, and even laud, Shimon and Levi's actions, viewing the entire city as culpable in the crime. While Abarbanel suggests that the people of Shekhem were complicit in the taking of Dinah, one of the Tosafist commentaries goes further to suggest that they actively joined in the sexual assault as well. Ma'asei Hashem, instead, claims that the Shekhemites reneged on the deal made with the brothers, changing the terms, and thereby justifying the brothers' vengeance.

A second approach suggests that even though the people of Shekhem were not necessarily deserving of death for their crimes, it was nonetheless necessary to collectively punish them. Or HaChayyim posits that the Shekhemites acted as human shields to defend their king, leaving the brothers no recourse but to kill them if they were to retrieve Dinah and avenge her honor. Moreover, active deterrence was necessary to prevent such acts from recurring in the future. A last approach condemns the massacre, claiming that Shimon and Levi's actions were not justified.

Fundamentally Justified

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.

Did Shekhem deserve death?
  • "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. 
Sin of the general populace – These commentators differ in their assessment of the specific wrongdoing of the people of the city:
  • 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
"אֲשֶׁר טִמְּאוּ" – The Tosafist commentary, Ibn Kaspi, and Or HaChayyim all point to the plural form of "טִמְּאוּ" as evidence that the entire city was implicated in the crime.
"וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב... בְּמִרְמָה" – There are several ways to understand the brothers' plan and its accompanying "מִרְמָה":
  • 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.
Yaakov's reaction: "עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי" – This approach might claim that Yaakov did not question the morality of his children's actions, but only chastised them due to his fear that the deed would endanger their family when surrounding nations retaliated.
"נָתַתִּי לְךָ שְׁכֶם אַחַד עַל אַחֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתִּי... בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּי"Bereshit Rabbah80:10About Bereshit Rabbah12 asserts that though Yaakov would have preferred that his sons not commit the massacre, once they did, he was not willing to leave them to the consequences of their actions.  Thus, Yaakov stood his ground against all who retaliated, fighting and conquering the territory with his sword and arrow.  As such, he can later say to Yosef that he is giving him Shekhem "אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתִּי... בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּי" (Bereshit 48:22). Thus, according to this reading, Yaakov actively participated in fighting Shekhem (or their neighbors), accepting his sons' actions.
Yaakov's rebuke in Bereshit 49 – Or HaChayyim suggests that Yaakov's words do not relate to the episode in Shekhem at all, but rather to the sale of Yosef.  Thus, here too, there is no condemnation of the brothers' deeds.13
Hashem's evaluation
  • 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
Taking of the spoils – Or HaChayyim justifies the looting as payment for embarrassing Dinah and the family ("דמי בושת").
Shimon and Levi and their other brothers
  • 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.
Why wait for the third day? According to Abarbanel, the brothers killed the men on the third day after Dinah was taken captive, which was immediately after the circumcision (and not three days later).  The Shekhemites were both weak and in great pain and, thus, easily overcome.
Polemical motivations

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.

Did Shekhem deserve death?
  • 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, in contrast, both Yaakov and sons thought it just to kill Shekhem for the "lawless atrocity" which he committed.
Sin of the general populace – Though all these commentators agree that the Shekhemites reneged on the deal, they differ in the details:
  • 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
"וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב... בְּמִרְמָה"
  • 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
"אֲשֶׁר טִמְּאוּ" – This position does not read any significance into the plural form of the verb.
Yaakov's reaction – The Ma'asei Hashem claims that Yaakov was not bothered by the morality of his sons' violent actions but by the potential repercussions of their methods.  After promising Shekhem that they would become "one nation" and then breaking the covenant, it made it very unlikely that any other nation in the vicinity would trust Yaakov's word or make an alliance.28
Hashem's evaluation – This position might suggest, like Abarbanel above, that Hashem's granting of  protection proved that He condoned the killings.  Moreover, if one posits, like HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, that Shimon and Levi were only 12 and13 years old at the the time, the very success of such a massacre could be viewed as miraculous, only possible with Hashem's help and approval.
Taking of the spoils – Since the Shekhemites' actions justified an attack, taking the spoils of war afterwards was legitimate, especially given that the Shekhem had planned to rob them to begin with.
Shimon and Levi versus the other brothers – According to this approach, it is likely that only Shimon and Levi negotiated deceptively with Shekhem, while the other brothers might have been sincere, or were absent from the talks altogether.29
Why wait for the third day? HaKetav VeHaKabbalah asserts that it took several days until the men of Shekhem regretted their actions.30
Polemical motivations

