Vayishlach: Language and Translation

Now Dinah — the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob — went out to look over the daughters of the land [lirot bi-banot ha-aretz]. Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivvite, the prince of the region, saw her [va-yareh]; he took her, lay with her, and violated her.

And Dinah, Leah’s daughter, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land. And Shechem, the son or Hamor the Hivite, prince of the land, saw her and took her and lay with her and abused her.
— Genesis/Breishit 34:1-2 (Stone* translation, Alter* translation)

to go seeing among the daughters of the land. The infinitive in the Hebrew is literally “to see,” followed not by a direct object, as one might expect, but by a partitive (the particle be), which suggests “among” or “some of.” Although the sense of the verb in context may be something like “to make the acquaintance of” or “travel around among,” the decision of several modern translations to render it as “to visit” is misconceived. Not only does that term convey anachronistic notions of calling cards and tea, but it obliterates an important repetition of terms….”to see” and “daughter.”…Shechem’s lustful “seeing” of Dinah is immediately superimposed on her “seeing” the daughters of the land.

saw…took…lay with…abused. As elsewhere in Genesis, the chain of uninterrupted verbs conveys the precipitousness of the action. “Took” will become another thematically loaded reiterated term. “Lay with” is more brutal in the Hebrew because instead of being followed by the preposition “with” (as, for example, in Rachel’s words to Leah in 30:15), it is followed by a direct object — if the Masoretic vocalization is authentic–and in this form may denote rape. — Alter*

Rabbinic midrashim on the story of Dinah attribute Dinah’s “go[ing] out to see the daughters of the land” (Gen. 34:1) as the cause of her rape. Even as they criticize and blame the victim for being in the wrong place, they also imagine that she enjoyed going out as a woman (Gen. Rabbah 80:1; Tanchumah Vayishlach 7 on Gen. 34:1).

In a midrash that I have written on the biblical Dinah, I also focus on Dinah’s interest in “seeing the women of the land.”** However, I did not ascribe to her an unseemly desire to show off her beauty or to go out in public, to spite cultural prohibitions against her doing so. Rather, I attribute her motivation to a simple desire to see her friends. While the biblical text gives us no clue as to why Dinah went out among the Canaanites, neither does it indicate that there is anything wrong in her actions. Perhaps, then, despite their different religious beliefs, Dinah and the Canaanite women developed a friendship based on the fact that they lived in close proximity to one another and, as women within patriarchal cultures, faced similar problems, concerns, and challenges.
— “Seeking Women’s Friendship,” Ellen M. Umansky, Lifecycles V. 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.*

**Ellen M. Umansky, “Genesis 34,” in Jane Sprague, ed., Taking the Fruit: Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible (San Diego, Calif.: Women’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Educatiion, 1989), 69-70.

*For complete citations and additional sources, see Source Materials.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

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