A Foundation in Genesis Rape Culture
How it works
We live in a world plagued by rape culture. Rape culture is a term that encompasses the state of normalized sexual violence, and its links to greater sexism and misogyny. This normalization occurs in unhealthy relationships, unjust politics, tasteless comedy, and it pits survivors in a corner as provocateurs responsible for inciting the attacks. This sickly standard of society sees victims of assault questioned and their claims invalidated due to their revealing dress, sexual history, inviting behavior, and alcohol intake. As Debra Ferreday has insisted, the term “rape culture” stipulates that we study the presence of gender violence and rape as an institution of our culture (2015, p.
22). We must analyze, through the lens of our modern society, how foundational religious texts such as Genesis are being studied, taught, and interpreted.
An intrinsic aspect of rape culture often brought up in this chapter is purity culture. This is a standardized position of blaming survivors for their own violation, defiling, or “contamination” (Matthieu 2015). Purity culture demands that women maintain their perceived social value by remaining sexually and spiritually “pure” and avoiding pre-marital sex. Furthermore, it is expected that women are responsible for safeguarding their own purity, and failure to do so brings shame to their family names (Einhorn and Berthold 2011, p. 41).
Genesis 34:1 introduces Dinah as the “daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob,” identifying her most closely with her mother. After the instance of rape, Dinah is identified directly as Jacob’s daughter. As author and biblical professor Johanna Stiebert has argued, this is likely due to the gravity of the repercussions of the rape that are felt by Jacob (Stiebert 2013, p. 50). Clearly, Dinah has no say in how she is treated and viewed; let’s take a look at how her emotions, opinions, and desires are systematically ignored:
- Shechem’s love for Dinah romanticizes the assault and implies that he was driven by desire. It is much easier to justify Shechem’s behavior through claims of love and desire than it is to face the true motivators of his actions: misogyny and violence. Idealizing Shechem and Dinah as a perfect couple leads readers to forget about the irreparable trauma caused to Dinah by the sexual assault. By portraying the rape of Dinah as an act of love, the text is essentially sponsoring this type of behavior, and washing over the feelings of survivors.
- “And Shechem…saw her and took her and lay with her and debased her.” Just as Dinah is not given the chance to speak in the entire chapter, she has no say in the way she is treated by Shechem. These actions are done by Shechem unto Dinah, without any sort of consent or mutual action. There is no consideration at any point during the assault or the rest of the chapter where Dinah’s well-being is considered seriously. Dinah is totally ignored and violated throughout Genesis 34, as her silence is absolute.
- Dinah is labeled as unfit for marriage, rather than Shechem. Dinah was expected to remain a virgin until marriage to maintain her sexual purity. As an unmarried non-virgin, Dinah has been devalued as a potential bride, and she is no longer as sexually desirable (Brownmiller 1993, pp. 19?21). This is seen as a failure by Dinah to preserve her “value” and her father’s honor. Although the perpetrator is Shechem, there is no damage done by his violent actions unto his reputation. In the text, Dinah is not portrayed as a victim of violence by Shechem, but as a woman who has become impure and inadequate for marriage. Even in modern teachings, Shechem’s violent actions are viewed as wrong, not because they totally disregard Dinah’s bodily integrity, but because they are the reason that Dinah loses value as a prospective wife.
Even after the attack on Dinah, she is totally disregarded as her brothers negotiate with Shechem’s kin and scheme their revenge. The terms of trade being discussed are Dinah’s marriage and sexual availability, but as always, she is totally silenced by the narrator of the text. Taking into account the modern climate surrounding sexual assault, we must consider what a statement or letter by Dinah about these events would have been like. Perhaps Dinah would shed some light on the wholly ignored trauma that has been introduced in her life by the assault. However, as it happens to many survivors of sexual violence, Dinah’s voice is silenced, and her thoughts are shut out. It is important to encourage the voices of survivors to speak out and share their stories, and to start being honest about rape culture, instead of continuing to teach biblical rape narratives as romantic love stories. The sharing of testimonies by victims is key to halting rape culture, purity culture, and the dangers of victim shaming.