Practically Necessary

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.

Did Shekhem deserve death? According to Or HaChayyim, Shekhem deserved death for abducting Dinah, but not for raping her, since only the former is a capital crime.32  Ralbag agrees that legally the rape was not punishable by death since Dinah was not married, but asserts that the brothers felt that leaving the act unavenged made it appear as if Dinah was simply a harlot,33 and that for her honor and theirs, Shekhem needed to be killed.34
Did the general populace sin? According to this approach the inhabitants of the city were not culpable for condoning or participating in the original act. The brothers, thus, would not have killed them except that they stood to defend their king, making it impossible to avenge Dinah without killing them too.
"וַיָּבֹאוּ עַל הָעִיר בֶּטַח וַיַּהַרְגוּ כָּל זָכָר" – One might question the assumption that the city's inhabitants were defending their king from this verse which suggests that the brothers proactively killed the men, who were sitting secure, unprepared for the massacre.35 It is perhaps this issue that prompts Ralbag to propose a variation of the approach and suggest that the brothers were not defending themselves against protectors of Shekhem, but rather preempting an inevitable revenge attack by the city.36
"וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב... בְּמִרְמָה" – Ralbag asserts that the brothers thought through several scenarios.  They were hoping that Shekhem would not agree to the deal, enabling them to simply take Dinah and leave.37 If Shekhem nonetheless consented, they thought that they would avenge her honor while the men were weak and unable to defend themselves.  If this proved unsuccessful, at least Dinah would be married to a circumcised man.
Yaakov's reaction – Or HaChayyim suggests that Yaakov was unaware of the plan to kill the entire city and had assumed that the brothers would take advantage of the sick men to simply retrieve Dinah, or at most, to kill Shekhem.  Or HaChayyim, though, does not explain if Yaakov's anger resulted from fear of the action's consequences or from a belief that the brothers were acting immorally in the mass killing.
Yaakov's rebuke in Bereshit 49 – Ralbag asserts that Yaakov was upset at the brothers' unbridled anger and use of trickery.  Or HaChayyim, in contrast, asserts that Yaakov's words are not a condemnation of the Shekhem incident at all, but rather the sale of Yosef.
Hashem's evaluation – This approach might maintain that the Torah gives Shimon and Levi the last word to suggest that despite Yaakov's reservations, the brothers were right.
Taking of the spoils – Ralbag views this as part of the brothers' rightful avenging of Dinah's rape, while Or HaChayyim views it as compensating Dinah and the family for their shame ("דמי בושת").
Why wait for the third day? These commentators do not address the issue.
Polemical motivations

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.

