Matthew Henry, an English Presbyterian minister who died 300 years ago, is well-known for writing lengthy commentaries on every chapter of the Old and New Testaments. His thoughts are often very helpful to Bible students; he provides background information and insights on any passage of scripture you might choose. His commentaries are in the public domain and are free to read electronically; I have downloaded them as part of the Bible study software that I use on a regular basis. Occasionally, but not often, I have read Henry’s thoughts while studying a particular passage.
I’m going to have a much harder time doing that now.
This coming Sunday evening, we are going to study Genesis 31-35 together as part of our “Genesis in Reverse” series. We are looking at the first book of the Bible in ten chunks of five chapters apiece, going from the end of the book back toward the front. We’re almost halfway done, and we have discovered many themes that connect the various stories in this book. Come this Sunday night at 6pm as we tackle another five chapters…
…including chapter 34. Take a few minutes to read the whole chapter, or if you want just a quick summary, read Genesis 34:1-4. Caution: this is hard story to read. When you have finished reading, ask yourself, “Who is the guilty person here? Who is at fault?”
Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, was raped by a man named Shechem.
Friends, this story appears, with different names, in our news shows, news feeds, and newspapers every single day. Sexual assault happens more frequently than anyone realizes. Even in today’s society, shame, fear, and a whole host of other emotions can plague the lives of those who have been abused in this terrible way. The revenge that Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi exact against Shechem is understandable, even if seems a bit excessive. I believe that expression of revenge sets the stage for the covenant renewal in chapter 35 and for the future enmity between Israel and the native Canaanites. But that’s not why I’m writing about this story today.
I’m writing because of how Matthew Henry interpreted the story 300 years ago. He wrote these words:
Dinah was, for aught that appears, Jacob’s only daughter, and we may suppose her therefore the mother’s fondling and the darling of the family, and yet she proves neither a joy nor a credit to them; for those children seldom prove either the best or the happiest that are most indulged. She is reckoned now but fifteen or sixteen years of age when she here occasioned so much mischief. Observe, 1. Her vain curiosity, which exposed her. She went out, perhaps unknown to her father, but by the connivance of her mother, to see the daughters of the land (Genesis 34:1); probably it was at a ball, or on some public day. Being an only daughter, she thought herself solitary at home, having none of her own age and sex to converse with; and therefore she must needs go abroad to divert herself, to keep off melancholy, and to accomplish herself by conversation better than she could in her father’s tents. Note, It is a very good thing for children to love home; it is parents’ wisdom to make it easy to them, and children’s duty then to be easy in it. Her pretence was to see the daughters of the land, to see how they dressed, and how they danced, and what was fashionable among them. She went to see, yet that was not all, she went to be seen too; she went to see the daughters of the land, but, it may be, with some thoughts of the sons of the land too. I doubt she went to get an acquaintance with those Canaanites, and to learn their way. Note, The pride and vanity of young people betray them into many snares. 2. The loss of her honour by this means (Genesis 34:2): Shechem, the prince of the country, but a slave to his own lusts, took her, and lay with her, it should seem, not so much by force as by surprise. Note, Great men think they may do any thing; and what more mischievous than untaught and ungoverned youth? See what came of Dinah’s gadding: young women must learn to be chaste, keepers at home; these properties are put together, Titus 2:5, for those that are not keepers at home expose their chastity. Dinah went abroad to look about her; but, if she had looked about her as she ought, she would not have fallen into this snare. Note, The beginning of sin is as the letting forth of water. How great a matter does a little fire kindle! We should therefore carefully avoid all occasions of sin and approaches to it. 3. The court Shechem made to her, after he had defiled her. This was fair and commendable, and made the best of what was bad; he loved her (not as Amnon, 2 Samuel 13:15), and he engaged his father to make a match for him with her, Genesis 34:4.
Matthew Henry blamed Dinah for being sexually assaulted by a stranger. He let Shechem off the hook, because he did the best he could in a bad situation.
“If only Dinah had stayed at home, like young girls should. If only she was not so inquisitive. If only she had not exposed herself to danger like that. She really brought this on herself. What was Shechem supposed to do? At least he stood by her side.”
Friends, sometimes I hear the same narrative today. I understand that 18th Century English culture contrasts strongly with 21st Century American culture. But there is still a tendency in today’s world for us to guard young women, to require that they stay close to home for fear of something terrible happening to them. The truth is that terrible things happen at home and abroad, and you can’t always protect yourself or those you love from being harmed. However, even this line of discussion goes astray from the point of this sad story from Genesis 34.
Let this fact never be mistaken: Dinah was not to blame for being raped. She was the victim. Shechem was the aggressor. The rest of chapter 34 shows how, even in an ancient culture, this fundamental reality was understood. The brothers certainly did not blame Dinah for wandering away from home. Instead, they rescued their sister from her captor. While the motives, means, and results of that rescue are perhaps morally suspect, at least this is true: those closest to Dinah stood up for her when it mattered most.
Now, I will actually keep reading Matthew Henry, because his error in interpreting this passage does not negate the value of his other writings. But his words highlight the seriousness of this topic, the integrity with which we must handle all victims of sexual assault, and the discussion we should have about the consequences for perpetrators of such acts.
If you are Dinah, or if you know a Dinah, hear this truth once more: Dinah is not to blame for what happened to her.