We must read the instances of sexual violence in the biblical texts critically, paying particular attention to how these oppressive tendencies continue to endanger women in our society today. Feminist biblical scholar Esther Fuchs asserts that readers’ inclinations to overlook difficult discussion about misogyny and rape in the Bible, and their reliance on the safe and traditional interpretations of these texts, only “reencodes the silence about women’s oppression” (2000, p. 138). For this reason, it is necessary to read these texts with an amplified awareness of rape culture in the biblical texts as well as in our modern world. This method of critical reading allows us to measure the presence of the asserted gender roles and rape culture in our own lives, allowing us to adjust accordingly.
Past Interpretations: From Traditional to Martin Luther
The modern interpretations of the biblical texts just discussed above are lightyears from the original conservative teachings that still maintain a heavy presence in our society. Martin Luther, a leader in the Protestant Reformation, held views that diverged from the traditional teachings of the church, including in the subject of sexual assault. Schroeder, a professor of history of the Lutheran Church, has documented how Luther’s views abandoned the Catholic teachings. Although Luther was not as radical in his views as many are now, he did take stances that were considered progressive for his time. Schroeder’s documentation of Luther focuses on his beliefs about rape, the guilt of victims, and women’s boundaries.
Chapter 34 of Genesis served as a warning and example for how women should and should not behave. Traditionally, Dinah is viewed as sinning through her curiosity and foolishness. Dinah does not recognize her place in society as a woman and fails to restrain herself when she wishes to see the other girls (Schroeder, p. 775). In medieval interpretations, the rape of Dinah by Shechem was a direct consequence of her sins. This punishment filled Dinah with guilt and shame for which she is responsible.
Martin Luther personal life offered him a unique perspective on the biblical texts, through which he interpreted Genesis 34. As a father of six, Luther was bound to consider the parallels between Jacob and Dinah and him and his own daughters. Traditionally, the story of the rape of Dinah was an example of how women should not behave, and interpreters viewed Dinah as the personification of the reckless and sinful woman. Luther, however, viewed this passage as the historical report of a tragedy that was thrust into the lives of Dinah and Jacob without invitation. Through the perspective of Dinah’s father, Luther focuses on the emotions and life of Jacob (Schroeder, pp. 775-776).
Many medieval interpreters perceive Dinah as having committed two major transgressions during Genesis 34 that brought about her own undoing. The first of these occurred when Dinah left the safety of her home and went outside her assigned boundaries. The second of these occurred when her curiosity led her to go see the other women, which made her vulnerable to desire and rape by Shechem (Schroeder, pp. 776-777). This concludes that Dinah chose to put herself in danger and is to blame for the assault. In general, patristic and medieval interpretations of Genesis 34 deduce that the assault was provoked by Dinah and her curiosity, so she is at fault.
Martin Luther’s unique position as a father to young girls led him to approach Genesis 34 from the perspective of Dinah’s father, Jacob. Magdalene, one of Luther’s daughters, died in his arms when she was thirteen. Since he figures that Dinah was a young girl when she was assaulted, he may be thinking of his own tragedy when he considers Jacob’s situation (Schroeder, pp. 780-781). For this reason, many of Luther’s observations focus on the anger and grief that Jacob experiences. Although Luther is more empathetic than many traditional interpreters, he still finds fault in Dinah’s curiosity (Schroeder, p. 782). Luther stresses the ubiquitous danger of rape in the community. For young girls, the story of Dinah was an example of how not to act; for young boys, Luther used the story of Dinah to teach them about ensuring that girls and women stay safe within the boundaries of the home (Schroeder, p. 783).