Did Shekhem deserve death? According to Or HaChayyim, Shekhem was deserving of death for abducting Dinah.39 C. Porat does not address the issue explicitly, but might suggest that from a purely legal perspective, even Shekhem was not deserving of death.  He does suggest, though, that the act of punishing Shekhem alone would not have been questioned.
Did the general populace sin? According to this approach the populace at large was innocent.  Sometimes, though, collective punishment, whereby guiltless bystanders are killed, is necessary to prevent future atrocities.40
"וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב... בְּמִרְמָה" – According to C. Porat, Yaakov and most of the brothers used deception only so as to be able to retrieve Dinah and, maybe, eliminate Shekhem.  Shimon and Levi alone were planning on killing the entire city.
Was the deception justified? C. Porat maintains that the use of trickery should not be considered problematic considering the fact that Shekhem was not coming to the table with innocent hands, and that throughout the negotiations Dinah was being held hostage in his palace.
Yaakov's reaction: "עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי" – C. Porat asserts that Yaakov's disagreement with his sons in Bereshit 34 is pragmatic in nature.  For political and security considerations, Yaakov preferred a policy of restraint, while his sons asserted that extreme measures were necessary for deterrence.41
Yaakov's blessing in Bereshit 49 – Yaakov's rebuke here is a moral one.  He and his sons fundamentally disagreed regarding the morality of collectively punishing the innocent.  While Shimon and Levi thought that in certain instances it was justified, Yaakov found it extreme and repugnant not to distinguish the innocent from the guilty.42  He would have opted for a focused operation, which targeted the guilty alone.
Hashem's evaluation – These commentators do not address the issue but might maintain that the brother's success and the lack of condemnation by the Torah suggests that Hashem condoned the act.
Taking of the spoils – The taking of spoils would likely also be justified as a legitimate policy of deterrence.
Shimon and Levi versus the other brothers – This approach does not focus on the different roles played by the various brothers throughout the story.
Polemical motivations – C. Porat reads the story in light of contemporary controversies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and disagreements regarding the benefits of policies of restraint versus active deterrence, and the morality of collective punishment versus targeted killings.  Though Porat suggests that there is room for the former, he lauds the I.D.F. for following Yaakov's ideal of morality in their targeted attacks.


Shimon and Levi were not justified in their actions and should not have killed the entire city to avenge Dinah's honor.

Did Shekhem deserve death? These commentators do not address the legality of killing a rapist, but both Ramban and R. Hirsch assert that killing Shekhem alone would not have been viewed as problematic. One might argue though, that even killing Shekhem was not justified since rape is not a capital crime.
Did the general populace sin? According to this approach the inhabitants of the city were innocent and had not harmed Yaakov's family in any way.  Moreover, they had faithfully accepted the terms of the brothers' deal.  As such, there was no justification for killing them for the crime of another.
Pure motives, bad execution? These commentators differ regarding what drove the brothers to their unacceptable deed, and how they evaluate this drive:
  • Shekhemites wicked – Ramban suggests that the brothers viewed the inhabitants of Shekhem as wicked people whose lives were worthless. In addition, they 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 to 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.
"וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב... בְּמִרְמָה"
  • 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.
Was the deception justified?
  • 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.
Yaakov's reaction – Yaakov condemns the brothers both for the potential danger they brought to the family and for the immorality of their actions.46  According to Ramban, Yaakov is especially angry that the brothers did not keep their end of the deal.
Hashem's evaluation – According to R. Hoffmann, the Torah expresses its negative evaluation of the situation through the words of Yaakov ("בגזר דינו של יעקב גוזרת התורה את דינה על מעשה זה").  This approach would likely suggest that Hashem's eventual choice of Levi was unconnected to his actions in this story, but rather a result of the tribe's zeal in combating the worshipers of the Golden Calf.
"אֲשֶׁר טִמְּאוּ" – This approach would suggest that the Torah does not mean to imply multiple guilt in the usage of the plural.  This is simply the way of the Torah; it sometimes employs a plural when referring to a singular entity and vice versa .
Taking of the spoils – Ramban appears to condemn also the taking of spoils, which was unwarranted given the innocence of the people.
Shimon and Levi versus the other brothers – According to this approach, only Shimon and Levi participated in the killing; the other brothers were unaware of their plan and did not agree with their actions.47  Shadal points out, though, that they had no problem despoiling the city.
Parallel Cases – There are many other examples where Biblical heroes engage in questionable behavior. Both Ramban and R. Hirsch are consistent in their willingness to assert that these characters might have erred.48
Polemical motivations