In Luther’s eyes, the rape of Dinah was the punishment for her sinning in her disobedience and curiosity. Luther’s views differ from traditional interpreters, however, in that he does not believe Dinah was complicit in the crime of rape, and so she does not share the guilt of the crime with Shechem. Because Dinah did not commit any sexual sin, Luther does not see any reason for Dinah to be treated “like a whore” (Genesis 34:31). Many of his views echo those of early Christian interpreters. Mainly, Luther is in accordance than the sin of curiosity led to the rape of Dinah. Despite these similarities, Luther’s unique perspective enables him to empathize with the victims of the attack to a greater depth. He understands that a young girl could not consent to such an attack, and so there is no need to reprimand or scold Dinah. Most importantly, Luther differs from his precursors in his tone toward Dinah. He understands that Dinah is mourning, and he does not attack her sinful acts of curiosity. He is also able to empathize with Jacob’s sorrow because his entire approach is about being the father of a victim.
While Luther’s perspective may seem progressive in contrast with early Christian interpreters, it is important to understand how his views perpetuate gender violence and rape culture in our contemporary popular culture. Not once does Luther bring into question the intentions or motives of Shechem in assaulting Dinah. Luther never feels the need to justify Shechem’s existence as a valuable being after the incident. Most importantly, rather than demanding respect for women from all the men, Luther turns this scenario into an instructional piece about the need for women to stay home unless accompanied by others. This is a prime example of victim shaming, which continues to be extremely dangerous for survivors of sexual assault today. In Dinah’s case, her curiosity was brought into question when she was raped. Nowadays, two of the most common subjects used to invalidate victims’ complaints are revealing dress and alcohol consumption. Nobody but the victim can give consent, and no combination of other factors can substitute for consent. When a case takes a turn like this, there is victim shaming occurring, and it is difficult to return the case to the direction of justice. Luther is at fault for propagating this method of invalidating the innocence of victims of sexual assault.
Identifying and Correcting Rape Culture
“I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided: I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it, I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else” (Cited in Buncombe 2016). This is an excerpt from a letter that Brock Turner’s victim read aloud in court. For context, Brock Turner is the former Stanford University swimmer who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman at a party in January of 2015. In 2016, Turner was sentenced to six months in jail and three years of probation, an unjustifiably lenient sentence that sparked outrage from millions who supported the survivor. In this scenario, the sexual assault was blamed on party culture at the university, which was enough for the judge to invalidate the perspective of the victim. It is important to identify how similar this scenario is to the rape of Dinah. Thousands of years later, the system is failing in similar ways, perpetuating the normalization of gender violence and rape culture.
Our society must become more educated about the omnipresent dangers of rape culture. As reports on rape in society and on university campuses proliferate, researching gender violence in the Bible is necessary scholarship on a relevant topic (Scholz, 164). There must an approach of ordinary inclusion of these topics in all courses pertaining to biblical studies, in order to reach a broader spectrum of students. Students must recognize the Bible as an integral part of past and present rape cultures, where the judicial system treats survivors unfairly, gender violence is normalized, and victims of sexual assault are blamed for their own assaults.
Alter, Robert. Genesis: Translation and Commentary. Norton & Company, 1997. Print.
Brownmiller, Susan. 1993. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Fawcett Books.
Buncombe, Andrew. 2016. Stanford Rape Case: Read the Impact Statement of Brock Turner’s Victim. The Independent, September 2.
Einhorn, Bruce, and S. Megan Berthold. 2011. Reconstructing Babel: Bridging Cultural Dissonance Between Asylum Seekers and Adjudicators. In Adjudicating Refugee and Asylum Status: The Role of Witness, Expertise, and Testimony, ed. Benjamin N. Lawrence and Galya Ruffer, 27–53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ferreday, Debra. 2015. Game of Thrones, Rape Culture and Feminist Fandom. Australian Feminist Studies 30 (83): 21–36.
Fuchs, Esther. 2000. Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Matthieu, Jennifer. 2015. The Troubling Connection Between Rape and Modesty Culture. Time, July 8.
Scholz, Susanne. (2017). On the “Ordinary” Inclusion of Rape in the Teaching of the Hebrew Bible. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 33(1), 164-166.
Schroeder, J. (1997). The Rape of Dinah: Luther’s Interpretation of a Biblical Narrative. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 28(3), 775-791.
Stiebert, Johanna. 2013. Fathers and Daughters in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.